Pairs, pathos and parallels in Dante’s ‘Inferno’

A starting point

I shall begin with a quotation from  Dorothy L Sayers.  In the notes to her translation (Penguin, 1949) of Inferno/Hell, she draws parallels between three pairs of sufferers in Hell, as follows (page 282):

“Ugolin and Roger [9th Circle] are the last of those pairs of shades who image partnership in sin.  In each case, only one of them speaks.  Francesca [2nd Circle] speaks of the sharing of the sin, and offers excuses for Paolo along with herself.  Ulysses [8th Circle] ignores Diomede (partnership is lost).  Ugolin justifies himself at Roger’s expense (treachery can share nothing but a mutual hatred).”

I comment on these three pairs, below.  Also, I quote short passages from the relevant cantos.  (Dante is best served by longer passages.)  The Italian edition used is that of the Superbur Classici (Milan, 2001). All the translations into English were made by the 19th century American poet, H W Longfellow.

Francesca and Paolo

To give the background of this notorious story, I can do no better than quote D L Sayers’s note, appended to her translation of Inferno (page 102):


“[Francesca] was the daughter of Guido Vecchio da Polenta of Ravenna….For political reasons, she was married to the deformed Gianciotto, son of Malatesta da Verruchio, lord of Rimini, but fell in love with his handsome younger brother Paolo.  Her husband, having one day surprised them together, stabbed them both to death (1285).”


In her long speech to Dante, Francesca compares her past and present situations.  Then, she was in the arms of Paolo.  Now, in Hell, they are swept by the constant wind, as they were by their passion:


‘La bufera infernal, che mai non resta,

  mena gli spirit con la sua rapina;

  voltando e percotendo li molesta.’


[Canto V, 31-33]


‘The infernal hurricane that never rests

  Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;

  Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.’


Francesca reflects ruefully upon their fall:


“Nessun maggior dolore

 che ricordarsi del tempo felice

 nella miseria….”


[Canto V, 121-3]


“There is no greater sorrow

  Than to be mindful of the happy time

  In misery.”


In his notes, appended to his translation, Longfellow writes: “This thought is from Boethius”; and he supplies the quotation: “In omni adversitate fortunae, infelicissimum genus est infortunii fuisse felicem et non esse” [Book II, Prose 4] – “In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy” [tr Victor Watts, Penguin, 1999].


In the canto, the flames of the pair’s illicit love are fanned by their reading, in the 13th century French romance, Lancelot du Lac, about the affair between Guinevere and the knight. (See lines 127-138.)


The underlying messages of the canto are, firstly, that the lovers drifted into their relationship, surrendering to their instincts, without exercising self-control, and secondly, that they did not have time, when they were murdered, to repent and to sort out their spiritual affairs.


Having said this, it is clear that Dante (as pilgrim) feels sympathy with them:


‘Mentre che l’uno spirto questo disse,

  l’altro piangeva sì, che di pietade

  io venni men così com’io morisse.’


[Canto V, 139-141]


‘And all the while one spirit uttered this,

  The other one did weep so, that, for pity,

  I swooned away, as if I had been dying.’  


Ulysses and Diomedes


Ulysses is not the hero of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Indeed, Dante and his contemporaries had no access to Greek originals.  In Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid, he would have seen Ulysses described as “unpitying” and “sacrilegious” – the man who devised the fateful Trojan Horse, which brought about the fall of Troy.


In the Divine Comedy, Ulysses and Diomedes have suffered a loss of reputation.  They have been transformed into a flame: they share it, but Ulysses has the “greater horn”.  They are detained in the division of the Eighth Circle of Hell, which is reserved for: the “evil counsellors” (H W Longfellow), the “counsellors of fraud” (both D L Sayers and L Magugliani), the ”intellectually dishonest – those who have made deceitful or destructive use of their intellectual gifts” (R Kirkpatrick). 


