Wednesday, September 30, 2015

School Paper: “Symbols in Dante’s Inferno” (Fall 2010)

The general fieriness of this short essay suits its subject matter, Dante’s Inferno. It’s the first time I really opened up and spoke frankly about what I felt were some annoying tendencies of literary scholarship. C. S. Lewis once said, “Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish I had thought of them myself.” Reading scholarly interpretations of the Inferno frequently made me wonder if Dante would have said the same thing.

I’m not sure how much my criticisms here are actually worth, but this was a fun paper to write nonetheless. The professor’s grader told me that it was excellent, but apparently the professor didn’t agree. It came back with a C.

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Symbols in Dante’s Inferno:
Examining Common Allegorical Interpretations
History of Ideas 3
November 2, 2010

Dante Alighieri applied to the text of Psalm 114 a fourfold manner of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.1 From this, George Santayana concludes that one can expect to find in the Commedia similarly layered stages of meaning.2 This conclusion is likely an attempt to justify heavily speculative and complicated allegorical interpretations of Dante’s principal work. While it cannot be denied that the Commedia has its share of unambiguously symbolic and allegorical features, the tendency of many scholars seems to be speculative excess rather than objective moderation.

John Ciardi, in his synopsis of the Inferno‘s eighteenth Canto, attempts to explain how the punishment of those residing in the Malebolge’s first bolgia (the panderers and seducers) is reflective of the lives they lived. He states that “in life these sinners goaded others on to serve their own foul purposes; so in Hell are they driven in their turn.”3 Ciardi also maintains that the oppressive demons of this bolgia represent the sinners’ own wicked natures and even suggests that the horns of the demons may symbolize cuckoldry and adultery.4

One will be hard pressed, however, to find any grounds within the Canto itself on which to base such conjecture. Let it be said that some sinners described in subsequent Cantos do suffer penalties that unequivocally correspond to the sins of which they are guilty, such as the fortune-tellers who have their heads reversed so that that they cannot view what is in front of them. In this particular case, Virgil himself identifies the imagery explicitly within the narrative.5 In such cases, emblematic postulations are not at all inappropriate or unfounded. When the symbolism is less clear, however, as in the earlier case of the panderers and seducers, there is no obligation on the reader’s part to strain parallelisms from the text.

Ciardi makes similar assertions in regard to the sinners who suffer in the fifth bolgia, namely, the grafters. He maintains that the boiling pitch which engulfs the grafters represents the “sticky fingers” with which they acquired illicit lucre in life.6 The pitch also hides the grafters from sight, which according to Ciardi, corresponds to their clandestine antemortem deeds.7

Though Ciardi seems well confident that his symbolic interpretation is accurate, it is by no means the consensus view. Vincent Hopper suggests that the boiling pitch of the fifth bolgia is symbolic of the Blacks of Florence8, a political faction to which Dante was opposed.9 Frederick Farrar, while in agreement with Ciardi’s “sticky fingers” symbolism, further adds that the boiling of the pitch corresponds to the bubbling sensation of gain and loss that the avaricious soul experiences in life.10 Indeed, one wonders if there are any limits at all to the possible symbolic construals offered by many scholars. Surely some discrimination is necessary. In all reality, none of the aforementioned interpretations are better than the others, as all of them are offered without any defense from the text itself. This lack of consensus exemplifies the subjective and conjectural nature of what commonly passes for scholarship.

One final and classic example of the notoriously far-reaching allegorical interpretations of many Dantean scholars is typically found in commentaries on the Commedia‘s first Canto wherein Dante encounters three vicious beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Commentators are all over the map as to the allegorical significance of these creatures, but one common interpretation is political. Santayana claims that the lion in particular represents the King of France.11 Edmund Gardner, however, argues that this “comparatively modern interpretation which would see in the beasts the three great Guelf powers [the lion being the royal house of France] . . . is now generally discarded.”12 This further illustrates the teeming deluge of symbolism in which scholars frequently drown when allegorical speculation is indulged in ways that the original author likely never intended.

Allan Gilbert keenly notes this overly allegorical tendency in his introduction to the Inferno where he describes what he calls “scholars’ allegory.”13 According to Gilbert, scholars have always found themselves in a predicament when it comes to writing about poetry. There is not very much to say about the literal sense of a poem such as the Commedia, and it thus becomes necessary to consult the limitless provision of allegory. Gilbert writes, “The manufacture of allegory offers to the ingenious but prosaic mind an opportunity to speak at length with the appearance of wisdom . . .”14

Gardner sympathizes with Gilbert as is clear from his own admission that allegorical interpretations of the Commedia have frequently been carried to excess.15 Gardner also warns, however, of the opposite extreme, namely, divorcing all allegorical material from Dante in order to focus on the beauty of his poetry alone. As mentioned above, it simply cannot be denied that there is legitimate room for allegorical analysis in a discussion of Dante’s Commedia. However, the question of the proper balance between the beauty of poetry and its underlying allegory is not an easy one to answer.

Perhaps the one most qualified to answer the question of the relationship between allegorical meaning and poetic beauty, particularly in the Commedia, would be the Florentine poet himself. In his Convivio, Dante makes it clear16 that very few will understand the hidden meaning of his principal work. However, he earnestly motivates his readers by encouraging them to appreciate the beauty of the work rather than its goodness (i.e. its meaning). Dante confidently maintains that his poem is beautiful in its composition, order, and rhythm, which concerns grammarians, rhetoricians, and musicians respectively. In other words, all allegorical considerations aside, the beauty of the poem itself is enough to garner the appreciation of academicians in a number of fields. The true and total meaning of the Commedia may never be known, but as Dante rightly states, the poem’s beauty of composition “can be perceived . . . by anyone who looks closely.”17


1. From Dante’s epistle to Lord Can Grande della Scala, (accessed October 23, 2010).

2. George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1910), 98.

3. John Ciardi, synopsis of Canto XVIII in “Inferno” in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 141.

4. Ibid.

5. Dante, Inferno, XX.38-9.

6. John Ciardi, synopsis of Canto XXI in “Inferno” in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 165.

7. Ibid.

8. Vincent F. Hopper, A Simplified Approach To Dante: Detailed Analyses and Summaries (Great Neck: Barron’s Educational Series, 1964), 38.

9. Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, “Guelphs and Ghibellines – Who were they?”, (accessed October 23, 2010).

10. Frederick W. Farrar, Great Books (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, 1898), 160.

11. Santayana, 98.

12. Edmund G. Gardner, Dante (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1923), 115.

13. Allan Gilbert, introduction to Dante, Inferno, trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke University Press, 1969), xl.

14. Ibid.

15. Gardner, 108.

16. Dante, Convivio, II.11.

17. Ibid.

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