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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
As they advance forward, the two poets find themselves in a dark forest. It is unmarked by any path and is dark with trees that have black leaves and are gnarled and twisted. Dante states that he has never seen such a dense and inhospitable forest even between the towns of Cecina and Corneto, a region known for its swamps. This is the wood of the suicides where the poets now find themselves. It is the second round of the seventh circle where those who did violence to their bodies and or their property are punished.
Presiding these worlds are the Harpies, who are half-woman, half-beast, bird like creatures. The Harpies had driven the Trojans from strophales by making a prediction of their disaster. Virgil tells Dante to look around to learn the nature of the place first hand. For his verbal explanation would be too incredible to be believed.
Dante can hear sounds of grief in the woods and assumes that it is coming from men hidden behind the trees. To disabuse him of this notion Virgil asks him to break a branch from anyone of the plants. Dante does so and the plant cries out and bleeds. It says that all these plants are the souls of men and Dante should have pity on them. From its wound both blood and words spill out terrifying the pilgrim who drops the branch he is holding. Virgil explains the necessity for doing so: Dante has forgotten what Virgil wrote and to show him the truth he had to take this course. He tells the plant to tell Dante who he is so that the latter can spread the word about his name on the Earth and remind others of his having once existed there. The plant is pleased with this suggestion and reveals himself to be Pier delle Vigne, a protege of Frederick II. He had total power over the king's decision and could sway him as he pleased. His position inspired envy in court and the envious courtiers turned the king against him. He was put in prison, where he killed himself to escape a shameful life. He maintains that he was always loyal to his master. And he wants Dante to say this back in the world of the living.
Virgil asks Dante to satisfy any further curiosity. But Dante is overwhelmed with pity and requests Virgil to do the questioning for him. Virgil asks him how souls are converted into shrubs and if they ever recover their bodies. The plant (Pier delle Vigne) replies that Minos sends the souls of people who have committed suicide to the seventh circle. The soul falls at random in this wood like a seed and soon germinates and turns into a tree. The Harpies feed on its leaves thus subjecting the plant to pain. The wound, where the leaves are torn off bleeds and also vents out the pain orally (the plants only communicate through a wound, which serves as a mouth). On the Day of the Judgement these souls will also obtain their bodies like the others. But the soul will not be able to enter the body. The soul will remain a shrub and the body shall hang on one of the shrub's thorns.
They hear sounds of a chase approaching them: like a wild animal being hunted by dogs. They see two naked and bleeding souls being chased. The two souls are tearing the bushes in their rush to escape. These are the souls of Lano and Giacomo da Sant Andreas. They are in Hell for having done violence to their property. They are the Profligates, who in their lifetime were recklessly extravagant and thus wasted their wealth. Lano is faster than Giacomo and the latter accuser the farmer of being unable to run away so fast from the battle at Toppo. Giacomo falls down and hides himself in a thorny bush while Lano runs ahead. The dogs fall on the hidden Giacomo and tear his body apart and run away with mouthfuls of his limbs in their jaws. In this skirmish the bush also gets torn. It laments its injuries and Virgil asks it to identify itself. The soul says it is from the city of Florence, which changed its patron God from Mars to the Baptist. And Mars being thus disowned swore to destroy Florence. Parts of Marsí statue still lay on the Arno Bridge and this saved the city from entire destruction. Otherwise the Florentines would be unable to rebuild on the ruins left behind by Atlila. The unnamed Florentine says that he killed himself by hanging himself to death in his house.
The two poets are in the second round of the seventh circle where souls who did violence to their bodies or their wealth are punished. It is important to net the imagery and aesthetic structure of this Canto. The first three tercets (a tercet is a stanza with three lines, as used by Dante in the entire "Divine Comedy"). Give a description of these words. Instead of saying what it is like the poet tells us what it is not like "No green leaves...no smooth branches ...no fruit." In fact it is a barren, unproductive place. Instead of bearing fruit (the culmination of plant life) the plants bear thorns (symbols of suffering). The whole atmosphere and imagery is negative an apt imagery for suicide which negates life. Dante compares it to the vast swampland that lies between the towns of Cecina and Corneto and says that even that rugged area is not as dark and hostile as these woods.
The round is presided over by the Marpies. They were the daughters of Thamus and Electra. Malicious creatures, they were exiled to the Strophades Islands for their cruelties. When Aeneas and his followers from Troy came there they predicted a grim and hard future for them and drove them away from the Islands. Dante describes them as having human faces and necks. But with clawed feet and feathered bellies like birds. They sit in the trees and shriek, thus adding to the curie temperature of the place.
Virgil says that the second round ends at the "dreadful sands" and asks Dante to see for himself the incredible character of the place. Because Virgil's verbal explanation will not convince him of the bizarre nature of these words. Hearing wails around him the pilgrim assumes that they come from souls hiding behind the trees. Virgil reads his mind and asks him to pluck a branch for a plant. When the pilgrim does so the plant starts bleeding at the torn part and speaks from its wound. It accuses Dante of mistreating it with cruelty. It says that these plants were once the soul of men. Dante is horrified and stands transfixed with fear. Virgil apologizes and explains that he had to resort to this violence to convince Dante of the truth. For Dante has forgotten / disbelieved what Virgil had once written about such matters. The blood from the plant is one aesthetic tie between this round and the previous one as it continues the blood imagery. Virgil reference to his "Verses" is to a part of his work "Aeneid" where Aeneas tears a branch from a shrub thus causing it to bleed. And a voice comes from under the ground where is buried polydorus.
