Study Guide

Inferno Language and Communication

By Dante Alighieri

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Language and Communication

Inferno Canto I

When I saw him [Virgil] in that vast wilderness,
"Have pity on me," were the words I cried,
"whatever you may be – a shade, a man." (Inf. I, 64-66)

Dante’s response on spying Virgil’s ghost in the wilderness is one of instinctive fear. His actual plea, "have pity on me," in the original text forms the words "miserere di me." "Miserere" is actually Latin, not Italian, and comes from a famous psalm often sung on Ash Wednesday. In speaking Latin, Dante the pilgrim identifies himself as a steadfast Christian and, appropriately, sets himself up for recognition by Virgil, a Roman poet who was, of course, fluent in Latin. It is interesting that Dante the writer would use a liturgical Latin phrase to address a speaker of pagan Latin.

…when I faced that restless beast,
which, even as she stalked me, step by step
had thrust me back to where the sun is speechless. (Inf. I, 58-60)

One of Dante’s more famous literary devices is "synaesthesia," in which he describes something by confusing two of our five senses together for a unique effect. Here, Dante confuses sight and sound, when he describes the sun as "speechless." Because the sun cannot speak to begin with, readers may interpret this as "dark," so that the beast makes Dante retreat into a dark area, both physically and metaphorically. Or one could read this as Dante being rendered "speechless" with fear.

[Dante]: "And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?"
I answered him with shame upon my brow.
"O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.
You are my master and my author, you –
the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored." (Inf. I, 79-87)

Dante recognizes Virgil as his artistic idol, "the only one from whom my writing drew [a] noble style." Thus, Dante acknowledges that all the epic similes, epithets, and larger-than-life characters stem from the epic tradition -- one that Virgil solidified in his epic poem, the Aeneid. Note that Dante calls Virgil "my author," as though Virgil’s poetry, or his writing style, directly informed Dante’s. Indeed, Dante acknowledges this creative debt by making constant allusions to the Aeneid.

Inferno Canto II

[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘I trusted in your [Virgil’s] honest utterance,
which honors you and those who’ve listened to you.’"(Inf. II, 113-114)

This is the first explicit reference to language’s unique ability to affect large numbers of people. Beatrice acknowledges Virgil’s "honest utterance" as a benefit to all "those who’ve listened to [it]" – namely, the Romans. Virgil has done for the Latin language what Dante will do for the Italian one: standardize it and give his fellow countrymen a sense of national pride.

[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "’Go now; with your persuasive word, with all
that is required to see that he [Dante] escapes,
bring help to him, that I may be consoled.’"(Inf. II, 67-69)

In this key passage, Beatrice anoints Virgil as one possessing the "persuasive word." This is Virgil’s most important attribute because he uses language to impart lessons to Dante, engage sinners in conversation, condemn sin, and basically to keep Dante out of trouble. Virgil is the embodiment of ornate and eloquent language in the Inferno, and for the most part, he uses it wisely.


O Muses, o high genius, help me now;
o memory that set down what I saw,
here shall your excellence reveal itself! (Inf. II, 7-9)

In a nod to the Virgilian epic, Dante invokes the muses to lend credence to his words. This invocation, along with frequent apostrophes to God, reveals that Dante draws as much from the Classical tradition as from the Christian one.

Inferno Canto III

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.

Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)

[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.

Inferno Canto IX (the gate of Dis)

[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.

[The Heavenly messenger]: "O you cast out of Heaven, hated crowd,"
were his first words upon that horrid threshold,
"why do you harbor this presumptuousness?
Why are you so reluctant to endure
that Will whose aim can never be cut short,
and which so often added to your hurts?
What good is it to thrust against the fates?"...
After that he turned and took the filthy road,
and did not speak to us, but had the look
of one who is obsessed by other cares
than those that press and gnaw at those before him;
and we moved forward, on into the city,
in safety, having heard his holy words. (Inf. IX, 91-105)

The heavenly messenger offers an alternative to Virgil’s "persuasive word," offering instead "holy words." And unlike Virgil’s speeches, the heavenly messenger’s is very short and direct. Readers begin to suspect that the "holy word" surpasses Virgil’s style in its effectiveness.

Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

[Farinata]: "O Tuscan, you who pass alive across
the fiery city with such seemly words,
be kind enough to stay your journey here.
Your accent makes it clear that you belong
among the natives of the noble city
I may have dealt with too vindictively." (Inf. X, 22-27)

One’s speech becomes an important factor of one’s identity. Dante, as a Florentine, apparently speaks with a Florentine (or Tuscan) accent. When someone recognizes him as a Florentine, this immediately conjures up in his mind a number of stereotypes linked to Florence, both good and bad.

Inferno Canto XVI (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
should always close his lips as long as he can –
to tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless;
But here I can’t be still; and by the lines
of this my Comedy, reader, I swear –
and may my verse find favor for long years –
that through the dense and darkened air I saw
a figure swimming, rising up, enough
to bring amazement to the firmest heart,
like one returning from the waves where he
went down to loose an anchor snagged upon
a reef or something else hid in the sea,
who stretches upward and draws in his feet. (Inf. XVI, 124-136)

Dante points out a number of inadequacies in language. At the first sight of Geryon, Dante is struck dumb. For one of the first times in the Inferno, his vocabulary lacks words to describe what he beholds. In trying to describe Geryon, Dante says his best option is to "close his lips as long as he can." Later, in comparing Geryon to a diver, Dante commits a linguistic sin. He tries to affirm the veracity of his statement by swearing on his own work. As a process, swearing or taking an oath cannot function properly if one swears on one’s own words; this demonstrates circular reasoning. By doing this, Dante shows either his arrogance or a breakdown of reasoning at beholding a sight as wondrous as Geryon.

Inferno Canto XVIII (the Eighth Circle, First Pouch: Panderers and Seducers; the Second Pouch: Flatterers)

And he [Venedico Caccianemico] to me: "I speak unwillingly;
but your plain speech, that brings the memory
of the old world to me, is what compels me;
For it was I who led Ghisolabella
to do as the Marquis would have her do –
however they retell that filthy tale."(Inf. XVIII, 52-57)

Caccianemico’s description of Dante’s words as "plain speech" contrasts sharply with Virgil’s style, an elevated "persuasive word." However, Dante’s "plain speech" seems to have as powerful (if not more so) an effect on sinners as Virgil’s words; indeed, it even compels Caccianemico to confess to his sin. Such a response suggests that a "plain," minimal, and direct speech might yield better results than Virgil’s lofty tone and fancy metaphors.

Inferno Canto XXI (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators)

[A demon]: "Shove this one under – I’ll go back for more –
his city is well furnished with such stores;
there, everyone’s a grafter but Bonturo;
and there – for cash – they’ll change a no to yes."(Inf. XXI, 39-42)

The ease with which grafters "change a no to a yes" reveals the vulnerability of language to insincerity. Unlike physical matter, one’s words can be changed instantaneously. This mutability of language suggests that both Virgil and Dante may be wrong in putting so much stock in the way they speak and write.

Inferno Canto XXIII (the Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: the Barrators; Sixth Pouch: the Hypocrites)

[Fra Alberigo]: … "O souls who are so cruel
that this last place has been assigned to you,
take off the hard veils from my face so that
I can release the suffering that fills
my heart before lament freezes again."
To which I answered: "If you’d have me help you,
then tell me who you are, if I don’t free you,
may I go to the bottom of the ice." (Inf. XXXIII, 110-117)

In response to Fra Alberigo’s plea, Dante makes a promise to relieve his suffering in exchange for a favor. This is a serious promise, for Dante damns himself to Hell if he does not follow through.

