It’s called a remix. That’s how this segment begins. It’s a living pastiche, a breathing exercise in allusion and homage. Every scholar seems to agree that the opening lines of this canto are Virgilian, but none know exactly which passage Dante is imitating. And that’s probably because Dante isn’t imitating a particular passage, but is simply borrowing his style; it’s Virgil re-invented—Virgil’s flow, but freestyle and on the fly, and in a completely different language. The simple fact that Dante can invoke Virgil so effortlessly not only points to a certain aptitude for getting into Virgil’s bones, but even suggests that Dante knows Virgil’s poetry better than Virgil probably knew it himself.
This canto is all about due diligence. Dante uses it to make sure that any leftover confusion from the first is settled. Virgil still has a lot of explaining to do, and so while nothing really happens to advance the story, it’s an important episode for the benefit of the story. We learn about Dante’s apprehensions about going through Hell (Won’t it be really, really scary? Will there be monsters?), and we are explained what the hell exactly Virgil (who died basically like a bajillion years before this story is set) is doing in the same forest as Dante. In this passage, you also get a crash course in Aeneas’s family tree, and realize that if you’ve ever read Joyce before Dante, you were very unprepared.
“O Muses, O lofty genius, aid me now!” Dante says near the beginning of the canto. Again with the tropes, this guy! Just about every Greek and Latin poet starts this way. Someone should do a tally-count to see who, between Milton and Dante, deploys more Greek and Latin conventions in their epic poems.
Dante goes on to imply how excited he is to take the same journey as Aeneas, and says “I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul. Neither I nor any think me fit for this.” At first we are meant to read this as humility, but if you think for a second, it sort of sounds like Dante is fishing for compliments from Virgil.
Virgil reveals that he was asked to help guide Dante to safety by a woman named Beatrice, who, as will be explained endlessly in the rest of the poem, is Dante’s beloved. And despite the fact that Beatrice is dead, she still looks after Dante from time to time. The sense of desperation beneath this idea is infinitely tragic.
In her conversation with Virgil, Beatrice says that Dante is “no friend of Fortune,” which is a polite way of comparing him to a clumsy, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time Woody Allen character. She then makes Virgil an offer he can’t refuse: if he gets Dante to safety, she will put in a good word with the big guy. Virgil, having been around the block and knowing a good deal when he hears one, accepts. Virgil also speaks briefly on the Earth’s position in the universe, which reveals a lot about Dante’s wacky, adorably misguided perception of outer space.
The passage ends as Virgil tells Dante, now aware of the forces invested in his safety, to chill out and have faith.
To catch up on our Dante series, click here.