Canto I: Summary:
Dante recounts that in the middle of his life, he found himself lost in a dark forest, having lost the right path while half asleep. Worried and frightened, he was comforted by the sight of a hill, the top of which was sunlit. However, when he tried to climb the hill to reach the brighter regions, he found his way blocked by three savage animals: first a leopard, then a lion, then a she-wolf. Dante was too frightened to continue, and retreated back to the forest, where fortunately he met the shade of Virgil, his literary hero. Virgil informed him that the three beasts were impassible: the she-wolf would reign until the greyhound came and slew her, and restored peace to Italy. In the meantime, Virgil would lead Dante to salvation, but first they must pass through Hell. Virgil would not be able to take Dante all the way to Paradise, since as a Pagan he had no right to enter there instead a more worthy soul would take him the final part of the way. Dante gladly accepted his offer.
Canto I: Analysis:
The Inferno is an opaque poem, which lends itself particularly well to complicated interpretation, and no doubt was intended as such. Metaphors and symbolism are found in every line, and to give a complete description of all the interpretations that have been made would be a huge undertaking. However, in order to fathom the sheer richness of the poem, it is necessary to have an understanding of the more widely accepted interpretations.
The Inferno was written during Dante's exile from Florence, whereas it purports to recount events that occurred much earlier. A passage in Canto XXI, 112-114, has been used by commentators to fix the fictional date of Canto I as the night before Good Friday, April 7, 1300. (In 1300 Dante was 35 years old: half of the Biblical span of 70 years.) The morning spent trying to climb the hill is thus Good Friday. One should note the careful correlation of Christian symbolic time with events in the poem.
Since Dante wrote the Inferno after he was exiled in 1301, this made it possible for him to make accurate "predictions" about events which had already occurred, thus lending an aura of truth to his genuine prophecies.
The dark forest is a metaphor for everything that Dante thought was wrong in 1300. This could include inner confusion and sin, the necessary imperfection of the world (as opposed to Paradise and God), political corruption, the absence of true authority, the bad behavior of the Pope, etc. Redemption is associated with struggle, in this case the struggle uphill, which is made impossibly difficult by the continual temptations of sin. The leopard is thought to symbolize lust, the lion pride, and the she-wolf avarice. The identity of the greyhound has been widely disputed: Christ, Dante himself, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Dante's benefactor Cangrande della Scala are some candidates. Since Dante strongly supported the imperial claim to authority, it seems most likely that the greyhound is the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII (elected in 1308, probably before the Inferno was written, but after it "took place.")
Canto II: Summary:
It was evening. Dante invokes the Muses to help him tell his story. He began to doubt his worthiness to make the great voyage through Hell, and compared his weakness to the strength of "he who fathered Sylvius" (Aeneas) and ""the Chosen Vessel," (St. Paul) who had descended to Hell and returned from there victoriously. He asked Virgil for guidance, and Virgil told him not to surrender to cowardice. In order to give him heart, Virgil said that Beatrice herself had descended from Paradise to Limbo to find him (Limbo is the place in Hell for worthy Pagans who lived before Christ). Concerned about Dante, she had asked Virgil to lead him to safety. Gallantly, Virgil had agreed. He discovered that not only Beatrice, but two other blessed ladies, Lucia and Rachel, were also concerned for Dante, having been warned by "a gentle lady" that he risks damnation. Hearing that his love had not forgotten him, Dante was much encouraged, and he resolved to unflinchingly follow Virgil wherever he would lead him.
Canto II: Analysis:
The mixture of different literary genres and themes is particularly evident in this canto, though it occurs throughout the poem. The Inferno is part epic, modelled in some ways on Virgil's Aeneid. It is also a deeply Christian poem full of traditional symbolism, describing a Hell quite different from that of the Ancients. Hell is not simply the underworld where the dead are, but is specifically the place where the wicked are punished, each according to his sin. The ultimate goal is to reach God. The third theme is that of courtly love: much medieval literature deals with the love of a knight for an unattainable and lovely lady. In the literature of courtly love, the knight's hopeless devotion spurs him on to chivalric feats which he accomplishes in order to honor his chosen lady. In some lyrics of courtly love, the perfection of the desired lady undermines the religious morality of the poetry: a Christian should love God above all else. However, Dante deftly melds the two genres by loving a lady who is dead: there is no risk of physical sexuality, and since Beatrice is a blessed soul, she can be accepted as a link between Dante and God: by aspiring to Beatrice in the courtly manner, Dante becomes all the more Christian. This rationalization would not have been accepted by the sterner Protestant sects, but in the courtly early 14th century, no one could find fault with it. Dante's journey through Hell is thus an epic adventure, a mystical religious experience, and a way to honor his beloved.
Dante's admiration for Virgil and his identification of himself with Aeneas and St. Paul should be understood in the context of his pro-Imperial politics. The Aeneid was written in order to create a heroic past for the Roman Empire; Dante hopes to predict the success of the Holy Roman Empire, which unites the martial virtues of the Romans with the Christian virtues. (The Holy Roman Empire, incidentally, is the name given to a variable dominion including much of Germany and some of Italy. It was never as powerful or as coherent as the true Roman Empire, and its glorious name says more about Imperial ambitions than realities.)
Dante describes heavenly justice in terms of a stern judgement, presumably that of God-the-father and Christ, tempered by the merciful pleas of the Virgin Mary (the "gentle lady") and other female saints and saintly beings. Justice is then a masculine attribute, and mercy is feminine.
