In the middle of the journey of his life, Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood, and he cannot find the straight path. He cannot remember how he wandered away from his true path that he should be following, but he is in a fearful place, impenetrable and wild.
He looks up from this dismal valley and sees the sun shining on the hilltop. After resting for a moment, he begins to climb the hill towards the light, but he is suddenly confronted by a leopard, which blocks his way and he turns to evade it. Then a hungry lion appears more fearful than the leopard, but a “she-wolf” comes forward and drives Dante back down into the darkness of the valley.
Just as Dante begins to feel hopeless in his plight, a figure approaches him. It has difficulty speaking, as though it had not spoken for a long time. At first Dante is afraid, but then implores it for help, whether it be man or spirit. It answered: “not a man now, but once I was.” It is the shade of Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid, and lived in the times of the “lying and false gods.”
Dante hails Virgil as his master and the inspiration for all poets. When Virgil hears how Dante was driven back by the “she-wolf,” he tells Dante that he must go another way because the she-wolf snares and kills all things. However, Virgil prophesies that someday, a marvelous greyhound, whose food is wisdom, love, and courage, will come from the nation between “Feltro and Feltro,” and save Italy, chasing the she-wolf back to Hell.
Virgil commands Dante to follow him and see the horrible sights of the damned in Hell, the hope of those doing penance in Purgatory, and if he so desires, the realm of the blessed in Paradise. Another guide will take him to this last realm, which Dante cannot (or may not) enter. Dante readily agrees, and the two poets begin their long journey.
This opening canto is an introduction to the entire Divine Comedy. This is made clear in the closing lines, when Virgil tells Dante that he can guide him only so far towards Paradise, and then another guide will have to take over because Virgil, being born before the birth of Jesus Christ, cannot ever be admitted to the “Blessed Realms.”
The opening lines suggest first a realistic journey through a strange and eerie place, but after the first tercet (three lines), it is apparent that everything will be in terms of an allegory. It is a story of Dante’s journey through life to salvation.
It begins when Dante is halfway through his life — 35 years old, half of the biblical three score and ten — and he has lost his way. When Dante speaks of having strayed from the right path, the reader should not assume that Dante has committed any specific sin or crime. Throughout the poem, Dante is advocating a strict adherence to medieval Catholic theology: Man must consciously strive for righteousness and morality. In its simplest terms, Man can often become so involved with the day-to-day affairs of simply living that he will gradually relapse into a sort of lethargy in which he strays from the very strict paths of morality.
For Dante, Man must always be aware intellectually of his own need to perform the righteous act. Therefore, Sin is a perversion of the intellect. Thus, when Dante finds himself in a “dark wood,” he is speaking allegorically for any man who is not constantly conscious of the “right path.” If every waking moment is not consciously devoted to morality, Man can find himself in a dark wood.
Throughout the poem, the classical poet Virgil stands for human reason and human virtue, two admirable characteristics in themselves, but alone they are not enough to gain salvation. Through his poetry, his high ethics and morals, and the mere fact that he, in his Aeneid, had already made a journey through Hell in the person of Aeneas, Virgil is the perfect guide for Dante.
Furthermore, Virgil’s hoarseness is Dante’s subtle way of saying that the high morals and strict ethics of the poet have not been fully appreciated in Dante’s time — that is, he is not read as frequently as he should be. Likewise, he has not spoken to a mortal since his death, and thus is unaccustomed to talking. And it is a common belief that a spirit cannot speak to a human until that human first speaks to the spirit — a custom used by Hamlet in approaching the ghost of his father.
The three beasts have been so variously identified and understood as representing so many qualities, it is sufficient, as noted in the introduction, to assume that they are three obstacles to Dante’s returning to the “straight path.”
This canto, which is the introduction to the entire Comedy, sets the scene for the long journey of which the Inferno is the first part.