Phlegyas grudgingly ferries Virgil and Dante cross the Styx. On their way, they see Filippo Argenti, who tries to get into the boat. They arrive at the great walled City of Dis.
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Continuing where I left off,This opening phrase has generated a considerable amount of commentary – and some interesting legends. On the surface of it, quite clearly Dante is bridging between Cantos 7 and 8. The previous … Continue reading let me explain, before we got to that high tower, we saw two small fires flare up at the top. And far off in the distance, though we could hardly see it, another signal flame flashed back.This was not an uncommon sight in Dante’s time. Traveling around Italy today, one can still see many hilltop towns fortified by walls, and with towers from which citizens or soldiers might see off … Continue reading Of course, I turned to that sea of knowledge by my side and asked: “What kind of signal do you think this is up there, and what do you think that other one is answering? Who’s doing this?”
He replied: “Your answer is already speeding across the murky waves of this swamp, unless its thick noxious vapors conceal it from you.”Dante’s curiosity is answered with Virgil’s “See for yourself.” The play on words in English (sea and see) still points to a lesson Dante needs to learn while he’s traveling further down … Continue reading
Well, an arrow never shot off from a bow as fast as a little boat could be seen right then skimming over the marsh toward us. The lonely figure in the boat shouted at us as he steered it: “Aha! Now I’ve got you, you wicked soul!”
But Virgil was quick: “Phlegyas, Phlegyas! You’re shouting in vain. You’ve got us only as long as it’ll take you to ferry us across this slough.”Recall when Dante and Virgil approached the Acheron in Canto 3. Charon shouted at Dante and Virgil challenged him back. Here, the scene repeats itself, this time with Phlegyas. Once again, Dante … Continue reading
At that, Phlegyas looked like someone had played a terrible trick on him – he was really angry.When Phlegyas shouted in his blind wrath, “Now I’ve got you, you wicked soul!”, an interesting question is whether this was directed at Dante, whom he must have realized was alive, or Virgil, … Continue reading But my guide just calmly stepped into that little boat, and then had me get in behind him. Fascinating: when I got in, the boat dipped down. And right away we were off, the boat heavier than it had ever been before.This is the first, but not the last time Dante will make reference to his weight as though to verify that he is truly alive and that what he experiences is truly happening.
We hadn’t gone far when, all of a sudden, a slimy shade rose right up out of that dead muck and said: “Who are you? You’re here early!”
I shot back: “I may be early, but I’m not staying. And who are you, ugly as slimy sin!”
He backed off a bit and said: “As you can see, I’m one who weeps.”
“Well, I hope you go right on weeping and wailing in this place forever, you damned soul!” I answered. “Filthy as you are, I know who you are.”As we will discover soon enough, this is the soul of Filippo Argenti. Dante must have recognized him as soon as he saw him, but he never identifies him by name. What’s significant here, however, is … Continue reading
When he heard that, he lunged toward our boat. But wary Virgil shoved him back: “Get away from us, you filthy dog! Get back there with the others.” Then he gave me a big hug and kissed me, saying: “What delicious outrage! Blessed is your mother in whose womb you were conceived! In the living world, this one was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, and he did nothing worth remembering. And he’s still the same way down here. You know how lots of people think of themselves as being really great persons? Well, they end up down here like pigs wallowing in the mud! They were mean-spirited when they were alive, and that’s all they’re remembered for.”As we see, the fight isn’t over. We’ve been among the wrathful sinners, watching them fight and tear at each other or gurgle in sullen fury beneath the murky Styx. But as this scene comes to a … Continue reading
Agreeing with him, I said: “Master, I’d love nothing better than to see him dunked deep into this slop-hole before we leave here – just once!”
