There are more references to telling and writing stories in Inferno than in either Purgatorio or Paradiso. In this way, to a modern reader, Inferno appears to be the most literary of the three canticas; its concern more with the literary prowess of Dante as author and less about the ecclesiastical instructions. The modern reader finds it hard to ignore the fact that Dante emphasizes the literary aspects of Inferno. Dante’s focus can be seen in numerous ways: the numerous references throughout the text to poets and their creations, the focus on the fame to be gained through telling stories and references to actual writing within the text. Dante the author makes a distinction within the text between shades who talk when prompted by Virgil and Dante and shades who are specifically seduced by the idea of having their story told. The latter shades fall into several categories: shades who wish to be famous, literary figures who wish to be remembered (reread?) in the world above and poets who wish their tales to be retold and referenced.
Dante’s literary emphasis can be seen in how he places importance on the poets in the Inferno from the very beginning. In Canto I, Virgil gives his qualifications as a poet, not a guide to the underworld: “I was a poet and I sang/the just son of Anchises come from Troy/after proud Ilium was put to flame.” (line 73-75). This is also what Dante praises him for when he refers to Virgil as his “teacher” and “author” (line 85). He credits Virgil with the inspiration to write in his “noble style” (line 87). Virgil’s qualifications are partly as a man who has written about the underworld, but in Canto I, Dante appears to want the reader of Inferno to see Virgil as a literary guide. This emphasis on literature is further emphasized with the invocation at the beginning of Canto II. Despite Dante wanting Inferno to be seen as an instructional text for Christians, he opens Canto II with an invocation to the Muses to guide his writing (lines 7-9). Dante then calls Virgil by the title “Poet” emphasizing Virgil’s literary knowledge, and not his knowledge of the underworld. This reference can be interpreted that what Dante chooses Virgil more as a guide for the literary work Dante is writing than for any guidance Virgil can offer to a Christian in Hell. In this way, Virgil’s presence is to help Dante tell the best story he can, as well as to make sure that Dante gets stories from the shades.
Dante continues to emphasize literature by his presentation of the classical poets and the grand characters they’ve created, who all receive special attention. Canto IV focuses on Dante’s encounter with the classical poets, and his inclusion in their midst: “Honor the loftiest of poets!” (line 80). Dante in a sign of literary arrogance manages to include himself in this great company: “And then they showed me greater honor still, /for they made me one of their company” (lines 100-101). This inclusion in such lofty company will come up again when Dante addresses his own writing later in the poem. He goes on to describe the people in Limbo who are the creations of these great poets: Electra, Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Camilla, Penthesilea, Julia, Marcia, Latinus, Lavinia, Brutus, Lucretia, and Cornelia. Dante creates another literary list in Canto V when he lists the ladies and knights. Throughout Inferno, Dante encourages shades to speak to him by bribing them with the idea of having their story written down. These instances differ slightly from those in their placement. These shades, while they do have interesting stories, are valuable because they are the creations of great poets. Therefore, the structure Dante is focusing on here is the importance of poets and their poetry, not necessarily the stories these shades have to tell. These “classical” shades do share with their counterparts a desire to have their story told. The further influence of literature is seen in Francesca’s story, where she blames her fall on the power of literature (lines 130-138). Again, it is the power of the author of the literature that is emphasized; Francesca is simply the vehicle for conveying this information. The continued emphasis on poetry and poets can be seen again in canto 15 when Dante once again stresses the importance of poets as teachers and guides but this time with the more modern example in Brunetto. Dante credits Brunetto with how he was taught “how man makes himself immortal.” (line 85). As in the earlier example of the classical poets, with including himself in their lofty company, Dante is stressing the importance of poets in his poem while also elevating his own poetry.
The next structure that Dante uses to emphasize the literary nature of Inferno is the use of the written word. In Inferno writing is divided into two categories: the writing actually seen by Dante the pilgrim and the references Dante the author makes to his own writing. Surprisingly, there are only four direct references to the written word in Inferno. In Canto 3, there is the reference to the writing above the gates of Hell:
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE CITY OF WOE,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY AMONG THE LOST.
JUSTICE MOVED MY MAKER ON HIGH.
DIVINE POWER MADE ME,
WISDOM SUPREME, AND PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING WAS BUT THINGS ETERNAL,
AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
Dante returns again to the image of writing and the power of it in Canto 8 when he recalls for the reader the image of the “deadly writing” that stands above the gate of hell (lines 127-130).
