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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CANTO VIII

Summary

The two poets notice two flames that suddenly flare up at the top of the tower (in Canto VII they find themselves at the foot of this tower). In response to these flames another flame goes up in the far distance. Dante asks Virgil to explain the purpose of these signals. Virgil directs his attention to the surface of the river (Styx). Dante sees a boat approaching them. Steering the boat is Phlegyas who threatens to capture Dante. But Virgil tells him that he is shouting in vain, for the only thing he needs to do is to help the two poets cross the river.

Although the boatman is enraged a Virgil's word he is powerless to do anything else. The two poets climb abroad. The shade of Virgil is weightless and only when the Pilgrim climbs abroad does the boat carry weight. The boat, with the two poets and the boatman moves swiftly across the river.

A shade rises from the water of the river and questions the Pilgrim about his (Pilgrim's) identity. Dante doesn't reveal his identity but asks the shade who he is. Although the latter doesn't reveal his name Dante recognizes him and curses him. At this the shade, new angry, tries to upturn the boat. But Virgil pushes him back into the river. Virgil praises Dante's indignant attitude toward the sinner. Virgil tells him that this sinner was very arrogant on Earth but has no good deeds to his credit. Therefore, here in Hell, his soul is filled with anger. He says this is the fate of many men who regard themselves very highly on Earth.

Dante expresses his desire to see the sinner's soul dunked deep in the dirty river. Virgil says that it is praise worthy desire and will soon be fulfilled. Shortly Dante witnesses a sinner (Eilippo Argenti) being mauled by a gang of wrathful souls. Thus victimized he goes mad and bites himself.

As the poet moves further (across the river) a loud wailing assails their ears. The Pilgrim tries to see what lies ahead. They are nearing the city of Dis, his guide tells him. Dante can new clearly see the city's towers glowing bright red across the sky. This glow, that permeates the lower Hell, comes from the Eternal fire that burns within the city. Dis is surrounded by great walls and inhabited by fierce souls.


Eventually they find themselves in the moats that circle the city of Dis. Dante notices that the walls guarding the city are as strong as iron. The soil around the city till they reach its entrance. The boatsman asks them to leave the boat at this point.

Many fiendish angels guard the entrance. They get angry at the Pilgrim's presence because he is a living man and only the dead are allowed in Hell. They agree to speak to Virgil in secret but demand the Pilgrim leave the way because he came without any guidance from Virgil. Scared, Dante begs Virgil to stay with him. He adds that if they can't proceed further, it is best if they return from whence they came. Virgil reassures him saying that God has sanctioned their journey. He further asks Dante to wait for him assuring him that he will not desert his ward. Then Virgil leaves him to go confer with the fiendish angels who guard the entrance. The Pilgrim, left alone, is a prey to doubt and fear. He feels alone and scared.

The Pilgrim is unable to hear the exchange between Virgin and the fiendish angels. But it doesn't last long and they (fiendish angels) slam the entrance gates shut in Virgil's face. Virgil returns to Dane, clearly disheartened and downcast at having being denied entrance. He turned to Bolster his ward's spirit by telling him that he will find a way to gain them entry despite the angel's refusal. He tells Dante that they are arrogant by nature and once, in the past, they had barred entrance to another gate; one that should forever remain open. And they failed in their attempt to bar access through it. He is referring to the gates of Hell its inscription (Canto III). Then he points out to a figure, who is approaching them to help them gain entrance to the city.

Notes

The two poets are still in the Fifth Circle of Hell where the wrathful are punished. In the previous Canto (Canto VII) they witness the punishment of the sluggish in the Styx. They walk around the marshy Styx and reach the foot of a tower. The two flames that shoot up from the tower are a signal to Phlogyas, the boatman of the Styx. He responds to this signal and rows to the shore towards the two poets. His task is to ferry souls across the Styx to the city of Dis. The fifth circle is the boundary of outer Hell. And with the city of Dis the region of inner division of Hell commences. The first five circles constitute upper Hell and the remaining circles constitute Lower Hell. Lower Hell leads to the center of the Earth where Dis (the Devil or Lucifer) lies impaled.

Phlegyas is the guardian of the fifth circle where the wrathful are punished. In Roman mythology Phlegyas is the son of Mars (the god of war and warriors). Phlegyas gets enraged with Apollo because the latter rapes his daughter Coronis. In his rage he burns down Apollo's temple at Delphi. Eventually Apollo kills him and banishes him to Tartarus. Thus it is fitting that Dante the poet appoints Phlegyas, as a symbol of great wrath, as the guardian of this circle (where wrathful are punished).

