Although the Comedy is a poem of impeccable order, the poet is careful to make sure that our first impression is not of the poem’s architecture but of its emotional power. In Inferno 1 we are immediately seized and carried away by some of the most gripping and dramatic imagery of the Comedy. Later, Dante will get philosophical (Purg. 25), talk about the moral principles that make up the boundary lines within hell (Inf. 11), and argue fine points of doctrine (Par. 2). But the reader of Inferno 1 doesn’t feel he has stepped into a classroom; he has walked into the world of dreams.
The whole of Inferno 1 is an extraordinary poetic achievement in its ability to create the feeling of a nightmare. The reader feels the pilgrim’s irrational fear, as if both were locked in a terrible dream. And yet the poet insists that his pilgrim is not sleeping. In fact, it was sleep that got him:
into the dark wood in the first place:
I cannot well recall how I came there.
I was so full of sleep at the time,
I abandoned the true way. (Inf. 1.10–12)
How he got there, he does not know, but he can remember clearly the disoriented terror that came over him, like a child who has woken up from a bad dream and can’t remember where she is. The poem dramatically begins by recalling the memory of that restless and disorienting experience:
Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in the midst of a dark wood—
the true way was lost.
Ah! How hard to tell
How savage, harsh, and difficult was this wood,
so much so that in my mind my fear returns.
It is so bitter that death is barely worse.
But to treat the good that I found there
I will speak about the other things I saw. (Inf. 1.1–9)
After the introductory lines, the dreamlike narration continues: The pilgrim wanders through a vague landscape; he sees a hill that is illumined by sunlight on its crown; he stoutly resolves to climb the hill, but then his way is blocked by three strange beasts who refuse to give way; and, finally, having come to the point of absolute desperation, he sees a stranger walk out of the shadows and begs him for help. Again, like a story unfolding within a dream, the narrative seems so rich and full of meaning that it’s difficult to pin it down to a single interpretation, and this elusiveness of meaning is in part how Dante gives Inferno 1 its psychological power. Meaning keeps slipping through your fingers.
Dante also uses harsh words to reinforce rhetorically this sense of fear and confusion. For example, listen to the Italian words in verses 4–5: esta selva selvaggia (a wood “savage, dense, and harsh”) has a roughness communicated by sibilant syllables, but then the poet stacks up a number of adjectives (the wood is selvaggia e aspra e forte, 1.5). This is a rhetorical device called “polysyndeton,” the stacking up of conjunction upon conjunction, as if rhetorically approximating a breathless description: “It was savage and dense and harsh.”
Dante also uses two similes to help convey the desperation of the pilgrim’s first moments:
And like one who, with labored breath,
just escaped from the sea onto the shore,
turns toward the dangerous waters and stares,
just so did my mind, still in flight,
turn back to gaze at the pass
that never yet let out a man alive. (Inf. 1.22–27)
Many of my readers will have had a brush with death, perhaps in a car, in which you saw how close you were to having your life ended. Likewise, Dante describes a swimmer immersed in water so rough and stormy that he doubts he will escape drowning. But somehow, against all odds, the swimmer makes it to shore, completely drained of all energy and strength. He stands up wearily and looks back at the raging water. In this way, the poet says, the pilgrim turned to look back at the wood that “never yet let out a man alive” (1.27).
When the weary pilgrim slowly turns and looks up, he sees the “mountain of delight” (Inf. 1.77). Along with him, the reader feels a momentary surge of hope. The pilgrim sees the peak, whose “shoulders / [are] now clothed by the rays of the sun” (1.16–17). His fear is momentarily calmed, and he resolves to climb to safety: “I took up the way again through the deserted slope, / in this way: the firm foot was always lower down” (1.29–30). Commentators explain that the mountain is covered in shale-like scree: Every time the pilgrim takes a step up, his planted foot slides down. And so, though the pilgrim has good aspirations, the way up is not easy. Then he meets a wild beast: a leopard, which refuses to give way. You can imagine the pilgrim yelling at it, intimidating it, trying to frighten it away, but the beast simply refuses to move. Then a lion appears and roars so loud that “it seemed that the air trembled because of him” (1.48). Finally, a skinny, mongrel wolf, hungry and mangy, forces the pilgrim back down the hill. This is when Dante’s second simile comes. The pilgrim is like:
he who wins with joy,
but then the moment arrives, and he loses all,
and then is miserable and weeps in all his thoughts. (Inf. 1.55–57)
Anyone who has experienced bitter loss knows the feeling. Dante was on the verge of achieving, through sweat and labor, a real good that his heart desired, the radiance and bliss of a mountaintop experience—and just as he thought he was near enough to grasp it, it slips through his fingers and is gone. His heart burns for the memory of what could have been.
