Virgil and Dante

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Virgil and Dante

In the note to Canto V regarding Francesca and Paulo, the Hollanders exclaim that “Sympathy for the damned, in the Inferno, is nearly always and nearly certainly the sign of a wavering moral disposition” (112). Indeed, many of the touching, emotional, or indignation rousing tales told by the souls in Hell can evoke pity, but in the telling of the tales, it is always possible to derive the reasons for the damned souls’ placement in Hell. However, there is a knee-jerk reaction to separate Virgil and, arguably, some of the other souls in limbo from this group of the damned, though, with careful perusal of the text, the thoughtful reader can discern the machinations behind their damnation.

Although the dynamic between Virgil and Dante shifts dramatically through Purgatorio, throughout the Inferno, Virgil is the teacher and Dante the pupil, often bordering on an almost father-son relationship. It is the Roman, in Canto V, who asks the famous guiding question, “What are your thoughts?” (V.111), forcing the Florentine to pause and reason through what he is learning. Again, in Canto XXIV when Dante begins to weary, which is of little wonder: the poem begins at dawn with Dante lost from already being “so full of sleep” (I.11), Virgil manages to revitalize Dante’s spirits, calling for him to “Cast off sloth” (XXIV.46) and “Get to your feet” (XXIV.52), while reminding him of the “longer stair that must be climbed” (XXIV.55), Purgatory, which lies only a mere ten cantos ahead. Unarguably, this close relationship which forms between the two poets makes the reader’s heart pity Virgil’s damnation.

This pity is doubled when one considers Virgil’s special situation: he is in Limbo, the circle of the virtuous pagans, thos...

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...le to consider that Dante has erred in his placement of Virgil, noting how successfully that works with the rest of the allegorical levels.

Perhaps then the answer and the problem which demands this answer, lies not with Dante or the poem, but within the reader. It is easy to identify with Dante, a man riddled with flaws; Virgil then becomes closer as a father figure. Thus, all the complex emotions wrapped in the bizarre web of paternity are translated onto Virgil. When one sees Virgil, one sees oneself; one sees one’s father. The damnation of the Roman I puzzling, paradoxical, and confusing, but not unjustified: many other souls in Hell fall under the same category. That to pity Virgil is to pity the part of ourselves which fears damnation and to pity our family before considering justice, is a lesson which can only be learned in the fire and ice of Hell.

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