"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, January 22, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos I thru V

These are my comments from the Good reads discussion on Inferno.  All quotes come from the Hollander and Hollander translation, unless otherwise noted.

I’m not sure where to start with comments. I could write an essay on something in all those Cantos.  My first thought is to try to minimize, if not dispel the notion that much in the Comedia works as allegory.  Allegory is a device where a character or event stands for an abstract notion.  Dante can be said to stand for “everyman,” Virgil for wisdom, and say Beatrice for virtue.  This was common practice in many medieval works and even going into the Renaissance.  Edmund Spencer’s The Fairy Queen is a late example where an epic work actually carried this one for one allegory.  But other than at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, this sort of simple allegory falls apart in Dante’s work.  The characters are three dimensional.  Dante isn’t an “everyman” but a specific man, a poet, a Florentine who has been exiled, someone in love with a specific woman.  Same thing with Virgil.  He may be wise but he’s not an abstract “wisdom.”  He’s the ancient Roman poet from the city of Mantua who died before Christ and so was a pagan.  Despite the fantastical premise of passing through the world of the hereafter, Dante’s work is a highly crafted realism, way ahead of its time.

Take the three beasts in the first Canto, the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf.  Unless your notes went into a lot of detail, it probably listed a simple allegory of the leopard standing for lust, the lion for pride, and the she-wolf for greed.  Hollander goes through the history of varying opinions.  At times the leopard was believed to stand for envy instead of lust; other times, incontinence.  The lion has been thought as standing for violence or even malice.  The she-wolf for mad brutishness or fraud.  Then there are those that have read the three beasts as representing Dante’s human enemies: the leopard for the Florentines who exiled him, the lion for the royal house of France, and the she-wolf for the papacy.  All possible.

So what do they stand for?  In my opinion those beasts stand for all those things, envy, lust, avarice, brutishness.  Why would a leopard be less brutish than a she-wolf, or a she-wolf less violent than a lion?  Notice in Canto II there are three ladies that come to Dante’s aid: the Blessed Mother, St. Lucy, and Beatrice.  The three ladies directly correspond to the three beasts, and yet we don’t look for some sort of abstract meaning behind those three ladies.  It’s the three ladies whose virtue is there to counteract the appetite of the three beasts.

Hollander in his introduction has an interesting section of allegory, and without quoting him I think supports what I say above.  He goes on, however, to distinguish that simple allegory I described above with what he calls theological allegory.  I had never heard the term before, but apparently it traces back to Thomas Aquinas.  Theological allegory is where a figure in one part of the bible runs parallel to another.  Christ for instance can be thought of as the new Adam, or the new Moses; Mary as the new Eve, and so on.  I always called that typology, and I guess it does have a certain allegorical connection.  Hollander doesn’t explain in the introduction how Dante uses theological allegory; perhaps that will come later.  Now let me speculate on the first two cantos: could the three blessed ladies be typologies for the three beasts in the first canto?  That might be so.

But what I do what to emphasize again how The Divine Comedy is a work of great realism, way ahead of its time.  Hollander also points out the skilled use of point of view.  Notice how complex it is.  We have the point of view of Dante the writer, who stands back knowing all that has transpired; we have the point of view of Dante the character who is undergoing the journey for the first time and is almost completely ignorant; we have the point of view of the person who comments on the situations – the guides – in this case Virgil who understands partially but is not in on everything, and we have the point of view of the souls encountered, many of which have a different point of view than their reality, the unreliable narrator, if you will.  All oif this happening simultaneously.  Modern fiction has nothing on Dante.


One of the most interesting set of lines are those inscribed above the gate of hell. 


The first three lines beginning with “Through me…” are what the dead soul expects to find when entering.  The seventh and eighth lines speak to its eternalness, and the last line is a command to the entering soul that his time for change is over.  But the middle three lines (4-6) are possibly the most intellectually rich:  “Justice moved my maker on high/Divine Power made me/Wisdom supreme and primal love.”  Line four is a statement of why God created hell – for justice.  Line five is a statement of who made hell, and line six is a modifying phrase to why He made it.  If you were to write the sentence out it would look like this, “Divine Power made me, wisdom supreme and primal love.”  If you were to replace the comma and use a prepositional phrase, it would go like this: “Divine Power made me through wisdom and primal love.”  So there are three abstract qualities that caused God to create hell: justice, wisdom, and love. 

