Poetry embodies the essence of language, a tool that was modeled to enhance communication, but futhered used to manipulate the common mind. It is an art in which words in the form of darts lead straight to the brain, kindling the deepest of feelings. Great poetry has the ability to provoke a fire in the life of the reader. It can mentally activates and has the tendency to transform the reader into the writer. The power of poetic inspiration is an important concept remarkably embraced by the author Dante Alighieri in his own poetry.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante encapsulates the value and necessity of poetry through his own creation of the Roman poet Statius and through Dante, the poet himself.
The influence of poetry is emphasized by Dante’s invention of Statius’s story in Purgatorio. Historically, Statius is well-known for writing the epic poem Thebaid which, in many ways, modeled Virgil’s Aeneid. Inspired by Statius’s actual admiration of his idol Virgil, Dante introduces Statius in the midst of the pilgrim’s journey through Purgatory.
He creates a scene where Statius reveals his admiration unknowingly in Virgil’s presence. For instance, in canto 21 Statius praises the Aeneid, “..which was my mama and / was my nurse in writing poetry: without it I did / not make up a drama of weight” (97-99). The tone of Statius’s praise of Virgil’s poetry is lofty and intimate.
The use of the mother and nurse from Statius indicates the personal nourishment provided by Virgil’s poetry.
Here, we imagine Statius as an infant sustaining all of its nourishment from its mother’s milk, which in this case are the words of Virgil. Upon reading Virgil’s work, Statius satisfies his soul’s cravings leading him to the inspiration to write his own poetry, which we know as Thebaid. The extent of Statius’s appreciation towards his author is shown as he adds he would have served extra time in Purgatory if he could only have lived back when Virgil was alive, an extremely extraordinary assertion to come from a soul newly freed from purgatory and destined to be in heaven. Dante, the writer, brings attention to the powerful effect poetry has, such as the Aeneid, through the example of Statius as he drew poetic inspiration from Virgil’s work to compose his own.
Dante, the poet, also demonstrates how one of the propitious aspects poetic inspiration has is that it can lead to one’s own moral excellence. Poetry can potentially change the way the reader views the world and impacts their beliefs, as described by Dante’s invention of a Christian Statius in canto 22 of Purgatorio. Here, it is revealed by Dante’s design that Statius’s sin was prodigality. Statius then credits Virgil for leading him to convert to Christianity through reading his poetry. If he had not recognized his sin, he would end up along with the prodigal in Hell for eternity. Statius reveals this to Virgil:
Statius compares Virgil to a lantern-bearer who gains nothing by carrying the light, but lights the path for the ones who follow behind him. Statius explains it was by reading Virgil’s work, that saved him from eternal punishment in hell. He reveals that a passage from the Aeneid mentioned by Statius in the canto allowed him to identify his sin. The reverence Statius expresses reflects the great debt he owed to Virgil. Though Statius’s conversion to Christianity is an idea designed by Dante, he effectively exhibits the influence poetry holds through the acknowledgement of Virgil’s poetry. Through his invention of Statius, Dante is claiming that Virgil’s poetry has the power to convert its readers to Christianity. Furthermore, Dante uses Statius as a representation of the spiritual nourishment Virgil’s poetry has as it allows readers, like Statius, to figuratively consume the word of God and become a Christian.
Not only is the significance of literary inspiration epitomized in Statius but it is also shown through Dante himself. Implicitly, Dante articulates the power that an author’s work instills in its readers through his own poetry. All through his Divine Comedy, it is clear Dante was truly inspired by Virgil’s major works, especially the Aeneid. One of the ways this is demonstrated is how Dante the poet utilizes Virgil’s Aeneid as a foundation of his own poetry. Many of the pilgrim’s experiences in the Divine Comedy undeniably resemble Aeneas’ adventures as he travels in the Underworld. Parallels between Dante’s character and Aeneas can be drawn: Dante searches for a passage of Heaven, salvation, and God, as Aeneas is on a quest towards the founding of Rome. Even though their goals are different, both Dante and Aeneas are committed to embark on similar quests along with their guides. The correspondence of their journeys is shown in particular scenes of Dante’s poem.
For example, Cerberus, among other creatures in Virgil’s underworld, was featured in Dante’s Inferno. In the Aeneid, Aeneas and his guide, Sibyl encounter Cerberus after being ferried across the river of Acheron. In order to pass through, Sibyl then puts Cerberus to sleep after throwing drugged cakes in his mouths. In canto 6 of Inferno, Cerberus is found in the third circle of hell where he rends in to pieces of those who succumbed to gluttony. The pilgrim’s guide, Virgil, scoops dirt and throws some in each of the creature’s mouths. The similarity between the experiences of Dante’s character and Aeneas are evident here, as both encounter Cerberus and both of their guides bypass the entry blocked by the three-headed hound. Dante relies on the stories from the Aeneid to describe the experiences his character undergoes, such as the encounters the pilgrim and his guide Virgil face through the realms of hell.
Thus, Dante’s admiration of Virgil’s poetry led him to borrow so much from the Aeneid in an effort to honor his idol. Because of his appreciation towards the Aeneid, Dante also expanded on Virgil’s structure of the Underworld for his own purposes and beliefs. Virgil’s Underworld contains the souls of those who are being punished for their sins on earth. In Inferno, Dante presents his readers with a frightening version of hell that is comprised into various circles, each one reserved for a specific type of sin. Each descriptions of hell’s landscape, in both poems, reiterates the central idea that earthly sins are not neglected. Thus, Virgil’s Aeneid gave Dante the inspiration to create an adaptation of the geography of hell as well as the tools to represent the afterlife notions of justice for one’s actions during their lifetime.
The powerful effect poetic inspiration possesses within its readers is exemplified by Dante’s poem through Statius and the writer himself. Virgil is seen as such a powerful figure as Dante demonstrates how eternally grateful Statius is to have been nourished by his ideas in the Aeneid. Virgil is also considered to be a literary inspiration to Dante the poet. It is evident that Dante had a great deal of respect for Virgil during his lifetime and conveys how much of an influence Virgil’s writing has had on him as a writer. Virgil’s poetic influence in both Statius and Dante represents the ability of poetry to generate more than the words on the page. The writer has spoken something essential to the reader, something they recognize and find compelling. And their first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously and unconsciously those sounds that flowed in by the poem.