I found myself within a forest dark, Langdon thought, recalling the ominous first canto of Dante’s masterwork, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
(Dan Brown, Inferno)
Inferno 1 is the first canto in Dante’s Divine Comedy and perhaps the most famous of the epic poem.
Dante, author and protagonist of the poem, is in the middle of the journey of his life, in a dark forest. It is horrible, tangled, and wild, and only the memory of it makes Dante scared. He did not realize what happened because his soul was sleepy and numb.
The events of the Divine Comedy are set around 1300 because Dante was born in 1265 and rumored to be in the middle of his earthly life, which at that time was considered to be about seventy years.
Dante imagined a scary forest as a metaphor for sin. While he seeks a way out of the forest, he meets three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. They force Dante back into the dark forest.
The three beasts are allegories of three different sins: the leopard represents lust, the lion pride, and the wolf represents avarice.
While Dante goes backward to the forest, he sees a human figure and turns to it for help. Dante, however, cannot distinguish whether it is a man or a shadow.
The shadow tells him that he was a man, more precisely the ancient Roman poet Virgil, also known as Publius Vergilius Maro, and begs Virgil to free him from the danger in the wilderness.
Virgil suggests that he take a different direction because the wolf is too dangerous and will ultimately kill him. Virgil tells Dante that the work of the wolf will continue on earth until a savior comes to liberate the world.
Virgil’s prophecy is very dark, and it’s about a savior who will be nourished with wisdom, love, and virtue, and who will drive away the wolf into the hell.
The savior will be born in “felt,” Virgil says.
Even today no one knows for sure what Dante meant by the word “felt.” Perhaps it means humble origins or belonging to religious orders that wore felt. This is one of the many mysteries that Dante deliberately leaves unresolved in his poem.
Virgil explains to Dante that if he wants to be saved he must go through Hell and Purgatory and offers to guide him.
Then Virgil says that if Dante wants to go to Heaven someone else must accompany him―Beatrice―because God does not allow pagans to enter. Virgil was born in ancient Rome before Christendom spread, so he was a good person but not a Christian.
Dante accepts, and the two poets begin their journey.
In this first part of his poem, Dante makes it clear to the reader that the story he is telling is not a personal story but the story of all human beings.
The loss and the journey he takes from sin to salvation belong to everyone’s experience.
As mentioned above, 1300 is a special year in the life of Dante: He finds himself in the middle of his earthly journey and thinks about his life after death.
We must not forget that 1300 was also the year in which the struggles between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in Florence were at their peak, and this year was also the year of the first Christian jubilee.
Opportunities for Dante and everybody else to repent and see their sins erased thanks to this Christian celebration.
In the course of the poem, Dante appears as Dante Alighieri, with unique characteristics of man. But in this canto, he is still a symbol, the symbol of humanity lost in the wilderness of sin.
Do you fancy to read The Divine Comedy? If yes, we reccomend to start with the Mandelbaum edition.
with commentary by American professor Allen Mandelbaum, a popular modern rendition which includes forty-two Botticelli‘s illustrations
More information »