Now that’s how I read it, but Hollander in his notes seems to read the fifth and sixth lines differently.  He doesn’t read “wisdom supreme and primal love” are not modifying the predicate but the subject.  If he were to write it in a prose sentence it might be, “Divine Power, wisdom, and love made me."  Under Hollander’s logic then the three attributes of God are power, wisdom, and love and justice is the means of which things were created.  He supports his argument by citing St. Augustine as attributing those three to the Trinity. 

Now I don’t think that’s how it should be read.  I’m not saying that St. Augustine is wrong, but I think Dante is creating his own Trinitarian attributes of justice, wisdom, and love.  Power it seems to me is the acting force that creates as a result of the attributes.  But take my brain noodling here with a grain of salt.  Hollander is a PhD with a expertise in Dante with scores of experience. 

Now I bring this up because embedded in those words are the themes that apply to all of The Divine Comedy.  Everything in the poem works in concordance with justice, wisdom, and love.  Now come down a few lines from the words on the gate to where Virgil is explaining to Dante what they are about to get into.  He says, “We have come to where I said/you would see the miserable sinners/who have lost the good of the intellect” (16-18).  Those in hell are there because they have misused their intellect in their application of justice, wisdom, and love.  But this will also go beyond hell.  It can be said that those in purgatory are there to repair (or perhaps relearn may be more accurate) their use of intellect, and those in heaven are there because they properly used their intellect.

It’s all very highly condensed, but the themes of the entire Comedia are there in the first eighteen lines of the third Canto.

Amanda Commented:
I wonder if this comes down to a matter of translation. Longfellow and Musa both use "Omnipotence" instead of "power."

From Longfellow, the lines read" Justice incited my sublime Creator; Created me divine Omnipotence, The highest Wisdom and primal Love." So for me, that translation indicates the creation of hell by the Trinity.

But your argument for justice, wisdom and love is also interesting. It seems (to me at least) that you can argue that God the Father represents justice based off the old Testament. From there, it would be the Trinity working together in Divine Power to create Hell.

My Reply:
Hi Amanda, thanks for commenting. I think what you present there was one of the variations Hollander listed that at one time or another was brought up. I find the allegory concerning the three ladies that Musa and Grandgent advance as even less satisfying. Can't Mary be Illuminating Grace or Revelation? Can't Beatrice be Divine Mercy or Illuminating Grace? Yes, I know Lucia means "light" but then why is it illuminating grace and not illuminating wisdom? It all seems so arbitrary.

I am definitely sold on Hollander's "Biblical allegory," which I consider typology, rather than simple (literary?) allegory. The difference between Dante's The divine Comedy and Spencer's The Fairy Queen is immense. You can pin down the allegory in Spencer; you can't pin down the allegory in Dante.

Dante's technique of these triple analogues that run throughout the work is incredibly rich. It almost replicates the mystery of the Trinity! I may say this a dozen times before we finish the read, this is the greatest work of literature.

"Justice incited my sublime Creator; Created me divine Omnipotence, The highest Wisdom and primal Love."

“Justice moved my maker on high/Divine Power made me/Wisdom supreme and primal love.”

Look at the difference! If you have an ear for poetry, the Longfellow is stilted. All I can say is "yuck." The Hollander just rolls so fluidly, and it never sacrifices accuracy. Notice the alliteration with the "m" words. I make it a habit to compare translations, and I have not found anything better than the Hollander duo. God bless Jean Hollander, she was the poet of the two.

Yes, power or omnipotence is an ability; justice, wisdom, and love are qualities. Even in college I was not afraid to disagree with PhD's. ;)


One other thing I wanted to examine was this fainting that Dante has at the closing of two out of the last three cantos.  Twice in the very first five cantos.  For those reading this for the first time, I hope you don't think this is going to be a regular routine, that this is some melodrama.  I don't remember if it happens again.  I have an inkling that it happens one more time, but I'm not sure.  Let's take a look at the two occurrences in some detail.