Homer’s Odyssey tells how, after the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus/Ulysses took ten years to reach his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus and his father Laertes, on his home island of Ithaca, surviving many challenges and delays on the way.  Dante’s somewhat debased character reveals, in his monologue, how he abandoned his family to go on his travels again, to satisfy his curiosity, exceeding the bounds of human knowledge, symbolised by the Pillars of Hercules (at the Rock of Gibraltar).


This Ulysses speaks, in part, as follows:


“né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta

  del vecchio padre, né il debito amore

  lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta,

vincer potèr dentro da me l’ardore

  ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto

  e delli vizi umani e dei valore.”


[Canto XXVI, 94-99]


“Not fondness for my son, nor reverence

  For my old father, nor the due affection

  Which joyous should have made Penelope,

Could overcome within me the desire

  I had to be experienced of the world,

  And of the vice and virtue of mankind.”


In the event, Ulysses set sail, in one ship, with a “small company” of men.  When they reached the Pillars of Hercules, he urged his men on:


“Considerate la vostra semenza:

  fatta non foste a viver come bruti,

  ma per seguir virtute e cognoscenza.”


[Canto XXVI, 118-120]


“Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;

  Ye were not made to live like brutes,

  But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.”


As the story unfolds, the seamen enter the Atlantic and journey south for five months. They reach the southern hemisphere (unknown to Europeans in Dante’s time).  They catch sight of Mount Purgatory (see Purgatorio): they first are “joyful”, but then weep, because they are struck by a whirlwind, which sinks the ship and drowns them all.


In later centuries, European sailors ventured out into the Atlantic, and their explorations were crowned with success, as they discovered new lands.  Dante, however, is making the point that Ulysses was rash and arrogant: he led his men astray – to their deaths, indeed; and he failed to give enough weight to his family responsibilities.


Ugolino and Ruggiero

In the Ninth Circle, near the very bottom of Hell, and confined in ice, we meet Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, Podestà of Pisa, and his enemy, Archbishop Ruggiero degli Rubaldini. They are portrayed as traitors to their country, in their capacity as stirrers up of civil war and assassination.  Ugolino and Ruggiero were first allies and then competitors for power. In 1289, Ugolino, his sons and his grandsons surrendered to Ruggiero: he locked them up in a tower in Pisa, and let them to starve to death. 

Here, Ugolino describes the moment he gathered that their fate was sealed:

“ed io sentì’ chiavar l’uscio di sotto

  all’orribile torre; ond’io guardai

  nel viso a’ miei figluoi sanza far motto.

Io non piangeva, sì dentro impetrai:

  Piangevan elli.”


[Canto XXXIII, 46-50]


“And I heard locking up the under door

  Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word

  I gazed into the faces of my sons.

I wept not, I within so turned to stone;

 They wept.”


Now, Ugolino is mercilessly gnawing at Ruggiero’s skull.  So, Ugolino is exacting his revenge, while being punished, himself.  (A parallel is to be found in Book VIII of Statius’s Thebaid, where Tydeus bites at the head of his dead enemy, Menalippus.  See also Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, based on Dante’s account.) 


The point is that Ugolino has lost all his humanity and is no better than the man who deceived him; and we must not equate revenge with justice.




In his introduction to his edition and translation of Inferno (Penguin, 2006), Robin Kirkpatrick provides an instructive analysis:


‘The ethical plan of Hell (….) confirms the view that the worst of sins are those that arise from the perversion of intellectual purpose.  Thus the first seven cantos are devoted to the (relatively) insignificant sins that arise from a surrender to urges and appetites of disruptive sexual passions or greed, avarice, anger and sluggishness of mind….Worse than any such sins are those in which the mind, in pursuit of its own advantage, consciously contradicts some self-evident or fundamental principle of its own existence.  [See, for example, suicide.]….Worse still are the sins of lying and cheating and, worst of all, treachery….Last of all is the frozen lake of the traitors.  All life is extinguished here.’  [Page lxxviii]


David R Harries


December 2013




Dante’s Divine Comedy – an overview

The Comedy is monumental.  It has about 14,000 lines of verse.

