The Underworld in Homer, Virgil, and Dante


THE association of these three names is not a fortuitous one. The closeness with which they themselves have interlinked their works is one proof of their greatness. They rise so high above ephemeral men, above all petty jealousies and rivalries, that they recognize and hail one another across the centuries as brethren.

Dante’s relation to Virgil is well known. The plan of the greater part of the Commedia is a constant tribute to the master, and in each successive canto Dante acknowledges his indebtedness with ever fresh variety of poetic forms. Indeed, most lovers of the younger poet will feel that his debt to Virgil is not quite so great as he himself would have us believe. What he does borrow usually becomes his own by royal right; for it is better where he sets it than where he found it. This is well illustrated by the incident of Polydorus (Æneid III. 19—48) compared with the magnificent canto, Inferno XIII. The striking fancy of Virgil has here been developed into a complete poem. It is Dante’s now as truly as an incident from an Italian story-teller, or from some dry chronicle of forgotten kings, becomes Shakespeare’s when it has grown under his hand to Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice.

When Virgil and Dante enter the Elysian home of the poets (Inferno IV.) the former hails the mightier master’s shade : —

“Questo è Omero, poeta sovrano.”

Homer leads the way and bears the sword, while Dante in proud humility follows sixth in the illustrious line. It is certainly remarkable that Dante’s fine instinct should have recognized the supremacy of the Greek, since Homer was the dimmest of ghosts to him, not even a voice,—umbra et prœterea nihil; for Dante never learned Greek, and the Homeric poems were not translated in the fourteenth century.

In his own works Virgil does not so expressly acknowledge his indebtedness. The epic form hardly permitted it. The numerous passages in which he imitates or translates Homer can, however, by no means be regarded as plagiarisms. The audience for which an Augustan poet wrote were as familiar with Greek literature as with Latin. Tire Italian youth repaired to Athens to complete their education as they do now to Berlin and Paris. Rome was full of Greek books and teachers. “ Every schoolboy ” will remember how Cicero’s circle of younger friends at the Tusculan villa followed his Socratic lectures as easily in Greek as in Latin. The striking passage in the Pro Archia will recur to our minds: “ For if any one supposes less fame is acquired from Greek poetry than from Latin, he is greatly mistaken ; for Greek is read among nearly all nations, whereas Latin is confined within our own rather narrow boundaries.”

A comparison in the Æneid itself, perhaps, appeals to the familiarity of the poet’s hearers with the masterpieces of Greek drama : —

“As the crazed Pentheus sees the Eumenides,
And two twin solar orbs display themselves,
And double images of Thebes ; or as when
Orestes, son of Agamemnon, runs
Excited on the stage, and, maddened, flies
His mother, armed with torches and with snakes;
And at the door the avenging Furies sit.”

(Æn. IV. 469-473)

When Virgil, then, in his general plot, his incidents, and his similes, constantly and openly follows Homer’s footsteps, it is most fairly to be taken as a loyal acknowledgment of his supremacy. Incidents like the passing of Circe’s island, at the beginning of Æneid VII., and the scene on the shore by Ætna (III. 588-681) are expressly intended to remind us that we are in the track of Odysseus’ ships. Many a noble line requires its pendant from Homer to bring out its full beauty: as, for example,

“ Our last day comes, the inevitable hour
Of Troy! ”

recalls unmistakably Hector’s foreboding,

“ The day shall come when sacred Troy shall per-
ish; ”

and Andromache’s words of farewell to the child Ascanius,

“ O sole surviving image of my boy
Astyanax! Such eyes, such hands, had he,
Sucli features; and his budding youth would
Have equaled thine in years,”

(Æn. III. 489-491)

rely for their force on our remembrance of the famous parting scene in Iliad VI. Precisely because the tale of Troy divine was the most illustrious of Hellenic legends, the Roman poets were most anxious to work out a plausible connection between their ancestors and the Ilians, that they might cast upon their own origin at least a far-reflected ray of that primeval glory. Virgil is far from being a servile imitator. Sometimes he meets the Greek in bold rivalry on his own ground. This is splendidly exemplified in the passage (Æneid IV. 612-629) where Dido curses her recreant lover, and predicts the future appearance of one who will avenge her wrongs upon Æneas’ descendants. The form is avowedly that of the Cyclops’ imprecation upon Odysseus (Odyssey IX. 528535), but the introduction of Hannibal raises the passage to a wholly superior plane. There could hardly be a more instructive study of literary methods than an exhaustive comparison of Virgilian passages with their Homeric models, to show us just where the polished bookish Roman courtier shines or pales beside the unconventional minstrel of a ruder age.

