Dante's Inferno Canto 1: Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:04 Dante's Inferno Canto 1
  • 0:25 Allegory in the First Lines
  • 1:10 How He Got There
  • 2:02 Dante Meets Virgil
  • 3:57 Virgil Describes Their Journey
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Canto 1 serves as the introduction to Dante's 'Inferno' as well as the entire 'Divine Comedy'. This lesson summarizes Canto 1 and looks at key quotes.

Dante's Inferno Canto 1

Canto 1 of Dante's Inferno serves as the introduction both to the Inferno and to the entire Divine Comedy. We meet Dante as he is lost in a dark wood. He sees a light at the top of a hill and tries to run toward it, but he is confronted by three beasts. He runs back down the hill, where he meets the Roman poet Virgil, who will be his guide through the underworld.

Allegory in the First Lines

The first lines of Canto 1 set the stage for much of what's to come. We learn not only about the setting, but also that much of what is to come will be an allegory - which is a poetic description that points to a larger idea - for mortal life. We read:

''In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell
It was no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth...''

Dante is telling us that he has found himself in the middle of his life, having lost his way from the ''path direct,'' which we understand is the upright, Christian life. Since all of this description is an allegory for his life, we can read the ''rough'' and ''robust'' forest as representative of how murky his current path is.

How He Got There

Dante goes on to acknowledge that he does not know how he managed to leave the righteous path:

''Such sleepy dullness in that instant weigh'd
My senses down, when the true path I left.''

We should take this to mean that there was no specific incident that caused him to go astray; if there were, he would remember it. Instead, it was simply that he was caught up in living the mortal life and failing to keep his eyes on God.

Dante Is Confronted by the Leopard
Dante is confronted by a leopard

Next, Dante notices that there's a bright light at the top of the hill. He takes this to be the way back to the right path and tries to follow it. Unfortunately, three beasts - a panther, a lion, and a she-wolf - all appear, blocking his way. There isn't very much context in this scene that would allow us to guess who these animals might represent, but we can assume that they are figures who stand in the way of lost souls trying to get back onto the path of righteousness. In any event, Dante understandably rushes back down the hill.

Dante Meets Virgil

As Dante runs away from the beasts, he becomes aware of a presence near him, whose voice ''seem'd faint through long disuse of speech.'' Dante calls to the man or spirit (he isn't exactly sure), and this is the reply:

''Now not man, man once I was,
And born of Lombard parents, Montana both
By country, when the power of Julius yet
Was scarcely firm. At Rome my life was past
Beneath the mild Augustus, in the time
Of fabled Deities and false. A bard
Was I, and made Anchises' upright son
The subject of my song, who came from Troy...''

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