Dante gathers the leaves and returns them to the bush, and the poets pass to the other edge of the wood. Here is the beginning of a desolate plain, and Dante looks fearfully about him. Many souls are on this plain, some lying down, some crouching, and some wandering restlessly. Flakes of fire fall on this desert, making it burn and increasing the pain of these spirits who were being punished for their violence against God. They try to save themselves from this rain of fire by waving it away with their hands.
Dante notices one of the souls lying on the ground raging, and asks Virgil whom the soul is. Hearing the question, the soul replies that he is the same now as he was when he was alive — still unconquered and still blasphemous. And if Zeus had thunderbolts to hurl at him forever, he would never succeed in subduing this shade. This is Capaneus, killed by a thunderbolt thrown from the hand of the angry Zeus. Virgil chastises the soul violently, calling it by its name, Capaneus, and then tells Dante that the soul is one of the seven that laid siege to Thebes. Capaneus scorned God when living and scorns him still. For his defiance and heresy, he is confined here for eternity.
The poets walk in silence at the perimeter of the sand until they come to a small rill, a little brook of red water, reminding Dante of a stream in Florence that prostitutes use. Dante wants to know about the stream, and Virgil tells him that the stream begins in Crete with the tears of an ancient giant that flow down into the hollow of the mountain's pit where he lives. These tears form the source for the rivers in Hell: the Acheron, the Phlegethon, and the Styx. Dante is surprised to come to this stream, and Virgil explains that because of their course, the poets have not made a full circle yet and new things that Dante sees should not surprise him.
Dante asks about Phlegethon and of Lethe, a river that Virgil forgot to mention. Virgil explains that they have already passed the Phlegethon (the river of boiling blood) and that they will see the Lethe in another circle. He explains that the Lethe is the river where remorseful spirits wash away their guilt, the River of Forgetfulness. Virgil tells Dante to follow him closely along the edge of the stream, so that they can safely cross the burning plain.
Walking between two rounds, they reach a small stream that is so red that it disgusts Dante. Virgil tells Dante this is the most remarkable thing they have yet seen, and Dante asks for an explanation. Virgil gives a long and complicated explanation about the formation of these rivers and how they flow through Hell.
The poets then leave the plains, and Dante is warned to follow the edge of the stream closely to avoid the fire of the burning desert.
The intellectual concept of Capaneus in Canto XIV is one of the great characterizations in the Inferno. The character of Capaneus re-emphasizes one concept of Dante's Hell — the person retains those very qualities which sent him to Hell. In classical times, Capaneus was a figure who thought himself so strong that not even Jove (Zeus, or Jupiter) could destroy him, but he was destroyed by the thunderbolts of Jove. For his blasphemy on Earth, he is condemned to Hell, and his first words to Dante are "Such as I was alive; such am I also in death." This emphasizes that he has not changed.
Although Virgil does upbraid Capaneus for his pride, Dante seems to be drawn toward this powerful figure who dared to defy the gods. There is a certain power in Capaneus' defiance, and even in Hell, he remains as he was on Earth — and has the blind strength to say so. Being condemned to death because of his pride and his blasphemy, in Hell he remains filled with pride and continues to blaspheme against his god. Capaneus is ultimately insulting and defiant by saying that Jove himself will grow weary of trying to punish him before he, Capaneus, will give in to Jove's punishment. This is the ultimate defiance.
Here the idea expressed is important throughout Hell: In any particular circle, the degree of punishment is not always the same. Capaneus is being punished more than anyone else in this circle, and according to Virgil, as Capaneus keeps blaspheming against God, his punishment will increase throughout eternity.
Cato Cato of Utica; also a friend of Cicero.
Alexander 356-323 b.c.; king of Macedonia (336-323); military conqueror who helped spread Greek culture from Asia Minor and Egypt to India.
Mongibello Mount Edna, where Vulcan had his forge.
Vulcan Roman Mythology. the god of fire and of metalworking; later identified with the Greek Hephaestus.
Phlegra the battle at Phlegra for which Vulcan was the forge.
Bulicame a red-tinted stream in Viterbo where the prostitutes bathed.
Crete Greek island in the Mediterranean.
Rhea Greek Mythology. daughter of Uranus and Gaea, wife of Cronus, and mother of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia; identified with the Roman Ops and the Phrygian Cybele.
Corybantes any of the attendants who follow the Phrygian goddess Cybele with dancing and frenzied orgies.
Cocytus the final circle of Hell.