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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri Poem Analysis Essay Sample

Dante’s Life and Work

Introduction

Dante Alighieri was one of the greatest medieval poets. Born in 1265 in Florence to the family of an Italian nobleman who belonged to the Guelph party, he was able to get good education, which in the future gave him a chance to create masterpieces without thinking about money for life. At the age of 9 Dante fell in love with an 8-year-old girl, Beatrice. This event was reflected in his first sonnet which Dante wrote at the age of 18 and dedicated to her. Hence, poetry became the main passion of young Dante. Dante was not satisfied with the education he received. Thus, he kept studying French and Provencal languages because they gave him access to the best pieces of foreign literature. After his unrequited love to Beatrice, who married another man and died very young, Dante wrote a book The New Life, which very soon brought him literary fame. After the death of his beloved, Dante started learning theology, philosophy, and astronomy and became one of the most brilliant people of his time (“Dante Biography”).

Dante’s political activity started very early. In his early adulthood, he takes part in military events and fights on the side of the Guelph against Ghibelline. After the split of the party, Dante joins White Guelphs and actively fights against the Pope. Later, he was severely punished for that. This is the reason why Pope Boniface VIII and many other figures find their places in the scene of hell in Dante’s Inferno. After this, afraid of the consequences of his actions, Dante left Florence and spent the rest of his life in exile, traveling from town to town. In exile, he wrote The Divine Comedy. Soon, Dante became disappointed with the political situation and withdrew from all political parties. His hopes to ever return home crashed once and for all. The rest of his life Dante spent in Ravenna. Despite hoping that his poetic glory would guarantee him an honorable return home, Dante died from malaria in exile on September 14, 1321 (“Dante Biography”).

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The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri 

Dante’s life and work are indeed embodied in the trilogy of The Divine Comedy. Inferno is the closest to the author’s life path considering everything he had to go through. When analyzed thoroughly, it can be considered as a confession of Dante himself, who tells how he became lost and was astray in the depth of sin. When Dante travels through Hell, he reveals the nature of sin and shows the evil receiving all kinds of punishments according to God’s Commandments. The poet pictures himself in the character of one of the sinners who has no choice but to atone for his guilt. His sins, particularly participating in Florentine politics, must be expiated by sacrifice. Rebellion against Florentine politics can also be seen when Dante uses prominent citizens as characters of his poem and puts them in hell.

The plot of The Divine Comedy depicts the image of human life common at that time. In the introduction, Dante tells how he gets lost in the dark forest. Three animals – lion, leopard, and wolf – are the first creatures on his way. After that a stranger comes to the poet. The man is Dante’s favorite writer, Virgil. Virgil walks the poet through Hell to show him the way to the salvation of his soul (“Inferno (Dante).”). From all parts of The Divine Comedy, Inferno is described in most details. The whole poem is very tense. One can feel that Dante lived through every circle of Hell he wrote about in his poem. Dante’s character has lost his way and now wanders around. His only hope, his only mentor, is the ghost of Virgil, who is there to guide him throughout the way. The inscription above the gate of hell “All hope abandon, ye who enter in” (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 16) symbolizes inevitability of Hell for sinners. Hell has nine circles, each of them representing a particular group of sinners who suffer according to the sins they committed: the first circle involves the souls of unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans. They do not suffer but they are sad because there is no place for them in paradise. The second circle represents offenders of marital fidelity. Among them, one can find Francesca and Paolo. The symbol of their passion is a powerful whirlwind that carries souls away. Hence, forbidden love deserves eternal life in hell. The interesting thing is that Dante does not condemn sinners but sympathizes with them. The third circle is inhabited with the tormented souls of gluttonous sinners in mud. The fourth circle includes misers and spendthrifts, including the clergy. The fifth circle is reserved for the angry and lazy people. The sixth circle represents burning heretics who interpreted the teachings of God in a wrong way and denied the immortality of the soul. The seventh circle involves the sinful souls of tyrants, robbers, and rapists. The eighth circle represents seducers of women, flatterers, alchemists, and liars. Thieves are bitten by poisonous snakes. The ninth circle is the culmination of the poem. In this circle, traitors freeze to death in wells. Dante believes betrayal is the worst possible sin. In the center, one can witness the king of Hell, Lucifer, who froze at the core. He has three faces: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (“Inferno (Dante).”).

