The Commedia Home Page

Read Canto I

Introduction to The Inferno

The journey Dante offers us in his Divine Comedy stretches before us from the dark wood of its beginning, down through the chasm of hell, up the terraces of purgatory, and into the spheres of heaven, as a record of a living experience. Opening in bitterness, mounting through hope, and ending in vision, the poet insists that the person he is now, fashioning the poem, is the person who then walked into and out of that other world. His work is more than fiction — the poet insists on this acceptance — it is a literal recapitulation of what happened to him in mind, heart, and spirit.

What happened to him, in turn, is meant to happen to the reader — otherwise, why write the poem? The 14,233 lines are the poet's free gift to the reader: what Dante has already experienced awaits each one who sits down with this journey in words before him or her. He challenges each one to be the wayfarer here and now that he was then and there. First he had to meet the challenge himself, of course, by going back to the experience and putting it all into a poem.

For Dante, there are no apathetic wayfarers: they lie outside hell, purgatory, and heaven; they travel no farther than the third canto. The reader who circles into the inner unknown world of this poet's making finds that one is never alone, however. For Dante speaks, time and again, directly to his reader:

May God so grant you, reader, to find fruit
In your reading: now ponder for yourself
How I could keep the eyes in my head dry ...
                                     (Inferno XX. 19-21)

The invitation to do more than read, to live the journey, motivates every line of the Comedy.

On Good Friday of 1300, Dante began a week of religious experience that transformed his whole life. From near-despair at his own sinfulness — especially his own pride and apathy — he found a hope for change of heart and mind. More than he expected awaited him, for more than reform occurred: he was swept up in vision so that his entire being — before and after — came into focus and he truly converted, turned around, and became another man. Saint Paul, he recalled, had spoken of something similar happening to him: "I knew a man in Christ more than fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) such a one caught up to the third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2). Later Saint Ignatius of Loyola would cast this opportunity for conversion and contemplation in the form of a spiritual retreat. The world had been created in the same span of time and with it man and woman. The creation of the new man and woman should take no longer than that.

Where did this conversion take place? As specific as he is about the time, Dante remains deliberately vague about the location. In his native Florence? In Rome, where Pope Boniface VIII had declared 1300 to be a Jubilee year of special grace? Or in some rural and remote area of Italy that the poet describes so vividly at moments in his journey? The place does matter because for the poet it is a real spot, a crossroad of crisis and decision, but he has sublimated it into anywhere for the reader's sake, since the experience of the journey was — and is — inward, downward, upward, and beyond to a center that is everywhere and a circumference nowhere as in Saint Bonaventure's definition of God.

Dante's Holy and Easter Week vision changed his view of the world which, up to this time, he had worked to reform as a citizen, a soldier, a politician, and a poet. Its failure to live up to Christ's call for love of God and neighbor shocked him, especially in the practices of an official religion that had fallen, politically, militarily, and financially, into the same bad ways of the people whom Christ had sent it to redeem. For Dante, there could be no middle ground, no halfway measures between commitment and compromise. The worst sins loomed as the systematic evils of everyday life, the taking of bribes, selling of church goods and offices, the deceit, scandal, and treachery on which the century thrived. Italy lay in shambles because of the crass pettiness of important leaders in Church and state.

Total honesty, candor, openness, these virtues Dante now saw to be the fruits of the searing and uplifting call that he had heard and heeded. Ironically, he was soon to become the victim of all the vices opposed to these virtues. He would be exiled from his beloved Florence, sentenced to death in his absence, allowed only later to return if he would confess to a list of the offenses he lived to despise. He refused. How would he lie about his own person? Like Saint Thomas More he knew that his own conscience would act as his final judge. That conscience few men have honed to such a sharp edge of sureness, steadiness, and pointed truth.

