December 5, 2020

Take that, Milton

Blame Jeff, not me.

Okay, blame me as well for all the quoting of Dante I do on here, which is probably what put the idea into his head.  So now you are going to be afflicted with what is most definitely not a reasoned work of considered literary criticism, so beware and be warned.

Why do you love Dante? Jeff asked me.  And I have to answer, like all love, I don’t know why, I just do.

It happened way back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was a fourteen year old schoolgirl in a convent school in a small town in south-east Ireland.  In the classrooms, there was the detritus of past times with old bookcases bearing on their dusty shelves various long outdated volumes, from old textbooks to novels to ‘classics’ to improving literature of days gone by.  Nobody, as far as I could tell, ever touched them.  It wasn’t exactly forbidden,  just that no-one much cared for what used to be the hit novels of the 1930s or odd volumes of the 1912 “ Encyclopedia Brittanica”.

No one, except me.  I was (still am) an undiscriminating and voracious reader, and had by this time read my way through the children’s section of our small local branch library (you had to be at least sixteen to qualify to join the adult section).  I fell on these quaint relics like a hyena scavenging after a lion and spent my break-time and lunch-time reading my way through the wreckage.  That was the first time I encountered Shakespeare, before we officially did one of his plays for the English curriculum, and I was expecting it to be dull, obscure, difficult and dusty, if not downright boring (because the impression I had gotten was that Shakespeare wrote in verse, and all the verse we had done to date was just like that – and may I digress here to say, whoever made the teaching of poetry to young children that kind of an experience, I hope Cerberus is gnawing his entrails in Tartarus).

Instead, I had bells in my head.  No, that’s not a metaphor.  I thought Shakespeare would be obscure, and instead he used the same kind of words my granny did (the play was “Hamlet”, the footnotes gravely explained that when the text spoke of “walking abroad” it did not mean overseas as in current usage but rather outside, out of doors, and I didn’t need that explained because everyone where I came from would say of someone that ‘so-and-so was abroad in the yard’ when asked for a location).  The words were striking against one another, chiming off one another, and I had bells in my head (and a sense of outrage that anyone would have given me the impression that Shakespeare was dull, of all things!)

Then came Dante.  The Divine Comedy, in the Boehm edition of the Reverend Henry Cary’s 1814 translation.  That started me off on reading as many versions as I could get my hands on, but still after all these years, I remember this one nearly the best, because it was the first.

And an unusual choice, at that.  The Reverend Cary was of Anglo-Irish descent, a minister in the Church of England, and fairly evidently staunchly Protestant – to the point where, when translating the following

“In high heaven a blessed dame

Besides, who mourns with such effectual grief

That hindrance, which I send thee to remove,

That God’s stern judgment to her will inclines.

To Lucia calling, her she thus bespake:

“Now doth thy faithful servant need thy aid

And I commend him to thee.”

His endnotes render it that the “blessed dame” signifies “The divine mercy” and “Lucia” is “The enlightening grace of heaven”.  So far, so good for an allegory, you may say, except that every single commentator since the poem was first read are in agreement that the “blessed dame” is the Blessed Virgin Mary and Lucia is exactly who she is represented to be – St. Lucy.

God bless the dear man, it was down to him that Dante was popularized (or rather, re-popularized) for the English-speaking world, thanks to Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Cary’s work in a lecture to the Royal Institution in 1819.  So even though he was so Low-Church that he pretty much had to close his eyes to the overt Papism in the work (seriously, you have to be fairly determined to miss the point when, in a poem written by a Roman Catholic before the Reformation,  you render a heavenly woman with intercessory power with God not as Mary but as a personification of mercy) he was obviously taken enough with its power and with a sense of its importance as a work of world literature to translate not just the Inferno (which failed on first publication) but the Purgatorio and Paradiso as well at his own expense.

Since then, everyone from Longfellow to Dorothy Sayers to Robert Hollander (the most recent translation) has had a go; the verse has been rendered in all metres and styles, there have been prose versions, there is even a 2010 Electronic Arts video game which is very loosely based on the “Inferno.”

Personally, I like the Hollander version but I can honestly say that every different translation I’ve tried has had good points and has added to my understanding of the poem.  But why do I like the poem?

