Princeton Dante Project Virgil

Dante's Virgil
(Robert Hollander)

(Expanded version of the article "Virgil" in the Dante Encyclopedia, ed. Richard Lansing, New York, Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000. Reproduced by permission.)

Born in 70 B.C. not far from Mantua, Virgil began his poetic career with the publication of his Eclogues ca. 37 B.C. These were followed by the Georgics some seven years later. The Aeneid, begun perhaps in 30 B.C., occupied him until his death in 19 B.C. (For those with Italian the current major source of information about Virgil's biography and his works is the Enciclopedia virgiliana.) It was his wish that the work, not brought to the degree of completion that he insisted on, be destroyed. It was preserved through the intervention of no less a personage than the emperor Augustus himself.

Dante's involvement with the works of Virgil is one of western literature's most renowned and most complex examples of the way in which a later writer appropriates the texts of a precursor. It is difficult to conceive of a major literary text that might be as closely involved with an earlier masterwork as is the Commedia with the Aeneid, with the major exception of Virgil's epic with those of Homer. However, Dante's early works show little special, or more than conventional, admiration either for Virgil or for classical poetry in general. In his first work, Vita Nuova, the single gesture in the direction of classical poetry (VN XXV.3) reveals a concern on the young writer's part to relate his work to a tradition of writerly excellence in the lofty style of classical antiquity. This stance is also evident in De vulgari Eloquentia, as is perhaps only to be expected in a work dealing with contemporary poetry in the vernacular, a work written by a poet who wants to put his contemporaries and himself (especially himself) on something like an equal footing with glorious antecedents. The case of Convivio is more complicated. Its first three treatises are written more or less in a similar spirit, revisiting classical sources in a nearly perfunctory way. In the fourth treatise, however, we find a major change, as was first noted by Ulrich Leo in a justly celebrated article (Leo.1951.1). Virgil and some other classical writers now become important more for what they are saying than for the nobility of their expression. The case of Monarchia is a complicated one. The question of its date is essential and difficult to resolve. The author of this article sides with those who argue for a later dating (ca. 1317?). If the work is composed after the Commedia was begun, the thickness of allusions to Virgil (divinus poeta noster ["our divine poet"] -- 2.3.6) in Book 2 (there are nineteen in all in this book, according to Richard Kay [Kay.1986.1]) would indicate a similar lofty view of Virgil as auctor, while the total absence of Virgilian citation in the concluding third book might seem to show a sudden lack of classicizing interest on Dante's part. The sudden shift, however, is more likely to indicate rather a change in strategy (discussing theological matters he will resort only to theologically valid texts) than a change of heart with regard to the Latin poet. One must also be aware of the indisputably Virgilian spirit, essentially one of imitation of his Eclogues, found in Dante's own Latin Eclogues, composed late in his career. Concerning the minor works composed before the Commedia one may say that, with the exception of the last treatise of Convivio, which should probably be understood as being composed at a moment of considerable pressure and of a consequent change in direction toward a new writerly identity, there is little by way of a deeply involved reading of classical text evident in his texts.

If one considers the question from a later vantage point, however, one can hardly overestimate the importance of Virgil for Dante. Here is the evaluation of Curtius: "The conception of the Commedia is based upon a spiritual meeting with Virgil. In the realm of European literature there is little which may be compared with this phenomenon. The 'awakening' to Aristotle in the thirteenth century was the work of generations and took place in the cool light of intellectual research. The awakening of Virgil by Dante is an arc of flame which leaps from one great soul to another. The tradition of the European spirit knows no situation of such affecting loftiness, tenderness, fruitfulness. It is the meeting of the two greatest Latins" (Curt.1948.1, p. 358). There can be no doubt that Virgil plays an essential role in almost every aspect of Dante's composition of his great poem, and probably with his very decision to write an "epic" poem, leaving incomplete his two treatises, Convivio and De vulgari Eloquentia, in order to attach himself firmly to the great Latin tradition of writing about serious things in verse. As has frequently been pointed out, Virgil's example may be found as seminal for many aspects of Dante's poetic strategies in the Commedia: to write a poem that prominently features a visit to the underworld (Dante did not know Homer's texts, if he did know about them -- thus he can behave as though Virgil were uniquely qualified to serve as his model) and that celebrates the Roman concept of political order as exemplified in the empire; that is narrated by a poet who has been lent prophetic powers.

