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COMMENT

HELL

CANTO THE THIRD ,
A U

I have already said the preceding Cantos are introductory: so that here properly begins Hell, or the first of the three parts, or Canticles , into which the Divine Comedy is divided . Within the infernal gate lies the vestibule, whose inner boundary is a stream named, with classical deference, Acheron; over which the souls are ferried by an old man, who, with the same ingenuous respect for antiquity, is called Charon . NAfter some difficulty, this latter is persuaded to embark our travellers; and, when they appear to be about entering his bark, Dante falls down in a stupor. Such is the subject of this Canto: whose resemblance to the opening of the sixth book of the Aeneid is perceived at once. The vestibule in both is represented as a place of sorrow and frightful sights: Vestibulum ante ipsum primisque in faucibus Orci Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia curae etc. (•)

(i) Lib vi. v »73.

* ■

TO iir.

although it in both be the road that leads to a sweet region of repose, as well as to the receptacles

of pain and guilt, to Elysium and Limbo, as

well as to Tartarus and the bottomless pit. But it is time to say something of the form of Dante's

hell a previqus acquaintance with which is an

almost indispensable requisite. For he here really employed those nine circles, which (groundlessly perhaps) were attributed to the Aeneid by Servins; and I suppose he did so in consequence of having studied that commentator. This then is one of the radical differences between the two poems, (the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy) that an infernal topography is a necessary preliminary to the understanding of the one , and not of the other. Virgil possibly never imagined such divisions , and they may he the mere inventions of the critics; but Dante certainly did: to whom a clear order was, in this particular, of more moment; since he determined on dedicating two thirds of his work to the elucidation of a subject only cursorily introduced in the Aeneid , and therefore dispatched there in a portion of one single book out of twelve.

Substracting all its expiatory punishments (that is the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth of the commentator's circles, which, as 1 before said CO, make in reality one homogeneous

(i) Hell, Comment Canto u. p i38.

IURTO III.

division, answering to the Infernus purgandorum of Catholics, and are therefore treated of separately in the canticle, Purgatory) the remainder of the Virgilian hell (in substance forming three divisions, that accurately resemble the Infernus puerorum , Infernus sanctorum Patrum , and Infernus damnatorum, of the Romish Church) is the subject of the present canticle . The region then of which it treats is, like that of Virgil, placed within the bowels of our earth; and also divided, as that of Virgil's is represented to be, into a vestibule and nine circles. That the Sybil led down Aeneas by one subterraneous passage, and returned back by another, comprises the whole information there given of the infernal site: and, since they came out close to the spot whereby they had entered, it is impossible to pronounce as to the extent of their peregrinations in the interior; so that it seems to have been the Author's intention, that in this instance the literal sense should be nearly quite lost in the allegorical. Dante, on the contrary, has explained his descent with somewhat of geometrical precision*. He too makes his entrance by one door, and his exit by another; but he lets ns know that in his way he completely traversed the globe; descending from this our hemisphere, and coming out at last at the antipodes. The exact geographical position of the cave by which he entered is not mentioned (although there have not been wanting some annotators who busied them

C4HTO nr.

selves in conjecturing it); but, when he is within, he descries the earth to be marvellously scooped hollow in the form of a vast amphitheatre, exactly beneath mount Sion and the City of Jerusalem. This hollow had been caused ( as we shall be told ) by the fall of Lucifer; who

by the Almighty power

Hurl'd headlong flaming from the ethereal sky

With hideous ruin and combustion

fell with such violence upon the southern hemisphere that he transGxed the, till then solid, globe: a proof that Dante, (contrary to Milton) assented to those, who contend that the celestial war was posterior to the creation of our earth, though

prior to that of mankind, or, in other words,

that it took place between the first and sixth day of Genesis. The spot whereon he fell is said to have become afterwards the garden of Eden (an hypothesis peculiar to the Tuscan poet, I believe) and, after the transgression of our first parents, the island of Purgatory: which antarctic portion of the world might Have been represented, in Dante's age, as a land of ghosts-:—■ if not quite reasonably, at least on respectable classical authority ; for Cicero had affirmed that there was probably an habitable and inhabited hemisphere opposite to ours, but that its inhabitants must be some race very different from our mortal one( 0. Having

(i) Duo sunt habitahiles : australis ille, in quo qui insistunt, adrer«a yobit urgent vestigia , nihil ail vetlrum geitiu: hie autem alter sub. jectns aquiloni etc Somiiuui Scip.

Oka to in.

in that fall pierced the centre of the earth, (which I before showed was held to be the centre of the universe) his monstrous bulk there sticks for ever; his legs towering up towards the antarctic and his bust towards this ohr arctic pole. The cavern occupied by those gigantic limbs seems to contain little else meriting notice; at least we shall find Dante climbing up through it without a remark on any thing beside: and since he gropes his way out on the Antipodes, through a narrow water-cleft, it is clear, that the mouth of the mighty cavity, made on that antarctic surface by the demon's plunge, was soon covered over again. It is the other cavern (the one amid which his bust shoots up within this our own hemisphere j that is supposed to be inhabited by evii spirits and to be laid out in various scenes . That bust however (notwithstanding its prodigious stature) rises from the centre , or bottom , for only a moderate height when compared with the immense vault over head ; which vault was formed by the convulsion of nature when in the act of flying from the stricken fiend; for in an earthquake she then vomited forth those crude materials, which (perpendicularly above him) became the mountain afterwards so renowned under the name of Siou, and long looked upon by vulgar opinion as a kind of topmost pinnacle on the surface of

(i) Htll, Comment. Canto n. p. i30.

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