Homeric Simile in Dante's Inferno

by Z. T.
The Collegiate School, 1997


Dante Alighieri never read the works of Homer; not until the humanistic movement of the early Italian Renaissance were Western Europeans exposed once again to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Nevertheless, Homer influenced Dante indirectly through the Aeneid of Vergil,[01]who literally guides Dante the pilgrim and certainly inspired Dante the poet. Ernst Robert Curtius writes that "without Homer, there would have been no Aeneid; without Odysseus' descent into Hades, no Virgilian journey through the other world; without the latter, no Divina Commedia."[02]Curtius is speaking in the broadest of terms; his statement suggests that Dante received from Homer, via Vergil, only the situation of sorts for the first part of his Divine Comedy - a descent into the underworld. Homer's effect on Dante is not, however, restricted to content, for though Dante wrote in Italian and not Latin, he was greatly influenced stylistically by Vergil and, therefore, by Homer as well.

 Among the most salient of these stylistic influences is the use of the epic simile, an explicit comparison that is developed through a digression into the story of the thing to which the original person or object is being likened.[03]As a result, an epic simile includes not only an initial comparison but also many other secondary comparisons. Examples of epic simile in Western literature appear first in Homer's Iliad; the epic simile is, therefore, the creation of a pre-literate culture. Such use of the simile was later consciously adopted by Vergil and then Dante, authors from literate societies. In fact, Vergil lifted some comparisons from Homer' s work wholesale, and Dante in turn borrowed some similes from Vergil, altering them slightly so that they would fit within the Christian context of the Divine Comedy More important than the indirect passage of some comparisons from Homer to Dante, however, are the striking direct similarities between Homer' s and Dante' s use of these similes that often cannot be traced through the work of Vergil.

 In the course of the digression within an epic simile, the secondary comparisons that are formed potentially have far-reaching implications within the rest of the passage and within the entire work. Homer and Dante, although one is pre-literate and the other literate, are both more subtle with regard to the implications of their similes than Vergil, who writes in a far more direct style. The majority of the similes in Homer' s work are in fact rather straightforward and are of the sort which Vergil copied; a few others, on the other hand, are far more opaque, whether because of some kind of authorial intent or not, and are, therefore, like those of Dante.[04]Since Vergil makes more clear what the secondary comparisons denote, he, thereby, limits the potential for wide-ranging connotation in his similes. By contrast, Dante and Homer often more closely guard the implications of the similes and, therefore, almost paradoxically, increase the number of possible interpretations and, hence, the importance of each simile within the surrounding text and the work as a whole.

 Several of Homer' s similes are quite delicate with respect to the scenes they describe and, more importantly, the connotations of the secondary comparisons. In a notable example of the important implications that result from the subtlety of Homer's comparisons, Apollo's breaching of the Achaians' wall in Book XV is compared to a child's destruction of a sand castle:

 as when a little boy piles sand by the sea-shore when in his innocent play he makes sand towers to amuse him and then, still playing, with hands and feet ruins them and wrecks them. So you, lord Apollo, piled in confusion much hard work and painful done by the Argives and drove terror among them.[05]

 In this passage, not only Apollo, but also the Achaians, are being compared to the child, for the Achaians are the builders of the wall, just as the child is the builder of the "sand towers," while Apollo is only the destroyer. In fact, Apollo and Poseidon want to ruin the wall expressly because they had no part in building it, since the Argives did not offer up any prayers or sacrifices when they constructed it earlier in the Iliad. In any case, there is a definite duality in this simile that could be interpreted as an example of irony rarely found in Homer. For one, the efforts of the Achaians to protect themselves and their ships with a wall is compared to the idle "play" of a child who builds castles to "amuse" himself. This passage is not meant, however, as an example of the powerlessness of mortals, whose works are like the ineffectual sand castles of a child in the face of the all-powerful gods, for it is not a massive wave that destroys the castle, but rather it is the child himself. Instead, the passage suggests that in a wider sense Apollo and the other gods are like a perverse child - the gods create men and then, "still playing," wantonly destroy them by bringing about terrible wars and crushing them down in battle. The idea that Zeus and the gods in general are responsible for the Trojan War is a recurrent theme that is given voice by many characters and is illustrated by the narrator through the subtle implications of similes such as this one.

