Essay, Research Paper
What is the significance of Virgil?s relationship with Dante?
The Inferno is an epic poem by Dante Alighieri, one of the greatest poets in the history of western literature. In it, he uses his mastery of language to blend elements of classical literature with a more contemporary Catholic viewpoint. Virgil, the Roman poet, is Dante?s guide on this journey through the underworld. He helps to represent the classical elements of the poem. His relationship with the character of Dante in the poem is wide-ranging in importance and symbolism. He is a figure of reason and protection.
Dante borrows liberally from Virgil in writing The Inferno. Much of the work resembles the underworld created in Virgil?s Aeneid. Thus, Virgil is an obvious choice for a guide in the underworld. Having traversed the territory before, Virgil serves as a figure of knowledge and safety to Dante, who is at times uncertain and timid about traversing such a treacherous terrain. For example, in Canto II Dante hesitates at the Vestibule that marks the entrance to hell. It is only through the reassurance of Virgil?s words that he finds fortitude. ?Thy words have moved my heart to its first purpose. My guide! My Lord! My Master! Now lead on?.
At numerous other points also, Virgil shows his authority by dealing with deterrences that occur during their journey. As in Canto III, when the ferryman, Charon, refuses Dante passage since he is a living man. Virgil forces Charon to grant them passage. ?Charon, bite back your spleen:/This has been willed where what is willed must be/and is not yours to ask what it may mean.?
Virgil?s influence, however, is limited. His power is associated with the power of reason, and this power is limited in Dante?s hell. At the very beginning, Virgil warns Dante of this. He says that at the end of the journey through hell, ?a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide you.? Virgil cannot accompany Dante on into heaven because his virtues included only reason and not faith.
Even at the points when Virgil is functional in clearing the path for the poets, it is only through voicing the fact that their journey is a mandate of heaven.
For example, when he and Dante are confronted by Minos, Virgil again silences protests, and again by stating their divine purpose. ?It is his fate to enter every door/This has been willed where what is willed must be,/and is not yours to question. Say no more.?
In these examples, Virgil is used as a sort of mediator of reason between Dante and God. Dante seems to be suggesting that though reason is limited in where it can get you, it can be an important tool in interpreting and understanding
one?s relationship with the higher power. In this poem, reason and logic are not polar opposites of faith. They can be used together.
This point is exemplified by the treatment of the honorable pagans. Though they are condemned to hell by a technicality (they were born before the time of Catholicism), they reign in a glorious part of heaven, in a green meadow surrounded by a citadel. Among these people are Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, and numerous other Greek thinkers and poets. ?The signature of honor they left on earth is recognized in Heaven,? explains Virgil, ?and wins them ease in Hell out of God?s favor.?
Still, however, they are sentenced eternally to Hell, showing the ultimate authority of religion over even the most honorable pagans. This Catholic viewpoint is incorporated thoroughly into Dante?s hell. While it still is largely similar to Virgil?s underworld in the Aeneid, and it incorporates many pagan themes, God?s word supercedes all else.
Virgil?s limitation of influence is shown at the gate of Dis, which blocks the way to the inner circles of Hell. This gate is guarded by fallen angels. Though they are fallen and are sentenced to an existence in Hell, these souls are of a Heavenly nature. Accordingly, Virgil?s influence, being a symbol of reason, falls short with these souls. They must wait for a Heavenly messenger to come before they can proceed to the lower circles of Hell.
In addition to being the symbol of reason, Virgil is also a fatherly figure to Dante. Dante frequently describes him as such in the poem. Describing in ways
such as ?the sweet Guide and Father?. Virgil at times protects Dante in a fatherly manner, as when they encounter the three furies at the gate of Dis.
At the horrible sight of the furies, Dante draws closer to Virgil. The furies then call Medusa to turn the two poets into stone. Virgil commands Dante to turn his back and cover his eyes. He then turns Dante himself puts his hands on top of Dante?s to help shield his eyes. This scene rings with a fatherly, protective tone. It is obvious that Dante views Virgil as a sort of paternal figure.
This figure could have many meanings. Obviously, Virgil could represent a forefather and creator of the art of poetry. Dante, committing himself to this craft, could view himself as a surrogate, a bearer of the noble name of poetry that forefathers in the art created. More importantly, though, he is a father of virtue. He represents the nobility of all of those great thinkers of the classical world, and the heights they attained in logic, ethics, science, and art.
However, like any father-child relationship, there comes a point when the child must usurp his father. However noble and wise a father may be, his wisdom is limited to that that was available in his lifetime. The child has not only available to him all of his father?s knowledge, but also new ideas and enlightenments that come about as time moves on. In this case, the new enlightenment happens to be
the Catholic religion. Reason and logic aren?t useless in Dante?s view, but they are incomplete without the next step, faith in God and repentance of sins.
Dante illustrates his matching of the virtues of Virgil when he is accepted so readily into the circle of poets that inhabit The Citadel where the honorable pagans dwelled. The poets, ?the masters of that highest school whose song outsoars all other like an eagle?s flight?, confer amongst themselves and then ?turned and welcomed me most graciously.? Dante here dubiously illustrates the feeling that he is on par with the greatest poets in history. He has matched their abilities.
His superceding of these forefathers is symbolized in his ability to traverse where they cannot. Virgil must leave Dante in the hands of a more worthy soul when his journey though hell is done. Dante, having sought the divine knowledge that his father figure didn?t seek in his life, is granted passage into a higher realm. He thus usurps the power of Virgil.
So, Virgil represents in The Inferno the accomplishments of reason and art in the classical world. He also symbolizes their shortcomings, the fact that their view of life was incomplete. Life to Dante can only be complete for one who seeks, with reason and logic as his tools, knowledge of the Higher Power.