Virgil and Dante
In the note to Canto V regarding Francesca and Paulo, the Hollanders exclaim that “Sympathy for the damned, in the Inferno, is nearly always and nearly certainly the sign of a wavering moral disposition” (112). Indeed, many of the touching, emotional, or indignation rousing tales told by the souls in Hell can evoke pity, but in the telling of the tales, it is always possible to derive the reasons for the damned souls’ placement in Hell. However, there is a knee-jerk reaction to separate Virgil and, arguably, some of the other souls in limbo from this group of the damned, though, with careful perusal of the text, the thoughtful reader can discern the machinations behind their damnation.
Although the dynamic between Virgil and Dante shifts dramatically through Purgatorio, throughout the Inferno, Virgil is the teacher and Dante the pupil, often bordering on an almost father-son relationship. It is the Roman, in Canto V, who asks the famous guiding question, “What are your thoughts?” (V.111), forcing the Florentine to pause and reason through what he is learning. Again, in Canto XXIV when Dante begins to weary, which is of little wonder: the poem begins at dawn with Dante lost from already being “so full of sleep” (I.11), Virgil manages to revitalize Dante’s spirits, calling for him to “Cast off sloth” (XXIV.46) and “Get to your feet” (XXIV.52), while reminding him of the “longer stair that must be climbed” (XXIV.55), Purgatory, which lies only a mere ten cantos ahead. Unarguably, this close relationship which forms between the two poets makes the reader’s heart pity Virgil’s damnation.
This pity is doubled when one considers Virgil’s special situation: he is in Limbo, the circle of the virtuous pagans, those who acted nobly but, through no real fault of their own did not receive the sin-cleansing baptism. Of all those there, Virgil certainly came the closest to discovering the nature of Christ, writing in his fourth Eclogues of a savior, the son of a god, born of a virgin, whose birth would usher in an new era in which all sins would be forgiven. Arguably, like the fathers of the Old Testament, he foresaw what would occur though not precisely knowing the saving details. Also, like the Hebrew prophets, his work is filled with an underlying sadness. The Aeneid ends, not with the joy or inevitably glory and majesty that would be Rome, but with the bitter, angry Aeneas plunging his sword into the breast of Turnus, howling for revenge for the dead Pallas. Thus, it is not surprising that Virgil ends up in precisely the same place as the writers of the Old Testament: Limbo. While in the first circle of the damned, a list is given of these souls which include Moses, Noah, Abel, “the patriarch Abraham” (IV.58), etc. However, “Out of our midst [Christ] plucked [these shades]” (IV.55) shortly after the poet’s death. These are not the only similarities between Virgil and the old prophets: as many came to reach goodness in and through...