Salvador Dali

Well, firstly, it’s chock-full of everything including the kitchen sink.  For a SF/Fantasy/Horror/genre fiction fan, it does read in parts like an early attempt at a fantasy novel.  It’s got folklore, politics, cutting-edge (for the day) science, current affairs, gossip, mythology, religion, and good old-fashioned getting your own back at your enemies.   Everyone has an idea of the “Inferno” but that’s as far as most people get, and it would be a shame to stop there.  The “Purgatorio” may be a sticking-point if you don’t share that theology, and the “Paradiso” is hardest to get through: by comparison with the guts’n’gore action of the “Inferno” and the human interaction of the “Purgatorio”, the “Paradiso” has an awful lot of lecturing, scientific as well as moral, by Beatrice – mediaeval thought-experiments may not be everyone’s cup of tea.   But it’s worth it, it’s definitely worth it; the poem is a unity and stopping at the first third gives a completely wrong impression (Dante as bitter exile indulging his grudges on his political enemies, or Dante as forerunner of the Romantic poets – see the varying interpretations of the Paolo and Francesca episode in the Circle of the Lustful, even Dante-as-proto Protestant, as some 19th century English-language commentators wished him to be, on the grounds of all the abuse he gives to Popes both in general and in named particular).  Speaking only for myself, reading and re-reading it over the years, I find myself not so fascinated by the “Inferno” anymore, but constantly captured by the “Purgatorio” and finding new depths in the “Paradiso.”

I’ve never shed a tear for any of the damned in Hell, but Purgatory has me in floods every time.  And Dante, I think, intends that.  He doesn’t represent himself as perfect; Virgil scolds him several times in the “Inferno” and he admits frankly on the Mountain of Purgatory that he expects to spend a lot of time on the Terrace of the Proud after death.


There’s also a lot of humour in the poem, in unexpected places; in the “Paradiso,” when describing the  Fourth Heaven, the Sphere of the Sun, where the Theologians hold court, he lists out twenty-four of the greatest intellects and deepest thinkers of the time – and amongst other descriptions, compares their movement in the heavens to the movements of a clock striking the hour going “ting-ting”.  The mental image of these heavy-weight thinkers crossed with a little gilt carriage-clock (something like this?) just makes me laugh.

Also, for us skiffy fans, Dante is a fan-boy himself.  The Divine Comedy (particularly the “Inferno”) could be described as fan-fiction, complete with Authorial Self-Insertion, Cross-overs and Real Person Fiction.  Dante loves Virgil with all his heart, and that love comes through in the depiction of Virgil, who is interpreted as Reason (in some commentaries) but is much more than a stock allegorical figure going through the motions.

The only other work that matches up with the Divine Comedy is Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and its sequel, “Paradise Regained” (but come on, who reads the second part?  I did, and I vaguely remember it deals with the temptations of Jesus by Satan during the forty days’ fasting in the desert, but apart from that, there are no memorable scenes that come to mind).  I submit that, although it is a marvel of the use of the English language, I feel that it falls short.  (I also have to admit here to personal bias; as an Irish Catholic, I am not really going to give a fair shake to a Puritan poet who was a friend of Oliver Cromwell, now am I?)

Milton is dealing with a different problem, if we take at face value what he says is the purpose of the poem: “To justify God’s ways to man”.  I do wonder how much the 17th century poem is a response to the 14th century one;  there are odd little echoes – both start off in Hell, both deal with events in Heaven, both incorporate Scripture, mythology, politics and culture – and again, deliberate differences.  Obviously, Milton has no time for anything like Purgatory so that whole section is missing.  And since we’re dealing with the Fall of Man, then the souls of the Blessed in Heaven are not there yet.  Milton also does a very daring thing, in that not alone does he show Lucifer and the other devils speaking and setting out their side of the story, he enters into the councils of the Trinity where God the Father and Jesus are speaking before and during the War in Heaven – and I have to say,  a lot of critical opinion thinks that the Devil gets all the best lines; as William Blake put in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

And writing in fetters is exactly how it strikes me when he’s writing of divinity; the war in Heaven is a strangely physical war, with angels and devils lined up in armies and exchanging blows with super-weapons, like an episode of some mecha anime.  Or when Raphael visits Adam and Eve to fore-warn them, and sits down to supper with them – again, a very physical representation of an angel.

