The Physical Environment and Structure of Dante's Inferno as Influenced
by Vergil's Aeneid
by N. R.
The Collegiate School, 1997
Dante Alighieri, an excellent poet in his own right, admired much about
Vergil, revering him to such an extent that he turned him into the guiding
character, the teacher to Dante the pilgrim, in both the Purgatorio and
the Inferno. Dante borrowed as well from Vergil the poet much of his language,
style, and content. While Dante improved upon Vergil's works in many respects,
his changes in eschatological content in particular reveal the differences
between the conceptions of the otherworld of the two authors' respective
periods. As Erich Auerbach writes, with reference to Dante's extensively
ordered study of the otherworld, "Dante had no true precursors, except
for the sixth book of the Aeneid."
In creating the Hell
of his Inferno, however, Dante did not merely expand the Underworld of
Book VI of the Aeneid into 34 books. On the contrary, much of Dante's Hell
is original, but that which he did extract from the Aeneid he carefully
adapted to his purposes. In pursuing his Christian vision of the afterlife,
Dante thereby created an otherworld structurally distinct from, yet stylistically
reminiscent of, Vergil's Underworld. Thus, in order to portray the Christian
universe and to represent the accompanying abstract concepts of justice
and spiritual hierarchy, Dante looked to Vergil's Aeneid both for the inspiration
to create and the tools to do so.
The entrance or gate to Vergil's Underworld in the Aeneid marks
the sharp division, as in the Inferno, between the land of the living and
the land of the dead. A frightening vestibule or ante-room, however, precedes
the entrance to the Underworld proper, certainly not with the result of
easing any journey toward the heart of Hades. Inhabiting the vestibule
are the various causes of death, personified as agents of death (Aen. VI,
274-280), yet possessed
of no clear form. The shadowy, grey environment of the vestibule is characteristic
of the unearthly, foreboding feel of the Underworld:
...ubi caelum condidit umbra
Juppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.
...[as] when Jupiter hides the sky in shadow,
and dark night removes the color from things.
(Aen. Vl, 271-272)
Vergil therefore places high importance on this vestibule to delineate
clearly one main difference between the Underworld and the outside: the
former has an unavoidably intangible, incorporeal quality to it, compared
to our concrete, physical reality. In addition, the presence of the agents
of death -- most notably "Sleep the brother of Death" ("consanguineus Leti
Sopor", Aen. VI, 278) -- here at the beginning of the Underworld rather
than someplace further on indicates a transition from the world of life
outside, to a room full of the causes of death, and finally to the land
of death itself. Similar discussion of darkness and shades mark Dante's
entrance into Hell, but with a more spiritually ominous meaning.
A gradual change in the lighting of his immediate environment accompanies
Dante's early descent into Hell. Darkness need not always have a pejorative
sense, and Dante's characterization of earthly night as liberator reflects
an early, positive look at darkness: "The day was now departing; the dark
air/released the living beings of the earth from work and weariness..."
(Inf. II, 1-3). Yet, by the end of the canto, probably because of its contrast
with Virgil's uplifting speech about Beatrice, night has already gained
a crippling force, shown in the simile Dante the poet uses to compare Dante
the pilgrim to "little flowers...[that] the chill of night/has bent and
huddled..." (Inf. II, 127). Although used to describe Dante's exhausted
cowardice, the simile is notable for the objective effect of night, the
sort of darkness Dante will encounter in Hell, on living forms, like Dante,
particularly since Dante will be a living being among lost souls. In the
following canto, whose action takes place near the Gate of Hell, Dante
the poet borrows Vergil's vision of a colorless darkness, at least twice,
to achieve a similar contrast between the living and the dead: in the inscription
whose words are "di colore oscuro" ("their aspect was obscure," emphasis
mine) (Inf. III, 10) and in the poor souls on the banks of Acheron who
"had lost their color..." (Inf. III, 101: again "colore"). The connection
between the lifelessness of the souls and their lack of color (like pale
corpses in real life) is easy to conceive. That Dante makes both souls
and an inscription colorless, however, suggests that the part of the cause
of their common darkness and pallor lies in the very nature of Hell. Dante
the pilgrim is trying to adjust his mortal eyes to the colorless environment
that exists permanently in Hell. Dante extends then this lack of color
to represent a virtual lack of life.
