Dante's Lucifer: The Denial of the Word

The four words constituting the first line of Inferno 34, however, are and are not Virgil's own words. On the most obvious level, these words are his own in that the text attributes them to him. At the same time, they are not his, since they are a quotation of the first line of a hymn by Venantius Fortunatus.3 And yet, the last word, inferni, must be attributed to Virgil under all respects, for he utters it without borrowing it from the hymn that Venantius Fortunatus wrote in honor of the cross and Christ. Through Virgil, Dante the auctor, therefore, rewrites and parodies this sacred hymn at the conclusion of the infernal cantica exactly when the two wayfarers approach Lucifer.4 Although neither name is mentioned, both are conjured up. Inferno 34 thus begins by invoking a contrastive binomial, Christ and Lucifer.

The irony inherent in the Christian hymn's adaptation for the purpose of announcing Lucifer's appearance to the Pilgrim stems, most strikingly, from subverting a text written for a sacred purpose and now employing it for a profane one.5 No longer the sacred poem («Vexilla regis prodeunt») written by a Christian poet, the new and profane poem («Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni») is proclaimed by a pagan, is dedicated, as it were, to Lucifer, and is inscribed within the book of the Commedia. Whereas the Christian Venantius writes a poem to his king, Christ, the pagan Virgil, unable to write a poem for the king whose law he opposed (Inf. 1:125), intones a poem to his de facto king, Lucifer, and he does so by borrowing and perverting a sacred text. In fine, Dante the auctor records this new hymn to Lucifer in his text, as if he were the scribe of Virgil the poet.

This opposition between Christ and Lucifer is further emphasized by another textual element, which focuses on nomen. The Inferno, in fact, is the text where the word Dite __ Lucifer __ is inscribed and where the word Christ is never recorded. Thus a written sign characterizes Lucifer in the first cantica, whereas the text's silence typifies Christ. As we shall see, however, the meaning of this verbal presence and absence is ultimately turned around: Lucifer's presence becomes a failure, whereas Christ's absence signifies a victory. As a sign of his textual presence throughout the first cantica, Lucifer, the character whom the Pilgrim contemplates in the nethermost pit of the universe, is designated by means of various words and circumlocutions.
Get Access