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This article is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

Dante's Dog Alberto Manguel

to Lucy

After losing his way in a dark forest and meeting three wild and frightening beasts, Dante sees the figure of a man who proves to be Virgil, sent by Beatrice to guide him in the first half of his voyage through the eternal realm. In that other world, Virgil tells him, he will see ‘li antichi spiriti dolenti/ ch’a la seconda morte ciascun grida’, ‘the ancient dolorous souls/ each crying out for a second death’ (Inf. I: 116-17). Over the next three days, Dante does indeed meet these suffering souls and speaks with several of them, and discovers their sinful past and everlasting agonising present. At first, Dante is moved by pity for their ordeal; as he advances deeper and deeper into Hell, recognition of God’s unquestionable justice overrides Dante’s earthly feelings and, as his own soul slowly awakens, he enthusiastically curses the damned, and even takes part in their physical punishment.

Of all the insults and derogatory comparisons Dante uses on both lost souls and evil demons, one recurs more often than others. The wrathful, according to Virgil, are all ‘cani’, ‘dogs’ (Inf. VIII: 42). From then onwards, in his travel notes through Hell, Dante echoes his master’s ancient voice. Thus, Dante tells us, the wasteful in the seventh circle are pursued by ‘nere cagne, bramose e correnti’, ‘famished and fast black bitches’ (Inf. XIII: 125); the burning usurers running under the rain of fire ‘non altrimenti fan di state i cani/ ...

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