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Recapping Dante: Canto 24, or Serpent, Ashes, Rinse, Repeat

April 7, 2014 | by

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Gustave Doré, Canto 24

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a swarm of snakes and a sinner with a sense of privacy.

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. Read More »

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