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Three Poetic Hells: The Torture-house of Cædmon, the Inferno of Dante, and
the Hell of Milton.
ITHERTO, we have omitted all mention of the
Divina Commedia of Dante, since this great work cannot be regarded, except in a very general way, as forming any essential part, or indeed any part whatsoever, of the Epic of the Fall of Man. As we shall presently see, the action of this sublime Allegory opens some five thousand years after the supposed era of the Fall; but, nevertheless, it is so intimately connected with the Epic, and offers so many interesting topics of contrast, if not of comparison, that we propose, in the present chapter, to consider a few of the points of similarity or dissimilarity between the Allegory and the Epic; more especially, with regard to the early legendary Hell of Cædmon, the mediæval, philosophical Hell of Dante, and the modern, traditional Hell of Milton. It is well known that Lord Macaulay assigns to
Dante the third place among the six greatest poets of the world; allowing to Shakespeare and Homer alone, the distinction of superior poetic merit, and relegating Milton to the fifth place in this suum cuique list.
Whether we agree with Lord Macaulay or not, in this dictum of his, it is beyond dispute that the Divina Commedia is the grandest and most profound religious allegory of which Europe can boast ; while Paradise Lost is the grandest and most learned sacred epic, in verse, of which England can boast.
Moreover, there are several striking marks of resemblance between these two great poets and thinkers.
Both were men of remarkable talents and erudition. As Mr. Eliot Norton very truly says, “ Dante was a born student as he was a born poet, and had he never written a single poem, he would still have been famous as the most profound scholar of his times. Far, as he surpassed his contemporaries in poetry, he was no less their superior in the depth and extent of his knowledge."
It has been estimated that, so far as concerns the Classical authors alone, and not including the wide field of Scholastic theology and philosophy, over one thousand passages may be found in Dante's works, as direct citations, obvious references, or evident
allusions, showing the wide range of his research and reading in this branch of learning. Aristotle is quoted or referred to, three hundred times; and there is scarcely an important work of Aristotle which is not represented, and often very fully represented, in the pages of Dante. With Virgil's works, especially with the Æneid, he shows himself to be thoroughly acquainted, and introduces at least two hundred quotations from or references to the Mantuan poet. Ovid, Cicero, Horace, Livy, Juvenal, and Seneca are often quoted or referred to, and, besides all this, we have scattering references to Homer, Plato, and others. Our admiration of Dante's 'acquirements becomes indefinitely increased when we remember the difficulties under which this surprising amount of learning was amassed; when we reflect that it was in the days before the invention of printing, when books existed only in manuscript, and were consequently very rare and difficult of access; when there were no helps for study in the way of notes and dictionaries, no conveniences for reference, such as divisions of chapters, sections, paragraphs; above all, no indexes or concordances to help the fallible memory; when, finally, we add to all this the consideration of the circumstances of Dante's own life, a turbulent, wandering, unsettled life, a life of which we may truly say, “without were
fightings, within were fears "; one intensely preoccupied, with fierce political struggles and anxieties. The varied and extensive reading of which Dante's works give evidence would be admirable if it had been exhibited under the most favourable conditions of what we call “ learned leisure,” and with the help of modern appliances, but under the circumstances under which Dante accomplished it it is nothing less than amazing
To speak of the vast erudition of Milton, would be superfluous. His classical learning was, perhaps, more profound and varied than that of Dante. He was, also, Hellenist, Hebraist, and modern linguist of no mean order. But we must not forget the wide gulf that divided the literary conditions of the thirteenth from those of the seventeenth century; and if, genius consists in a “continued attention," or in a “protracted patience," then, taking everything into consideration, we should be inclined to accord the palm of genius to the Italian poet rather than to , Milton.
Perhaps, it may be matter of surprise to some readers, to know that very few writers, mediæval or modern, have had as thorough a knowledge of the Christian Scriptures as Dante had. The whole of the Vulgate, seems to have been perfectly familiar to him; and judging, not only from the number of
his direct quotations (nearly five hundred), but from the frequent interweaving of Scriptural allusion and phraseology into the fabric of his works, and especially of his Divina Commedia, he shows himself to have been as deeply versed, if not more deeply so, in the Vulgate, than Milton was in the Hebrew and Greek Testaments.
In one direction, however, Dante was unquestionably the superior of Milton, namely, in his mastery of mediæval Scholastic learning. The influence of the writings of Peter Lombard, Bonaventura, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, and, above all, of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Albertus Magnus, is apparent throughout the Divina Commedia ; indeed, the Scholastic theology of the age forms the very atmosphere of the Allegory. But in Milton, there is no trace of any knowledge of mediæval scholastic thought, except in such passages or allusions as are evidently borrowed from Dante.
The last mark of resemblance between these two great men, which we shall notice, but which we cannot stay to describe at length, is as curious as it is interesting. Dante was not only a born student, and a born poet, he was a born politician, in the nobler sense of the term ; taking the deepest interest in public affairs, and active in all that he considered to be for the good of his native Florence. But it