 While Homer is often subtle in his use of epic simile, Dante's predecessor, Vergil is always heavy-handed in his creation of such comparisons. The first epic simile of the Aeneid is a remarkable example of logical thinking yet is ultimately limited in its connotative force. Vergil compares Neptune calming the storm brought about by Juno and Aeolus to an orator calming a rioting crowd:
 
 

Just as often when in a great crowd a riot has arisen

and the common throng rages in their souls;

and now torches and stones fly, and frenzy supplies the arms;

then, if by chance they have seen some man

important in loyalty and services, they are silent and stand with ears raised;

that man rules their minds with words and calms their hearts.[06]
In this simile, all the comparisons are relatively clear - the rioting crowd is the insolent winds, and the dutiful orator is Neptune, who does in fact calm the winds by castigating them with words. The only odd aspect of the simile is that the god Neptune is being compared to a mere mortal, however graves ("important" or "venerable") he may be. Vergil clearly intends, however, to foreshadow in this way Aeneas' calming of his despairing comrades only 50 lines later. Vergil wants the reader to have in mind by means of the simile the power of a good orator to control both minds and hearts with words. Since this implication of the comparison is so clear, it is difficult to justify other connotative meanings such as some kind of relation in a wider sense between gods and, in this example, orators. Vergil thus limits the possibility for wider meaning in this and other similes.

 Dante's similes are no less carefully constructed than Vergil's, yet the implications of his comparisons are more profound, as are those of Homer's. In one notable instance, Dante describes the flight of the damned souls of the wrathful before the coming of a divine messenger: "As frogs confronted by their enemy, / the snake, will scatter underwater till / each hunches in a heap along the bottom."[07]Visually, the image of the frogs, or sinners, disappearing into the muck of the River Styx is quite vivid; symbolically, however, the fact that Dante chooses to compare an angel to a snake, the beast of Lucifer, presents an interesting contradiction of sorts. Indeed, throughout his description of the scene, Dante is quite ambivalent towards the heavenly messenger. Dante says of him, "How full of high disdain he seemed to me!" (IX, 88), and in another epic simile, compares the sound of the angel's coming to the howling of a wind that "strikes against the forest without let . . . and puts to flight both animals and shepherds." (IX, 69-72). Therefore, while the angel is immensely powerful, as seen by his ability to force the opening of the gates of Dis, he seems to have all the caring of a blast of wind. Through this portrayal, Dante the poet suggests that Dante the pilgrim, still early in his voyage, sees the divine messenger in the wrong way; at this point, the pilgrim does not recognize or appreciate righteous anger. Later in the Inferno, Dante learns in a sense to mistreat those less holy than he; for instance, in Canto XXXIII, he lies to Fra Alberigo and claims that "it was courtesy to show him rudeness" (XXXIII, 150), and for other such actions he is praised by Virgil. Before the walls of Dis, Dante does not understand divine wrath as he does later in the poem; the ambivalent description of the angel through simile, therefore, subtly indicates the level of development of Dante' s soul.

 By comparing the damned souls in the River Styx to frogs, Dante is following the lead of Vergil and, therefore, of Homer, whose epic similes most often consist of a comparison of a warrior to some sort of wild beast or bird of prey. The implication of such comparisons is that on the battlefield, mortals tend to lose their humanity as they give in to bestial rage and blood lust. Vergil especially seized on this idea and, in the latter half of the Aeneid, constantly uses these animal comparisons to illustrate his anti-war message. Dante, in turn, inherited this trope from Vergil and uses it to embellish his own Christian theme. Often, in the Inferno, the damned souls are compared indirectly or symbolically to animals. For example, the disgusting, twitching guard dog, Cerberus, physically represents the state of the souls of those who disregard the afterlife and succumb to ephemeral pleasures, in this case gluttony. An epic simile is a far more direct means of equating the damned with animals; Dante, therefore, makes the passages work double duty of sorts. The comparison of the wrathful to frogs has certain implications towards the state of not only the sinners' souls but also, as already discussed, the pilgrim's soul. Thus, there is another connection with regard to epic similes between Homer and Dante, in this case, however, a connection that extends through the work of Vergil.

