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Setting in Dante's Inferno

Setting Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 10

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"Which e'en thus high exhal'd its noisome steam..."   (Canto 10)

As Virgil and Dante descend into the lower levels of the underworld, the odorous atmosphere becomes overwhelming.

"NOW by a secret pathway we proceed..."   (Canto 10)

Dante and Virgil, having passed through the gates of Dis, are now in the sixth circle of Hell. This circle resembles a cemetery and is reserved for the most grievous heretics, those who deny the immortality of the soul.

"And there our passage lay athwart the foss..."   (Canto 12)

In other words, the level of moat-blood is low enough for them to cross the river.

"who at the throat Were extant from the wave..."   (Canto 12)

These sinners in the bloody river committed such egregious acts that, as a fitting punishment, they are allowed to emerge only to the level of their throats.

"From out the blood, more than his guilt allows..."   (Canto 12)

The violent sinners in the river of blood are allowed to emerge by a length equivalent to the gravity of their sins. If they stick their heads or bodies too far above the surface, one of Centaurs shoots an arrow at them to keep them at the proper height above the surface.

"Centaurs..."   (Canto 12)

Centaurs are half-man, half-horse creatures known for their violence. In this circle of Hell, they patrol the moat, ready to shoot arrows at the sinners in the moat who try to climb out.

"THE place where to descend the precipice..."   (Canto 12)

Dante and Virgil are entering Circle 7, in which the violent are punished.

"The Harpies, on its leaves Then feeding, cause both pain and for the pain A vent to grief..."   (Canto 13)

The suicides, who are doomed to live as gnarled, stunted trees in the underworld, are constantly attacked and bitten by the Harpies. According to Pier, the bites, which allow blood to escape, offer some relief from their constant suffering.

"Men once were we..."   (Canto 13)

In this gloomy grove, Dante learns that the trees are actually the embodied souls of those who have committed suicide.

"We enter'd on a forest, where no track Of steps had worn a way..."   (Canto 13)

Dante and Virgil enter the second ring of the Seventh Circle, reserved for those who have been violent against themselves, including suicides and those who carelessly destroy their own possessions, squanderers.

"Wherefore if aught of new to us appear, It needs not bring up wonder in thy looks..."   (Canto 14)

Virgil is explaining to Dante that, because the rivers they encounter are circular, every time they come across what appears to be a new river, they are just encountering another section of a river they have seen earlier in their journey.

"Lethe thou shalt see,..."   (Canto 14)

Lethe, the "river of forgetfulness," is the river in which those souls who are to be reincarnated wash themselves in order to forget their past lives, the memory of which would disturb them once back among the living. 

"which from the third the second round Divides..."   (Canto 14)

Dante and Virgil enter the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle, reserved for those who are violent against God. The first group consists of blasphemers.

"One of the solid margins bears us now..."   (Canto 15)

Still in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle, Dante and Virgil are on firmer ground than sand, and here they encounter those guilty of sodomy.

"E'en as the river, that holds on its course..."   (Canto 16)

The following passage is great example of Dante creating verisimilitude, or the semblance of reality. Dante depicts this area of the underworld in terms that readers who are familiar with Italian geography will be able to visualize.

"NOW came I where the water's din was heard..."   (Canto 16)

Dante and Virgil remain in the Seventh Circle but have entered the second zone of the Third Ring, the realm of "other sodomites."

"LO! the fell monster with the deadly sting..."   (Canto 17)

Dante and Virgil arrive in the Third Zone of the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle, an area reserved for sinners guilty of violence against nature and art. Dante identifies this sin with usurers, those who lend money at high interest rates to take advantage of borrowers' distress.

"THERE is a place within the depths of hell Call'd Malebolge..."   (Canto 18)

Dante and Virgil have reached the Inferno's eighth circle, which, instead of rings, has ten concentric "pouches," and is where different categories of "ordinary" fraud are punished.  Malebolge means "Evil pouches."

