David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO Discussion Guide: Canto 1

“Canto 1: The Dark Wood of Error”

  • What is the time in which Canto 1 is set?

The time is just before Good Friday, 8 April 1300.

  • Explain the first 12 lines of the Inferno. What does Dante say in these lines?

We learn these things:

1) Dante the Pilgrim is 35 years old. He is “Midway along the journey of our life” (Musa Inferno 1.1). The Biblical three score and ten years of an average human lifespan is 70 years, so the halfway point is 35 years.

By the way, (Inferno 1.1) means that the line being quoted is line 1 of Canto 1 of the Inferno. I will be using Mark Musa’s translation of the Inferno and John Ciardi’s translation of the Inferno in this book. Remember: If I don’t identify the translator of a passage as John Ciardi, the translator is Mark Musa. The long quotations will mainly be from the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, unless otherwise noted.

2) We learn that Dante the Pilgrim is “in a dark wood” (Musa Inferno 1.2), that he has “wandered off from the straight path” (Musa Inferno 1.3), and that he has strayed from “the path of truth” (Musa Inferno 1.12).

  • Write a character analysis of Dante the Pilgrim as he appears at the beginning of the Inferno.

Dante the Pilgrim in Canto 1 of the Inferno is a sinner in trouble. He is disoriented, and he needs help to get himself out of the “dark wood” (Musa Inferno 1.1) of error. Fortunately, he will get the help he needs.

We aren’t told how Dante gets into the dark wood, but many people get there little by little. It isn’t that they commit some great evil, but that one day they wake up and think, How did I get here? Why am I this kind of person? I didn’t mean to be here.

Sex workers sometimes wonder how they ended up in that profession. Probably very few people make being a sex worker their career of choice.

  • Dante attempts to climb up the hill to the light, but three beasts keep him from reaching the light. Allegorically, what does this mean?

Dante the Pilgrim wants to get out of the dark wood, of course, and he attempts to climb to the sun. Because The Divine Comedyis an allegory, Dante makes the sun a symbol. Here it can be a symbol of God and of truth and of salvation.

Much critical ink has been used interpreting the symbols of the three beasts: the leopard, the lion, and the wolf. In general, we can say that the three beasts represent sins. They may represent the sins of youth, of middle age, and of old age. On the other hand, they may represent the sins that make up the three major classifications of the Inferno: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Or they can represent lust, pride, and cupidity. What seems certain is that these three animals symbolize sin.

The three animals are taken from Jeremiah 5:6. This is the King James version:

6:Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased.

  • Dante tries to reach the light by himself, but he fails. He needs a guide. Dante the Pilgrim’s first guide is Virgil. Who is Virgil?

Virgil, of course, is the author of the Aeneid. He is a writing hero for Dante, who praises him highly and says that he learned about poetic style from him:

“Thou art my master, and my author thou,

Thou art alone the one from whom I took

The beautiful style that has done honor to me.”

(Longfellow 1.85-87)

Virgil is also on a mission from God, by way of a mission from Beatrice. Virgil has been sent to guide Dante out of the dark wood and to another guide who can take him further than Virgil can.

Virgil is a symbol of human reason, which is powerful, but which Dante regarded as less powerful than faith. Dante’s next guide, Beatrice, who represents faith, will take Dante further along on his journey than Virgil (human reason) can. Dante is aware that Virgil, as a pagan, does not know God:

And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,

By that same God whom thou didst never know,

So that I may escape this woe and worse,”

(Longfellow 1.130-132)

Dante, as you would expect, thinks that it is wonderful that his hero, Virgil, is his guide. Although hesitant out of fear, he eventually agrees to go wherever Virgil will lead him.

  • Virgil outlines the three-part journey facing Dante. What are those three parts?

The three parts of the journey are these:

1) The Inferno, where many souls shriek.

2) Purgatory, where souls willingly undergo a purifying fire.

3) Paradise, where the everlastingly blessed dwell.

  • Canto 1 actually introduces the entire Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is comprised of 100 cantos or songs. The first canto is an introduction to the entire Divine Comedy, so we may want to say that the Inferno has 33 cantos, as do the Purgatory and the Paradise.

Numbers are important to Dante. We know of course that three is an important number because it is the number of the Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We see the number three throughout The Divine Comedy; for example, Dante writes tercets: stanzas of three lines.

The number ten is another important number. Ten consists of three Trinities plus one Unity. Why does Dante have 100 cantos in his Divine Comedy? The number 100 consists of ten times ten.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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