Dante’s Blazing Impact
Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, has been credited by many as the most outstanding work of poetry written in a vernacular language, and perhaps the most famous and influential part is the first—Inferno, which depicts Hell. Originally written in Italian, this piece describes Dante’s journey through all the circles of Hell as he is guided by Virgil. Although he witnesses many grotesque punishments, he continues to be fascinated with two things—why sinners are placed into whichever circle they are placed and what the significance of their punishment is. This seemingly simple plot has, however, continued to baffle scholars today with its intricacies. Why is its impact so great?
Firstly, Dante assumes a great deal of arrogance in his writing. He has selected the protagonist, the person worthy of a glimpse at the afterlife, as himself. He is guided throughout Hell by Virgil, the poet responsible for the national epic of Rome, the Aeneid. Comparisons between the two are frequent and indiscrete. Although Dante obviously looks up to Virgil and has closely modeled his style after him, Virgil is still condemned to Hell, albeit the first circle, the home to pagans who never knew God. Perhaps this choice is meant to further escalate Dante’s opinion of himself, which he feigns as “humble” in the first cantos by fearing the journey to Hell and that he may never return. After all, only two men—the apostle Paul and none other than Virgil’s Aeneas—have ever gone down into the depths of Hell and come back to tell the story, and he’s not quite as worthy as those two. Additionally, the fact that Inferno is written in Italian, a commoners’ language, reveals his blatant disregard for the standard. At the time it was written, in the early fourteenth century, anything in a vernacular language was considered lowly and not worthy of study. However, he portrayed it as a very significant work and did not seem to mind that the church might not approve of its...
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