"Peschiera stands, to awe with front oppos'd The Bergamese and Brescian, whence the shore More slope each way descends..."   (Canto 20)

Peschiera—Italian for "fish pond"—is a fortress that stands against the Brescians and Bergamesques where the shore is most exposed by the lake.

"Fit argument of this the twentieth strain..."   (Canto 20)

Virgil and Dante have reached the Fourth "Pouch" of the Eighth Circle, in which those who claim to know God's intentions, as well as magicians and astrologers, are punished by having their heads turned backwards.

"To view another gap, within the round Of Malebolge, other bootless pangs..."   (Canto 21)

Dante and Virgil have entered the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, the area in which barrators—corrupt public officials—are tortured.

"on the pitch..."   (Canto 22)

Pitch in this sentence refers to the "lay of the land," how the terrain looks.

"IT hath been heretofore my chance to see Horsemen with martial order shifting camp..."   (Canto 22)

Virgil and Dante are still in the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle. Dante points out that he has seen a group of cavalry successfully moving camp.

"The site of every valley hence requires, That one side upward slope, the other fall..."   (Canto 24)

Due to the great abyss at the heart of the terrain, each valley has one high bank and one low bank. Thus the overall sequence of valleys declines in elevation.

"IN the year's early nonage..."   (Canto 24)

It is the "nonage," or early part, of the year. Dante and Virgil are still in the Sixth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, realm of the hypocrites.

"WHEN he had spoke, the sinner rais'd his hands Pointed in mockery, and cried: "Take them, God..."   (Canto 25)

Dante and Virgil are in the Seventh Pouch of the Eighth Circle, the ditch in which thieves are punished. The sinner in question is Vanni Fucci, who "point[s] in mockery," most likely a crude Italian hand signal in which the mocker places the thumb between the first and middle fingers. This signal, similar to the modern practice of displaying one's middle finger, is an indication of Vanni's lack of respect even as a sinner.

"FLORENCE exult..."   (Canto 26)

Virgil and Dante are still in the Seventh Pouch of the Eighth Circle, among the thieves. These opening lines are Dante's ironic congratulations to Florence for having sinners from Florence represented in every circle of the Inferno.

"NOW upward rose the flame, and still'd its light..."   (Canto 27)

Dante and Virgil are still in the Eighth Circle, but now in the Eight Pouch where false counselors are punished, including Guido da Montefeltro.

"WHO, e'en in words unfetter'd, might at full Tell of the wounds and blood that now I saw..."   (Canto 28)

Dante and Virgil are now in the Ninth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, in which scandal mongers and those who incite sedition are punished.

"SO were mine eyes inebriate with view Of the vast multitude..."   (Canto 29)

Dante sees so many sinners with such indescribable wounds that his eyes are nearly "drunk" with the sight. He and Virgil are still in the Ninth Pouch of Circle Eight, among the sowers of discord and scandal.

"WHAT time resentment burn'd in Juno's breast..."   (Canto 30)

Dante and Virgil are in the Tenth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, still among the falsifiers.

"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.

"these are not towers, But giants.  In the pit they stand immers'd, Each from his navel downward, round the bank..."   (Canto 31)

At first Dante thinks that the giants, who tower over the rim of the central pit, are actually towers. The giants are here because they betrayed their rightful ruler by raging against the gods. They are once-powerful beings who are now powerless to help themselves because God is the ultimate wielder of power. Thus the giants reveal one of the central themes of Dante's Divine Comedy: the importance of attaining to God's will.

"THE very tongue, whose keen reproof before Had wounded me..."   (Canto 31)

Dante and Virgil, their time running short, finally arrive in the Ninth Circle, the central pit of hell. This is the home of the Giants—often known as "Titans"—who tried to overthrow the Greco-Roman gods.

"at whose point unites All heavy substance..."   (Canto 32)

The weight of the whole world's sins is concentrated down onto the dark center of the Ninth Circle.

