Dante's Canto XXVIII

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Dante's Canto XXVIII

       Dante begins the opening of Canto XXVIII with a rhetorical
question. Virgil and he have just arrived in the Ninth Abyss of the
Eighth Circle of hell. In this pouch the Sowers of Discord and Schism
are continually wounded by a demon with a sword. Dante poses a
question to the reader:

Who, even with untrammeled words and many
attempts at telling, ever could recount
in full the blood and wounds that I now saw?  (Lines 1-3)

       The rhetorical question draws the reader into the passage
because we know by this point in the Divine Comedy that Dante is a
great poet. What is it that Dante sees before him on the brink of the
Ninth Abyss that is so ineffable that he, as a poet, feels he cannot
       In the following lines Dante expands on this rhetorical
position. He elaborates on why it is important for any man to offer a
good description of what he sees. No poet can achieve this
description: “Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short...”
(L. 4) It is not just poetic talent that is at stake; poets do not
have the background to give them the poetic power for such
description. His reasoning is "the shallowness of both our speech and
intellect cannot contain so much."  (Lines 5-6) Once again the reader
is intrigued; how could a man of Dante's stature criticize language
which is the very tool he uses to create the epic work of La Commedia
? If we cannot take Dante seriously with these opening statements, we
must pose the question of what Dante is trying to do by teasing us
with this artificial beginning to Canto XVIII?
       Dante will now contradict himself and try to describe what he
says is impossible. But, if he were to go right into a description of
the Ninth Abyss, it would deflate his rhetorical position. Instead,
Dante first sets up a quite lengthy comparison of the sights he has
just witnessed with examples of bloodshed throughout human history.

Were you to reassemble all the men
who once, within Apulia1's fateful land,
had mourned their blood, shed at the Trojans' hands,
 as well as those who fell in the long war
where massive mounds of rings were battle spoils--
even as Livy write, who does not err--
 and those who felt the thrust of painful blows
when they fought hard against Robert Guiscard;
with all the rest whose bones are still piled up
 at Ceperano--each Apulian was
a traitor there--and, and too, at Tabliacozzo,
where old Alardo conquered without weapons;
 and then, were one to show his limb pierced through
and one his limb hacked off, that would not match
the hideousness of the ninth abyss.   (Lines 7-21)
       Dante gives historical examples of the destruction of war.
This is in contrast to the heroic qualities of war which Dante's
predecessors most often focus on. Dante is acting less as a poet and
more as an historian. He takes the reader on a mini journey through
these wars. His first stop are the Trojan wars (Line 9). These wars
Dante refers to actually represent the final books of Virgil's Aeneid.
Part of my experience in reading the Inferno, has been that there is a
great connection between the Inferno and the Aeneid. Furthermore,
Dante's guide through hell is the author of the Aeneid, Virgil. (While
this topic is much too broad to address in these pages, it is
important too take note of this relationship.) On the one hand it is
important that Virgil is Dante's first example because it is necessary
for him to leave the world of the poet (poets do not have enough
talent) and move to the world of the historian, whose objectivity is
supposedly more trusted in front of this horror. By this time the
reader can see the irony of what Dante is doing in this opening
passage. Dante the poet must give up to historical fact, but the
reader knows that Dante the poet is playing this game to entice the
reader into listening to him.
       Dante moves on to the wars at Carthage in his next example.
This is material which Virgil deliberately does not deal with in

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