The last reference to the written word, versus Dante’s own written work, in Inferno comes in Canto 11, when Dante encounters the writing above the tomb of Pope Anastasius “I hold Pope Anastasius: Photinus drew him from the right and proper path.” (lines 8-9). This is of note because it is one of the few times that Dante sees writing in hell, or indeed in any of the canticas. The shades in this circle are punished for the sin of fraud, yet the words seem to hold the truth, which is interesting for the simple fact that it is just as easy to lie with the written word as it is with the oral. This writing though, is meant to convey the truth of the occupant. An ongoing idea in Dante’s entire Commedia is that he expects the reader to take this fantastical tale and if not take it for reality, then to at least recognize the truth contained within it. The idea of seeking any sort of truth from a group of sinners may seem paradoxical however, Dante frames the entire Inferno with the art of storytelling; both his own and that of the shades.
In Canto 9 Dante addresses the reader directly and the topic is his own writing: “O you who have sound intellects, /consider the teaching that are hidden/behind the veil of these strange verses.” (lines 61-63). Dante apparently wants to make it clear to his reader the strange and hidden meanings that writing can reveal but also to reinforce that this is a work of literature. In canto 32, Dante returns again to the mention of his own language within the poem:
If I had verses harsh enough and rasping
as would befit this dismal hole
upon which all the other rocks weight down,
more fully would I press out the juice/of my conception. But, since I lack them,
with misgiving do I bring myself to speak.
Here, Dante’s language seems to fail him in describing the vision that greets him on this level of Hell. It may be that due to the high opinion of his own literature that Dante simply doesn’t want to lower himself to use the language needed to describe the scene. Just when the reader has almost reached the end of the journey with Dante the pilgrim, Dante the author lets the reader down. Given the fantastical and grotesque descriptions that he has given up until now, this seems out of place. Since this is the last time Dante refers to writing in Inferno, perhaps he is emphasizing an end to storytelling in this cantica.
Returning to Canto 3, Dante turns to Virgil for help in understanding the inscription above the gates of Hell: “Master, for me their meaning is hard.” (lines 12). Dante seems to need help in not only interpreting his own work but in composing it as well. Dante seems unsure about what story he is supposed to be telling, as there are times when he chooses not to report on certain activities or people. He glosses it as being something that the world will “not permit report of them.” (line 49). In this case, Dante’s references to his own written work become even more valuable to the reader.
The third structure, that of storytelling can be seen throughout Inferno and it is important to define storytelling in this context. Throughout Inferno Virgil and Dante hear the stories of the different shades. However, there is a marked difference between the explanations that the shades tell on their own and the situations in which either Virgil or Dante specifically ask for the story of the shade so that Dante may write it down and carry the tale back to the world. In Canto 6, Ciacco asks of Dante “bring me back to mind” (line 41) and “But when you have returned to the sweet world/I pray you bring me to men’s memory.” (lines 88-89). Dante’s power over the shades lies in his ability to tell their story to the world even though they are dead. By rewriting some of the classic characters, the reader is meant to infer that Dante’s power is great if he’s willing to not only rewrite the classics, but to have the audacity to state that his version is the correct one.
Canto 16 offers a twist on Dante and his storytelling. In this instance Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi ask Dante to “let our fame prevail on you/to tell us who you are, who fearless/move on living feet through Hell.” (lines 31-33). In this case, it is the shades that want to hear Dante’s tale and not the other way around. Yet, both serve the same purpose as Dante is still able to write the story down. Later in the exchange the shades leave Dante with one admonition “See that you speak of us to others.” (line 85). Later in Canto 28 with the interaction with Bertran de Born, Dante returns once again to the idea of his story acting as a conduit for the stories of the shades back to the living. Bertran asks only that Dante “carry back the news of me” (line 133). This foreshadows the words of the shades of Purgatory who ask Dante to carry back their names, not so that their story can be told but so that they can be prayed for.
The nature of storytelling and fiction, specifically the fallibility of words is seen in Canto 13 when Virgil speaks to Dante, warning him of what he will soon see: “Look well-/you will see things that, in my telling, /would seem to strip my words of truth.” (lines 19-21). Virgil who has been set up as Dante’s literary and spiritual guide warns him that Virgil’s shifting authority is not necessarily to be trusted. Dante the author has already set this up by describing Virgil as a character who comes close to the truth, but misses the point, the revelation at the end. Virgil also cashes in on Dante’s value as a storyteller when he tells Pier delle Vigne to “tell him who you were, so that, by way/ of recompense, he may revive your fame/up in the world, where he’s permitted to return.” (lines 52-54). Again, given that the suicides are denied even bodies, the idea of living on in a greater way is a very appealing concept. Dante’s ability to not just listen to these stories, but carry them back to the world as a piece of literature is what is stressed. Dante specifically acknowledges the importance of fiction writing in Canto 16: “To a truth that bears the face of falsehood/a man should seal his lips if he is able,/for it might shame him, through no fault of his,/but here I can’t be silent. And by the strains/of this Comedy- so may they soon succeed/in finding favor- I swear to you, reader.” (lines 124-129) Dante acknowledges the fiction that he writes, but also asks that his lies, for lack of a better term, find favor with his readers.
