Dante at the Gates of Hell

Encountering Images Series #1

From time to time I will be offering examples of encounters with images from poetry.  The point is to show what we might learn from the poets about how to better engage with images in our dreams.

In the opening of Canto III inferno, “Dante” and “Virgil” stand before the gates of hell. The first nine lines are in capital letters.


The gate itself is speaking to the poets (and to us the readers).

This gate has spoken to me for 47 years, since I took the Italian to heart–memorized the lines in a language I do not really know. But I loved Dante and loved the sound, and I think part of the beauty of reading in a foreign language is you slow down, you don’t read it like you read the newspaper or the internet, you take time to translate the words and feel them.

There is another language that has become foreign for too many of us, the language of images. We have forgotten how to read images, how to respond to them. To gain benefit from our dreams, we must learn how to stand before the images.

I believe reading poetry written at a high level can teach us how to do this.  That is what I hope to show in this series.

There was a second benefit to memorizing these lines– I got to know the music, which is impossible to translate into English.  Dante fashioned the lines in form that he invented, the intertwining terza rima or “three rhyme” which creates a strongly woven pattern.

There was one more benefit, which is the most important. The lines have lived in me all these years, they are inscribed on my heart. This goes to the question of why I chose these particular lines, from Canto III, which come at the threshold when “Dante” in great fear enters the underworld with the help of his teacher and guide, the Roman poet “Virgil”. I think only now , many years later, I fully understand why I chose this particular passage.

Here are the first nine lines, usually presented in capital letters:







Although we understand that “Dante” and his teacher “Virgil” are standing before a gate, what is actual in the first nine lines is not an encounter with a gate, but with an inscription.  Instead of describing the gate physically, Dante gives the gate a voice that speaks to us in capital letters  rousing fear in “Dante”. [I use “Dante” to distinguish the character “Dante” in the poem from its author, Dante Alighieri. This distinction is something Dante the poet constantly wishes we would forget.]

The lines are usually capitalized because the words are set apart from the rest of the poem. Though they too are written by Dante the poet, the words themselves have become a thing that speaks to us. Through these words, the gate of hell, which is not really described, acquires a voice.

The appearance of the inscirption is sudden. There is what we call in dreamwork, a ‘shift” or gap in the narrative. At the end of the preceding Canto II, “Dante” has affirmed “Virgil”  tu duca, tu segnore, tu maestro—  as “leader, lord and teacher”… “Thus I spoke to him and when he set out/ we entered on the deep and savage way.” So Canto II ends  As Canto III begins- we are now reading with “Dante” and “Virgil” the inscription. Now an inscription over a gate is both word and image in the same moment.  If the words were written on a piece of paper– which is how we read them in the poem– they are flat. But if the words are visualized, as Dante encourages us to do, as “written in dark letters on top of the gate” into hell, we are also encountering an image.

It is like the difference between the word ‘stop” written on a piece of paper, and the feeling of seeing a stop sign when you are driving. One is just a word, the other is a word that has become an image as well.

The image is made of words and this is important because  in a sense, all the images in a poem are also made of words. It is as if Dante is reminding us of this underlying reality– this poem that you are participating in, is made of words, and yet if I do my work right as a poet, you forget the words and see the images.  That’s a differene between reading a poem mechanically, and reading a poem so that you also see the images. In order to pass through the gates into the underworld, that is into the depths of the unconscious as well– you must read not just words but also images. You must do more  You must imagine the feelings

Here is an example of a visual image of the gates, as imagined by the great poet and artist, William Blake.

Notice at the top of the gate in script is the inscription, notice the gesture of “Virgil” on the right, guiding “Dante” and the gesture of “Dante” which could be interpreted as fearful as he seems to be clinging to the garment of his teacher. The colors are bright though, almost rosy, though Blake indicates the flames of hell as well.

Here is a very different image of the gates, from the classic illustrations of the 19th century artist Gustave Doré


You can immediately feel a difference in tone and mood, not only because Doré’s engravings are in black and white, but because the gates seem much more  monumental and the entrance is quite dark and obscure. The gate looks like it is a natural feature of the rock, and the “inscription” on top is dark and difficult to make out. “Dante” again as in Blake the shorter figure, is pointing at the inscription but it can’t be made out. Both figures are dwarfed by the immensity of the gates, and unlike Blake’s illustration the two figures can only make out darkness, though we get a view of a much greater landscape.

“Images” in poems are very different from “images” in engravings, paintings or sculptures. The difference is that images rendered in words require a creative process of imagination in the reader. The reader must take the words and remake them into visual images. That is, if we are truly reading and not simply skimming.  (Speed reading is so horrible in part because it bypasses this imaginative process.) But of course the very concept of “speed reading” probably is all you need to know about how  some people understand reading as simply processing words. One reason reading poetry has become so difficult is in part because we have forgotten how to make images when we read words, and indeed much of what we read hardly demands imagery and is in fact written by people who themselves rarely see in their own imagination the images their words might suggest.

