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Dante’s Inferno, itself one piece of a literary trilogy, repeatedly deploys the leitmotif of the number three as a metaphor for ambiguity, compromise, and transition. A work in terza rima that details a descent through Nine Circles of Hell, The Inferno encompasses temporal, literary, and political bridges and chasms that link Dante’s inspired Centaur work between the autobiographical and the fictive, the mundane and the divine and, from a contemporary viewpoint, the Medieval and the Modern Dante’s recognition of the Renaissance as our millennium’s metamorphic period and of himself as its poetic forerunner (until deposition by Shakespeare).
The Inferno is a work of transition between two points, as attested by the opening lines: “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,/ I found myself within a shadowed forest,/ for I had lost the path that does not stray” (I, 1-3). Echoes of these famous lines can be heard in Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled”; whereas Frost’s poem concerns itself with the duality and firmness of decision, Dante’s tercet implies an interval of great indecision and limbo. Indeed, he is anything but entrenched in position: “I cannot clearly say how I had entered/ the wood; I was so full of sleep just at/ The point where I abandoned the true path” (I, 10-12). Dante is nearly sleepwalking, yet another fusion of two worlds, the conscious and unconscious. This division of self can best be explained by Dante’s exile and his loss of national identity. He examines this alienated state through a geographic metaphor: “And just as he who, with exhausted breath,/ Having escaped from sea to shore, turns back/ To watch the dangerous waters he has quit,/ so did my spirit, still a fugitive,/ turn back to look intently at the pass/ that never has let any man survive” (I, 22-27). Of course, Dante was in exile when he wrote The Inferno, but his journey takes place beforehand. This “presaging” underscores the theme of cyclical time in the epic, that of historical repetition with confused tenses.
The tangle of temporalities is never more evident than in the Sixth Circle, comprised of Heretics. Dante is told of his future difficulties in returning to Florence from exile: “‘If they were slow,’ he said, to learn that art,/ that is more torment to me than this bed./ And yet the Lady who is ruler here/ will not have her face kindled fifty times/ before you learn how heavy is that art'” (X, 77-81). As Mandelbaum points out, “Dante himself learned within 50 months how difficult it is to try to return from exile” (Notes, Canto X, 81). This vision of futurity is also bestowed upon the damned:
“‘It seems, if I hear right, that you can see/ beforehand that which time is carrying,/ but you’re denied the sight of present things.’/ We see, even as men who are farsighted,/ those things,’ he said, that are remote from us;/ the Highest Lord allots us that much light./ But when events draw near or are, our minds/ are useless; were we not informed by others,/ we should know nothing of your human state./ So you can understand how our awareness/ will die completely at the moment when/ the portal of the future has been shut'” (X, 97-108).
The rhyme scheme of The Inferno also presents the reader (or, more appropriately, the listener) with foresight. The “aba bcb dcd” terza rima permits each lines to function as both the tercet sandwich’s meat and the bread; the cyclical and uniting aspects of time are on sonic display here as the reader is able to glimpse the upcoming tercet’s framing lines through the current tercet’s middle line. The number three even carries mathematical salience pi is approximated as three, thus furthering the circular imagery. A similar scheme is usually employed in the final lines of each canto, which describe the current setting and the next one: “And so, between the dry shore and the swamp,/ we circled much of that disgusting pond,/ our eyes upon the swallowers of slime./ We came at last upon a tower’s base” (VII, 127-130). More important than the devices with which to compose Dante’s language is his language itself. Brucker explores the implications of Dante’s revolutionary use of the vernacular:
“Yet his Divine Comedy was written in the local Tuscan dialect; not in Latin. And although this work contains the universal concepts of the classical and Christian traditions, it is also a Florentine poem, replete with the particular values, emotions, and concerns of that tradition. The poet did not succeed in reconciling all of the contradictions between the two traditions, but his genius enabled him to surmount these discordant elements, and to create a magnificent synthesis combining ideal and reality, the universal and the particular” (215).
The Inferno is a landmark in literary history as much for its allegorical and spiritual values as for its accessibility. Its similes are at once sweeping and grounded. Though other languages had been written in the vernacular, such as the French fabliaux, those stories were light and comic. Dante’s work is the natural predecessor to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which were written in the English vernacular as opposed to Latin, but which were also comic tales of fabliau descent in which characters remained fairly constant throughout. The descent of The Inferno, pun intended, is that of spiritual catharsis and change. Even the tripartite structure of The Divine Comedy follows the Aristotelian conception of a three-act drama in The Poetics, with a beginning, a middle, and an end (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise), all of which correlate to the protagonist’s metamorphosis.