And so we have a dreamlike landscape, with action described with the psychological intensity of a nightmare; we hear about the pilgrim’s fear, good intentions, obstacles, and failure. We feel Dante’s poetry deeply. But in terms of what it means, Dante has left us in the dark: What is this wood? What is the “mountain of delight”? What are the three beasts? Why can’t Dante overcome them? And why is it Virgil who comes to save the pilgrim? Why not Saint Patrick? Or Aristotle? Or an angel? Dante’s poem is like a journey whose horizons continually recede even as you approach them.
Although many of the details are meant to initially elude us, we can still note that, even from the first canto, Dante has begun to coach us in how to read his poem. There are at least two lessons. The first is that the reading experience of the Comedy works on multiple levels; we can, for example, get inside the poem and see with the pilgrim’s eyes, or we can zoom out, considering the scene from the author’s perspective. When these two views overlap, as in Inferno 1, we sense a distinct dramatic irony. The very words of the lost pilgrim in Inferno 1, unbeknownst to him, are expressed and framed in those groups of threes and tens the author built into his poetry. Thus, from the author’s perspective, God is very close and present through the fabric of the poem, even if the character speaking within that poetry is blind to him in whom he lives and moves and has his being (Acts 17:28).
The second lesson is that, although we can consider the poem from that zoomed-out perspective, we have to begin with our immediate reading experience—that is, how Dante’s rich and sensuous poetry evokes in us a complicated range of responses (horror, awe, pity, contempt, glee, relief, dread, reverence, and fear). For this reason, it would have been a great mistake to have begun an introduction to the Comedy by outlining the moral system that accounts for the architecture of Dante’s imaginative world. Beginning with an explanation of the “system” would erect a philosophical or theological scaffolding that could obscure the experience of reading the poetry. Indeed, Dante’s most original achievement lies not so much in coming up with that hierarchical order of sins and virtues as in his ability to give flesh to that system of thought, to create a series of individual literary experiences to illustrate those thoughts. This insight should guide how we read the Comedy: We have to begin by being moved by the sensible and the sensuous in Dante’s poem, and then proceed to a discussion of the tradition of thought that, like a skeleton, informs it.
On a similar note, scholars have had a lot to say about the role of allegory in the Comedy, and it is certainly true that you find many allegorical moments: like the three beasts in Inferno 1, the tempestuous winds in Inferno 5, or the highly symbolic dreams of Purgatorio (all discussed below). Allegorical figures are scattered throughout the poem. At the same time, Dante wants the poem to feel real, intense, and personal. The pilgrim is not an allegorical figure but a man who has powerful interior responses. This is what is meant by Dante’s “realism.”
The Comedy (and Inferno in particular) is the great poem of interiority, and it is this interiority that popular culture overlooks. In the popular imagination, Inferno is a place of fire with a bunch of demons with pincers. The truth is, Dante himself identifies interiority as the essential component of his pilgrim’s journey: “And I, I alone, / was there, arming myself to endure the war, / both of the way and of the pity of it” (Inf. 2.3–5). Dante’s language here is powerful: He, he alone (e io sol uno), was making interior preparations for the “war” (la guerra). Here, he prepares himself not just for the hardships of the journey but also for a war of pietate (pity). Obviously, along the way, the pilgrim will encounter difficult landscapes and malicious demons. Along the way, he will suffer extreme fatigue, breathless from arduous climbs. He will experience fear when he thinks he has been abandoned. He will suffer despair when the demons block his forward progress. He will be lied to, chased, screamed at, insulted, threatened, and confused. In the end, he will emerge from hell, his face covered with grime and stained by tears (Purg. 1.95–99, 127–29). But even more than these physical trials, the pilgrim will have to undergo feats of the interior life. He will have to undertake a journey of interiority: something he, and he alone, must do. This explains the mystery of why the poet says, “Io sol uno,” even though Virgil is standing right next to him, having just rescued him from miserable isolation!
