Inferno, Canto 7
At the entrance to the Fourth Circle, the poets are opposed by Pluto, and Virgil is again obliged to use a "Word of Power." In this circle, the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts roll huge rocks against one another, and here Virgil explains the nature and working of Luck [or Fortune). Then, crossing the circle, they descend the cliff to the Marsh of Styx, which forms the Fifth Circle and contains the Wrathful. Skirting its edge, they reach the foot of a tower.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
Canto 7, © Jan Hearn
The Hoarders and the Spendthrifts. Mutual indulgence has already declined into selfish appetite; now, that appetite be- comes aware of the incompatible and equally selfish appetites of other people. Indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism between hoarding and squandering.
The Joust. Note the reappearance of community in a perverted form: these irrational appetites are united, after a fashion, by a common hatred, for the waging of a futile war. So nations, political parties, corporations, classes, gangs, etc., sometimes display a spurious comradeship in opposition.
The Wrathful. Community in sin is unstable: it soon disintegrates into an anarchy of hatred, all against all. Dante distinguishes two kinds of Wrath. The one is active and ferocious; it vents itself in sheer lust for inflicting pain and destruction - on other people, on itself, on anything and everything it meets. The other is passive and sullen, the withdrawal into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.
The Marsh. Both kinds of Wrath are figured as a muddy slough; on its surface, the active hatreds rend and snarl at one another; at the bottom, the sullen hatreds lie gurgling, unable even to express themselves for the rage that chokes them. This is the last of the Circles of Incontinence. This savage self-frustration is the end of that which had its tender and romantic beginnings in the dalliance of indulged passion.
The Path down the Cliff. For the first time, Dante’s passage from one circle to the other is described in detail. We are not told at what precise point in the wilderness he found Hell-gate; one may encounter it at any moment. The crossing of Acheron - the image of the assent to sin - is made unconsciously. From Limbo to the Second Circle - from the lack of imagination that inhibits the will to the false imagination that saps it - the passage is easy and, as it were, unnoticed. From the Second Circle to the Third - from mutuality to separateness - the soul is carried as though in a dream. From the Third to the Fourth Circle the way is a little plainer - for as one continues in sin one becomes uneasily aware of inner antagonisms and resentments, though without any clear notion how they arise. But as antagonism turns to hatred, the steps of the downward path begin to be fearfully apparent. From this point on the descent is mapped out with inexorable clarity.
Styx - the name means “hateful” - is the second of the four chief rivers of Hell. It economically does double duty as the Fifth Circle and as the boundary between Upper and Nether Hell.
Mark Vernon's Lecture