Such is the confidence of saints and seers. Dante's vision in that way was like Paul's — although in canto two he demands that we not compare him to that Chosen Vessel — since the event left him another man, a self within his still weak and fallible ego. Having known profoundly the purifying of consciousness beyond all thought and emotion, the flight of the mystics, Dante for the next dozen years lived with the memory of emptiness, searching, and filling with light. Perhaps other glimpses and moments came back to him -- still that week remained as the turning point in his life when, at thirty-five, halfway through the traditional lifespan of seventy years, he woke to find himself deep in a darkened forest and ended moving with the sun and the other stars in utter harmony with Love: "But to describe the good discovered there / I here will tell the other things I saw."

Dante did not rush to begin writing down what he had seen. The experience, he reminds us, was beyond his own or anyone's expression. How could words describe or picture what it had been like for the self to harrow the depths of human existence, to rid itself of egotism, and to be filled with joy in the presence of the unseen Trinity of Love, Loving, and Loved? No one before had dreamed of putting his own inner autobiography in prose or poetry. Saint Augustine had offered the events in a chronology of outward events leading to an interior ascent to God and he addressed his book to his Maker; but Dante's experience was entirely different: he was a man of another age, temperament, and vision.

Initially, the poet turned not into himself, but to the experience of the learned minds of the past. He began writing the Convivio or The Banquet, an invitation to his Tuscan readers to feast at the table of knowledge: political, ethical, and above all philosophical wisdom which might give direction to the present. Written in his native Italian rather than in Latin, the work was to cover fourteen parts, but Dante only completed the introduction and the first three sections. What had he in mind in attempting this compendium of the learning of the ancient pagan and Christian traditions? The Banquet reveals a great deal about Dante: it is the work of a Christian gnostic, as Clement of Alexandria portrayed him, "the perfecting of man as man, by acquaintance with divine character, life, and word, conforming to itself and to the divine Word" (Stromata VII, 10). The gnostic or knower reaches out to embrace the whole, not as a specialist or theorist, but to live knowledge and to share its fruit with others. The gnostic is not a mystic, but yearns to be one with divine things. Of course, the mystic may be a gnostic, for both are swept up with the longing to make the hidden known, the invisible seen, the unimaginable imaged-forth, and the inexpressible worded. The mystic fulfills what the gnostic seeks to impart; the one possesses in a moment what the other searches in a lifetime.

Gnosticism and mysticism have a common goal: the secret knowledge of God. From the early Middle Ages up to the sixteenth century, as David Knowles observes, this meaning of mysticism as the sight of things unseen drew its currency from the title of Dionysius the Areopagite's Theologia Mystica, translated by an English mystic as Denis Hid Divinity. The difference, then, between Christian Gnosticism and Mysticism is one of degree: faith gives way to a totally new kind of knowing, given and received at the deepest levels of the personality. Through the gate one passes on to travel out of one's own orbit and into an entirely other dimension. Again, one is not alone: another guides:

And with that, putting his own hand in mine,
With smiling face, just to encourage me,
He led me to things hidden from the world.
                                   (Inferno III, 19-21)

Before Dante thought of writing his poem years later, the vision was already wholly his. In the months immediately after Easter Week he turned not to the religious life but to the political turmoil of Florence. On June 15, 1300, he became one of the six Priors appointed to rule the city. While his term lasted only two months, he made some personally hard decisions. To settle the civil war between Dante's own White Guelph party and the hostile Black Guelphs, the priors banished leaders of both factions. Among the White Guelphs forced to leave was Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's close friend and fellow poet. In a few months Guido sickened in exile and, allowed to return to Florence, died shortly afterwards. After his term in office, Dante took on even more serious commitments and, while on a mission of appeal to Pope Boniface VIII for peace, learned in November of 1301 that he had been exiled in his absence. In early 1302 he was accused of bribery, trafficking in offices, and other crimes, punishable not only by banishment but burning at the stake.

Not the road of service to his brother and sister wayfarers lay before him, as he had envisioned it, but another road stretched ahead, physically more painful and exhausting, of literal exile, without his family, his home, friends, or library. Under such hardships, undertaking at least three prose works and completing his Comedy show that the inspiration to reach the minds and hearts of others had not changed: it simply assumed a new shape and purpose. What he could not accomplish by his personal presence and actions, he would achieve through the pen. He would reach the men and women of Italy in their own tongue and on his terms, not on theirs.

