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An Analysis of the Opening of Canto XXVIII

ByAdam Saper


March 4, 1996.


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 handle?

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 Apulian1 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 2 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.

1 Apulia here designates all of what is today, southern Italy.
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2 These wars at Carthage are also known as the Second Punic Wars.
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