Front Page Titles (by Subject) INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE INFERNO - The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1 (Inferno) (Bilingual edition)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Also in the Library:
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE INFERNO - Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1 (Inferno) (Bilingual edition) 
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. The Italian Text with a Translation in English Blank Verse and a Commentary by Courtney Langdon, vol. 1 (Inferno) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE INFERNO
The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
THROUGH the following notes of an Analysis which has been made as brief as possible, with due regard to the needs of the general reader of the translation, there runs an Interpretation for which, as a whole, its author is alone responsible. While all notes of a linguistic or historical character are based upon the researches of the most accredited scholars in the field, others, which progressively develop the Interpretation, are based rather upon the belief that for the non-professional reader — the reader who belongs to the great class of honnêtes gens, for whom French literary men proudly claim that they prefer to write — it is far more important to try to show what a great work of art means, or can self-consistently be seen to mean, now, than what it may seem to have meant to its author’s contemporaries, or even to the author himself, when viewed from afar in the dim and dry light of time-hampered research. Its permanent truth and beauty, and their present-day suggestions, being after all what is most valuable and enjoyable in such a poem as the Divine Comedy, it should be remembered that spiritual truth is seedlike, and grows, and therefore increases and deepens in significance with the progress made in spiritual appreciation by the ages which in turn receive it. Even great poets build better than they consciously know, and better, certainly, than their outclassed contemporaries are aware of; hence it would seem to be no part of loyalty to insist that the inspirations of a supreme poet’s genius shall be narrowed down in meaning to the relatively little which a later century can intellectually learn from the painful limitations of the age from which he had to procure their clothing. Let the reader, then, separate, if he must, what seems scholarly in these fragmentary and purposely succinct notes from what their writer, who confesses to be more concerned with the poem’s flowers and their implications than with its roots and sources, claims is only a self-consistent, personal interpretation, which at least may spur those that cannot accept it in parts, or as a whole, to realize the value of drawing from the poet’s inexhaustibly fertile suggestions an edifying interpretation of their own, and, in their own way, of “heeding carefully the teaching which lies hidden beneath the veil of the poet’s mysterious lines.”
Since, then, linguistic, historical and geographical notes to a poem are a necessary evil, and only justified by the ordinary reader’s natural unfamiliarity with its illustrative allusions, they have not been forced upon his attention any more than need be. For a similar reason almost all references to authorities or sources, as well as all linguistic notes to the Italian text, have been relegated to the pages of the prospective Commentary, in which an attempt will be made to show what Dante did not get from any of his “sources,” and what few of his commentators, and then only sporadically, got from him. As to the Interpretation of the teaching, instead of being formulated in an Introduction, which “would have vainly boasted” of vying, in their method, with the Introduction and Arguments of Dr. Grandgent’s Dante, it will be found to follow step by step the natural evolution of the poem’s thought. It is, therefore, suggested that the corresponding part of what follows be read by those who do not claim to be Dante scholars between a first and a second reading of each canto’s translation; a reference to the line-numbers on the Italian page will guide the reader to the answers furnished to all questions that will probably be asked, while those in the Analysis will lead its more leisurely students to the lines of the text upon which comment is made.
Of this progressive Interpretation the fundamental contentions are: that Dante, while frequently drawing illustrations of his teaching from his own personal experience, is throughout the poem making himself a representative of Man in general as he is brought face to face with those universal moral, and spiritual problems of life, which change only in their intellectual clothing from age to age, from race to race, and even from man to man; that spiritually sin and virtue are, respectively, their own all-sufficient punishment and reward; that what in the letter of the allegorical story is said of the fate of individuals is to be taken only as illustrative of the significance of states of moral and spiritual consciousness; that neither Hell, Purgatory nor Heaven are places, but states of which all men can at any time have experience; that the moment of physical death has no special eternal significance, except in so far as it symbolizes those critical spiritual moments when man’s spirit is eclipsed by entering the shadow of the Wrath of God, or swims into the ken of His Love; that Eternity is something infinitely more, and other, than endless astronomic time; and that, finally, the Divine Comedy, while very significant as a supreme Italian, Catholic, Scholastic and fourteenth-century work of art, has an import for all men and for all ages which breaks through the bonds of the language, theology, philosophy and times which gave it form, far more victoriously and often than is generally realized — an import which can be grasped only by emphasizing the high-water marks of its insight into Reality, and by never letting its teaching’s spirit drop to the level of its avowedly hampered letter, whose latent spiritual significance needs translation into terms of twentieth century appreciation far more than its Italian does into English.
To help bring into clearer light these eternal spiritual aspects of the world’s greatest single poem is the object of this translation, and especially of its accompanying interpretative notes.
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS CANTO I
Introduction to the Allegory of the Divine Comedy. Dante, Man. The Wood and the Mountain. The Three Wild Beasts. Virgil, Man’s Reason
In the translation it will be noticed that line has been printed in two parts, which together form a regular blank verse line; this was done here, as elsewhere in the book, so as to avoid padding the thought, and leaving a blank line on the printed page.