Dante describes his dream so vividly that architects could produce a detailed plan of Hell based on his description. But in the hereafter world, Dante sees his Italy. He brought his contemporaries into Hell. The saints and the sinners talk about life, native land, family, friends, and enemies. From the very beginning of his career, Dante came to a conclusion that one should always tell the truth, no matter how bitter it might be. All in all, a few themes are intertwined in Inferno. Firstly, it is an incontestability of God’s justice. God’s world is perfect, and everything that He created was done for a reason. Another theme is considering evil as a direct intended contradiction of God’s will. Dante was a true Christian who believed that following the path of God was each person’s destiny. This is the reason why he organized his circles of hell in accordance with the standard Christian values characteristic to his epoch. Finally, another important theme in Dante’s Inferno refers to political arguments. By writing about Hell, the poet commented on the political situation that took place in his dear Florence at those times. Also, Dante points out that church and state should be equally important. The peculiarity of Inferno lies in the following: the dream-journey compositional device; the traveler is the poet himself, not a character; symbolic images (e.g. politicians as sinners, Virgil as a mentor); emotional, figurative language (metaphors, similes, parallelism); the rhyme scheme; a humanistic point of view on life and man. The main idea of the piece is to reach perfectionism through moral purification (“Inferno (Dante).”).

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Describe Virgil’s function in Inferno

One of the main characters of Inferno is Virgil. His main role in this piece is to be Dante’s shepherd. Virgil is Dante’s eyes and his mentor. He guides him through all the circles of Hell, gives him advice in difficult situations, supports him when he is down, leads him forward despite all challenges, protects him from hidden dangers, explains everything they come across on their way out. Virgil is Dante’s teacher who is meant to help him overcome all the difficulties that fate prepared for him on his path to salvation. It is interesting to note that Virgil, who was a pagan, received the role that was usually played by an angel in the medieval works. The character of Virgil, who accompanies the main hero in his journey through the circles of Hell, is not only the image of Virgil the poet; it is the personification of the principle of the world cognition that is deprived of faith. Virgil is an allegory of the mind. When Dante enters the Hell full of smoke and finds himself unable to endure all the sufferings he sees there, Virgil supports him. The metaphor here is that at all times, even in the most difficult situations, the soul must be supported by the mind for this is the only chance for the soul to survive (“Inferno (Dante).”). Dante, both a poet and a character, acknowledges the greatness of Virgil despite picturing him as an inhabitant of Hell. Virgil is not only a mentor but also a father figure for Dante and his personal guide.

That is why the character of Virgil is so important Without him, the poet would be forever lost in the circles of Hell:

O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her. (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 5)

How does Virgil differ from Dante?

Virgil is the only character who accompanies Dante through all the circles of Hell. Though both characters have much in common, there are certain differences that need to be outlined. First of all, Virgil is a pagan while Dante truly believes in the power of God. Virgil represents human reason, common sense, whose objective is to guide and protect people in the world of sin. As befits, Virgil is wise and tempered. His decisions are sober and measured. Virgil knows exactly what to do and where to go. He has his goal in life and follows his defined path. Dante, by contrast, is lost on this way. He is a student who has a lot to learn and needs guidance and assistance to achieve what his soul desires. Dante is a very multifaceted personality. As he travels through the circles of Hell, he appears sympathetic to sinners but also capable of anger. Virgil knew there is no perfect world. Every person sins, and what matters is the price they pay for their actions. Dante, unlike Virgil, is a perfectionist. He accepts nothing less than perfect. Dante is unforgiving and believes that a sinner has to be condemned for eternity regardless of paid dues.

Virgil is confident while Dante is full of fears and doubts. Virgil is Dante’s inspiration, his light at the end of the tunnel. This is what gives Dante courage to go through all the circles of Hell. Virgil as a mentor shows the lack of prejudice. He is calm, dispassionate and balanced. On the other hand, Dante is very emotional. He takes everything very close to heart, faints when horrible things happen to sinners or when something scares him (“Inferno (Dante).”).

What does He Represent?