"Caina..."   (Canto 32)

This part of the Inferno is called Caina. This is where traitors against family are punished. It is named for the biblical Cain, son of Adam, who committed the first murder when he killed his brother Abel.

"COULD I command rough rhimes and hoarse, to suit That hole of sorrow..."   (Canto 32)

Dante and Virgil are in the First Ring of the Ninth Circle in which they find those who betrayed their families. The condemned are immersed in ice, their heads bent downward.

Dante laments that he does not have "rough rhymes[...] to suit/That hole of sorrow." By claiming not to possess the poetic power to describe the events at hand, Dante lends the events added reality and horror. This is a technique Dante uses throughout the Divine Comedy.

"Cocytus..."   (Canto 33)

Cocytus is the last river in the underworld. It is entirely frozen over. In Greek, cocytus means "to lament."

"Ptolomea..."   (Canto 33)

Dante and Virgil are now in Ptolomea, the Third Ring of the Ninth Circle. The ring is named after either of two historically significant men named Ptolemy. The first Ptolemy, who appears in the Hebrew Bible, was a captain of Jericho who gave a feast for the high priest Simon Maccabee and two of his sons. He murdered them all, much like Alberigo did to Manfred and his son. The second Ptolemy is Ptolemy II, the brother of Cleopatra. In 48 BCE, when the Roman general Pompey sought refuge with the Egyptians after his defeat at Pharsalia, Ptolemy had him murdered.

"HIS jaws uplifting from their fell repast..."   (Canto 33)

Dante and Virgil have entered the Second Ring of the Ninth Circle and are still among traitors against their country. Next, they enter the Third Ring, home of traitors to their guests.

""Lo!"  he exclaim'd, "lo Dis! and lo the place, Where thou hast need to arm thy heart with strength." ..."   (Canto 34)

In Canto 8, Dante and Virgil encounter Dis, the walled city that contains the deepest circles of hell, the 6th through the 9th. In this line, when Virgil exclaims, "'Lo Dis! and lo the place,/Where thou hast need to arm thy heart with strength,'" he is referring to Satan. In Roman mythology, Dis—often known as Dis Pater—was a subterranean god of agriculture and mineral wealth. Later, he was absorbed into Pluto and Hades, also subterranean gods. When Dante combined the Greco-Roman and Christian mythological traditions in the Inferno, he conflated Dis, Hades, Lucifer, and Satan into the same figure—the great devil at the bottom of the lowest ring of hell.

"On this part he fell down From heav'n; and th' earth, here prominent before, Through fear of him did veil her with the sea, And to our hemisphere retir'd..."   (Canto 34)

Virgil describes the fall of Lucifer from Heaven through the Southern Hemisphere. When Lucifer hit the earth, the displaced earth went to the Northern Hemisphere but left a mountain known as the Mount of Purgatory.

"Thou deemest thou art still On th' other side the centre, where I grasp'd Th' abhorred worm..."   (Canto 34)

In this and the following lines, Virgil explains to Dante that they have passed through the middle point of the underworld, and now everything is reversed, including time. As a result, they are now twelve hours earlier than they had been before they reached Inferno's center. It is now early evening on the Saturday before Easter Sunday. It is significant that Dante exits Inferno on the eve of Easter. Just as Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, so too does Dante rise from the Underworld and return to the land of the living.

"banners of Hell's Monarch do come forth Towards us; therefore look," so spake my guide, "If thou discern him..."   (Canto 34)

Virgil's comment is an ironic reference to a 6th-century Christian hymn, “The Standards of the King Advance.” The hymn refers to the cross, an emblem adopted later by the Crusaders for their shields and tabards, the cloak they wore over their armor.

Dante and Virgil have entered the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, also called Judecca, where traitors to their benefactors are punished. Among them is the most notorious traitor in Christian history, Lucifer.

The name Judecca reflects the unfortunate but prevalent anti-Semitism of 13th century. Christian Europeans viewed Jews as the assassins of Christ, a view that led most European countries to restrict Jews to living in specific areas away from the Christian majority.

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