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Metaphor in Dante's Inferno

Metaphor Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 1

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"My weary frame After short pause recomforted, again I journey'd on over that lonely steep, The hinder foot still firmer..."   (Canto 1)

One may interpret this line metaphorically as well as literally.  The feet were thought to be the limbs of the soul: the right symbolizing the will and the left symbolizing the intellect. Dante requires both in his journey.

"like a beast At some false semblance in the twilight gloom..."   (Canto 2)

In a typical Dantean simile, the poet compares his own fear of the underworld to the fear of a wild beast who is afraid of shadows in the twilight.

"Curs'd wolf..."   (Canto 7)

Plutus is a wolf in a metaphorical sense. The wolf, with its insatiable appetite, is a fitting figure for Plutus, with his insatiable hunger for material wealth.

"that as pinions seem'd their nimble feet..."   (Canto 16)

In other words, they moved so fast that their feet seemed to have "pinions," or birds' wings.

"As naked champions, smear'd with slippery oil, Are wont intent to watch their place of hold And vantage..."   (Canto 16)

Dante is comparing the stance of the three men to the way wrestlers prepare to wrestle, looking for the most advantageous hold on an opponent.

"As falcon, that hath long been on the wing, But lure nor bird hath seen..."   (Canto 17)

By comparing Geryon to a falcon that has not been able to find either food or a lure to justify his flight, Dante suggests that Geryon is displeased with the task carrying the two men. As soon as they land, Geryon disappears like an arrow from a bow, eager to be rid of them.

"ill-fated Icarus..."   (Canto 17)

Daedalus and his son Icarus escaped from King Minos of Crete using feathers fastened onto a wooden frame with wax. As they soared above the Aegean Sea, Icarus flew higher than he was supposed to. Despite Daedalus' warnings, he flew high enough for the sun's heat to melt the wax. The frame lost its feathers, and Icarus fell into the sea—now called the Icarian Sea. Dante compares his own vertiginous dread to that of plummeting Icarus.

"Phaeton..."   (Canto 17)

Phaeton is the son of the Greek god Apollo. When he was old enough, he begged Apollo to allow him to drive the sun-chariot across the sky. Despite Apollo's misgivings, he granted Phaeton the wish, but Phaeton soon allowed the horses to run wild. Because the earth was in danger of burning up as the sun came closer to the earth, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at Phaeton, who fell from the chariot into the river Eridanus and died. Dante compares the dread he feels as he rides on Geryon's back to the dread Phaeton felt as he drove, and fell from, Apollo's chariot.

"who hath an ague fit so near, His nails already are turn'd blue..."   (Canto 17)

Geryon has blue nails, and so Dante compares him to a victim of malaria who, starved of oxygen, has blue nails.

"where he who bears Of Trento's flock the past'ral staff, with him Of Brescia, and the Veronese..."   (Canto 20)

Virgil refers to the bishops of Verona, Brescia and Trento, whom he characterizes as shepherds of their various flocks.

"E'en thus the cook bestirs him, with his grooms, To thrust the flesh into the caldron down With flesh-hooks, that it float not on the top..."   (Canto 21)

Dante compares the way the demons push the sinners back under the boiling tar to the way cooks push stewing meat back into the broth when it rises to the top of the cooking pot.

"In the Venetians' arsenal as boils Through wintry months tenacious pitch..."   (Canto 21)

Dante compares the darkness of this "pouch" to the pitch (tar) used in Venetian shipyards to coat ships' hulls to make them seaworthy.

"but the' other prov'd A goshawk..."   (Canto 22)

This passage refers to the demon Alichino, who is described as a goshawk, a medium-sized raptor often used by medieval noblemen for hunting.

"In evolution moving, horse nor foot..."   (Canto 22)

The movement of infantry or cavalry on the field is known as an "evolution," part of an established pattern to get troops efficiently from one area to another and in the same order in which they started. In this context, Dante refers to his and Virgil's movements with the ten demons who are guiding them.

"we saw a painted tribe..."   (Canto 23)

In this ditch are the hypocrites, who wear cloaks made of lead. These lead cloaks are painted with gold to metaphorically reflect how, while alive, these people disguised their malice with false good will.

"monks in Cologne..."   (Canto 23)

The monks of the German city of Cologne—Köln in German—are known as "Clony." These monks inhabit the abbey founded by the Benedictines in 910 CE. As Dante mentions here, these monks wore their hoods so low as to veil their eyes.

"minor friars..."   (Canto 23)

"Minor Friars" are Franciscan monks, members of a monastic order founded in 1209. Following their spiritual leader, Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans strove toward humility and lived in purposeful poverty. They went begging in pairs, the older friar walking ahead of the younger. Virgil and Dante walk through the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle in such a manner.

"The crust Came drawn from underneath in flakes, like scales Scrap'd from the bream or fish of broader mail..."   (Canto 29)

In other words, the scabs on the skin of the condemned came off just like the scales of large fish scraped off by a knife.

"But rose as in a bark the stately mast..."   (Canto 31)

Antaeus rose like a mast of a stately "bark," or sailing vessel.

"As with circling round Of turrets, Montereggion crowns his walls..."   (Canto 31)

Monteriggioni is a fortress near Siena whose walls are topped with a series of sixty-foot-tall sentry towers. In its design, it is a typical Tuscan fortified town of the 13th century. Dante uses Monteriggioni as a visual metaphor for the ring of turrets that gird the abyss at the heart of the Ninth Circle.

"Achilles and his father's javelin caus'd Pain first, and then the boon of health restor'd..."   (Canto 31)

Achilles' spear, which was given to him by his father, Peleus, had the power to wound and to heal. Dante uses the spear as a metaphor for Virgil's sharp words, which first hurt Dante, then fortify him.

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