Washington State University
The stench is so horrible that the two must pause to accustom their snoots to it, but so as not to waste time, Virgil spends it trying to explain the larger lay-out of Hell, including the three groupings of incontinence, fraud, and violence (or incontinence, malice, and bestiality). It seems a bit strained and belabored, but Dante the Poet will now want to subdivide rampantly the remaining circles.
Circle Seven.1 — The Violent against Others
A rockslide from the time of Christ’s harrowing of Hell (the place is in a lousy state of repair) leads the two to the Minotaur, symbol of bullish rage. Virgil pisses off the beast and the two get to a pass, down from which is the seventh circle and the Phlegethon, “a river of blood that boils” (XII.47). Centaurs patrol this, and a confrontation with one prompts Virgil to point out Nessus (involved in the Hercules story), Chiron (who served as mentor to Achilles), and Pholus (famous for drunken wrath). So good centaurs and bad are all in the same situation. They notice that Dante is a living man, and he is generally silent in this canto, learning to observe objectively.
In the river of boiling blood are the violent sinners, such as Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun, Ghibelline tyrants and 13th-century robber barons, “are paying for their heartless crimes” (XII.106). Several other references to the heart and chest (e.g., XII.120, 122) make anatomical and mythological sense here, for the heart level (or fourth chakra, in Kundalini Indian mysticism) is associated, often iconographically, with compassion. Violators of this virtue boil appropriately in a sort of aorta.
Circle Seven.2 — The Violent against Themselves — Suicides
The Canto begins with a series of negative statements (“No” and “Not”), imitative of the act of negation at the heart of suicide. On the other side of the river, a forest harbors harpies nesting in trees. Imprisoned in the trees are the souls of those who killed themselves. The assumption that a suicide attempt is a “cry for help” lies beneath the fact that they find their voices through blood — that is, when Dante or a harpy picks at a twig, the voice comes with the oozing xylem and phloem. So Pier delle Vigne (1190-1249) in sometimes convoluted language whines about his fall from his emperor’s grace and his imprisonment (where he dashed his own brains out against the wall). He wants Dante to restore his memory “back in the world” (XIII.76). Virgil prods Dante to ask more questions, and Dante feels pity, but asks if the souls will ever get out of the trees. Pier says that the suicides will never have their bodies again, since they cast them off, but the bodies will eventually hang in the branches of the trees.
Black dogs chase two souls — Arcolano of Siena and Jacobo da Santo Andrea — fleeing into the forest. The latter soul takes refuge among the branches of a famously “anonymous” suicide who reports, “I turned my home into a hanging place” (XIII.151). (Either he was a Florentine in a “Spendthrift Club” where banqueting, festivities, and general extreme profligacy led to poverty and to avoid that he killed himself; or Dante just means that the city of Florence was killing itself.)
[Thanks to Jim Morrison of NCSU for notes and corrections to this canto summary.]
Circle Seven.3a — The Violent against God — Blasphemers
At the edge of the woods, the two see a barren flatland. Lying supine on an expanse of burning sand and amid a shower of flakes of fire are the blasphemers. Comparing the fire-flakes to “a mountain snowstorm” (XIV.30ff) seems particularly tormenting!
Dante takes a tangent, having Virgil describe an ancient statue with a gold head, silver chest and arms, brass torso, and iron legs, from which trickles what becomes Hell’s rivers. This is an image of degeneration, physiologically downward-moving. It seems indirectly to validate the notion of this journey through Hell as an anatomical one: hence the earlier references to eyes, then throats, then the river of blood, etc.
Circle Seven.3b — The Violent against Nature — Sodomites
Wandering on the burning desert and in the fire-flake shower are the sodomites. They “looked us up and down, as some men look / at other men, at night, when the moon is new” (XV.18-19), whatever that means. One grabs at Dante, exclaiming, “How marvelous!” (XV.24). This is Brunetto Latini (d. 1294), Dante’s former teacher who offers some more prophecies concerning Dante’s coming misfortunes. There are no women among these sinners, and the constant motion in their punishment is comparable to the aimless blowing about of the lustful back in Canto V.