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The Origin of Dante’s Inferno

NEARLY six centuries have elapsed since the appearance of the great work of DANTE, and the literary historians of Italy are even now disputing respecting the origin of this singular poem, in its nature as its excellence. In ascertaining a point so long inquired after, and so keenly disputed, it will rather increase our admiration than detract from the genius of this great poet; and it will illustrate the useful principle, that every great genius is influenced by the objects and the feelings which occupy his own times, only differing from the race of his brothers by the magical force of his developments; the light he sends forth over the world he often catches from the faint and unobserved spark which would die away, and turn to nothing, in another hand.

The Divina Commedia of DANTE is a visionary journey through the three realms of the afterlife existence; and though in the classical ardour of our poetical pilgrim, he allows his conductor to be a Pagan, the scenes are those of monkish imagination. The invention of a VISION was the usual vehicle for religious instruction in his age; it was adapted to the genius of the sleeping Homer of a monastery, and to the comprehension, and even to the faith, of the populace, whose minds were then awakened to these awful themes.

This mode of writing visions has been imperfectly detected by several modern inquirers. It got into the Fabliaux of the Jongleurs, or Provençal bards, before the days of DANTE; but as these visions or pilgrimages to Hell contained generally rather comic than solemn adventures, it seemed absurd to attribute the origin of a sublime poem to such ludicrous inventions. Every one, therefore, found out some other origin of DANTE’s Inferno—since they were resolved to have one—in other works more congenial to its nature; the description of a second life, the melancholy or the glorified scenes of punishment or bliss, with the animated shades of men who were no more, had been opened to the Italian bard by his favourite Virgil, and might have been suggested, according to Warton, by the Somnium Scipionis of Cicero.

But the entire work of DANTE is Gothic; it is a picture of his times, of his own ideas, of the people about him; nothing of classical antiquity resembles it; and although the name of Virgil is introduced into a Christian Hades, it is assuredly not the Roman, for DANTE’s Virgil speaks and acts as the Latin poet could never have done. It is one of the absurdities of DANTE, who, like our Shakespeare, or like Gothic architecture itself, has many things which “lead to nothing” amidst their massive greatness.

Had the Italian commentators, and the French too, who have troubled themselves on this occasion, known the art which we have happily practised in this country, of illustrating a great national bard, by endeavouring to recover the contemporary writings and circumstances which were connected with his studies and his times, they had long ere this discovered the real framework of the Inferno.

Within the last twenty years it had been rumoured that DANTE had borrowed, or stolen his Inferno from “The Vision of Alberico,” which was written two centuries before his time. The literary antiquary Bottari had discovered a manuscript of this Vision of Alberico, and, in haste, made extracts of a startling nature. They were well adapted to inflame the curiosity of those who are eager after anything new about something old: it throws an air of erudition over the small talker, who otherwise would care little about the original! This was not the first time that the whole edifice of genius had been threatened by the motion of a remote earthquake; but in these cases it usually happens that those early discoverers who can judge of a little part, are in total blindness when they would decide on a whole. A poisonous mildew seemed to have settled on the laurels of DANTE; nor were we relieved from our constant inquiries, till Il Sigr. Cancelliere, at Rome, published, in 1814, this much-talked-of manuscript, and has now enabled us to see and to decide, and even to add the present little article as an useful supplement.

True it is, that DANTE must have read with equal attention and delight this authentic vision of Alberico; for it is given, so we are assured by the whole monastery, as it happened to their ancient brother, when a boy; many a striking, and many a positive resemblance in the “Divina Commedia” has been pointed out; and Mr. Cary, in his English version of DANTE, so English, that he makes DANTE speak in blank verse very much like DANTE in stanzas, has observed, that “The reader will, in these marked resemblances, see enough to convince him that Dante had read this singular work.” The truth is, that the “Vision of Alberico” must not be considered as a singular work—but, on the contrary, as the prevalent mode of composition in the monastic ages. It has been ascertained that Alberico was written in the twelfth century. The age of a manuscript is judged by the writing. I shall now preserve a vision which a French antiquary had long ago given, with the design to show how they abused the simplicity of our Gothic ancestors, but with an utter want of taste for such inventions, which he deems to be “monstrous.” He has not told us the age in which it was written. This vision, however, exhibits such complete scenes of the Inferno of the great poet, that the writer must have read DANTE, or DANTE must have read this writer. The manuscript, with another of the same kind, is in the King’s Library at Paris, and some future researcher may ascertain the age of these Gothic compositions; doubtless they will be found to belong to the age of Alberico, for they are alike stamped by the same dark and awful imagination, the same depth of feeling, the solitary genius of the monastery!