Well, there are the two great oppositions in poetry: the Catholic system in Dante (and as I keep saying, I get all my theology out of the Divine Comedy) and the Protestant in Milton – or am I assuming too much to say the Protestant, and not a Protestant system?  That’s another part of the question.  But for me, Dante wins, even though he’s the last of the Mediaevals and Milton is one of the vanguard of the Enlightenment.  Both Milton and Dante move up from Hell to Earth; both deal with reference to a small area on Earth (Florence for Dante, Eden for Milton) and both give us a look into Heaven.  But Milton comes down from Heaven and Dante moves up, and that, I think, makes all the difference.  Dante is writing a contemporary account (the politics and concerns of the day) and Milton is casting a timeless history, yet strangely Dante has much to say to us today whereas Milton’s stately figures are static and frozen.  Milton and Dante both use the “Aeneid” as a model, but though Milton’s language is beautiful, it is a marmoreal beauty, a Latin-inflected, Classical-influenced, classicizing version of English, while Dante was writing in the common tongue that the Jacks and Jills of Florence could read and had a huge influence on making the vernacular ‘respectable’.

Listen, if you want a good overview of the Catholic notion of Hell (including the old hypothesis of Limbo), Purgatory, Heaven, saints, intercessory prayer, and the like, then you still can’t do much better than Dante.  And if you can read the “Purgatorio” without at least once having your conscience pricked about a pet sin or bad habit, then you’re going to fly straight up to the Empyrean and the White Rose of the Blessed when you die, unlike the rest of us fallible mortals who’ll be (if we’re lucky) making the rounds of the terraces of Mount Purgatory with Dante.

To sum up, what Chaucer said still holds true:

Whoso wol here it in a lenger wise,

Redeth the grete poete of Ytaille

That highte Dant, for he kan al devyse

Fro point to point, nat o word wol he faille.

(“Monk’s Tale”, The Canterbury Tales)




  1. I guess my Protestant undergarments are showing when I must respectfully disagree. Milton’s take on man’s core problems and their solution is a joy to read. Although the children still can’t get why I fly into rapturous moments of quotation to illustrate a point I want to make.

  2. I pride myself in being able to read and comprehend most anything, but I have great difficulty with the style. To get anything out of Dante, I need lots of commentary. Still struggling with it.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      Perhaps a different translation is in order? I’m using Longfellow’s and find it to be mostly understandable. I find that since its poetry, difficult passages are often clearer when read out loud. That’s just me, anyway.

    • What Isaac (sometimes Obed) says, Allen. Find a good translation that you’re comfortable with, and don’t worry too much about the poetry. The terza rima Dante wrote in doesn’t really have an equivalent in English, so it’s up to the translator what metre they use.

      Even a prose version might be better for you – and don’t worry about trying to remember the politics in detail. The basics are that it was a Pope + French king (sometimes) versus Holy Roman Emperor with various city-states in Italy allied with one or the other of them. Everybody double-crossed everybody else, and just because X was your ally today didn’t mean he’d be your ally tomorrow (if you didn’t ditch him first). Notionally, the Guelphs were the pro-Papacy party and the Ghibellines were the pro-Emperor crowd, but it got more complicated as time went on and just because you belonged to Party A did not mean you wouldn’t stab your supposed colleagues in the back (both literally and metaphorically).

      Dante, as a member of a middlling-prominent Florentine family, was involved in politics as a matter of course and got a job in city hall (paraphrasing wildly here). The city was split between two parties, the White and Black Guelphs, and whichever lot were in power at the time used to banish all their enemies (on pain of death) and seize their property. When Dante’s party fell from power (the White Guelphs), he got kicked out of Florence with the rest of them, accused of corruption in office, and his property was seized. Dante also wanted the Emperor to return to Italy, take over civil power, and rule justly (sort of a ‘hope and change’ Obama deal). That’s all you really need to know.

      The important part is not so much the punishment of the damned in the “Inferno” – that deals with divine justice and serves as a warning as to where we’re going to end up if we keep on like we are (there are tons of Florentines in Hell. Yes, partly this is Dante settling scores, but it’s also to make the larger point: it’s not them people over there who are in danger of Hell, it’s you and me right here, right now, my brother and sister Florentines).

  3. Richard McNeeley says

    I first read Dante in high school (before the dinosaurs, at least that is what my kids think). The Inferno was required reading, yet I just had to read the entire trilogy. On the other hand I found Milton dull and boring. Go figure a Baptist enjoying a Roman Catholic writer.

  4. Martha, you’d enjoy chatting with my friend Mary. She has a site on celestial navigation that includes a Dante page because of his inspiration of things celestial (something about love moving the sun and the other stars). And to pique your interest, she’s also a Roman Catholic! But I’ll warn you, she also considers herself “born again”.

