This is one of the least popular cantos in the entire Inferno. It has no memorable figure, such as Francesca da Rimini. It has no real memorable moral landscape, such as broken twigs that are bleeding and speaking at the same time. In fact, in this ring of the Violent against God, we have a sparse description of a desert, a momentary glimpse of a proud sinner, and the rest of the Canto looks at obscure tales of Jupiter and Saturn and Alexander and finally, a giant man hidden in the heart of Crete whose tears create the rivers of Dante’s afterlife. What in the world is going on?
Having read the Inferno at least seven or eight times in my life (I’ve lost count), this is one of the places where I simply trust the journey, note the descriptions and let go of attempting to fully understand it all. I’ve learned to trust my guide, Dante the Poet. There are places indeed where I scratch my head and move on without total understanding. It is very similar to reading of the visions in the Apocalypse of St. John, or the similar images from the book of Daniel. In fact, one of the apocalyptic images in Daniel is a man made of different metals that symbolizes different ages of humankind [Daniel 2:31-35]. There are wonderful places where one can read about the allegory which Dante the Poet is creating in this Canto. The head turned toward Rome can and the back turned toward Damietta can symbolize choosing Christian truth while moving away from a pagan past. And yet, Dante is nothing if not filled with the past of Ovid, Aristotle and Virgil and embraces them while still claiming the Christian faith. He finds remarkable ways of holding in his heart truth that is found anywhere, whether in the pages of the Bible or The Aeneid or Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.
Truth Or Consistency?
This remarkable marriage and open hearted interest in truth and change, past and present, is seen in this Canto. Here is the one person who is represented as committing violence against God through blasphemy: he refuses to change and remains in stubborn consistency. The past and present are one, death or life makes no difference. Dante the Pilgrim sees one who appears not to notice the flakes of fire drifting down upon him.
46 'who is that hero who seems to scorn the fire
47 and lies there grim and scowling
48 so that the rain seems not to torture him?'
We can tell, of course, that Dante the Pilgrim still has much to learn, for he seems impressed by this stoic sufferer, even calling him “that hero.” It is Capaneus and he hears the question.
49 And he himself, who had discerned
50 that I had asked my guide about him,
51 cried: 'What I was alive, I am in death.
What he was in life and what he is in death is, in fact, a blasphemer of divinity and a man of such consistency that he refuses to change his mind or his reactions, even though they have led him to this state of affairs. He goes on to rail against the heavens and Virgil the Guide fiercely lashes out at him.
61 Then my leader spoke with a vehemence
62 I had not heard him use before: 'O, Capaneus,
63 because your pride remains unquenched
64 'you suffer greater punishment.
65 In your own anger lies your agony,
His rigidity in refusing to change results in his rigid form laid out upon the burning sand. Dante the Poet brings to us a lesson he himself has had to learn as a result of being exiled from his beloved Florence due to his rigid political beliefs. He is slowly leading us to a place of, if not compromise, then definitely wisdom. A stubborn consistency can lead us far astray from divine counsel. Finding truth in unexpected places and wonder in our wide wanderings can result in ourselves becoming wise guides. One of the most remarkable characteristics of this poem is watching Dante the Pilgrim change and grow. He moves away from his rigid self-assurance to a place of humble discovery.
G. K. Chesterton touched upon this in many of his essays. The most familiar place is in “Orthodoxy,” the second essay, entitled The Maniac.
“He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.”
In fact, Capaneus refuses to change at all. His opening statement is in fact a closing statement, the statement of a completely closed mind: WHAT I WAS ALIVE, I AM IN DEATH. He is the victim of a stubborn and blind consistency.
There are times when I may not worry much about the allegory or meaning or classical sources in this great work. All I do is read it as best as I can in a number of translations, compare it with the Italian, and then sit back in wonder at the craft and art of Dante Alighieri. Prof. Hollander and Mark Musa, among others, often note the beauty of the music and rhythm of the original Italian over against the different translations. For instance, this Canto is filled with wonderful use of staccato rhythms in the poetry that seem to simulate the slapping of the hands on one’s own skin to put out the flames as they fall [as if gentle snowflakes, as Dante describes!] It begins from the very start of Canto XIV, with the “a randa a randa.”
12 Here, at the very edge, we stayed our steps
12 quivi fermammo i passi a randa a randa.
Notice again in line 41 the repetition “or quindi or quinci.” And he even calls this a “rude dance” bringing the concept of rhythmic dancing (why do I think of line-dancing here?) into our minds.
40 Ever without repose was the rude dance
40 Sanza riposo mai era la tresca
41 of wretched hands, now here, now there,
41 de le misere mani, or quindi or quinci
Follow this in the Princeton Dante Project and Hollander’s translation with both English and Italian. Line 55 will show clearly the “one by one - a muta a muta.” Then immediately we get another rhythmic repetition two lines later in 57 “Help, good Vulcan, Help! – aiuta, aiuta.” One might notice in later cantos if this rhythmic repetition occurs with the gently falling flames.
As for allegory and understanding more of what Dante the Poet is trying to accomplish, I would strongly recommend Robert Hollander’s essay “Allegory in Dante.”