Virgil in Inferno represents a guide who leads Dante through Hell. However, Virgil is not simply a guide; he is Dante’s inspiration and a teacher. He is Dante’s everything at that point. The poet worships him and equates to God. Virgil is influential, the only person with common sense there. Therefore, first of all, Virgil represents knowledge. He admitted the mistakes that he had made in the past, and he is Hell now to share his wisdom with Dante. Virgil also represents the human reason. He is sober and rational, calm and confident. Virgil stays calm and poised in any situation. His peace of mind and deep knowledge help them overcome all the difficulties that they come across on their way.

Is Virgil an Apt Guide or Could Someone Else Have Done It Better?

Virgil was Dante’s favorite poet. Dante honored Virgil and considered him as his spiritual mentor. After finding out that Virgil was sent by Beatrice, Dante had complete trust in him. Besides, both poets have a lot in common. Virgil is Dante’s compatriot, a Roman, and therefore, an ancestor of Italians. His home was very important to Dante, thus explaining a strong connection between the two authors. He feels close to Virgil for they come from similar backgrounds. Another reason for Dante’s choice is the fact that Virgil is the author of Aeneid, where the journey of the main hero Aeneas takes place in the Underworld. Virgil’s Underworld is similar to Dante’s Hell, and their heroes – Virgil’s Aeneas and Dante the character – go through different ordeals and face numerous fears and threats on their way to salvation (“Inferno (Dante).”). Furthermore, only a poet can understand another poet. According to Dante, Virgil has all the traits that a mentor should have. Hence, the choice of Virgil as Dante’s guide was a result of detailed consideration. It was not a random choice but a thoughtful decision made by Dante the poet.

What is Your Favorite Passage in the Poem?

The whole book is so grabbing that it is very difficult to choose a single passage that was particularly memorable. I like different passages for different reasons, for what they mean or say to me. However, since I am to choose only one, I would say that it is the beginning of the Canto III, where Dante and Virgil are standing at the Gate of Hell. The sign there says “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!” (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 16). Virgil is about to lead Dante through the worst terrors possible, so horrible that a person cannot even imagine. He is there to guide the poet, prepare him for a long journey, explain what awaits him and what to expect, and how everything must be done: “Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned, All cowardice must needs be here extinct” (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 16). Virgil comforts Dante. He gives him strength, and thus side-by-side they enter Hell, and their journey begins. This particular scene and the way Dante wrote it puts the reader behind the back of the main heroes. The reader, who can be compared with a passerby in other scenes, now becomes a spectator, a part of the whole image himself. He gets involved into the scene by Virgil’s explanations. The reader now experiences and lives through everything himself. As a result, the reader is more involved in the story from the very beginning. At least I felt that way. I read the whole part in one breath and was not just a passerby; I was standing right behind Dante and Virgil’s backs, going through all the circles of Hell together with them.

Discuss how the literary devices (i.e. figurative language, rhyme scheme.., etc.) contribute to the poem’s plot

The influence of literary devices on the plot cannot be underestimated. They enabled the author to be figurative but still deliver his main ideas and convey his message to the audience. Without literary devices, the poem would be empty and not interesting to read. Literary devices are like beautiful clothing, not necessary but very welcome. They give deep meaning, beautify the pieces, stir readers’ imagination, and help them visualize and picture scenes and characters.

Dante’s The Divine Comedy is full of literary devices. The title itself is the first one. The poet uses allegory, calling his piece The Divine Comedy, since you can hardly call a poem that is full of tears, crying and suffering, a comedy.

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The most common literary device for Inferno is irony (“Inferno (Dante).”). Dante expresses it throughout the poem when picturing all the punishments that the sinners in Hell suffer from. The most vivid example of the device is the ironical punishment of thieves in the eighth circle of Hell. As they were stealing from people during their lives, now they become the victims of theft and in the end, turn into snakes, the symbol of thievery:

a serpent with six feet darts forth
In front of one, and fastens wholly on him.
With middle feet it bound him round the paunch,
And with the forward ones his arms it seized;
Then thrust its teeth through one cheek and the other;
The hindermost it stretched upon his thighs,
And put its tail through in between the two,
And up behind along the reins outspread it.
Ivy was never fastened by its barbs
Unto a tree so, as this horrible reptile
Upon the other’s limbs entwined its own.
Then they stuck close, as if of heated wax
They had been made, and intermixed their colour;
Nor one nor other seemed now what he was. (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 166)

One can also find similes in the poem. The following lines are a good example: “Thus I beheld assemble the fair school, Of that lord of the song pre-eminent, Who o’er the others like an eagle soars” (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 26) and “I came into a place mute of all light, Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest, If by opposing winds ’t is combated” (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 31).

