Okie dokie everyone, I have decided to embark on the great task of reading Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy without the safety net of teacher/classroom assistance. I've found that there are multitudes of references to this work all over the place, so I figured it would be beneficial to have read it at least once. Now when I read something like this, meaning a work of poetry or a play, it helps me to read it first, then summarize it into how I would explain it to someone who has never read it. So, I thought I would write up some summaries about it on here. The basic format is pretty simple; I'm going to summarize each canto and provide a list of important names, symbols and other information that are essential to understanding it. Here's hoping this doesn't completely blow up in my face...Let's get started...
*Just a note: in case anyone was wondering, I'm reading the John Ciadri translation of the poem, because I don't speak Italian, and according to the front cover, it's "the authoritative translation."
Dante is traveling though some dark woods when he realizes that he is lost. He notices a bright light at the top of a hill and attempts to climb up towards it, but is stopped by three beasts: a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. The beasts attack him when he tries to pass, and this obviously scares Dante, so he retreats back down the hill and into the woods. Once he's at the bottom of the hill, he notices that there is someone else there and calls out to them.
The person turns out to be the shade of Virgil, the Greek poet, and Dante begs that the shade help him get past the animals. Virgil refuses, saying that Dante can't just climb the hill; he has a longer journey to get to the top of the hill. He tells Dante he was sent to lead him back onto the right path, a path that will take him down to Hell, through Purgatory, and if he makes it that far, someone else will lead him through Heaven. Dante agrees and they leave.
Getting lost in the dark woods = Falling off the path of righteousness
Light at the top of the hill = Heaven, righteousness, justice
The Leopard = Malice & Fraud (causing harm to and deceiving others, not physical violence; will be discussed further once they get into the actual circles of Hell)
The Lion = Violence & Ambition (Causing harm to others and yourself, can be physical violence; also will be discussed further)
The She-Wolf = Incontinence (Inability to show restraint; again, will be discussed further)
As to why these animals were used as symbols, there is speculation that Dante used this Bible verse to decide what animals he would use:
a lion out of the wood hath slain them, a wolf in the evening hath spoiled
them, a leopard watcheth for their cities: every one that shall go out
thence shall be taken, because their transgressions are multiplied, their
rebellions strengthened" (Jeremiah 5:6).
*The notes in my translation of the Divine Comedy say that the meaning of the Leopard and the She-Wolf could be switched, as there are legitimate arguments for both*
Dante uses the number three a lot in the Divine Comedy, like the number of cantos for example, Purgatorio and Pardiso both have 33 cantos but Inferno has 34. Since the first canto shows the start of a journey (Dante's attempt to climb the hill) and it's subsequent failure (being blocked by the beasts), the first canto can be seen as a rehearsal for the rest of the poem so I guess the actual journey to Hell is really 33 cantos long.
Virgil = Greek poet, author of the Aeneid, that tells the legend of the Trojan Aeneas and his journey to Rome.
Virgil can't go to Heaven because he died before the Church was established, so by default he has to be in Hell, as he did not receive Salvation through Jesus.
At the end of the first day, Dante starts to worry that he can't handle the journey. In order to help him calm down and convince him he will be alright, Virgil tells him about how the poet was called on to help Dante on his journey. Virgil was in Limbo with the other souls when Beatrice came to him, told him how Dante had wandered off the right path, and asked him to please guide him back. Virgil agrees immediately, but asks why and how she can come down to Hell to get him. She tells him that she is on a mission from the Virgin Mary who, out of concern for Dante's going astray, sent Lucia to get Beatrice. Lucia found her sitting with Rachel and asked how could she not see the trouble Dante was in. Seeing how upset Lucia was, Beatrice immediately set off to find Virgil. Having reached the end of his story, Virgil asks Dante how he can be afraid when he has three important and blessed ladies who are showing concern for him. Dante, realizing that he will be able to make the journey, thanks the ladies and Virgil and declares that they must press on.
Beatrice = Symbol of Divine Love. Divine Love, sometime referred to as agape, is unconditional love and is regularly used to describe love for God. Divine Love is somewhat like Courtly Love, which was what Dante felt for the actual Beatrice, explaining his use of it here.
Virgin Mary = Symbol of Compassion. Used here to emphasize the Virgin Mary's gentleness.
Lucia = The patron saint of eyesight and a symbol of Divine Light. The Italian word of light is "luce" so this explains Dante's choice in character.
Note that there are three divine ladies that are concerned for Dante.
Limbo = First Circle of Hell, explored further in Canto IV
Dante and Virgil reach the Gate to Hell and the poet warns Dante to brace himself for what he is about to witness. Immediately after passing through the Gate, they are met with the first batch of souls. These are the souls of the Opportunists, people who never really chose between good and bad but were only out for themselves. Also among these souls are the angels that didn't choose a side during the Rebellion of the Angels. As punishment for not choosing an allegiance, they are forever chasing a banner that moves constantly from side to side, all the while being stung by hornets and wasps. Dante is able to pick out some notable souls moving about in the fray. After passing the Opportunists, Dante and Virgil arrive at the river Acheron, where Charon the boatman waits to ferry souls across the river and into Hell. Charon recognizes right away that Dante is not dead, but Virgil tells him that it's not his place to question what has been ordered. Dante, overwhelmed by this first glimpse at Hell, faints and doesn't wake up until they have crossed the river and are at the other side.
This is where Dante's version of Hell begins to establish that however someone sinned in life is how they would be forever tortured in Hell. Dante believed that the afterlife was just an extension of how someone behaved during their life.
Rebellion of the Angels = When Lucifer attempted to rebel against God, some angels joined him; these angels are located in the sixth circle. The angels referred to in the vestibule of Hell are the ones who choose neither Heaven nor Lucifer.
Pope Clestine V = One of the souls Dante specifically points out. He was the Pope in 1294, but was convinced by another priest that his immortal soul was in danger because no one could live in the world and not sin. So in order to seclude himself from the world, he gave up the papacy, allowing the other priest to become Pope. (Boniface VIII)
"They yearn for what they fear" = Evidence that Dante feels that people must choose to sin since technically everyone is granted Salvation through the Church, but they have to choose to sin in order to end up in Hell.
Charon = The boatman who ferries the souls of the damned across the river Acheron. The presence of Charon and the river Acheron is an example of Dante working classical pieces of mythology into his version of Hell.
Dante's swoon at the end of the canto is present for two reasons: it provides a transition from this side of the river to the next and illustrates how at first Dante is very much affected by what he sees in Hell, something that will change the deeper into the pit he goes.
So there you have it, the first three cantos of Inferno. Hopefully the summaries provided you with a nice idea of what happened in each canto, and my list of important things helped you understand some of the historical and biblical references, as well as some of the symbolism. Now, obviously I didn't analyze this like an actual scholar, I just hit some of the main points (I really just barely scratched the surface of this) you should know if you're going to go around saying, "Hey, I read the Divine Comedy, I know what's going on in there." I hope to continue with these summaries as long as I don't get thrown into the pit by actual real live literary scholars who are appalled by my fumbling efforts.
The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, The Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Translated by John Ciardi
Dante in Translation - Inferno I, II, III, IV (online Yale course available on Youtube): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO2MPVQsHes
Dark Wood, Cantos 1-2: http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/prologue.html
Inferno study guide: http://www.gradesaver.com/divine-comedyi-inferno/study-guide/section1/
Rebellion of the Angels: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Heaven