In the later simile that builds upon this lifelessness, Dante compares
souls to dead leaves fluttering to the ground in autumn (Inf. III, 112-117),
borrowing key elements from a comparable simile in the Aeneid (Aen. Vl,
305-310). The weightless lifelessness, as when falling leaves "detach themselves,"
(Inf. III, 112) and lack of color together seems merely to echo the ethereality
of the Underworld's shades. All the souls descending "one by one," like
leaves falling "first one and then the other," (Inf. III, 116; 113) is
reminiscent of Vergil's multitudes of souls, in their number "quam multa/...folia,"
"as many as leaves" (Aen. VI, 309-310). Yet Dante also implants in his
hazy imagery a hopelessness appropriate to the souls' situations and vital
to the mood of spiritual despair of Hell itself. As Ruskin observes, the
despair of the souls is apparent to the reader: "[Dante] gives the most
perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness,
and scattering agony of despair, without, however...losing his...perception
that these are souls..."
Ruskin here writes of Dante's use of a shady, depressing environment to
convey despair, to such an extent that it seems woven into the fabric of
Hell itself -basically an extension of the shadiness of Vergil's Underworld.
However, Dante's simile refers to the souls as "the evil seed of Adam,"
[emphasis mine] instead of Vergil's more neutral "omnis turba" ("whole
crowd") or "defunctaque corpora vita" ("bodies having finished life").
Such a difference suggests that, while the Underworld's shadiness relates
to the lifelessness of the souls, the dark environment of Hell correlates
with a different lack, perhaps a moral one, that Dante is beginning to
introduce. Dante's simile about leaves is largely identical to Vergil's
in content, but reveals, in its discussion of souls and environment, a
concern with representing both the loss of life and the moral results of
The colorless quality of Dante's Hell as a whole, therefore, promises
to convey deeper emotions -- the spiritual mood of Hell and of those in
Hell -- when we examine the context: the spirits gathered "along that wretched
shore/which waits for all who have no fear of God." (Inf. III, 107-8).
Now, the pallor and lightness of the souls could suggest a hopelessness
and a moral, or even a spiritual, deficiency. Ultimately, Dante achieves
his greatest effect here in hopelessness, developing the latter themes
together later through the structure of Hell. Yet the message is clear:
neither a body nor fear of God weighs down these souls, such that the darkness
that surrounds them may well emanate from themselves. The darkness, therefore,
remains a key symbol of Hell's moral and spiritual lack. With Dante's further
descent, the darkness becomes more pronounced ("I was unable to discern
a thing"), until finally Virgil describes the pit -and, by extension, the
whole of Hell -- as "the blind world" (Inf. IV, 12-13). With "blind," Dante
means far more than the darkness and despair of the last canto, and Singleton
provides us a base to work from: "cieco mondo: Hell is 'blind' or dark,
in both a physical and a spiritual sense."
The environment of Dante's Hell has, like Vergil's Underworld, elements
that are simply dark and nothing more, but the physically shadowy, colorless
character of Hell conveys a transition from the land of the living to the
land of the dead that has a spiritual, moral side, not just the change
to the intangible, in the form of shades, of the Underworld. In creating
the environment for his Hell, Dante has borrowed from Vergil, but for more
extensive ends. While Vergil's use of pallor and shades served to indicate
a lack of hope and a fascination with the incorporeal, Dante's use of similar
themes marks a more Christian interest in exactly how lost souls would
manifest their tortured spiritual nature. Vergilian shades lost on the
banks of the Styx represent to readers the utter despair and intangible
unreality of death; Dantean, lost souls represent the same as well as the
evil moral and spiritual void that is Hell. Hell and the Underworld are
perhaps most alike in their general auras, therefore; their structural
differences tend to show how Dante digressed more and more in the interest
of a Christian conception of the otherworld, including changes for justice
and for an idea of spiritual being.
