Dante's Canto XXVIII


 Dante begins the opening of Canto XXVIII with a rhetorical 
question. Virgil and he have just arrived in the Ninth Abyss of the 
Eighth Circle of hell. In this pouch the Sowers of Discord and Schism 
are continually wounded by a demon with a sword. Dante poses a 
question to the reader:

Who, even with untrammeled words and many 
attempts at telling, ever could recount 
in full the blood and wounds that I now saw? (Lines 1-3)

 The rhetorical question draws the reader into the passage 
because we know by this point in the Divine Comedy that Dante is a 
great poet. What is it that Dante sees before him on the brink of the 
Ninth Abyss that is so ineffable that he, as a poet, feels he cannot 
 In the following lines Dante expands on this rhetorical 
position. He elaborates on why it is important for any man to offer a 
good description of what he sees. No poet can achieve this 
description: "Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short..." 
(L. 4) It is not just poetic talent that is at stake; poets do not 
have the background to give them the poetic power for such 
description. His reasoning is "the shallowness of both our speech and 
intellect cannot contain so much." (Lines 5-6) Once again the reader 
is intrigued; how could a man of Dante's stature criticize language 
which is the very tool he uses to create the epic work of La Commedia 
? If we cannot take Dante seriously with these opening statements, we 
must pose the question of what Dante is trying to do by teasing us 
with this artificial beginning to Canto XVIII? 
 Dante will now contradict himself and try to describe what he 
says is impossible. But, if he were to go right into a description of 
the Ninth Abyss, it would deflate his rhetorical position. Instead, 
Dante first sets up a quite lengthy comparison of the sights he has 
just witnessed with examples of bloodshed throughout human history. 

Were you to reassemble all the men
who once, within Apulia1's fateful land, 
had mourned their blood, shed at the Trojans' hands,
 as well as those who fell in the long war
where massive mounds of rings were battle spoils--
even as Livy write, who does not err--
 and those who felt the thrust of painful blows 
when they fought hard against Robert Guiscard;
with all the rest whose bones are still piled up
 at Ceperano--each Apulian was 
a traitor there--and, and too, at Tabliacozzo, 
where old Alardo conquered without weapons;
 and then, were one to show his limb pierced through 
and one his limb hacked off, that would not match 
the hideousness of the ninth abyss. (Lines 7-21)
 Dante gives historical examples of the destruction of war. 
This is in contrast to the heroic qualities of war which Dante's 
predecessors most often focus on. Dante is acting less as a poet and 
more as an historian. He takes the reader on a mini journey through 
these wars. His first stop are the Trojan wars (Line 9). These wars 
Dante refers to actually represent the final books of Virgil's Aeneid. 
Part of my experience in reading the Inferno, has been that there is a 
great connection between the Inferno and the Aeneid. Furthermore, 
Dante's guide through hell is the author of the Aeneid, Virgil. (While 
this topic is much too broad to address in these pages, it is 
important too take note of this relationship.) On the one hand it is 
important that Virgil is Dante's first example because it is necessary 
for him to leave the world of the poet (poets do not have enough 
talent) and move to the world of the historian, whose objectivity is 
supposedly more trusted in front of this horror. By this time the 
reader can see the irony of what Dante is doing in this opening 
passage. Dante the poet must give up to historical fact, but the 
reader knows that Dante the poet is playing this game to entice the 
reader into listening to him. 
 Dante moves on to the wars at Carthage in his next example. 
This is material which Virgil deliberately does not deal with in the 
Aeneid because this was a battle which the Romans barely come out 
intact. The historian Livy is used as the narrator of these events. 
Livy describes the destruction at Carthage: 
The attention of all was particularly attracted by a living Numidian 
with his nose and ears mangled, stretched under a dead Roman, who lay 
over him, and who, when his hands had been rendered unable to hold a 
weapon, his rage being exasperated to madness, had expired in the act 
of tearing his antagonist with his teeth. (Livy, Book XXII)

