by Dante Alighieri
Inferno Language and Communication Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands –
all went to make a tumult that will whirl… (Inf. III, 22-28)
With this passage, Dante demonstrates that Hell is a realm in which language breaks down. All the human sounds that greet Dante on entering Hell are unintelligible expressions of pain and anger. This depicts Hell as a place of irrationality, where reason cannot be adequately expressed and where articulate words are hard to come by.
[Virgil]: …"Forget your fear, no one can hinder
our passage; One so great has granted it.
But you wait here for me, and feed and comfort
your tired spirit with good hope, for I
will not abandon you in this low world."
So he goes on his way; that gentle father
has left me there to wait and hesitate,
for yes and no contend within my head.
I could not hear what he was telling them;
but he had not been long with them when each
ran back into the city, scrambling fast.
And these, our adversaries, slammed the gates
in my lord’s face; and he remained outside,
then, with slow steps, turned back again to me. (Inf. VIII, 104-117)
Both our heroes engage in linguistic struggles here. Dante is conflicted about whether to trust Virgil or not, symbolized by the contention between "yes and no" in his head. Meanwhile, Virgil approaches the citizens of Dis, hoping to use his renowned "persuasive word" to wheedle them into opening the city gates for him. But, whatever he says, he fails in his mission. This is the first time readers have reason to doubt Virgil’s linguistic skills and suspect that perhaps the "persuasive word" isn’t the best kind of language, at least in God’s eyes. Unaccustomed to defeat, the shamed Virgil must turn and walk back to Dante "with slow steps" to explain his failure.
[Virgil]: "We have to win this battle," he began,
"if not…But one so great had offered help.
How slow that someone’s coming seems to me!"
But I saw well enough how he had covered
his first words with the words that followed after –
so different from what he had said before,
nevertheless, his speech made me afraid,
because I drew out from his broken phrase
a meaning worse – perhaps – than he’d intended.(Inf. IX, 7-15)
As Virgil, stuttering, tries to reassure Dante that things will work themselves out, his protégé notices the uncharacteristic hesitation in his speech. His "broken phrase" – shown in the text with an ellipsis – inspires fear in Dante, who "drew out…a meaning worse…than he’d intended." Because Dante is so unaccustomed to see Virgil daunted, he assumes that it spells the end of their journey together.