Critical Essays Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim


Throughout the poem, there are two Dantes: Dante the Poet is a stern, moralistic individual who acts as the supreme judge and decides who belongs in Hell and, like Minos the monster judge, decides which circle of Hell each sinner belongs in. This Dante is unswerving in his judgment. He can find little extenuating circumstances, and the sinner is judged by the strictest and harshest standards.

For example, Dante the Poet lived in the household of the nephew of Francesca da Rimini, and he knew how she was betrayed in her marriage — how she was led to believe that her marriage was to be with the handsome and debonair young Paolo, but after her marriage, she discovered she was married to the deformed older brother. Her adultery was not a deliberate contrived matter; it was instead a gentle lapsing of the will; Yet, Dante the Poet places her in Hell. But Dante the Pilgrim swoons and faints when he hears her story in Hell.

Dante the Pilgrim is a man who has, himself, been lost in a dark wood, and he is sympathetic to others who have strayed from the right path. When he finds himself lost in the dark wood, he is terribly frightened, and when Virgil arrives, Dante the Pilgrim is at first apprehensive, cautious, and frightened until he is reassured of Virgil's noble intentions.

As they begin their journey, Dante shows all of the concern for the condemned that any humane, sympathetic person would show when confronted with the sufferings of the sinners. However, during his journey through Hell, Dante changes significantly as a pilgrim.

This change is first and most wonderfully exhibited when Dante and Virgil arrive in Limbo. When they approach the Circle of the Poets, Dante is invited to join them. Dante the Pilgrim is overwhelmed, as he should be, to be so honored and flattered by an invitation to join a group of the most outstanding and exalted poets of the world. Dante the Pilgrim feels unworthy to join this group, but, remember, it was Dante the Poet who issued the invitation. Thus, Dante the Poet, being invited to join these great classical poets, sees himself as one of their number. In reality, this could have been boastful on Dante's part or excessive pride, but fortunately, history has proved that he truly is one of the greatest of all poets.

And then as noted above, the reactions of both pilgrim and poet to the plight of Francesca present the same dichotomy of emotions — stern in judgment, but faint and swooning in emotional response.

The responses change only slightly when Dante confronts the Gluttons in the next circle. Ciacco, known as "the pig" — a common term in many languages for a Glutton — recognizes Dante the Pilgrim. Dante tries to recognize him, and failing that, he tries to assuage the feelings of this fellow Florentine by telling him that perhaps his "suffering" has changed his appearance. When Dante hears his name, he then remembers Ciacco as a "happy-go-lucky" fellow who was very pleasant and well liked. Dante treats him kindly and tells him, "Ciacco, your distress weighs upon me so that it moves me to tears." Again, remember it was Dante the Poet who chose him to represent the Gluttons. Thus, this far up in Hell, Dante is considerate for the feelings of the sinners and feels distress for the punishment they suffer.

However, Dante begins to lose some of his compassion beginning with Circle V. Here, the wrathful are striking at everyone, and Dante, as one strikes at him, defends himself. His behavior indicates that he is changing according to the nature of the sinners and their sins. How else could one respond to the wrathful and violent except in their own manner?

Through the lower parts of Hell, Dante is often fearful and constantly turns to Virgil for protection or for comfort. In addition to Dante's fear of the sinners in these lower circles, the Giants serve as another terror that Dante the Pilgrim must encounter and overcome. But he is reassured by Virgil. However, on some occasions, Dante becomes afraid when Virgil, himself, shows signs of confusion and weakness. Dante has to rely on Virgil, who symbolizes human reason and wisdom, to deliver him from Hell, and when his guide shows signs of failure or weakness, Dante the Pilgrim then becomes irritated and fearful. When Virgil is deceived by Malacoda, Dante the Pilgrim becomes confused about Virgil's qualities. But the reader should know that Dante the Poet causes this confusion, so as to illustrate the limitations and fallibility of pure reason.

Finally, when Dante reaches the ninth circle, Virgil upbraids Dante for pausing and weeping at these suffering shades. This is consistent with the hardening of Dante the Pilgrim's character in these later circles. There is no time for pure emotion at this point, the end of their journey is near; time is growing short, and Virgil must move Dante the Pilgrim along, even if this means that Virgil must take a harsher approach with Dante the Pilgrim. The reader must remember that Dante the Pilgrim is still utterly human and that his emotions change with each new encounter with a sinner, and Dante the Poet is forcing Dante the Pilgrim to realize that his pity does not change the fate of these sinners.

This change is complete when Dante the Pilgrim meets Bocca in the third round of Circle IX and accidentally kicks Bocca's head. He tries to get the shade to identify himself, but the shade refuses. Dante the Pilgrim then uncharacteristically pulls a tuff of hair out of Bocca's head, and his violence incurs no reproach because the ordinary forms of behavior are inapplicable here, among the completely depraved sinners where no punishment is enough for their horrible crimes.

But then, Dante comes to the final sinners, Ugolino and Ruggieri, deepest in the frozen lake of ice, with Ugolino gnawing on the head and brains of his companion. Here, however, Dante the Pilgrim only inquires, "Why do you show such a bestial appetite for your neighbor that you chew on him so ravenously?" Now, Dante the Poet steps in and lets it be known that whatever the causes for Ugolino gnawing so ravenously on "his neighbor," he will tell the story when he returns to the upper world.

Thus, one of the most horrible sinners in Hell gives a story that does not mention the reason for his punishment in Hell. Instead, it focuses on his betrayal and the punishment that he underwent at the hands of Ruggieri. With Dante the Poet telling this story, pity and fear and horror are all evoked. Thus, in the final part of Hell, the two Dantes are united. Note that the souls in upper Hell want to be remembered on Earth, while the souls in lower Hell are reluctant to even give Dante their names.