Study Guide

Inferno Love

By Dante Alighieri

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Inferno Canto I

The time was the beginning of the morning;
the sun was rising now in fellowship
with the same stars that had escorted it
when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;
so that the hour and the gentle season
gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing
that beast before me with his speckled skin; (Inf. I, 37-43)

Appropriately, Dante’s description of the coming dawn coincides with his reference to Creation. The "Divine Love" alludes to God’s supreme tenderness and devotion in fashioning all the creatures of the earth. And the "things of beauty" refer to the celestial bodies – the sun and stars – that bring light to the universe. With the Genesis comes the dawn of mankind. To further illustrate the birth metaphor, Dante begins his story in the "gentle season," the springtime. Of course, with the sunlight, crafted from God’s all-encompassing love, Dante feels a resurgence of hope, even before the fearsome maw of the lion.

Inferno Canto II

[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘For I am Beatrice who send you on;
I come from where I most long to return;
Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak." (Inf. II, 70-72)

Here, love is like an actual person – given the privilege of capitalized letters and occupying the space of an agent which can urge Beatrice to act in certain ways. This reinforces the concept of love as a moving force, introduced with the concept of God creating the entire universe out of the sheer force of love.

Inferno Canto III

These words – their aspect was obscure – I read
inscribed above a gateway… (Inf. III, 1-11)

Although it seems counterintuitive, Hell is created out of "the primal love" (or, in other words, God). That a place of such suffering, a realm which urges all souls to "abandon every hope" upon entering, can have a function that stems from love seems absurd. Indeed, Dante’s depiction of the sinners often challenges this assumption. He does not easily accept that an all-loving God would create such excruciating punishments for his favored children.

Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

[Francesca]: "One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot – how love had overcome him.
We were alone, and we suspected nothing.
And time and time again that reading led
our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
and yet one point alone defeated us.
When we had read how the desired smile
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
who wrote it, too; that day we read no more." (Inf. V, 127-138)

In attempting to describe their love, Francesca reveals that her and Paolo’s feelings are nothing more than carnal lust. Their shared activity of reading, which should be a purely intellectual pursuit, becomes an increasingly physical one. First the words lead their gazes to one another, then they imitate the characters’ actions, and finally – in the most blatantly physical representation – Francesca describes the book as a flesh-and-blood person, Gallehault, the man who urged Lancelot to carry on an illicit affair with the queen. All of this results in Francesca and Paolo forgetting their reading in favor of giving in to their lust.

[Francesca]: "Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
took hold of him because of the fair body
taken from me – how that was done still wounds me.
Love, that releases no beloved from loving,
took hold of me so strongly through his beauty
that, as you see, it has not left me yet.
Love led the two of us unto one death.
Caina waits for him who took our life." (Inf. V, 100-107)

Francesca, in speaking the language of courtly love, not only personifies love but also exonerates herself and her lover of all guilt. She represents herself as a passive body upon which Love acts, like a god. Here, Love "[takes] hold" of both lovers and "[leads] the two of us unto one death." Francesca repeatedly renders Love as the guilty, sinning force and represents herself as innocent.

Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

[Virgil]: "Now fraud, that eats away at every conscience,
is practice by a man against another
who trust in him, or one who has no trust.
This latter way seems only to cut off
the bond of love that nature forges; thus,
nestled within the second circle are:
hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers,
and falsifiers, simony, and theft,
and barrators and panders and like trash.
But in the former way of fraud, not only
the love that nature forges is forgotten,
but added love that builds a special trust;
thus, in the tightest circle, where there is
the universe’s center, seat of Dis,
all traitors are consumed eternally." (Inf. XI, 52-66)

Because God with his infinite love created the universe, his love permeates everything, creating bonds of love between men and the world around them. Fraud, the most heinous type of sin, "cut[s] off / the bond of love that nature forges" because it falsifies man’s (supposedly loving) relationship to the material world around him. Whereas sinners of ordinary fraud like hypocrites, flatterers, and sorcerers generally betray the world around them, sinners of treacherous fraud first establish a particular bond of love with another person and then betray them, making the "special trust" between them "forgotten." Thus, fraud in a very real way is a negation of natural love.

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

[Dante]: "Within my memory is fixed – and now
moves me – your dear, your kind paternal image
when, in the world above, from time to time
you taught me how man makes himself eternal;
and while I live, my gratitude for that
must always be apparent in my words.
What you have told me of my course, I write;
I keep it with another text, for comment
by one who’ll understand, if I may reach her." (Inf. XV, 82-90)

In the circle of sodomy, Dante indirectly addresses this type of sin by showing the inappropriate love that exists between himself and Brunetto Latini, his former teacher. In an unnecessarily intimate manner, Dante considers Latini a "kind, paternal image." But because Dante already has a father figure – namely Virgil – this is inappropriate. Some scholars have also suggested that in writing together or greeting each other, Dante and Latini come into physical contact, which means that Dante puts his hands on his teacher’s aging, naked body.

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

My guide snatched me up instantly, just as
the mother who is wakened by a roar
and catches sight of blazing flames beside her,
will lift her son and run without a stop –
she cares more for the child than for herself –
not pausing even to throw on a shift;
and down the hard embankment’s edge – his back
lay flat along the sloping rock that closes
one side of the adjacent moat – he slid.
No water ever ran so fast along
a sluice to turn the wheels of a land mill,
not even when its flow approached the paddles,
as did my master race down that embankment
while bearing me with him upon his chest,
just like a son, and not like a companion. (Inf. XXIII, 37-51)

To complement his stern, lecturing father-figure role, Virgil suddenly shows a spurt of motherly love when he and Dante are pursued by demons. In the comparison of Virgil to a mother bearing her child away from a fire, Virgil grows overprotective of his protégé Dante and "lift[s] her son and run[s] without a stop," instinctively treating his adult charge like a child. In the last line, where Dante describes himself as a "son, and not like a companion," one can hear the hint of pride and love in his voice.

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

[Ulysses]: "…I sailed away from Circe, who’d beguiled me
to stay more than a year there, near Gaeta –
before Aeneas gave that place a name –
neither my fondness for my son nor pity
for my old father nor the love I owed
Penelope, which would have gladdened her,
was able to defeat in me the longing
I had to gain experience of the world
and of the vices and worth of men." (Inf. XXVI, 91-99)

Ulysses’ abandonment of his family is perhaps the most explicit illustration that fraud severs human bonds of love. Despite having braved twenty years of hardship on the open sea to get home, Ulysses quickly forgets his wife Penelope’s devotion, his son’s admiration, and his aging father’s dependence on him. In denying these intimate and tangible ties to life, Ulysses turns to a cold abstract concept of glory. His punishment for forfeiting his family’s love is death and eternal damnation.

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