The Role of Virgil

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The Role of Virgil
Virgil, the Roman poet, is more than Dante’s guide on this journey through the underworld. His relationship with the character of Dante in the poem is wide-ranging in importance and symbolism. He is a figure of authority, reason, and even a metaphorical father. Having traversed the territory before, Virgil serves as a figure of knowledge and safety to Dante, who is at times uncertain and timid about traversing such a treacherous terrain.

In Canto II, Dante hesitates at the Vestibule that marks the entrance to hell. It is only through the reassurance of Virgil’s words that he finds fortitude. Dante feels compassion for Virgil as his master and mentor and states, “Thy words have moved my heart to its first purpose. My guide! My Lord! My Master! Now lead on”. At numerous other points also, Virgil shows his authority by dealing with deterrences that occur during their journey as in Canto III, when the ferryman, Charon, refuses Dante passage since he is a living man. Virgil forces Charon to grant them passage: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/This has been willed where what is willed must be/and is not yours to ask what it may mean.”

Virgil’s influence, however, is limited. His power is associated with the power of reason, and this power is limited in Dante’s hell. At the very beginning, Virgil warns Dante of this. He says that at the end of the journey through hell that a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide Dante. Virgil cannot accompany Dante on into heaven because his virtues included only reason and not faith. Even at the points when Virgil is functional in clearing the path for the poets, it is only through voicing the fact that their journey is a mandate of heaven. For example when he and Dante are confronted by Minos, Virgil again silently protests, and again by stating their divine purpose: “It is his fate to enter every door/This has been willed where what is willed must be, and is not yours to question. Say no more.” In these...
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