 Since the Homeric poems were originally recited from memory, certain formulaic collocations arose. Some of these formulaic elements are as short as an epithet, or "tag" commonly attached to the name of a character, group, or thing. For instance, the Achaians are commonly referred to as being "strong-greaved" and Aphrodite is called "the sweetly laughing," even when she is crying to Zeus after she has been stabbed by Diomedes "of the loud war cry." Other formulaic constructions, such as the common death description for almost every fallen hero, are as long as several lines. In any case, these formulaic phrases are repeated over and over throughout the Homeric epics because they fit the dactylic hexameter and, therefore, aided the bard in his recitation, or creation, of the poem.

 In his introduction to his translation of the Iliad, Richmond Lattimore stresses that the epic similes are not formulaic in this way and as a result are particularly prominent.[08]The similes are important because they represent not only an escape from the formulaism, but also as Lattimore points out, "an escape from the heroic narrative." For instance, Homer describes Menelaos' wound in Book IV (ll. 141-147):

 As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses; it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king's treasure, two things, to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman.

 The image of the purple-stained part of a bridle is remarkable because it describes a peaceful scene, far from the deadly plains of Troy. In addition, although the discussion of the "history" of the cheek piece may seem mere digression, the fact that the wound, like the cheek piece, contributes to "the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman" or, in other words, is an object of honor suggests that the cut and the scar it will leave behind are some sort of badge of courage. In addition, the cheek piece is both artistic and made by a woman and is, therefore, quite unlike the destructive wound "made" on a battlefield, traditionally the man ' s domain. This contradiction perhaps implies that the wound will not be a mortal one, a fact already assumed in light of Athena's intervention, because the wound is compared to a domestic and peaceful image. Notably, the Maionians and Karians are both groups listed in Book II as among the allies of the Trojans; thus, the wound caused by a Trojan is in fact being compared to the handicraft of a Trojan ally. One should not assume, therefore, simply because the Iliad was created in a preliterate age, that Homeric similes serve merely to embellish the formulaic narrative thread, but rather one should realize that these seemingly ornamental passages have definite implications within the work as a whole.

 Dante, like Homer, also uses epic similes as an escape, in the case of the Inferno, from his description of his journey through Hell. No longer are the similes an escape from a formulaic structure; the comparisons do represent, nevertheless, a break from the poet' s descriptive narrative. In one striking example of an extended simile, which in fact begins a canto, Dante describes his misgivings upon seeing Virgil's troubled look and his new hope after Virgil's visage brightens (Inf. XXIV, 1-15):
 
 

In that part of the young year when the sun

        begins to warm its locks beneath Aquarius

        and nights grow shorter, equaling the days,

        when hoarfrost mimes the image of his white

        sister upon the ground - but not for long,

        because the pen he uses is not sharp

        the farmer who is short of fodder rises

        and looks and sees the fields all white, at which

        he slaps his thigh, turns back into the house,

        and here and there complains like some poor wretch

        who doesn't know what can be done, and then

        goes out again and gathers up new hope

        on seeing that the world has changed its face

        in so few hours, and he takes his staff

        and hurries out his flock of sheep to pasture.M
Like the image of the cheek piece in Book IV of the Iliad, this simile portrays a peaceful scene that is remote from the Malebolge through which Dante is being led. As in the work of Homer, the digression into the story of the foolish farmer is not without its purpose. The primary meaning of the simile is that Dante momentarily despairs when he realizes that Virgil has been tricked by Malacoda as to the whereabouts of the bridge. Dante mistakes Virgil ' s short-lived consternation for a truly threatening difficulty, just as the farmer mistakes the hoarfrost for true snow. Dante says that, in this way, "my master fill[ed] me with dismay" (XXIV, 16); Dante's fear is reflected metaphorically by the farmer' s slapping his thigh, an action that interestingly is a common gesture of despair in Homer's and Vergil's epics. The farmer then regains hope upon seeing that his once snowy plowland has metaphorically "changed its face;" likewise, Dante the pilgrim forgets his despair after Virgil changes his expression. The primary meaning of the comparison is thus relatively clear in that each of the elements of the simile matches closely with an element of the following text. Several secondary implications exist, however, that are far more important than the simile's descriptive function or even its interesting quality as an escape from Hell.