In canto 26 the reader it is Virgil who asks the shades to tell Dante their story, by appealing to their love of his writing to get them to tell theirs:
if I have earned your favor while I lived,
if I have your favor-in whatever measure-
when, in the world, I wrote my lofty verses,
then do not move away. Let one of you relate
just where, having lost his way, he went to die.
He is successful, and Ulysses tells his tale to them. The fact that it is Ulysses that stops and tells his tale is worth noting. First, that Dante the author would choose Ulysses as the representative epic hero rather than Achilles or Aeneas, considering that Virgil is his guide. Second, that the focus here is not on the sin that the shade committed, but rather how he died. Dante the author seems to again draw the reader’s attention to the great tale the shade has to tell with his glorious end, rather than emphasize the sin he is there being punished for. Finally, the fact that it is Virgil who must ask the story of a hero that is not his own is intriguing. Ulysses is unique in that Virgil doesn’t outright appeal to his vanity to get the story. Ulysses seems more than willing to tell his story. This is in contrast to canto 31 where Virgil must appeal to the vanity of the giant Antaeus so that he and Dante aren’t harmed in trying to use Antaeus as transportation: “He still can make you famous in the world,/because he lives,” (lines 127-128). It seems that even the non-shade inhabitants are susceptible to the lure of having their story told.
In canto 27, Dante returns again to the idea of appealing to the vanity of the shades so that they will tell their story. He tells Guido da Montefeltro that it is in his best interest to tell his story “so may your name continue in the world.” (line 57). The further Dante goes in Hell, the more the appeal for having the story told changes. In canto 28, Mohammed is not interested in having his own story told, but rather he wishes Dante to “warn Fra Dolcino” (line 56) so that perhaps he can avoid his fate. He then goes on to ask Dante to warn Guido and Angiolello of the treachery they will experience (lines76-81). This transition makes perfect sense because as Dante the pilgrim approaches Purgatory he should be more concerned with salvation than with storytelling.
While throughout most of Inferno Dante and Virgil have no problems convincing shades to share their stories, the further Dante travels down into Hell, the more reticent the shades are to have their stories told. The act of storytelling changes so that Dante finds himself recording the motivations for why the shades don’t wish their stories told, and in the case of Bocca, using telling stories as a kind of literary blackmail. In canto 18, Venedico Caccianemico says “unwillingly I tell it” (line 52). Yet he goes on to say that the reason he does tell is because he has been “moved only by the truth of what you’ve said” (line 53). Again in Canto 21, Dante addresses the idea of what his Comedy will discuss and cover when he says he and Virgil reached the highest point and that they were “speaking/of things my Comedy does not care to sing.” (lines 2-3). One has to wonder, with such a grand undertaking, and how specific he is, what exactly Dante would see as something that he didn’t care to write or explain.
In canto 32, Dante encounters the most resistance from shades not wanting to tell their story. Camiscion de’ Pazzi says that Dante will “coax no further words from me” (line 67). However, Dante continues to try to bribe the stories out of shades by promising to make them famous, and it continues to work until Dante encounters Bocca. Dante tries to convince him to tell his story: “if it’s fame you seek, /it might turn out to your advantage/if I put your name amoung the others I have noted.” (lines 91-93). However, the shade of Bocca is not to be moved, and not even the physical violence Dante commits against him can make Bocca tell his story. However, by this point, Dante does not need Bocca to tell his own story, he has figured it out and threatens to use what he knows “to your shame/shall I bring back true news of you” (lines 110-111). Bocca is an oddity in that he seems not to care what Dante will say of him, he tells him to “tell what tale you will” (line 112). While Dante encounters two more shades who tell their story, Count Ugolino and Fra Aberigo, neither has to be prompted or bribed by Dante to do so.
It seems fitting that Bocca’s story is the last we hear. Dante has reached the end of his story to tell, and how ironic that the last person whose story we hear does so unwillingly. If we return to the idea of Dante wanting his readers to extract truth and not reality, maybe the end analysis is that the truth is, no matter what. Just as Dante will tell Bocca’a tale, and the “true news” no matter what, so will Dante tell the greater truth through Inferno. Perhaps it is only through fiction, whether it is prose or poetry, that the truth can be told. Dante’s emphasis on great poets, their characters, the written word itself and the art of storytelling certainly seems to say as much.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Ed. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. January 2002. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.