Divine Comedy - Mastery of Language in Dante’s Inferno

Divine Comedy - Mastery of Language in Dante’s Inferno

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Mastery of Language

In The Inferno - Dante’s Immortal Drama of a Journey Through Hell, Dante allows the reader to experience his every move.  His mastery of language, his sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature, and his infinite store of knowledge allow him to capture and draw the reader into the realm of the terrestrial hell.  In Canto 6, the Gluttons; Canto 13, the Violent Against Themselves; and Canto 23, the Hypocrites; Dante excels in his detailed portrayal of the supernatural world of hell.  In each canto, Dante combines his mastery of language with his sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature to set the stage.  He then reinforces the image with examples that call upon his infinite store of knowledge, and thus draw a parallel that describes the experience in a further, although more subliminal, detail to the reader.

            Through his mastery of language, Dante allows the reader to see what he sees, to hear what he hears, and to feel what he feels, and thus experience his sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature. In Canto 6, Dante introduces the vicious monster, Cerberus and details his grotesque features to the reader.  He states, “His eyes are red, his beard is greased with phlegm, / his belly is swollen, and his hands are claws / to rip the wretches and flay and mangle them” (66).  This quote vividly depicts the man-beast Cerberus that Dante encountered, and allows the reader to feel present in the scene with Dante.  He further emphasizes the sights and sounds to portray the hellish environment when he states “Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow/ pour from the dismal air to putrefy/ the putrid slush that waits for them below” (66).  This example is one of many that illustrate Dante’s ability to exhibit the sights that he encounters.  Dante adds another dimension by providing the ability for the reader to hear the sounds present in Circle III of Hell.  An example of this is when he states “and they (the victims), too, howl like dogs in the freezing storm” (66).  Furthermore Dante greatly describes how the victims are feeling about their whole situation with the statement “I lie here rotting like a swollen log” (67).  This quote helps the reader to not only understand how the victims of gluttony are feeling, but also to picture them laying in the sodden mush of garbage.

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  The picture is almost complete.      

 Dante uses his infinite store of knowledge of Greek mythology, the history of his life, and knowledge of the intricacies of the small town of Florence to complete the picture of the Gluttons.  Dante displays his arsenal of knowledge by selecting Cerberus to stand guard over the gluttons.  Cerberus is a three-headed man-beast from Greek mythology. His three heads, and obvious yet subliminal ability to indulge, mock the victims. At this point Dante transitions from subliminal messages to overt statements.  His knowledge of the history of the society is evident when he asks of Ciacco “Farinata and Tegghiaio, men of good blood, / Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, Mosca, / and the other who set their hearts on doing good-/ where are they now whose high deeds might be-gem / the crown of kings?” (68).  Had Dante not been so well versed he would not have been able to reference specific names.  To further this theme, Dante expresses knowledge of Florence, his hometown.  He states through the words of Ciacco “O you who are led this journey through the shade / of hell’s abyss, do you recall this face?” (67) This quote proves Dante’s knowledge of Florence - Ciacco would not have questioned if Florence were not such a small town.  He is aware that Florence is so small that it would be hard to live there and not know, or at least recognize, the other members of the society.  By the conclusion of Canto 6 Dante provided the reader a complete understanding and visualization of his experiences. 

 The reader enters Canto 13 prepared for a continued visualization provided through Dante’s mastery of language and sensitivity of the sights and sounds of nature.     Dante immediately lets the reader understand the new environment that he is now experiencing by describing “Its foliage was not verdant, but nearly black. / The unhealthy branches, gnarled and warped and tangled, / bore poison thorns instead of fruit” (119). This quote introduces the reader to the woods of suicide and gives them an excellent picture of what he is seeing and how he portrays the sin they committed.  Due to these sinners abuse to themselves they are now in the form of trees whereas they can no longer hurt themselves, but are often hurt by others who blatantly disregard their existence, as they once did themselves.  Dante then goes on to explain the terror of the harpies who eat away at the branches and leaves of these sinners.  He says “Their wings are wide, their feet clawed, their huge bellies / covered with feathers, their necks and faces human” (119).  This shows the reader the grotesqueries of these violent birds, and like Cerberus in Canto 6, the reader can vividly imagine how these harpies physically appear to Dante.  Dante continues to help the reader understand the sounds he hears as he says, “They croak eternally in the unnatural trees” (119).  This quote gives the reader an idea of the incessant sounds that these victims are producing, as a result of the pain they are going through.  He then analogizes the broken souls of the victim’s pain simply by breaking the branch of a sinner.  The sinner painfully responds “ Why do you tear me? / Is there no pity left in any soul? / Men we were, and now we are changed to sticks; / well might your hands have been more merciful / were we no more the souls of lice and ticks” (120).  This response encourages the reader into thinking that the soul within the tree is now in great pain and also lets the reader understand the situation that souls are eternally in the form of trees.  Dante’s mastery of language and sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature in Canto 13 immensely influence the reader’s interpretation of the woods of suicide.

