Unit Three Section C


The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri
from “Canto I”

Just as Dante loses his way in life, he meets the ancient poet Virgil. Virgil is respected by Dante as a wise man, and is Dante's inspiration. Can Virgil help Dante find the right path once again?


Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, written in 1300, is considered one of the world's greatest poems. In three parts, Dante describes his imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven in his search for salvation. Along the way Dante meets political figures and other well--known people of his time. He also meets famous characters from the past.
The first part, “Inferno,” is the best known of the three parts. It dramatizes Dante's trip through hell. Its purpose is to point out to the living the error of their ways.

from Canto 1

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wgderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.

How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
when I first wandered there from the True Way.

But at the far end of that valley of evil
whose maze had sapped my very heart with fear
I found myself before a little hill

and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
already with the sweet rays of that planet
whose virtue leads men straight on every road,

and the shining strengthened me against the fright
whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
through all the terrors of that piteous night.

Just as a swimmer, who with his last breath
flounders ashore from perilous seas, might turn
to memorize the wide water of his death--

so did I turn my soul still fugitive
from death's surviving image, to stare down
that pass that none had ever left alive.

And there I lay to rest from my heart's race
till calm and breath returned to me. Then rose
and pushed up that dead slope at such a pace

each footfall rose above the last. And Io!
almost at the beginning of the rise
I faced a spotted Leopard, all tremor and flow

and gaudy pelt. And it would not pass, but stood
so blocking my every turn that time and again
I was on the verge of turning back to the wood.

This fell at the first widening of dawn
as the sun was climbing Aries with those stars
that rode with him to light the new creation.

Thus the holy hour and the sweet season
of commemoration did much to arm my fear
of that bright murderous beast with their good omen.

Yet not so much but what I shook with dread
at sight of a great Lion that broke upon me
raging with hunger, its enormous head

held high as if to strike a mortal terror
into the very air. And down his track,
a She-Wolf drove upon me, a starved horror

ravening and wasted beyond all belief.
She seemed a rack for avarice, gaunt and craving.
Oh many the souls she has brought to endless grief!

She brought such heaviness upon my spirit
at sight of her savagery and desperation,
I died from every hope of that high summit.

And like a miser--eager in acquisition
but desperate in self--reproach when Fortune's wheel
turns to the hour of his loss--ah tears and attrition

I wavered back; and still the beast pursued,
forcing herself against me bit by bit
till I slid back into the sunless wood.

And as I fell to my soul's ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long slience.

At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
"Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man," And it replied:

"Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, “sub Julio,” and bred

in Rome under Augustus' in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises' noble son

who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you--why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of joy

which is the seat and first cause of man's bliss?"
"And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?" My voice grew tremulous:

"Glory and light of poets! now may that zeal
and love's apprenticeship that I poured out
on your heroic verses serve me well!

For you are my true master and first author,
the sole maker from whom I drew the breath
of that sweet style whose measures have brought me honor.

See there, immortal sage the beast I flee.
For my soul's salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me."

And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
"He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers

before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was ...

Therefore, for your own good, I think it well
you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried

in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain

souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.

To which, if it is still your wish to climb,
a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide you.
With her shall I leave you, for the King of Time,

who reigns on high, forbids me to come there
since, living, I rebelled against his law.
He rules the waters and the land and air

and there holds court, his city and his throne.
Oh blessed are they he chooses!" And I to him:
"Poet, by that God to you unknown,

lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter's gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell."

And he then: "Follow." And he moved ahead
in slence, and I followed where he led.

Developing Comprehension Skills

1. At the beginning of Canto I where did Dante, the speaker, stray from? Where is he wandering? Describe the place.
2. What hints are given about Dante's life?
3. What seems to give Dante a little hope, and the desire to go on? What might this object represent?
4. Why has Virgil been sent to Dante? Why do you think Dante, as the author, chose Virgil to be his guide in this poem?
5. Virgil was an ancient Roman poet known for his wisdom. How can reason and logic help a person escape from the hell that Dante describes?


The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri
from “Canto III”

Dante and Virgil stand at the doorway to Hell. Although fearful, Dante knows be must follow Virgil if be is to once again find bis way. Who dwells just inside The Gate of Hell?

“The Gate of Hell”




These mysteries I read cut into stone
above a gate. And turning I said: "Master,
what is the meaning of this harsh inscription?"

And he then as initiate to a novice:
"Here must you put by all division of spirit
and gather your soul against all cowardice.

This is the place I told you to expect.
Here you shall pass among the fallen people,
souls who have lost the good of intellect."

So saying, he put forth his hand to me,
and with a gentle and encouraging smile
he led me through the gate of mystery.

Here sighs and cries and wails coiled and recoiled
on the starless air, spilling my soul to tears.
A confusion of tongues and monstrous accents toiled

in pain and anger. Voices hoarse and shrill
and sounds of blows, all intermingled, raised
tumult and pandemonium that still

whirls on the air forever dirty with it
as if a whirlwind sucked at sand. And I,
holding my head in horror, cried: "Sweet Spirit,

what souls are these who run through this black haze?"
And he to me: "These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.