“You know… OK. Before we get to the other side, your wish will be granted. It’s a good wish.” And in no time at all, I saw that guy terribly mangled by a whole gang of spirits just like him. I know it’s bad, but to this day I thank God I got to see that!On the surface, it seems a bit difficult to justify the remainder of this scene, unless we keep in mind that what Dante wishes for and Virgil approves is, already, what has been determined by divine … Continue reading
“Get Filippo Argenti!” that mud-gang shouted. And what do you think happened next? Seeing the troop rushing toward him, that Florentine, Argenti, went stark-raving mad and started biting and chewing on himself like some crazed beast! What a sight! We just moved on and left him there.In this scene Dante gets more than he asked for. He had simply asked to see Argenti dunked into the swampy muck – keeping in mind that the sinner had just been tossed from the boat. Instead, … Continue reading
But soon enough I began to hear sounds of terrible wailing and crying, and I forced myself to look ahead as far as I could. Hearing the same thing, Virgil said: “My son, we’re approaching the City of Dis with its high walls and evil citizens.”As the travelers move on, the angry shouting of the wrathful gives way to screams and cries in the distance ahead of them. In Roman mythology, Dis was the name for Pluto, god of the Underworld. In … Continue reading
“Yes,” I said, “I can see the glow of it already. It’s rising minarets seem red hot, as though they just came out of a forge.”
And he said: “You’re right. Eternal fire burns within that place, and that’s what gives the rest of Hell its reddish glow.”The word minarets (in some translations mosques), unmistakably evokes the religion of Islam which, in Dante’s time was considered as a heretical sect. In Dante’s conception here, these heretical … Continue reading
Finally, we came into the moat that surrounds this woeful city whose walls seemed to be made of solid iron. We sailed around for quite a while till we reached the right spot. Then that hateful boatman screamed at us: “Get out of here! There’s the gate over there.”Put together, the various descriptions of this place remind the reader of a great medieval fortress, complete with its walls, its towers, and its moat. If we follow Dante’s directions here, they … Continue reading
Well, when we got out, I saw thousands of hellish fiends crowding on top of the walls. They were in a rage, shrieking – about me! “Who’s this one coming up? Who is he, not dead yet, who dares to walk right into the kingdom of the dead?”Dante doesn’t use the words devils or fallen angels here (though various translations do), but he does say that these creatures rained down from heaven, so we can assume that they are from that … Continue reading
My wise Virgil made some gesture toward them that he wanted to talk to them alone. So, they held their anger in check just enough to tell him: “OK, you can come, but that one there, who’s bold enough to think he can just walk through our kingdom – he’s got to turn around and walk back out – if he can! But you who led him here, you stay right there!”Virgil’s attempt at quick diplomacy falls on deaf ears. He can proceed, but Dante must turn around and leave Hell by himself – if he can remember the way. Another shock. Of course, this is a … Continue reading
Ohh, my…. Think how I felt when I heard what they said! I fully thought I was about to die and never see this world again! In my distress I pleaded with Virgil: “My dear, dear guide! More than seven times you’ve encouraged me to be strong, and you’ve rescued me from all the dangers we’ve encountered. Please, please don’t leave me now. If our travels have to stop here, that’s OK with me. Let’s just turn around and get out of here quick!”
That gentle lord who had guided me all this way said: “Don’t be afraid. Trust me, this journey of ours has been willed in Heaven and no one can stop us. You just wait for me here and comfort yourself with the thought that I will never leave you. I promise!”This is the most serious moral problem Dante has had to face so far. It’s so serious, as a matter of fact, that Dante stops the narrative for a moment and addresses the reader directly: “Think … Continue reading
With that, he went off – my gentle father – to negotiate with those wild fiends. And I was left with the battle of my doubts about whether we’d be able to go on, or whether we’d have to go back. Because they were a ways off, I couldn’t hear what Virgil and those fiends were saying, but whatever it was, it ended quickly. The fiends raced back inside the walls of the infernal city. They slammed the heavy gates right in Virgil’s face!