The usual rendering of line is: “The time was at the morning’s first beginning,” which, while a possible meaning of the Italian, does not seem as apposite as the permissible translation adopted.
Introduction to the Inferno. The Mission of Virgil. The Three Blessed Ladies. Beatrice, Man’s Spiritual Nature
In this canto Man’s three spiritual friends are contrasted with the three brutal enemies from which his Reason rescued him in Canto I, while Beatrice, who represents God’s spirit in Man, is by the poet identified in line , as frequently in the poem, with the historical Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari, whom Dante had loved since his childhood, of whom he had written in his Vita Nuova, and to say of whom “what had never been said of any woman” he had prepared himself in every way ever since her death in 1290.
The Gate and Vestibule of Hell. Moral and Spiritual Cowards and Neutrals. Pilate. Acheron
Of this, which is one of the strongest, though least frequently appreciated, cantos of the whole Inferno, the outstanding figure is the Pilate whom Dante, in contrast to the Cowards whom he “recognized,” “knew” at once, as unmistakably the greatest conceivable illustration of the despicable class, which does not understand that human tears, and even blood, are made sublime, when shed for a noble cause.
The First Circle. The Limbo, or Borderland, of Unbaptized Innocents and Worthies, and Illustrious Pagans. Virgil. Aristotle
The picture of the negative punishment (?) of the pagan-minded in this canto should be understood as applying to the pagan-minded in modern and contemporary, as well as in ancient times. It is merely a poetical statement of an obvious and acknowledged fact. A materialistic or merely intellectualistic conception of life, necessarily involves a lack of happiness open only to those who can accept the joyous Christian view of life. The fate of individuals in “another world” is, in this case as in all others, on the knees of a Justice whose other name is Love, to which can be also left the little children whom Dante describes as being in the border state.
Most texts read in line parte, “a part,” instead of porta, “gateway,” which latter, however, best describes the symbolic function of baptism.
The Second Circle. Minos. The Hell of Incontinence. Sexual Intemperance. The Lascivious, and Adulterers. Francesca
With this circle Dante enters upon the first of the three main parts of Hell, that of Incontinence, or Intemperance, which deals with four sins due to a lack of rational control over necessary human appetites, upon whose use depend the birth, the physical nourishment of individuals, and the development of Man’s material, and moral civilization.
Many scholars think that the del costui piacer of line should be taken to mean “for his charming looks,” but, apart from the involved lack of contrast with line line seems to suggest as more correct the version given in the text.
The Third Circle. The Hell of Incontinence. Intemperance in the Use of Food. Cerberus. Gluttons. Ciacco
In view of the Italian people’s well known temperance in the use of wine, etc., it is interesting to note that it did not occur to Dante to mention intoxication in this canto, or anywhere in the Inferno, except in the case of Pope Boniface VIII. (xxvii, 99.)
While no one this side of the experience can know what a “future life” will be like, one can imagine that it will involve a fuller consciousness of the eternity in which one is already living in this life, and of which one is at times aware.
The Fourth Circle. The Hell of Incontinence. Intemperance in the Use of Wealth. Plutus. Misers and Prodigals. Fortune
Judging from a hint dropped in line Dante deemed that man’s wrong attitude toward wealth — which he thought of as an outer body, upon the proper use of which material civilization’s interests depended — was the most prevalent of all the sins in Hell. In this connection the symbolic Wolf of materialistic Greed is brought in, not in her own capacity as representing malicious Fraud, but as “mated” to Incontinence.
The Fifth Circle. The Hell of Incontinence. Intemperance in Indignation. The Wrathful and Sullen. Styx
The Fifth Circle (continued). Phlegyas. Filippo Argenti
The Gate of the City of Dis (Satan)
The Gate of the City of Dis (continued). The Furies. Medusa. The Messenger from Heaven
The Sixth Circle. The Vestibule to the Hell of Bestiality or Unreason. Disbelief in a Spiritual World, Immortality, etc. Heretics
The Sixth Circle (continued). Farinata
The Sixth Circle (continued). The Distribution, or Ethical Classification of the Damned
With reference to the note to line it could be urged that a punishment that was literally endless would be one that would attain no conceivable object but the unworthy one of revenge, and hence is no more imaginable than are endless time or space. Spiritual truths must one and all of them be grasped qualitatively and not quantitatively.
