- When does the poem begin? When in Dante’s life?
Dante was born in 1265. When would halfway through his life be?
- In fact the poem begins on Easter weekend (Maundy
Thursday-Good Friday) of that year. Which year?
- Is the dark wood that Dante is lost in a real wood or
a symbolic one? If symbolic, what does it stand for?
- What beasts threaten Dante in the wood? What might
they stand for?
- Virgil shows up to help Dante find his way. Who is
Virgil, and why is he especially significant for Dante?
- Where does Virgil propose to take Dante to get him
back on the path (112-120)?
- Why can’t Virgil take Dante all the way into the realm
of the blessed?
- Why would Dante have an invocation of the muse (6) in
this poem? Where have you seen an invocation like this before?
- What is Dante’s problem with going on the journey
Virgil proposes? Why bring up Aeneas and Paul?
- What does Virgil tell him about his mental condition?
- Note the long simile (37-42). Where have you seen
extended similes like this one before?
- Who, according to Virgil, sent him to help Dante? Who
is she, and where does she come from to seek Virgil? Where is Virgil when
she finds him?
- What was Beatrice to Dante?
- On the gate of hell, what does it mean to say, “Before
me nothing was but things eternal”?
- Who are the people here in the vestibule of hell? Why
aren’t they in hell proper, or in purgatory?
- Who is the pope in this part of hell, and why is he
- Who are the people on the shore of Acheron? Who
ferries them across? Where did Dante get the figure of the boatman?
- Go back to Book 1. Turn to the Aeneid, Book
6. Start on page 825 and read a few pages. What are the similarities
between Virgil’s underworld and Dante’s hell?
- Who are the people gathered on the shore of the
Acheron in Virgil’s poem? How are the people in the Inferno
different from those in the Aeneid?
- Read the extended metaphor in Virgil’s account
(51-64). Where does Dante use virtually the same metaphor in Canto III?
- Why do the people in Virgil’s underworld want to get
across Acheron? How to the people in Dante’s hell feel about the place they
are going? Don’t assume that you know. Read what Dante has Virgil say
- Does Charon want to take Dante across Acheron? Why
not? How does Dante get across? Why don’t you know?
- What part of hell do Dante and Virgil arrive at
first? Who lives there? Why didn’t they go to heaven?
- Who are the Romans here in Limbo? Who are the
- What act is Dante referring to when he talks about
Abaraham, David, and others being taken to heaven (52-63)?
- Which poets greet Virgil when he arrives?
- If you associated yourself with Chaucer, Shakespeare,
and Milton, with maybe Wordsworth thrown in, you’d get an idea of what Dante
is doing (79-102). Does putting himself in the company of the greatest
poets display a certain confidence on his part?
- Even Saladin—leader of the Muslim armies in the
Crusades—finds a place in Limbo. Where are the Greek heroes, Achilles and
- What sinners are being punished in the second circle
of hell, and what is their punishment?
- Do you see any of the Greeks here? Trojans? Why
would they be here?
- Who was Dido, and why would she be here?
- Who are the people Dante stops to talk to? Why are
they in this part of hell?
- Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto Malatesta, killed them
when he caught them in the act. Was what they were doing unforgivable? Was
it really very, very bad? Then why do they wind up in hell rather than
- How does Dante get to the next circle of hell? Why
don’t you know?
- What sinners are being punished in the third circle,
and how are they being punished?
- What happens when Dante steps on the people here? See
Aeneid pp. 825-26 for comparison.
- Why does Dante wind up talking to Ciacco? And what
does Ciacco mean?
- What question does Dante ask Ciacco about Florence,
and what answer does Ciacco give?
- How would Ciacco know what is going to happen in
Florence? Don’t answer this question now, but remember it.
- What is the question that Dante asks in VI, 103-105,
and what authority does Virgil cite in his answer? What philosopher’s name
was almost synonymous with “science” in Dante’s time?
Cantos VII and VIII
- What sinners are being punished in the fourth and
fifth circles, and what are their punishments?
- Who are the ones with “tonsured heads” (VII, 38)?
- Who is Filippo Argenti (VIII, 31-64), and what happens
- All the sins punished in rings 2-5 are sins of
incontinence. What does “incontinence” mean now? What did it mean in
- The rebellious angels try to prevent Virgil and Dante
from entering Dis, or lower hell. How do they finally get in?
- Circle 6 contains the heretics, among whom is
Epicurus. Epicurus taught that you should live a life of moderation (seek
pleasure and avoid pain). Why would he have gone to hell for that? Or was
it something different?
- The most interesting person in this circle of hell is
Farinata. What happens to make Dante stop to talk to Farinata?
- Where in Canto VI did we see Farinata referred to?
Why was he referred to there?
- What is the first thing Farinata wants to know about
Dante? Where have we heard this kind of question before?
- What was the relationship between Farinata’s people
and Dante’s in Florence?
- Who is it that interrupts Dante and Farinata with
questions about his son? How would Dante have known Guido?
- Dante in 49-51 makes a kind of smart-aleck jab at
Farinata. What does it mean, and how does Farinata respond to it in 79-81?
- How long will it be, in Farinata’s explanation, before
Dante is exiled from Florence?
- Question 39 asks how Ciacco would know what is going
to happen in the future. Farinata makes a prediction here, and he explains
how he knows (100-105). How do those in hell know what is going to happen?
- Farinata says that the knowledge of the people in hell
will perish (that is, they will know nothing) “at the very moment / the
portals of the future close” (107-108). When will that be?
- As Virgil and Dante prepare to descend to the seventh
circle, they stop to get used to the stench of hell, and Virgil gives the
layout of hell. What sins are being punished from the seventh circle down?
- What sins are being punished in the three divisions of
the seventh circle? What sins in the eighth circle? What sins in the
- We are three circles from the bottom of hell, and yet
we have 22 of 34 cantos to go. Why would that be? Do the people get more
interesting as their sins become greater?
- What question does Dante ask (67-75) about the people
being punished for incontinence in circles 2-5, and what authority does
Virgil cite (again) in his answer?
- Dante has in the first section of the seventh circle
murderers, robbers and plunderers (violent against others). It the second
circle the suicides (violent against self). In the third circle, the violent
against God, he has the sodomites and the moneylenders. Why are the bankers
in hell with the sodomites?
- Dante asks just that question (91-96). What is
- Virgil cites two authorities, Aristotle and Genesis,
in his answer. Does it help to say “art” instead of “toil” in 103?
According to Aristotle’s poetics art imitates nature. Nature is God’s
child, so to speak, so art would be the grandchild. So what is wrong with
the way the usurer makes his living?