As the year-long calendar of events to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante gets underway, Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books, looks at Virgil, the prominent character in the great poet’s epic work, The Divine Comedy.

The literary significance of Dante Alighieri, who was born in Florence in 1265 and known as the father of the Italian language, rivals that of Shakespeare’s. His masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is widely regarded as the pre-eminent work in Italian literature and, indeed, as ‘probably, in theme and execution, the greatest epic of the western world, certainly outside of the classical languages’ (Divine Comedy, translated by Peter Dale, 1996, p. ix).

It follows that libraries with strong holdings of antiquarian material will have several old editions and translations of Dante. The first edition of The Divine Comedy to have entered Senate House Library (SHL) at the University of London, recorded in its printed catalogue of 1876, is a ‘modern’ one from 1839 bequeathed by George Grote, the university’s vice-chancellor from 1862 to 71. Grote also owned three English translations of Part I of the Divine Comedy, ‘Inferno’, which his widow passed on to the library at a later date. SHL’s earliest Dante imprint is from 1506.

A full celebration of Dante, however, means moving beyond editions of the poet’s works. Looking forward in the Middle Ages takes one to Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer, who all refer to Dante. Looking backwards to Dante’s sources and inspirations, Virgil stands out.

Virgil is a prominent character in the first two parts of the Divine Comedy, ‘Inferno’ and ‘Purgatory’. At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, the narrator is lost and afraid in a dark wood, threatened by the wild beasts that inhabit it and prevented by them from reaching the mountain summit he sees in the distance. Virgil appears to take the poet by a different route. The poet pays fulsome homage to him:

‘Are you that Vergil, then, the spring so bright
That pours abroad so rich a stream of speech?’
I answered him, my face abashed and white.
‘Glory and Light of poets, may my long zeal teach
Me, and the deep love that made me pore
Upon your volume stead me well, I now beseech.
You are my origin and master. You’re
The One alone from whom I take my style,
The good style that I’m so honoured for.’ (Hell, Canto I, 79-85, Dale’s translation)

Virgil takes the poet through the nine circles of hell to the centre of the earth and climbs the nine terraces of the Mount of Purgatory. By this time the relationship between Virgil and the narrator has developed, from a disciple’s awe for the master who guides him to affection on both sides. As a pagan poet, Virgil cannot enter Heaven. So, at the end of Canto 27 (‘Purgatory’), Virgil bids the narrator farewell, and Beatrice takes over.

The narrator’s indebtedness to Virgil on his physical journey is a metaphor for Virgil’s role, especially in the Aeneid, as Dante’s literary guide. The entire notion of a journey with a lofty goal is common to the Aeneid and to the Divine Comedy. Within that, it has been suggested that recurrent imagery of ships in the Divine Comedy could recall Aeneas’s tempestuous time at sea. Dante transfers several of the Aeneid’s characters directly: for example, Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades) and Charon (the ferryman who conveys the souls of the newly dead to Hades).

As a Classical historian, George Grote owned multiple editions of the works of Virgil, published from 1600 onwards. The English translation featured here has been selected as the most beautiful. It is The Works of Virgil: Containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Æeneis, lavishly illustrated with 101 engraved plates, translated by the poet John Dryden, and published in 1697 by Jacob Tonson.

Dryden had already translated sections of Virgil’s Eclogues (1684) and Aeneid (1685) for Tonson (together with translations by Horace, Ovid and others) and the two of them had created a public taste for the literary translation of Classics before Dryden contracted with Tonson to translate (and simultaneously interpret for the Augustan age) all of Virgil. Dryden signed the contract in 1694 and spent the next three years on the work, possibly while suffering from brain cancer. The result was an outstanding success. For Tonson the folio volume was one of his finest achievements in terms of typography, layout and illustration, and he gained prestige as England’s finest publisher of literary works. For Dryden it was a literary masterpiece, which was reprinted multiple times more cheaply in the 18th century. As Dante transplanted Latin poetry into the vernacular, so did Dryden.

The book also made printing history as the first example of a major literary work by a living English writer to be published by subscription. Those who subscribed five guineas each had their names and coats of arms engraved on one of the plates. The book was a collaborative venture between Dryden, Tonson, the subscribers who enabled publication, and also William Congreve, who brokered the contract between Dryden and Tonson, and Joseph Addison, who introduced each section briefly. You can see oil portraits of Dryden, Addison and Congreve in the Special Collections reading room of Senate House Library.

Progression from Dante to Dryden may seem startling. Virgil unites the two poets in a wide cultural web, with both Dante and Dryden having interpreted Virgil and carried him forward artistically into their own times in their own languages, in poetry reflecting mediaeval Italy and Restoration England respectively. Perhaps such a leap provides its own modest glimpse into the meaning of world literature.

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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Cover image: Domenico Morelli – Dante e Virgilio nel Purgatorio (Wikimedia Commons)