Dante’S InfernoBrian Bozarth Bozarth 1
English IV ? 6
December 6, 2000
Dante Aleghieri was born in Florence Italy in 1265. In his life he composed many great works of literature, but two stood out among the rest: ?La Vita Nuova? and ?The Comedy.? ?La Vita Nuova? is a collection of his sonnets, love poems, and lyrics. ?The Comedy? is an epic poem broken down into three different parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paridisio; Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The first section is the Inferno (Hell), in which Dante is sent to observe since he cannot ascend the Mountain of Virtue. He could not go up The Mountain of Virtue because three beasts stood in his way: the leopard of malice and fraud, the lion of violence and ambition, and the she wolf of incontinence (Ciardi 27). Dante cannot ascend the mountain because they are the sins he cannot conquer without the help of God. Guided by his friend and fellow poet Virgil, they travel throughout the various pouches and circles of Hell. ?The Inferno? is a landmark in the development in European language and literature, for it stands as one of the greatest poems of all time. It’s poetic beauty and the views and themes it encompasses is virtually unmatched by any other medieval poem. In reading ?The Inferno? one notices three major themes. First there is the eternal justice of God, in which Dante gives each sinner his due by paying or perfecting the sins they committed in life; the
punishment always fits the crime. Secondly we see the eternal glory of Rome as the head of separate but equal bodies of church and state; Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar (spark notes). Last is the eternal danger of politics, which brought many if not most of the sinners to Dante’s hell (spark notes).in 1302 Dante was exiled by the leaders of the Black Guelphs, the political faction in power at the time. We see many of these people in Dante’s Inferno. One could say Dante got the ultimate revenge.
The journey of Dante through hell, in both its structure and content symbolizes the nature of sin and punishment (Chuck III’s College Resources). Dante uses the punishment of sins to show the eternal justice of God. There are two types of punishments Dante gives the sinners in ?The Inferno?. The first type he borrows from various gruesome and cruel forms of medieval torture and the second type is Dante’s creative and imaginative punishments for sins. The borrowed torturous forms of punishment create physical and bodily pain for the sinner and designed to be interpreted literally; where the creative punishments are used to cause mental and psychological pain and meant to be understood as a metaphor. It is also possible for creative punishment to cause mental and physical pain to the sinner (Digital Dante).
Some of the punishment Dante gives his sinners is borrowed from medieval torture and imprisonment. Medieval prisons were often dark dank disease ridden rooms that smelled like urine, body odder, and rotten flesh, in which naked or ragged men were chained to the walls or floors (Digital Dante). Dante used this dark dank feeling to describe the overall atmosphere in ?The Inferno.?
The first cruel punishment is the one for heresy. The medieval punishment for heresy usually was public humiliation followed by a burning at the stake (Ciardi 95). For Dante the heretic was someone who believed what they wanted to and not be the doctrine of the ?Holy Roman Catholic Church.? Dante punished the heretics by being ?ensepulchered? (put in tomb) and to have them heated (Ciardi 95). This was similar to having them imprisoned and burned. Since heretics did not believe in life after death they were ironically burned alive in a tomb for all eternity. Now they know what it is to die eternally:
? ?O lofty power who through these impious gyres
lead me around as you see fit’, I said,
?I want to know, I want to understand:’
the people buried there in sepulchers,
can they be seen? I mean since all the lids
are off the tomb and no one stands guard.’
And he: They will forever be looked up,
They will return here from Jehosephat
With the bodies they have left up in the world.
The private cemetery on this side
Serves Epicurus and his followers,
Who make the soul die when the body dies
(Musa 81). This is a more physical punishment to be translated literally.
One of the most disgusting punishment is the inferno is the one of the flatterers. As Dante and Virgil are walking across a bridge, Dante looks down and sees the flatterers plunged in excrement. Keep in mind that this is meant to be more physical than mental:
Steaming from the pit, a vapour rose
Over the banks, crusting them with a slime
That sickened my eyes and hammered my nose.
That chasm sinks so deep we could not sight
Its bottom anywhere until we climbed
Along the rock arch to its greatest height.
Once there, I peered down; and I saw long lines
Of people in a river of excrement
That seemed the overflow of the world’s latrines
(Ciardi 161). The irony here is, since in life the sinner spewed excrement from his mouth to flatter people while he was alive, he will have to lie in excrement for all eternity. This was a known practice in medieval torture (Digital Dante).
Simonists are ones who use their power in the church to acquire money and wealth (Ciardi 166). There are two descriptions of punishment of simonists. The first one is described by the author John Robinson as: a man would be chained down to a bare bed with his feet hanging off the edge, and then his feet would be burned by red hot charcoals. The second is to be buried head down in the sand alive with the sinners feet exposed to the air: ?those soles of every sinners feet, and then the legs up to the calf ? the rest stuffed inside? (Musa 154). It’s like a reverse baptismal. When a baby is born it is dipped head first in the water; feet exposed to the air. In the same way Dante shows this reverse baptismal after death.
In the sixth bolgia of the eighth circle of hell we see the hypocrites (Ciardi 195). For being a hypocrite in Dante’s hell one would be made to wear a lead cape. This punishment Dante borrows from the court of Emperor Fredrick II. Fredrick was well known for his lead capes. Dante’s capes were brightly colored and gleaming on the outside while lead underneath. Fredrick used his capes to punish treason in much the same way Dante used the capes to punish hypocrisy. The cloaks are a metaphor for the hypocrite characters; they are not what they seem to be.
These examples of punishment are all physically agonizing. Dante borrowed all of these from medieval forms of punishment. These punishments were meant by Dante to be interpreted literally. On the other hand there are Dante’s creative punishments are to be taken metaphorically. It is possible for the more creative punishments to inflict mental and physical pain.
One of Dante’s more creative punishments is the one for the lustful. The lustful are members of the sinners if incontinence, are doomed to spend all eternity swirling in a violent tempest (Ciardi 61). Although they are subject to physical discomfort, the real punishment is psychological. Since these sinners were not able to control their desire in life or internal control, they are now condemned to a lack of external control forever. This is the difference between the more literal and metaphorical punishments.
One last example of Dante’s punishments is the punishment for the fortune tellers. In Canto XX Dante describes a procession of mute and weeping bodies who had their heads on backwards; they had to walk backwards to be able to see in front of them (Ciardi 174). In Dante’s time fortunetellers were considered the lowest class of people, they were considered blasphemers and heretics. They were doomed to mourn in a procession walking backward forever. To claim to be able to see the future Dante made it so they wanted to see in front of them they have to walk backwards and if they want to walk forward they have to look behind them. Although less painful, it is very psychologically damaging.
Through these types of punishments we can see how truly horrible hell is. Dante always come up with a punishment to coincide perfectly with the sin; the punishment always fits the crime, thus illustrating the eternal justice of God. Whether the punishments were to be interpreted literally or nor all are truly and equally agonizing. The inferno is truly one of the greatest works of literary art. It
deals with one of the greatest questions of humanity: the existence of an after life and the consequences of sin on earth.