We cannot but fancy that the world has lost something it could ill spare, because the sad-eyed Tuscan never really knew blind Melesigenes. On evil days though fallen, embittered, even if unbroken, by lifelong exile undeserved, fiercely disdainful of his contemporaries, Dante yet retained to the last a sweet, tender poet’s heart. The poet of the Odyssey, with his exuberant delight in life and sunshine, would have been a fitter comrade for him than the melancholy and world-weary Mantuan. Remembering how many fine lines we owe to Virgil’s companionship, we cannot but think reregretfully how many more lovely flowers would have blossomed along the pathway

“Upon the mountain that the souls doth heal,
And when, descending into the dead world,”

(Par. XVII.)

with such a comrade.

The voices of great poets are the cries of warders high above us on the watchtowers of time. In the dust and turmoil of the struggle for existence, we hardly catch a glimpse of our true relations, nor of the goal toward which our efforts tend. Every true poet answers humanity’s cry: —

“To tell the purport of our pain,
And what our silly joys contain,
Come, poet, come! ”

It is a lingering fancy, which men would be sorry wholly to relinquish, that these same lofty watchers may perhaps catch a glimpse even of what is within the veil. We are tempted to cry to them,—

“ Where are now those silent hosts,
Where the camping-ground of ghosts ? ”

But it is not the purpose of these pages to discuss the general subject of the conceptions which have been formed of the future life. Our object is the humbler one of gathering up whatever hints these great poets have let fall upon a question we have all asked ourselves : “ Do our dead know what is occurring in this world ? ”


In the crowded battle scenes of the Iliad there is rarely a moment to think of the dead. The warrior falls with clanging armor; the soul, issuing from the wound (Iliad XIV. 518, 519), flees at once to Hades, grieving to leave so soon the joys of life and youth (XVI. 856, 857). But the foe press close; their war-shout rings in the ears of the survivors ; it is time to fight or to fly, not to weep. The shadow of death lies upon the path of the young hero as he rides forth to battle, but he silences the prophetic voice, and only plunges the more fiercely into the fray.

“ ‘Xanthos, why prophesiest thou my death? Nowise behoveth it thee. Well know I of myself that it is appointed me to perish here, far from my father dear and mother ; howbeit anywise I will not refrain till I give the Trojans surfeit of war.’

“ He said, and with a shout among the foremost guided his whole-hooved steeds.” (XIX. 420-424.)

When we do get glimpses of the future existence, they are but the crude fancies of a rude, life-loving race. The dead exult in the vengeance inflicted on their foes : —

“Ah, verily, not unavenged lies Asios ; nay, methinks that even on his road to Hades, strong warden of the gate, he will rejoice at heart, since, lo, I have sent him escort for the way.” (XIII. 414-416.)

The living sacrifice food and animals to the departed, as if their needs were still the same: —

“And he set therein two-handled jars of honey and oil, leaning them against the bier; and four strong-necked horses he threw swiftly on the pyre, and groaned aloud. Nine house-dogs had the dead chief : of them did Achilleus slay twain, and throw them on the pyre.” (XXIII. 170-174.)

The body, not the fleeing soul, is usually spoken of as the man himself, though there are exceptions to the rule. Hades is, naturally enough, the pitiless, inexorable tyrant, most detested of all gods.

“Hades, I ween, is not to be softened, neither overcome, and therefore is he hatefulest of all gods to mortals.” (IX. 158, 159.)

In the pause of the action around Patroklos slain, there is for the first time space upon the scene for the soul of the departed. If the thought were not too modern, we should say that Achilleus, educated by suffering, learns in his bereavement and grief to think more deeply and earnestly of the future.

It is actually the soul of Patroklos, no mere dream, that revisits his friend, and bids him hasten the funeral rites.

The spirit has the shape and voice of the living Patroklos, and even wears his costume : —

“In all things like his living self, in stature and fair eyes and voice, and the raiment of his body was the same.” (XXIII. 66, 67.)

He retains his affection for his comrade, and memory of their earthly life together. He foresees his friend’s death, as he did not when alive : —

“ Yea, and thou too thyself, Achilleus, peer of gods, beneath the wall of the noble Trojans art doomed to die.”

A most striking touch is that he does not yet realize that he cannot clasp his friend’s hand.

This visit, however, is possible only because the funeral rites are incomplete. When once the body is burned, the soul will cross the river (of Charon there is as yet no mention), enter the gates, and revisit the living no more. Whether in the spirit land he will still see what is passing on earth Achilleus does not know. Neither, perhaps, did Homer.

“ Patroklos, be not vexed with me if thou hear even in the house of Hades that I have given back noble Hector unto his dear father.” (XXIV. 592-594.)

