Dante the Pilgrim

Dante the poet-pilgrim’s progress toward empathy in his epic journey through Hell to Heaven.


Dante Alighieri was an epic poet who had grown out of a classical, pagan past into a pre-Renaissance Christian. While Dante was not familiar with the actual texts of Homer or other ancient Greeks, he was versed in their literature having discovered them through his own Italian predecessors, Virgil, Statius, Horace, and Latin translations of Aristotle and his Christian student Thomas Aquinas. With the Roman poet Virgil as his guide, Dante is able to traverse Hell and Purgatory; Dante recognizes Virgil as the image of Human Wisdom or rationality, not to mention the author of the Aeneid. Dante also considered Virgil to have anticipated the coming of Christ (Purgatory 70-2). Therefore, with Virgil as both his literary and rational guide and Beatrice as his beatific and heavenly inspiration, Dante is able to write his allegorical pilgrimage through Hell and the cosmos: The Divine Comedy — called a “comedy” because Dante the pilgrim journeys from grief to joy and “divine” because of the content and the artistic style. Yet along the path to salvation, Dante must purge himself of his own sinful nature, which will eventually include the repudiation of his own self. This journey begins in Hell where Dante witnesses the stories and the suffering of many sinners, some of which he empathizes with, and most of which he pities.

Dante’s empathy begins in Canto II with the story of Francesca. Canto II and Canto V both have love for their main themes. Yet in the latter the physicality of love, or lust, is dominant while Beatrice (whose name means “one who brings joy” or “blessed”) symbolizes love in divine grace which will lead him back to the path to God. To his horror, Dante realizes, having listened to Francesca’s story of adultery and lust, that he felt the same physical, courtly love for Beatrice, who now wishes to save Dante from the sort of end suffered by Francesca and Paolo, i.e. a continued, eternal suffering linked together in their sin. Beatrice invokes the aid of Virgil’s “golden rhetoric” to guide Dante back onto the true path; this parallels Francesca and Paolo’s reading of Galleot which leads them into adultery and lust. Beatrice calls on wisdom to move Dante away for the deleterious effects of a Galleot — who better than Virgil?

“Paolo and Francesca,” Ary Scheffer

After hearing Francesca and Paolo’s story, Dante is so overcome with empathy that he is struck speechless and faints at the canto’s end. This emotional response is soon better controlled by the pilgrim Dante as he travels farther into Hell. He has passed the physical sins at the point in which he encounters the shade of Ulysses and Diomedes in Canto XXVI. Ulysses, like Francesca, evokes a sympathetic — let’s call it a rational response from Dante. The latter listens as Ulysses tells of his fraud — a fraud based upon the desire to know. The ardor for knowledge is something that Dante knows all too well. Like Francesca and Paolo, Ulysses is linked with Diomedes who is his incestuous partner in fraud. Yet Ulysses, unlike Diomedes, had the additional craving for knowledge — an intellectual lust. Dante remains remarkable staid and resolved, however, as the shade(s) moves away. Ulysses is likened to Icarus in his attempt to soar too high. Ironically, Dante does ultimately soar to the heights of the Empyrean by the comedy’s end, but along the correct path.

The reader is necessarily influenced by Dante’s reactions to the figures. Dante swoons after the story of Paolo and Francesca, thus betraying his strong connection to their infidelity. Their sin is all too human in Dante’s eyes — something that he himself (and possibly us, his readers) has experienced, or has come close to experiencing. Yet his reaction to Ulysses’ tale is accepted stolidly with little betrayed pity. The hero Ulysses is thus brought low as a mere deceiver and manipulator. Incontinence is easily succumbed to without malice and fraud while guile and forethought marked Ulysses’ sin more damning. Dante’s reactions show both a growth in the pilgrim and the proper response to fit the crime, and they are varied throughout The Inferno evidenced by his sympathetic reactions to Brunetto Latini and Pier delle Vinge.

Dante the poet’s Ulysses, unlike Homer’s, never returns to Ithaca. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” does return to Ithaca and grows old and idle. He longs “to follow knowledge” and “sail beyond the sunset” now that he is has been “made weak by time and fate.” This Ulysses, like Dante’s, is attempting to convince his men that their destiny is beyond the world of “common duties”; they must be “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” to their decaying bodies. A greater glory awaits them still. Tennyson’s Ulysses is different from Dante’s in that he has fulfilled his kingly, husbandly, and fatherly duties and is now choosing to go out with a bang, as it were. He is offering this final hurrah to all of his men. Yet the question remains: is Ulysses deceiving his men? Tennyson shows the reader a great orator attempting to convince his men that a greater destiny awaits. Does he know for sure that it does not? Is he truly attempting deception. Tennyson resurrects the hero Ulysses from the fires of Dante’s Hell.

So both Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim show progress through Hell. Yet one must be careful not to equate the two. The pilgrim Dante is Everyman: we all must go through Hell on own way to salvation. Whether or not the poet lived the life of the pilgrim is really irrelevant. Yet the poetic style changes as the pilgrim changes, evolving from a physical, detailed description to more general, abstract, and philosophical verse as the pilgrim moves closer to God. Eventually poetry, like the Reason before it, breaks down to become insignificant in the light of God’s creation.


Originally published on July 22, 2003.