The first sentence of Dante’s Divine Comedy is, “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” In other words, the Divine Comedy is a product of Dante’s mid-life crisis. He is disappointed in the life he has led thus far. He has an existential crisis and asks himself the “big question” – how should one live?
In the first part of the Divine Comedy, Hell, Dante recounts his imagined descent into the underworld. His story is meant to symbolize the recognition of the ugliness of sin. This recognition is the first step toward purifying the soul.
Because it is an allegory, the Divine Comedy has many ambiguous symbols. For example, the leopard, the she-wolf, and the lion that Dante encounter in the dark wood have been identified by some commentators as symbols for the three types of sins that are punished in Hell – i.e. Fraud, Incontinence, and Violence respectively.
The sinners are punished by a process either resembling or contrasting with the sin itself. This is known as Contrapasso. For example, as the lustful were blown to and fro by their passions in life, so they are punished in Hell by winds that eternally blow them to and fro so that they never rest.
From this part of the Divine Comedy, there is much to be gleaned about the psychology of man. It is a treatise on self-destructive behavior. Regardless of whether hell exists, one would be wise to heed the warning represented by those souls who are incapable of controlling their baser instincts.
It should be noted that the analogy of life as a journey is a destructive one from the perspective of life itself. The main purpose of a journey is the destination. A person who believes that life is a journey to a “better life”, an after life, necessarily degrades this worldly life. Alan Watts brilliantly draws an analogy of life as a work of art rather than a journey. A musical composition is a work of art. The purpose of a musical composition is not to get to the end, but rather to be enjoyed from start to finish. Life is the goal, not a means to a goal.
Below are my summaries of each Canto and quotes that I found particularly interesting. I read the John Ciardi translation.
Canto I – Dante awakens in a Dark Wood after straying from the True Way. He encounters three beasts – a Leopard, a Lion, and a She-Wolf. Turning away from the beasts in fear, Dante meets the Latin poet Virgil, who tells Dante that he will lead Dante through Hell so that he can avoid the three beasts and attain the heights of the mountain – Paradise. “So did I turn, my soul still fugitive from death’s surviving image, to stare down that pass that none had ever left alive.”
Canto II – Dante doubts whether he can attain Paradise and escape the 3 beasts. Virgil assures him that Beatrice and two other divine women have sent Virgil to aid Dante on his journey. “Your soul is sunken in that cowardice that bears down man men, turning their course and resolution by imagined perils.”
Canto III – Dante and Virgil enter through the gates of Hell. The first souls that Dante sees are those who were neither for good nor for evil, but only for themselves. Stung by wasps, the sinners chase a banner continuously. Worms and maggots feast on the blood that trickles down from the wasp stings. Dante swoons at the sight and Charon ferries the two Poets across the Acheron. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” “I had not thought death had undone so many.”
Canto IV – Dante awakens on the other side of Acheron. Hell is funnel shaped with several ledges referred to by Dante as Circles. The 1st Circle is Limbo, where all of the virtuous non-Christians dwell. They are not tormented, but they exist without hope. Dante meets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. He sees the great philosophers – Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, etc. “I pass from light into the kingdom of eternal night.”
Canto V – Minos judges the damned and condemns them to the appropriate Circle of Hell. In the 2nd Circle, the Lustful are punished. Winds sweep them to and fro as their passions swept them to and fro in life. “Love took me so strongly with delight in him that we are one in Hell, as we were above.”
Cano VI – In the 3rd Circle, the Glutton are punished. Freezing rain falls continuously on them. They wallow in putrid filth. This Circle is like a large landfill because Gluttons produced nothing in life but garbage. Cerberus, a 30headed dog, tears the Gluttons with its claws and teeth. “The more a thing is perfect, the more it feels of pleasure and of pain.”
Canto VII – In the 4th Circle, the Hoarders and the Wasters are punished. They push giant boulders against one another. Both cared for nothing but money; and therefore they are burdened with a fruitless task in Hell. Plutus, the Greek god of wealth, is the guardian of this Circle. In the 5th Circle, the Wrathful are punished. They fight amongst themselves in the Stygian marsh. The sullen are entombed beneath the water’s surface. “No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel. The nations rise and fall by her decree. Man’s mortal reason cannot encompass her.”
Canto VIII – Phlegyas ferries the two poets across Styx. Dante reproaches a wrathful soul and wishes to see the soul tortured even more. Virgil encourages Dante’s righteous indignation because disdain for sin is the first step toward perfecting one’s soul. The poets arrive at the City of Dis, but the rebel angels refuse to grant them access to the city. “Who is it that invades Death’s Kingdom?”
