The symbolism of the wood in the opening canto’s of Dante’s Inferno is crucially important for how one understands the overall meaning of the poem. The exact nature of this symbolism is not immediately clear, however. In terms of the narrative, the wood could refer to an actual location in which the poet is actually lost.
However, on a symbolic level, it is likely that the wood refers to a situation of moral and religious uncertainty. This symbolism is especially likely if one considers the fact that Dante states he found himself lost in the wood as he approached middle-age, suggesting that he has reached an impasse in his life from which he can’t escape and that he feels that he has strayed from the true path or moral and religious righteousness.
Importantly, this understanding of the metaphor of the wood is consistent with a Christian view of the poem, especially as Dante insists that there is no way in which he can find his way out of his situation. By describing the path out of the wood as being lost or invisible, Dante presents a picture of himself as being radically vulnerable, in the sense that he requires aid from an external source in order to save himself from the danger that he is in. This idea of imminent danger is emphasised with the appearance of the leopard, the lion and she-wolf within the wood, each of which have their own symbolic quality, but which, nonetheless, clearly also create a situation of immediate danger for the poet.
The only way out of the wood, and away from this danger, is for the poet to trust himself to his religion, and to the figure who claims to be his guide. In this way, the poem directly mirrors the Christian notion that a Christian must ask for, and accept, guidance from Christ in order to live a moral life and to achieve salvation.