Dante’s Inferno: Themes & Symbols and their Attraction to Modern Poets

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate

Dante Alighieri, Canto III, line 9

Dante Alighieri and his work La Comedia have had immeasurable influence on Western literature since the 14th Century. However, it has now become common for people to reference the Comedy simply by its first canticle, Inferno. Many suspect this happened because Inferno has experienced the greatest response from its critics and readers over time. An analysis of motifs, themes and symbols used by Dante in the Inferno will shed light as to why writers have always gravitated towards the Inferno more than the Comedy as a whole. From Ezra Pound, T.S Eliot and Osip Mandelstam to more recent W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney and Robert Pinsky, modern poets at every bend have been drawn more so to the Inferno than to the other two canticles. Dante’s Comedy is an example of poetry’s world-creating power, a perfect manifestation of the locus amoenus, an ideal imaginary place and of a poet’s success throughout his own spiritual and political exile. It is impossible to simplify the iconic complexity of Inferno to a diminutive list of noteworthy symbols. Because this poem is predominantly an allegory, it exploits its themes, hundreds of symbols, and literary devices. Dante even indicates that his works must be read through more than one lens. The Comedy must be read literally, allegorically, morally, and anagogically; therefore not making this epic poem the simplest of reads. That being said, an analysis of major symbols and motifs and will offer an explanation as to why Dante encrypted his work with these symbols and why the Inferno is sought after much more than the rest of the Comedy.

Dante’s Inferno is rich in themes. As you flip through the book, these themes jump off the page and soak its reader with irony and provide examples of symbolic retribution. This term represents the punishments sentenced to the souls, directly and equally according to the sins committed on earth. In the Third Circle of Dante’s Hell, there are many examples of this poetic righteousness. The gluttonous reside in a valley of muck, awaiting the terrifying jaws of Cerberus. Gluttons are people who overindulge in their desires, whether it be for others or their own finances, hospitality, or food. Gluttonous people in Dante’s Inferno suffer this punishment for a reason: they are both punished by the endless rainfall and by Cerberus. The symbolic reckoning demonstrated here is that of the glutton’s endless overindulgence during their time on Earth. Therefore, now they must endure an eternity being indulged by eternal God’s wrath. Dante’s use of irony in the Inferno openly allows the reader to relish in the misery of the eternally punished for committing these sins. This equivalence represents a sense of balance, almost to the point of echoing Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” ideology. The sinner suffers to the degree of his sin. As Dante continues into the 9 circles of Hell, the sins as well as the punishments become worse and worse.

Initially in the Inferno, Dante shares very compassionate relationships with those he encounters in Hell. He builds great sympathy for the sinners and souls around him. However, the farther he travels, the less pity he feels for the souls he encounters. This again relates to God’s equal judgment in terms of the severity of  every sinners punishment. The farther Dante travels, the less pity he has for those he sees.

Dante’s Inferno can also be seen as an imaginary classification of sin. How he classifies sin is a reflection of his morals and judgment as a Catholic and as a man of politics. We see that a man that accepted a bribe is in a deeper circle of hell than a man who committed murder. Dante’s narration of Hell with Virgil follows first and foremost that of Christian doctrine and then Dante’s personal ideology. Dante’s political affiliations also affect the severity and position a sin holds in Hell. Additionally, just as God’s judgment, none of his structures are explained or reinforced. Dante offers every form of background and introduction but never any explanation of why each sin, is where it is.

Immortality for many writers comes through their stories. This is a theme that has transcended time. For Dante, this immortality and legacy was of utmost importance. Not only do the many souls ask Dante to retell their stories but he also sees his own immortality when he cites himself among the best poets of all time. He sees Horace, Ovid, Virgil and many others including himself. Although suffering in Hell, many of the souls hope that through their stories, they will live longer than their mortal lives allowed. For example in the Eighth Circle of Hell Dante actually denies souls the favor of bringing words of warning to men on Earth. Although being directly denied, in the greater perspective he is granting their wish through his writing. Keeping in mind that all these stories are of sinners, he allows for some to “continue living” through his literary legacy. However, while emphasizing the legacy of others, he also takes advantage to advance his own legacy. In Canto XXIV, in his description of the Thieves’ punishment, Dante asserts that he has exceeded both Ovid and Lucan in his ability to write and depict metamorphosis and transformation. This is in reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses which focuses entirely on transformations and Lucan’s Pharsalia, an interpretation of ancient Roman political transition and chaos in the first century B.C. By claiming to have outdone these two renowned classical poets he seeks to secure his own immortality in the literary world. Therefore Dante uses storytelling as a vessel for many legacies. It is not only the storyteller but also the subjects of the stories he includes that continue with him and transcend time.