Phlegyas approaches them full of triumphant anger "Aha, I've got you new, you wretched soul!" It is likely that he is referring to the Pilgrim's soul. But Virgil puts a stop to whatever he plans to do by informing him of the nature of their journey. Phlegyas is enraged at being thwarted by powerless against Divine Will. Thus he has to consent to ferry them across the Styx. It is during this journey that a slimy shade rises from the dirty water and addresses the Pilgrim. This is the shade of Eillipo Argenti, a member of the Adimari family is also a Florentine like Dante. He was a political enemy of Dante. The Pilgrim recognizes him and cures him. He refuses to feel any pity for the damned soul of Argenti. This attitude of the Pilgrim should be noted because it contrasts very sharply with the way he has reacted so far towards other damned souls. He showed kindness towards Francesca (CantoV) and Ciacco the glutton (Canto VI). But now he is angry and pitiless towards this shade in Canto VIII. Moreover he desires to see Argenti dunked in the dirty waters. Virgil is all praise for both his new attitude and his wish to see Argenti punished. Virgil's praise shows that the Pilgrim's attitude is not one of childish peevishness to see Argenti punished. Soon the two poets see Argenti attacked by other souls in the water. Argenti goes mad and bites himself. The Pilgrim is so pleased to see this thanks God for this sight.

There is no denying that there is an element of childish anger in he Pilgrim's treatment of Argenti and is pleasure in the sight of Argenti being mauled. This passionate display can be seen as a milestone in the Pilgrim's spiritual development. As Virgil wanted him to, he now despises the soul that sins without repenting. This shows a shift in the desired direction, away from sympathy for the sinner and towards a deep repulsion for sin. Though he still needs to temper his hatred of sin with more maturity and self-control. Nonetheless this development change in the personality of the Pilgrim should be noted and remembered.

As they proceed, Dante easily dismisses Argenti, desiring to waste no more words on him. The poet's omission to the sinner is clearly underlined by his deliberate dismissal of the man (Argenti) and his fate. Now he turns his attention to the noise that seems to be coming from the city of Dis. The wailing sound that he hears indicates that the boat is approaching the city. Virgil describes it as a city protected by big walls and inhabited by "fierce" beings. Dante the Pilgrim perceives the towers of the city jutting above the valley. The city glows bright red as if lit by a fire within. Virgil explains that this glow comes form the "Eternal fire" that burns within the city and its light is diffused throughout Lower Hell. Upper Hell with its five Circles covers the sins of Incontinence of the Seven Capital sins, five are punished in Upper Hell. They are the sins of Lust, Glutton, Avarice, Sloth and Wrath. The sins of Violence are punished in Lower Hell. These include the remaining two capital sins: of Envy and Pride. Thus the walls of the city of Dis can be seen as a demarcation that separates the Upper Hell and Lower Hell.

Phlegyas deposits the two poets at the entrance of the city and leaves. The angels guarding the gates are angry at the Pilgrim's presence because he is a living man. These guardians are described as "fiendish" angels. These are the angels who took Lucifer's side in the latter's fight against God. These angels, after Lucifer's defeat, were damned to Hell along with Lucifer. Now these angels tell Virgil he may come in but he has to leave the Pilgrim outside. Moreover the Pilgrim must find his own way back out of Hell. The Pilgrim is stricken with fear but Virgil assures him that he will not desert his ward. Moreover he reminds Dante that their journey is sanctioned by Divine will and thus unstoppable. H then leaves Dante to confer with the fiendish angels Dante's description of the situation, "with this he walks away. He leaves.... Battling with my thoughts of 'yes' - but 'no'. In this particular tercet, unlike others, the poet uses the present tense. By this device the poet succeeds in helping the reader experience the psychological state of the Pilgrim - the Pilgrim's fear and doubt can be directly felt by the readers as they happen.

Virgil returns unsuccessful from his dialogue with the fiendish angels. This is the first time in the poem that Virgil is shown as "downcast" and will "all self-assurance gone". He is amazed that the fiendish angels have denied them (Dante and Virgil) entrance and shut the gates in their faces. But as he explains to the Pilgrim the insolent attitude of these fallen angels is their characteristic. He further explains how they had tried to bar Christ's way into Hell. But Christ gained entry and new that gate (the principal gate leading into Hell) is open for eternity. He points out that a divine messenger will come to ensure the opening of the gates of the city of Dis. This messenger will come to help, sent from Heaven to aid them in their journey.

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