The first great Christian poet—perhaps the only Christian poet famous enough invariably to be taught in high school English classes—is undoubtedly Dante. His Divine Comedy, the story of his passage through Hell and Purgatory and into Paradise, touches on all aspects of life, from free will to temptation to the nature of love itself.
When we think of Dante, we often think of Beatrice, his lost love, with whom he finally reunites in the Purgatorio. However, another figure is as central to Dante’s journey: Virgil, the Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid, who guides Dante through Hell and most of Purgatory. Why is a pagan poet who died before Christ so central to this very Christian story? Just how does Dante want us to interpret his relationship with Virgil? In my next few posts, I’ll explore how Dante uses Virgil to talk about the greatness—and the downfall—of the pagan world, and what this means for us today.
Dante treats Virgil with an astonishing level of respect and honor. This respect goes beyond mere acknowledgement of greatness to a conscious emulation of Virgil both as a guide and teacher for Dante’s persona as a character as well as a literary model for Dante as an author. Dante the traveler consciously models himself on Virgil. Upon first meeting Virgil, Dante cannot give him high enough praise; he calls Virgil “the light and glory of all poets…my teacher…my lord and law” (1.82-85). Virgil becomes not only his guide through Hell and Purgatory, but his teacher as he elucidates both the scenes that Dante passes through and the theological meaning that lies behind the outward representation. This tribute places Dante, the Christian poet, in an apprenticeship to the pagan poet. God’s grace in granting him salvation does not make him intellectually or morally superior to Virgil.
Dante’s emulation of Virgil as a literary source is also apparent. The structure of the first ten cantos of the Inferno is strikingly similar to that of book six of the Aeneid. There is the same dark wood that guards the entrance to the underworld (Aeneid 6.268, Inferno 1.3), the same incident of the guide explaining the vast crowd of shades by the Acheron (Aeneid 6.317, Inferno 3.121), the same string of monsters from Charon to Minos (Aeneid 6.295 and 6.426, Inferno 3.83 and 5.4), even the same metaphor of thronging souls as autumn leaves (Aeneid 6.295 and Inferno 3.112). Dante is deliberately modeling himself on Virgil—Virgil’s depiction of Hell is so perfect that, although its content is definitively pagan, its form is the incontrovertible ideal for Dante’s depiction. Dante pictured himself as being able to walk as one of the group of the great pagan poets (4.102); he not only admires Virgil but wants to be more like him. He sees and desires the unique beauty and wisdom of the vanished Roman world.
Dante is sending quite a clear message to us here. Whatever we may think of those who died without ever knowing Christ, we cannot simply discard them as senseless barbarians. They were as brilliant—and as moral—as we can hope to be. By corollary, it was not any merit of our own that gained us our salvation. No amount of virtue would suffice for that. Knowing this, we do not have to dismiss all pagan achievements. The glories of pre-Christian Rome—the poets, the philosophers, the just rulers—were real, and can be, no, ought to be emulated.
To a point. As we will see in my next post, Dante was only too aware of the frailty of all that is built apart from Christ.