On the other hand lays an indisputable motif. Dante also pursues many political arguments. An extremely significant part of his agenda in the Inferno was to comment on the disastrous political atmosphere in 14th century Florence, while keeping in mind his biased and his exile from the city.  He not only condemns political enemies ruthlessly but also predicts and condemns figures ahead of time due to the Inferno being set years before. Thirdly, Dante asserts his position as a White Guelph in his supported ideology of separation between Church and state. However, due to the sensitivity of the topic he cautiously emphasizes its divine and political importance. The last scene in the Inferno also emphasizes this Christian and political duality as Lucifer is chewing on both religious and infamous political figures; by chewing on Judas, betrayer of Christ, and Brutus and Cassius, infamous betrayers of Julius Caesar, the most famous classical politician. Betrayal and mutiny of religion and state both merit the most severe punishment in Hell according to Dante. However, an important note is that with this political and religious sin, there are also instances where these two spheres cross. It is here, where the instance of a priest accepting a bribe that warrants a deeper circle in Hell than one who commits murder. This is another example to Dante’s emphasis on religion and state. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of this concept Dante presses on throughout the Inferno.

References to the classics and mythology are also present motifs in the Inferno.

As much as Dante refers back to Greek and Roman mythology, he also references Christian morality. It is interesting how Dante includes mythological creatures and ancient creatures in a Christian Hell. He includes beasts from Centaurs and Minos, to figures such as Ulysses and places such as the river Acheron and Styx. As mentioned before he also mimics the styles of great classical writers, Homer, Ovid, Lucan and Virgil. He mixes and includes all these classical and ancient traditions not only to create a “hybrid,” or ode to the classics, but to also represent his supremacy and greatness as a poet. Dante also recognizes the dramatic potential in using these ancient elements. By including all these traditions, with the overarching one being that of Christianity, he is pushing Christianity to the top while simultaneously acknowledging that all others are real, but simply, of the past.

The symbolism in Dante’s work is endless. It is impossible to diminish the iconic intricacy of the Inferno to a short list of significant symbols. Because the poem is an extended metaphor, it uses symbols, ranging from the painstakingly small, to the major symbolic representation of the entire story of The Divine Comedy itself, to the spiritual journey of human life. For example the white banner representing the Uncommitted in Canto III representing the insignificance of their lives. Many of the symbols in Inferno are clear and easy to identify, such as the beast Geryon, with the head of a man and the body of a snake, he characterizes deceit and fraud. Some others are much more nuanced and difficult to recognize, such as the three beasts that stop Dante from the path up the mountain in Canto I. While reading the Inferno, it’s critical to take each element of the poem into consideration in accordance to how it fits into Dante’s allegory as well.

Arguably the more significant, yet less obvious examples of symbolism in the Inferno are woven in the damned figures and their punishments which, as mentioned, correlate to their sins committed while they were alive. For example, the Lustful, who are blown around in a violent storm but never come into contact with one another as their punishment. Another important symbol Dante uses are figures who represent human qualities, such as Virgil and Beatrice. Virgil is the representative of reason and Beatrice is the representative of spiritual love. Settings also represent Dante’s emotions, such as the dark forest in Canto I, demonstrating Dante’s confusion and fear. Figures in Hell also represent something more than merely their sins. An example of this is Farinata, who characterizes qualities of leadership and political dedication that surpass his character as a Heretic in Hell.

A brief but contextualizing analysis of all these themes, symbols and motifs, as a whole lead to why Dante’s Inferno has always been so appealing to contemporary writers. Concepts such as death, the afterlife, Hell, judgment, strife and suffering have always been easy topics to relate to not only on a Platonic level but also very intimately. Love, leading to suffering and the conquest of women, has fueled many writers in many different ways. Both T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound take their works to an even closer connection with Dante by making clear references to Dante’s work. Eliot, in a more subtle fashion, takes concepts and methodologies from Dante; whereas Pound literally names his work Cantos. Eliot wrote The Wasteland partially about his personal struggles and experiences, but many have seen it as a portrayal of a modern Inferno, a depiction of a shattered Europe, filled with entire societies missing optimism or vision.  Pound had begun work on the Cantos even before the publication of The Wasteland in 1922. Like Eliot, Pound liked using multiple perspectives. However, Pound often pictured his Inferno as an economic inuendo, full of the costs of man’s economic inhumanity to humanity.