Canto III: Summary:
Dante and Virgil arrived at the gateway of Hell, whose famous inscription ends with the words: "Abandon hope, ye who enter here." The damned shall suffer eternally and Hell will endure forever, in Dante's vision. Past the gate, Dante heard voices of suffering and despair that made him weep. Virgil told him that he was hearing the laments of the morally neutral people, the "sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise," as well as the angels who sided neither with God nor with Satan in Satan's rebellion. These cowardly people were tormented by wasps, flies and worms. They are shut out of both Hell and Heaven, disdained by the forces of good and evil alike.
Dante and Virgil approached the shore of the river Acheron, which forms the boundary of true Hell. Charon, a demon in the shape of an old man, warned the waiting souls of the torments in store for them, and told Dante that he, a living man, could not cross the river. However Virgil told him that God had willed it, and Charon could not countermand that order. The exhausted, bitter and despairing damned souls were forced by Charon across the Acheron on his boat. Even as the first group of the damned crossed the river, more crowds assembled on the bank, waiting, unable to resist their fate. The earth trembled and Dante, terrified, fell unconscious.
Canto III: Analysis:
The inscription on the gate is the only text Dante reads in Hell. In it, different attributes are assigned to different members of the Trinity: God-the-father is "divine authority," Christ is "highest wisdom," and the Holy Ghost is "primal love." Dante will very rarely refer to God directly: just as Mary is known as "a gentle lady," God is known as these different forces. The eternal things made before Hell are the heavens, the angels, and primal matter, which were made on the first day.
Dante's rejection of the lukewarm, neutral souls might seem overly harsh: although they did nothing evil, their torments are great. This, and Dante's lack of compassion for them, are evidence that he was no believer in moderation or compromise. Just as he firmly and unrelentingly espoused his political position, he expects others to do the same. The genuinely sinful souls may be more blame-worthy, but as we shall see, Dante also finds them to be more worthy of compassion.
One of the neutral souls is singled out: he who made "the great refusal." He is thought to be Pope Celestine V, who was elected Pope in July 1294, and abdicated five months later, which allowed Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), a bitter enemy of Dante, to come to power. There are unflattering references to Boniface VIII in Cantos XIX, lines 52-57, and XXVII, line70.
Charon and the Acheron are both borrowed from Classical mythology: Dante uses Pagan characters and geography in his Christian underworld. In the Italian Renaissance, there was great renewed interest in Classical mythology and literature, which was sometimes at odds with Christian beliefs, since theoretically even the greatest Greeks and Romans were all worthy of damnation. Dante is careful to make sure that his veneration for Antiquity is kept within the bounds prescribed by Christianity, as we shall see in the description of Limbo in the next Canto.
Canto IV: Summary:
Dante awakened to find himself on the brink of an abyss. Seeing Virgil turn pale, he was afraid to go into it, but Virgil explained that his palor was the result of compassion rather than of fear: the first circle of Hell contained his people.
In the first circle, Limbo, there were sighs rather than wails: it was peaceful yet sad. Multitudes of people, infants, women, and men, stayed there. Virgil explained that these were those who were virtuous, but lacked baptism and hence could not be saved. Virgil was one of them. Dante was sorry to see these unhappy good souls, and asked if anyone had ever been able to leave Limbo. Virgil said that he had seen a Great Lord come and rescue Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Rachel, and other early Israelites.
They came to the place where particularly honorable shades were, and Virgil was welcomed by four giants, Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. Dante was very pleased to find himself accepted into their number as the sixth great intellect. Speaking of solemn things, they came to the castle of Limbo, surrounded by a green meadow, where the great non-Christian souls lived. Dante lists both characters of Classical literature (Electra, Hector, Aeneas...), famous Romans (Caesar, Lucretia...), philosophers, writers, scientists, doctors, and musicians. He gives particular honor to "the master of men who know" (Aristotle), and also mentions famous Arabs, Avicenna and Averroes.
Leaving these heroic souls, Dante and Virgil continued on into darkness.
Canto IV: Analysis:
In this canto Dante addresses one of the great moral problems of Christianity, which was particularly pressing for Renaissance scholars who revered the Ancients. Baptism is necessary for salvation, but it seems essentially unfair that all the good people who lived before Christianity, or who never heard of it, should suffer for something over which they had no control. Dante solves this problem by keeping the good Pagans and infidels in Hell, but giving them a painless and honorable fate. Limbo is not a happy place, but it is contemplative and calm. Its inhabitants are not tormented and they can converse with one another among green fields and noble castles.
The Great Lord is Christ, and his coming to Limbo is the harrowing of Hell, which in Christian teaching occurred after the crucifixion, when the good people of the Old Testament were posthumously saved.
Dante modestly pays himself a great compliment by having the great authors of Classical times accept him as one of them. Readers of the Inferno were presumably supposed to agree with these noble shades. It is important to notice that, according to Dante, no literature of importance had been written since Antiquity before Dante's work. This was a sentiment shared by many Renaissance writers, who ignored the medieval period and saw themselves as the direct heirs of the great Classical tradition.
The veneration of Aristotle is not accidental. In Dante's time, Aristotle was commonly referred as The Philosopher, the fount of all wisdom. The scholastic tradition of philosophy and theology, which was very powerful throughout the Renaissance period, is specifically that which united Aristotelian thought and Christian beliefs. Late medieval and Renaissance thinkers had a great deal of respect for received knowledge and the printed word, perhaps partly because there were so few books. Thus, although they were Christian, they were often unable to conceive of a system of knowledge which did not derive at least partially from the Ancients. After Dante's time, a rival group began to emerge, made up of those who preferred Plato to Aristotle. The fact that Dante was an Aristotelian is one reason he is often classified as a medieval poet rather than one of the Renaissance. Of course these classifications, though useful, are generally arbitrary: some historians strongly dispute the idea that time can be divided into specific periods.