In the middle of the journey of his life, Dante comes to himself again and realizes he is lost in a dark, savage, threatening forest deep in a valley. He tries all night to find a way out; when he comes to the foot of a high hill and sees the rising sun shining on it, he feels hope and starts to climb. But his way is blocked by three beasts. He thinks he's going to get past the leopard that comes first, but the lion is more fearsome, and the she-wolf drives him back, despairing, to the dark wood. He then sees a human shape and calls out for help. It is the shade of Virgil, the great Roman poet of the time of the emperor Augustus, from whom he as a poet has learned so much, and Dante begs him for help against the she-wolf. Virgil tells him that the she-wolf is too fierce to get by, that she is ravaging all of Italy, and will do so until the person comes who can chase her back to Hell. But Virgil promises to get him out of the dark wood, not by taking him past the beasts, but by leading him through Hell. Once he has seen those who suffer in Hell, Virgil will lead him up the mountain of Purgatory, where souls become ready for eternal bliss, and then someone else will take over and lead him up to Heaven. Virgil can't go there because, living before Christianity had spread, he was not a Christian. Dante accepts Virgil's guidance joyfully, and they set out.
Dante called his epic poem his Commedia, his comedy, because it had a happy ending and used ordinary language; others soon started calling it The Divine Comedy, and many consider it the greatest poem ever written. Never before had any poet written an epic poem about the poet's own life; epics had always been about heroes, who spent most of their time fighting. Dante writes about a turning point in his own journey, a midlife crisis. He writes about it in the form of an allegory, in which all the inner drama takes on outer form; thus his turmoil and misery are pictured as the state of being lost in a dark forest. So we can say that on the literal level, the Inferno is the story of a man who, with a wise guide, is able to travel down through the pit of Hell step by step, seeing at each level the tortures of the damned, and finally emerging on the other side of the earth to begin an upward climb. (If you share the common notion that people thought the earth was flat before Columbus, put it aside. Anyone with any education knew the earth was round. Even the most learned in the Middle Ages, however, did believe that it was the center of the universe, around which everything else revolved.) On the allegorical level, it is the story of a man who feels completely lost, but with the help of all his own inner wisdom and learning, and the help of divine grace, is able, step by step, to see clearly all those tendencies in himself that are keeping him lost, and so gain the resolution to begin real growth. But the poem is never only about Dante's own inner life. For one thing, there is never just one meaning to Dante's allegory-he said himself that the poem should be read on four levels, as the Bible was read at the time. And Dante cared passionately about the political corruption and turmoil he saw around him; in Hell he's seeing what's behind the troubles of his world. As with every great work, it's also true that scholars often have different interpretations. Inevitably, then, the analyses that follow are just hints, touching a few aspects of the rich meaning of this first part of Dante's great poem. The first eight cantos and a few of the later ones are summarized and discussed somewhat more fully, to orient the reader, but even there, the coverage is skimpy. For more, two good starting places are The Divine Comedy 1: Hell (Penguin, 1949), translated by Dorothy Sayers, and The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (Farrar, Straus, 1994), by Robert Pinsky, who was Poet Laureate of the United States, 1997-2000. Both have helpful introductions and notes. The Pinsky translation has the original Italian on the facing pages, and the Sayers translation has excellent historical background.
The drives that threaten to keep Dante-like so many others!-trapped in misery are pictured in the three beasts, sometimes interpreted as embodying Lust, Anger, and Greed. (As for the promised savior, Dante seems to have left his identity deliberately vague.) The Dante of the poem cannot overcome the beasts directly; he must be led by Virgil, a guide who embodies all the wisdom human reason can reach, and especially all the wisdom Dante has learned from the great writers of Greece and Rome. Following that guide, he must see clearly the misery caused by being stuck in attempting to be happy by giving in to lust and anger and greed and other such drives, ignoring the damage done to oneself and others. That misery is revealed in the form of the suffering of those who inhabit the levels of Hell, pictured as a great pit extending down to the center of the earth. Each level reveals the essence of a different kind of sin. The story of Dante's journey down through all those levels is told in the Inferno. After that journey, Dante will be ready, again with Virgil as guide, to understand the joy of growth, of burning away all that comes between him and real happiness, and that is the story of the second part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio. But Virgil cannot guide him to Heaven. Dante accepted the teaching of the Christian Church of his day that only Christ had revealed and opened the way to the love and forgiveness offered by God. The story of Dante's journey up through Heaven to a taste of the joy of feeling his own will one with "the love that moves the sun and the other stars" (the last line of the whole poem) is told in the Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy.