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Dante Alighieri

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Canto 1

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 1 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 1 | Summary



Thirty-five-year-old Dante finds himself in a dense, dark forest, unsure of how he arrived there except that he had "abandoned the true path." As he wanders through this fearful valley, he comes to the foot of a high hill. Sunlight shines at the top of this hill and, heartened by this sight, he looks back at the valley, rests for a time, and begins to climb up the slope. Suddenly, however, a leopard appears and gets in Dante's way. Still hopeful despite this obstacle, Dante continues to attempt the climb, when a lion also blocks his way, followed by a she-wolf. He is forced back down into the dark valley where he encounters the spirit, or shade, of the Roman poet Virgil. Virgil tells Dante that the she-wolf will not let him pass, so he will have to take another path. He also suggests that he guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory, after which another "more worthy" guide will lead Dante further, to Heaven, the city of God. Agreeing with this plan, Dante, led by Virgil, sets out on the journey.


This opening canto acts as an introduction to the entire Divine ComedyInferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It introduces the characters Virgil and Dante who travel together through the first two books of the Comedy. It mentions "a soul more worthy" than Virgil who will be Dante's guide for the final part of his journey. The scope and structure of the Comedy are sketched out: Dante must travel "another path" to escape from the dark wood because the more direct route—up the hill—is blocked. The structure of the plot, therefore, will be a journey—a typical plot structure for an epic poem.

The canto also establishes important themes and symbolism that will be used throughout the poem. The path, symbolic of the spiritual journey, is introduced in the first lines, as Dante notes that he has "lost the path that does not stray." Having lost the easier, straighter path to Heaven, he must follow a different path. In addition, he is in a dark forest, a symbol of his separation from God, whose light can be seen shining at the top of the hill. The lost path, the blocked path, and the dark wood are all symbolic of Dante's spiritual state at the midpoint of his life. The implication is that he needs to regain the true path and find the light in order to attain salvation. Dante does not specify his age; instead, he says he is halfway through "our" life's journey, and medieval Christians considered 70 years to be a full lifespan. By calling it "our" journey, Dante draws attention to our common humanity and mortality and suggests that if he can go astray, so can we.

The character Dante is delighted to encounter Virgil and explains that the pagan author is his inspiration and that he credits his literary success to Virgil's influence. This implies that Virgil will not simply be Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory but also his literary guide, helping the poet shape his great epic. Although Virgil is a great poet, he is unable to enter Heaven because he worshipped the false gods of Roman mythology. Dante, who is Christian and who can enter the Heavenly realm, has the potential to improve on Virgil's epic.

This canto introduces several animals—the three that block Dante's way, and the "Greyhound" that will eventually have the victory over them. Scholars are divided on what these animals symbolize, although most agree that they seem as if they ought to have specific symbolic meanings. Some have suggested that the three animals represent lust, avarice (greed), and pride (ambition), believed to be the chief roots of all sin.

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