The arrival of Hector’s shade might alone suffice to show Patroklos that Achilleus had given up the body for burial. At any rate, Patroklos makes no response, and the pages of the Iliad close without a full answer to our question.


In reading the story of Odysseus’ visit to Hades, we must remember that it is part of the marvelous tale of his own adventures with which he entertained the Phaiakians. On other occasions, the truth rarely falls from Odysseus’ lips unmixed with cunning falsehoods. The poet does not distinctly vouch for his veracity on this occasion. The portions of the story related by the poet in his own person, and those put into the mouth of Nestor and Menelaos, show an acquaintance with the actual conformation of the Mediterranean not easily reconcilable with Odysseus’ selftold trackless wanderings.

Moreover, in the opening scene of the Thirteenth Book, the poet has doubtless given us a covert warning not to take too seriously the episode of the Phaiakians and the stories told at their court. Homer himself seems to have felt that the fabric of his airy fancies must not come too closely in contact with the realistic pictures of Greek home-life which follow. The voyage from Phaiakia to Ithaka is the journey from Dreamland into Reality. All night long the weary wanderer lies in an untroubled sleep. All night the wondrous bark glides on her way swifter than the falcon flies, — the bark “that had no rudder, like other ships, but knew the thoughts and will of the mariners, and knew the cities and fertile lands of all men, and passed swiftly over the billows, shrouded in mist and cloud.” When Odysseus wakes, he is alone upon his own shore. The bark and her crew have vanished forever. We are listening, then, to an old sailor’s story.

This ancient mariner taxes our credulity at the outset. We are tempted to repeat his own words : —

“ No man ever yet sailed to Hades in a black ship.” " (Od. X. 502.)

We did not expect to find the spirit world across the sea. The conception of a Hades beneath our own feet had

been made familiar to us by the famous passage of the Iliad : —

“And the lord of those in the underworld, Aïdoneus, was affrighted below, and in his terror leaped from his throne and cried aloud, lest the earth be cloven above by Poseidon, shaker of earth, and his dwelling-place be laid bare to mortals and immortals, —grim halls, and vast, and lothly to the gods.” (II. XX. 62-66.)

The solemn form in the oath

“ And ye rivers and thou earth, and ye that underneath punish men outworn, whosoever swearelh falsely ” (II. III. 278, 279),

sounds as if older than the poet of the Iliad. Expressions like

“In the house of Hades, beneath the secret places of the earth,”

are found in the Odyssey itself.

In obedience to Circe’s directions, Odysseus sails to the sunless land of the Kimmerians, shrouded in mist and gloom. Here, on the bounds of ocean, he digs a trench, into which he pours honey, wine, water, barley, and the blood of sacrifices. The forceless ghosts of the dead come thronging about the trench. Odysseus’ comrade, Elpenor, knows and addresses him, but this he can do because his body is still unburied. The blind seer Teiresias, also, by especial kindness of the gods, retains the powers he had in life ; yet even he fears Odysseus’ sword, and begs to drink of the sacrificial blood, which gives him strength to foretell to the hero the trials still awaiting him in life. As for the rest of the ghosts, their existence is a most pitiful one. Odysseus’ own mother had been hovering near the trench, in a form which he had recognized at once ; but she did not know her own son, nor had she, apparently, even the power of speech, until by Teiresias’ direction she also is permitted to drink of the blood. Then indeed she knows Odysseus, and perceives that he is alive; yet her first words show she knows nothing of him since he left Ithaka : —

“ Dear child, how didst thou come beneath the darkness and the shadow, who art a living man ? , , . Art thou but now come hither with thy ship and thy Company, in thy long wanderings from Troy ? And hast thou not yet reached Ithaka, nor seen thy wife in thy halls ? ” (Od. XI. 155, 156, 160-162.)

The other ghosts are equally feeble. The mighty Agamemnon appears : —

“And he knew me straightway, when he had drunk the dark blood.”

He, too, knows nothing of his own family, except that Orestes cannot be dead, because he would have joined his father in Hades : —

“But come, declare me this and plainly tell it all, If haply ye hear of my son as yet living. . . . For goodly Orestes hath not yet perished on the earth.” (Od. XI. 457, 458, 461.)

Achilleus also asks with the utmost solicitude after his son and aged father ; and when he hears how worthily Neoptolemos has borne himself upon the Trojan battle-fields,

“ The spirit of the son of Aiakos, fleet of foot, passed with great strides along the mead of asphodel, rejoicing in that I had told him of his son’s renown.” (Od. XI. 538-540.)