Two problems confront us today in reading the Divine Comedy as an account of a real inner experience (Dante's contemporaries did not have these problems): the prejudice that poetry like myth is purely fictitious and the shocked feeling that many scenes of the Inferno are too cruel and even mean-spirited. The first misunderstanding dates back to Plato's dismissal of poets from his ideal Republic because they imitate illusions rather than reality. Plato himself expressed the true possibilities for poetic myth in his Phaedrus and he was a poet himself — when he shows that myth, rightly inspired, may embody the archetypal Good. His student Aristotle went further in the Poetics by arguing that true imitation is more important, moving, and actual than ordinary experience. For Dante the fruition of his conversion was not to be found in the rationalistic approach of The Banquet but in an inspired Comedy. The creative self in him had to overcome the dynamic and practical, or orient that activity back to the East, the moment of dawn when his life moved out of the dark woods and into the light. The right-side of his brain, the image-making and intuitive force, had to dominate in this most reasonable and methodical of men -- or rather, the two sides had to fuse and answer the higher call, the summons of the Muses, his muses, the three female spirits of his original vision.

In Canto II of the Inferno, Dante reveals the eternal origin of his historic journey. He has his guide Virgil say that Beatrice -- the poet's love of his younger and idealistic years — came to him on the poet's behalf at the request of Saint Lucia, patron saint of light and seeing, who in turn was responding to a plea from the Virgin Mary. Dante quotes Virgil who quotes Beatrice who quotes Mary and Lucia — a quotation within a quotation within a quotation — as circles inside circles take us to the heart of the poem. At the beginning we touch the end: in an instant there becomes here.

The inspiration of the moment is already complete before it comes to the poet's listening; he has been called before he answers. Notice that the links are all conversations, for the poem itself progresses in a series of interviews, face to face, until the final encounter with God in the human person of his Son. Notice, too, that this trinity of feminine requests begins and ends after the poem itself has opened, when panic has already driven the pilgrim back from the barren slope, thwarted by the three beasts that blocked his way: the leopard of greed, the lion of violence, and the she-wolf of intemperance. But heaven acts quickly to save the pilgrim. What starts at the celestial heights spirals down to hell with the speed of light to bring Virgil immediately to Dante's side while he is still breathless and baffled on the hillside.

Although the poet's journey — from the darkened forest to a never-ending vision of God — takes only a week, from Good Friday to Thursday of Easter Week, the actual writing of the Comedy took years, years of painstaking labor, as we have seen, without a settled home or place to study and create. What sustained Dante and made it possible for him to conceive such a task and to carry it out? The poem would be in three parts, corresponding to the three stages of the soul's ascent to God through purgation, illumination, and unity, and to the nature of God himself, the justice of the Father, the redemption through the Son, and the love from the Holy Spirit. Dante fashioned a new poetic form in his rhyming cantos, thirty-three for each canticle and one to introduce the entire work — a total of one hundred. He invented a new rhyme scheme to achieve this unity, the terza rima, an interlocking pattern to keep the flow of lines moving from stanza to stanza until the final end rhyme for each canto, each canticle, the full poem had been reached in the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. The pattern rose up from deep within his consciousness, but, still, what sustained him to attempt such a poem?

The answer lies in the beginning of the poem in the triple summons Dante received on that Good Friday of 1300, a Jubilee year of graces and blessings. Only when the poet rediscovered Beatrice — not as the innocent fascination of his childhood and adolescence, but as the mature, life-in-death wellspring of his own deep inner life — when he found in her the way to symbolize and express the visionary journey, only then could he resolve to write as a poet and to live as a man the power of the original vision. The second canto, then, really does reveal the origin of Dante's quest through the intercession of Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice. At last he was able to answer the invitation and begin to write the poem, the whole work before him already known and possessed, just waiting to be told, flowing from him like a river of words.

