Washington State University
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
Epics are supposed to begin “in medias res” (in the middle of things), but this is also personal and mathematical. Dante sets The Divine Comedy in 1300 (starting the night before Good Friday), at which time he was 35 (mid-life crisis time!), the mathematical midpoint of life, according to the 70-year lifespan referred to in Psalm 89:10 (or check 90:10 in some editions; cf. Isaiah 38:10). We might expect an epic invocation, but that’s coming in the next canto.
Dante says he “woke” (2); so this is the opposite of a dream vision! In the opening lines, he establishes a “moral landscape” — a symbolic geography more personal than the generic notion of life as a pilgrimage, but still a dreamlike nowhereland, unlike the precise topography of Hell. He refers to his “heart’s lake” (20), so there’s an internal geography involved. And he finds himself “at the foot of a hill … down in a valley (13-14), so it sounds as if he has hit bottom.
He is able to glance up to see the “light sent from the planet / that leads men straight ahead on every road” (17-18) — a reference to the sun, with its available pun even in English on “Son.” References aligning the time of these events with “the world’s first day” (39) allude to a tradition that the sun was in Aries — that is, spring — at the time of creation.
Dante the Pilgrim encounters a leopard (32), a lion (45), and a “she-wolf” (49), and scholars debate the intended symbolism. The classical poet Virgil, often said to represent Reason, appears to serve as guide — a logical choice because of his influence on Dante and because he wrote of Aeneas’ journey through the underworld. He refers prophetically and cryptically to a greyhound that will eventually kill the she-wolf, but he and Dante must travel “another road” (91). Virgil warns that he’ll eventually have to pass Dante off to a worthier spirit than himself (Beatrice),
because that Emperor dwelling on high
will not let me lead any to His city,
since I in life rebelled against his Law.
Virgil is talking of course about God, obliquely since he was born before the age of Christianity. He uses political language because of his failure of having had an opportunity to grasp accurately the “true religion.” Dante agrees to follow Virgil with eager obedience.
Dante invokes the Muses (pagan artistic inspiration for Inferno). With an egocentric humility pose, he frets to Virgil that while Aeneas was allowed to journey to the underworld and found Rome, and while St. Paul was allowed to visit eternal regions (2 Corinthians XII.2-4), he, Dante, is unworthy. Virgil recognizes this as cowardice and explains the Virgin Mary -> Saint Lucia -> Beatrice -> Virgil -> Dante relay: that he was sent as guide on a sort of courtly love mission by the concerned powers in Paradise. Beatrice, visiting him in Hell, had promised Virgil, “When I return to stand before my Lord, / often I shall sing your praises to Him” (II.73-74), which is a rather pointless court favor. But three holy women are involved — a good number. St. Lucia — whose name means “light” — was a virgin martyr of the 3rd century and became the patron saint of eyesight, appropriate to the occhio theme here. She had, reported Beatrice to Virgil, commissioned Beatrice to help Dante, “whose love was such / it made him leave the vulgar crowd for you” (104-105). An epic simile involving flowers in the morning conveys Dante’s encouragement about what lies ahead (127ff).
The Canto begins with ominous anaphora and the words inscribed above the gate of Hell: three terza rimas, ending with “Abandon every hope, all you who enter” (III.9). Thus the structure announces itself. The gate of Hell is its own mouthpiece. Dante is childlike and fretful. Virgil, echoing the Sybil to Aeneas, bolsters him up.
Vestibule — The Uncommitted
Dante hears a cacophony of anguished noise as they enter. Virgil introduces him to the circle of the uncommitted, or neutrals, or fence-sitters, or sometimes “opportunists,” or I’d say “diplomats,” who suffer the pain of being classified as “unclassified.” These include the angels who took no side in Lucifer’s rebellion. They have no place in Heaven or Hell, but rush about after a banner (something they refused to do in life), stung by hornets (in life they were untouched, unmoved, not “bugged” into commitment) so that their blood trickles down with tears into a floor of maggots squirming in pus. Lovely, eh? And we’re not even in Hell proper yet! These souls have no names and Virgil thinks it appropriate merely to glance at them and ignore them without discussion.
Charon the boatman from classical mythology, “whose eyes were set in glowing wheels of fire” (III.99), “with eyes of glowing coals” (109), rounds up a batch of sinners to ferry across the Acheron. Virgil and Dante, although the latter is a living man, have a sort of special hell pass. Virgil explains the sinners’ urge to cross the river as attributable to the spurring of Divine Justice. Some Hell tremors and a wind knock Dante’s senses about and he falls unconscious.
Circle One (Limbo) — Virtuous Pagans
Dante awakens and notice all the attention given to eyes, sight, and faces. It’s seen as awkward Church doctrine, but those living before the time of Christ or unbaptized at their deaths who otherwise were guilty of no sin still cannot be admitted to Heaven, so they’re stuck here with no real punishment except the absence of hope, with lighting from their collective human intellect (presumably a poor substitute for divine light). Dante asks if there have been no exceptions, and Virgil, without directly mentioning Christ by name (which is presumably unutterable in Hell), recalls “a mighty lord” descending (IV.53) — the harrowing of Hell between the original Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when Christ promoted some Old Testament figures: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Rachel, and others. There’s no mention of Eve getting a break. Virgil died in 19 bce.
Virgil resides here in this circle too normally, as do the great poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who honor Dante by chatting with him about deep secret poetic things we aren’t allowed to find out about. Afterwards, Dante takes in the bigger picture and Virgil points out: 1) the heroes and heroines: Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Penthesilea, Lavinia, Lucretia, Cornelia, Saladin, etc.; 2) the philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Empedocles, Zeno, Heraclitus, etc.; and 3) other naturalists and scholars: Dioscorides, Orpheus (!), Tully, Seneca, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, Averroës, etc.
Virgil and Dante descend towards the second circle before which a grotesque Minos stands. Dante depicts the legendary king Minos as a monster who coils his tail around newcomers and spins them off like battling tops; they land where they belong in the lower circles.
Circle Two — The Carnal
The first circle of actual punishment involves the souls being blown about in a whirlwind or storm, representing their having been swept away by lust in life. We see Semiramis, Dido, and Cleopatra, which suggests something nasty about women in politics; Helen, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan; and Paolo and Francesca, the last of whom tells a subtly modified version of her story. In “stilnovistic” style, she speaks dramatically and seductively about “Love … Love … Love” and claims that she and her brother-in-law were turned on by an old romance book: she blames the story of Lancelot. Although supposedly she took the initiative, she claims that Paolo kissed her, and “That day we read no further” (V.138). They were murdered by her husband in the 1280s. Now she’s stuck forever with this guy in a hell-storm. Although she refers to Paolo epideictically, never by name, and so sounds exasperated with “this one,” Dante doesn’t seem to pick up on these subtleties. Instead, he swoons in sympathy. (At this point, Dante is easily seduced into compassion, so he is repeatedly unconscious, that is, without reason.)