The classical, mythological structure of the Underworld in the Aeneid,
unlike that of the Hell of the Inferno, includes physical locations for
the good and the bad. That is, while Dante clearly depicts Hell as divided
into levels of sinfulness with a neutral zone in Limbo, Vergil's Underworld
represents the general idea of the place of the afterlife, divided into
the individual zones of blessed Elysium, punitive Tartarus, and the intermediate
Lugentes Campi ("Plains of Grief.") The Lugentes Campi act mainly as preliminary
grounds before the fork to Tartarus and to Elysium. Farther on, the road
splits, as the guide, the Sibyl, explains:
"...dextera quae Ditis magni sub moenia tendit,
hac iter Elysium nobis; at laeva malorum
exercet poenas et ad impia Tartara mittit."
"...[The right road is that which extends beneath the walls of great Dis,
the journey to Elysium is for us on this road; the left road
inflicts the punishments of evil souls and sends them to wicked Tartara."
(Aen. Vl, 541-543) [emphasis mine]
The fork is more than simply a convenient way of separating the good from
the evil, however; directions are important here as they often are in Dante's
Hell. The traditionally suspect, or even evil, direction of left is reserved
for Tartarus, while one must go on the right road, literally and symbolically,
to reach blessed Elysium. On a basic level, the physical juxtaposition
of the two fates visible from the crossroads gives more impact to the wretched
destiny for those sent to Tartarus, in comparison with the lone Hell of
the Inferno. A tortuous fate seems far more unbearable when the peaceful
alternative is in one's full view; the view of peaceful Elysium makes painfully
obvious, to a pilgrim about to turn towards Tartarus, what he is missing
because of his sins. On a symbolic level, though, such an arrangement of
two distinct paths creates a clear, immediately available concept of absolute
justice, with the punishment for hateful crimes or the reward for praiseworthy
deeds both visible from the crossroads. The effect that Vergil achieves
through this physical layout, however, Dante must usually accomplish by
means of stories or encounters, because of his isolated Hell. However,
Dante does provide a way of marking a sharp division between the good and
the evil paths, but it occurs earlier, at the Gates of Hell. The open Gates,
personified by Dante, eternally inform sinners of where they are now entering:
"Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer..."
(Inf. III, 1-4)
With an ever-speaking structure, Dante indicates that ahead lies the place
("the suffering city") for those who sinned ("the lost"), emphasizing by
repetition the idea of a path for the lost ("the way...") and no one else.
Dante here introduces the theme of justice indirectly by mentioning God
("high artificer"), probably referring to the expulsion of Lucifer and
the rebel angels from Heaven, into Hell as punishment for wishing to surpass
God. Most importantly,
however, the message of Dante's Gates of Hell, defines the way beyond as
the evil path of eternal suffering for sinners, such that any other path,
if not necessarily good, would be better than that of Hell. Thus, although
Dante doesn't adopt Vergil's simple device of physically opposing crossroads,
the Gates of his Hell defines clearly for the pilgrim what lies beyond
them, as opposed to the early world he has just left. Dante proposes, too,
that has its justice physically, especially through the overall structure
he presents of Hell.