The wellspring of Beatrice held the sources of the mystical life. She possessed the beatific vision since she was already in the presence of the light seen here only through a glass darkly. She lived in Dante now — his higher, deeper self. He had known her in life and loved her: now he would know and love her in death, beyond death, in herself as a mirror of divine Light. With this consciousness —crystallized at the deepest level of being — of spiritual realities, of the individuality of God discovered in another human being, and of the three divine persons ever present within his one soul — the trinity of women reflecting the Trinity of God — the mystic becomes sensitive to spiritual beings of all sorts. An awareness of evil grows with an appreciation of the Good. After one has been swept into the third heaven, the earth wears a darker look.

After Dante had the vision that concludes his Comedy — the title simply means his work has a happy ending and not a tragic one — then the process of seeing the world again from within and out into its borders of history began for the poet. Saint Anthony in the desert beset by demons in animal shapes, Saint Ignatius of Loyola later at Manresa ready to hurl himself down into a black hole in his cave, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in modern times enduring years of unrelieved aridity, these hint at the other dark side of the moon of reflected divine light. Jesus' own mission begins in the wilderness of afflicting temptation and ends with the desolation and abandonment of Gethsemane and Golgotha.

The mystic's journey follows the road of Dante's Comedy and, while it does not always begin in the Inferno, it never leaves that vision of human selfishness behind, for the saint rightly protests that he or she is the greatest of sinners. It is an easy matter to dismiss these statements as simple-hearted, saintly hyperbole, but the vision of the mystic reaches to the depths of evil within each heart, often inspiring the visionary to a denunciation and prophetic indignation at least equal to Dante's. As Georges Bernanos observed for us, the problem today has more to do with our cavalier sense toward Satan and sinning than with modem materialism or its drive for progress. We have to discover the communion of sinners if we are to reach the communion of saints. It takes a visionary to see the wealth of wicked transfigurations that permeate any given culture — and some eras, as Dante suggests, are much worse than others.

Along with the disappearance of God, we need to remark on the disappearance of the devil. Students to whom I teach the Divine Comedy inevitably state their preference for the Inferno; the images seem to rise right out of their own rock albums, comic books, television programs, and movies. What we miss seeing is what Anthony, Ignatius, Thérèse, and Dante saw: these demons issue from the black hole of the human heart, from the dense and rugged terrain of lost spiritual purpose, from the center where ice has formed in our love for one another and for God. When Dante finally approaches Satan in the pit of Cocytus, he compares him — it seems innocuous enough — to a windmill. Lucifer's wings stir a freezing breeze; it is the only movement in this treacherous world. In our descent, the journey makes us aware that the pilgrim grows heavier and firmer as he travels on, and the world around him becomes also longer to walk, darker, tighter-bound, and colder. Satan is the absolute essence of hell, the heaviest, largest, coldest, darkest, and fiercest thing that exists. He is completely mechanical, like a windmill, but instead of being a source of purposeful energy, he devours human lives. The worst sin imaginable is betrayal. And Lucifer — as Dante demonstrates — has betrayed us all.

The mystic encounters this satanic force face to face. As Saint John of the Cross tells us in his Dark Night of the Soul: "When there is a naked contact of spirit with spirit, the horror is intolerable which the evil spirit causes in the soul" (11, 2,3). The Inferno offers us a chain of naked contacts with sinners who have become the sin that they chose instead of its opposite virtue: the lustful lost all sense of purity; the gluttons forgot self-restraint; the wasters and miserly refused to moderate their use of possessions; the wrathful never calmed down long enough to enjoy the peace of patience. All these suffering souls occupy the first level of hell for the intemperate or incontinent. The rest of human sinfulness the poet graciously outlines for his readers in Canto XI, and he provides a much better plan than any explication or paraphrase which the critic or scholar or translator has managed to muster up.

Virgil, of course, makes the presentation because he has been down there before — for pagans too can know the harrowing effects of wickedness and long for a virtuous life. Virgil, too, as the voice of reason, offers interpretations that are precise and pointed. The reader, in fact, in search for guidance and a map of some kind — Dante, thank heaven, drew none for he left it to our imagination to recreate his inner world — can find immense help in reading the Inferno by going over Canto XI from time to time as a reminder of the whole pattern that stretches down beneath until it reaches the center.

