Inferno, Canto 1
Dante finds that he has strayed from the right road and is lost in a Dark Wood. He tries to escape by climbing a beautiful Mountain, but is turned aside, first by a gambolling Leopard, then by a fierce Lion, and finally by a ravenous She-Wolf As he is fleeing back into the wood, he is stopped by the shade of Virgil, who tells him that he cannot hope to pass the Wolf and ascend the Mountain by that road. One day a Greyhound will come and drive the Wolf back to Hell; hut the only course at present left open to Dante is to trust himself to Virgil, who will guide him by a longer way, leading through Hell and Purgatory. From there, a worthier spirit than Virgil (Beatrice) will lead him on to see the blessed soul in Paradise. Dante accepts Virgil as his master, leader, and lord and they set out together.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
Canto 1, © Jan Hearn
The Dark Wood is the image of Sin or Error — not so much of any specific act of sin or intellectual perversion as of that spiritual condition called “hardness of heart”, in which sinfulness has so taken possession of the soul as to render it incapable of turning to God, or even knowing which way to turn. The Mountain, which on the mystical level is the image of the Souls Ascent to God, is thus on the moral level the image of Repentance, by which the sinner returns to God. It can be ascended directly from “the right road”, but not from the Dark Wood, because there the soul’s cherished sins have become, as it were, externalised, and appear to it like demons or “beasts” with a will and power of their own, blocking all progress. Once lost in the Dark Wood, a man can only escape by so descending into himself that he sees his sin, not as an external obstacle, but as the will to chaos and death within him (Hell). Only when he has “died to sin” can he repent and purge it. Mount Purgatory and the Mountain of Canto 1 are, therefore, really one and the same mountain, as seen on the far side, and on this side, of the “death unto sin”.
The Beasts. These are the images of sin. They may be identified with Lust, Pride, and Avarice respectively, or with the sins of Youth, Manhood, and Age; but they are perhaps best thought of as the image of the three types of sin which, if not repented, land the soul in one or other of the three main divisions of Hell. ' The Leopard is the image of the self-indulgent sins - Incontinence; the fierce Lion, of the violent sins - Bestiality, the She- Wolf of the malicious sins, which involve Fraud.
The Greyhound has been much argued about. I think it has both an historical and a spiritual significance. Historically, it is perhaps the image of some hoped-for political saviour who should establish the just World-Empire. Spiritually, the Greyhound, which has the attributes of God (“wisdom, love, and power”), is probably the image of the reign of the Holy Ghost on earth - the visible Kingdom of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer (cf. Purg, xi. 7-9).
Mark Vernon's Lecture