The Seventh Circle. The Hell of Bestiality. Violence. The First Ring. Violence against one’s Fellow Man and his Property. Tyrants. Murderers, Highway Robbers, and Devastators. The Centaurs. Attila
The Seventh Circle (continued). The Second Ring. Violence against One’s Self and Property. Suicides and Squanderers. The Harpies. Pier delle Vigne
The Seventh Circle (continued). Third Ring. Violence against God. Blasphemers. Capaneus. The Old Man of Crete
The Seventh Circle (continued). The Third Ring. Violence against Nature. Sodomites; Clerics and Literary Men. Brunetto Latini
The Seventh Circle (continued). The Third Ring. Violence against Nature. Sodomites; Warriors and Statesmen. Guido Guerra. The Cord of St. Francis
The usual form of the text of lines refered to above, “in contrario il collo faceva a’ piè continüo vïaggio;” is rythmically forced, and makes the neck travel instead of the feet.
The Seventh Circle (continued). The Third Ring. Violence against Art (Industry). Usurers. Geryon
The dominant figure of this canto is that of Geryon, the wonderfully drawn symbol of Fraud, the sin of perverted Reason, which is described as stronger by far than all defensive or offensive armor, and as spiritually the most foully corruptive of all classes of sin. Recalling the fact that one is now in the domain of the Wolf of fraudulent Greed, Dante’s method of handling it reminds one of the Gospel teaching that when “in the midst of wolves” one should be as “wise as serpents” while remaining as “harmless as doves.” Until civilization comes to realize that Fraud is, as Dante here teaches, morally and spiritually more deleterious to man than any form of Incontinence, such as even drunkenness, or than any kind of Violence, such as even murder, little real ethical progress will be made.
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The First Trench. Pandars and Seducers. Caccianimico. Jason
The Eighth Circle (continued). The Second Trench. Flatterers and Prostitutes. Interminei. Thais
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Third Trench. Simoniacs, Spiritual Prostitutes. Nicholas III. Boniface VIII. Clement V
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Fourth Trench. Diviners, Soothsayers and Practicers of Magic. Manto
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. The Fifth Trench. The Evil Claws. Corrupt Politicians and Grafters, Political Prostitutes
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Fifth Trench (continued). Corrupt Politicians and Grafters. Cianpolo
The Seventh Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Sixth Trench. Hypocrites. Caiaphas. Fra Catalano
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Seventh Trench. Thieves. Vanni Fucci
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Seventh Trench (continued). Thieves. Cacus
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Eighth Trench. Fraudulent Counselors and Insincere Rhetoricians. Ulysses
The Eighth Circle. Fraud. The Eighth Trench (continued). Fraudulent Counselors. Romagna in 1300. Guido da Montefeltro
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Ninth Trench. Sowers of Discord between Churches, States, and Individuals. Mohammed. Mosca. Bertran de Born.
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Ninth Trench (continued). Sowers of Discord Geri del Bello
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Tenth Trench. Falsifiers (1) of Metals. Alchemists. Griffolino
Some commentators interpret lines “who was the first to start (or sow) the costly use of cloves,” etc.
Students who are interested in the deeper meaning of “eternity,” “eternal” and “eternally” will surely agree that what might be called a sense of spiritual humour ought to prevent any misunderstanding of “eternally” in line
The Eighth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Fraud. The Tenth Trench (continued). Falsifiers (2) of Persons; (3) of Money, Counterfeiters; and (4) of Words, Liars. Gianni Schicchi. Master Adam. Sinon
In line of this canto instead of dal lato the Vandelli 1914 text prefers the reading dall’altro, which would change the translation to: “from man’s remaining portion, which is forked.”
The Edge of the Bank overlooking the Central Well. Titans, Giants, or Supermen. Nimrod. Antæus
Lovers of Dante recently visiting Bologna will have seen on the wall of the still standing, though much shortened, Carisenda tower, a marble slab with Dante’s words carved upon it. Similarly all over Florence and throughout Italy slabs will be found commemorating his famous references to historic sites.
The Ninth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Treachery. The First Ring. Caina. Traitors to their Relatives. Mordred. Camicion de Pazzi
The Ninth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Treachery. The Second Ring. Antenora. Traitors to their Country. Bocca degli Abati
The Ninth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Treachery. The Second Ring (continued). Traitors to their Country or Party. Count Ugolino
The Ninth Circle. The Third Ring. Tolomea. Traitors to their Guests. Frate Alberigo. Branca d’Oria
The Ninth Circle. The Hell of Malice. Treachery. The Fourth Ring. Giudecca. Traitors to their Benefactors. Traitors to Human and Divine Majesty. Brutus. Cassius. Judas. LUCIFER
With the allegory of Lucifer’s three faces it will be seen that Dante has returned to the allegory of the three Wild Beasts with which he started. In Satan, Man has seen the reality of the three dangers which prevented his access to the Mountain of Delight. The sensual Leopard of Incontinent Appetite, the arrogant Lion of Bestial Violence, and the greedy, materialistic Wolf of Malicious Fraud and Treachery are seen to have been adumbrations of the Impotence, Ignorance, and Hatred that spring from rebellion against the equally Almighty, All-wise, and All-loving Spirit of the Universe.
From the Center of the Earth to its Surface on the Island of Purgatory. The Fall of Lucifer
December 24th, 1917.