Meeting Virgil: ‘There Is Another Road’ by Dante

dante-and-virgil-in-hell.jpg!LargeAs I went, ruined, rushing to that low,
there had, before my eyes, been offered one
who seemed -long silent- to be faint and dry.

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
to him I screamed my ‘miserere’: ‘Save me,
whatever – shadow or truly man – you be.’

His answer came to me: ‘No man; a man
I was in times long gone. Of Lombard stock,
my parents both by patria and Mantuan.

And I was born, though late, sub Iulio.
I lived at Rome in good Augustus’ day,
in times when all the gods were lying cheats.

I was a poet then. I sang in praise
of all the virtues of Anchises’ son. From Troy
he came ‒ proud Ilion razed in flame.

But you turn back. Why seek such grief and harm?
Why climb no higher up at lovely hill?
The cause and origin of joy shines there.’

‘So, could it be’, I answered him, (my brow,
in shy respect bent low), ‘you are that Virgil,
whose words flow wide, a river running full?

You are the light and glory of all poets.
May this serve me: my ceaseless care, the love
so great, that made me search your writings through!

You are my teacher. You, my lord and law.
From you alone I took the fine-tuned style
that has, already, brought me so much honour.

See you there? That beast! I turned because of that.
Help me ‒ your wisdom’s known ‒ escape from her.
To every pulsing vein, she brings the tremor.

Seeing my tears, he answered me: ‘There is
another road. And that, if you intend
to quit this wilderness, you’re bound to take.’

(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 61−93)

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem

René Descartes said “The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of past centuries.”  Here, at the beginning of his quest, Dante envisions an accompanied journey with the Roman poet Virgil, to whom he says “You are my teacher.  You, my lord and law, from you alone I took the fine-tuned style that has, already, brought me so much honour.”  Let the lesson begin.

Dante was cheered by the poet’s presence, but Virgil’s message to him was corrective, not affirming: He was on the wrong road.  As Malcom Guite points out in his book The Word in the Wilderness, this is what great literature is for.  He writes:

Dante’s first encounter with Virgil is justly famous and readers of C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’ will recognize how closely his own encounter with George Macdonald, of whom Lewis could also say: ‘You are my teacher. You my lord and law’, is modelled on this passage. But all of us, probably have one particular writer of whom we could say ‘you are the one who has most found, most helped, most guided me’, For some it has been C. S. Lewis, for me it has been two very different poetic companions, one of them Dante and the other S. T. Coleridge. If you have such an author in your life, then doubtless you have fantasized about meeting them and telling them how you felt, even if they lived in another age and wrote in another language. Dante realizes that fantasy and models it for us here.

We begin today a study within a study.  This week we look to Dante’s poetry with a student’s eye.  As Malcom wrote of great literature:

It’s not an exclusive cultural acquisition, a badge of educated status, or something on which academics can hang their displays of erudition, it is there, in the words of Sidney’s Defence of poetry, ‘to delight and instruct’. First and foremost it delights, as I hope all the poetry in this anthology will do, and then it leads to truth, teaches us something worth knowing. It seems to me that both of these simple aims have been lost sight of in our age. Here is a chance to restore them.

Which great author would you choose as a journey’s companion?

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish.


Dig Deeper: Art, Literature & Liturgy

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 453.

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith


51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

Art: Dante and Virgil in Hell by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

Fairy Tales by George MacDonald (1871)

The Cloud Tellers by by Josephine R. Unglaub

C.S. Lewis

“Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names, Saxon and sweet as a nut—‘Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.’ That evening I began to read my new book.”…“It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new … It was Holiness. It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side.”…“It was with me in the room, or in my own body, or behind me. If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity—something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge.”

It is difficult to overstate the influence of George MacDonald.  In his own day he was hailed as a visionary, befriended by the likes of Mark Twain and sought after by royalty.  Queen Victoria gave MacDonald’s novels to her grandchildren and granted him a Civil Pension in 1877.  The impact of his work grew stronger after his death, notably contributing to the conversion of C.S. Lewis.  He was a master of story-craft and his complex imagination yielded literature textured with layer upon layer of meaning in the fabric of simplicity.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

We should, however, be careful about working too hard at any exact interpretation of these stories. MacDonald himself resisted giving any explanations, and when asked what one of them meant, he tersely replied, “So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up and bark for him.”1 He left the stories to speak for themselves. And they do not speak to us as allegories or intellectual puzzles aimed at the mind but rather as mythic tales aimed at the heart. They are meant to show us truths that do not easily reduce to rational explanations and provoke a more intuitive response from the reader. There are layers of meanings at work here, all of them valid: physical, spiritual, mythical, and psychological. Each of these layers interpenetrate and illuminate each other, which is why these stories are not so much meant to illustrate theological truths as to help us find our way into a different way of experiencing these truths.

MacDonald projected his own inner life into his stories to make them feel universal, a reflection of our own personal stories. His words arouse our dormant longings for truth and goodness as we journey with his young protagonists on their paths through danger and discovery and miracle. Alongside these young heroes and heroines we meet supernatural beings and find familiarity and friendship with these residents of a realm beyond our own. MacDonald’s tales are not unlike dreams, mixing all their disparate elements together into something that creates an impression and a feeling rather than simply communicating an idea.

