Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dante’s Inferno – Second Level Inquiry

I was reading Dante’s first part of The Divine Comedy: Inferno, for my Well-Educated Mind Self-Project. I have worked out the first level inquiry by summarizing the cantos the last two weeks:

And now, here’s the task of second level inquiry, which requires us to analyze the technical construction of the poem. I’m really a newbie in poems (and narrative poems), but despite of the unfamiliarity, I’m glad to have picked Inferno as one of my WEM project; it has widen my knowledge about poems.

The basic narrative strategy

Dante’s Inferno tells a story, with a beginning, middle and end; it might be said to chronologically tell the poet’s journey to Hell and to witness how human being punished for his deeds while they were alive. Inferno describes Dante’s experiences both physically and mentally; it describes in detail physical places, objects, also sensations to represent how human’s sins were weighed.

The poem’s basic form

Inferno is definitely an epic poem; a long tale of Dante’s journey to Hell. And although there are not quite many heroic deeds in it, Virgil’s bravery to guide and protect Dante through dangerous obstacles from one circle to another is enough to make it epic.

The poem’s syntax

Dante uses quite a lot of poetic dictions to form his poem, although not entirely. For example:

When him I heard in anger speak to me
I turned me round towards him with such same
That still it eddies through my memory.

The lines

Inferno’s lines are often naturally divided into halves (hemistich), here’s one example from Canto I:

Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
The night, which I had passed so piteously.

Here the second line is broken awkwardly, it is normally supposed to be ‘that in my heart’s lake had endured throughout the night’, then followed in the third line: ‘which I had passed so piteously’. But Dante purposely breaks it after ‘throughout’, why? I can only assume that Dante wants to emphasize ‘the night’, because Dante’s journey to hell represents the darkness in human’s soul. Everything seems dark, as dark as ‘night’.

The rhyme pattern

I think Dante uses both masculine rhyme and slant rhyme pattern here. Most of the last syllables are either accented or one-word syllables, and there are similar syllables in a stanza which are not really identical. One example, from the very first stanza of Canto I:

Midway UPON the journey of our LIFE
I FOUND myself within a forest DARK,
For the straightforward pathway had been LOST.

I’m not very good in English poems (as English is not my mother language), but I think ‘life’, ‘dark’ and ‘lost’ are all accented as well as one-word syllables. While ‘upon’ and ‘found’ are not identical, they have a similarity in the pronunciation.

Monologue or dialogue

In Inferno, the dialogue Dante has most often is with Virgil—the Roman poet—who becomes his guide (he has been staying at the Hell, and has been particularly instructed by Beatrice to guide Dante). Dante’s dialogue addressed to Virgil seems to be polite and kind, while Virgil’s is more critical but kind. Dante also carries on dialogue with souls who occupy each circle in Hell. Sometimes he pities them and is quite touched with their suffering, but quite often he is either angry or disgusted with what they have sinned. Sometimes Dante also has a monologue he addresses to his reader, expressing his feeling: fear or angry.



  1. wow, it's so new to me for I've never read any of those. In fact, i never read a complete classic work before, for i only read it for assignment which only deals with fragments of works.
    Hope to read more from this blog, though :)

    1. It's really a pity, because classics are fascinating, you know? You can travel through centuries and learn the interesting fact how they are very relevant to our today's lives. And most of those classics authors wrote very beautifully!

  2. Interesting thoughts. You realize that you are commenting on the poetry of Longfellow's English translation and not the poetry that Dante wrote? The Italian is very different from Longfellow's English. It is written in terza rima which I think you would find interesting (basic introduction here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terza_rima and a good analysis here: http://www.wikisummaries.org/Inferno#Addendum:_Terza_Rima). This creates the emphasis and parallels that you were looking for in the three rhyming word endings.

    The line breaks that you found so awkward in the translation are much more fluid and regular in the original:

    Allor fu la paura un poco queta,
    che nel lago del cor m’era durata
    la notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta.

    Hope you are enjoying it. It is a great work that is worth coming back to again and again.

  3. If you want to hear what the original Italian poem sounds like you could hear it here. The poem itself starts at about 40 seconds:


What do you think?