Unlike Vergil, who didn't give his Underworld a particularly complex
interior, Dante presents a painstakingly precise vision of Hell. If we
take the view of the travellers, we see that the very path is limited,
as Virgil explains:
PRE>And he to me: "You know this place is round; and though the way
that you have come is long, and always toward the left and toward the bottom,
you still have not completed all the circle..." (Inf. XIV, 124-126)
Dante here offers his perpetual version of Vergil's left turn to Tartarus:
in Hell, one always goes left,
and must do so in order to reach lower levels. Thus, Dante reminds the
reader that the farther one has spiralled counter-clockwise the worse one's
sins are, presumably. Yet Dante also uses the old concept of the circle
for his own purposes. While the Greeks, for example, considered the circle
desirable as a beautiful, perfect figure,
Dante has the circular path represent the eternal suffering of self-destructive
repetition: in Malebolge, one punishment is to make "eternal circlings"
in a moat (Inf. XVIII, 72), while the Sowers of Scandal and Schism forever
walk in circles "around the road of pain" (Inf. XXVIII, 40). In addition,
Dante may be offering a diabolic corruption of the music of the spheres
in that, ultimately, each concentric circle is an "orbit" of Lucifer at
the bottom. While contemporaries may have savored the thought of planets
rotating around the Earth, Dante here has Hell's sinners gravitating towards
the greatest evil. Although Dante may not have thought of the music of
the spheres, his intention of converting the circle into a negative symbol
has just such a wide-reaching implication. With Hell's finally culminating
in the body of Lucifer, the Dante's Inferno conveys its evil without the
immediately available physical presence of Heaven, by adopting a straightforward
arrangement fundamentally different from Vergil's Underworld.
Dante gives his Hell further impact by filling out the details of very
general constructs in the Underworld that are either vaguely represented
or emphasized differently there. For example, the divisions by circles
of Dante's Hell are noticeably absent as a key part of Vergil's Underworld.
In the Aeneid, we once glean the existence of dividing Circles from a description
of the Underworld's rivers: "...and nine times the river Styx, poured between,
confines" (Aen. VI, 439: "..et novies Styx interfusa coercet.") Yet, for
the most part, no divisions exist within Tartarus, Elysium, or the Lugentes
Campi, with a litany of crimes, punishments, and rewards disorganized compared
to Dante's carefully designed Circles (e.g. Aen. VI, 548-627; 637-665).
For example, those who had deceived their clients are followed, in a list,
by adulterers; while perhaps a connection exists (the similarities between
a business and marital contract), Dante probably would have placed the
first group of sinners farther down, in the Circle of the fraudulent. Dante,
therefore, organizes and classifies crimes similar to those mentioned in
the Aeneid, as well as others common in his time, into nine precise Circles
of Hell, with numerous subdivisions. The basic idea, again, is that the
crimes for which sinners are punished become progressively worse as one
goes deeper, although the punishments arguably simply grow more fitting
than they do more tortuous. In a sense, while the figure of Minos
is important as the judge (Inf. V, 4-6), Dante also conveys a sense of
excruciatingly precise justice with each new Circle of Hell: if you were
fraudulent, you are punished thus, but if you had been violent, you would
have been punished thus. This precision about counter-penalty, "contrapasso"
(Inf. XXVIII, 142,) is perhaps a reflection of Dante's conception of divine
justice. The punishments of Hell, being created by God, would only be exactly
fair, as well as reflective of His relative displeasure with this or that
sin. Like the eternal crossroads in the Underworld, therefore, the Circles
of Hell each provides a permanent image of justice -- specifically, divine,
Christian justice. In fact, Hell's overall physical structure reflects
this idea of justice, as well as the beginnings of a conception of the
Physically, Hell, like the Underworld, lies particularly deep underground:
just as Aeneas, we are told, proceeds "alta terra", "deep in the earth"
(Aen. VI, 267,) Dante the pilgrim finds himself "upon the brink/of an abyss"
(Inf. IV, 7-8) that he must descend. Yet, as we soon find out, Dante the
pilgrim, because of the arrangement of Hell, makes a far deeper journey
into his otherworld. Fundamentally, therefore, the physical distinction
between the Underworld and Hell is one of orientation: whereas the majority
of the land in the Underworld is either flat or at a moderate slant, Hell
goes almost straight down.