By now the reader should perceive that not only does Dante's poem have a circular structure: down through the hollow cone of hell, up along the winding terraces of purgatory, and straight up into the whirling spheres of heaven, but that reading the poem must be a circular experience. Since Dante the poet only started to write after Dante the man had looked into the Circle and Center of God, so the reader has no linear work to read in order to get through and finish the poem. The Comedy intends us to find our way through its labyrinth in as many ways as there are readers, by returning to the beginning at the end, by studying one sin or one virtue or one saintly example intently, by comparing one canto with its parallel in another canticle, by turning back as well as forward, by moving around within the poem until we know every stone and leaf of the landscape and every intonation of the human voices that call out to speak to us.

Such is the ideal reader Dante has in mind. In a sense, James Joyce in our century expected the same dedication and response. Amazingly, both authors have received such readership. But Dante does not have the specialist or scholar in mind as, perhaps, Joyce must, given the nature of his temperament and times. No, Dante wanted the Tuscans of his day to see as he had seen the distortions sin causes in our makeup as human beings, the beauty that the practice of virtue fashions in the human spirit, and the joy that peering beyond our small world into the vast rose of the universe brings to the beholder. And if the Tuscans of his day refused to follow him seriously, then the poet hoped that generations ahead would see his vision of Beatrice: the possibility of rising in this life above petty self-indulgence, violence, and greed.

The way to vision is a negative way, as the mystics have shown us, a journey into not-knowing, isolation, error and trial. No one wrote the poem for Dante, and no one will read it in your place. The other side of gnostic insight, guidance, and assurance is the absence of all these as we go:

Silent, solitary, without escort
We walked along, one behind the other
Like minor friars traveling the road.
                       (Inferno XXIII, 1-3)

The same sense of traveling the road alone opens the journey into the underworld, as the wayfarer sets out in Canto II, the beginning of the Inferno after the prologue to the Comedy itself. As evening falls, the pilgrim readies himself for what lies before him, confident of what he knows in his own mind and feels in his heart:

Day was now fading, and the dusky air
Released the creatures dwelling here on earth
From tiring tasks, while I, the only one,

Readied myself to endure the battle
Both of the journey and the pathos,
Which flawless memory shall here record.
                                    (Inferno II, 1-6)

This sense of solitude in life is the hidden secret of the poem. For what immediately awaits the reader is utterly devoid of solitude. The descent first confronts us not with sights but wailing and screaming swirling up out of the pit. In the crowded cramping of hell, no privacy exists. Even the most isolated there, Judas, Cassius, and Brutus, each being chewed in the jaws of Lucifer, have one another and the eternal claustrophobia of hellmouth. They are inside Satan himself, the most intimate and terrible of punishments. Above them, souls are harried, whipped, whirled in the wind, boiled in blood, muck and excrement, beaten, torn, stuffed, turned into serpents or trees, pronged, peeled, burned, and caked in ice.

The drama of these tortures should not distract us from the inner drama of the wayfaring soul. At the bottom of the universe, in Antenora among those who have been treacherous to their homeland, Dante tells us of people locked in ice:

After that I saw a thousand faces so
Purpled by cold that a shivering still
Grips me, and it always will, at frozen ponds.
                              (Inferno XXXII, 70-72)

Dante reminds us that it is the world of our own seasons and living that concerns him and that the memory he has of these events is now to be ours. Out of his own solitude, he speaks to ours, reminding us that the only difference between the people here and there is death.

The damned are never alone and they have been denied the greatest privacy of all — that of their own death: "These people have no hope of again dying." Dante's poem, then, is the mystic's experience beyond death, the glory of vision and the agony of not yet being partaker completely in that beatitude. It is the most Christian of poems because it is grounded in the resurrection, and not simply as life after death but as the presence of the risen life already in lives transformed by grace. There has become here, then is now.

