Halfway through his life, DANTE THE PILGRIM wakes to find himself lost in the dark wood. Terrified at being alone in so dismal a valley, he wanders until he comes to a hill bathed in sunlight, and his fear begins to leave him. But when he starts to climb the hill his path is blocked by three fierce beasts: first a LEOPARD, then a LION, and finally a SHE-WOLF. They fill him with fear and drive him back down to the sunless wood. At that moment the figure of a man appears before him; it is the shade of VIRGIL, and the Pilgrim begs for help. Virgil tells him that he can not overcome the beasts which obstruct his path; they must remain until a GREYHOUND comes who will drive them back to Hell. Rather by another path will the Pilgrim reach the sunlight, and Virgil promises to guide him on that path through Hell and Purgatory, after which another spirit, more fit that Virgil, will lead him to Paradise. The Pilgrim begs Virgil to lead on, an...
d the Guide starts ahead. The Pilgrim follows.
- View a Picture of Dante Lost in the Dark Wood
- View a Picture of The Lion Confronting Dante
Notes on Canto I
Early critics of Dante thought that the three beasts that block the Pilgrims path as symbolising three specific sins: lust, pride and avarice, but it may be that they represent the three major divisions of Hell. The spotted leopard represents Fraud and reigns over the Eighth and Ninth Circles, where the Fraudulent are punished. The Lion symbolises all forms of Violence, which are punished in the Seventh Circle. The she-wolf represents the different types of Concupiscence or Incontinence, which are punished in Circles Two to Five. In any case the beasts must represent the three major categories of human sin, and they threaten Dante the Pilgrim, the poets symbol of mankind.
It is impossible to understand all of the allegory in the First Canto without having read the entire Comedy because Canto I is, in a sense, a miniature of the whole, and the themes that Dante introduces here will be the major themes of the entire work. Thus this canto is perhaps the most important of the entire work.
This Canto explains that Dante must choose another road because, in order to arrive at the Divine Light, it is necessary first to recognise the true nature of sin, renounce it, and do penance for it. Virgil in his role of Reason or Human Wisdom, is of course the means through which man may come to an understanding of the nature of sin. With Virgil-Reason as his guide, Dante the Pilgrim will come to see the penance imposed on the repentant sinners on the Mount of Purgatory.
The moral landscape of Canto I is tripartite, reflecting the structure of The
Divine Comedy itself. The dark wood suggests the state of sin in which Dante the Pilgrim finds himself, and therefore is analogous to Hell, through which Dante will soon be travelling. The barren slope that Dante attempts to limb suggests the middle ground between evil and good, which men must pass through before they reach the sunlight of love and blessedness at the mountains peak. It is therefore analogous to Purgatory, the subject of the second part of the Comedy. The blissful mountain bathed in the rays of the sun is the state of blessedness, toward which man constantly strives, described in the third canticle, the Paradise.
But the Pilgrim begins to waver; he expresses to Virgil his misgivings about his ability to undertake the journey proposed by Virgil. His predecessors have been AENEAS and SAINT PAUL, and he feels unworthy to take his place in their company. But Virgil rebukes his cowardice, and relates the chain of events that led him to come to Dante. The VIRGIN MARY took pity on the Pilgrim in his despair and instructed SAINT LUCIA to aid him. The Saint turned to BEATRICE because of Dantes great love for her, and Beatrice in turn went down into Hell, into Limbo, and asked Virgil to guide her fiend until that time when she herself would become his guide. The Pilgrim takes heart at Virgils explanation and agrees to follow him.
Notes on Canto II
The second major movement of Canto II includes Virgils explanation of his coming to the Pilgrim, and the subsequent restoration of the latters courage. According to Virgil, the Virgin Mary, who traditionally signifies mercy and compassion in Christian thought, took pity on the Pilgrim in his predicament and set in motion the operation of Divine Grace. Saint Lucia, whose name means light, suggests the Illuminating Grace sent for by the Blessed Virgin; without Divine Grace the Pilgrim would be lost. Beatrice, whose name signifies blessedness or salvation, appears to Virgil in order to reveal to him the will of God, who is the ultimate bestower of Divine Grace. The three heavenly ladies balance the three beats of Canto I; they represent mans salvation from sin through Grace, as the beasts represent mans sins. The Pilgrims journey then, actually starts in Paradise when the Blessed Virgin Mary takes pity on him. Thus the action of The Divine Comedy is in one sense a circle that begins in Heaven, as related here, and will ultimately end in Heaven with the Pilgrims vision of God in the closing canto.
As the two poets enter the vestibule that leads to Hell itself, Dante sees the inscription above the gate:
- I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY,
- I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL GRIEF,
- I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN RACE.
- JUSTICE IT WAS THAT MOVED MY GREAT CREATOR;
- DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME,
- AND HIGHEST WISDOM JOINED WITH PRIMAL LOVE.
- BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
- WERE MADE, AND I SHALL LAST ETERNALLY.
- ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER.
Dante hears the screams of anguish from the damned souls. Rejected by God and not accepted by the powers of Hell, the first
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