As one of the principal characters in Dante's poem (Toynbee, in his entry for the Roman poet, offers a convenient listing of all of his appearances [Virgilio]), Virgil's presence as guide in this most Christian of poems is something of a scandal. It is at least possible that puzzlement about Dante's reasons for choosing him for this role is at the root of the early commentators' tactic of treating the poem, not as the "history" of an actual experience that Dante claims it to be (with a consequent treatment of Virgil as the historical figure he is so clearly meant to be considered), but as an allegorical fiction. While in fact the introductory information processed in the poem ([Inf I 67-75]) makes Virgil entirely and recognizably historical (Mantuan parents, approximate dating of birth and career, authorship of Aeneid), commentators responded (and, sometimes, still respond) by making Virgil "Reason" or some related allegorical characteristic of the human psyche. The poem that is created by such interpretation is thus meant to be considered the record of an internal struggle in a threatened Christian soul, as represented by the contending forces of appetite (whose role is supposedly played by the character Dante) and those of reason (personified in Virgil). While the Aeneid itself was subjected to such readings by interpreters like Fulgentius and (the pseudo- [?]) Bernard Silvester, it seems clear that Dante himself, at least not when he was composing the Commedia, did not read Virgil's poem in this manner nor write the Commedia with such criteria in mind. Dante's treatment of the greatest Latin poet makes his Virgil a problematic character for the earliest interpreters of the Commedia. Yet there are other problems, not of a commentator's devising, that afflict our attempt to come to grips with Dante's choice of Virgil as the guide in his poem. And these problems arise from Dante's own troubled perception of his pagan poetic hero. One tradition of Christian reception of Virgil, which is at least as old as the emperor Constantine, held that Virgil's much-discussed fourth Eclogue actually foretold the coming of Christ. Had Dante so believed, his choice of Virgil might have been less burdensome. However, we may be certain from Monarchia (Mon.I.xi.1) that Dante knew that Virgil's "Virgin" was not the blessèd Mary but Astraea, or "justice." Any number of passages within the Commedia make it plain that Dante did not consider the Roman a Christian avant-la-lettre. We must conclude that Dante willfully chose a pagan as his guide, leaving us to fathom his reasons for doing so. In recent years a growing number of Dante's interpreters have been arguing for the view that Dante deliberately undercuts his guide, showing that both in some of his decisions as guide and in some of his own actual texts he is, from Dante's later and Christian vantage point, prone to error. If this is the case, we must not forget that Dante at the same time is intent upon glorifying Virgil. And then we might consider the proposition that Dante's love for Virgil, genuine and heartfelt, needed to be held at arm's length and gently chastised, perhaps revealing to a pagan-hating reader that Dante knows full well the limitations of his Virgil. Yet he could not do without him. Virgil is the guide in Dante's poem because he served in that role in Dante's life. It was Virgil, and not Aristotle or Aquinas, who served as model for the poem; it was Virgil who, more than any other author, helped make Dante Dante.

In the 14,233 verses of this theologized epic, verses of Virgil make themselves heard with greater frequency than any other sources except for the Bible and the texts of Aristotle (see Moore [Moor.1896.1]; and for the most recent [if provisional] "census" of Virgilian text in the Commedia see Hollander [Holl.1993.1]). In the opening action of the first two cantos, as this writer has argued (see Holl.1969.1, pp. 81-92), Dante carefully (and inobtrusively) interlaces strands from the first Book of the Aeneid into his narrative fabric. And this pattern of quotation, while not as persistent later in the text (roughly one-fifth of all Dante's citations of Virgil occur in the first five cantos of the poem), runs through its entirety, even after Virgil leaves the poem as a character in Purgatorio XXX. We are therefore not surprised when Dante has his character Virgil inform us that the younger poet knows his master's poem by heart ([Inf XX 114]). The medieval Virgil, a figure of legend, subject of tales of magic that pleased the popular imagination (as has been documented by Comparetti [Comp.1872.1]), is essentially missing from the highly literary focus of Dante's reading of Virgilian text. Whatever Virgil meant for Dante, it was the fact that he was a poet that seems to have meant the most to him. It has not been emphasized enough that the rereading of the Aeneid had the effect of turning him from writing in mixed verse and prose to composing a lengthy poem intended to stand entirely on its own feet.

Yet Dante's great affection for Virgil does not get in the way of his careful sifting of the work of his maestro and autore for what he considers problematic in it. In recent years, some of his readers have been pointing out that Virgil is not allowed only an honorable afterlife in Dante's pages, but is frequently dealt with in ways that distance even his greatest medieval admirer from him (see Holl.1980.1; Ryan.1982.1; Holl.1983.1). This effect is found in two aspects of the poem, moments in which the authority of Virgil as guide is undermined, and those in which his texts are found to be defective in one respect or another. Among those in the former category, in Inferno we find Virgil denied entrance to the city of Dis by the rebellious forces that guard that city (VIII); his confused and Empedoclean explanation of the meaning of the Crucifixion ([Inf XII 37-45]); his several incorrect interpretations of the wicked intentions of the Malebranche and consequent annoyance at having been tricked by them (XXI-XXIII). In Purgatorio we see him chastised by Cato along with the saved souls who lent their ears and hearts to Casella's song (II and III); find him intrinsically compared to the loser in the simile that opens the sixth canto, in which Dante is like a winner in a game of chance; hear him have difficulty in understanding how Statius could have been saved (XXII). None of these scenes, or others like them, would have been presented had Dante not wanted to make his reader aware that this Christian poet had not "gone over to the other side" in his veneration of Virgil.