Analogy, which is a comparison of two things, was also used in Dante’s poem:

Even as the dolphins, when they make a sign
To mariners by arching of the back,
That they should counsel take to save their vessel,
Thus sometimes, to alleviate his pain,
One of the sinners would display his back,
And in less time conceal it than it lightens. (“Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy” 143-144)

In this verse Dante refers to dolphins that arch their backs. They represent sinners who arch their back when trying to ease their pain.

Dante’s poem is also full of symbols, and their meanings are often very diverse. First of all, Dante gets lost in the dense forest, which is a symbol of earthly life and sinful habits of human existence. On his way, Dante meets leopard, lion, and wolf. Leopard represents lust and deceit, but in a deeper sense, it symbolizes Dante’s political opponents who are greedy liars. The lion represents contempt, violence and tyranny, exact features that were characteristic for the French King. The last animal Dante comes across is a wolf, and it represents greed in its broad sense but also refers to the greed of the Roman church (“Inferno (Dante).”).

The whole journey can also be treated as a symbol. It symbolizes a path to salvation, in which Dante is a personification of soul and Virgil is human reason, the symbol of secular science.
In the composition of the poem, Dante uses Christian symbolism of numbers. Particular importance is placed on numbers three and ten. First of all, there are three books of The Divine Comedy that represent three worlds where Dante lived. Inferno symbolized his earthly life, which reminds him of Hell a lot. Purgatory is his internal struggle, and Paradise represents hope. Each book consists of 33 songs (“Inferno (Dante).”).

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Three is also the Saintly Trinity Number that represents the belief in God. The three animals on his way are three major defects of mankind of his time. Three also represents harmony, and the number in repeated not only in the number of parts but also in the structure of a poem. Dante used terza rima to write his piece, and each song contains about the same amount terza rima. The reason for this is that the poet was convinced that such a balanced compositional structure has considerable influence on the reader and symbolizes the possibility of overcoming chaos. Such symmetry can also be seen in the placing of figures. There are devils in Hell, and at the lowest point of it, there is Lucifer. There are also nine Circles of Hell, which is three multiplied by three.

Conclusion

The beginning of the poem is the compilation of the whole plot. It raises the problem of finding the right way for every human, Italy, and for humanity as a whole. The composition reflects the poem’s plan very well. Through the common technique in literature – a journey in afterlife – Dante shows the way to moral improvement, to the perfection of a man. The most important feature in Dante’s poem is that a wanderer is Dante the poet himself, not Dante the character. To gain help in overcoming Hell, Dante creates a character that is represented by his favorite ancient poet Virgil, and together they go through the circles of Hell.

The Divine Comedy is not merely a summary of Dante’s artistic creation but the generalization of all medieval culture. The poem is an encyclopedia of Italian life at the turn of a new era. The author sends a message to the reader. He claims that spiritual salvation of humanity is possible if people turn to perfection and appeal to ideals. What is more, Dante’s poem is not only a story of a journey of the soul through the afterlife. He turns it into a comprehensive picture that shows the spiritual state of the contemporary Italy and all humanity. Thus, the problems that are described in the poem are not imaginary; they are real problems of his dear Italy and its people at that particular moment. This is the reason why they become of great philosophical significance.

The main idea of Inferno is striving for spiritual salvation of a man and mankind in general, the establishment of man’s inner strengths and possibilities, his ability for spiritual metamorphosis of himself and the whole world. The whole poem serves Dante’s literary task. The main idea of the poem is to save people from sin and show them the way to harmony and perfection. The remarkable integrity of the poem and careful consideration of each element leaves an unforgettable impression on the reader. An important component of Inferno is the Christian symbolism of numbers, through which author builds a majestic structure of his poem. Besides, Dante connects his poem to reality. He does not want it to be a mere fiction. The poet represents his time and contemporaries in the poem. He conducts a trial of the dark forces of the Middle Ages, exposes and punishes defects, dignifies love, praises action and despises indifference. Dante aims to indicate the way of political and moral resurrection, anticipating it with his innovative views.

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