The latter portion of the Eleventh Book, describing the punishment of Tantalos, Sisyphos, and other mythical heroes, is generally believed to be a later interpolation, and is certainly difficult to reconcile with the previous picture of Odysseus sitting beside the trench, communing with the throng of helpless, flitting ghosts. However, the passage does not affect our general sketch, and we mention it only for the sake of Herakles, whose eidolon appears here, though he himself sits with his fair wife Hebe at banquets with the gods who live forever. The passage reminds us of Achilleus’ exclamation after the vision of Patroklos : —

“ Ay me, there remaineth even in the house of Hades a spirit and phantom of the dead ! ” (II. XXIII. 103, 104.)

It would appear that the invisible soul (psyche), passing from the dead body to the land of shades, was invested with an eidōlon, a likeness of its former body, which could be seen and recognized even by living men. It is, however, plain that this existence was a most limited and aimless one ; and, in spite of Plato’s stern reproof, we can hardly condemn, under such circumstances, Achilleus’ exclamation : —

“ Nay, speak not comfortingly to me of death, O great Odysseus ! I would rather live on earth and labor for another, for a landless man with little means of livelihood, than rule over all the departed dead that have perished.” (Od. XI. 488491.)

The prehistoric Greeks were too happy in life, too closely attached to outward nature, too fully in possession of a harmonious development of body and mind, to form any very vivid conception of the continued existence of the soul after its separation from the body.

The beginning of the last book of the Odyssey has been regarded by the critics, from Aristarchos down, as one of the latest additions to the poem. The appearance of Hermes conducting the souls of the suitors, the absence of sacrifices at Achilleus’ funeral contrasted with the slaughter of animals and human captives at Patroklos’ tomb, may he pointed out among the indications of more recent origin.

With the exception, however, of an impression of greater dignity here imparted to Achilleus and Agamemnon, the scene does not contradict the conception formed from reading the Eleventh Book.1

It is noteworthy that the difficulty about the location of the spirit world remains to the last. In the opening account of the passage of the souls there is no hint of a descent:—

“Hermes, the helper, led them along the dank ways. Past the streams of Oceanus and the White Rock, past the gates of the sun, they sped, and the land of dreams, and soon they came to the mead of asphodel, where dwell the souls, the eidola of men outworn ” (Od. XXIV. 9-14) ;

while the closing words of the scene are,

“ Even so they spake one to another, standing in the house of Hades, beneath the secret places of the earth.” (Od. XXIV.)

In Virgil’s time the commoner conception of an “ underworld ” was too fully fixed, or the actual geography too well known, to venture upon sending his hero on such a voyage, and accordingly Æneas lands and enters a cavern. Dante found it necessary to avoid altogether the question of the actual point where the underworld is entered.


The passages in the Æneid bearing upon our subject may be disposed of in a few words. Æneas’ old companionsin-arms whom he meets in Hades (VI. 482—485) had known nothing of him since their own death. This may he gathered from the words

“ They delight to linger, And onward pace with him, and learn what cause Has brought him hither,” (Æn. VI. 487, 488)

and still more clearly when Deiphobus asks, —

“ But thou, — Tell me what fortune brings thee here, alive. Comest thou driven by wanderings o’er the seas, Or by the mandate of the gods ? What chance Pursues thee, that to these sad sunless realms Of turbid gloom thou com’st ? ”

(Æn. VI. 531-534.)

Palinurus, indeed, knows the fate of his own body in the upperworld, but that was sufficiently evident from Charon’s refusal to row him across the Styx. On the other hand, Anchises had watched with anxiety his son’s varying fortunes since his own death,

“ What lands, what seas, thou hast traversed, O my sou ! Amid what dangers thou wert tost about ! What harm from Libyan realms I feared for thee ! ”

(Æn. VI. 692, 694)

had foreseen his descent to the lower world,

“ Thus in my mind I reckoned, And numbered o’er the intervening times. Nor have my anxious wishes been deceived,” (Æn. VI. 690, 691)

and foretells his destiny : —

“ He tells him of the wars that shall be waged, The city of [Latinus, and the lands Of the Laurentian tribes, and how to bear, How shun, the hardships of his future lot.” (Æn. VI. 890-892.)

But it, is clear that Anchises’ powers are exceptional, and necessary to his part in the machinery of the poem. The whole episode of Æneas’ descent into Hades is apparently introduced chiefly in order that Anchises may show him their Roman posterity. It would seem probable that Anchises had actually returned to the living world previously (V. 722—742). At least, his appearance is not called a dream, nor is he sent by a god. It is not said that Æneas was asleep. Moreover, the information he had given his son on that occasion was quite true, and was one ground for the expectation of Æneas’ coming shown by him in the passage quoted above. Hector also seems to have really returned to earth (II. 27 0—21)7) to warn Æneas of the imminent fall of Ilios.2


The visit to Hades is but a single incident in Odysseus’ account of his marvelous adventures. Æneas’ descent into the world of the dead is also one episode, merely, in Virgil’s poem, and raised to vital importance only by the vision of the future glories of Rome. In the Commedia, on the other hand, the avowed subject is the pilgrimage through the abode of souls. So real is this world to the poet, so clearly does he make us see it with his eyes, that whoever has made the journey step by step with him must ever after find many of these ghosts more real than any other characters of fiction or history. They have become part of our own life.

