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Dante Alighieri

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Canto 16

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 16 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 16 | Summary



Nearing the border of the seventh circle, Dante hears the sound of water falling into the next circle of Hell. Three shades suddenly come running toward Dante, crying out to him. They recognize that he is a Florentine by his clothing, and he sees that they are covered in wounds. Virgil tells Dante to show them courtesy. They circle around Dante, asking him who he is, and telling him of their fame. They ask Dante to tell others of them when he returns to the world of men so that they will be remembered, then they run off. Virgil then leads Dante toward the sound of water falling, until the sound is deafeningly loud. As they reach the waterfall, Dante removes the cord he wears around his waist, and Virgil throws it down the ravine. He tells Dante they are waiting for something, and presently Dante sees a figure rising up from the depths of the ravine.


The theme of language is developed throughout this canto, as it explores the nature of truth and falsehood—true words and false ones. Dante describes Virgil as his "truthful guide." Then, as he explains the state of Florence, he cries out that it is full of "excess and arrogance," and those who hear this know it is true: "the three/looked at each other when they heard my answer/as men will stare when they have heard the truth." He also describes that there is a type of "truth which seems a lie," which a man should try not to share if he can avoid it, and includes in this description his own Comedy, although he admits that he feels the need to tell his story even though it seems incredible. In this way, Dante claims that his poem contains literal truth, though it may seem like fiction. Because they are about to enter the circles devoted to fraud, this is an important distinction.

The canto ends with another of Dante's graceful similes, and he describes the creature that rises up in response to the dropped cord. The creature moves "like one returning from the waves where he/went down to loose an anchor snagged upon/a reef or something else hid in the sea/who stretches upward and draws in his feet." Of all of Dante's sea-image similes, this one, of a swimmer coming back to the surface after visiting the sea floor, is among the most vivid.

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