The same may be said with respect to the second category, in which it is the works of Virgil that are seen as requiring correction from a Christian point of view. In Inferno I ([Inf I 125]) we learn from Virgil's lips that he was "ribellante" against God's law. And even if his regret for the reasons of his perdition may make him overstate his guilt, the signs of the wrongness of his work are frequent in Dante's text. If we limit ourselves to two examples from each cantica (and, both in this category as in the former, there are other significant examples), in Inferno we observe the authority of Virgil's text gently questioned when the protagonist uses a formulation for the words of his new-found guide that intrinsically compares his truthfulness to that of the Bible ([Inf II 25], [Inf II 28]): Virgil, as author, gives Aeneas the right to boast over his voyage to the otherworld, while Paul requires no such authorial intervention: he simply went there ("Andovvi poi lo Vas d'elezïone"); and when Virgil retells the tale of Manto (not to mention that of Eurypylus) in canto XX he does so in such a way as deliberately to contradict the narrative details found in the Aeneid (Aen.X.198-203). In Purgatorio, in the very canto in which he is intrinsically compared to a loser in a game of chance, he is also put in the position of explaining how the message of the Aeneid (Aen.VI.376), which would clearly seem to deny the efficacy of prayer, is not in fact at odds with Christian doctrine ([Purg VI 28-42]); and there is the extraordinary passage ([Purg XXII 37-42]) in which Statius informs the protagonist (and listening Virgil) that Virgil's denunciation of avarice (Aen.III.56-57), is in fact a call for restraint in prodigality, thus anticipating a still more central deliberate misreading of a Virgilian text, the opening of the fourth Eclogue ([Purg XXII 67-72]), which Statius read as a prophecy of the coming of Christ, and which we know Dante believed to have concerned Astraea, not Mary. In Paradiso we read the deliberate and otherwise unnecessary questioning of Virgil's veracity when he described the welcoming gesture of Anchises to Aeneas in Elysium, "se fede merta nostra maggior musa" (if our greatest poet is worthy of belief -- [Par XV 26]); and, still more dramatic, the insistence on the salvation of Ripheus ([Par XX 67-69]), in Virgil the most just of the Trojans, if abandoned by the gods to his lonely death ("dis aliter visum" [Aen.II.428]). In these and in other passages we perceive that Virgil's authority, not only as guide, but as auctor, is held up to frequent and insistent question.

The association of Virgil with tragedy ([Inf XX 113]) and Dante with comedy ([Inf XVI 128]; [Inf XXI 2]) not only associates the former with the lofty style, the latter with the low style intrinsic to the choice of the vernacular for his poem but, as few currently acknowledge, the Aeneid with a tragic plot, one that ends badly, the Comedy with a comic and positive ending. Most today do not believe that this was Dante's understanding. Yet the description of Virgil's poem as "l'alta mia tragedìa" ([Inf XX 113]) would involve a pleonasm if the noun does not stand for something different from the adjective: if the noun refers only to the (high) style of the Latin poem, the adjective is unnecessary. What Dante is making Virgil say is that his poem is exalted in style and unhappy in its conclusion. The nineteenth-century commentator Raffaele Andreoli put the matter succinctly in his gloss to this verse (Andr.Inf.XX.113): Virgil's poem is a tragedy "pel tristo fine dell'Eneide terminante con la morte di Turno, e per la nobile lingua usata da Virgilio" (both for the sad ending of the Aeneid, culminating with the death of Turnus, and for the noble language employed by Virgil). Both Jacopo della Lana and Francesco da Buti had previously made similar points, but Andreoli's view was and remains very much a minority position, especially among Italian Dantists. It is difficult to say why, especially since Dante himself, in Monarchia (Mon.II.ix.14), acknowledges the possibility of a "happy ending" for the Aeneid had Aeneas not observed the offending baldric that Turnus had stripped from Pallas and moved away from exercising clemency.

For Dante Virgil is the most welcome of sources, the most necessary of poetic guides. It is simply impossible to imagine a Comedy without him. And no one before Dante, and perhaps very few after, ever loved Virgil as he did. At the same time there is a hard-edged sense of Virgil's crucial failure as poet of Rome, the city Dante celebrates for its two suns, Church and empire, but which Virgil saw only in the light of the one. For Dante, that is his great failure. As unfair as it seems to us, so much so that we frequently fail to note how often Virgil is criticized by the later poet who so loved him, it is the price that Dante forces him to pay when he enters this Christian precinct. And it may have been the price that he exerted from himself, lest he seem too available to the beautiful voices from the pagan past, seem less firm as the poet of both Romes. The Virgilian voice of the Comedy is the voice that brings us, more often and more touchingly than any other, the sense of tragedy that lies beneath the Comedy.


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