And yet we are haunted throughout by one perplexing doubt, namely, Just how far is the poem allegorical ? We never wholly forget that the true subject is Man, “ Subjectum est homo ; ” 3 that the most real Inferno is sin and remorse, the truest Purgatorio repentance. From canto to canto of the Inferno the outlines of the fearful picture are more and more firmly drawn, and Hebrew prophecy, Hellenic mythology, history, tradition, the miseries of contemporary Italy, are fused in the fire of poetic genius into a harmonious whole ; but it is impossible that Dante believed this to be a true picture of the actual torments of the damned. No one knew so well as he that here was a creation of his own imagination. Yet it is equally clear that he was terribly in earnest, and believed himself the inspired voice of warning, raised in the midst of a blinded and misguided world. Over the rift between these two truths is spread the mantle of allegoric significance. Every grotesquely fit form of torture which he devised symbolized the effect on man of his own sin. Even the most monstrous shapes of the Greek myths find their fitting place, because they assume in the poet’s eyes a deeper figurative meaning.

For example, Virgil is Dante’s guide through the Inferno, his companion on the Purgatorial mountain. The real Virgil could hardly have left his eternal

abode to wander with a living man through all the mysteries of the underworld. Still less could he have previously descended into deepest hell merely in obedience to a witch’s incantations. (Inf. IX. 22—24.) But Virgil personifies Human Philosophy : Human, that is, as contrasted with Revealed Theology. “We cannot, then, draw any conclusions from the fact that this companion always reads the heart of Dante, and answers the unuttered doubt. We must turn to spirits more thoroughly human to seek reply to our question.

On opening the Inferno “ Thou wilt find, after not many pages,” the most realistic and unheroic figure of Ciacco the glutton, a Florentine, and an elder contemporary of the poet. He had died in 1285, fifteen years before the time when Dante’s journey is supposed to occur. The poet asks him, —

“ But tell me, if thou knowest, to what shall come The citizens of the divided city; If any there be just; and the occasion Tell me why so much discord has assailed it.”

(Inf. VI. 60-63.)

Ciacco’s answer is so important that we cite it in full : —

“They, after long contention, Will come to bloodshed; and the rustic party Will drive the other out with much offense. Then afterwards behoves it this one fall Within three suns, and rise again the other By force of him who now is on the coast. High will it hold its forehead a long while, Keeping the other under heavy burdens, Howe’er it weeps thereat and is indignant. The just are two, and are not understood there; Envy and arrogance and avarice Are the three sparks that have all hearts enkindled.” (Inf. VI. 64-75.)

Ciacco, then, knows of the troubles in Florence since his own death; sees the treacherous policy of Pope Bonifazio at the very moment he is speaking; looks into the inmost hearts of the living Florentines; foresees the events of the next year, the year following, and the more remote future. Moreover, a moment later Dante inquires about some of the great Florentines of his time, and Ciacco, by his answer, shows that he knows the various divisions of the Inferno, and who are tortured in each : —

“ They are among the blacker souls; A different sin downweighs them to the bottom; If thou so far descendest, thou canst see them.”

(Inf. VI. 85-87.)

There is evidently no bound set to the superhuman vision of this disembodied soul. We hope not to lack in reverence for Dante if we say it is perfectly clear that when he wrote these lines he had no thought of any such limitation. In composing this canto it suited his purpose to put into Ciacco’s mouth a prophecy of his, the poet’s, exile. Afterward, while the famous dramatic scene with Farinata and Cavalcanti was shaping itself in his imagination, he found it necessary to limit the knowledge of the latter; and he then put into Farinata’s mouth a passage evidently intended as a complete exposition of the subject. Neither the speech of Ciacco nor that of Farinata is an essential part of the elaborate general framework of the poem. They seem to have sprung from Dante’s desire to touch upon events just occurring and men still living at the time he wrote. Dante is always the scholar, the lover of truth and light; the highest bliss of his Paradise is to contemplate, in the mirror of the Godhead, absolute truth, freed from all limitations of time and space. If, then, his purpose here had been merely the artistic one of portraying the misery of these souls forever cut off from God, it seems likely that their one greatest torture would have been mental darkness. We quote here the words of Farinata (Inf. X. 100-108) : —

“ We see, like those that have imperfect sight, The things . . . that distant are from us; So much still shines on us the Sovereign Ruler. When they draw near, or are, is wholly vain Our intellect, and if none brings it to us Not anything know we of your human state. Hence thou canst understand that wholly dead Will be our knowledge from the moment when The portal of the future shall be closed.”

