Virgil and Dante now enter into a pathless wood. This is a dismal wood of strange black leaves, misshapen branches, and poisonous branches barren of fruit. The Harpies nest here, feeding on the branches of the gnarled trees.
Virgil explains that this is the second round of the seventh circle, where Dante will see things that will cause him to doubt Virgil's words. Dante has already heard cries, but he cannot find where they come from and in confusion stops where he is. He believes that Virgil knows his thoughts: The spirits making such an outcry are hiding among the trees. Virgil tells him only to break off any branch, and he will see that he is mistaken in his thought.
Dante pulls a small branch off from a large thorn tree, and a voice asks Dante: "Why dost thou break and tear me?" Blood comes from the tree, and with it the voice, which asks if Dante has no pity. The voice continues, saying that all of these trees were once men and that Dante should have mercy upon them. Dante drops the branch, and Virgil tells the tree-spirit that if Dante had believed what Virgil had once written, this would not have happened. Since Dante could not believe, Virgil had asked him to pull off the branch, though it grieved Virgil to wound the spirit.
In compensation for this wound, Virgil asks the spirit to tell Dante his story so that he may repeat it when he returns to Earth. The spirit, moved by his words, tells his story.
He, as minister to Frederick II, was absolutely faithful and honest to him, but the envy of the court (they could not bribe him) turned Frederick against him. Because he could not bear to lose this trust, in sorrow he killed himself. He swears that he was faithful to the end and asks Dante to tell his true story when he returns to the upper world.
Virgil tells Dante to question the spirit if he wishes, but Dante is too sorrowful and asks Virgil to say the things Dante wishes to know. Virgil, therefore, asks how the souls are bound into these gnarled trees and if any ever regains freedom.
The imprisoned spirit replies that when the soul is torn from the body by suicide, it is sent by Minos to the seventh circle, where it falls to the ground, sprouts, and grows. The Harpies eat its leaves, giving it great pain. The spirits will all be called to the Last Judgment and will reclaim the mortal bodies forsaken by them. However, they will never regain their immortal souls that they took from themselves and will remain forever trapped in this strange wood.
The two poets now hear a noise like a hunt crashing through a forest, and two spirits appear. The second flings himself into a bush, but is quickly caught and torn apart by the pursuing hounds that carry him off.
Dante and Virgil approach the bush, which is complaining loudly that the fleeing spirit gained nothing by choosing it for a hiding place. Virgil asks this spirit who he was, but in answering, it first asks that they gather up all the leaves which have been torn off in the hunt and then says only that he was a citizen of Florence who hanged himself on his own door transom.
The meaning of the punishment of the suicides is evident: In Hell, those who on Earth deprived themselves of their bodies are deprived of human form. At the Last Judgment the suicides will rise, like all the other souls, to claim their bodies, but they will never wear them. Their bodies will remain suspended on the trees that enclose the spirits of their owners.
One of the greatest changes brought on by the advent of Christianity is the change that took place in judging the suicide. In classical times, when a person could no longer live in freedom, or heroically, it was considered a stoic virtue to die by one's own hand. The last great act that a person could perform was to take his or her own life, which was the last free choice that person could make.
With the coming of Christianity, however, Jesus preached the concept that a man is free inwardly, and no amount of imprisonment or disgrace could destroy one's spiritual self. Thus, where the suicide was a virtue in the ancient days, for the Christian, it became one of the cardinal sins; murdering the body that God gave unto one.
Dante is naturally very confused when he arrives at the wood of suicides and hears human sounds but sees no human forms. Consequently, Virgil has to do something that seems extremely cruel. He has Dante pick off a branch from one of the trees, which causes the tree to bleed. Dante has previously shown that he is a person of infinite pity; therefore, the words of the tree evoke an unexpected response — surprise and sympathy.
The entire scene becomes a fantasy as Dante breaks the branch, the tree bleeds, and a voice comes from the tree. It seems almost as though Dante is unconscious of the actual words spoken by the tree. Instead, the startling fact that a tree speaks is the factor that evokes his feeling of awe and disbelief.
The story of Pier delle Vigne is related so that Dante, on his return to Earth, can justify the man's loyalty — though not his suicide. The greatness of the episode comes when Pier delle Vigne says that in order to make himself a just individual, he has made himself forever unjust, by one stroke of the knife. Here is a gentleman, a man of honesty, elegance, and breeding; a cultured and intellectual man; and a poet, who has condemned himself forever to damnation and cut off all hope of repentance, by a single act.
This is one of the great poetic concepts in the Inferno. The spirit is not seen as a mean or evil or vicious man. Instead, he is a man who, in a moment of weakness, has taken his own life. Most of the other characters in Hell have something despicable about them, but Pier delle Vigne rouses a sense of sympathy. He is a man of obvious greatness that, in a moment of weakness of will, took the irretrievable action, and after a life of noble service and devotions, he is condemned forever.
The naked men pursued and torn to pieces by hounds are Spendthrifts, reckless squanderers, who did not actually take their own lives, but destroyed themselves by destroying the means of life. The difference between these sinners and the Spendthrifts of the fourth circle is that the earlier cases arise from weakness, and the later cases from a deliberate act of the will.
The Harpies were winged creatures with the faces of women and were symbolic of the whirlwind or the violent storm. They stole anything; hence, in the woods, they symbolize the violence of the suicide and the stealing away of his soul.
Strophades the island where the Harpies live.
Frederick 1194-1250; emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1215-50).
Toppo a river near Arezzo in Italy.
Arno river in Tuscany, central Italy, flowing west through Florence.