Inferno and Epic Poetry

One key literary context for Dante’s Inferno is epic poetry. Dante both draws on and updates epic poetry for a broad Christian readership in ways that influence literature from Paradise Lost to modernist poetry. Greek epics such as the Iliad or the Odyssey are long, spoken poems; they begin with the poet calling upon the Muse for inspiration and celebrate heroic adventures, often including a descent to the Underworld. Virgil’s Aeneid transforms the genre. Focusing on the hero Aeneas’s founding of Rome, the Aeneid, like Greek epics, describes Aeneas’s adventures: his escape from Troy and defeat of the Latin warrior Turnus in hand-to-hand combat. Yet unlike the Greek epics, the Aeneid is a nationalist epic that bolsters the idea of Rome’s greatness: all Aeneas’s actions are divinely inspired, including his descent to the Underworld, where his founding of Rome is prophesied. Finally, the Aeneid was written, not spoken, accessible only to highly educated people. Considered the pinnacle of Roman literature, the Aeneid inspired many other texts, including Dante’s Inferno

Dante draws on the Aeneid’s version of epic poetry, yet also updates the genre for Christian purposes. Virgil’s presence in the story, as Dante’s guide, creates continuity between the Aeneid and the Inferno. Dante specifically includes some of the most common features of epics: the whole book is about a descent to the Underworld, and Dante prefaces his entry into Hell by calling upon the Muses for aid. Yet the Inferno also revises the epic form. First, Dante is not a heroic main character like Aeneas; he is confused and easily frightened, representing human beings’ need for spiritual aid. Second, unlike the Aeneid, the Inferno criticizes political and religious leaders sharply, placing two popes and several military leaders in Hell; the point of the epic is not to celebrate a nation but to promote spiritual growth. Finally, Dante chooses to write his poem in vernacular Italian, not Latin, so that everyday Italians could read his work. 

Dante’s revisions influence both epics such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and poetry more generally, which draw on the Inferno’s descriptions of Hell, its portrayal of its characters, and its wording. Paradise Lost, an English epic from the 1600s describing the biblical story of the Fall, borrows many of Dante’s images of Hell, including Lucifer’s vast size and power and the existence of a large, chaotic city in the Underworld. As in the Inferno, its main characters (Adam, Eve, and Lucifer) are not heroic but spiritually confused and in need of help.

Paradise Lost also uses the vernacular language, English, so that like the Inferno, it is widely accessible. While the genre of epic poetry falls out of favor after Paradise Lost, Dante’s influence lives on in modernist poetry. Poets such as T.S. Eliot, fascinated by the imagery and themes of Dante’s work, borrowed the Inferno’s wording to describe the despair of London in the 1900s. Eliot uses the imagery of the Inferno to convey his feeling that modern society was spiritually lost, and in his later work Four Quartets, he models interactions among his characters after the encounters between Dante and the souls he meets in Hell. Dante’s Inferno thus has an enduring impact even on recent literature.