(That is, after the Last Judgment, beyond which there will be no divisions of time, no Past or Future.)

This answer removes the perplexity of Dante, who had wondered that Cavalcanti asked anxiously if his Guido was still living, while Farinata saw clearly the future of Florence and of Dante himself.

In the remainder of the Inferno the limitations here established are usually remembered. Farinata’s own knowledge of the cruelty shown his descendants by their fellow-citizens —

“ Say why that people is so pitiless
Against my race in each one of its laws ” —

(Inf. X. 83, 84)

might have been acquired from some Florentine recently dead, as indicated by his own phrase, “ s’altri non ci apporta.” Pier delle Vigne, who is transformed into a tree, knows the fate awaiting him and the other suicides at the Judgment Day : —

“Like others for our spoils shall we return,
But not that any one may them revest.”

(Inf. XIII. 103, 104.)

Brunetto Latini gives his old pupil further information about the reverses of fortune to come (XV. Gl-72), but the words

11 If well I judged in the life beautiful ”

(Inf. XV. 57)

remind us that lie has no knowledge of what Dante has done since death parted them.

In Canto XVI. three citizens of Florence inquire as to the present state of the city, saying distinctly that their information is obtained from a companion lately descended from earth.

“ For Guglielmo Borsier, who is in torment
With us of late, and goes there with his com-
Doth greatly mortify us with his words.”

(Inf. XVI. 70-72.)

The whole conversation is in striking contrast with that of Dante and Ciacco.

In Canto XIX. the two poets come upon Pope Niccolò, planted head downward in a crevice of the rock. He has been able to read in the scroll of the future that Bonifazio is to come three years later to take his place, but hearing Dante’s footsteps, and being unable to see him, he supposes that it must be Bonifazio, and cries out, —

“Dost thou stand there already, Boniface ?
By several years the record lied to me; ”

(Inf. XIX. 53, 54)

and he is not undeceived until Dante, prompted by Virgil, exclaims, —

“ I am not he, I am not he thou thinkest! ”

(XIX. 62.)

So, again, Guido da Montefeltro asks, with the utmost eagerness, after the fate of his beloved Romagna: —

“Say, have the Komagnuoli peace or war ? ”

(XXVII. 28)

and Mosca does not know that his own family had become extinct during the convulsions of recent years ; while the detestable Pistoian Vanno Fucci can prophesy of Dante’s future misfortunes merely out of malicious delight in the poet’s unhappiness.

An incident of Canto XXX. is directly opposed to Ciacco’s exact knowledge of the fate of his contemporaries. Maestro Adamo is tortured by dropsy so that he can never move from his seat. The consolation for which he is eager is to see the punishment of his enemies, the Counts of Romena. One of them is actually in the same circle, but Adamo only knows it by report.

Our closing citations from the Inferno require a mention of the most terrible fancy in Dante. When a treacherous murder has been committed, the assassin’s soul is instantly hurled to the bottom of the Inferno, where it remains frozen into a sheet of ice. The man may apparently live on in the upperworld, but his body is occupied by a demon, who controls it in the soul’s stead. With such a lost spirit, Fra Alberigo, Dante conversed. The wretch had no idea of the whereabouts of his own living body !

We said that from Canto X. on, the knowledge displayed by Dante’s spirits was usually consistent with the limits there established. In the case here alluded to, there seems to be a striking discrepancy. Cavalcanti did not know if Guido were dead or living, and none of the shades we have since met had any information as to past or present not obtainable through the senses. Fra Alberigo, however, goes on to say of his next neighbor in the frozen lake, —

“ Within the moat above, of Malebranche,
There where is boiling the tenacious pitch,
As yet had Michel Zanche not arrived,
When this one left a devil in his stead
In his own body,” etc.

(Inf. XVIII. 142-146.)

Here it appears that Alberigo is familiar with the exact form of punishment in a wholly different part of the Inferno, and knows that a certain man was consigned to it. This is doubly unaccountable, because the murder of Michel Zanche occurred in 1275, or twenty years before the deed from which Alberigo’s own punishment dated: so that it is impossible that his knowledge was gained by superhuman foresight since he was in the lower world.


After leaving the Inferno, we are no longer on classic ground. There is, indeed, toward the close of Virgil’s account of Æneas’ visit to Hades, a description of a sort of purgatorial process undergone by the souls of the dead. It is, however, intended to remove all traces of their earthly life, and thus fit them for reincarnation ; for Virgil clearly teaches the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. In this passage (Æneid VI. 735751) he is following Greek, but not Homeric, models. It offers an interesting comparison with the Dantesque Purgatory, and especially the connection in which Lethe is mentioned might well have caused Matilda to say, —

“ They who sang in ancient times . .
Dreamed of this place perchance upon Parnassos.”