Every soul in Hell wants to be remembered on Earth and thus stay alive in people's memories. Virgil entices the plant to reveal his identity by promising him that Dante will remind those on Earth of its name. Thus the plant reveals itself to be the soul of Italian Pier delle Vigne. He was a favorite courtier of Emperor Frederick II at his court at Palermo. The emperor trusted him totally and at his advice the Emperor would agree to or disagree with a course of action. This earned Pier the envy of other courtiers. The envious courtier's hated Pier and soon Frederick was influenced by this attitude of theirs. In 1248 the Emperor, having turned against Pier puts him in jail where Pier commits suicide by hitting his head against the prison wall. By killing himself he hoped to escape the shame of imprisonment and prove his loyalty. He tells the two poets that he was indeed innocent and that the pilgrim should make others on Earth aware of his unchanged loyalty to his Emperor.
The pilgrim can't question Pier further because he is overcome with intense pity. This pity is not because Pier's soul is suffering in Hell. But because of the lies that led him to be unjustly punished by Frederick II. Thus it is unlike the pity he felt for other sinners in Canto V and VI. Now the pilgrim is aware of the justness of a punished sin and sees it without any pity. Pier too realizes his sin when he says "My mind.... Made me unjust to one, who was all just." His lament is not against this punishment but the unjustness that was meted out to him on Earth.
Virgil asks Pier (for Dante's benefit) how a soul ends up as a plant and if it will ever have this shape. Pier explains that Minos sends the souls of those who commit suicide to the seventh circle. They then fall at random in these woods. He is now describing the punishment Contrapasso metered out to those who do violence to themselves. Those who treat their bodies so carelessly fall at random in these woods as thoughtlessly strewn seeds. The soul then germinates under the ground and spreads out as a plant. Part of the punishment is that these plants are food to the Harpies who feast on their leaves. When this happens the plant bleeds and suffers agony. And it is ironic that only through a wound can the plant talk or cry out. Otherwise it is wordless and ignoble at the mercy of Fate. Souls who give up their lives and free wills on Earth are denied any freedom of movement or will in Hell. On the Day of Judgement when all souls are reunited with their bodies these souls will get theirs too. But they will be unable to use it. They will retain their plant shape and their body will be hanging by a thorn on their side. These souls who were so eager to leave their bodies on Earth are forever denied entrance into that body again. It is a cruel and gruesome punishment. It forces home that fact that our bodies are a gift and to be treated with respect.
Now the two poets witness two souls being chased by vicious black dogs. These are the souls of two Profligates: Lano and Giacomo da Sant Andreas. Profligates are people who indulge in reckless waste of their property and wealth. They are wildly extravagant in their expenditure of their worldly goods. Thus they do violence to their property and are thus punished in the second round of the seventh circle.
Lano belonged to the rich Maconi family of Siena. And Giacomo da Sant Andreas was from Padua. Both were famous for destroying their own money and property. Seeing Lano run so fast Giacomo gibes that he didn't run so fast at the "tournament of Toppo". He is referring to the battle where Siensese in 1287 were defeated by Aretines at a river ford near Arezzo. Lano fought at this battle. By this time he had lost all his money and joined the battle to die. He didn't run away but stayed and fought till death. This explains Giocomo's gibe, seeing Lano run so fast now.
Giacomo is attacked and torn to shreds by the dogs who then run away with mouthfuls of his body parts. These vicious and violent dogs are the punishment inflicted on the Profligates. During their lifetime they were violently driven to destroy their wealth. These dogs are the personification of that same violence. Now in Hell, as their punishment, that same violence turns on them and destroys them as they destroyed their property.
Giacomo's skirmish with the dogs leads to some destruction of the bush in which he had hidden. This torn and bleeding plant now cries out in pain. Virgil asks it to identify itself. He reveals himself to be from Florence the city that had taken on John the Baptist as its new patron thus displacing Mars, the God of War. Mars was the first patron of Florence. For this act of disloyalty Mars had rowed to destroy the city. But some pieces of a statue of Mars that remained on the Ponte Vecchio ("the Arno's bridge") till 1333 saved the city that was rebuilt on the ruins left behind by Atlila. This refers to Atlila the Hun but is incorrect! In medieval times Atlila was confused with Totila, king of the Ostrogoths who had destroyed the city in the sixth century. Thus Dante actually means Totila when he erroneously writes down Atlila.
The suicide note says he hung himself at home. He remains unnamed and is actually a symbol representing Florence and her fate. Like the suicider damned to Hell, Florence is slowly destroying herself (in Dante's opinion) through its internecine (group conflict) struggles. This can be seen as Mar's revenge. She is converting herself into a hanging place which will lead to her own death.