• Keith Mathison

Dante's Inferno, II

If the letter to Cangrande is a genuine letter from Dante, it sheds some light on Dante’s purpose in writing the Divine Comedy: “The purpose of the whole and the part could be multiple, that is both remote and proximate. But leaving off subtle investigation, we can say briefly that the purpose of the whole as well as the part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss” (Letter to Cangrande, 15). In order for that to happen, the person in a state of misery needs to understand the necessity and the urgency. In canto 2, the poet Virgil uses his skill with words to convince Dante to take the journey that lies ahead.

As I mentioned in the previous Dante post, canto 2 can be seen as part of the introductory material along with canto 1 because it is not until canto 3 that Dante enters the borders of hell. Canto 1 and canto 2 are set outside the borders of hell and are set before the journey proper begins.

Day was departing and the darkened air

released the creatures of the earth

from their labor, and I, alone,

prepared to face the struggle—

of the way and of the pity of it—

which memory, unerring, shall retrace.

Notice that Dante says “I, alone, prepared to face the struggle.” This should catch our attention since it is set in the context of an encounter between Dante and Virgil. Dante is there with his guide, and yet there is something about this journey that is his alone to experience. Again, this points to the spiritual awakening that Dante desires to encourage in his readers. Like him, they too must make a choice.

Dante then begins to express some hesitation. He is not like Aeneas or the Apostle Paul. He thinks he is not fit for the journey and suggests to Virgil that it may be a sign of madness for him to proceed. “You know, Virgil. I think I might just stay here at the foot of this mountain.”

Virgil will have none of it.

‘If I have rightly understood your words,’

Replied the shade of that great soul,

‘your spirit is assailed by cowardice,’

Those words sting, but Virgil doesn’t continue to berate Dante. Instead, in order to help him overcome his fear, he tells him how it came about that he was sent to help Dante. He was called by a lady:

‘I was among the ones who are suspended

when a lady called me, so blessed and so fair

that I implored her to command me.

She spoke to Virgil saying:

‘ “my friend who is no friend of Fortune,

is so hindered on his way upon the desert slope

that, in his terror, he has turned back,

‘ “and, from what I hear of him in Heaven,

I fear he has gone so far astray

that I arose too late to help him.

The lady who speaks then identifies herself:

‘ “I who bid you go am Beatrice,

I come from where I most desire to return.

The love that moved me makes me speak.

Dante had already written of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova, a work that interweaves his description of his love for Beatrice and divine love. That connection continues here with this woman he loved indicating that she is compelled by divine love to send Virgil. In canto 1, the love of God is described as that which set in motion all of creation. Here, the divine love sets in motion (by moving Beatrice) a work of redemption.

After hearing Virgil’s explanation of how and why he was sent to help, Dante’s courage is renewed and he agrees to undertake the journey, and he enters “on the deep and savage way.”

Virgil’s presence in this poem is intended to remind readers of the Aeneid. His role as Dante’s guide indicates that Dante’s journey is, in some ways, similar to Aeneas’s journey. Aeneas was on a journey to find a new home. Dante, too, is on a journey to his true home, but like Aeneas, he will have to go through hell and back to get there.

Public Domain image by Gustave Doré

See also:

Dante's Inferno, I

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