If the expression “ et pauci lœta arva tenemus ” means that the worthiest souls are eventually released altogether from the perpetual round of birth and death, and relegated to a permanent happier state, the comparison becomes much more complete. Nevertheless, the Purgatorio is a distinctively Christian conception. This is plainly shown by the changed nature of Virgil’s companionship. His feet are upon new ground. He is reproved by Cato at the very portal for language unsuited to the place, He repeatedly inquires his way, or bids Dante do so. He appeals to Statius for an explanation of phenomena he does not comprehend, and in reply to the exposition of the latter frankly acknowledges that he now for the first time understands the nature of the mountain.

“ Now I see the net

That snares you here, and how ye are set free, Why the earth quakes, and wherefore ye rejoice.”

(Purg. XXI. 76-78.)

In fact, Virgil tells Dante most plainly (XVIII. 46-48), —

“ What reason seeth here
Myself can tell thee; beyond that await
For Beatrice, since ’tis a work of faith.”

What we have seen to be true of the doomed spirits is not, then, necessarily true of those in Purgatory. They are indeed both tortured, and they are provided for the purpose with similar bodies ; but the Inferno is sunk deep in earth and gloom, the Purgatorio rises high into eternal sunshine. The air of the one is heavy with curses, that of the other with prayers. The agony of the condemned souls is embittered by despair ; the pains of Purgatorio are lightened by the prospect of that bliss for which they are the needed preparation.

Nevertheless, in the Purgatorio, as in the Inferno, Dante appears to have given his spirits a varying degree of knowledge, according to the dramatic exigencies of each scene. Statius shows acquaintance with the penalties suffered in the Inferno, —

‘‘Revolving I should feel the dismal joustings,” (Purg. XXII. 42)

that is, the punishment of misers and prodigals. There are several examples of prophetic vision, as where Corrado Malaspina foretells the kindly reception Ms kinsmen will give the poet six years later (Purg, VIII. 136-139), and Forese Donati foresees his brother’s tragic death (XXIV. 82-87).4

That all did not possess this foresight seems clear from Canto XIV. Here the friends Guido and Riniero sit side by side, sharing their suffering. Riniero hears the story of the future crimes of his own nephew from the lips of Guido, (Purg. XIV. 58-66) with evident surprise and regret: —

“So I beheld that other soul, that stood
Turned round to listen, grow disturbed and sad,
When it had gathered to itself the word.”

(Purg. XIV. 70-72.)

Passages like

“ And he has one foot in the grave already ”

(Purg. XVIII. 121)

point to an ability to see what is occurring at the moment in the living world ; and in the sweeping denunciation of his own descendants put into the mouth of Hugh Capet, the poet has quite forgotten to set any limit to his knowledge.

It is plain that Corrado Malaspina has no news from home. His inquiry,

“ If some true intelligence Of Valdimagra or its neighborhood Thou knowest, tell it me, who once was great there,” (Purg. VIII. 115-117)

is very like that of Guido, quoted above (Inf. XXVII. 28). The latest and most thorough commentator, Scartazzini, who considers that the vision of spirits in the Purgatorio is not limited, as in the In-

“ For other things
The Destinies forbid that thou shouldst know,
Or Juno wills not that I utter them.”

(Æn. III. 379, 380.)

. . . “ Shall be clear to thee
That which my speech no farther can declare.”

(Purg. XXIV. 89, 90.)

ferno, suggests that this ignorance of Corrado is peculiar to the Vale of Kings, where the poets are at this time. The theory is hardly defensible, because in this very valley Sordello, while pointing out the shades of famous monarchs recently deceased, shows equal familiarity with their living successors (Purg. VII. 91—136), and Visconti knows that his widow has put off her mourning and is about to remarry, —

“I do not think her mother loves me more,

Since she has laid aside her wimple white; ” (Purg. VIII. 73-74)

while on the other hand, in a wholly different portion of the Purgatorio, Forese knew nothing of the fortunes of his kinsman Dante, though he does foresee Corso’s fate, and so far discerns the ways of Providence as to know that his good wife’s prayers have shortened his penance. Scartazzini is unwilling to admit the possibility of an oversight on Dante’s part. “ As I cannot concede that Dante wrote thus through inadvertence.” (Note on Purg. VIII. 115.)