The poor man… he turned around and slowly walked back to me, utterly defeated. In disbelief he shrugged: “Who do they think they are to prevent us from going forward into their realm of sorrow? But, listen. Don’t be upset by me. I will win this fight no matter what they do to keep us out of there! Their sass is nothing new. They used it once at the gate we entered through when we started this journey – the one with the dreaded words carved above it. That gate has been – and will always be – unlocked. You can be sure that right now, as I speak, one has already come through it who will open this city of the damned for us.”Virgil has been able to navigate around every problem he and Dante have encountered so far – except this one. He’s disappointed, and to give the demons’ behavior some context, he ties what has … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This opening phrase has generated a considerable amount of commentary – and some interesting legends. On the surface of it, quite clearly Dante is bridging between Cantos 7 and 8. The previous canto ended with he and Virgil arriving at the foot of a great tower and, as will soon see, he takes up, “continuing,” where he left off – in that same spot. Basically, he loops back to the end of Canto 7 in order to grab us by the sleeve, as it were, and pull us forward where he will tell us about the signal atop the tower which he didn’t mention at the close of Canto 7. But here is where things become more subtle. The words Dante uses in his opening phrase, “Io dico, seguitando, ch’…” (“I say, continuing, that…”), in particular the word seguitando, leads some older interpreters to wonder whether this implies a break in time during which Dante stopped writing his poem, and after which he takes it up again…”continuing.” Theories abound, but they’re short on hard evidence. To conflate them, it seems that Dante wrote the first seven cantos and left them at home when he traveled to Rome just before he was exiled. Unable to return to Florence under pain of death, the early cantos came back into Dante’s hands in 1306 when he was at the court of the Marchese Moroello Malaspina in Lunigiana (between Pisa and Genoa). And so he resumed the Inferno “continuing” at Canto 8. In Dante’s day, it was quite common that the homes of people who were exiled or condemned in various ways were looted and burned. Another story has it that when Dante’s wife, Gemma, heard of her husband’s condemnation, her family took many items from Dante’s house to that of another relative for safe keeping, including a large chest. Later, looking for some important documents, Gemma sent a nephew to find that chest and retrieve the needed papers. Among them, the nephew discovered the first seven cantos of the Inferno and gave them to Dino Frescobaldi, an important poet and contemporary on Dante’s. When he read them, Frescobaldi delivered them to Malaspina, who returned them to Dante, urging him to finish the work he had started. So, while there is no major evidence for this interruption, not less a figure than the great Boccaccio (1313-1375) who lectured on Dante and wrote a major commentary on the Comedy, saw in the first phrase of this canto a definite interruption due, as noted above, to Dante’s banishment from Florence. And it should be noted that Dante simply called his poem La Commedia. It was Boccaccio who added the word “divine.”|
|↑2||This was not an uncommon sight in Dante’s time. Traveling around Italy today, one can still see many hilltop towns fortified by walls, and with towers from which citizens or soldiers might see off into the distance or send signals. Reading here, one might imagine one of those fortified cities at night with fire signals atop the towers. As for the fires here, we need to remember that Dante and Virgil are at the River Styx and need to get across. We don’t know who sends the signals but the two flames atop the tower near the travelers most likely indicate that two people need to be ferried across the marsh, while the single flame from the far distant tower says “OK.”|
|↑3||Dante’s curiosity is answered with Virgil’s “See for yourself.” The play on words in English (sea and see) still points to a lesson Dante needs to learn while he’s traveling further down into Hell. Dante refers to Virgil as a “sea” of knowledge. That “sea” tells Dante to “see.”|