Inferno Canto XXV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

When he [Vanni Fucci] had finished with his words, the thief
raised high his fists with both figs cocked and cried:
"Take that, o God; I square them off for you!"
From that time on, those serpents were my friends,
for one of them coiled then around his neck,
as if to say, "I’ll have you speak no more"… (Inf. XXV, 1-6)

Vanni Fucci’s words are so offensive to God in this passage that his punishers, the serpents, take on more human characteristics than he does. The snakes are suddenly gifted with language and reasoning power, reprimanding Fucci for his crime against God. This is similar to the role that the Centaurs play in the Seventh Circle of the violent, where the sinners are depicted as speechless. They howl like beasts, while the more animalistic creatures – Centaurs – can speak articulately, reason, and even show mercy.

Inferno Canto XXVI (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

[Virgil]: "I only ask you this: refrain from talking.
Let me address them – I have understood
what you desire of them. Since they were Greek,
perhaps they’d be disdainful of your speech." (Inf. XXVI, 72-75)

Here, one’s speech gives away his nationality. Virgil can tell by the language of Ulysses and Diomedes that they are Greek. However, he makes an assumption about them based on their language, supposing that they hold a grudge against the Trojans (and hence their descendants, the Italians) for their bitter enmity in the Trojan War, and thus forbids Dante from speaking to them. Language therefore becomes grounds for politics and racism.

Inferno Canto XXVII (the Eighth Circle, Eighth Pouch: the Fraudulent Counselors)

I still was bent, attentive, over him [Guido da Montefeltro],
when my guide nudged me lightly at the side
and said: "You speak; he is Italian." (Inf. XXVII, 31-33)

Contrary to its role in the previous canto, language here becomes a tool for solidarity and unification under the same nation. Whereas Dante is not allowed to speak to Ulysses because he is Greek, here Virgil urges him to speak to Montefeltro because they use the same language. Thus, language can form a basis of nationalism.

Inferno Canto XXVIII (the Eighth Circle, Ninth Pouch: the Sowers of Scandal and Schism)

Who, even with untrammeled words and many
attempts at telling, ever could recount
in full the blood and wounds that I now saw?
Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short
because the shallowness of both our speech
and intellect cannot contain so much. (Inf. XXVIII, 1-6)

In witnessing the horrendous pain of the Sowers of Schism, Dante laments the inability of words to do justice to their suffering. There is a suggestion here that words simply do not have the capacity to capture such agony: "untrammeled," "tongue[s]…fall[ing] short," and "shallowness of…our speech" convey the message that physical and moral pain sometimes penetrate to a deeper depth than language can reach, and that at that point language becomes ineffective.

Inferno Canto XXIX (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers of Metals)

[Capocchio to Dante]: "…see that I’m the shade of that Capocchio
whose alchemy could counterfeit fine metals
And you, if I correctly take your measure,
recall how apt I was at aping nature." (Inf. XXIX, 136-139)

Capocchio’s attempt to equate his false art, alchemy, with Dante’ s art, writing, brings into question the relationship that both occupations have with nature. If Capocchio is correct, that writing is only an attempt to make an unnatural transformation out of natural materials, then writing has no more moral worth than alchemy. Worse, there is an implication that if Dante continues writing – and sinning – he could end up just like Capocchio, in Hell.

Inferno Canto XXXI (the Eighth Circle, Tenth Pouch: the Falsifiers)

"Raphel mai amecche zabi almi,"
began to bellow that brute mouth, for which
no sweeter psalms would be appropriate.
And my guide turned to him: "O stupid soul,
keep to your horn and use that as an outlet
when rage or other passion touches you!
Look at your neck, and you will find the strap
that holds it fast; and see, bewildered spirit,
how it lies straight across your massive chest."
And then to me: "He is his own accuser;
for this is Nimrod, through whose wicked thought
one single language cannot serve the world.
Leave him alone – let’s not waste time in talk;
for every language is to him the same
as his to others – no one knows his tongue." (Inf. XXXI, 67-81)

For his crime of attempting to reach the Heavens with his Tower of Babel (which parallel’s Lucifer’s arrogance in challenging God), Nimrod is punished by a confusion of tongues, just as he was in life. Where the Tower of Babel ended with God striking down the Tower and transforming man’s single language into thousands of different, mutually unintelligible ones, Nimrod suffers a personal Babel. He babbles incoherently, his speech (as in this first line) incomprehensible to everyone. To emphasize his linguistic loss, Virgil calls him "stupid" (meaning "dumb" or "deaf") and "bewildered," emphasizing that intellect and reason are measured by one’s use of language.

Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

Had I the crude and scrannel rhymes to suit
the melancholy hole upon which all
the other circling crags converge and rest,
the juice of my conception would be pressed
more fully; but because I feel their lack,
I bring myself to speak, yet speak in fear;
for it is not a task to take in jest,
to show the base of all the universe –
nor for a tongue that cries out, "mama," "papa."(Inf. XXXII, 1-9)

In the final circle of Hell, Dante finds words inadequate to express the terror located there. By describing language as a "tongue that cries out ‘mama’ [and] ‘papa,’ Dante suggests that language in general is too infantile to accurately describe the happenings in Hell. To describe language as infantile is to portray humanity in the same way because – in Dante’s eyes – language is what makes a creature human.

Inferno Canto XXXIII (the Ninth Circle, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to the Homeland or Party, Third Ring Ptolomea: Traitors against their Guests)

[Ugolino]: "…I heard them nailing up the door
of that appalling tower; without a word,
I looked into the faces of my sons.
I did not weep; within, I turned to stone.
They wept; and my poor little Anselm said:
‘Father, you look so…What is wrong with you?’
At that I shed no tears and – all day long
and through the night that followed – did not answer
until another sun had touched the world.
As soon as a thin ray had made its way
into that sorry prison, and I saw,
reflected in four faces, my own gaze,
out of my grief, I bit at both my hands;
and they, who thought I’d done that out of hunger,
immediately rose and told me: ‘Father,
it would be far less painful for us if
you ate of us; for you clothed us in this
sad flesh – it is for you to strip it off.’
Then I grew calm, to keep them from more sadness;
through that day and the next, we all were silent;
O hard earth, why did you not open up?
But after we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo,
throwing himself, outstretched, down at my feet
implored me: ‘Father, why do you not help me?’
And there he died; and just as you see me,
I saw the other three fall one by one
between the fifth day and the sixth; at which,
now blind, I started groping over each;
and after they were dead, I called them for
two days; then fasting had more force than grief."(Inf. XXXIII, 46-75)

If silence was good for Guido da Montefeltro, it is the opposite for Ugolino. In remaining silent and refusing to offer verbal comfort to his dying children, Ugolino just as surely kills them as Archbishop Ruggieri. Here, language is compared to food and Ugolino withholds it from his children, just as Ruggieri denies them food. Ugolino’s son, Anselm, in offering his body for his father’s consumption, perverts the idea of the Eucharist, the ritual in which believers consume the body of Christ to become pure.

[Fra Alberigo to Dante]: "But now reach out your hand; open my eyes."
And yet I did not open them for him;
and it was courtesy to show him rudeness. (Inf. XXXIII, 148-150)

After Fra Alberigo has fulfilled his part of the bargain, Dante breaks his promise, committing a linguistic sin and -- compounding his crime -- insincerely transfiguring his words by calling the "rudeness" of lying a "courtesy." That Virgil does not reprimand Dante for this suggests that perhaps sinning against a sinner is justified in God’s eyes, but doubts about Dante’s character are planted in readers’ minds.

Inferno Canto XXXIV (the Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring Judecca: Traitors against their Benefactors)

O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then – I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
The emperor of the despondent kingdom
so towered from the ice, up from midchest,
that I match better with a giant’s breadth
than giants match the measure of his arms…(Inf. XXXIV, 22-31)

Language fails Dante in the last circle of Hell; the experience of witnessing Lucifer suffering is so indescribable that Dante simply cannot articulate it. Indeed, his words illustrate their inadequacy by losing their coherence and by becoming contradictory: "I did not die, and I was not alive." All of this incoherence works to create an aura of alienation and the impression that Lucifer is something so far beyond human comprehension that language cannot hope to capture his condition. He is utterly alien.

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