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The Origin Of Dante’s Inferno
by [?]

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 poem, singular in its nature and in 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 after-life 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 awake to these awful themes.

The mode of writing visions has been imperfectly detected by several modern inquirers. It got into the Fabliaux of the Jongleurs, or Provencal bards, before the days of Dante; they had these visions or pilgrimages to Hell; the adventures were no doubt solemn to them–but it seemed absurd to attribute the origin of a sublime poem to such inferior, and to us even 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 Shakspeare, or like Gothic architecture itself, has many things which “lead to nothing” amidst their massive greatness.

Had the Italian and the French commentators 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. Abbate Cancellieri 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.