|↑4||Recall when Dante and Virgil approached the Acheron in Canto 3. Charon shouted at Dante and Virgil challenged him back. Here, the scene repeats itself, this time with Phlegyas. Once again, Dante brings a character from classical mythology to take a role in his Inferno. Phlegyas, whose name means “fiery” or “fiery one,” was the son of Mars. When his daughter, Coronis, was violated by Apollo, Phlegyas, gone mad with revenge, set fire to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. The god killed Phlegyas for his sacrilege and condemned him to Tartarus, a place of torture deep in the Underworld. Dante makes good use of him as guardian of the Styx (which means “hateful”) and its wrathful inhabitants and as a link to a wrathful encounter about to come.|
|↑5||When Phlegyas shouted in his blind wrath, “Now I’ve got you, you wicked soul!”, an interesting question is whether this was directed at Dante, whom he must have realized was alive, or Virgil, whom he must have realized was dead. Virgil answers for both himself and Dante, and only conditionally: “…as long as it’ll take you….” Looking as though he’d been tricked, it may be that Phlegyas – appropriately blinded by rage – didn’t see well until it was too late, and he ends up taking two passengers. Without another word, they simply get into his boat. But he’s not really a ferryman in the sense that Charon was, taking boatloads of souls across the Acheron. His is a “little boat.” And since he’s the guardian of this place, he might have thought at first that a soul either had left the slimy fight or the gurgling muck, or was on his way to some other place of punishment. Thus the “Aha! Now I’ve got you….” The “trick” is most likely that while he might have had some other evil intent, he simply has to take them to the other side. In the end, Dante doesn’t think it’s necessary to fill in these details. His main concern right now is to cross the swamp.|
|↑6||This is the first, but not the last time Dante will make reference to his weight as though to verify that he is truly alive and that what he experiences is truly happening.|
|↑7||As we will discover soon enough, this is the soul of Filippo Argenti. Dante must have recognized him as soon as he saw him, but he never identifies him by name. What’s significant here, however, is the dialogue. Why Filippo would ask who Dante was and then say that he’s actually here early is somewhat of a mystery. Except that it was most likely meant as an insult, as were Dante’s heated replies. Filippo was of the Cavicciuli-Adimari family, Black Guelfs who were bitterly opposed to Dante. It is said that “Argenti” (silver) was a nickname because Filippo was so rich and so proud that he even shod his horse in silver. He was a big man, loud, and prone to extreme fits of anger at the least provocation. His hatred of Dante is obvious when he tells him that he’s “early.” Seeing Dante, his political enemy, in the boat while he’s mired in the fetid swamp must have increased the anger he was already condemned for. Dante never identifies himself, and perhaps as a nasty response to one of his enemies, he rouses the proud sinner’s wrath even more by asking who he is, covered with slime. With that, Filippo seems to have met his match, and now identifies himself as “one who weeps.” This may be a sad admission for such a proud man; more likely it’s an arrogant taunt this proud man throws back at Dante, knowing that the trouble he caused Dante in life would certainly have made him weep. Of course, in earlier cantos, an admission like this on the sinner’s part brought pity and sympathy from Dante. But not here. Is Dante starting to “grow up” in the face of terrible sin rather than having another emotional cave-in? Dante adds his own condemnation of Filippo with not an ounce of pity, and without naming him, tells the sinner he knows exactly who he is under his mask of mud. In life, Argenti’s wrathful arrogance left no room for pity, and here in Hell he gets none! While one might be tempted to think less of Dante for his part in this petty fight, looked at differently Dante’s behavior is probably better understood as righteous anger, not so much at the sinner as the sin – but even here, Dante has a ways to go. In Canto 6 Ciacco told Dante that Florence was being ruined by pride, envy, and greed. Here we might well add anger, and later we can add violence. Dante has seen how his city was torn apart by this sin, and when he sees one of the perpetrators, he lets go. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The fight is not over yet.|
