- Dante's Inferno as Poetic Revelation of Prophetic Truth
Dante's Inferno demands to be understood as the culmination of a series of visits to the underworld in ancient epic tradition. Dante's most direct precedent is Aeneas's journey to meet his father in Hades, as told by Virgil in Book VI of the Aeneid. Aeneas's voyage is modeled in turn on Odysseus's encounter with shades of Hades in Book XI of the Odyssey. The epic quest in each of these models pivots, in various ways, on a visit to the world of the dead, a discensus ad inferas, as a climactic episode at its center. However, Dante makes this episode the general framework of the whole poem: from beginning to end, Dante's poem represents a voyage through the world beyond the grave. In this respect, Dante's Inferno, and indeed the whole Divine Comedy, is conceived primarily as an expansion of the ancient epic motif of the katabasis or "going down" of the protagonist to the underworld for a revelation of his destiny from beyond the threshold of death. Like Virgil, Dante interprets history prophetically, finding in it the essential pattern of things to come. But this projection now reaches to an eschatological future beyond history altogether—to an uncannily dynamic realization of eternity.
The other world that is visited by Dante asserts itself unequivocally as ultimate reality. It is not just some shadowy world of bloodless phantasms like the shades that approach Odysseus, nor is it vacuous and inane, as are Virgil's "houses void and empty realms of Dis" ("domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna," Aeneid VI.269). This "other" world shows up as even more vivid than the world of ordinary sense-perception by virtue of a strikingly realistic, indeed surrealistic imagery. Dante heightens the [End Page 252] mythological topos of the visit to the underworld that he inherited from Virgil and Homer to a level where it represents the true essence of life on this earth transposed into a transcendent dimension. The world of the dead is not just one in a series of episodes befalling the protagonist but rather the final and definitive experience that reveals the true meaning of all possible experiences and thereby the meaning of the world as a whole. This is perhaps implicit and incipient in Homer and Virgil, since the journey to the underworld in each case encloses a revelation that illuminates the meaning of everything else and orients the protagonist's subsequent life in the world up to his death. But Dante's other world is more than the place for a miraculous glimpse into the true meaning of life: it is itself the vera vita, the "true life."
Of course, Virgil had interpreted the whole of Roman history through the optics of prophecy, but his prophetic history was directly disclosed only in privileged moments within his poem. Dante's entire poetic narrative transpires in an eschatological dimension of existence; it thereby aspires to reveal beyond the limits of history a full-blown vision of eternity—that is, history as projected into the eternal worlds that it prefigures. While at the level of content Dante expands the theme of a visit to the underworld into an entire poem of epic proportions, more deeply, at the level of genre and in terms of its mode, Dante's whole poem is prophetic in character. History and narrative become in themselves prophetic rather than only forming a background for prophecy and framing it.
The descent to the world of the dead—a symbol for the place of revelation of the meaning of life—is a thematic issue that runs as a thread through each of the epic works that have been mentioned so far. But in Dante it becomes the central axis of a poem that emerges in its entirety as religious revelation, and Dante greatly intensifies the self-conscious grasp of this function of poetry. His work represents an unprecedentedly powerful reflection on poetry as revelation in the mode of prophecy, for the customary literary means of poetic expression are now revealed in their intrinsically prophetic potency. From the Aeneid Dante could learn...