Dante Alighieri

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How does Dante's legacy in Western literature compare to Homer and Virgil from a twenty-first century perspective?

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Dante has not been studied as much by contemporary writers, but the influence of his work is still felt. When a writer decides to rework an episode from Homer or Virgil, it's usually Dante's Inferno that they choose to adapt. The reason for this may be that while Virgil and Homer are both revered, their work has become somewhat dated due to the passage of time and the dominance of Christianity in western culture. Dante dares to use them in ways that suggest a critique of their world view, bringing about a new appreciation for them.

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Many authors in western literature have been influenced by all three of these figures, with Homer probably the most popular. Among the most famous recent adaptations of Homer is Nobel prize–winner Derek Walcott's "Omeros," which places Homer in a Caribbean setting. Margaret Atwood's "Siren Song" restates an episode of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of the Sirens. These two examples are typical in that they reflect identity politics, looking at the western tradition from the stance of the "other."

Dante's Inferno was a 2010 action-adventure video game based on Dante. Several of Virgil's works have recently been re-translated, and his Georgics still influence nature poetry. Orality-literary theory remains important for studying Homer, while The Aeneid has attracted interest as a work concerning colonialism. 

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The main issues you will need to address here are what you mean by "measure up" and "a twenty-first century perspective."

There are over seven billion people in the world. The two most populous countries in the world are China and India. The most important writers in China might include Li Po, Tu Fu, and Bai Juyi. Similar in importance to Homer and Virgil in the west in India would be such traditional epics as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. In general, the importance of the western European literary tradition is greatest in western Europe and those parts of the world colonized by Europe (the Americas, Australia, etc.) Even within Europe, there are differences. Homer is overwhelming influential in Greece while both Dante and Virgil have strong associations with Italy. 

Comparing their legacy is a part of literary studies know as reception theory. The fields of "classical tradition" and "medievalism" focus on the respective receptions of Graeco-Roman and medieval works. All of these approaches tend to argue against thinking about how works "measure up" in some absolute manner and simply emphasize studying how the ways people think of given works change over time. 

Because Homer influenced Virgil and Virgil and Homer influenced Dante, when their works are taught in translation they are normally taught in chronological order, with treatments of later works referring back to earlier ones. In language pedagogy, though, students traditionally study Latin (and thus Virgil) before Classical Greek (and thus Homer) because of its slightly less complex syntax, making reading Virgil in Latin more common than reading Homer in Greek in schools. Far more students at the secondary level study Latin than Greek in most countries although in Greece and Slavic countries reception history is different. You might look at A Handbook to Classical Reception in Eastern and Central Europe in your university library for more details. 

One way to examine the relative influence of these authors is to search for how often their names and works are mentioned using the Google Ngram viewer which searches a huge literary corpus and reports word usage frequency. It can be found at: 


One problem with word counts though is that you must be careful to use author/title combinations as names such as Dante or Homer can refer to contemporary popular culture figures as well as earlier authors. 

Another possibility is looking at new editions and translations of the works. You can search a British university library union catalog quite easily at:


A quick search will reveal Homer as twice as popular as Virgil and Dante slightly behind Virgil. This does, I think, represent a general consensus in which all three are regarded as significant poets, with Homer having the slightly greater universal appeal or influence, Virgil following Homer, and Dante being most influential in Roman Catholic educational tradition, but slightly less frequently studied than the other two elsewhere.  

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