|↑8||As we see, the fight isn’t over. We’ve been among the wrathful sinners, watching them fight and tear at each other or gurgle in sullen fury beneath the murky Styx. But as this scene comes to a climax with Filippo Argenti, it seems that both Dante and Virgil also get caught up in the anger of this place – incited, of course, by Argenti. Argenti tries to get into the boat and this time Virgil, who’s been watching the scene, steps in and shoves the raging spirit back into the swamp. Rather dramatic, but that’s not all. He hugs and kisses Dante! Virgil? Yes, and he praises him for how he behaved with the wrathful sinner. And not only that, his initial words echo both Elizabeth’s greeting to the Virgin Mary (Lk. 1:42) and the words of a woman in the crowd of Jesus’ hearers, who praised him by praising his mother (Lk. 11:27). Catholic readers will also hear an echo of the “Hail, Mary”: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These affirmations, Virgil’s strong words about Argenti, and his moral anecdote about arrogance all seem to validate Dante’s progress and growth along the poem’s moral journey.|
|↑9||On the surface, it seems a bit difficult to justify the remainder of this scene, unless we keep in mind that what Dante wishes for and Virgil approves is, already, what has been determined by divine judgment. Anything else but savage fury would distort that judgment. Dante most likely includes this coda to show that he concurs with the judgment of God as another aspect of his own moral growth.|
|↑10||In this scene Dante gets more than he asked for. He had simply asked to see Argenti dunked into the swampy muck – keeping in mind that the sinner had just been tossed from the boat. Instead, Argenti is attacked by a gang of wild sinners and, seeing them about to descend on him, he starts biting and chewing on himself! This bestial scene brings the episode to a dramatic close as Dante – admitting that it’s not the right thing – thanks God that he got to witness it. What he got to witness was a stark example of the result of enslaving one’s reason to appetite – the underlying problem in this whole section of Hell. Not only have we encountered sinners in the last two cantos who are virtually unrecognizable, but their humanity has been so eroded by their sin that they have become animals preying upon each other, even to the point of destroying themselves. But just as such enslavement turns the beauty of our creation upside down, Dante creates a canto in which everything is upside down or out of proportion, confused. The savage rage of the sinners distorts, disfigures, and dehumanizes them. Witnessing this punishment for the purpose of his own moral growth, Dante doesn’t succumb to pity as he did in earlier cantos, but to anger. More than that, Virgil, his guide, who represents the highest achievement of human reason, becomes infected with wrath himself. The question here may be how long one can remain a bystander to sin until one becomes ensnared in it themselves. Or how long do we settle for our small sins as housemates until, finding ourselves overtaken by such “guests” we also find ourselves in that dark moral wilderness and its attendant beasts as Dante did in Canto 1?|
|↑11||As the travelers move on, the angry shouting of the wrathful gives way to screams and cries in the distance ahead of them. In Roman mythology, Dis was the name for Pluto, god of the Underworld. In Christian terms this would be Lucifer. We are approaching the boundary between upper and lower Hell, upper Hell where the lesser sins of the appetites are punished, and all of lower Hell where the more terrible sins of violence and fraud are punished. The “high walls and evil citizens” comprise this “city.”|
|↑12||The word minarets (in some translations mosques), unmistakably evokes the religion of Islam which, in Dante’s time was considered as a heretical sect. In Dante’s conception here, these heretical places of worship, counter to Christian churches, are red hot and they give the city of Dis a lurid glow from the distance. Just as images of cities from afar show their spires and towers, so this city of the damned shows first the evidence of its wicked cults. Filled with heretics, this is a place of blasphemy and disbelief. As a matter of fact, once inside the City, Dante will discover countless fiery tombs filled with heretics. Contrary to popular conceptions, and phrases like “the fires of Hell,” Dante’s Hell has fire in a few appropriate places, but not everywhere.|
|↑13||Put together, the various descriptions of this place remind the reader of a great medieval fortress, complete with its walls, its towers, and its moat. If we follow Dante’s directions here, they have left the marshy Styx and have been sailing for a while in a moat paralleling the walls of Dis until they come to the city’s gate. There Phlegyas rudely sends Virgil and Dante scurrying off the boat.|
