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Dante’s Divine Comedy

Introduction

The Divine Comedy is Dante’s great epic poem.

Similes

The first simile in the Comedy made me think of Odysseus’ landing on Phaecia, or how I feel after running a marathon:

At this my fear was somewhat quieted;

for through the night of sorrow I had spent,

the lake within my heart felt terror present.

And just as he who, with exhausted breath,

having escaped from sea to shore, turns back

to watch the dangerous waters he has quit,

so did my spirit, still a fugitive,

turn back to look intently at the pass

that never has let any man survive. (I.19–28)

The furies and demons who block Dante and Virgil’s way into Dis, are scattered by an angel who effortlessly waves a wand and opens the door. The fleeing demons are compared to frogs and the angel is, ironically, implicitly the snake:

As frogs confronted by their enemy,

the snake, will scatter underwater till

each hunches in a heap along the bottom,

so did the thousand ruined souls I saw

take flight before a figure crossing Styx

who walked as if on land and with dry soles. (IX.76–81)

There are several similes comparing the geography of hell to the geography of Italy and Europe. E.g., IX.112–117, XII.4–10, XV.4–12, XVI.94–105.

Those in the seventh circle who’re violent against themselves are aptly compared to burning logs:

As from a sapling log that catches fire

along one of its ends, while at the other

it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,

so from that broken stump issued together

both words and blood (XIII.40–44)

Just before leaving the seventh circle, three famous Florentines come speak to Dante, all three of them orbiting him as they speak:

As champions, naked, oiled, will always do,

each studying the grip that serves him best

before the blows and wounds begin to fall,

while wheeling so, each one made sure his face

was turned to me, so that their necks opposed

their feet in one uninterrupted flow. (XVI.22–27)

Not long after, Virgil summons the monster Geryon from the eighth circle of fraud to carry the down. Dante, amazed, compares the flight to a swimmer returning loosing an anchor:

… through the dense and darkened air I saw

a figure swimming, rising up, enough

to bring amazement to the firmest heart,

like one returning from the waves where he

went down to loose an anchor snagged upon

a reef or something else hid in the sea,

who stretches upward and draws in his feet. (XVI.130–136)

This simile makes me imagine that Geryon flies in the slow, pulsing motion of swimmer instead of the quick consistent motion of a bird. We find out in the next canto that the monster is a part human, part serpent, and part scorpion—it has no wings. Perhaps this mismatch between appearance and reality is another way it represents fraud. That said, later, Geryon’s flight is compared to a falcon:

Just as a falcon long upon the wing—

who, seeing neither lure nor bird, compels

the falconer to cry, “Ah me, you fall!”—

descends, exhausted, in a hundred circles,

where he had once been swift, and sets himself,

embittered and enraged, far from his master;

such, at the bottom of the jagged rock,

was Geryon, when he had set us down.

And once our weight was lifted form his back,

he vanished like an arrow from a bow. (XVII.127–136)

Earlier, while Virgil parleyed with the beast for passage, the pilgrim spoke with a few more sinners at the edge of the seventh circle. He likens their incessant attempts to relieve themselves from the fire by comparing them to a dog shushing away gnats; a hopeless unending task:

Despondency was bursting from their eyes;

this side, then that, their hands kept fending off,

at times the flames, at times the burning soil:

not otherwise do dogs in summer—now

with muzzle, now with paw—when they are bitten

by fleas or gnats or by the sharp gadfly. (XVII.46–51)

In the first ditch of the eighth circle, there are two circles of sinners—the panders and seducers—walking counterclockwise past each other. Dante compares this to the faithful visiting Old St. Peter’s Basilica. It is evocative to compare the crowded orderly shrine of Christianity with the crowded circle of hell:

Along its bottom, naked sinners moved,

to our side of the middle, facing us;

beyond that, they moved with us, but more quickly—

as, in the year of Jubilee, the Romans,

confronted by great crowds, contrived a plan

that let the people pass across the bridge,

for to one side went all who had their eyes

upon the Castle, heading toward St. Peter’s,

and to the other, those who faced the Mount. (XVII.25–33)

Many of the similes carry two meanings. Here’s a nice example of this in the third ditch of the eighth circle, where Dante interrogates a recently damned pope:

“Whoever you may be, dejected soul,

whose head is downward, planted like a pole,”

my words began, “do speak, if you are able.”