Canto IX – The three furies taunt the poets and call for medusa to turn Dante into stone. Virgil covers Dante’s eyes. A Messenger from Heaven finally arrives, scolds the rebel angels, opens the gate, and returns to Heaven. The poets enter the City of Dis and see Heretics (those who deny the immortality of the soul) lying in open coffins that are ablaze. This is the 6th Circle of Hell. “Weigh with good understanding what lies hidden behind the veil of my strange allegory.”
Canto X – Dante speaks with two of the souls that are lying in burning coffins. One soul explains that the damned can see into the future, but cannot see the present or the past. It predicts that Dane will be exiled. The other soul asks Dante why Guido, the living son of the soul, cannot make the journey to Hell since Guido is just as smart as Dante. Dante replies that he reached Hell through the aid of divine powers that Guido has not sought. In other words, intellect alone is insufficient to purify the soul. “When finally you stand before the ray of that sweet lady whose bright eyes see all, from her you will learn the turnings of your way.”
Canto XI – While the poets adjust to the stench before descending into Lower Hell, Virgil explains that the sins of Violence and Fraud are the most hated by God; and therefore those sins are the most severely punished. “Man was meant to labor and to prosper.”
Canto XII – The poets evade the Minotaur and enter the 1st Round of the 7th Circle, where the Violent against Neighbors are boiled in the blood river Phlegethon. Centaurs patrol the river and shoot arrows at souls that try to rise above the boiling blood. Chiron, the leader of the centaurs, orders Nessus to escort the poets across the river. “At his death he plotted his revenge in his own blood.”
Canto XIII – The poets arrive in the 2nd Round – the Wood of the Suicides. The souls of the suicides are encased within thorny trees that are fed upon by Harpies. The souls of those who were violently wasteful of their own possessions are chased by dogs through the thorny wood. “That harlot, Envy, who on Caesar’s face keeps fixed forever her adulterous stare, inflamed all minds against me.”
Canto XIV – The poets arrive in the 3rd Round, where the Violent against God, Nature, and Art are punished. The souls inhabit a Plain of Burning Sand, on which an eternal rain of fire falls. The blasphemers lie supine on the ground. The sodomites run in circles. The usurers huddle together. Virgil tells Dante about a Giant made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and terra cotta (ages of man). The tears of the giant – the sorrows of men – form the rivers of Hell. “Who is that wraith who lies along the rim and sets his face against the fire in scorn so that the rain seems not to mellow him?”
Canto XV – The poets walk through the plain of burning sands along the bank of Phlegethon. Dante recognizes Brunetto, who was a significant influence in Dante’s development as a writer. Brunetto warns Dante that Dante will be persecuted. Dante assures Brunetto that he will stick to his principles despite adversity. “You taught me how man makes himself eternal.” “Let Fortune turn her wheel as she please, I am prepared for Fortune, come what may.”
Canto XVI – The Poets approach a cliff, from which the Phlegethon falls to the 8th Circle. Virgil takes the corded belt that Dane is wearing and tosses it over the edge. In response, a monster flies up toward the poets. “How cautiously a man should breathe near those who see not only what we do, but also have the sense which reads the mind beneath.”
Canto XVII – While Virgil reasons with the monster Geryon, Dante inspects some of the usurers huddled near the edge. The usurers are all intently looking at pouches of money tied around their necks. Dante returns to Virgil. Geryon flies the two poets down to the 8th Circle. “I leaned my head out and stared into Hell.”
Canto XVIII – The 8th Circle is called the Malebolge (evil ditches). In the 1st Bolgia, Panderers and Seducers march past one another and are whipped by horned demons. In the 2nd Bolgia, Flatterers are sunk in excrement. “Look there at that great soul that approaches and seems to shed no tears for all his pain.”
Canto XIX – In the 3rd Bolgia, the Simoniacs (sellers of ecclesiastical favors and offices) are punished. They are placed upside down in the earth with only their feet exposed to the air. Their feet are ablaze. “You know my mind beyond my spoken word.”
Canto XX – In the 4th Bolgia, the Fortune Tellers and Diviners are punished. They march backwards. Their heads are turned to face their backs. “There is no place for pity here. Who is more arrogant within his soul, who is more impious than one who dares to sorrow at God’s Judgment?”
Canto XXI – In the 5th Bolgia, Grafters are submerged in boiling pitch. If the grafters raise their bodies above the pitch, demons tear them to pieces with grappling hooks. Malacoda, the leader of the demons, orders some of the demons to escort the poets to the next Bolgia. “I turned like one who cannot wait to see the thin he dreads, and who, in sudden fright, runs while he looks, his curiosity competing with his terror.”
