Recapping Dante: Canto 24, or Serpent, Ashes, Rinse, Repeat
April 7, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
Let’s begin by addressing the fact that these similes are getting out of hand. In the early parts of his poem, Dante’s similes were often only three lines long. Now—just as he did in the beginning of canto 22, when he describes battlefield scenes while traveling with the demons—he presents us with a long, roving simile about a peasant who sees the snow melt and knows it is time to herd his sheep again.
At the end of canto 23, Virgil realized there was no longer a way to pass from the realm of the lead-cloaked sinners to the next ditch—the bridge is out. This is one of the few indications (like the sinner crucified to the ground in 23) that the geography of hell changes over time. But soon, seeing that Dante is anxious and scared, Virgil devises a plan to get them over to the next area by scaling a few boulders. Dante, daunted and exhausted, admits that “were it not that on this side of the dike the slope were shorter—I cannot speak for him—I would have given up.” This is the sort of phrase that translators and scholars will laugh at, because it’s an example of Dante’s subtle, ironic sense of humor: he announces that he cannot speak for Virgil, and yet has done so for the entire length of the poem so far.
As the two climb, Dante stops to catch his breath. Virgil, strangely, does not rebuke him for being slothful, but speaks words of encouragement and tells Dante that fame does not come to the lazy. It’s a lovingly brusque bit of advice—it sounds almost like a reflection on Dante’s life beyond the poem, much like Prospero’s monologue at the end of The Tempest. Dante regains his courage and continues walking, and even tries to speak in order to show Virgil just how unwinded and energetic he is.
As they reach the next area, Dante hears a voice. He can’t seem to discern where it’s coming from—this won’t be resolved until the next canto. He struggles to see what’s in front of him, as it is very dark. Here, again, Dante gives us a rare glimpse into what hell might look like. Our contemporary notion of hell would suggest that the only source of visible light comes from high flames or the iridescent glow of boiling lava, which is almost ridiculous and cartoonish, but Dante never really addresses where light in hell comes from. Through the darkness, he asks Virgil to lead him to safety; the next thing Dante sees is a swarm of snakes jumping and attacking a fleet of running, naked sinners, which is clearly enough to make him forget about the eerie ghostlike voice. A snake darts through the air and bites a nearby sinner. Instantly, the sinner turns to ash, only to regain his human shape. (This might explain what happens to the sinners who are torn to shreds by the demons in the earlier canto.)
This sinner is Vanni Fucci di Pistoia, who stole ornaments from the chapel of St. James. He let someone else take the blame, and the fall guy was put to death. (Note to self: when choosing a partner for a heist, choose wisely.) Vanni Fucci, however, plays a strange role among the sinners that Dante meets—he’s one of the few who does not want to be interviewed, or even seen, in his current state. Many of the earlier sinners ask Dante to remind the world of their names, but this one seems ashamed to have been discovered. Filippo Argenti, in canto 8, spoke to Dante with a sort of sparring antagonism, but Vanni Fucci is almost furious. (The Hollanders point out a similarity between this scene and the Garden of Eden, where Adam does not want to be seen naked.) In an act of retaliation, Vanni Fucci tells Dante that in the near future, the white Guelphs will be attacked and chased out of Florence. “And this I have told that it may make you grieve,” the sinner says. Many times have sinners predicted Dante’s exile—clearly it’s a touchy subject—but the language of this prophecy is by far the most oracle-like. It’s also the last time a sinner will tell Dante about the poet’s future.
To catch up on our Dante series, click here.