It may be necessary to observe, that these “Visions” were merely a vehicle for popular instruction; nor must we depend on the age of their composition by the names of the suppositious visionaries affixed to them: they were the satires of the times. The following elaborate views of some scenes in the Inferno were composed by some honest monk who was dissatisfied with the bishops, and who took this covert means of pointing out how the neglect of their episcopal duties was punished in the after-life; with the feudal nobility for their oppressions: and he even boldly ascended to the throne.

“The Vision of Charles the Bald, of the places of punishment, and the happiness of the just.*

“I, Charles, by the gratuitous gift of God, king of the Germans, Roman patrician, and likewise emperor of the Franks;

“On the holy night of Sunday, having performed the divine offices of matins, returning to my bed to sleep, a voice most terrible came to my ear; ‘Charles! thy spirit shall now issue from thy body; thou shalt go and behold the judgments of God; they shall serve thee only as presages, and thy spirit shall again return shortly afterwards.’ Instantly was my spirit rapt, and he who bore me away was a being of the most splendid whiteness. He put into my hand a bail of thread, which shed about a blaze of light, such as the comet darts when it is apparent. He divided it, and said to me, ‘Take thou this thread, and bind it strongly on the thumb of thy right hand, and by this I will lead thee through the infernal labyrinths of punishments.’

“Then going before me with velocity, but always unwinding this luminous thread, he conducted me into deep valleys filled with fires, and wells inflamed, blazing with all sorts of unctuous matter. There I observed the prelates who had served my father and my ancestors. Although I trembled, I still, however, inquired of them to learn the cause of their torments. They answered, ‘We are the bishops of your father and your ancestors; instead of uniting them and their people in peace and concord, we sowed among them discord, and were the incentors of evil: for this are we burning in these Tartarean punishments; we and other men-slayers and devourers of rapine. Here also shall come your bishops, and that crowd of satellites who surround you, and who imitate the evil we have done.’

“And while I listened to them tremblingly, I beheld the blackest demons flying with hooks of burning iron, who would have caught that ball of thread which I held in my hand, and have drawn it towards them, but it darted such a reverberating light that they could not lay hold of the thread. These demons, when at my back, hustled to precipitate me into those sulphurous pits; but my conductor, who carried the ball, wound about my shoulder a doubled thread, drawing me to him with such force, that we ascended high mountains of flame, from whence issued lakes and burning streams, melting all kinds of metals. There I found the souls of lords who had served my father and my brothers; some plunged in up to the hair of their heads, others to their chins, others with half their bodies immersed. These yelling, cried to me, ‘It is for inflaming discontents with your father, and our brothers, and yourself, to make war and spread murder and rapine, eager for earthly spoils, that we now suffer these torments in these rivers of boiling metal.’ While I was timidly bending over their sufferings, I heard at my back the clamour of voices, potentes potenter tormenta patiuntur! ‘The powerful suffer torments powerfully;’ and I looked up, and beheld on the shores boiling streams and ardent furnaces, blazing with pitch and sulphur, full of great dragons, large scorpions, and serpents of a strange species; where also I saw some of my ancestors, princes, and my brothers also, who said to me, ‘Alas, Charles! behold our heavy punishment for evil, and for proud malignant counsels, which in our realms and in thine we yielded to from the lust of dominion.’ As I was grieving with their groans, dragons hurried on, who sought to devour me with throats opened, belching flame and sulphur. But my leader trebled the thread over me, at whose resplendent light these were overcome. Leading me then securely, we descended into a great valley, which on one side was darkly tenebrous, yet lighted by ardent furnaces, while the amenity of the other was so pleasant and splendid that I cannot describe it. I turned, however, to the obscure and flaming side; I beheld some kings of my race agonised in great and strange punishments, and I thought how in an instant the huge black giants who in turmoil were working to set this whole valley into flames, would have hurled me into these gulfs; I still trembled, when the luminous thread cheered my eyes, and on the other side of the valley a light for a little while whitened, gradually breaking: I observed two fountains; one, whose waters had extreme heat, the other more temperate and clear; and two large vessels filled with these waters. The luminous thread rested on one of the fervid waters, where I saw my father Louis covered to his thighs, and though labouring in the anguish of bodily pain, he spoke to me. ‘My son Charles, fear nothing! I know that thy spirit shall return unto thy body; and God has permitted thee to come here that thou mayst witness, because of the sins I have committed, the punishments I endure. One day I am placed in the boiling bath of this large vessel, and on another changed into that of more tempered waters: this I owe to the prayers of Saint Peter, Saint Denis, Saint Remy, who are the patrons of our royal house; but if by prayers and masses, offerings and alms, psalmody and vigils, my faithful bishops, and abbots, and even all the ecclesiastical order, assist me, it will not be long before I am delivered from these boiling waters. Look on your left!’ I looked, and beheld two tuns of boiling waters. ‘These are prepared for thee,’ he said, ‘if thou wilt not be thy own corrector, and do penance for thy crimes!’ Then I began to sink with horror; but my guide, perceiving the panic of my spirit, said to me, ‘Follow me to the right of the valley, bright in the glorious light of Paradise.’ I had not long proceeded, when, amidst the most illustrious kings, I beheld my uncle Lotharius seated on a topaz of marvellous magnitude crowned with a most precious diadem; and beside him was his son Louis, like him, crowned, and seeing me, he spake with a blandishment of air, and a sweetness of voice, ‘Charles, my successor, now the third in the Roman empire, approach! I know that thou hast come to view these places of punishment, where thy father and my brother groan to his destined hour; but still to end by the intercession of the three saints, the patrons of the kings and the people of France. Know that it will not be long ere thou shalt be dethroned, and shortly after thou shalt die!’ Then Louis, turning towards me: ‘Thy Roman empire shall pass into the hands of Louis, the son of my daughter; give him the sovereign authority, and trust to his hands that ball of thread thou holdest.’ Directly I loosened it from the finger of my right hand to give the empire to his son. This invested him with empire, and he became brilliant with all light; and at the same instant, admirable to see, my spirit, greatly wearied and broken, returned gliding into my body. Hence let all know whatever happen, that Louis the Young possesses the Roman empire destined by God. Arid so the Lord will perform when he shall call me away to another life, who reigneth over the living and the dead, and whose kingdom endureth for ever and for aye,”

