Reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda recently has inspired me to do a complete reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy which she brilliantly alludes to in her novel. It has been far too many years since I have looked at any part of that Italian masterpiece and I felt I ought to revisit it. I had three immediate, intense reactions to the first few Cantos of The Inferno, in Robert Kirkpatick’s translation, which I will share here. There is nothing new or earthshattering in my thoughts, these are simply my gut, instinct reactions to a text which I have come back to after many years.
First—how can I even put this–*Vergil. Yes, Vergil. I knew he was lurking everywhere in The Inferno but when I was younger and less experienced in translating The Aeneid I had no real appreciation for Dante’s reworking of and allusions to that Roman poet and his Epic. As I was slowly making my way through the Cantos, I kept thinking that—and I truly do not mean to offend with this statement—it is just not possible to have a deep appreciation for Dante without reading The Aeneid, or at least reading Books 1, 4 and especially 6 of The Aeneid. I highly recommend the Fagles, Fitzgerald or Ferry translations; or better yet, find a friend, neighbor, colleague, long lost family member or a lover who knows Latin and make them translate it for you from the original. Trust me—it will enhance your admiration for and understanding of the Divine Comedy like nothing else.
Secondly, as Vergil is showing Dante around the place before they get to the circles of Hell proper, they come upon a kind of limbo in which all of the important ancient authors dwell. This is Vergil’s own resting place (if you can call it that) and Dante specifically points out four other names he thinks are worthy of Vergil’s company: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Yes, Lucan! I think that when I read The Inferno for the first time that I had no idea who Lucan was. But now that I am older and more experienced (certainly not wiser, just more experienced) his named jumped out at me and gave me such joy to see. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a serious soft spot for Silver Age writing, especially Seneca and Lucan. I don’t think it’s necessary to read Lucan’s De Bello Civile to understand Dante’s references to this Roman epic, but I encourage you to read this masterpiece anyway. Dante has inspired me to pick up my Latin texts of Lucan and translate my favorite sections once again. More on Lucan in another post…
Finally, I was moved by Dante’s reworking of one of my favorite passages in Aeneid Book 6. When souls are lined up on the shores of the Styx, waiting for Charon to take them to their final resting place, Vergil describes them as a countless mob, desperate to reach the other side of the river where either the Elysian fields or Tartarus awaits them (3.305-312-translation is my own):
Here this entire, sprawling mob was rushing to the riverbanks—mothers and men and the bodies of great heroes devoid of any life, boys and unmarried girls, and young men placed on the funeral pyre before the very eyes of their parents: the number of souls standing there can be compared to the vast number of leaves in a forest, sliding from their places during the first frost of autumn, that fall to the ground; or to the many flocks of birds that are gathered on the land from the deep ocean, when the cold part of the season drives them across the sea and sends them to warmer climates. These souls stand there praying to be the first to make the crossing and stretching out their hands in great desire to reach the opposite side of the shore.
In Vergil’s underworld, however, an incalculable number of these souls will not be allowed to make the journey across the Styx and are doomed to roam about in a type of limbo; those whose bodies were never properly buried and any person that has committed suicide must tragically accept this fate of nothingness. Dante applies Vergil’s metaphor to his version of Hell in Canto 3 as Charon, too, is waiting to bring across a vast number of souls onto his raft to cross a black swamp. What I found chilling and brilliant and fascinating about Dante’s version is that these souls will all make it across, eventually, but this immense number of spirits are waiting to gain their entrance into The Inferno; this is not limbo, this is not a state of nothingness, this is a place where countless souls are waiting to enter into a state of pain, and suffering, pure Hell (106-118):
And then they came together all as one,
wailing aloud along the evil margin
that waits for all who have no fear of God.
Charon, the demon, with his coal-hot eyes,
glared what he meant to do. He swept all in.
He struck at any dawdler with his oar.
In autumn, leaves are lifted, one by one,
away until the branch looks down and sees
its tatters all arrayed upon the ground.
In that same way did Adam’s evil seed
hurtle, in sequence, from the river rim,
as bird’s that answer to their handler’s call.
They off they went, to cross the darkened flood.
I will conclude with a quote by George Steiner who says in his book Real Presences about the tradition of these epic masterpieces: “Virgil reads, guides our reading of, Homer as no external critic can. The Divine Comedy is a reading of The Aeneid, technically and spiritually ‘at home’, ‘authorized’ in the several and interactive senses of that word, as no extrinsic commentary by one who is himself not a poet can be.” Nothing has enhanced my reading of and awe for Vergil more, in recent memory anyway, than making my way slowly through the Divine Comedy.
*The Roman poet’s full name is Publius Vergilius Maro, so this name in English his name becomes Vergil. Gilbert Highet in The Classical Tradition, discusses the popularly of the misspelling, Virgil, which began early, possibly as the result of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias which was based on the poet’s sexual restraint. In the Middle Ages, the name Virgil was thought to refer to his magical (as in the virga magic wand) powers. For whatever reason, Virgil seems to be the popular way of spelling his name even today but I only use the original spelling of Vergil. I put this note here to stop anyone from correcting me on the spelling of his name which irks me to no end. I mean, come on. How can a classicist be accused of misspelling the name of one of antiquity’s most important authors! (It’s happened more times than I care to discuss.)