Canto I The poem begins on the night of Maundy Thursday on March 24 (or April 7), A.D. 1300, shortly before dawn of Good Friday. The narrator, Dante himself, is thirty-five years old, and thus "midway in the journey of our life" (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita) – half of the Biblical lifespan of seventy (Psalm 89:10, Vulgate; Psalm 90:10, KJV). The poet finds himself lost in a dark wood (selva oscura), astray from the "straight way" (diritta via, also translatable as "right way") of salvation. He sets out to climb directly up a small mountain, but his way is blocked by three beasts he cannot evade: a lonza (usually rendered as "leopard" or "leopon"), a leone (lion), and a lupa (she-wolf). The three beasts, taken from the Jeremiah 5:6, are thought to symbolize the three kinds of sin that bring the unrepentant soul into one of the three major divisions of Hell. According to John Ciardi, these are incontinence (the she-wolf); violence and bestiality (the lion); and fraud and malice (the leopard); Dorothy L. Sayers assigns the leopard to incontinence and the she-wolf to fraud/malice. It is now dawn of Good Friday, April 8, with the sun rising in Aries. The beasts drive him back despairing into the darkness of error, a "lower place" (basso loco) where the sun is silent (l sol tace). However, Dante is rescued by a figure who announces that he was born sub Iulio (i.e. in the time of Julius Caesar) and lived under Augustus: it is the shade of the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, a Latin epic.
Canto II On the evening of Good Friday, Dante is following Virgil but hesitates; Virgil explains how he has been sent by Beatrice, the symbol of Divine Love. Beatrice had been moved to aid Dante by the Virgin Mary (symbolic of compassion) and Saint Lucia (symbolic of illuminating Grace). Rachel, symbolic of the contemplative life, also appears in the heavenly scene recounted by Virgil. The two of them then begin their journey to the underworld.
Vestibule of Hell
Canto III Dante passes through the gate of Hell, which bears an inscription ending with the famous phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", most frequently translated as "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."[nb 1] Dante and his guide hear the anguished screams of the Uncommitted. These are the souls of people who in life took no sides; the opportunists who were for neither good nor evil, but instead were merely concerned with themselves. Among these Dante recognizes a figure implied to be Pope Celestine V, whose "cowardice (in selfish terror for his own welfare) served as the door through which so much evil entered the Church". Mixed with them are outcasts who took no side in the Rebellion of Angels. These souls are forever unclassified; they are neither in Hell nor out of it, but reside on the shores of the Acheron. Naked and futile, they race around through the mist in eternal pursuit of an elusive, wavering banner (symbolic of their pursuit of ever-shifting self-interest) while relentlessly chased by swarms of wasps and hornets, who continually sting them. Loathsome maggots and worms at the sinners' feet drink the putrid mixture of blood, pus, and tears that flows down their bodies. This symbolizes the sting of their guilty conscience and the repugnance of sin. This may also be seen as a reflection of the spiritual stagnation in which they lived.
After passing through the vestibule, Dante and Virgil reach the ferry that will take them across the river Acheron and to Hell proper. The ferry is piloted by Charon, who does not want to let Dante enter, for he is a living being. Virgil forces Charon to take him by declaring, Vuolsi così colà dove si puote / ciò che si vuole ("It is so willed there where is power to do / That which is willed"), referring to the fact that Dante is on his journey on divine grounds. The wailing and blasphemy of the damned souls entering Charon's boat contrast with the joyful singing of the blessed souls arriving by ferry in the Purgatorio. The passage across the Acheron, however, is undescribed, since Dante faints and does not awaken until he is on the other side.