Dante's Inferno Canto 2: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

Canto 2 of Dante's ''Inferno'' includes Dante having second thoughts, and Virgil telling him the story of how their journey into the underworld was conceived. This lesson summarizes Canto 2 and looks at key quotes.

Brief Overview of Canto 2

Canto 2 in some ways serves as a second introduction to The Inferno, particularly since Dante invokes the Muses at the beginning. After asking for the Muses' blessing, Dante expresses some uncertainty that he is worthy of entering the underworld with Virgil. Virgil suggests that Dante is just feeling afraid and reassures Dante by telling him that he has been sent by Dante's deceased beloved, Beatrice, who resides in heaven. Dante does find this reassuring, and they proceed toward the entrance to the underworld.

Invoking the Muses

Early in Canto 2, Dante addresses the Muses, or the nine goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology who oversee artistic endeavors. He asks them for their help with his poem:

''O Muses! O high genius! now vouchsafe

Your aid! O mind! that all I saw hast kept

Safe in a written record, here thy worth

And eminent endowments come to proof.''

It may seem strange for a writer to interrupt his own work by asking for the help of the Muses, but this used to be fairly typical. In fact, Virgil's works also begin with invocations to the Muses, so in some ways this might be a nod to Virgil's involvement in Dante's poem. Of course, there is some irony in the fact that just earlier, in Canto 1, these same gods are referred to as ''false,'' and that Dante's work is based on the understanding that the Christian God is the only God. For this reason, we can assume that this reference to the Muses is merely in keeping with poetic traditions, and not a literal request for their help.

Dante Feels Unworthy

The first exchange between Dante and Virgil in Canto 2 has Dante asking Virgil whether Virgil really thinks he's worthy enough to enter the underworld:

''But I, why should I there presume? or who

Permits it? not, Aeneas I nor Paul.

Myself I deem not worthy, and none else

Will deem me. I, if on this voyage then

I venture, fear it will in folly end.''

Dante points out that the only people he has heard of journeying through the underworld are Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid and the founder of Rome, and the Apostle Paul, who was responsible for much of the foundation of Christianity. Understandably, Dante is not sure that he should be included in such company.

Virgil Sees through This Question

After Dante expresses this concern, Virgil replies that he suspects Dante's worries might be somewhat different from what he has said. In short, Virgil suggests that Dante's just afraid:

''If right thy words I scan...

Thy soul is by vile fear assail'd, which oft

So overcasts a man, that he recoils

From noblest resolution, like a beast

At some false semblance in the twilight gloom.''

Of course, you cannot blame Dante for being afraid, since they are about to enter the literal gates of Hell. Virgil points out, though, that fear has the effect of making a man like a beast, jumping with fright at things that are not there. In case this does not win Dante over, Virgil proceeds to play his trump card.

Beatrice Speaks to Virgil

But Who Sent Virgil?

Virgil goes on to reassure Dante that he has been sent by someone who cares very much for him: a beautiful woman who approached Virgil and said:

''A friend, not of my fortune but myself,

On the wide desert in his road has met

Hindrance so great, that he through fear has turn'd.

Now much I dread lest he past help have stray'd,

And I be ris'n too late for his relief.''

This woman goes on to explain to Virgil that her name is Beatrice, and she has come from heaven to ask his help with Dante. Dante had been in love with Beatrice when she was alive, so her involvement will certainly be reassuring to him.

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