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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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"Lay down all hope, you that go in by me." So goes the last
line of the ominous message over the lintel of the gateway to
Hell. Dante's reaction is as you'd expect: he is terrified. The
message serves to set the tone of seriousness for the quest, and
to make it clear that Dante's journey, despite the helpers and
the guides, will be a dangerous one. If it weren't, would
anyone want to read about it?

The entire message of the lintel, too, begins to tell what Dante
the pilgrim must learn on his journey. Hell was made by the
power, the wisdom, and the love of God. This probably
sounds paradoxical. If we keep in mind, however, that God
created man with free will, we see Hell has to exist to give
people a choice with that free will. Men are free to turn away
from love and wisdom; they are free to be satisfied with less
than eternal enlightenment and happiness. Hell is that choice.
The message is clearly written over the doorway. Dante will
not understand the message in this way until he has made the
journey through. Possibly we, too, will come back at the end
of our reading to see a clearer, richer meaning in the lintel's

And so the poets enter Hell. Dante's senses are assaulted. The
sights and sounds of confusion, disharmony, and lack of
dignity and distinction astound him. He begs Virgil to identify
these wretched souls who run, tormented by swarms of
hornets and wasps. Virgil tells Dante that these are the souls
of the Opportunists, those who, on earth, could not take a
stand on any issue. Here, too, are the angels who did not fight
with either Michael (God's general) or with Lucifer (the rebel
Satan) in the battle of Heaven. Hell does not want to claim
these souls or to confuse them with those who made a choice,
even if it was the wrong choice. Heaven would not sully itself.
And so those who would not choose in life are goaded forever
in this Vestibule of Hell.

Looking ahead, Dante sees the bank of a wide stream crowded
with souls eager to cross. This is the river Acheron, the first
river in Hell. The name Acheron and the boatman who is
ferrying his way across, Charon, come from Greek mythology.
Charon, old and shaggy, his eyes rimmed with fire, screams at
Dante and Virgil that Dante will have to find another way
across the river: Charon's skiff will not bear the weight of a
living soul. The sound of Charon's bawlings and the sight of
the multitude of shades sliding down the banks, and cursing
all it is possible to curse, combine with the shock of a slight
earthquake to undo Dante. He faints.

NOTE: In a first reading of any poem, a reader is generally
looking for a sense of the meaning and not studying such
subtleties as the kind of language and sentence structure that
a poet uses. Dante's style and language are such a large part
of his structure, meaning, and themes, however, that even a
beginning reader will want to give it some attention.

Hell is ugly. Dante makes us feel the ugliness with the imagery
that appeals to all our senses. In this canto, Dante emphasizes
the volume and the dissonance of the shrieks of the sinners
goaded by the wasps. We see the sinners sliding down the
muddy banks; we hear them screaming curses. We feel the
thud of Charon's oars on the backs of the lingerers. The final
sensory outrage is the shaking of the earth.

Different translations will vary, but most translations of this
canto have many inverted sentences and are filled with harsh,
guttural words. Read the passages about Charon out loud. Is
it hard to read? Is it fluid or choppy?

Dante makes his language create his meaning. When Dante
wants to describe a particularly grotesque aspect, his
language will match his subject. Look for a continuation of
this in other places.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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