They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves. The High Creator

scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
and Hell will not receive them since the wicked
might feel some glory over them." And I:

"Master, what gnaws at them so hideously
their lamentation stuns the very air?"
"They have no hope of death," he answered me,

“and in their blind and unattaining state
their miserable lives have sunk so low
that they just envy every other fate.

No word of them survives their living season.
Mercy and justice deny them even a name.
Let us not speak of them: look, and pass on."

Developing Comprehension Skills

1. What warning is printed on the Gate of Hell?
2. Virgil explains the warning to Dante. What does he tell Dante to expect in Hell?
3. How does Dante react to what he sees as he enters the gate?
4. What place does Dante find just inside the gate? Why are the souls here not welcome in Heaven or in Hell?
5. Is there any hope for these souls at the Gate of Hell? Do you think their crimes justify this punishment? Explain your answer.

The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri
from “Canto XXVI”

In a lower circle of hell, Dante meets Ulysses. Ulysses tells of his final voyage following the Trojan war. What sins did Ulysses commit? What can Dante learn from him?

from “Canto XXVI”

As many fireflies as the peasant sees
when he rests on a hill and looks into the valley
(where he tills or gathers grapes or prunes his trees)

in that sweet season when the face of him
who lights the world rides north, and at the hour
when the fly yields to the gnat and the air grows dim--

such myriads of flames I saw shine through
the gloom of the eighth abyss when I arrived
at the rim from which its bed comes into view ....

I stood on the bridge, and leaned out from the edge;
so far, that but for a jut of rock I held to
I should have been sent hurtling from the ledge

without being pushed. And seeing me so intent,
my Guide said: "There are souls within those flames;
each sinner swathes himself in his own torment."

"Master," I said, “your words make me more sure,
but I had seen already that it was so
and meant to ask what spirit must endure

the pains of that great flame which splits away
in two great horns, as if it rose from the pyre
where Eteocles and Polynices lay?"

He answered me: "Forever round this path
Ulysses and Diomede move in such dress,
united in pain as once they were in wrath;

there they lament the ambush of the Horse
which was the door through which the noble seed
of the Romans issued from its holy source;

there they mourn that for Achilles slain
sweet Deidamia weeps even in death;
there they recall the Palladium in their pain."

"Master," I cried, "I pray you and
repray till my prayer becomes a thousand--if these souls
can still speak from the fire, oh let me stay

until the flame draws near! Do not deny me:
You see how fervently I long for it!"
And he to me: "Since what you ask is worthy,

it shall be, But be still and let me speak;
for I know your mind already, and they perhaps
might scorn your manner of speaking, since they were Greek."

And when the flame had come where time and place
seemed fitting to my Guide, I heard him say
these words to it: "O you two souls who pace

together in one flame!--if my days above
won favor in your eyes, if I have earned
however much or little of your love

in writing my High Verses, do not pass by,
but let one of you be pleased to tell where he,
having disappeared from the known world, went to die."

As if it fought the wind, the greater prong
of the ancient flame began to quiver and hum;
then moving its tip as if it were the tongue

that spoke, gave out a voice above the roar.
"When I left Circe,"' it said, "who more than a year
detained me near Gaeta long before

Neneas came and gave the place that name,
not fondness for my son, nor reverence
for my aged father, nor Penelope's claim

to the joys of love, could drive out of my mind
the lust to experience the far--flung world
and the failings and felicities of mankind.

I put out on the high and open sea
with a single ship and only those few souls
who stayed true when the rest deserted me.

As far as Morocco and as far as Spain
I saw both shores; and I saw
Sardinia and the other islands of the open main.

I and my men were stiff and slow with age
when we sailed at last into the narrow pass
where, warning all men back from further voyage,

Hercules' Pillars rose upon our sight.
Already I had left Ceuta on the left;
Seville now sank behind me on the right.

'Shipmates,' I said, 'who through a hundred thousand
perils have reached the West, do not deny
to the brief remaining watch our senses stand

experience of the world beyond the sun.
Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes,
but to press on toward manhood and recognition!'

With this brief exhortation I made my crew
so eager for the voyage I could hardly
have held them back from it when I was through;

and turning our stern toward morning, our bow toward night,
we bore southwest out of the world of man;
we made wings of our oars for our fool's flight.

That night we raised the other pole ahead
with all its stars, and ours had so declined
it did not rise out of its ocean bed.

Five times since we had dipped our bending oars
beyond the world, the light beneath the moon
had waxed and waned, when dead upon our course

we sighted, dark in space, a peak so tall
I doubted any man had seen the like.
Out cheers were hardly sounded, when a squall

broke hard upon our bow from the new land:
three times it sucked the ship and the sea about
as it pleased Another to order and command.

At the fourth, the poop rose and the bow went down
till the sea closed over us and the light was gone."

Developing Comprehension Skills

1. What are the flames that Dante sees on the eighth level of hell? What souls are wrapped in these flames?
2. The Greek heroes Ulysses and Diomede are on this level, paying for their crimes in the war against Troy. Why must they suffer together in the split flame?
3. Why did Ulysses leave home the final time, in spite of his love for his wife and son? Where did he travel?
4. How did Ulysses die?
5. Ulysses occupies his spot in hell for the crimes he committed during the Trojan War. Do you think that his punishment is justified? Explain your answer.