Inferno, then, is the poem of interiority. It aims to crack the crusty shell of the heart and gain access to its secret, guarded places. It aims to use horror, wonder, and terror as ways to create afresh the possibility for transformation; or, to change the image, Dante’s poetic violence is meant to melt down the hard heart so that it can be reforged into something new. Not surprisingly, then, the Comedy is packed full of “wonder” words: the pilgrim has visions of the nuovo and novitade (the frightfully new and bizarre); that which is strano, orribile, and full of stupore (strange, horrifying, and that which causes stupor); the pilgrim stops to ammirare (wonder) and stare at the mirabile and maraviglia (the miraculous and the marvelous). Words like this appear hundreds of times throughout the poem. In Dante, these “wonder” words refer to instances of the bizarre, the harrowing, the unexpected, the previously inconceivable: severed heads, disemboweled bodies, backs broken by huge rocks. There are poisonous forests made up of “eerily strange,” gnarled trees (Inf. 13.15), which resound with whispers; there is the “strange” experience (31.30) of the looming giants, who fill the pilgrim with fear; and there are the mangled bodies of the schismatics, or the headless Bertrand de Born. All of these visions are so startling that Dante can barely believe his eyes (28.113–20). The pilgrim, because his heart is opened up by these phenomena of surprise and fear, desires to stare fixedly (21.22) and to “inebriate” his eyes (29.2). These scenes of wonder are important for Dante, because admiratio (wonder) produces the desire to “look closely at” (mirari). As Mary Carruthers has pointed out, in the ancient world, rhetoricians worried that their audiences could become “sated,” which “could lead to taedium (boredom); that is, if the speech grew too predictable, then the audience could start to tune out.”
In the Middle Ages, these rhetorical concerns were fused with spiritual concerns: Monastic writers worried that the soul itself could arrive at a dangerous point of satietas (being sated) or taedium. And thus medieval spiritual masters recommended a vigorous reading program to keep the heart fresh. For this reason, they illustrated their books lavishly, built cathedrals with all kinds of surprising side chapels and variously colored marbles inlaid in the floor, and constructed cloisters with capitals carved with wildly exuberant images of monsters and fishes. Such diversity, color, and grotesque artistic wonders “surprise us—they did then, they do now. Their very diversity and discord shocks one from the temptation to taedium…. Experiencing them in itself routs the noonday devil, for the variety they produce relieves tedium and refreshes a wearied mind. They may even strengthen the virtue of inner hilaritas [joy], healing a dangerous sadness or melancholy.” Thus, getting the blood flowing again through wonder or even horror could heal the spiritual heart. As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “Tears are like blood in the wounds of the soul.” Carruthers explains that they are “hot, moist, and restorative of cold, deadened, scarred flesh.”
Thus, Dante does not just describe the wonder the pilgrim experiences on his “way”; as a poet, he also tries to produce it, in you. Such admiration temporarily destabilizes the mind, shakes its usual certainty, and in this moment of suspended judgment, the one caught up in wonder (the admirans) has an opportunity to take in the familiar, as if for the first time. The wondering “reader” becomes what I would call “affectively vulnerable,” because in a moment of suspended judgment his or her reason—that impulse to categorize, to put something in its appropriate box, without taking the time to marvel at it—has temporarily let down its guard.
