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Dante’s Canto XXVIII

Dante begins the opening of Canto XXVIII with a rhetorical

question. Virgil and he have just arrived in the Ninth Abyss of the

Eighth Circle of hell. In this pouch the Sowers of Discord and Schism

are continually wounded by a demon with a sword. Dante poses a

question to the reader:

Who, even with untrammeled words and many

attempts at telling, ever could recount

in full the blood and wounds that I now saw? (Lines 1-3)

The rhetorical question draws the reader into the passage

because we know by this point in the Divine Comedy that Dante is a

great poet. What is it that Dante sees before him on the brink of the

Ninth Abyss that is so ineffable that he, as a poet, feels he cannot


In the following lines Dante expands on this rhetorical

position. He elaborates on why it is important for any man to offer a

good description of what he sees. No poet can achieve this

description: ?Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short…?

(L. 4) It is not just poetic talent that is at stake; poets do not

have the background to give them the poetic power for such

description. His reasoning is “the shallowness of both our speech and

intellect cannot contain so much.” (Lines 5-6) Once again the reader

is intrigued; how could a man of Dante’s stature criticize language

which is the very tool he uses to create the epic work of La Commedia

? If we cannot take Dante seriously with these opening statements, we

must pose the question of what Dante is trying to do by teasing us

with this artificial beginning to Canto XVIII?

Dante will now contradict himself and try to describe what he

says is impossible. But, if he were to go right into a description of

the Ninth Abyss, it would deflate his rhetorical position. Instead,

Dante first sets up a quite lengthy comparison of the sights he has

just witnessed with examples of bloodshed throughout human history.

Were you to reassemble all the men

who once, within Apulia1’s fateful land,

had mourned their blood, shed at the Trojans’ hands,

as well as those who fell in the long war

where massive mounds of rings were battle spoils–

even as Livy write, who does not err–

and those who felt the thrust of painful blows

when they fought hard against Robert Guiscard;

with all the rest whose bones are still piled up

at Ceperano–each Apulian was

a traitor there–and, and too, at Tabliacozzo,

where old Alardo conquered without weapons;

and then, were one to show his limb pierced through

and one his limb hacked off, that would not match

the hideousness of the ninth abyss. (Lines 7-21)

Dante gives historical examples of the destruction of war.

This is in contrast to the heroic qualities of war which Dante’s

predecessors most often focus on. Dante is acting less as a poet and

more as an historian. He takes the reader on a mini journey through

these wars. His first stop are the Trojan wars (Line 9). These wars

Dante refers to actually represent the final books of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Part of my experience in reading the Inferno, has been that there is a

great connection between the Inferno and the Aeneid. Furthermore,

Dante’s guide through hell is the author of the Aeneid, Virgil. (While

this topic is much too broad to address in these pages, it is

important too take note of this relationship.) On the one hand it is

important that Virgil is Dante’s first example because it is necessary

for him to leave the world of the poet (poets do not have enough

talent) and move to the world of the historian, whose objectivity is

supposedly more trusted in front of this horror. By this time the

reader can see the irony of what Dante is doing in this opening

passage. Dante the poet must give up to historical fact, but the

reader knows that Dante the poet is playing this game to entice the

reader into listening to him.

Dante moves on to the wars at Carthage in his next example.

This is material which Virgil deliberately does not deal with in the

Aeneid because this was a battle which the Romans barely come out

intact. The historian Livy is used as the narrator of these events.

Livy describes the destruction at Carthage:

The attention of all was particularly attracted by a living Numidian

with his nose and ears mangled, stretched under a dead Roman, who lay

over him, and who, when his hands had been rendered unable to hold a

weapon, his rage being exasperated to madness, had expired in the act

of tearing his antagonist with his teeth. (Livy, Book XXII)

Dante is legitimizing his poetry with these references from history.

In line twelve Dante writes “…even as Livy writes, who does not

err–.” He is explicitly giving credit to Livy for the ability to

describe the blood and wounds of war.

After referring to both Virgial and Livy, who are writers of

classical Roman battles, Dante moves on to a time closer to his

present. He refers to grotesque images which took place in the

thirteenth century.

By this point in the passage, Dante has assembled a tremendous cast of

hideousness spanding thousands of years. He has shown examples of the

most grotesque and gruesome things on earth, which is war. However,

he concludes that nothing is worse than the hideousness of the

underworld in hell.

The images Dante creates with his description of the ninth

abyss are truly more hideous than anything that could have been

written about the wars Dante compares them to

No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop

or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I

saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:

his bowels hung between his legs, one saw

his vitals and the miserable sack

that makes fo what we swallow excrement. (Lines 22-27)

The image of a barrel, which has lost its end-piece, gives the reader

a concrete analogy for the man who has been split apart. A barrel does

not connote anything remotely to do with violence and the grotesque;

however, it fits perfectly here because it gives the reader a rather

plain image while Dante prepares to shock the reader with his language

of hideousness. He describes a man being split open “right from his

chin to where we fart…” The simplicity of the image in no way

warrants its use as an analogy for the horrible picture of the man

being split apart. The juxtoposition of the barrel with the torn body

creates a shock and a pathos because we know the barrel , but we can

hardly encompass the horror. He has used the barrel in the same way as

he used the examples of bloodshed in the previous sentence. In both

cases Dante introduces a comparison only to reject it.

It is at this point in the passage that we realize why Dante

compared earthly wars with the violence of the ninth abyss before he

even gave the reader a glimpse of this violence. By putting this

violence at such a grotesque level, he has made the reader form an

image in his mind before he describes it. By using the commonplace,

Dante forces the reader to resort to memory of things past.

Furthermore, Dante is asking the reader to strech his imagination

beyond its normal bounds. This effect ends up enhancing the words

Dante chooses when he does describe the act in lines 22 to 25.

The action of the man being split apart is also fairly

significant. Every little detail of the Divine Comedy has been worked

out and planned with the utmost precision. The ninth abyss is no

exception. The splitting of the men fits into the pattern of the rest

of the punishments in the inferno. These men who reside in this pouch

are sowers of discord and schism. To sow means to disseminate or

spread throughout the land. Schism means division. Thus, the physical

punishments literally express the philosophical sin.

The most interesting part of this passage comes at the end in

the last paragraph:

While I was all intent on watching him,

he looked at me, and with his hands he spread

his chest and said: “See how I split myself! (Lines 28-30)

The image of the man using his hands to pull his wound apart is

extremely vivid; it reminds me, for instance, of when Superman pulls

his shirt apart to reveal the capital S. Superman becomes another

example, like the barrel, which is useful to the reader in spite of

the fact it fails to express what Dante can.

As Dante watches the man who has just been split into two, the

man looks back at Dante. And as the man turns his attention to Dante,

so do we. Furthermore, when the man says “See how I split myself” we

also hear Dante say these words to us. Just as the man forces his

viewer (Dante) to examine his wounds, Dante forces the read to examine

the hideousness he has produced. The man has a strange pride in

splittng himself open. Dante also takes tremendous pride in describing

this scene, which he first claimed was impossible to ever put into

words. By pretending he could not express the image and then by fully

expressing it, Dante is reminding the reader of his extraordinary

talent and he is also forcing the reader to read more careful.

After examining this single passage from Dante’s Inferno, I

came to a new understanding of the relationship between Dante and La

Commedia , as well as between Dante’s images and his poetic task.


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