  5. “Malt does more than Milton can
    To justify God’s ways to man,”
    according to Housman. And I agree with him, at least as regards Milton, if not malt. My general opinion of English poets is that shorter is better — Milton’s, Spenser’s, and Wordsworth’s sonnets are much better than their longer works, I think. Chaucer, Pope, and Shakespeare are the exception, but Shakespeare only if you count his plays as poetry (which I do). Dante, on the other hand, pulls off the long, complex poetry wonderfully. I’ve been listening to Anthony Esolen’s translation read aloud recently and really like it. I’ll have to try Hollander.

    Thanks for this, Martha. And I can’t tell you how much I agree about the sublime joys of rummaging in abandoned bookcases — I’ve found great treasures that way.

    • “Malt does more than Milton can
      To justify God’s ways to man,”

      this fits well over on Chap Mike’s post also (for those who are not stumbled by malt, that is)

  6. I read Dante’s Inferno for the first time in college. We were only required to read a portion of it for a class assignment, but I was absolutely entranced with its imagery and language. The horror of each descending circle, coupled with the humor of things like demons “trumpeting” (meant to describe them passing gas)…just amazing.

    I’ll be crawling into the attic to find my copy this evening, sitting up there way too long for my wife’s liking, I imagine. Thanks, Miss Martha, for another wonderful piece.

  7. Ah, another like myself who struggled through Milton, but was in rapture when I read Dante. I even learned Italian so I could read the original terza rima poem from beginning to end. And don’t stop with the Inferno. That’s like stopping reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

    Dante spoke with such depth. The Commedia was at the same time, a spiritual autobiography, a love poem, a political treatise, a lesson in philosophy and theology, and much more all at once.

    And that part near the end of the Purgatorio, where Dante meets Beatrice and she reads him the riot act for being unfaithful to her memory, and ultimately to God, is priceless. He first sees her and turns to Virgil to find him gone. He bursts into tears, only to hear

    “Do not weep, Dante,
    Do not weep yet,
    For soon you will have cause to weep by another sword.” If that doesn’t make you tremble, nothing will.

    But reading Dante was like something he said in the Paradiso,

    Quale allodetta che’n’aere si spazia
    Prima cantando e lo tace contenta
    de l’ultima dolcezza che lo sazia,

    Like to a lark, into the air she flies!
    First singing, then silent, contentified
    By ultimate sweetness that satisfies.

  8. Martha, you may be spending a little extra time in purgatory for your opinions on Milton.

    • Thomas, I’m willing to risk it 😉

    • and what exactly would Martha be reading while in purgatory ?? ….. makes one shudder, then again she’s said that she has read widely

      • All the Scriptural reading I should have been doing on Earth, greg, which the Pope told me I should have been doing, and instead I was reading the latest Stephen King, John Connolly, or going “Wow, I didn’t know Project Gutenberg had the Doctor Nikola stories up!”

        As Dante has it, while we purge our penal debt in Purgatory, we’ll all be reciting the Psalms, so I should get cracking on those now, right?

      • “and what exactly would Martha be reading while in purgatory??”


        • Don’t even joke about it, Tim. I am a long-standing lover of vampire fiction but that was one series I gave a miss (and as I said, I read just about anything). Sparkly vampires, however, are a step too far (I am firmly of the Hammer Horror Professor van Helsing School of Vampire Diplomacy – stake through the heart, decapitation, burn to ashes, scatter in flowing water and garlic everywhere).

          • Martha, you should visit orthocuban if you haven’t already. He got off on a jag about vampire fiction and vampire chick lit a couple of years ago and did a series of posts on it. It seems that HUG is a fan, too. Me, I just don’t get it.

  9. Martha–it is so fine to hear from someone who really enjoys these books! I reread “The Inferno” in my 40s and the ‘wandering in the dark wood at the journey’s halfway point’ shouted out to me. My teenage son and I read it together and he was amazed at the ingeniously apt punishments for sins and just the sheer creativity required to create the whole world of hell. So impressive.
    Milton wasn’t on the same order, but definitely worth reading!

  10. textjunkie says

    Well done, M. Nicely put!!

  11. Nice post! I “discovered” Milton in 11th grade and Dante in 12th, and I adored both. With a focus in English lit for my M.A., I became much more familiar with Milton. I haven’t read Dante in a long, long time. Maybe now is the time to dive back in.

  12. Milton was an Arian.