Canto IX of Dante’s Inferno is remarkably representative of the work as a whole. It includes a number of prominent themes, among them the role Virgil plays as the manifestation of human reason and the argument that faith can achieve what reason cannot, as well as contrapasso¸ or the matching of sins on Earth to punishments in Hell. Canto IX also demonstrates the marked divide between the first five circles of Hell, housing the Incontinent, or relatively minor sinners, and the next circle ‘the Violent’ whose damned God despises much more.
A microcosm of the entire epic, the importance of Canto IX lies in the themes and values it reflects.
Canto IX begins with Virgil’s failure to penetrate the gates of Dis. His attempts at reason with its demon guards are useless; Dante fears desertion. He is rightly frightened by Virgil’s sudden weakness. In the first eight cantos, the shade is a surefooted, confident guide; he surmounts obstacles with ease and disarms all challengers handily.
His abrupt impotence leads a pallid Dante to ask discreetly for reassurance that Virgil is still in command of their journey. Virgil begins to explain that he is, but the anxious poets are interrupted by a fearsome sight, three Furies tearing at their breasts, calling for Medusa to turn Dante into stone. Virgil takes the threat seriously, he considers Dante’s hands to be insufficient protection for his eyes and blindfolds his ward himself. Dante is terrified, helpless. Then an earthquake. This sequence of events ‘compounded by Virgil’s uneasiness’ is not mere drama. The barrage is something new for The Inferno. For the first time there is a real, almost palpable sense of danger. Dante clearly intends for Virgil’s ashen face at the start of Canto IX to represent fear there is no evidence offered to the contrary, as in a similar scene in Canto IV, when Dante,
Who’d seen the change in his complexion,
Said: “How shall I go on if you are frightened,
You who have always helped to dispel my doubts?” (IV: 16-18)
There, the shade reassuringly explains: “The anguish of the people / whose place is here below, has touched my face / with the compassion you mistake for fear. (IV: 19-21)” Dante is convinced; the shade’s pallor is not mentioned again. In Canto IX, however, Dante is not comforted by Virgil’s words in fact, the opposite occurs:
[H]is speech made me afraid,
Because I drew out from his broken phrase
A meaning worse, perhap, than he’d intended. (IX: 13-15)
Virgil’s sudden vincibility and the newfound possibility of harm also signify a shift in the type (and awfulness) of sin that the pair are about to encounter: they are leaving the first five circles, home of the Incontinent, and taking a large step downward to the Violent. The souls they encounter will no longer be accidental sinners such as those whose only crime was living before Christ, and so were unable to live according to his teaching, but those who deliberately harmed themselves or others. This is a significant escalation in severity of sin. The notion that Virgil might be unable to protect Dante permeates the rest of the epic, creating tension as the duo descends deeper. The poets are clearly entering an entirely new region of Hell, fraught with danger.
The surefooted Virgil, who for most of the work shepherds Dante through danger with physical and verbal protections, is the embodiment of human reason. This makes Virgil an excellent escort, and for most of the journey he knows his route and occasionally lends mettle to the weak-kneed Dante. This is why Virgil’s stark failure at the gates of Dis is so thematically important: it represents the limits of human reason. There are certain places, Dante the poet implies, that even as eminent a man as Virgil cannot tread upon when he counts but reason among his faculties. Reason has literally and allegorically taken Dante the character as far as it can go. For the pair to progress, Faith must step in, and it does, via a deus ex machina intervention by a Heavenly messenger, who opens the gates of Dis with ease. (Throughout the poem, Hell’s creatures serve as obstacles to Dante’s trek and Heaven’s messengers act as catalysts;
“What good is it to thrust against the fates?” the messenger asks the fallen angels rhetorically (IX: 97).) The clear implication: Faith succeeds where Reason fails. A harbinger of this sequence occurs in Canto I, when Virgil informs Dante that he will lead him through the deepest circles of Hell, but no further, for he is unworthy of entering Heaven:
If you would then ascend as high as these [“the blessed people”],
A soul more worthy than I am will guide you;
I’ll leave you in her care when I depart,
Because that Emperor who reigns above,
Since I have been rebellious to His law,
Will not allow me entry to His city. ( I: 121-126)
In both instances, there is only so far Reason can go; it is powerless without Faith. This characterizes The Inferno as a primarily Christian poem. For all his disparaging of Church figures, even popes, Dante the poet implies through his writing that God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, that his wisdom is infinite, and that faith in him will save one’s soul.
The final verses of Canto IX hint at another prominent theme of The Inferno: contrapasso, or the matching of eternal punishments to worldly sins as part of God’s infinite justice. For example, Diviners, Astrologers and Magicians, who in life claimed to see the future, all have their heads turned backward; Thieves are transformed into serpents and must bite the similarly damned to regain their form. As Dante enters the Sixth Circle, Virgil explains the flaming tombs around them:
“Here, like has been ensepulchered with like;
Some monuments are heated more, some less.” (IX: 130-131)
That is, within this particular circle of Hell, each of the damned is punished according to the extent of his heresy. The flames are a fitting punishment for the Heretics, who obstinately believed in their interpretations of Christianity instead of the Church’s, and so they are encased in correspondingly immobile tombs. The flames of the Sixth Circle are in marked contrast to the swampy Styx, in whose murky depths the sullen lie submerged.