 Dante is legitimizing his poetry with these references from history. 
In line twelve Dante writes "...even as Livy writes, who does not 
err--." He is explicitly giving credit to Livy for the ability to 
describe the blood and wounds of war.
 After referring to both Virgial and Livy, who are writers of 
classical Roman battles, Dante moves on to a time closer to his 
present. He refers to grotesque images which took place in the 
thirteenth century. 
By this point in the passage, Dante has assembled a tremendous cast of 
hideousness spanding thousands of years. He has shown examples of the 
most grotesque and gruesome things on earth, which is war. However, 
he concludes that nothing is worse than the hideousness of the 
underworld in hell.
 The images Dante creates with his description of the ninth 
abyss are truly more hideous than anything that could have been 
written about the wars Dante compares them to

 No barrel, even though it's lost a hoop 
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I 
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart: 
 his bowels hung between his legs, one saw 
his vitals and the miserable sack 
that makes fo what we swallow excrement. (Lines 22-27)

The image of a barrel, which has lost its end-piece, gives the reader 
a concrete analogy for the man who has been split apart. A barrel does 
not connote anything remotely to do with violence and the grotesque; 
however, it fits perfectly here because it gives the reader a rather 
plain image while Dante prepares to shock the reader with his language 
of hideousness. He describes a man being split open "right from his 
chin to where we fart..." The simplicity of the image in no way 
warrants its use as an analogy for the horrible picture of the man 
being split apart. The juxtoposition of the barrel with the torn body 
creates a shock and a pathos because we know the barrel , but we can 
hardly encompass the horror. He has used the barrel in the same way as 
he used the examples of bloodshed in the previous sentence. In both 
cases Dante introduces a comparison only to reject it. 
 It is at this point in the passage that we realize why Dante 
compared earthly wars with the violence of the ninth abyss before he 
even gave the reader a glimpse of this violence. By putting this 
violence at such a grotesque level, he has made the reader form an 
image in his mind before he describes it. By using the commonplace, 
Dante forces the reader to resort to memory of things past. 
Furthermore, Dante is asking the reader to strech his imagination 
beyond its normal bounds. This effect ends up enhancing the words 
Dante chooses when he does describe the act in lines 22 to 25.
 The action of the man being split apart is also fairly 
significant. Every little detail of the Divine Comedy has been worked 
out and planned with the utmost precision. The ninth abyss is no 
exception. The splitting of the men fits into the pattern of the rest 
of the punishments in the inferno. These men who reside in this pouch 
are sowers of discord and schism. To sow means to disseminate or 
spread throughout the land. Schism means division. Thus, the physical 
punishments literally express the philosophical sin. 
 The most interesting part of this passage comes at the end in 
the last paragraph:

 While I was all intent on watching him,
he looked at me, and with his hands he spread 
his chest and said: "See how I split myself! (Lines 28-30)
The image of the man using his hands to pull his wound apart is 
extremely vivid; it reminds me, for instance, of when Superman pulls 
his shirt apart to reveal the capital S. Superman becomes another 
example, like the barrel, which is useful to the reader in spite of 
the fact it fails to express what Dante can. 
 As Dante watches the man who has just been split into two, the 
man looks back at Dante. And as the man turns his attention to Dante, 
so do we. Furthermore, when the man says "See how I split myself" we 
also hear Dante say these words to us. Just as the man forces his 
viewer (Dante) to examine his wounds, Dante forces the read to examine 
the hideousness he has produced. The man has a strange pride in 
splittng himself open. Dante also takes tremendous pride in describing 
this scene, which he first claimed was impossible to ever put into 
words. By pretending he could not express the image and then by fully 
expressing it, Dante is reminding the reader of his extraordinary 
talent and he is also forcing the reader to read more careful. 
 After examining this single passage from Dante's Inferno, I 
came to a new understanding of the relationship between Dante and La 
Commedia , as well as between Dante's images and his poetic task. 

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