"Halfway in the journey we are living" — each reader sets out on the same road. Dante begins his poem not with "I" but "we". The darkness and light take shape within each self, the voices reach only these ears, and the images form only to these eyes. After writing the Comedy, the poet himself became another reader like the rest of us. We join him in meeting that world he left behind him. And who would not be glad, even in hell, to encounter Farinata, Brunetto Latini, Ulysses, or Count Ugolino? And what a good guide Dante is, urging the reader onward, with Virgil by his side, the author and sustainer of the journey.

We are the company we keep in our reading. Thanks to Dante, each of us is welcomed to that company, as he pictures his own reception among the poets he had read and loved: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and, of course, Virgil himself. Each reader can say of that time and moment:

This way we walked together toward the light,
Speaking of things as well unmentioned here
As there it was as well to speak of them.
                             (Inferno IV, 103-105)

Dante creates a new conversation with each reader he meets, speaking of things unmentioned in his lines, but part of what reading does is to impart such secrets to each person setting out in solitude along that winding path.

May this translation, reader, help you to read more carefully and clearly the lines — and between the lines — of the Divine Comedy. For helping me prepare it, I want to thank friends and colleagues and a patient family, all who gave me encouragement and assistance, particularly Professor Charles Franco who has unstintingly supported the work for over a decade. My greatest debt is to Frederick Morgan who made many specific suggestions which I have followed. I have relied also on the scholarship and guidance of commentators and critics in attempting to make each line the closest possible imitation of the original. For my failure to do so, I alone am responsible. For my successes, I again acknowledge my gratitude to all the people mentioned here.

For this new edition, I have made numerous changes and corrections in the text and the expanded notes. Again, I am deeply indebted to Professor Charles Franco for his help in preparing this revision and its Web site


Dante Alighieri — born in Florence in 1265 under the sign of Gemini, probably some time in the last two weeks of May. In 1274, on May Day, he meets Beatrice Portinari, daughter of a wealthy Florentine family. Nine years later, in 1283, they meet again, and Beatrice speaks to him for the first time. Dante — whose mother had died when he was in infancy — comes of age after his father's death. On June 11, 1289, he takes part in the battle of Campaldino in which the Guelphs of Florence and Lucca defeat the Ghibellines of Arezzo and Pisa. The next year Beatrice dies and a few years later Dante marries Gemma Donati, also of an old and prominent Florentine family. Dante begins his philosophical studies and develops the "sweet new style" of poetry; both aspects of his talent result in his writing the prose-verse book Vita Nuova (The New Life) which examines his relationship to Beatrice. In 1295, after meeting Charles Martel, Dante enters political life in Florence, becoming a member of the People's Council of the Commune. In the Jubilee year of 1300, during Holy and Easter Week, Dante experiences a profound conversion. On June 15 he is elected one of six Priors of the city. To settle civil strife between the White Guelphs, Dante's own party, and Black Guelphs, the priors banish leaders of both sides. In November of 1301, Dante joins an embassy to Rome in an appeal to Boniface VIII to stop Charles of Valois from taking control of Florence. Still on his mission, Dante learns of a sentence of exile against him, dated January 27, 1302. In March, banishment, under pain of death, is made permanent. Between 1304 and 1308, Dante writes portions of the Convivio (The Banquet) and De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the Vulgar Tongue), both left unfinished. In 1310, Emperor Henry VII, with the support of Pope Clement V, arrives in Italy, and Dante welcomes him with a letter of enthusiastic approval. By 1312, however, Clement had withdrawn support, and in the next year Henry died. At this time Dante is writing his De Monarchia (On Monarchy), a treatise in behalf of the Ghibelline cause and the central power of the Holy Roman Emperor in temporal matters. Around 1312 he begins writing his Divine Comedy which occupies him until the end of his life. Up to this time he has made numerous efforts to have his sentence repealed, but in 1311 he is excluded from general amnesty offered to the Whites. In 1316 he refuses to return to Florence on the condition that he admit his guilt. Dante spends these years of exile mostly in Romagna, then in Ravenna. He stays at the court of Can Grande della Scala of Verona to whom he dedicates the Paradise and writes him a letter on how to interpret the poem. In September 1321, after becoming ill on a diplomatic mission, Dante dies in Ravenna.

arrowright_anie.gif (691 bytes)go to Inferno I