Cantos I–II

Summary Cantos I–II

While Dante portrays Virgil as having learned truths from future generations, he presents himself as having gained knowledge from Virgil, commenting that the ancient poet taught him “the graceful style” that has brought him fame (I.67). The “graceful style” denotes the tragic style of the ancients, the style of epic poems—the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid. And Dante was indeed capable of commanding this high style; at the beginning of Canto II, his invocation of the Muses—the traditional way to begin a classical epic—echoes Virgil’s call for the Muses’ inspiration in the opening of the Aeneid. However, one may question the statement that it is this particular style that brought Dante fame: the poet elsewhere employs many other styles with equal skill. Dante clearly respects tradition but is not beholden to it, as is made clear by the way that he follows but also breaks from traditional uses of allegory, the trope of the Everyman, and intertemporality. As the remainder of the poem will make clear, his goal is not simply to mimic Virgil.

Indeed, Dante’s awareness of the differences between himself and Virgil may have contributed to his decision to name his work The Comedy: rather than employing exclusively high rhetoric, it frequently employs the simple, vernacular idiom of its time; and rather than using Latin, the traditional language of a grand epic, it is written in Italian, the language of the people, and a language that Dante hoped every man could understand.