get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel;
. . .
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.
These concluding words of Inferno describe
Dante and Virgil’s climb out of the underworld and back to the surface
of the Earth (XXXIV.134–140). Dante the poet
fancies that when Lucifer was flung down from Heaven, he struck
the Earth in a place exactly opposite Jerusalem in the Southern
Hemisphere and penetrated the center of the planet; the cavity left
by his fall is Hell. As Dante and Virgil climb out of Hell on the
other side of the world, they climb up through a cavity that was
once full of earth; the earth was displaced by Lucifer’s fall and
thrust up to the surface, where it formed an island. This island
is Purgatory, which Dante tours in the next part of The
Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, as he continues his trek toward salvation.
These lines are chiefly important because of how they
end: Dante, fresh from his nightmarish visit to Hell, gazes up at
Heaven’s stars. This image symbolizes the idea that Dante has begun
his slow climb out of sin and confusion and has taken a step toward
Beatrice and God, ending this very dark poem on a note of brilliant
optimism. It is greatly significant that both Purgatorio and Paradiso end with
the same word as Inferno: stele,
or the stars. It is clear not only that Dante aspires to Heaven
but also that his poem aspires to a place among the epics.