The French literary antiquaries judged of these “Visions” by the mere nationality of their taste. Everything Gothic with them is barbarous, and they see nothing in the redeeming spirit of genius, nor the secret purpose of these curious documents of the age.

The Vision of Charles the Bald may be found in the ancient chronicles of St. Denis, which were written under the eye of the Abbé Suger, the learned and able minister of Louis the Young, and were certainly written before the thirteenth century. The learned writer of the fourth volume of the Mélanges tirés d’une grande Bibliothèque, who had as little taste for these mysterious visions as the other French critic, apologizes for the venerable Abbé Suger’s admission of such visions: “Assuredly,” he says, “the Abbé Suger was too wise and too enlightened to believe in similar visions; but if he suffered its insertion, or if he inserted it himself in the Chronicle of St. Denis, it is because he felt that such a fable offered an excellent lesson to kings, to ministers, and bishops, and it had been well if they had not had worse tales told them,” The latter part is as philosophical as the former is the reverse.

In these extraordinary productions of a Gothic age we may assuredly discover DANTE; but what are they more than the framework of his unimitated picture? It is only this mechanical part of his sublime conceptions that we can pretend to have discovered; other poets might have adopted these “Visions,” but we should have had no “Divina Commedia.” Mr. Cary has finely observed of these pretended origins of DANTE’s genius, although Mr. Cary knew only The Vision of Alberico, “It is the scale of magnificence on which this conception was framed, and the wonderful development of it in all its parts, that may justly entitle our poet to rank among the few minds to whom the power to a great creative faculty can be ascribed.” Milton might originally have sought the seminal hint of his great work from a sort of Italian mystery. In the words of Dante himself,

“Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda.”
                    Il Paradiso, Can. I.
   “———From a small spark
Great flame hath risen.”—CARY.

After all, DANTE has said in a letter, “I found the ORIGINAL OF MY HELL in the WORLD which we inhabit;” and he said a greater truth than some literary antiquaries can always comprehend!


* In MSS. Bib. Reg, inter lat. No. 2447, p. 134.


Editor’s Notes

 § In later editions of the Curiosities, there is one additional footnote, pertaining to the article as a whole:

In the recent edition of Dante, by Romanis, in four volumes, quarto, the last preserves the “Vision of Alberico,” and a strange correspondence on its publication; the resemblances in numerous passages are pointed out. It is curious to observe that the good Catholic Abbate Cancellieri, at first maintained the authenticity of the Vision, by alleging that similar revelations have not been unusual!—the Cavaliere Gherardi Rossi attacked the whole as the crude legend of a boy who was only made the instrument of the monks, and was either a liar or a parrot! We may express our astonishment that, at the present day, a subject of mere literary inquiry should have been involved with “the faith of the Roman church.” Cancellieri becomes at length submissive to the lively attacks of Rossi; and the editor gravely adds his “conclusion,” which had nearly concluded nothing! He discovers pictures, sculptures, and a mystery acted, as well as Visions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, from which he imagines the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso owe their first conception. The originality of Dante, however, is maintained on a right principle; that the poet only employed the ideas and the materials which is found in his own country and his own times.