The troubles of World War I profoundly influenced both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.  The utter destruction of Europe’s physical and psychological aspects, no longer unified by belief or culture led the two poets down different paths. Eliot chose to remain in England after the war, and his personal issues and struggles as a poet led him to become both a British citizen and to join the Church of England. Pound on the other hand, found London intolerable and in an attempt to understand the economic causes of World War I, moved to Paris and later to Italy. Paradoxically this led him to support Mussolini in Fascist Italy. Both however, continued to recognize Dante as both a literary and spiritual idol.

Eliot’s Wasteland, is filled with the imagery of anguish and disappointment, the ideal torment for the self-conscious soul. The Wasteland is an enigmatic poem filled with many references to other works with equally complex frameworks and imagery. In the world of The Wasteland, this isolationis torment and Eliot explicitly uses lines from Dante to emphasize the degree of this modern existence, as well as to ironically belittle the difference between both “infernos”. The world in Eliot’s poem has no religion or God to unify the poem or the characters under one rule. At the end of Wasteland Eliot provides commentary on some of the parts that seemed to only add to the confusion of some of his imagery. However, whenever there was a reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy there appeared to be more of an explanation for what motivated him to write what he did. The lines taken from Inferno set the tone for the first section of his poem, “London seems full of not living souls but the dead who are on their way to hopeless damnation” (Wasteland, Eliot). Just as Dante and Virgil near the gate of hell in the third Canto and Dante recalls:

“I saw a banner there upon the mist.

Circling and circling, it seemed to scorn all pause.

So it ran on, and still behind it pressed.

a never-ending rout of souls in pain.

I had not thought death had undone so many

as passed before me in that mournful train” (Inferno, III, 49-54)

Here Eliot is associating a similar link he makes in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in which the existing people found in the modern world closely bear a resemblance to Dante’s souls Hell.

“No torutured wailing rose to greet us here

but sounds of sighing rose from every side,

sending a tremor through the timeless air.” (Inferno, IV, 25-27)

Eliot’s souls of the contemporary world that are without hope and without choice, Eliot parallels them the opportunists Dante and Virgil encounter. Eliot’s judgment on his world connects in a different sense. The real world for Eliot is full of the condemned souls of Dante’s Inferno.

Throughout Pound’s Cantos he makes numerous references to politics, their injustices, and genocide in the same manner Dante does to not only the political world but also the Catholic Church, due to the beginning of the Jubilee in 1300. Whereas in comparison, Canto XXII continues with witty narratives comparing Pound’s philosophies of economic rational with the hardheaded, avaricious economics which Pound thinks have created his modern Inferno. On numerous occasions in the Cantos Pound overtly refers to the likelihood of a paradise on Earth, but once again is stopped by what he saw as bad economics.

Both Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot saw Dante as not only one of the greatest poets, but also as a man who had written an epic poem, one which would serve them better than the classical models of Homer and Ovid or any other classical poets for that matter.  Both of them also saw the medieval Catholic dimension of Dante’s work could not be used in a modern poem without substantial modifications. However, it is exactly for those themes and concepts used by Dante that have attracted so many other more contemporary writers to his work, more specifically, to his Inferno. Both Pound and Eliot chose to use drastic positions with drastically different voices to present their modern Infernos and they reached fundamentally different ends in terms of how to deal with life in the wake of World War I, just as Dante did in the wake of his exile. Through the connection of personal struggle, a concept that has, and will continue to transcend time, these writers have been able to relate not only to one another but also to their literary works, hundreds of years later.

Bibliography

Eliot, T. S. The Wasteland and Other Poems.  NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1958.

Lummus, David. “Dante’s Inferno: Critical Reception and Influence.” Stanford.edu. Stanford       University, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

<https://www.stanford.edu/dept/DLCL/cgi-bin/web/files/lummus-inferno-influence.pdf&gt;.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos.  NY: New Directions, 1972.

Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of Cal P, 1980.

“Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321).” Ipl2 Literary Criticism. Drexel University, n.d. Web. 21   Nov.2013.

<http://www.ipl.org/div/litcrit/bin/litcrit.out.pl?au=ali-104&gt;.

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