Dante Essay

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Virtue’s Course: A close reading of Canto XXVI of Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno
The implications of every word and line in a literary work such as The Inferno can, at times, be troubling to a new reader, and even to those who possess the skill of inference. However, when approached as closely and minutely as possible, it becomes somewhat simple to draw each word and line separately into something greater, giving new life and meaning to the voice of Dante. Canto XXVI begins with false praise to the city of Florence, moving to the journey of a pilgrim and his guide, during which the pilgrim encounters one who made such a journey as epic as the pilgrim’s, yet further beyond the reaches of God and His world. These two journeys detail the navigation of a somewhat unknown world. One, however, is guided by divinity, the other by way of humanity. This is a reading of the story containing divine guidance.

Canto XXVI follows Dante’s and Virgil’s encounter with the thieves in the eighth circle. In the section of the eighth circle beyond the thieves are the evil counselors. The beginning of the canto may be described as a “heroic apostrophe, the hugely expanded image of the city as a great bird flying high”(Hood 1). So, to begin this journey toward those counselors, Dante opens with “Joy to you, Florence, that your banners swell, beating their proud wings over land and sea, and that your name expands through all of Hell”(Alighieri 1-3). That “joy” may bring the reader back to the Mount of Joy from the very beginning of Dante’s journey. That began as his goal, but was unreachable as he stood alone. However, that “joy” to Florence is ironic in the sense that Dante speaks both in praise and in reproach. “Joy” because Florence’s “banners swell…over land and sea”(1-2). The praise brings joy that Florence’s influence spreads across the known world. However, this joy is ironic in the influence of Florence in that it pollutes even Hell with its existence. The spirits Dante has encountered throughout all of Hell have been from Florence, probably due to his ability to recognize his kinsmen, not the natives of other countries, but still there are so many Florentines to be found it brings shame to Dante.

This particular outburst of ironic praise and shame stems from Dante’s encounter with the thieves. “Among the thieves,” meaning that Dante found many more thieves than the Florentines, “I found five who had been your citizens, to my shame”(4-5). The five thieves were met and discussed in an episode of Canto XXV. They were Florence’s citizens once, but now are denizens of Hell, no longer connected to the real, natural world. Stuck in the supernatural evil of Hell, they are no longer citizens of Florence. Dante recounts this meeting as being to his own shame, not that of the city. Florence does not feel as a human can, as Dante can. Dante feels shame for being of Florentine blood in Hell, just as the thieves are, yet the city no longer owns the dead sinners trapped in the infernal suffering that is Hell.

Dante turns back to his “joy” for Florence as a lack of honor. “Nor yet shall you mount to great honor peopling such a den!”(5-6). Dante is calling to the reader’s attention a seeming propensity for Florentine citizens to commit crimes and spread to “such a den.” A den is often of wolves, or in some cases thieves. This expression is fitting based upon Dante’s former encounter with a den of thieves from Florence. Dante uses the word mount, just as he used joy, and these words once more bring a reader to that Mount of Joy, that goal of Dante’s journey. The Mount of Joy is where “Virtue’s course” may lead the pilgrim(22). Yet that honor may not be found through a den of thieves, only by virtue and divine guidance. Dante uses this section of his work to attempt to instruct his fellow citizens to follow a proper course away from Hell and toward Heaven.

The canto continues with the message “if the truth is dreamed of toward the morning, you soon...