Has your life been shaped by fairy tales?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

George MacDonald

George MacDonald

(1824–1905), Scottish novelist and poet. Educated at the University of Aberdeen and at Highbury College, London, he became a *Congregational minister, but in 1853 left the ministry to devote himself to literature. His writings, largely based on the life and customs of NE Scotland, include the novels David Elginbrod (1863), Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865), Malcolm (1875), and Donal Grant (3 vols., 1883). MacDonald’s books, which were highly valued by C. S. *Lewis, reveal firm religious faith, moral enthusiasm, and Christian optimism. He was also the author of several religious works, including Unspoken Sermons (1867, 1885, 1889) and The Miracles of our Lord (1886).

Unraveling Phantastes

Ever since C. S. Lewis penned his autobiography, there have been readers—even Lewis scholars—mystified by Phantastes. Compelled to read the book that Lewis said “most shaped my philosophy of life,” and “baptized my imagination,” they pick it up, get bogged down within pages, and put it down. Permanently.

Some find that if they begin with MacDonald’s children’s books, read a few fairy tales, then try a novel along the lines of Sir Gibbie or Alec Forbes, by the time they return to Phantastes they are much better equipped. But perhaps the best key is understanding the historical context: the relationship between a reader and a text has changed considerably since the early Victorian period.

Few early Victorians were privileged enough to own many books, and a book was not simply read once and set aside. It was read and reread, the reader engaging with the text ever more deeply, each reading revealing new connections and presenting yet another journey. It was only during the lifetime of MacDonald, with the advent of penny novels and lending libraries and the popularity of magazines and serializations, that this approach to reading significantly changed. Phantastes, like all books before it, expects a long-term relationship with the reader.

It is helpful when reading Phantastes to follow one theme that is noticeable early on in the tale … what it means to “die to oneself,” for instance. As this unfolds, other interwoven themes become evident, providing the next thread for the next read. The more one reads MacDonald, the more familiar one becomes with his primary themes, and the easier it is to follow their relations to each other, as well as to the books alluded to in the tale.

MacDonald points to these books not only to introduce them—he is also inviting the reader into a deeper conversation. As one reads the other books mentioned and then returns to MacDonald, suddenly one is part of a conversation that has been going on since God’s first story. MacDonald is responding to Tennyson responding to Blake responding to Dante, who in turn is responding to John responding to Christ, who is reminding us of the words of Isaiah, or the Psalms, or Moses. This conversation between texts is part of the Christian heritage, part of understanding who we are and who God is.

The episodic nature of Phantastes is sometimes off-putting to contemporary readers, and yet this structure is part of MacDonald’s effort to help the reader understand just how important that tradition of literary conversation can be. The 21-year-old protagonist Anodos is drawn into the realm of stories, Fairy Land, so that he may discover his own true identity. His education thus far has inspired “nobleness of thought, [but] not of deed,” and his understanding of love is selfishly immature. Each separate episode he enters is a story that slowly shapes and changes him.

Anodos learns not only from acting in these stories but also from reading them—his new education begins with books of “Fairy Land, and olden times, and the knights of King Arthur’s table.” As his journey continues he is drawn into drama, poetry, songs, dreams, dance, pictures, memories. And in these, he realizes, he is “the chief actor therein … for I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine.” As the stories conclude and he awakes “to the consciousness” of his present life, he realizes that he has changed as a result—that he was, in fact, vicariously “buried and risen again in these old books.”

When Phantastes ends, a matured Anodos returns to his family and home “somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question.” Not only the question for Anodos, but the one MacDonald places firmly before his readers.

C. S. Lewis wrote that a first read reveals the plot and characters; it is in the experience of rereading that we find wisdom and strength. But be forewarned; rereading Phantastes did change his life.

Sources and Resources

P. H. Brazier, C. S. Lewis—Revelation, Conversion, and Apologetics, vol. 1, C. S. Lewis: Revelation and the Christ (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 33–34.

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, “Sacred Story,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 86: George MacDonald: Writer Who Inspired C.S. Lewis (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2005).

The Poetical Works of George MacDonald (2 vols., 1893). His romance, Lilith (1895), was ed. by G. MacDonald (son) (1924), with introd., pp. ix–xx. Letters, ed. G. E. Sadler (Grand Rapids, Mich. [1994]). C. S. Lewis (ed.), George MacDonald: An Anthology (1946). G. MacDonald (son), George MacDonald and his Wife (1924). R. L. Wolff, The Golden Key: A Study in the Fiction of George MacDonald (New Haven, Conn., 1961). K. Triggs, The Stars and the Stillness: A Portrait of George MacDonald (Cambridge, 1986). D. S. Robb, George MacDonald (Scottish Writers, 11; Edinburgh, 1987). W. Raeper, George MacDonald (Tring, Herts [1987]); E. Sainsbury, George MacDonald: A Short Life (Edinburgh, 1987). W. Raeper (ed.), The Golden Thread: Essays on George MacDonald (ibid., 1990). R. B. Shaberman, George MacDonald: A Bibliographical Study (Winchester, 1990). A. Matheson in DNB, 1901–1911, pp. 513–15.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1023.

Hein, Roland. The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
MacDonald, George. The Complete Fairy Tales. London: Penguin, 1999.
Manlove, C. N. “George MacDonald’s Fairy Tales: Their Roots in MacDonald’s Thought,” Studies in Scottish Literature 8:2. January 10, 1970.
Phillips, Michael. George MacDonald. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1987.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Josephine R. Unglaub

Josephine R. Unglaub

Art: The Cloud Tellers

Josephine Unglaub is a German-based artist and photographer with a passion for surrealism. Her work can be found here:

Terry Glaspey


Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at


Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.