I stood as does the friar who confesses

the foul assassin who, fixed fast, head down,

calls back the friar, and so delays his death” (XIX.46–51)

The most direct comparison is that Dante is a friar listening to confession. The secondary meaning is that the pope will be shoved further into the ground when the next pope dies, and thus would no longer be able to confess. Furthermore, since he believes Dante to be the next pope; although he’s mistaken about this, he is perhaps trying to stem off being pushed down just a little longer.

The corrupt officials, who boil in tar, are given back-to-back animal similes in Canto XXII:

Just as the dolphins do, when with arched back,

they signal to the seamen to prepare

for tempest, that their vessel may be spared,

so here from time to time, to ease his torment,

some sinner showed his back above the surface,

then hid more quickly than a lightning flash.

And just as on the margins of a ditch,

frogs crouch, their snouts alone above the water,

so as to hide their feet and their plump flesh,

so here on every side these sinners crouched;

but faster than a flash, when Barbariccia

drew near, they plunged beneath the boiling pitch.

I saw—my heart still shudders in recall—

one who delayed, just as at times a frog

is left behind while others dive below;

and Graffiacane, who was closest to him,

then hooked him by his pitch-entangled locks

and hauled him up; he seemed to me an otter. (XXII.19–36)

When their escort of ten demons, who’ve been embarrassed because two fell in the tar, are about to catch Dante and Virgil, likens the latter to a mother:

My guide snatched me up instantly, just as

the mother who is wakened by a roar

and catches sight of blazing flames beside her,

will lift her son and run without a stop—

she cares more for the child than for herself—

not pausing even to throw on a shift;

and down the hard embankment’s edge—his back

lay flat along the sloping rock that closes

one side of the adjacent moat—he slid. (XXIII.37–45)

Note that they, like the mother, heard before seeing the danger.

Canto XXIV opens with a long and beautiful simile comparing a farmer who goes out in the morning to see frost on the ground, and then goes back inside worried because he won’t be able to feed his flock, only to go back outside and see that the frost is melted, to Dante seeing Virgil worried that they’re stuck in the sixth ditch of the eighth circle of hell, only to be relieved when Virgil finds a way out.

The Pagan Gods

Dante combines Christianity with paganism in interesting ways.

Virgil comments about the gods’ state of bliss, when describing Fortune:

“She is the one so frequently maligned

even by those who should give praise to her—

they blame her wrongfully with words of scorn.

But she is blessed and does not hear these things;

for with the other primal beings, happy,

she turns her sphere and glories in her bliss.” (VI.91–96)

Dante’s Ordered Universe

Dante placed Satan and Judas at the center of the earth, since he had a geocentric view of the universe. Thus, the center of the earth was as far as one could get from the heavens where God was. Virgil reassures Dante, while they wait at the Gate of Dis, that he’s been down this path before:

My flesh had not been long stripped off when she

had me descend through all the rings of Hell,

to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle.

That is the deepest and darkest place,

the farthest from the heaven that girds all:

so rest assured, I know the pathway well. (IX.25–30)

Dante mostly presents the order of his universe with small comments, but in Canto XI Virgil is more explicit:

Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven,

injustice is the end; and each such end

by force or fraud brings harm to other men.

However, fraud is man’s peculiar vice;

God finds it more displeasing—and therefore,

the fraudulent are lower, suffering more. (XI.23–27)

He then goes on to explain how the violent take a ring, but since one may violent against others, against self, and against God, that circle is divided in three. One may wonder how it’s possible to be violent against an omnipotent God? Blasphemers, those that deny God’s good, and those that passionately condemn God go here. Interestingly, sodomites go in this circle. The fraudulent are divided into those that are fraudulent against the untrusting and trusting. The upper hell, outside the city of Dis, includes only sins of incontinence—sins which don’t involve injustice to others, but only the inability to control ones appetites. The lower hell involves sins that cause injustice to others. Thus, Dante doesn’t divide hell according to the deadly sins but according to Aristotle’s Ethics, which he explicitly references here. Note that the sixth circle filled with the heretics, doesn’t quite fit in the three-fold classification.

Incontinence is about letting the appetites rule reason:

I learned that those who undergo this torment

are damned because they sinned within the flesh,

subjecting reason to the rule of lust. (V.37–39)

And he to me: “All these, to left and right

were squint-eyed of mind in the first life—

no spending that they did was done with measure.” (VII.40–42)

To be incontinent is to be like a beast, an animal chasing its impulses. One of the thieves in the eighth circle tells Virgil: “Mule that I was, the bestial life pleased me and not the human.”