It’s an epic, a pilgrim’s progress, an odyssey.  The pilgrim needs guides, and he receives help from Virgil, Beatrice (a woman he knew and loved, in real life, now dwelling in Heaven), and St Bernard, in succession.

It is not a comedy insofar as it is funny (it is not) but in that it has a happy ending: the first-person narrator/protagonist reaches the uppermost/outermost Heaven and has a vision of God.

It has layers of allegory, but the literal story makes sense.

The work has a threefold pattern: there are 100 cantos, divided between Inferno/Hell, Purgatory and Paradise/Heaven (34 + 33 + 33).  The poem has variety, in its images and in the characters we meet; and there are beautiful lyrical passages.

It is rooted in a place (Italy) and in a time (circa 1300) and indeed in a philosophy.  The philosophy is Christianity, more specifically Roman Catholicism, more specifically still Thomism (the thinking of Thomas Aquinas).

As a theological work, the purpose of the Comedy can be said to be to: “assert the eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to man” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, 25f).  I would argue that the concepts expressed and illustrated repay the effort of study, even if they do not all appeal to the reader.

Biblical influences are blended with the best of the “classical” writers, especially Aristotle, Virgil and Cicero. For the conception of Hell, the influences include Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.

Sins, in their various forms, are illustrated, explained and condemned, throughout the work (not just in Inferno).  At the root of all sin is a turning away from God, and from  our fellow human beings, towards false gods/goods – with ever harmful consequences.  I would argue that this way of thinking has relevance to non-believers too.

The remedy for sin consists of: repentance, confession and making good the wrong one has done.

The Comedy is also a political work, and political sins are covered.  Men who abuse power, and those who try to usurp power to which they are not entitled, receive the harshest condemnation.  Corrupt popes are frequent objects of Dante’s criticism.  Dante was indeed a firm believer in justice and in the importance of the secular power having authority; and he hoped that the Holy Roman Emperor would come down into Italy from Germany and redress the balance of power with the Pope and with the petty princes.  (His hopes were not realised.)

At the beginning of the poem, the protagonist/narrator/pilgrim is lost (like a lost soul, indeed) in a (symbolical) dark wood.  He is confronted by three wild animals (symbolising evils, no doubt) who bar his way.  To cut a long story short, he does not find the direct path home but is directed by his guides (Virgil, first) to make the long, arduous journey, through Hell and Purgatory, until he reaches Heaven.  At the end, there is no reference to his return to the dark wood on earth where, in fear and trembling, he started out.  (This may reflect Dante’s own long life in exile: once banished, he was never able to return to his native Florence.)


Hell takes the form of an inverted cone and narrows to a tiny point, where the worst sinners are located.  It has nine main circles, reflecting a complex classification of sinful behaviours.  The threshold of Hell holds the apathetic.  The first circle is limbo – it contains pagans and the unbaptised.  Next come the circles where those who have committed sins of intemperance are detained: the second circle holds the lustful, the third the gluttonous, the fourth the avaricious and spendthrifts, and the fifth the wrathful and melancholic.  The sixth circle has the heretics. Next come those who have committed acts of violence and inhumanity, found in the seventh circle.

The eighth circle detains those who have committed sins of deceit against those who had no particular cause to trust them; and the ninth and lowest circle holds (trapped in ice) those who have committed sins of deceit (ie treachery) against those who did have cause to trust them.

In Canto XI, Virgil explains this classification of sinful behaviours and answers the pilgrim’s questions.  Recalling Aristotle’s Ethics, he refers to ‘those three dispositions that the heavens repel,’ namely, ‘intemperance, intentional harm and mad brutality’.  And he reminds the pilgrim that: ‘intemperance offends God least, and least attracts His blame’ [XI, 81-84] [R Kirkpatrick’s translation].

When the pilgrim-narrator and Virgil finally emerge from the dark, fetid pit of hell, they are greeted by fresh air and a view of the sky.  And the canto ends with these words: ‘e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle’ (XXXIV, 139) – ‘Thence came we forth to re-behold the stars’ [H W Longfellow’s translation].