But how does the poet use his craft to make this happen? Among other things, he uses what scholars call “deictic rhetoric”—that is, the language of “pointing.” Indeed, Dante pokes and prods us with his words, frequently addressing us and telling us, “Now look here” or “Note that, over there.” Many spiritual treatises in Dante’s day tried to paint vivid pictures in the mind, so that the reader could “see” and “hear” the suffering of Christ and “feel” the sorrow of Mary. Such writers, too, used deictic rhetoric, saying, “And now imagine that…” or “Look, now, how the blood flows from the wounds.” In a similar way, we hear Virgil, at one point, yell at Dante: “Drizza la testa, drizza e vedi” (“Raise your head! Raise it and look,” Inf. 20.31). Just as Virgil directs the pilgrim’s attention, so Dante the poet becomes our guide. The narrator’s voice interrupts the story to poke at us and tell us to look deeper into a matter: “Look deeply for that teaching that lies hidden / underneath the veil of these strange and wonderful lines” (9.62–63). This isn’t an isolated case. Rather, the poet constantly tries to involve the reader, addressing him, begging him to look: “Think now, reader,” he says early on in Inferno (7.94); “Be sharp now, reader,” he says later in Purgatorio (8.14); “Now, reader, remember,” he patiently pleads (Purg. 17.1); “Reader, I promise you.” (Inf. 16.128; see also 25.46; 34.23). Dante never forgets his reader.
In addition to this deictic rhetoric, the poet often tries to get his reader not just to pay attention but also to enter the text and look through the pilgrim’s eyes. For example, in Inferno 20 Dante says:
Of strange, shocking, new punishments I now must make verses. . . .
I saw a people, coming through the rounded valley:
silent and lamenting, moving at the pace
that stately processions move in our world.
And as I let my gaze descend down upon them,
it struck me that, wondrously, each one was wrenched around—
between the chin and the base of the chest,
because the face had been twisted around toward the kidneys,
and thus they had to make their way backwards. . . .
Maybe, at some point, by some paralysis
someone has become this wrenched about;
but I, at least, have never seen it, nor do I think it could it be.
Reader, so that God can let you gather fruit
from this reading, think, now, think for yourself:
How I could possibly have kept my cheeks dry?
When from up close I saw our image
so twisted . . .
Yes, I wept. (Inf. 20.1–25)
We see, then, an extraordinary sight: badly deformed human beings, more terribly mangled than any person you might see begging on the streets. This horrifies the pilgrim, causes him to freeze and stare. They appear to him mirabilmente (miraculously, 20.11). But then Dante the poet asks us to borrow the eyes of the pilgrim for ourselves: “Pensa per te stesso” (“Think now, think for yourself,” 20.20). Look within your own imagination and see if you could refrain from weeping. Dante does not just paint a Claude Lorraine—like panel, with characters scattered throughout a sweeping landscape, but aims to get his readers to see and feel as if they had become characters within the painting. Or, to use a metaphor from cinema, Dante asks readers to look through the point-of-view shot, that camera angle you would see if the actor himself were holding the camera. On a couple of occasions, the poet only describes the sounds of hell, so that, like a film when the screen has gone blank, the reader has to focus on the mere acoustic experience of the staccato words. In this way, Dante gives the reader a kind of firsthand experience.
One last example. In Inferno 17, when Dante climbs on top of Geryon, the beast that will ferry him through the air from upper hell down into its depths, the poet gives us an extraordinary description, as if inviting us, once again, to look through the pilgrim’s eyes for ourselves:
I saw that I was
in the air—it was all around—and I saw that
every view of anything but the beast was gone.
It keeps on moving, swimming slowly, slowly,
wheeling and descending, but I notice nothing
but a breeze from below on my face. (Inf. 17.112–17)
Notice that the poet begins by narrating the event about the pilgrim in the past tense but then switches suddenly into the present, using a series of rich, descriptive words for the flight, but momentarily without reference to the pilgrim, as if trying to create a brief poetic space for us to move into the poem and feel, palpably, the twisting turns of the descent. He wants us to feel ourselves in the saddle, with the wind in our hair. The poet also lyrically evokes the rolling, rocking rhythm of the flight through the internal rhymes and assonance of the line: “Ella sen va notando lenta lenta; / rota e discende” (17.115–16). In moments like this, we are meant momentarily to look through the pilgrim’s eyes as if they were our own. In sum, it is this sensitivity to the imaginary power of the poet that we have to bring, first and foremost, to the poem. Once we have done that, we can ask questions about the structure and the symbols. With this in mind, we are now in a position to return to our questions about Inferno 1.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on May 2, 2018.