The Reading Room

Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life, Inferno: Canto I

A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy

Last week we saw how Dante wrote about his journey through hell, limbo, and paradise as if it were a real journey that he really undertook (beginning, in his recounting of it, on Good Friday—March 25, 1300), and saw how his understanding of his journey as a real one helps us grasp the importance—and the reality—of our own imaginations. This week we will delve directly into Canto I, and begin our own journey with Dante through hell, and beyond…
We pick up our journey with Dante Alighieri, a middle-aged political activist and part-time pharmacist in Tuscany, Italy. Dante had been wandering in the woods, along a straight path, but after it had become dark he lost his way. It is a very rough, tough, and savage forest—so savage that even the thought of such a forest would be enough to make him shudder in fear. He is so distraught at having become lost in this forest that he begins to feel as if dying right now wouldn’t be so bad. 
 How, you might ask, did Dante end up wandering through such a forest in the first place? He doesn’t even know himself. He was so asleep at the wheel, so to speak, that he was almost quite literally sleepwalking through life: “I cannot well repeat how there I entered, / So full was I of slumber at the moment.” 
 After wandering for a bit longer, he reaches the foot of a mountain whose summit is sparkling with the rays of the sun. This sight sets his heart a bit more at ease. 
He turns to look back at the forest—it looks so dark and dreadful that he doesn’t imagine how any person could trek through such a forest and make it out alive. He thus sets his eyes upon the mountain and begins to climb up its barren slope. But almost as soon as he’s begun his ascent, he spots a leopard a little way up the mountain. He knows it’s lightning-quick, and that if he were to try to continue up the mountain there would be no way he could make it without being overtaken by the intimidating creature. He looks up to the heavens for a moment; the stars are still visible in the sky, and the sun has just begun to rise. When he looks back down to the mountain, he catches sight of a lion that seems to be rushing toward him with such hunger in its eyes that it seems as if the air itself would flee in fear, if it could, from the ravenous beast. He turns his head once again and sees a wolf. By this time not only is Dante’s stomach turning in upon itself in fear but he feels like a gambler who has wagered his life savings at the blackjack table and lost. He is divested of any hope he may have ever had of reaching the mountaintop. 
Dante feels no choice but to back away from the mountain and to try to grope his way back through the dark, dreadful forest. Suddenly, in the midst of the frightful wasteland, he spots a human figure and cries out to the person for help. “Have pity on me!” he calls out, “Whatever you are—a shade or real man!”
“I am not a man—though once I was,” the person responds to him cryptically, explaining to Dante that he was once a living man—a man of Mantuan descent who lived in pagan Rome, during the reign of the emperor Augustus. During his life he was a poet, he says, who wrote a great epic poem about a heroic Trojan warrior named Aeneas who survived the destruction of Troy and later made his way to ancient Rome.
Dante, himself an aspiring poet, immediately understands who this is—it is none other than his hero Virgil, one of the greatest poets of the Roman era and the author of the great Latin epic The Aeneid. Dante bows his head before him in shame, embarrassed that the first impression he is giving of himself to his hero is of him having turned away from the mountain, still lost in the woods and crying out for help to anyone within earshot. 
Dante quickly collects himself and gushes to Virgil about how much he loves him and his poetry, how much of an idol he is for him, and how he has been trying to model his own poetic style after his. 
“Please, though,” he begs his literary hero, starting to cry, “please—you must understand—I was afraid of those wild animals. That’s why I turned away from the mountain.” 
“Then you must take another path,” Virgil answers, simply and stoically. “If you want to escape this forest, follow me. I will take you on a different route. We will pass through a place where you’ll hear desperate weeping, where you’ll see desolate spirits who beg for death even though they have already died. You’ll see people who are content to just be burning. If you make it through all that and wish to continue on, I may need to depart from you, at which point you shall receive a new guide—a guide for a loftier, more blessed place…”
“Yes—please take me with you,” Dante responds.
Virgil moves on ahead, and Dante follows behind him. 
Thus concludes Canto I and (as Churchill might say) the end of the beginning. Before continuing on to Canto II with Virgil and Dante, next week we will explore the central lessons we can learn for our own lives from the opening chapter of Dante’s epic journey of a lifetime….