|↑14||Dante doesn’t use the words devils or fallen angels here (though various translations do), but he does say that these creatures rained down from heaven, so we can assume that they are from that group of rebellious angels who were thrown down from heaven with their leader, Lucifer. Again, Dante uses large numbers to signify immense numbers of these fiends, and the image of them screaming down at the two travelers is frightening, and one can imagine the particular fright that shot through Dante when he realized they were shrieking at him! Their wrathful questions are reminiscent of Filippo Argenti’s questions earlier. They are certainly not about to grant admittance to their fiery kingdom to one not yet dead, and so bold about it.|
|↑15||Virgil’s attempt at quick diplomacy falls on deaf ears. He can proceed, but Dante must turn around and leave Hell by himself – if he can remember the way. Another shock. Of course, this is a demonic ploy. It’s the devils who are probably more frightened – like barking dogs – than Dante because they realize that, as a living person, he has power over them. If they can scream loud enough, they might be able to chase him away.|
|↑16||This is the most serious moral problem Dante has had to face so far. It’s so serious, as a matter of fact, that Dante stops the narrative for a moment and addresses the reader directly: “Think how I felt.” This address to the reader heightens the drama and also reinforces the fact that everything that’s happening is real. In Canto 2, Virgil diagnosed his problem as simple cowardice, and Dante himself feared that undertaking this journey would turn out to be foolish. Realizing that he has relied on Virgil to protect him “more than seven times,” Dante also realizes that now, to use the phrase, “there’s no way in Hell” he’s going to get out of this jam. He’s certain that he’s going to die, and he’s so frightened that he’s simply willing to give up on the whole journey and go back. Clever Virgil, though, knowing that the “magic formula” has gotten them out of jams before, uses it again – this time on Dante himself: “This journey of ours has been willed in Heaven and no one can stop us.” One might think that Dante put the words of St. Paul into Virgil’s mouth: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom. 8:31)? And with a tender promise to return Virgil goes off, expecting that his magical formula will work once more on the fiends as well.|
|↑17||Virgil has been able to navigate around every problem he and Dante have encountered so far – except this one. He’s disappointed, and to give the demons’ behavior some context, he ties what has just happened to what he explained to Dante in Canto 4. The demon’s “sass” is nothing new. After Christ’s death, they actually tried to stop him from coming through the first gate to rescue the souls of the just who were waiting in Limbo. But he smashed it open, and it will stay that way forever.
But Virgil’s failure here is also significant because it’s a symbolic reminder that human reason by itself (Virgil) can take one just so far – as in this case. Apparently, even his use of the “magical formula” (“it’s been willed on high”), if he used it all, didn’t work. This most likely humbled him in front of Dante. To get through this gate of Dis and continue moving downward he and Dante need divine grace. And more than that, they need actual divine intervention, which Virgil tells the anxious Dante is on its way. And so we wait.
We’ve been led to believe that it’s easy to get into Hell (Minos told Dante as much at the beginning of Canto 5). But this is a more secret gate, a gate quite a ways in. Far worse sinners are inside these iron walls than out. This is the gate to “real” Hell – the Hell of violence and treachery and fraud. These aren’t sins of the flesh we’ve seen so far, the soft sins of pleasure or the intemperate sins of wrath. As serious as these sins are, they’re nothing to compare with what awaits Dante and Virgil in the lower regions. One doesn’t just come in here with a magic password. Souls literally enter by willful violence and violence to the will. They enter by purposely saying, with all the force of one’s will, “No!” to God. The demons’ threat to send Dante back by himself faces him with what he already knows – he knows that he doesn’t know the way out! If he was lost in Canto 1, now he’s really lost. And he’s convinced he’s going to die. Dante the coward makes his reappearance with neon lights!
At the same time, this is all good. What Dante experiences here is actually what’s going to save him. This is the purpose of the Inferno, a real, up-front-and-personal acquaintance with sin and sinners in order to direct the soul toward God’s boundless mercy and willingness to forgive. This is not a “tour” of the damned, but the potential for conversion. One is reminded of the words of the Prophet Ezekiel (18:23) which Dante would have had in mind as he wrote his poem: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”