Though Dante writes in a deeply moral tone, the sinners’ immorality is not always so clear-cut. Those in the First Circle, Limbo, are condemned, albeit lightly, for their impious, pre-Christian beliefs: “‘…they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,/ that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,/ the portal of the faith that you embrace./ And if they lived before Christianity,/ they did not worship God in fitting ways;/ and of such spirits I myself am one'” (IV, 34-9). The “portal of faith” denotes the filtering powers of religion, and filters often blur the picture. It is fitting that Limbo resides in the First Circle; they are on the cusp of the above- and below-ground worlds for their lack of grounding in the divine world. This is yet another threesome of Dante’s, the heavenly, the earth-bound, and the infernal (and if one chooses to make the correlation, “Paradise” is the heavenly, the infernal is obviously “Inferno,” and our time on earth is “Purgatory”). Further ambiguity arises in the Second Circle, where Minos warns Dante to be careful of “whom you trust;/ the gate is wide, but do not be deceived!” and where the environment is appropriately hazy: “I reached a place where every light is muted,/ which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest,/ when it is battered by opposing winds” (V, 19-20, 28-30). Dante encounters Francesca, who persuades him of her relative innocence through her poetic description of love: “‘Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,/ took hold of him because of the fair body/ taken from me how that was done still wounds me./ Love, that releases no beloved from loving,/ took hold of me so strongly through his beauty/ that, as you see, it has not left me yet./ Love led the two of us unto one death'” (V, 100-6). Her anaphoric refrain of “Love” and its captivating powers stands out as lyrically enchanting even among Dante the poet’s legendary similes, but Dante the traveler’s emotional reaction is suspect; after all, he was warned not to be deceived, and he concedes that “pity/ seized me, and I was like a man astray,” much like his initial state prior to his descent (V, 71-2). Francesca contends that “‘There is no greater sorrow/ than thinking back upon a happy time/ in misery” (V, 121-2), another continuation of the past-present thread, and she then recounts the power a book had over her love:
“One day, to pass the time away, we read/ of Lancelot…/ And time and time again that reading led/ our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,/ and yet one point alone defeated us./ When we had read how the desired smile/ was kissed by one who was so true a lover,/ this one, who never shall be parted from me,/ while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth./ A Gallehault indeed, that book and he/ who wrote it, too; that day we read no more'” (V, 130-8).
Mandelbaum explains that “Since Gallehault is a character who encouraged the queen and her lover, the book is a Gallehault indeed,’ for it serves Paolo and Francesca as a go-between'” (Notes, V, 127-138). Not only is literature again used as a bridge, but the power of words is what is truly on display here. Are Francesca’s odes sincere or seductive? Since marriage was so often an arranged affair in Florence and, along “with wealth, antiquity, and the possession of high communal office…were the most important factors for determining social status,” Dante’s fainting from the notion of true love is feasible. Still, Francesca’s wily words serve as yet another trinity, also one of poetic implications: the transition from thought to language to speech. Here, thought parallels the memory of the “crime,” Lust, while language is the factual account, and speech beautifies the act. The intermediary and enhancing qualities of the Arthurian romance she read highlight Dante’s vision of poetry. Even if Francesca is cajoling him, he seems to suggest, her lyricism excuses her. The Lustful are placed only in the Second Circle, after all; theirs is a victimless crime, and the third player is an emotion, not a vice.
Less ambiguous is Dante’s indictment of the greed that has split Florence into the White and Black parties. The Usurers of the Seventh Circle each wears a purse with his family’s heraldic emblem about his neck, and one purse is “bloodred,/ and it displayed a goose more white than butter” (XVII, 62-3). The symbolic significance warring factions asphyxiated by their own nepotistic, violent, and immoral practices from which they grow as fat as an “azure, pregnant sow”compactly explain the prevailing view that holds usury as unnatural and anti-mercantilist (XVII, 64). In contrast to the innocuous Lustful in the Second Circle, usurers capitalize off the loss of others. This is Dante’s underlying moral concern, that of indicting selfishness and disloyalty. The final circle holds three of history’s greatest traitors, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Lucifer gnaws at them in his mouth, a digestive image that reconciles the external and the internal: “Within each mouth he used it like a grinder/ with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner,/ so that he brought much pain to three at once” (XXXIV, 55-7). The unity of wrath the three treasonous figures receive is another conflation of triangulation, and one that leads to the epic’s final image of reemergence: “My guide and I came on that hidden road/ to make our way back into the bright world;/ and with no care for any rest, we climbed/ he first, I following until I saw,/ through a round opening, some of those things/ of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there/ that we emerged, to see once more the stars” (XXXIV, 133-9). The celestial image, as viewed through a portal of the earth, fuses Dante’s trinity of the netherworld, the world, and the other-world, and leaves the reader with a lasting sense of redemption in the divine.
A modern critic can interpret Dante’s fixation on the number three with a multitude of metaphors yet to be covered Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; material-artist-reader; (B)lack-(W)hite-color but the very fact that The Inferno lends itself to so many speaks highly of its notion of a “third way” as an ambiguous compromise. What is most fascinating is the degree to which one of the more stable metaphors, that of past, present, and future, has come true. The Inferno repeatedly invokes past epics, especially Virgil’s Aeneid, with such cries as “O Muses, o high genius, help me now,” and Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan welcome Dante and Virgil into Limbo. Now many modern poets, most notably T.S. Eliot, allude quite frequently to Dante’s work. It seems that The Inferno will forever be canonically in the terza rima originally written as a centerpiece to the Italian epic, now accepted as a framer of world literature.
Brucker, Gene A. Renaissance Florence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Mandelbaum, Allen. Inferno (translation). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
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