The Trinity in The Inferno
Dante's Inferno, itself one piece of a literary trilogy, repeatedly deploys the leitmotif of the number three as a metaphor for ambiguity, compromise, and transition. A work in terza rima that details a descent through Nine Circles of Hell, The Inferno encompasses temporal, literary, and political bridges and chasms that link Dante's inspired Centaur work between the autobiographical and the fictive, the mundane and the divine and, from a contemporary viewpoint, the Medieval and the Modern‹Dante's recognition of the Renaissance as our millennium's metamorphic period and of himself as its poetic forerunner (until deposition by Shakespeare).
The Inferno is a work of transition between two points, as attested by the opening lines: "When I had journeyed half of our life's way,/ I found myself within a shadowed forest,/ for I had lost the path that does not stray" (I, 1-3). Echoes of these famous lines can be heard in Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled"; whereas Frost's poem concerns itself with the duality and firmness of decision, Dante's tercet implies an interval of great indecision and limbo. Indeed, he is anything but entrenched in position: "I cannot clearly say how I had entered/ the wood; I was so full of sleep just at/ The point where I abandoned the true path" (I, 10-12). Dante is nearly sleepwalking, yet another fusion of two worlds, the conscious and unconscious. This division of self can best be explained by Dante's exile and his loss of national identity. He examines this alienated state through a geographic metaphor: "And just as he who, with exhausted breath,/ Having escaped from sea to shore, turns back/ To watch the dangerous waters he has quit,/ so did my spirit, still a fugitive,/ turn back to look intently at the pass/ that never has let any man survive" (I, 22-27). Of course, Dante was in exile when he wrote The Inferno, but his journey takes place beforehand. This "presaging" underscores the theme of cyclical time in the epic, that of historical repetition with confused tenses.
The tangle of temporalities is never more evident than in the Sixth Circle, comprised of Heretics. Dante is told of his future difficulties in returning to Florence from exile: "'If they were slow,' he said, Œto learn that art,/ that is more torment to me than this bed./ And yet the Lady who is ruler here/ will not have her face kindled fifty times/ before you learn how heavy is that art'" (X, 77-81). As Mandelbaum points out, "Dante himself learned within 50 months how difficult it is to try to return from exile" (Notes, Canto X, 81). This vision of futurity is also bestowed upon the damned:
"'It seems, if I hear right, that you can see/ beforehand that which time is carrying,/ but you're denied the sight of present things.'/ ŒWe see, even as men who are farsighted,/ those things,' he said, Œthat are remote from us;/ the Highest Lord allots...