The poets are approaching the great tower when two flames shoot from its top, and immediately, another flame replies from the other side of the marsh of Styx. Soon after the signal, a boatman, Phlegyas, arrives, eager to take more damned souls deeper into Hell. The sight of the poets angers Phlegyas, however, and he begins raging. Virgil chastises him, and the poets enter the boat.
As the boat makes its way to the other side of the swamp, a soul rises from the slime and accosts Dante. The soul is Dante's Florentine enemy, Filippo Argenti, one of the Wrathful in the marsh. Dante and Argenti exchange words, and Dante wishes that Argenti receive further punishment. Virgil praises Dante for his comment, and says that Dante will get his wish. Shortly, other shades descend upon Argenti and tear him to bits.
The boat approaches the shore, and Dante sees the City of Dis where the fires of Hell glow. Phlegyas lets the poets off the boat, and they are immediately accosted by a group of shades that question Dante's appearance in their realm. The shades refuse to let Dante pass, though they say that Virgil may enter but not return to his own circle. Dante is afraid that he will never be allowed to leave Hell, and he cries to Virgil to remedy the situation. Virgil goes alone to the gate of the City to see if he can open it. He returns unsuccessful in his task, but assures Dante that a Great One is on his way to open the gate.
Canto VIII is weak in construction. Too much happens: A signal is given, a boat appears, Virgil has a short argument with the boatman, Dante has a fierce argument with Filippo Argenti, and so on. Why Argenti is singled out for mention remains an enigma, but apparently, he was a bitter enemy of Dante's and reveals himself as a man marked by all the passions, hatreds, and loves of his time. Prior to Canto VIII, there was one circle chiefly described per canto; from this point onward, however, circles overlap, and Dante the Poet devotes multiple cantos to single circles.
The theme of politics also shows up in Canto VIII. In fact, the most important action in this canto is the altercation between Dante and the shade of Filippo Argenti. Argenti was a bitter enemy to Dante, and his family opposed Dante's return to Florence.
Dante's character is indeed changing, as his reaction to Argenti (wishing him to suffer beyond what he already suffers among the throng of Wrathful) shows this change. By wishing Argenti more harm, Dante behaves wrathfully, just as the sinners in the marsh behave. Nevertheless, Virgil praises Dante highly for this behavior. Dante no longer feels pity for the sinners.
Dante and Virgil move on toward the City of Dis, the capital city of Hell, where the sins of violence and heresy are contained. The mythological king of the Underworld (Pluto) is sometimes called Dis, thus this city is named for him.
Once at the gate to Dis, the damned souls are angered at Dante's presence, and they refuse him entry, saying that Virgil can come in, but only to stay. In this encounter, Virgil is unable to convince the shades to let Dante through. Allegorically, this trouble shows that even human reason and wisdom cannot overcome every obstacle and that divine intervention is far more powerful than anything a human offers.
Phlegyas mythological king of Boeotia; son of Mars; thrown into Hell for setting fire to Apollo's temple because Apollo seduced his daughter.