Take Henceforth thy Pleasure for Guide:
How Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy uses Intertextuality to Subvert Sin
In his poetic traversion of the afterlife The Divine Comedy, fourteenth century Italian poet Dante Alighieri creates an overtly intertextual work in order to craft a narrative representation of divinity. Dante situates the work between the Latin epic style and medieval Arthurian Romance in order to strike a balance between the literary genres, and through the combination employ earthly sin in a novel approach to divinity.
By using ancient Roman poet Virgil as a character in The Divine Comedy, Dante positions his poem in succession to The Aeneid, Virgil’s 19 BC epic poem which follows Trojan hero Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Italy. When the narrative’s fictionalized Dante (Dante the pilgrim) meets Virgil, he states, “Thou art my master and my author. Thou/ art he from whom alone I took the style whose beauty has brought me honour” (I, 85-86). By calling him his “master,” Dante the pilgrim positions Virgil as his teacher, and a person he will, quite literally, follow. In addition, Dante the poet’s use of the word “author” reflects on the poem’s writing style itself, which calls to attention Virgil’s direct literary influence on the work; and, so, like Aeneas, the classical style has successfully made its pilgrimage to Italy.
Indeed, The Divine Comedy and The Aeneid bear many structural and narrative similarities; (for example, they both begin in medias res and follow the epic journey of a pilgrim). Perhaps most significant, though, is that they both delineate the Underworld. In Inferno, Dante’s arrival in the Underworld is greeted by “sighs, lamentations and loud wailings/ resounded through the starless air” (III, 24-25). Dante’s description is notably different from Virgil’s, who describes: “O horrifying sights!--lay wan Diseases,/ Unhappy Old Age, Fear, Hunger-that-goads-to-Evil,/ Despicable Want, and Suffering and Death” (VI, 294-297). While Virgil’s description of Hell is explicit and cautionary: immediately “horrifying” and replete with “disease,” “fear,” and “evil,” Dante’s Hell is more illusory and abstract, as it is at first purely auditory, and consists only of “sighs [and] lamentations,” (unlike Virgil’s “horrifying sights”), which echo through the space that is “starless” and thus unlit and impossible to visually comprehend.
Though the exploration of the Underworld finds unquestionable narrative similarities in the two works, Dante takes authorial liberties when adapting Virgil’s text, which allows for his portrayal of sin to reflect his more contemporary setting. Virgil’s language is objective and literal, while Dante’s is largely subjective and allegorical, and therefore holds potential for transformation. In fact, Virgil’s Underworld is invoked more obviously at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. In the opening lines of Inferno, Dante describes: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came/ to myself within a dark wood where the straight/ way was lost” (I, 1-3). When Virgil describes Hell, “On they went in the dark, their shadowy way” (III, 276) and “It was like making way through a wood” (III, 280). Dante’s initial divergence from the “straight way” recalls imagery from Virgil’s description of the underworld: the space’s “dark[ness]” as the main and initial descriptor; both spaces are a “wood.” Dante places himself, then, not only “in the middle of the journey,” but also in the middle of his predecessor’s text (Virgil’s Underworld is visited in book VI of XII; exactly halfway through The Aeneid).
In this literal act of intertextuality, then, Virgil is positioned as the all-knowing master who guides both Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim. Virgil’s character, bearing in mind explicitly his theological, critical view of Hell as presented in The Aeneid (filled with “disease” “fear” and “evil”), stands in as an allegorical representation of reason in the The Divine Comedy. Dante diverges from Virgil’s cautionary view of Hell, however, as he is still bound by his earthly attachments. Dante describes meeting Francesca, one of the Lustful sinners, who tells him
We read one day for pastime
of Lancelot, how love constrained him. We were
alone and had no misgiving. Many times that
reading drew our eyes together and changed the
colour in our faces, but one point alone it was that
mastered us; when we read that the longed-for
smile was kissed by so great a lover, he who never
shall be parted from me, all trembling, kissed my
mouth (V, 125-132).
Here, Dante describes Francesca in a sympathetic manner. Her language is passive: the
“reading drew [their] eyes together and changed the colour in [their] faces,” thereby acting upon her and her lover as hapless victims until their passion “mastered” them and thus condemned them to Hell. Dante also makes mention of The Knight of the Cart, Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth century Arthurian legend of Lancelot, in order to place The Divine Comedy in conversation with medieval literature that deals with an earthly, Romantic love that is not concerned with divinity, as well as Virgil’s theological epic.
