Dante begins the opening of Canto XXVIII with a rhetorical question. Virgil and he have just arrived in the Ninth Abyss of the Eighth Circle of hell. In this pouch the Sowers of Discord and Schism are continually wounded by a demon with a sword. Dante poses a question to the reader:
Who, even with untrammeled words and many
attempts at telling, ever could recount
in full the blood and wounds that I now saw? (Lines 1-3)
The rhetorical question draws the reader into the passage because we know by this point in the Divine Comedy that Dante is a great poet. What is it that Dante sees before him on the brink of the Ninth Abyss that is so ineffable that he, as a poet, feels he cannot handle?
In the following lines Dante expands on this rhetorical position. He elaborates on why it is important for any man to offer a good description of what he sees.
No poet can achieve this description: "Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short..." (L. 4) It is not just poetic talent that is at stake; poets do not have the background to give them the poetic power for such description. His reasoning is 'the shallowness of both our speech and intellect cannot contain so much.' (Lines 5-6) Once again the reader is intrigued; how could a man of Dante's stature criticize language which is the very tool he uses to create the epic work of La Commedia ? If we cannot take Dante seriously with these opening statements, we must pose the question of what Dante is trying to do by teasing us with this artificial beginning to Canto XVIII?
Dante will now contradict himself and try to describe what he says is impossible. But, if he were to...