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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
Dante the Pilgrim, aged thirty-five, awakens to find himself lost in a dark wood. He has wandered into unawares, after having strayed off the path of truth. He describes it as a savage wilderness and is terrified about being there. Eventually he arrives at the foot of a hill, at the edge of the wood. The hilltop is bathed in light and seeing it, his fear leaves
him. He begins to ascend the hill but his journey upward is blocked by the consecutive appearance of three wild beasts - a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. He loses all hope and in great fear runs down the hill.
As he comes rushing down he perceives a figure (of a man) coming towards him. The figure introduces itself as the ghost of Virgil, the Roman poet. Dante explains his predicament to Virgil and asks to lie saved from the she-wolf. Vigil tells him he will have to take another road, for the she-wolf allows no man to escape. She devours anyone who comes her way. She mates with many creatures and will continue to do so until the greyhound comes and puts an end to her life. This greyhound will come to save Italy and he will be born between Feltro and Feltro.
Virgil offers to guide Dante out of these woods. He says he will lead him out through an eternal place where he will see tormented souls. Then he will witness burning souls who are happy because they will eventually join the blessed souls. He informs Dante that another spirit, more worthy than him (Virgil), will lead Dante to the place where these blessed souls reside. Virgil is not allowed to enter Paradise (God's city) because he was pagan while he lived and thus broke God's Law by living as a non-Christian or a non-believer. Dante begs him to save him from this evil place and lead him towards the journey Virgil has just described. Virgil then moves on and Dante follows him closely.
The date of the poem's beginning is the night before Good Friday in the year 1300 A.D. This date is fictional, an invention of ‘Dante the Poet’. Dante was born in 1265 A.D. So he would be thirty-five years old in 1300 A.D. The Bible states that a man's life span. This is what Dante means when he says "Midway along the journey of our life".
During the Middle Ages a man's life was seen as a journey / pilgrimage leading to God. "The Divine Comedy" is the story of man's pilgrimage to God. It isn't just the Pilgrim's journey but that of every human being as shown by Dante's use of "owe" in the first line of the poem.
Canto I serves as an introduction to the entire "Divine Comedy". The structure of the poem is 1 + 33 + 33 + 33. Canto I being an introduction and each part of the poem (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) having 33 Cantos each. Dante the Pilgrim has strayed from the path of truth and now finds himself trapped in a terrifying wood. The scene is set in this nowhere land that can be seen as the region of undifferentiated sin. The poet seems to be saying that any straying from truth/good life leads man into sin where he finds himself scared, and trapped.
It is important for the reader to distinguish between "Dante the Pilgrim" and "Dante the Poet". The former is a character in a story invented by the latter. The events narrated have occurred in the past. But the writing of the poem is happening in the poet's present.
The Pilgrim finds himself lost in the wood, which he describes as a "Bitter place". He can't remember entering, for after having left the path of truth he had become sleepy. The pact is trying to tell the readers that once a man leaves the path of truth he becomes "sleepy" or befuddled (unable to see clearly) and puts himself in the danger of wondering into alien, dangerous territory (sin) all without conscious intent. Thus he is pointing out the dangers that can befall a man who stops being virtuous.
The Pilgrim finds himself at the foot of a hill, whose top is bathed in morning light. He takes heart because he thinks that if he climbs the hill he will be safely out of the woods. But he is prevented in doing this by the consecutive appearance of three wild beasts (leopard, lion, she-wolf) that block his path and threaten him.
The three beasts are symbolic of 3 specific sins: lust, pride and avarice. This is the view held by early cities, modern critics, like Mark Musa see the beasts as the symbols of the three major divisions of Hell. He believes the leopard to represent "fraud" the lion to represent "violence" and the she-wolf as the representative of the different types of "Incontinence". All these sins are punished in various ways in Hell. Thus these three beasts threatening Dante the Pilgrim (the representative of European) are the 3 categories of humans in that threaten. Dante the Pilgrim and also every living being. Since the Pilgrim is the poet's symbol of mankind.
Just as the poet is running down the hill, fleeing from the she- wolf, he encounters Virgil's ghost. Virgil, the Roman poet, was born in 70 B.C. during the time of Julius Caesar. In this poem he personifies Reason or Human Wisdom. He appears before the pilgrim just as the pilgrim is fleeing form danger and has lost all hope of escape from sin (dark woods).
Dante beseeches him for help and when he discourse Virgil's identity he is overcome with joy. Dante has long idolized the Roman feet and sees him as his "teacher". He explains to Virgil that the she-wolf threatened to devour him and has closed down his last avenue of escape. Virgil tells him that to escape he will have to take another route. For the she-wolf test no soul escape, in her greed, she devours anyone that crosses her path. She mates with many creatures and will continue to do so until the greyhound comes an puts an end to her life.
He thus prophesizes about the appearance of the greyhound from the region of between Feltro and Feltro. He will come to save Italy and drive the she-wolf to Hell from where she came. The greyhound may refer to Can Grande della Scala. Who ruled Verona from 1308 to 1329. His birthplace was Verona, which lies between Feltro and Feltro. His "wisdom, love and virtue" were will known to Dante. These three qualities are the attributes of Trinity (mentioned again in Canto III). And these will replace the sins of the world (lust, pride and avarice). In a larger sense this prophecy can be seen as an indication of the establishment spirituality on earth.
After Virgil finishes his prophecy, he offers to be the Pilgrim's guide to help him out of the wood. He describes the path they will have to follow. He will lead the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory. And then another spirit will lead him to Paradise. Virgil, who was a pagan during his lifetime, cannot enter Christian Paradise because he lived before the birth of Christ and is ignorant of Christian Salvation. This means the Reason can guide the pilgrim only up to a certain point. Beyond which he needs the help and guidance of a "worthier spirit". This spirit is that of Beatrice, whose represents Christian Gurace or Revelation (Theology) in the "Divine Comedy". Beatrice was born in Florence in 1266. And Dante fell in love with her when he was nine years of age. She eventually married Simone die Bardi and died in 1290 at the age of twenty-four. After her marriage Dante's love for her turned Platonic and after her death it took on spiritual dimensions. She was the inspiration Dante's poetic work "Vita Nuova". Even after her death she continued to be significant to Dante and his love for her took the form of worship. Thus it is fitting that it is her spirit that guides him to Paradise. Love, the finest of human emotions leads him to God, the desired goal of every pilgrim.
But to reach Paradise and God the pilgrim will have to journey through Hell and Purgatory. This is the road that Virgil chooses because before man can reach God he has to recognize sin, renounce it and do penance for it. With Virgil's help the pilgrim has to understand the nature of sin. Virgil's help is necessary because he is Reason or Human Wisdom. Every man has to undergo and renounce sin, then do penance for them before he is ready to meet God. This is what man's life is all about. A man's life is represented by Dante's journey through these regions. Thus Dante's journey tells the story of man's pilgrimage to God.