The widely accepted description is that "Hell, as conceived by Dante, is
a vast funnel-shaped cavity, extending from the neighborhood of the earth's
surface to its center."
The vertical orientation of Dante's Hell is more important, however, for
its strictly opposing relation to the rest of Dante's universe:
"And now you stand beneath the hemisphere
opposing that which cloaks the great dry lands
and underneath whose zenith died the Man
whose birth and life were sinless in this world."
(Inf. XXXIV, 112-115)
Dante capitalizes "Man" to mean Jesus Christ; Dante the pilgrim and Virgil,
then, are opposite where He died, Jerusalem. Paradise and Purgatory, too,
can be placed on this vertical scale.
Proceeding from bottom to top, Dante has created a arrangement of many
levels, symbolic of the different states of moral being, that is only weakly
present in Vergil's Underworld. In the Underworld, because of its haphazard
arrangement of plains and then pits and valleys, no definitive representation
of states of being occurs, through vertical position. The Lugentes Campi
of the Underworld are, by definition, expansive plains: "...partem fusi...in
omnem/ lugentes campi" "...laid-out into every part/the mourning plains
[were]@ (Aen. VI, 440-1). In addition, no indication of hierarchy by vertical
orientation is apparent in the placement of Tartarus and Elysium. Just
as the path to evil Tartarus "extends straight downward" (Aen.l, 578: "patet
in praeceps"), so does the one to Elysium (although less sharply), if one
judges from Aeneas' descent into a valley (Aen. VI, 679-680). Vergil, therefore,
does not seek to achieve the sort of ranking of states of being that seems
to occur with Dante's placement of Hell in a vertical arrangement of the
The ultimate significance of this difference in layouts between the
two visions of the beyond is how much each indicates about the religious
beliefs of the respective culture. For the classical civilization of Vergil,
apparently all that is needed is a sense of underworld to which they can
assign a god, Hades, as ruler; the interior layout is not as vital as the
very general sense of gods somewhere above, man on earth, and the shades
below us. For Dante, however, living in a world removed religiously from
the "pagan gods" of the Romans and Greeks, clearly such an arrangement
would not have sufficed, in reflecting characteristic beliefs of Christianity.
Indeed, the structure of Dante's Hell manages not only to illustrate in
varied ways the sheer evil of the place but also to convey his belief in
a hierarchy of being. This chain of being was key to Dante's vision of
the universe, based upon a contemporary desire to construct "on the basis
of this ladderlike conception...systems of rising transcendency, starting
from a material basis and rising to a spiritual pinnacle."
That is, Dante intended his universe, including Hell's detailed layout,
to be a cosmic allegory for a spiritually-based chain of being. He fully
completes these efforts to depict Hell as part of the grand scheme of the
Christian universe in the final comparison between the Underworld and Hell,
that of their exits, where Dante's Hell appears in great contrast to the
mystical, pagan characteristics of the Underworld evidenced in the exits
Two possible exits from Vergil's Underworld exist: the gates of horn
("cornea") and the gates of ivory ("candenti...elephanto"), together called
the twin gates of Sleep ("geminae Somni portae") (Aen. IV, 893-895). Bona
fide shades, unlike Aeneas, use the gates of horn to leave the Underworld:
"...qua veris facilis datur exitus umbris" "...whither easy exit is given
to true shades." (Aen. VI, 894). Through the gates of ivory, the shades
send "false dreams" ("falsa...insomnia") to the world above (Aen. VI, 896).
