The Divine Comedy Notes: Cantos 1-8

By Jon Elordi

Canto One

The inferno starts off with a banger. Maybe it’s because I too am midway through life’s journey, but I think the line hits hard and is highly relatable.

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood…

Dante finds himself in a dark forest. He’s lost. And as he tries to leave the forest he encounters a Leopard, a Lion, and a She-Wolf. Each represents a different division in Hell. Or more broadly a different division in sin(Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud). The Leopard represents Fraud, the Lion represents violence, and the She-wolf represents Incontinence.

He describes the She-wolf as “starved,” which is how we know these are sins of incontinence. These are sins of appetite. They’re the sins of animals. This is almost almost straight from Aristotle/Thomas. They are also lesser sins. It’s why they are punished on the outer levels of Hell.

The worst sins are sins that involve reason. Sins of incontinence come from an inability to use reason. Sins of violence and fraud are a perversion of reason. And therefore worse.

I have no idea why the Leopard represents fraud or lying(which is a sin against truth), and one of the worst things you can do according to Aristotle/Thomas. Maybe because it has spots and is therefore camouflaged?

This is also where we meet Virgil. There’s a lot of symbolism as to why Dante chose Virgil, however I don’t find that overly interesting. Virgil represents the height of Pagan poetry and reason. He, and his cadre who we’ll meet later on, are the best you can do without Christ. Spoiler alert, they’re not in Heaven.

Canto Two

I don’t get this canto.

It establishes that Virgil is not acting alone. Three saints(St. Lucia, Rachel, and Beatrice) are allowing Virgil to be Dante’s guide. In the notes, it says Beatrice represents divine love. And that the only way for Dante to come to Divine Love is through Reason(Virgil). There’s some good Reason VS Revelation symbolism in these first few chapters. Dante makes it very clear, that reason is not enough to avoid Hell.

Canto Three

This is where things get good.

Pity for the damned

Virgil and Dante finally pass through the gates of Hell. A theme throughout the Inferno is Dante’s relationship to sin. He takes pity on many of the people he sees during his trek of these outlayers of Hell. And I’m there with him. I found myself yelling at the people in this canto, “Just repent! Say you’re sorry!” But they can’t or more precisely won’t repent. They have chosen Hell. It’s hard to describe because you can’t say they take joy in their torments. Because there is no joy in Hell. It’s almost like they’ve become one with their sins and are therefore purely satisfied with their station in Hell(They yearned for what they fear). Probably the best way to relate is as an addict. The addict who hates his addiction and suffers for it. But cannot stop and continue in their destruction.

This is where I was yelling, “Just repent!” It’s as the damned are lined up at the gates of hell to await their judgement

But those unmanned and naked spirits there
turned pale with fear and their teeth began to chatter
at sound of his crude bellow. In despair

they blasphemed God, their parents, their time on earth
the race of Adam, and the day and the hour
and the place and seed and the womb that gave them birth.

The Opportunists and Cowardly

The opportunists are not in Hell proper. Showing that there is no neutrality. The neutral still has no hope for redemption.

In this level, Dante encounters Pope Celestine V who was a saintly man but a coward. Again, this is very Aristotelian. According to Aristotle, Courage was the most important virtue. It was the virtue that enabled all over virtues. We see here a saintly man without courage is still damned.

Canto Four

The Virtuous Pagans! This is a weird circle of Hell! Why are Saladin, Averroes, and Avicenna here? They’re Muslims!

This is where the citadel of Human Reason resides. It’s in a grassy pasture in Hell. Here is where the best of the pagans reside. Aristotle, Socrates, Homer, etc.. They’re spared from all the torments of Hell except one–They have no hope. I wonder if this is hinting at nihilism. Does Dante know that with out Christ all that is left is hopelessness?

The citadel also has unique and specific architecture. It has seven walls(which represent the liberal arts?) and it has a moat that’s described as a “sweet brook.” The place is also emitting a light. A smarter man than I would know what this all means.

Canto Five

The Carnal!

I enjoy the work Carnal. It’s derived from the Latin word for “meat.” The word “carnival”‘s literal translation is meat festival. That’s why it’s celebrated before the Lenten fast. In Hell, these are sins of the flesh.

There’s a fun play in Catholicism that we both celebrate with carne but not too much for it can land you in Hell. Catholics do remove the carnal from life. But instead, order it correctly in relation to a fast.

Why is Dido here? She killed herself.

Dante Swoons here again. He feels bad for these people. They loved inordinately. They were so close.

This is to say, when the ill-fated soul
appears before him it confesses all,
and that grim sorter of the dark and foul.

Confess is an interesting word here considering the sacrament of confession. Is there a pun here? Is it a bad translation? The note for the word makes it seem like the damned are eager to confess their sins.

Canto Six

The Gluttons!

It’s pretty gross. But gluttony is pretty gross. Have you ever watched a seriously obese person eat? It’s gross. Like, why are you licking your fingers in a restaurant? There’s a correlation between extreme gluttony and bad table manners. I event think of myself when I eat too many chips. I’m covered in crumbs. I’m disgusting. That’s interesting.

Canto Seven

The hoarders and wasters! The wrathful and Sullen! Plus the Marsh of Styx!

What is this Dame Fortune character?

The Sullen have a terrible fate singing disgusting hymns in the muck of a swamp.

Canto Eight

More Wrathful and the City Dis!

Dante is mean to a wrathful person. You can begin to see his relationship with sin change(at least that’s what the note says). Here’s the thing though. Is Dante changing or are the sins just getting worse?

I love the description of the City of Dis. First, it’s based on Islamic architecture. Dante is a crusader at heart. I also love the use of the word metropolis. In the Old Testament, the cities were usually where the bad guys lived. It seems to be the same in Hell. There’s also a suggestion, and industrialism or techne also being a thing in Dis. The city glows from the “forges.” Forges are used for metalworking.

“My son,” the Master said, “the City called Dis
lies just ahead, the heavy citizens,
the swarming crowds of Hell’s metropolis.”

And I then: “Master, I already see
the glowing of its red mosques, as if they came
hot from the forge to smolder in this valley.”

And my all-knowing Guide: “They are eternal
flues to eternal fire that rages in them
And makes them glow across this lower Hell.”

In fact, this city is the type of city the descendants of Cain would have built. See Genesis 4:10-22 below.

Virgil is denied access to Dis. He can’t get past the fallen angels. According to the notes, Human Reason alone cannot cope with the essence of Evil. Dante is once again reminding us of the limitations of human reason. At this point, Virgil prays.