Probably one of the most important things to remember as we started reading "Inferno" is that it's about a man who is going through a mid-life crisis.
The first canto of "Inferno" sets the story at halfway through Dante's life, roughly around the time he was 35. Dante's family were associated with the White Guelfs, which political alliance had fallen out of favor with the ruling class in Florence, forcing him into exile away from his wife and children. To some extent, though the poem is thoroughly imbued with religious meaning, the despair that marks this first canto reflects the sense of grievous wrong Dante feels he has suffered and his hopes that justice one day will prevail, both spiritually and politically.
The canto begins in a dark wood, where Dante has been suffering deeply, and where he encounters a brace of wild animals. First, a beautiful leopard blocks his way for all that it is enchanting to look at; secondly, a fierce lion; and lastly a terrifying she-wolf also oppose him. The animals all keep Dante from mounting the hill that he is trying to climb, presumably to escape the fearsome woods and gain some perspective on where he is.
It's a common device to use animals to represent either an attitude that matches that animal's demeanor, or at least a person who possesses that attitude. The notes in my copy of "Infero" mention that these animals all represent political powers -- the leopard, Florence; the lion, the royal house of France; and the wolf, no less than the papal see. Yet the same three also correspond to mortal vices: worldly pleasure, ambition, and avarice.
At this point, Virgil arrives and explains to Dante that he can never make it up the hill, because the she-wolf (Rome and avarice) eats all who pass that way and becomes only the hungrier for having eaten. Dante's only escape is downward, through the depths of hell, where he will witness the torments of those confined to eternal fire; but of greater importance to the poet Dante, it seems, is the coming of the Greyhound that will destroy the she-wolf and return her to hell from whence she was set loose, and that will deliver Italy.
The writing about this Greyhound is decidedly messianic in style, to the point that the greyhound feeds on virtues like wisdom, love and "manfulness," which fits the other apocalyptic imagery of the canto. But it also works on a political level, apparently, since it may refer to any number of other political figures from Dante's life, especially given the rather limited range of the Greyhound's dominion.
I've always found Dante's choice of Virgil for his guide to be interesting, but in many regards it makes sense. Dante was Italian, and Virgil himself was an Italian, from the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. As a scholar, Dante doubtless had studied Virgil's "Aeneied" extensively, and in any event, he refers to himself as Virgil's disciple and student.
One thing that is mildly worth noting: Virgil's epic "Aeneid" also depicted a trip to the Underworld, as Aeneas sought counsel from the shade his father Anchises, as the Greek hero Odysseus also once had done. Anchises spoke of a coming golden age for Aeneas' descendants. The terms of Virgil's prophecy were clearly intended to describe Augustus Caesar, but some people have tried to interpret them around Christ.
Which of course is only fitting. The messianic expectation is archetypal, common to all people; just as we all believe that things used to better Once Upon a Time, we all have the hope that One Day Things Will Be Better Again.
And I suppose, when we're in a situation where our hopes and dreams have been thwarted by political machinations and bad luck, as many of Dante's had been, such an expectation and hope only makes sense.
Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.