I have selected the following passage from Canto I, lines 13—27, for close reading.
But then, on reaching the foot of a hill
which marked the limit of the dark ravine
that had before so pierced my heart with panic,
I looked to that height and saw its shoulders
already clothed in rays from the planet
that leads all others, on any road, aright.
My fears, at this, were somewhat quieted,
though terror, awash in the lake of my heart,
had lasted all the night I’d passed in anguish,
And then, like someone laboring for breath
Who, safely reaching shore from the open sea,
still turns and stares across those perilous waves,
so in my mind—my thoughts all fleeing still—
I turned around to marvel at that strait
that let no living soul pass through till now
Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, in short, relates to the narrator’s life journey into nine consecutive circles of Hell, in the company of poet Virgil, where he views severe punishments awarded to different types of people, including his own contemporaries, soldiers, and corrupt popes. The plot of the book elucidates the allegorical journey of redemption of humankind. This is one of the greatest books of the post-classical era.
The above passage contains a number of expressions in figurative language. Firstly, “rays from the planet that leads all others,” refers to the Sun, (a planet according to the Ptolemaic system) meaning he is God’s agent to run the universe in an orderly manner, with punctuality and discipline. There has never been an occasion since the creation of the Universe, that sun arrived late even by a fraction of a second. The narrator throws a hint here that the way of the divine are perfect with no concessions and nature functions in a disciplined manner and no deviations, whatsoever are possible. Then he introduces the metaphor “lake of my heart,” and creates the watery imagery of the restless sea. The sea is never calm and it generates waves after waves which is its real nature. Similarly, the heart of a human being is never at absolute peace. Sea is often compared to the life of a human being. To stand on the shore and to think of taking bath in the sea when there are no waves is an impossibility. The waves shall always be there and the brave one has to take the plunge. So is the spiritual journey visualized by Dante, which has to progress amidst all trials and tribulations?
“And then, like someone laboring for breath, who, safely reaching shore from the open sea, still turns and stares across those perilous waves,” is a touching example of a figurative moment. It creates a picture of the fleeing spirit of a person who narrowly escapes drowning. The reader heaves a sigh of relief when the result of the possible grave incident turns out to be as per his expectations. But that is not the end of the suspense and the speaker’s spirit is still not saved and the words, “still fleeing,” are the pointers towards this eventuality. “I turned around to marvel at that strait that let no living soul pass through till now,” is a clear warning about the inevitable that the speaker is heading for which is certain death or the place is the ultimate hell. The ability of Dante to weave poetry through symbolism and allegory is admirable. Nowhere he is preachy or provides in this passage the moral lessons. He creates charm even while describing death and suicidal thoughts and he remains true to his highly imaginative form. His expressions are like the cables in a powerhouse that transmit energy at all levels and in all directions.
The central observation of the narrator in this passage is the working of the law of divine retribution. According to him, no sin will remain unpunished. Destiny spares none and about the final destination for the soul, the narrator explains it through an allegory, “I turned around to marvel at that strait that let no living soul pass through till now.” The sins of each and every human being will have to be accounted for and they will be suitably dealt with without fear or favor. Expressions like “dark ravine,” “panic,” “My fears,” “anguish,” and “perilous wave,” create a picture that all is not going to be well for the narrator in his journey. Another important feature of this passage, is that the author has not used any fancy words and they are familiar, everyday words. But they have been composed in such a manner, that they reveal their latent potency in a powerful manner and help to create a beautiful, suspenseful story.
The hidden emphasis in the passage directs the man to be virtuous and strive to be free from the negativities. If one doesn’t do it, one is bound to suffer the consequences. The writing does not confuse anywhere, but one is supposed to have some spiritual background to understand what the author desires to convey. Sin has obstructed the path of the narrator to God. This passage, broadly speaking, is Dante’s quest to overcome sin and his intense search for God’s love. Evil receives punishment as per the will of God. This is an example of perfect allegory wherein Dante’s story represents his own life and also the perception of Dante the poet as for the universal Christian quest for God. His message, therefore, embraces the entire human race in the allegorical tradition. Through every line of this passage, Dante establishes a link about the sin attached to the soul on the Planet Earth and the perfect mode of justice awarded by God. This is a simple yet profound idea that provides magnificent imagery and symbolic power to the ideas expressed through these lines. He lays great reliance on the wisdom of divine justice which is infallible. The situation in which a soul is placed can neither be pitied nor condemned. If one does so, it shows a lack of understanding of the style of functioning of the divine. Finally, the passage depicts the state of the mind of Dante, his emotional level, with the metaphor, “dark ravine,” his fear confusion about the inevitable that is going to happen and from which no escape route exists.
Dante. Inferno (Penguin Classics) Trans: Robin Kirkpatrick. Penguin Classics, 2006