In the most famous speech Shakespeare ever wrote, Prince Hamlet speaks of “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns” . The metaphor of death as being a journey to a place from which no one returns was, as Harold Jenkins has pointed out, one that would have been familiar to any well read Renaissance man; versions of it were to be found in the Book of Job, in Catullus, Seneca, and Marlow’s Edward II . If people have never actually accomplished a return from a voyage to the land of the dead, they have often thought about it and there is a long list of distinguished literary works in which writers have taken this imaginary journey and reported back to us about what they saw. This paper will discuss the way in which this motif is treated in two great literary works, Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and will make mention of a number of English works which have also dealt with this theme. We will begin by presenting some general remarks about the essential nature of this literary voyage.
Both of our major sources may be considered to be epic poems. The Odyssey is an obvious member of the epic genre; the case is less clear with respect to Dante’s poem. Curtius has remarked that the Divine Comedy has been classed as an “epic” even though it is of a form that “itself can be assigned to no genre”. Some of our other sources are clearly not from works that can be classed as epic, but the theme itself, which involves a journey and in which heroism is often, if not always implied, may be considered as epical in nature.
The first thing we may note about the theme is that there is something of a paradox regarding it. We may not have ever been to the undiscovered country, but it is a place with which we are very familiar in the sense that—and this is particularly true of the Christian version, but is also true of the pagan version as well—mention of it conjures up in the hearers’ minds a set of very standard images. In both art and literature there is a well-known iconography in the representation of the realms beyond death. The word “hell,” for example, conjures up for most people common images of burning rocks, reptilian devils, and the type of horrible activities pictured in Hieronymous Bosch’s painting Musical Hell.