            Similar to Canto 6, Dante expresses in Canto 13 his infinite store of knowledge through Greek mythology and the history of his society.   Dante again uses characters from Greek mythology in the punishing of the sinners.  The harpies role in Greek mythology changes from “soul takers” to obsessive eaters.  He respectively uses them to feed on the sinners who are in the form of trees.  Dante expresses his knowledge of the history of his society by mentioning Frederick II and Pier delle Vigne.  Both individuals are well known in history in this time period.  At this point, the reader is able to understand the punishment and people present in this layer.

            As in the previous Cantos discussed, Dante once again exhibits his mastery of language and sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature.  In Canto 23 Dante does not describe in great detail the land that the hypocrites dwell so the reader can assume it to be plain and barren.  He does however describe the hypocrites and their punishment in an excess of detail.  He states

 “All wore cloaks cut to as ample a size / as those worn by the Benedictines of Cluny. / The enormous hoods were drawn over their eyes. / The outside is all dazzle, golden and fair; / the inside, lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes, / compared to these, would seem as light as air” (199).

 This quote lets the reader picture the fancy cloaks that the sinners carry and at the same time realize the burden on the shoulders of these poor victims.  Dante then goes on to explain the pain of these victims by mentioning the sounds he heard.  He stated “We turned to the left again along their course, / listening to their moans of misery” (200).  These moans insinuate the everlasting pain that was brought upon these sinners.  Dante then gives the reader an idea of the pain that the crucified hypocrite was going through in his quote “A figure crucified upon the ground / by three great stakes, and I fell in awe” (201).  This quote allows the reader to know the pain of this man because he is in awe over the punishment and has seen a lot of pain.  So falling into awe must mean the punishment is great and the pain to follow is tremendous.  Dante also gives the reader a picture perfect description of Virgil and himself sliding down the cliff.  He said

 “Seizing me instantly in his arms, my guide- / like a mother wakened by a midnight noise / to find a wall of flame at her bedside / (who takes her child and runs, and more concerned for him than for herself, does not pause even / to throw a wrap about her) raised me, turned / and down the rugged bank from the high summit / flung himself down supine onto the slope / which walls the upper side of the next pit” (199).

 This quote depicts the extent to which Virgil was concerned by the way in which the two slid down the bank of the cliff.  Dante’s picture is almost complete.

            Dante uses his extensive knowledge to complete the picture.  He discusses the history of his society, tales present in the society, and establishes a punishment that is commensurate to the sins committed by the major hypocrite.  By using many specific names in history Dante displays his vast knowledge on the subject.  He uses the Benedictine of Cluny, Frederick II, and Gardingo all to help convey a better picture of what he is seeing to the reader.  He also uses comparisons to a tale to help the reader better understand the predicament they are in while escaping the fiends in the previous Canto.  “The incident / Recalled the fable of the Mouse and Frog / That Aesop tells” (198).  This quote not only shows his knowledge of the tales present in his society, but also further illustrates the predicament.  Dante lastly shows his infinite store of knowledge in his creativity in the punishment chosen for the Jewish leader who was responsible for nailing Christ to the cross.  He explains the punishment “ Naked he lies fixed there, as you see, / in the path of all who pass; there he must feel / the weight of all through all eternity” (201).  Not only must this man endure the pain of the stakes as Christ did, but he must also endure the weight of all the other hypocrites as Christ endured the weight of all the sins brought upon him.  Dante’s vast knowledge not only proves his education but also helps the reader to better understand what he has seen.

            In The Inferno-Dante’s Immortal Drama of a Journey Through Hell Dante’s mastery of language, sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature, and infinite store of knowledge help the reader to paint a clear picture of what Dante is experiencing.  These traits are most evident in Cantos 6,13, and 23.  In these Cantos Dante combines his mastery of language with his sensitivity to the sights and sounds of nature to help the reader feel like they are actually present at Dante’s side.  Dante then reinforces these issues through his infinite knowledge to complete the picture.
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