The nature of the first gate most likely reflects a Classical belief in
rebirth, the gates having the specific purpose then of allowing shades
to return to our world, to a new body. Anchises, Aeneas' father, earlier
explains the cycles of a soul and its final stage, when some souls,
after drinking from the water of the river Lethe to forget the past, "return
again to the upper hollows of the world" ("...supera ut convexa revisant/rursus")
(Aen. Vl, 750751). Having both an entrance (the "vestibulum") and designated
exits, Vergil's Underworld is a place where some are completely permitted
both to enter and to leave, indicating the important role of reincarnation
in the Classical scheme of man and the soul. While the gates of horn therefore
serve to indicate that a soul's stay in the Underworld is not necessarily
eternal, the enigmatic gates of ivory act to complete the dreamy, ethereal
stretch of land underground that is the Underworld. Together, the two gates
make one last connection between sleep and death in the Underworld, a relation
already briefly addressed in the idea of Sleep and his brother, Death.
Whether the gates indicate the Underworld to be a land of dreams or a shady
land, Vergil seems to emphasize here the mysterious unreality of the Underworld,
especially to the view of a nonshade. In contrast, Dante's exit from Hell
is unreal in the sense that it is exceedingly strange and awkward.
The exit from Hell is not a path leading to a tall, shimmering gate
of ivory; one must climb along a topsy-turvy route "between the tangled
hair [of Lucifer] and icy crusts [of deepest Hell]." (Inf. X)O(IV, 75).
Inherent to the exit pointrom Hell, then, are elements both of danger and
of chance, as shown by Virgil's waiting for just the right time to climb
past: "and he watched for the chance of time and place..." (Inf. X)O(IV,
71). That Virgil's escape from being shredded by Lucifer's vicious, "gnashing
teeth" (Inf. X)O(IV, 56) is such a delicate maneuver indicates that a departure
from Hell, a place of eternal suffering, is an extraordinary event, one
that somehow thwarts a natural order. Indeed, the frighteningly bizarre
nature of the exit nearly appears to be punitive, for either of two reasons.
First of all, by being able to leave alive from a land of souls being punished,
a pilgrim is escaping through the cracks of the natural order, a mortal
who has seen the otherworld and can return -- a privilege perhaps too dangerous
to go without a certain cost.
Second, the strangely sinister exit may simply appropriate to the evil
of Hell. Virgil's words upon leaving with Dante the pilgrim can contain
either of these points, but particularly the latter: "'...it is by such
stairs/that we must take our leave of so much evil.'" [emphasis mine] (Inf.XXXIV,
83-84). Virgil's ironic "such" points out the difficulty that, in trying
to leave Hell, one must use as a "stairs" the fur of the most evil being,
of "so much evil"; in other words, one cannot leave without being touched
by the close presence of the greatest evil. The exit, "such stairs," are
also appropriate to the disgusting sins and punishments for sin throughout
Hell, especially if the "crevice in a rock" (Inf.XXXIV, 85) through which
Dante the pilgrim andirgil pass is interpreted instead as being the crevice
between Satan's buttocks.
Compared with the Underworld's exit gates, whose substances of ivory and
of horn merely add to their mystery, Hell's physically base exit emphasizes
the tortuous and foul nature of the rest of Hell, a last reminder of physical
(and other) sins represented already in Hell. The rest of the exit itself,
"with its rough-hewn floor/and scanty light, a dungeon built by nature."
[emphasis mine] (Inf. XXXIV, 98-99), is simply a microcosm of Hell and
its elements: dark environment, rough-hewn floor like a dangerously steep
path downward, and the characterization as a dungeon, a place of punishment.
Yet Dante also includes in the exit of his Hell a view of better things
to come, unlike the Vergil's rushed description of the Underworld's exit.
The exit from Dante's Hell allows a look at the importance of a natural
order to Dante's universe. Vergil discusses his exit very little; in one
line, Aeneas is at the Gates of Ivory and, in the next, is running to his
ships (Aen. VI, 898-899). Dante's way includes a contrast in the view from
the dungeon mentioned above, of "scanty light" (Inf. XXXIV, 99), with an
apparent glimpse at the sun, which is "back to middle tierce" (Inf. XXXIV,
96) -- a shift in lighting reminiscent of the Underworld's entrance. More
significantly, Virgil then launches into a discussion (106-126) about how
he and Dante the pilgrim are now at the point where Lucifer came crashing
down from Heaven, where land and sea separated because of his evil presence.