In Canto III, Dante the character has been led into the underworld, read the sign which warned his to "abandon all hope" for those that enter, come through the pre-circle of the Neutrals where for the first time he is seeing mass numbers of dead souls walking about, even recognizing some, realizing now that "death had undone so many."  Here's what he actually reports:

Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentation
resounded through the starless air,
so that I too began to weep.
Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents,
words of suffering, cries of rage, voices
loud and faint, the sound of slapping hands --
all these made a tumult, always whirling
in that black and timeless air,
as sand is swirled in a whirlwind.  (III. l. 22-30)

That's pretty horrific and oppressive to the senses.  I'm sure we would all be rattled, even if it were not in the world of the dead.  But then Dante comes up on the demon ferry driver Acheron who tells him and the souls around him "to give up all hope of ever seeing heaven."  Despite that he's reassured by Virgil, board the boat along with all the dead, and before landing on the other side thunder claps.

When he [Virgil] had ended [speaking], the gloomy plain shook
with such force, the memory of my terror
makes me again break out in sweat.
From the weeping ground there sprang a wind,
flaming with vermilion light,
which overmastered all my senses,
and I dropped like a man pulled down by sleep. (III. l. 130-36)

It seems that thunder is so loud that the concussion causes him to drop, or perhaps it's the terror which rises to a crescendo and overcomes him.  Either way, his sense, which have been on edge, have been overwhelmed.

Now let's look at the faint in Canto V.  The pilgrims (Virgil and Dante) are in the first circle where the sinners of lust reside.  This is one of the great and memorable scenes in Inferno.  Dante, after seeing some famous souls in literature and being moved to "pity" so that he almost loses his "senses," comes across the souls of Francesca and her lover Paolo, and asks to hear their tale.  Francesca is more than willing to tell her story.  (By the way, that's a common attribute of most of the souls in hell; they want to tell their story and spin it to how they were either wronged or were trapped into it.)  So Francesca says,

'Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this man with the fair form taken from me.
The way of it afflicts me still.
'Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving,
seized me so strongly with his charm that,
as you see, it has not left me yet.
'Love brought us to one death. (V. l. 100-106)

Notice how she offloads responsibility from herself.  Nixon spoke of Watergate as "mistakes were made," as if he had nothing to do with it.  It's "love" that "seized this man," and "love" that seized her, love that "absolves no one beloved from loving."   Did love make them take off their clothes and do what they did?  How different is the love that Francesca talks about than the love that moved the three ladies in Canto II to come to Dante’s aid.  That chain sequence of love really does show how love moves the universe, but that is true love, caritas, not lust. 

But why does Dante the character faint?  Francesca goes on to explain further.   

'One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
We were alone, without the least misgiving.
'More than once that reading made our eyes meet
and drained the color from our faces.
Still, it was a single instant overcame us:
'When we read how the longed-for smile
was kissed by so renowned a lover, this man,
who never shall be parted from me,
'all trembling, kissed me on my mouth.
A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.
That day we read in it no further.'  (V. l. 127-38)

The book made them do it.  The “book and he that wrote it” was a “Galeotto,” who was the knight go-between in the adultery between Lancelot and Guenivere.  The book and the author were in essence pimps.  And what is Dante?  Among other things, an author of love poetry, a pimp himself.  Dante realizes he has been responsible for bringing people to sin.  What he must have thought as innocent youthful expression has brought people down the very real hell that he is passing through.  And so, this realization shocks him, and he faints from the horror.

Notice also this comes right after Canto IV where he has been immortalized with five of the greatest poets who ever lived.  That was a moment of high honor – some variation of the word “honor” was used seven times in 28 lines.  And now in Canto V, all that honor has been reduced to the disgrace of a pimp.  It’s as if Dante the author needs to bring humility to Dante the character.  


  1. WHO....HOW!?

    Manny, I would need to write at least three books before commenting on this post alone...

    Long story short, I've read all of this post and it looks like you don't need any help... Just continue to remember that most of the souls in hell; they want to tell their story and spin it to how they were either wronged or were trapped into it... some of them will go as far as to even try to reduce God and our Heavenly Mother' Honor as being no more important than a pimp because they can't help themselves. :)


    God Bless you and yours and for what it's worth... keep UP the good words.

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how well read you are.

    God bless.

  3. Thank you both and God bless everyone named Victor. ;)