Virgil and Dante
Among the past generation of Dante's readers it has become increasingly germane to place his role as poet into relation with his self-presentation as Judeo-Christian prophet. The A©Italian schoolA>>, in which the most significant name in our century is probably that of Bruno Nardi, and the A©scuola arnericanaA>>, led by Charles Singleton, have in common, for all their many desperate differences, an awareness of Dante's appropriations of the vestments of such as David, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, St. Paul, and of John's vision on Patmos.
Surely no one who reads even cursorily in the dantology is innocent of the notion of A©Dante theologus-poetaA>>. Whether or not this putative reader admires or rejects a theological formulation of the Comedy's essential stance, all can see that the second half of our century has seen the direction of Dante studies move away from aestheticism and toward theology. The questions which such a perception of Dante's theological purposes in his poem necessarily enjoin most dramatically concern Virgil. Just as we should never forget to be amazed at Dante's choice of Virgil as guide and master in this vigorously Christian poem, neither should we cease to be pestered by associated doubts:
How can the prophetic enterprise of Virgil be assimilated to the specifically Christian purposes of the Comedy? How can Dante make himself at once a champion of Virgil, loyally following in the master's footsteps (as at the conclusion of Inferno XXIII), while he simultaneously condemns the master to hell? Why does Dante, who treats Virgil's texts with more deference (even with veneration) than did any Christian writer before him, at the same time subject these very texts to a hostile scrutiny which we would be less surprised to find in the pages of St. Augustine?
To approach such questions, we do well to have some sense of the A©problem of VirgilA>> as this has been met and formulated by Dante's readers. The problem has an interesting history, and the answers offered since the earliest days of Dante criticism, reveal the troublesome nature of the questions themselves. It is a disconcertingly widespread assumption, from the earliest commentators onward, that Virgil is not to be understood as a historical figure in Dante's poem, but rather as an allegorical expression, either of Reason in general or as the rational capacity within every man (or at least in this man, Dante Alighieri).
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