Canto XXII – While escorting the poets to the next Bolgia, the demons discover a sinner above the pitch and drag him out with their grappling hooks. They tear flesh from the sinner’s arm. The sinner convinces the demons to withdraw from the edge of the pitch so that he can trick his fellow sinners into coming to the surface. When the demons withdraw, the sinner leaps into the pitch. Furious about being deceived, two demons fight one another and land in the pitch. While the other demons organize a rescue party, the poets slip away. “In Church with saints; in the tavern with stewpots.”
Canto XXIII – The poets escape from the devils of the 5th Bolgia by sliding down a slope to the 6th Bolgia, where hypocrites are punished. Weighted down by leaden robes painted gold, the hypocrites slowly walk in a circle. Caiaphas is crucified to a cross on the ground. All the hypocrites walk over him. The poets discover that Malacoda lied to them; all bridges over the 6th Bolgia were destroyed. “They will hunt us down as greyhounds hunt the hare.”
Canto XXIV – The poets climb out of the 6th Bolgia and cross the bridge over the 7th Bolgia, where the Thieves are punished. Reptiles coil around the thieves and bind the thieves’ hands behind their backs. Dante observes one thief burst into flame after the thief is bitten by a reptile. Then the thief painfully reforms from the ashes. “The man who lies asleep will never waken fame, and his desire and all his life drift past him like a dream, and the traces of his memory fade from time like smoke in air, or ripples on a stream.” “Call upon the strength of soul that wins all battles unless it sink in the gross body’s fall.”
Canto XXV – The poets watch reptiles bite the thieves and change forms with them. The thieves are transformed into reptiles and vice versa. This process is eternally recurring. “I can scarce believe it possible, even in Hell.”
Canto XXVI – In the 8th Bolgia, the Evil Counselors are encased in flames. Ulysses tells the poets the story of his death. “Nothing could drive out of my mind the lust to experience the far-flung world and the failing and felicities of mankind.” “Greeks! You were not born to live like beasts, but to press on toward manhood and recognition.”
Canto XXVII – Dane speaks with Guido da Montefeltro, who claims that Pope Boniface VIII convinced him to sin. “Rumor of me reached the ends of the earth.”
Canto XXVIII – In the 9th Bolgia, the Sowers of Discord are punished. A demon hacks away at the sinners with a sword. The sinners march in a circle. Upon returning to the demon, their wounds are healed and they suffer the punishment again. Muhammad is one of the damned. “The language of our sense and memory lacks the vocabulary of such pain.”
Canto XXIX – In the 10th Bolgia, the Falsifiers are punished. Dane speaks with two Alchemists who are scratching off their own skin. “Leave him to his fate among the blind.”
Canto XXX – Dante witnesses the three remaining classes of Falsifiers – Evil Impersonators, Counterfeiters, and False Witnesses. “The Wheel of Fortune spun about to humble the all-daring Trojan’s pride so that both Kin and kingdom were wiped out.”
Canto XXXI – The poets approach the Giants who guard the 9th Circle of Hell. Nimrod is the giant who built the Tower of Babel. Ephialtes and Briareus warred with the gods and are chained. Tityos and Typhon insulted Jove. Antaeus was killed by Hercules. Antaeus places the poets in the 9th Circle. “Where the instrument of intelligence is added to brute power and evil will, mankind is powerless in its own defense.”
Canto XXXII –In the 1st Round of the 9th Circle, those souls who were treacherous to their own kin are punished. This round is called Caina. The sinners are trapped in the frozen lake called Cocytus. Only their heads are above the ice. The 2nd Round is called Antenora, where those souls who were treacherous to their own country are punished. “Better had you been born as goats or sheep.”
Canto XXXIII – The 3rd Round is called Ptolemea, where those souls who were treacherous to their guests or hosts are punished. These sinners lie supine in the ice. The souls of these sinners are cast forth from their bodies when they commit this type of treachery. Possessed by a devil, the body continues to live. “You modern Thebes!”
Canto XXXIV – The 4th Round is called Judecca, where those souls who were treacherous against their masters are punished. From the waist down, Satan is trapped within the icy lake Cocytus. He flaps his wings to escape, but only succeeds in freezing the ice even more. Satan has 3 heads. One head gnaws on Judas Iscariot; another chews on Brutus; and the last head gnaws on Cassius. The poets climb out of Hell on Satan’s back. “We walked out once more beneath the stars.”