Virgil

Occasionally, Virgil and Dante show physical affection to each other.

Virgil seems able to read Dante’s mind (XIX.39, XXIII.25–30).

From time to time he gets upset with Dante.

Islam

The wall of the city of Dis, which separates the incontinent from the violent and fraudulent, has mosques—Islamic styled towers:

I said: “I can already see distinctly—

master—the mosques that gleam within the valley,

as crimson as they had just been drawn

out of the fire.” He told me: “The eternal

flame burning there appears to make them red,

as you can see, within this lower Hell.” (VIII.70–75)

The Last Judgement

Dante the pilgrim asks why the lids of the heretics’ tombs are open, and Virgil says they’ll eventually be closed:

And he to me: “They’ll all be shuttered up

when they return here from Jehosaphat

together with the flesh they left above.” (X.10–12)

Those who have committed suicide are trees in the seventh circle of hell. On the last day, they’ll retrieve their bodies and hang them from themselves:

Like other souls, we shall seek out the flesh

that we have left, but none of us shall wear it;

it is not right for any man to have

what he himself has cast aside. We’ll drag

our bodies here; they’ll hang in this sad wood,

each on the stump of its vindictive shade.” (XIII.103–108)

Comments about Time

Periodically Virgil urges Dante to hurry. The journey apparently begins on March 24, 1300, shortly before dawn on Good Friday, or possibly on the traditional date of the creation of the world (April 8th, 1300). The dates seem to be important to Dante the poet, since he frequently comments on the passinage of time (VI.97–99, XXIX.7–12, XV.49–54, XI.112–115, XX.124–129, XXIX.8–9)

Making People Famous

Virgil apologizes to the tree: XIII.46–53 His mentor, Ser Brunetto Lattini, asks for him to read his work: XV.119–120 The three Florentines ask for him to record their names: XVI.82–85 Convincing the Giant Antaeus to lower them into the ninth circle: XXXI.124–129 Helping Ugolino get revenge on Archbishop Ruggieri: XXXII.133–39

Virgil makes a comment about fame when they’re climbing up out of the sixth ditch of the eighth circle and Dante is out of breath:

“Now you must cast aside your laziness,”

my master said, “for he who rests on down

or under covers cannot come to fame;

and he who spends his life without renown

leaves such a vestige of himself on earth

as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.” (XXIV.46–53)

Dante’s Pity

Feinting after Francesca’s story: V.139–42

Dante is unable to speak to the tree: XIII.82–4

Virgil chews out Dante for pitying the distorted diviners and magicians:

Of course I wept, leaning against a rock

along that rugged ridge, so that my guide

told me: “Are you as foolish as the rest?

Here pity only lives when it is dead:

for who can be more impious than he

who links God’s judgement to passivity?” (XX.25–30)

Righteous Anger

And I: “O master, I am very eager

to see that spirit soused within this broth

before we’ve made our way across the lake.”

And he to me: “Before the other shore

comes into view, you shall be satisfied;

to gratify so fine a wish is right.”

Soon after I had heard these words, I saw

the muddy sinners so dismember him

that even now I praise and thank God for it. (VIII.52–60)

Jesus Descending into Hell

Virgil’s comments about Jesus retrieving the patriarchs shortly after he came to hell: IV.46–61

Self Punishment

Some have said that the sinner’s in Dante’s hell punish themselves; that they’re punishment is merely fulfilling what they wanted to be. In some cases, e.g. Paulo and Fransesca or Ugollini, this seems true. But in other places it does not. E.g., consider Virgil’s comment:

“See there Guido Bonatti; see Asdente,

who now would wish he had attended to

his cord and leather, but repents too late.” (XX.118–120)

Questions

How does the gluttons punishment, being stuck in filthy rain, fit their crime?

In several passages it’s made clear that Dante the pilgrim still has a physical body. Yet many punishments are physical in nature. How is this consistent?

Why didn’t the angel who came to help Virgil and Dante get into the city of Dis speak to them?

Why are the Epicureans, in particular, placed in the sixth circle with the Heretics when other Pagan philosophers are in the first circle?

Why are Virgil and Dante so affectionate to each other?

All quotations are taken from Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, published in three parts in 1980, 1982, and 1984..