Canto 1

  • Halfway through his life, Dante found himself in a “Dark Wood” & going down the “wrong path”. He didn’t know how he got there because he’d been “sleeping” when he’d gotten off the “true path”.
    • He saw the “mountain” in the distance & resolved himself to climb it but he didn’t know how to get there. The path he’d been on was no way to get to the mountain but couldn’t find another way.
      • Anywhere he tried to move towards the mountain, he got blocked. There was a panther blocking his 1st attempt. The 2nd attempt was blocked by a lion. The 3rd attempt was blocked by a she-wolf. Each animal was more vicious than the previous one. He began to lose any hope of ever climbing the mountain.
  • Just at this point, a shadowy figure approached him from the woods & introduced himself. It was the Roman poet, Virgil – Dante’s all-time favorite. Dante was star-struck. But he pulled himself together to ask Virgil how he’d be able to get past the wild animals threatening him on the path.
    • Virgil told him he couldn’t go up the way near the animals. He had to go on another path. The she-wolf was the most brutal of all.
    • The only one who could defeat her was the greyhound. He fed on wisdom & love, & would be the savior of all Italy & hunt the wolf down to the pits of Hell.
    • But in the meantime, Dante had to follow Virgil through all of Hell & see the condemned souls to be able to pass through to the Mountain. After climbing the mountain, Virgil would have to pass him off to someone else. Since he wasn’t welcome in Heaven. Dante agreed & they were off.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Dark Wood – generally sinful or hardness of heart that possesses a soul making it unable to turn to God or even knowing how to get to him
  • Mountain – a soul’s ascent to God which can only be accessed from the “right road”. Once a man is lost & unable to climb the mountain, he must learn the only way up is to overcome the sin & Hell within himself.
  • Beasts – images of sin associated with lust, pride & greed, 3 types of sin to be visited in Hell.
    • Leopard – self-indulgent sins – Moral Incontinence
    • Lion – violent sins – Bestiality
    • She-Wolf – malicious sins – Fraud
  • Greyhound – perhaps a political savior who will establish a just world empire. It has the attributes of God & perhaps is the reign of the Holy Ghost on earth.

Canto 2

  • The day was fading & Dante began to ask Virgil why he’d been chosen to go through Hell.
    • Virgil had written about Aeneas going through the underworld. Aeneas made sense because he was the founder of Rome which would become the home of the Church later.
    • But Dante wasn’t Aeneas or Paul. Why was he fit for such a task? What if he failed?
    • Virgil told him his reluctance was down to sheer cowardice that causes men bound for honorable deeds to go astray.
      • Virgil told Dante that a lady came to him to ask him to be Dante’s guide. She told him he was on the wrong path & needed help. Her name was Beatrice, a woman from Dante’s life. She was told by St. Lucy who was told by the Blessed Virgin to step in. Apparently, Dante wasn’t receptive to divine influence. But since Dante was such a big fan of Virgil, perhaps his words could help him.
      • Virgil berated him for being cowardly. He was there to help at the behest of Beatrice, Lucy & Mary. He didn’t have the right to refuse.
      • Dante felt a surge of courage & enthusiasm with him & spoke to Virgil about how grateful he was for being looked after. He would follow Virgil into Hell.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Mary, the Blessed Virgin –  Beatrice is put in the same class as the Mother of God, the vessel of Divine Grace. Mary’s & Christ’s name are never spoken in Hell.
  • St. Lucy –  a virgin martyr of the 3rd Century, patron of those with weak sight, an image of illuminating grace. Mary, Lucy & Beatrice are similar images of Divine Grace in various manifestations.
  • Virgil’s Mission – Dante is so far gone in his sin & error that Divine Grace can no longer move him. But he can still respond to the voice of poetry & human reason. Using these, he can be led back to God. Dante puts religion in one hand & human art & philosophy in the other.

Canto 3

  • Dante & Virgil approach a gateway to Hell with a sign written above it: “Road to city of desolation, prolonged sorrows, lost creation. Justice moved my maker, God: the power & highest wisdom & highest love. There was nothing before I was made, except eternal things. Law down all hope if you enter me.”
    • Dante was put off by these words. But Virgil told him not to fear. He tried to warn him earlier that they were about to see the miserable race of men who lost the good of intellect.
    • Inside, there was sighing, crying & lamentation – very off-putting to Dante & he asked what all the noise was about.
    • Virgil answered that these were the people who never had any judgment passed on them – neither good nor bad. They didn’t rebel from God but weren’t faithful to him either. They were self-absorbed. Heaven didn’t want them & neither did Hell.
    • Dante asked why they carried on so. Virgil explained they had no hope of death. Not having a reputation is a form of agony – no mercy or doom.
      • He watched them chasing a banner around but never catching it. He even recognized one man among the souls – Pope Celestine V who refused the Papacy. Both God & his evil enemies hated him. He was amongst the low lives who’d never really lived. They all ran around being stung by hornets & wasps until their tear-stained cheeks bled causing a briny mixture of blood & tears that fed the worms beneath their feet.
      • Dante asked about them but Virgil told him to move along & ignore them, & not to give them the attention they crave & never got, & move to the River Acheron. Dante was a bit sore about Virgil being so abrupt but held his tongue to avoid a fight.
    • At the riverside, they saw a boatman, Charon, rowing towards them. He was the Acheron’s ferryman but as he was ushering the dead condemned souls on to his boat, he told Dante he only carried the dead & Dante wasn’t welcome.
      • Dante stepped in & told him that a will & power ordered they be taken across. Charon acquiesced & eventually they started off.
    • The boat was filled with miserable souls ready to go into Hell which officially started on the other side of the river. Virgil told Dante those who die while in God’s ire come to this place. Good souls never make the journey, so if Charon, gave him flak, that’s good sign for him.
      • Just as they were crossing, an earthquake started & Dante passed out.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Hell-Gate – is always ready to receive those who are lost in the Dark Wood. Anyone can enter but there’s any hope of leaving because those who died were already on a long road to go there of their own volition. The souls in Hell are there out of sin in the self or society.
  • Vestibule – from Virgil’s Aeneid, not Christianity. Heaven & Hell are destinations attained by choice. But the vestibule is for those who were indecisive. The spirits chase a banner, are stung & prodded.
  • Acheron – (“joyless”)  1st river in Hell. Dante takes them from Virgil who took them from Homer.
  • Charon – the ferryman of the dead. Those who perform the functions of Hell are from Classical Mythology. They aren’t devils or damned souls but images of perverted appetites, presided over the circles appropriate to their natures.

 

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