 The reader is still faced with the question of why Dante chooses to describe his change in emotions in this way by using an epic simile. In the Inferno, such similes are less taken for granted since they appear far more infrequently than in Homer and in Vergil. In addition, this particular simile is quite odd; it is not only peaceful but also quite prosaic in comparison to the grand sweep through Heaven and Hell that is being described in the course of the Divine Comedy. This passage is, therefore, especially prominent and has important implications within the Inferno as a whole. One should first note that the farmer is what one would call a simple man - being a peasant, he does not belong to the same social class as Dante and the majority of the inhabitants of Hell whom Dante describes. The farmer is also somewhat simple-minded in that he does not recognizes the hoarfrost for what it truly is and gives in to despair, acting "like some poor wretch / who doesn't know what can be done" (XXIV, 101 1). Dante describes this character in a condescending manner; he gently mocks the way in which the farmer goes about complaining and slapping his thigh in despair (a heroic gesture, perhaps, when done by Aeneas, but silly when done by such a prosaic character). In essence, the farmer is a character whom Dante looks down upon; one asks, therefore, why Dante the poet compares Dante the pilgrim to such a man.

 Dante the poet is commenting on the pilgrim's lack of faith in his guide and ultimately in God, a fault that stands between Dante and perfection of the soul. In spite of the fact that Virgil has been able to extricate Dante and himself from every difficult situation, even if he at times needs special help, Dante still fears for his own safety, just as the farmer needlessly fears for his crops. The pilgrim is thus doubting the power of God, who indirectly appointed Virgil as guide, to preserve him and to eventually redeem his soul upon the successful completion of the journey. Dante is similar in this way to the followers of Moses in the Sinai Desert; again and again they lose hope upon facing what they see as an insurmountable difficulty, only to have their faith renewed by Moses' or God's power. By the end of their forty-year trek, the Hebrews have complete faith and are, therefore, ready to settle in the Promised Land; similarly, through this simile the poet is suggesting that Dante the pilgrim cannot find salvation until, by the end of his journey, he has unquestioning faith in God's power.

 In a larger sense, the passage about the farmer is a microcosm of the Inferno and indeed the entire Divine Comedy. For one, the cycle of despair and subsequently renewed faith is repeated dozens of times throughout Dante's journey in Hell, just as it is repeated dozens of times in the books of the Old Testament. In addition, the passing of winter, as reflected by the words "In that part of the young year when . . . nights grow shorter" (Inf. XXIV, 1-3), is time of rebirth, or at least, a time heralding the arrival of Spring. Through the course of the Divine Comedy, Dante is experiencing such a rebirth, the rebirth of his soul. Virgil found him symbolically lost in the forest, off of the straight and narrow path; as a result of his journeys, Dante can die better, and his soul can reach Heaven. Therefore, just as the fields are being reborn with the melting of the hoarfrost, so too is Dante being reborn symbolically with the completion of his voyage. Dante's simile, like Homer's about the child's sand castles and about the cheek piece, both provides an escape from the narrative and has important implications towards the work as a whole; the implications of Dante's, however, are more deliberate and more focused than Homer' s since they are meant to relate to the overall Christian theme.

 Almost all of the similes created by these poets relate the narrative, remote from the readers' lives, back to familiar images. A reader might not be able to picture Apollo leading a charge or understand Dante' s fear, but anyone can visualize a child destroying a sand castle and sympathize with a farmer whose fields are covered with snow. This process has special importance for Dante, for his poem ultimately is about not only a journey through Hell but also how to live one's life. T.S. Eliot points out that Dante's Hell "is not a place but a state;"[09]Hell is not merely the final destination for the wicked but is rather the daily existence for those who do not hold their souls as their highest priority. The similes thus serve an important purpose by reminding the reader of everyday life and comparing features of life to aspects of the afterlife. Eliot goes on to say that Hell "is a state which can only be thought of . . . by the projection of sensory images" (Eliot, 216), and one could add that the only sensory images that have any real impact are those that can be recognized by the reader. Homeric similes in Dante' s poem thus carry out many different functions within the immediate text and the entire work. In a sense, Dante accidentally reinvented Homer' s use of the epic simile by transforming what he found in Vergil ' s poem. Perhaps the result of mere coincidence, perhaps the result of some shared poetic sense, the common threads that hold the works of Homer and Dante together are truly remarkable, for these threads, so to speak, stretch across great barriers of time, religion, and language.