This fascinating speech outlines the ideas behind Dante's structure of
Hell and his vision of the structure of the greater universe. As discussed
earlier, Jerusalem, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven all exist in a vertical
column, as part of a chain of being. With this speech, however, Dante indicates
that, most importantly, Lucifer, in his upside-down position with Hell
above him, remains "still fixed, even as he was before" (Inf. XXXIV, 120).
That is, although he fell once, and the lands parted then, the layout is
now fixed, with Hell and he now permanently part of the greater arrangement.
Such a fixed arrangement stresses the necessary immutability of any universe
created by an almighty Being, and the unquestionable powers of omnipotent
God. Dante the pilgrim himself then hints at the arrangement formed by
such a Being:
"There is a place below, the limit
of that cave, its farthest point from Beelzebub,
a place one cannot see: it is discovered
by ear--there is a sounding stream that flows..."
(Inf. XXXIV, 127-130)
This stream, physically placed far from evil Beelzebub in Hell, is the
river Lethe that flows down from the Mountain of Purgatory Further above
the hemisphere where Satan's lower half resides.)
Dante by now has placed in our mind the general physical order of Jerusalem,
Hell, and Purgatory, with one world remaining, which Dante the pilgrim
views at the end: "...through a round opening, some of those things/of
beauty Heaven bears..." (137-138). What Dante the pilgrim beholds here
are "the stars" (139) -- orbs which he sees at the end of his journeys
through Purgatory and through Heaven, too.
Singleton suggests that "this ending serves to point eloquently to the
upward way of the journey from now on and seems to exhort the reader to
look up also, on his journey in this life." Indeed, the very order of the
worlds, with Heaven at the top, seems to embody the hope of mortal beings
on the side of Jerusalem to bypass the circles of Hell, and Purgatory,
to reach Heaven. More than showing how closed and limited Hell was inside,
Dante's view of the stars in the expansive sky of the outside world bespeaks
of a celestial order, with stars that are, and forever will be, far above
Hell. Fitting well into Dante's arrangement, the stars symbolize the glory
of Heaven, shining far above Hell and Purgatory. Furthermore, by placing
the stars within view of a pilgrim ascending from the center of the Earth,
Dante's universe embodies the human struggle, moving ever upwards. Inherent
to elevating the status of the stars in such a way, Dante emphasizes again
the spiritual chain of being, from Jerusalem to Heaven.
In his Christian vision of the universe, Dante places Hell between Jerusalem
and Heaven; Hell itself is divided, too. Yet all three, as Dante portrays
them, are permanent elements of the static universe created by God, with
a structure contrasting in emphasis with Vergil's Underworld, a land of
the dead. In borrowing the dark, pale environment so thoroughly explored
by Vergil, Dante on the one hand shows off his ability, perhaps his intention,
to introduce classical themes into a Christian framework of ideas. Dante's
fascination with the layout of Hell reveals a virtual obsession with representing
abstract ideas such as justice and a chain of being as precisely as possible.
When Longfellow described "the delight which Dante took in the study of
physical geography," he
spoke of Dante's ultimate desire to transform the vital elements in the
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Quinn, Kenneth. Virgil's Aeneid: A Critical Description. Ann Arbor:
U of Michigan P. 1969.
Vergil. Vergil's Aeneid: Books I - Vl. Ed. Clyde Pharr. Lexington, MA:
D.C. Heath and Co., 1964.
Note: References from the commentaries of Tozer, Singleton, Ruskin,
and Longfellow all come from the Dante Database Project. I thank Dr. Russell
for providing several of the above sources (used for background reading
and topic research) as well as for valuable extra guidance.