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A Modern Reader's Guide to Dante's «Inferno»

Second Printing

Series:

Rodney J. Payton

This book is a thorough introduction to the Inferno for today's reader. It is based on Professor Payton's many years of reading Dante's masterpiece with university undergraduates and upon the work of the very best modern critics. The Guide can be used alone as a critical aid or as a reference work for further research.

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Chapter 2: Canto I. The Dark Wood: Failure and the Guide 11

Extract

CHAPTER 2 Canto I The Dark Wood: Failure and the Guide While we can follow literal sequence of events in Canto I well enough, the reader should not expect to be able to penetrate the symbolic meaning of the events and images until a wider experience of Dante's universe and the art with which he expresses it has been gained. As we move through the narration, following the Pilgrim and his guide, the poem itself will teach us how to interpret it. In the beginning the poem is obscure, but its dim scenes are possessed of so much potential that they have excited the appetite of readers for understanding ever since the poem's appearance. The obscurity of the beginning is a part of Dante's plan; that later events will make things clearer is an explicit promise of the first few lines, "But, to treat of the good I found in it, I will tell of the other things I saw there" (Canto I, Lines 8-9). The dark wood is not further described than in the first seven lines, yet by the end of the Inferno we will well understand what place it was. What will happen is that later events and allusions in the poem will cause the reader to reflect back on earlier parts and to constantly readjust his or her previous understanding. This is a vital component of Dante's method and an important element in the way he conceived that history itself worked. For instance, the Old Testament...

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