Inferno, the first ‘cantica’, is the one most talked about, perhaps because it is the most exciting, and perhaps because the punishments illustrated neatly fit the crimes the residents have committed.  (I plan to give it more detailed consideration, elsewhere.)


Purgatory takes the form of a mountain in the southern hemisphere: it is the polar opposite of Hell.  The Garden of Even is preserved at the top.  Purgatory has seven main circles (in the form of cornices), reflecting the seven deadly sins, in the order:  pride (the worst), envy, anger, sloth, avarice and prodigality (grouped together), gluttony, and finally lust.

It is worth saying that Purgatory is a happy place.  The penitents seize the opportunity to purge the sins they have committed in their terrestrial life: they are, after all, on their way to Heaven.

By the end of Purgatorio, the pilgrim is thoroughly purged of his own sins.  He feels ‘regenerate’ and ‘pure and disposed to mount unto the stars’ [Longfellow] – ‘rifatto’ and ‘puro e disposto a salire alle stelle’ [XXXIII, 143, 145].


In accordance with the cosmology of the time, nine ‘spheres’ revolve around the Earth; each is associated with a particular planet or star; likewise, each is associated with a particular type of virtuous behaviour. Nearest to Earth, the Moon comes first; it is followed by: Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the ‘Fixed Stars’, and the ‘Primum Mobile’ (which imparts motion to all the others).  As he ascends through Paradise, the pilgrim-narrator is granted a series of beatific, bliss-giving visions.  He talks to men and women who now dwell happily in Heaven, in the after-life; and he meets saints (who examine him on his grasp of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love).  Ultimately, he is given the power to gaze upon the Holy Trinity.  God is portrayed both as creator of the world and lover of his creation; and it is his love that keeps the world turning.  The first-person narrator conveys a hint of what he has seen; he tells the reader that he cannot truly communicate it; but he tells us that God – the force of love that moves all the stars – now controls too his own desire and his will, like a smoothly rotated wheel:

‘ma già volgeva il mio disìo e velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.’

[XXX, 143-145]

‘But now was turning my desire and will,

Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

[Tr Longfellow]


And, after such a fitting climax, there is no more to say.


David Harries

December 2013



Reflections upon 2013 in general and November in particular

This year has been marked by four family funerals and the planning of a family wedding (for 2015).  Three of the deceased were well over 80, whereas one was only 60.  (I say “only”, as once you’re over 60 yourself, you think of 60 and under as young.)  Partly through funerals, I have made contact with relatives who I have not seen for decades, and I was pleased about this.

In May I suffered from a bad back, and treatment by a chiropractor and exercises helped me get better.  The condition returned in November, but I shook it off by going for a series of long walks in the locality.  This is something worth persisting with.

The last week of November has been busy.  Jane was getting ready to return to voluntary work in Palestine, together with a close friend, with visits to Israeli and Palestinian friends lined up.  (They flew out today.)

We hosted Paul Parker, Recording Clerk and in effect Chief Executive of Quakers in Britain, as he was giving a talk – about Quakers in 21st century – to local Quakers in Bridgend Meeting House on the evening of 26th.  (38 people turned him to speak.)  He is a very engaging speaker.

On 27th Jane and I set off for the home of Jane’s sister in Scotland (370 miles away), not sure yet whether the funeral of their Uncle Andrew would take place on 28th or not, as the authorities’ permission was required.  In the event, the funeral did go ahead, at 9 am, as hoped; and we spent the day with family and friends.  On 29th we set out on the long journey home.

On 30th, Jane was involved in the 75th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the Temple of Peace & Health in Cardiff, eg with running a stall for Cymdeithas y Cymod (Fellowship of Reconciliation in Wales).  Then she dashed off to catch a train to London, to be ready for the early flight to Tel Aviv today.

It was St Andrew’s Day yesterday: one can’t help thinking of the helicopter crash in Glasgow and the aftermath, but also the positives of people rallying round.

David Harries

1 December 2013