Commentary Inf XXIV 49-51

The commentators are almost unanimous in taking Virgil's words at face value and as sound advice. See, for example, Chiavacci Leonardi (Chia.1991.1), pp. 712-13, who argues for earthly fame's 'double valence' in the poem; she claims that it is sometimes an excusable aim (as here), sometimes a culpable one. Certainly the net effect of Virgil's appeal here is to get Dante moving upward in order to continue to the top of the ridge, whence he will be able to see into the next ditch as he continues his journey. Yet is it not strange that the motivation offered by Virgil is not the need to struggle onward toward the presence of God so much as it is the reward of earthly fame? Rossetti (DDP Rossetti.Inf.XXIV.43-51) was perhaps the first to observe the resonance of what has now become a standard citation for these verses, the entirely similar similes found in the book of Wisdom (Sap. 5:15): '... tanquam spuma gracilis quae a procella dispergitur, Et tanquam fumus qui a vento diffusus est' (like the insubstantial foam that is dispersed by the storm, like the smoke that is is dissipated by the wind). In Wisdom the comparisons are to the hopes of the impious man (as opposed to those of the just, whose thoughts are set on God [Sap. 5:16]). Narrowly construed, Virgil's words are those of the impious man who lodges his hopes in the most transitory of things -- exactly what the poem will later establish as the true and fleeting nature of earthly fame ([Purg XI 91-93]). Read in this light, Virgil's admonition culminates his series of errors in the three preceding cantos with what is not only potentially a more serious one, but one of which he himself had been guilty, taking the lesser good for the greater. If we were to imagine St. Thomas as guide here, we would expect his words to have been quite different. These observations reflect remarks made in a paper on this passage in November 1999 by a Princeton student, Daniel Cheely '03, the first reader of this passage known to this commentator to take into consideration the full force of its biblical source. For a similar understanding, see Margherita Frankel (Fran.1984.1), pp. 94-95, reading Virgil's inappropriate 'sermon' against the theologically correct view of the fleetingness and unimportance of earthly fame clearly expressed at [Purg XI 100-108]. Beginning with Gregorio Di Siena (DDP Siena.Inf.XXIV.49-51) commentators also cite another apposite text for these lines, Aeneid V.740, 'tenuis fugit ceu fumus in auras': it is the vision of Anchises that vanishes from Aeneas's sight 'like thin smoke into the air.'

Cantos XXI-XXIV thus include Virgil's most difficult moments as guide to the Christian underworld. The rest of the cantica is mainly without such unsettling behavior toward his master and author on the poet's part. But this will start up again in a series of moments that are difficult for Virgil in the early cantos of Purgatorio.