Virgil, Dante’s “Sweetest Father”

I finally finished Dante’s Purgatory, the second canticle of the Divine Comedy. I suspect many of us get rather stuck with the Inferno and I certainly don’t know of any video games based on Purgatory or Paradise but, much to my surprise, I found the mountain of Purgatory a much more compelling journey than the long descent through Hades.

Initially, its a tougher read. We are in the heart of the medieval Christian mindset here and at some level, one needs to suspend disbelief, as it were, and surrender to the idea that man can only be saved through grace. But Dante’s vision is also an optimistic one – the sins of Purgatory are all sins of love misdirected and demonstrate man’s natural potential to be good. Further, the sinners are there, gladly, to be purged, to be made ready for Paradise. Quite literally, the souls of Purgatory needed only to ask (or ‘knock’, as the Biblical exegetics amongst you might note).

But Dante also realises the relationship between Virgil and the Dante of the poem in a wonderfully subtle way. Virgil, his mentor as a poet and as a man “lost in [the] dark wood” of his middle years struggling towards some kind of maturity, is ever at his elbow – encouraging, cajoling, instructing. For Dante, he becomes the ideal father figure for a man in the doldrums of middle age and as the poet travels through Hell and Purgatory faced with spirits, devils, centaurs, angels, and much else, he grows to depend on Virgil’s firm-minded kindliness and good counsel utterly.

As such, the point in Canto 30 when Virgil silently departs, his mission done, is the most quietly devastatingly moment I’ve encountered in Dante’s poem to date. They have reached the River Lethe, on the borders of Earthly Paradise. After various marvels are revealed to them, Dante realises that, waiting across the stream, is none other than Beatrice, his long lost love, the motivating force for the whole of the journey and the promise – and the threat – of his regeneration. Stricken with awe and a kind of rapturous terror

I turned left – as a little child will do
wide-eyed and running over to its mama
when he’s afraid of something or he’s hurt
To say to Virgil, “Not a drop of blood
runs in my veins that isn’t trembling now
I know the traces of the ancient flame
But Virgil had deprived us of his light
Virgil, the sweetest father, Virgil, he
in whom I trusted that I might be healed*

Virgil has returned to Limbo, the outermost circle of the Inferno, doomed to dwell with the ‘good pagans’ even beyond the resurrection. The author Dante’s treatment of Virgil in the Comedy remains puzzling when the suicide Cato and the later poet Roman Statius are saved. Dante gives Virgil primacy above all other poets and draws on the Aenid again and again. Still, Dante expresses the loss of Virgil as one might feel the loss of a parent and reading these lines again, I think of the loss of my own father. Though the loss in my case is a selfish one, full of might-have- and should-have-beens. But still, there were moments. And there is always that moment on the banks of the Lethe that awaits all of us, Virgil or Dante.

Perhaps that’s why Dante’s Virgil had to leave, was unable to travel further with the man who’d become as a son to him. The hardest thing for a father is to realise that one day his children will have to travel on without him. And that’s a law as immutable as the divine judgement of the God of the Comedy.


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