Dante's Inferno, itself one piece of a literary trilogy, repeatedly deploys the leitmotif of the number three as a metaphor for ambiguity, compromise, and transition. A work in terza rima that details a descent through Nine Circles of Hell, The Inferno encompasses temporal, literary, and political bridges and chasms that link Dante's inspired Centaur work between the autobiographical and the fictive, the mundane and the divine and, from a contemporary viewpoint, the Medieval and the Modern‹Dante's recognition of the Renaissance as our millennium's metamorphic period and of himself as its poetic forerunner (until deposition by Shakespeare).
The Inferno is a work of transition between two points, as attested by the opening lines: "When I had journeyed half of our life's way,/ I found myself within a shadowed forest,/ for I had lost the path that does not stray" (I, 1-3). Echoes of these famous lines can be heard in Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled"; whereas Frost's poem concerns itself with the duality and firmness of decision, Dante's tercet implies an interval of great indecision and limbo. Indeed, he is anything but entrenched in position: "I cannot clearly say how I had entered/ the wood; I was so full of sleep just at/ The point where I abandoned the true path" (I, 10-12). Dante is nearly sleepwalking, yet another fusion of two worlds, the conscious and unconscious. This division of self can best be explained by Dante's exile and his loss of national identity. He examines this alienated state through a geographic metaphor: "And just as he who, with exhausted breath,/ Having escaped from sea to shore, turns back/ To watch the dangerous waters he has q...
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...ts notion of a "third way" as an ambiguous compromise. What is most fascinating is the degree to which one of the more stable metaphors, that of past, present, and future, has come true. The Inferno repeatedly invokes past epics, especially Virgil's Aeneid, with such cries as "O Muses, o high genius, help me now," and Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan welcome Dante and Virgil into Limbo. Now many modern poets, most notably T.S. Eliot, allude quite frequently to Dante's work. It seems that The Inferno will forever be canonically in the terza rima‹originally written as a centerpiece to the Italian epic, now accepted as a framer of world literature.
Brucker, Gene A. Renaissance Florence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Mandelbaum, Allen. Inferno (translation). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
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