Here, it is important to note that the text’s introduction of Romantic love provides an important context for Dante, as it is Beatrice, Dante’s dead, once-lover, who first instructed Virgil to guide him and serves thereafter as their omniscient guide. Because of his earthly attachment to her, the transformation of Dante and Beatrice’s relationship in the Underworld is a significant gauge of Dante’s relationship to divinity. The classical, reason-oriented epic style and erotic Romance are bound thus-far in the text, and these characteristics also find a middle ground in Beatrice.
At the beginning of Dante’s journey through the Inferno, Beatrice states: “I am Beatrice who bid thee go. I come/ from the place where I desire to return. Love/ moved me and makes me speak” (II, 71-73). Here, when stating her intention, Beatrice asserts herself as a Reason-oriented figure, like Virgil, who serves as a guide while “bid[ding]” Dante go, and also revealing that “Love moved me and makes me speak.” Through this declaration, Dante positions Beatrice as a character who has inhabited characteristics of a Virgil-like, theologically ethical figure, Francesca’s compulsive romantic love, and an angelic state of divinity; she inhabits combined elements of literary works, like Dante’s text.
It is not until Purgatorio, however, the end of Dante and Virgil’s pilgrimage through the Inferno, that this intertextuality becomes explicitly relevant. Once he has entered Purgatorio, Dante is reunited with Beatrice: “the sun’s face/ come forth” (XXX, 24-25). Dante’s comparison of Beatrice to the “sun” confirms that she, who was once his defining earthly attachment, has ascended into the divine. Then, from “a cloud of flowers which rose from the angels’/ hands and fell again within and without, a lady/ appeared to me” (XXX, 26-28). Here, Dante complicates Beatrice’s character through contradictory language; he refers to her first with yet another term of divinity: an “angel,” and calls her directly thereafter a “lady,” which is a term that, in medieval literature, is specific to a woman’s role in courtly love.
Dante’s role as a medieval courtly figure is also emphasized when Beatrice scolds Dante for weeping at the retreat of Virgil. She implores: “Dante, because Virgil leaves thee weep not,/ weep not yet, for thou must weep for another/ sword” (XXX, 55-57). Here, Dante is referred to by name for the first time in The Divine Comedy, which directly recalls the power of medieval Ladies as the subject of courtly love. In The Knight of the Cart, Q ueen Guinevere first utters the anonymous knight’s name: “the name of the knight, I know, is Lancelot of the Lake” (45). By invoking this medieval literary tradition, Dante emphasizes the place of courtly love within Beatrice, and his text as a whole.
Once in Purgatorio, Beatrice points out what she believes to be Dante’s true sin. She explains, “When I had risen from flesh/ to spirit and beauty and virtue had increased in/ me I was less dear to him and less welcome” (XXX, 126-129). Beatrice describes Dante’s sin here as favoring the earthly over the divine. Yet, when Beatrice presents herself to Dante in the afterlife, she does not do so as a solely divine presence. She is “girt with olive over a white veil,/ clothed under a green mantle with the colour of/ living flame” (XXX, 28-30). So, while emphasizing to Dante the importance of cherishing your beloved once they have “risen from flesh to spirit,” Beatrice is adorned in physical attire (a “veil,” a “mantle”), as she realizes presenting herself to him in the state he cherishes her will serve toward his purgatorial ascension.
Virgil departs as soon as Beatrice appears. He states: “I have brought thee here with under-/standing and with skill. Take henceforth thy/ pleasure for guide” (XXVII, 128-130). Though the notion of taking “pleasure for guide” seems antithetical to the very dogma of Virgil’s Underworld, and, yet, Virgil declares that pleasure and reason have become one in the same for Dante. Virgil’s reason-oriented Latin epic departs from the text, and so does medieval romance’s earthly pleasure, and the reader is left with Comedy’s divine combination of the two.
Indeed, through an understanding of the medieval romantic love Dante experienced for her, Beatrice was selected as the most appropriate host for his transformation. Like the sinners sins are subverted into their punishments in the Inferno (the Heretical are burned for eternity to suffer for their belief that the soul dies alongside the body, the Simonists are positioned upside-down, away from God), so is Dante’s sin in not cherishing Beatrice after her death subverted to aid his retribution--as is the very nature of Purgatorio’s ascension. For sinners in the Inferno, sins become punishment. But for sinners, like Dante, in Purgatorio, sin becomes the vessel for retribution, and it is the combination of literary styles that makes this reformed approach toward divinity possible.