“Not man; man once I was.
And both my parents were of Lombardy…
Sub Julio was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.”
Here, Virgil introduces himself to Dante and thus to the reader. He does not give his name, but by his description of himself as a poet who “sang” of the son of Anchises, Dante and the reader know he is Virgil, the author of The Aeneid. Virgil lived in Rome during the time of Julius and Augustus Caesar when Rome was not yet Christian, thus “the time of false and lying gods.”
“…I think and judge it for the best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,
Where thou shalt here the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death…”
Virgil explains that he wants to take Dante through Hell in order to teach him valuable lessons. Dante’s late love, Beatrice, descended from Heaven to ask Virgil to take on this job. Virgil previously toured Hell, as described in The Aeneid, and is, like Dante, a poet, so he is the natural choice to guide Dante through the realm of Hell.
“The anguish of the people
Who are below here in my face depicts
That pity which for terror thou has taken.”
Dante notices that Virgil is “pallid,” and thinks Virgil is afraid of Hell’s first circle, the place Virgil plans to lead Dante next. Here, Virgil explains that his expression reflects pity not fear. The people in the first circle are those who, like Virgil himself, have committed no sin. However, they were either born before Christ and thus could not have been saved by his sacrifice, or they died unbaptized.
In the meantime a voice was heard by me:
“All honor be to the pre-eminent Poet;
His shade returns again, that was departed.”
The first circle of Hell is where Virgil usually resides, and as he returns with Dante in tow he is greeted with these words, though exactly who speaks them is unclear. After these words are heard, four other great classical poets—Homer, Horace, Lucan, and Ovid—come forward to greet their fellow legendary poet, Virgil.
“Now I will have thee know, the other time
I here descended to the nether Hell,
This precipice had not yet fallen down.”
Virgil explains why he doesn’t recognize what he sees. In his work titled The Aeneid, Virgil describes a journey through Hell. His journey would have occurred before Christ visited Hell after his crucifixion, which caused much destruction in Hell. As a result, the landscape Virgil and Dante encounter is very different from what Virgil remembers. Throughout the text, Virgil occasionally needs help from Hell’s inhabitants in finding his way.
Then did my Leader speak with such great force,
That I had never heard his speak so loud:
“O Capaneus, in that is not extinguished
Thine arrogance, thou punished art the more;
Not any torment, saving thine own rage,
Would be unto thy fury pain complete.…
One of the Seven Kings was he
Who Thebes besieged, and held, and seems to hold
God in disdain, and little seems to prize him…”
Virgil explains to Dante that he is particularly disgusted by Capaneus, one of the seven kings who attacked the kingdom of Thebes, who continues to harbor anger and lack regret for his sins. Throughout the tour of Hell, Virgil shows varying degrees of pity for the inhabitants, depending on their specific sins and their degree of regret. Through this mechanism, Dante makes Virgil’s character more human and reveals what he believes Virgil would feel about various sins and sinners.
“Art thou, too, of the other fools?
Here pity lives when it is wholly dead;
Who is a greater reprobate than he
Who feels compassion at the doom divine?”
Virgil reproves Dante for showing pity for some sinners whose heads are positioned backwards on their body. Virgil explains as their punishment was set by divine Justice, it is exactly what the sinners have earned. Virgil frequently has to remind Dante of the main lesson he is in Hell to learn: The punishment, since it comes from God, always perfectly fits the crime.
My Leader on a sudden seized me up,
Even as a mother who by noise is wakened,
And close beside her sees the enkindled flames,
Who takes her son, and flies, and does not stop,
Having more care of him than of herself…
Virgil shows great care for Dante’s physical and emotional well-being in several dangerous situations throughout their tour. Here Dante recalls one instance in which Virgil protected him like a parent. After Dante expressed fear of the demons that guard the fifth Bolgia of the eighth circle, Virgil picked Dante up “as his own son” and ran to the next Bolgia, where the demons could not follow and Dante would be safe.
“Now it behoves thee this to put off sloth,”
My Master said; “For sitting upon down,
Or under quilt, one cometh not to fame,
Withouten which whoso his life consumes
Such vestige leaveth of himself on earth,
As smoke in air or in the water foam.”
Here Virgil shows less concern for his primary task, helping Dante avoid the fate of damnation, and instead exhorts Dante to work on protecting his earthly fame. Throughout the poem, fame is important to many of the characters, because fame is the only way for a person in Hell to live on after death. Virgil seems to have temporarily forgotten that Dante’s ultimate goal should be getting into Heaven, not achieving fame.
“Leave me to speak, because I have conceived
That which thou wishest; for they might disdain
Perchance, since they were Greeks, discourse of thine.…
Oh ye, who are twofold within one fire,
If I deserved of you, while I was living,
If I deserved of you or much or little
When in the world I wrote my lofty verses,
Do not move on…”
Virgil volunteers to speak in Greek on Dante’s behalf to Ulysses and Diomedes, who are being punished together in a single container. Virgil refers to the fact that he mentions Ulysses and Diomedes in his “lofty verses,”—his poem The Aeneid—and assumes that both Ulysses and Diomedes would know this fact.