In the Paradiso, the eyes and thoughts of the blest spirits are never diverted to the earth that lies so far beneath them. They are absorbed in eternal contemplation of God. But God is the source of all love and of all truth. Hence in the light radiating from Him each worthy earthly affection is clarified and strengthened, not lost. Dante’s own love for Beatrice in Paradise is no allegory; it is still the real passion which had been the guide and guardian of his youth. And knowledge is limited, in Paradise, only by the capacity for receiving it. Not even the archangels fathom all the depths of His purposes. The humblest soul dwells contented in the light of His presence.


It is the aim of the preceding pages to bring together all the important passages bearing upon the question proposed, namely, “ How far do the dead know what happens here ?” We have passed as lightly as possible over everything which does not directly illustrate this subject. The results may be summed up very briefly. In the Homeric poems, the dead, after they have reached their permanent abode, have no knowledge of earthly events. The same statement is true of the Æneid, with the important exception of Anchises, who can perhaps hardly be regarded as primarily an illustration of the poet’s religious belief. In the Commedia, all the spirits, even the damned, have a more or less perfect knowledge of what occurs on earth.

In both the classic poets, the future life is a pale reflection of the present one. In Dante, on the other hand, the disembodied soul, wherever it may be, has much greater intellectual powers than when incarnate. In other words, the Hellenic delight in physical life, the sense of the inseparable harmony of body and mind, is lost, and in its stead we have the Hebrew belief that the flesh is the prison-house of the soul. Of course such a belief is not unknown, to the Hellenes; perhaps no one has given it so striking and imaginative expression as Plato ; but it is quite opposed to the spirit of the Hellenic prime.

The problem of the origin of the Homeric poems does not concern us here. We may at least use the term “ Homer ” or “ the poet,” as the Hellenes themselves often did, to designate the mass of verso which was transmitted to the age of Perikles under the rubrics Iliad and Odyssey, without implying that it was all the work of one man or one generation. It is so informed throughout by the spirit of the age which gave it birth, and that age is so largely foreign to the life, the institutions, the thoughts, of the historic Hellenes, that for our purposes, at least, it is a unit.

That Virgil’s greatness has been somewhat exaggerated is perhaps generally agreed. One of his strongest claims upon our gratitude and regard is the peculiar manner in which he forms a link between the two loftiest poets of all time. In this he is typical of Latin literature as a whole. How often have we reason to rejoice that the Romans hold a mirror, dim and uncertain though it be, wherein we discern some outlines of their Hellenic models now lost! Perhaps we might apply more truly in this connection the beautiful figure put into the mouth of Statius :

“ Thou didst as he who walketh in the night,
Who bears his light behind, which helps him not,
But maketh wise the persons after him.”

We have expressed the wish that

Dante might have known the Odyssey. Not, indeed, that he could have been greatly different from what he was. The gentler side of his nature might have been brought out more fully, but for such a man in such an age life could be nothing but war. The church militant is no mere figure for him. He must drop the lyre for the trumpet ; must be, not the sweet-voiced minstrel, but the grim prophet of wrath. The uproar of battle, the tumult of life, are in his verse.

In history and literature Dante’s position is unique. In him we find the crystallized expression of all the vague strivings and conflicting currents of the ages we call dark, yet he is also the clearvoiced, eagle-eyed herald of the dawn.

William C. Lawton.

  1. The translations in this paper are quoted chiefly from Cranch, Longfellow, Butcher, and Lang. Any variations from them which may be noticed are intended merely to render the original more precisely.
  2. That Achilleus had never before heard the account of his own funeral rites is merely one of those dramatic fictions which we must constantly grant to poetry. So,’when we hear Priam, in the tenth year of the war, inquiring the names of the Greek chieftains, the incongruity does not offend until the analytical critic insists on calling our attention to it.
  3. No use has been made here of the famous passage Od. IV. 563-569, because it is not clear that in Homer, at any rate, the HλυoLov πЄơv is the “dead man’s plain.” It seems rather a far-off Western El Dorado in the world of the living.
  4. 5 It may, however, be mentioned that dreams in the modern sense, that is, as phenomena caused by mere subjective conditions, are clearly recognized by Virgil, though it would probably be difficult to point out an example in the Homeric poems. (See, for example, Æn. IV. 465-408.) “ The cruel Æneas himself pursues Her footsteps in her dreams ; And even unattended and alone She seems, traveling along a lengthening road, Seeking her Tyrians in a desert land.” In Homer, a dream may be vain and meaningless (ōvЄlpol áKpiTouvO, Od. XIX. 560), but still “a god hath sent the dreams,” or at least they have come forth through the ivory gate to delude mortals.
  5. Quotation from Dante’s letter to Can Grande, in which he explains the purport of his poem.
  6. In the latter passage is a hint that they were not free to reveal to Dante all they could themselves see: —