George Orwell in his important essay “Politics and the English Language” speaks of the decline of the language as part of a general political and social decline. Both writers and readers have forgotten that to read writing is to visualize the images the words suggest. To fail to do so produces clichés, dead metaphors.

Here is Orwell in the essay commenting on the misuse of metaphor due to a failure to visualize the images words suggest.

Dying metaphors. A newly−invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn−out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.

[You may read the whole essay here

A great poem like The Commedia  cannot be skimmed, but rather we have to slow down and take the time to visualize the images suggested by the words.  Otherwise we are not reading the images.  And that is part of what I take away from this important image at the very beginning of the journey into hell, the image of a gate that has writing on it.

We might say, an image is a gate. We pass through  the gate by learning how to read the feelings inscribed within the image.  Then and only then can we journey more deeply and make the descent into the underworld which is the place where we learn to visualize our suffering.

But here comes, I think, the reason why i choose this passage: we do not make this journey alone

The second part of this passage, the 12 lines that follow, are vitally important.  In the first nine lines the reader experiences for herself exactly what the character “Dante” experiences. But now in the next twelve lines that complete the passage, we see the effect of the words on “Dante’s” feelings and then how “Dante” deals with this by turning to “Virgil”.

Queste parole di colore oscuro
vid’io scritte al sommo d’una porta;
per ch’io: <<Maestro, il senso lor m’e` duro>>.”

“Ed elli a me, come persona accorta:

E poi che la sua mano a la mia puose
con lieto volto, ond’io mi confortai,
mi mise dentro a le segrete cose.”

I saw these dark letters
written at the top of a gate
and I said, “Maestro, the meaning is hard for me.”

And he to me, like one experienced
“Here one must leave behind all fear
All cowardice must die right here.

We have come to the place where I have told you
You will see the wretched people
who have lost the good of intellect.”

And when he had placed his hand on mine
with a cheerful look from which I took comfort
he led me in to the secret things.

Queste parole di colore oscuro
Vid’io scritte al sommo d’una porta

These words in dark colors
I saw written at the top of a gate

Here we get the only physical description of the gate and it is quite minimal: a gate with dark letters written overhead.  When we compare these few words to the interpretation of the various artists, we see how much is left to be filled in with imagination.

In the poem, an image is inscribed with feeling and speaks to us. In this way it has presence. We respond with feeling. This is the experience in dreams as well.

If we are able to feel. If we have not forgotten the language of the image the language of dreams.

By feeling the fear in the moment, “Dante” touches into a level of vulnerability. In that vulnerability he turns to his teacher.

The Inferno moves from encounter to encounter with images and eith imagoes, often followed by a registration of feeling, usually fear. And that feeling leads “Dante” again and again to turn to “Virgil” who offers comfort, consolation, reason.  At first “Dante” calls him “Maestro:– master, but by the time we get to Purgatorio, “Virgil”is addressed as “Padre”, father. There is a progression of tenderness and intimacy and love between the two of them as they encounter images.    “Dante” turns to his guide again and again for support.  Despite “Virgil”’s counsel “Dante”‘s “cowardice” never dies, nor does his fear ever get left behind.

We might take the figure of inscribed gates as standing in for what an image truly is.  An image is inscribed with feeling when we learn how to “read” the image, Certainly every image in Dante is inscribed with feeling just as the gates are inscribed.

Every image in our dreams might also be met with the kind of reverence, awe, wonder or as here, with fear just as ‘Dante’ meets them,  so that in bringing it to life we might turn to it in all our vulnerability and seek help.  Just as Dante turns to his guide, his “maestro” , his “padre” for comfort and support.

Can every image in a dream work like this? Is that too large a claim when we consider how banal dreams can feel, the parking lot dreams, the lost purse dreams….?

There is no use generalizing. An image that we feel acquires meaning for us. It especially acquires meaning as we are aware of our own vulnerability, our own need for comfort and love, our own terror of the night and of the dark and of death.

The truth is in the knowing that can only be felt in the encounter, or rather,  the engagement– for we must engage the image, almost in the sense of marrying it– we must bring something of ourselves to the image— the heart.

How we feel about an image in a dream depends on how aware we are of our need.

In “The Apparitions”, William Butler Yeats speaks of how in old age there is a greater depth and a greater response to images.

When a man grows old his joy
Grows more deep day after day,
His empty heart is full at length,
But he has need of all that strength
Because of the increasing Night
That opens her mystery and fright.
Fifteen apparitions have I seen;
The worst a coat upon a coat-hanger.

How can an image of a coat on a coat-hanger  be powerful? Unacknowledged fear may cause us to avoid the feelings inscribed in an image.  But knowing our fear allows us to be vulnerable enough to receive the image.

This is not an intellectual process. We don’t analyze images. We don’t make them into symbols. We don’t interpret them as if they are puzzles to be solved. We engage and contemplate, we feel and with the help of our guide– we go down deeper into the dark.

In the dream the engagement  with an image or imago may be missed. But we can give the dream a second chance to live in the session. This is why we speak in Natural Dreamwork of bringing the dream to life.