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HELL 407no such anecdote of Dante's private life has reached us, but by this Hebrew verse we may consider his proficiency to be proved*equally well, as that of our own bard by his facility in understanding what he heard read by his daughters. As to internal evidence in their compositions, whatever Orientalisms the English of Milton may be held to contain, such vestiges are far less significant or numerous there, than in the Italian of Dante: for, not to anticipate many we shall hereafter find in this poem, nor to repeat any thing already noticed, it will suffice to observe that in his version of the psalms I have myself been able to discover above a dozen instances, in which he leaves the Vulgate to follow the original Hebrew. It were just to transport our imagination back to his age, before pronouncing on the propriety, or impropriety, of his inserting a variety of languages ( as he has done ) into this poem. He found his country without a formed tongue , as well as without much real science ; but it is not true that
she was without the rudiments the disjecta
membra of multifarious literature; his duty as a good citizen was to put these together and make the most of them. Of the state in which he found and left natural and moral philosophy, this is not the place to speak: but as to languages, he found native Italian in the embryo of a quantity of dialects, many of them very rude and none of them grammatical, and the foreign tongues of Provence,
Greece, Rome and the East all extant in Italy, in some degree, though in various conditions. The first of them appears to have been a fashionable accomplishment in the different courts; of Latin and Greek we have already said something ('. and shall more; and to Arabic our attention shall be drawn on a future occasion, when I shall have to comment a verse written in it. That he should have considered it right to enrich his style by the adoption of many Hebraic idioms, and to recommend by his example the continuance of a study already begun with some success ( that of the speech in which were to be found the purest and primitive sources ot Christianity) was both equitable and highly decorous; and was not certainly to interfere with the other branches of learning, for all these have a close affinity. With regard to his translated Hebraisms, I presume there can be no diversity of sentiment; but that every one will avow he was as justified in employing them as the Spaniards were in adopting Arabic idioms: for thus in his country's language, which he found so meagre, he kneaded up with such care the best of it's own numerous dialects and many foreign ones, that he left it richer than any other of modern Europe. Whether his introduction of pure Hebrew into his Italian can be equally well borne out, may be questioned: but if, (for the sake of
(i) Hell, Comment, Cantos in — iv—v pp. i99 —a5x—479
holding out an example to Oriental students) it be considered an admissable license, then on no possible occasion could it be so plausibly introduced as on the present. For in no mouth could the characteristic harshness of the Hebrew be more becoming, than in that of the 'swolnlipt' (quella enfiata labbia), wolfish Plutus; nor any fiend be with greater reason represented as uttering the most ancient language of which we have any remains. That Dante believed the Hebrew to be the most ancient, we have his own words in more than one passage of his Grammar: 'Hebrew was the tongue of the first man (0.' Nor should any one suppose that this is in contradiction with the declaration which we shall find him cause Adam to make, that the language which he used was * all worn out' (tutta spenta (')) before the building of Babel; for it shall appear, that this is to be understood as a kind of poetical hyperbole, not as an absolute affirmation: it only signifies that Hebrew, which at first was universally spoken, had already fallen from its purity before the great confusion of tongues. But that, however corrupted, it was not extinguished, either before or after the tower of Babel, (being still transmitted by the Jews) we know to have been a thesis formally sustained by our Author; since he thus expresses
(i) Fuit ergo Hebraicnm idioma id, quod pritni loquentis labia fabricaverunt. De Vulgari Eloquio, Lib. i. cap. 6. (») Parad. Canto Xxti. V. I»*.
himself in the same grammatical essay mentioned immediately above: 'this form of speech which had been spoken by Adam r and by all his children until the building of Babel, descended as a peculiar inheritance to the Hebrews, in order that our Saviour, when born among them , might speak not the language of confusion, but of beauty and grace . The chosen few to whom this sacred idiom was intrusted were of the seed of Sem, from whom proceeded the people of Israel, who down to the moment of their dispersion continued to employ this most ancient of tongues '').' This opinion recorded so tenaciously is referable to the controversy between scholars, as to whether the books of Moses were originally written in Hebrew, or Chaldaic: it appears to be. in order to decide in favour of the former, that Dante asserts its superior antiquity; and not from a wish to pronounce between the Syriac, Samaritan , and Phoenician, which be apparently considered as only dialects
(0 Hac forma lorut1oni* locutus est Adam; hac form» loeuti «tmt cmues poster! «-jus usque ad tedificationem tnrri» Battel; hauc fnrmam locutionis hsereditst! sunt Glii Heber, qui ab eo dicti sunt Hebr«ei. * Each class of workmen' ( he says ) ' was inflicted with a separate language; bricklayers with one, carpenters with another, etc. In proportion to tbeir alacrity in building, was the deformity of the tongue allotted to them. With a few who took no pari in the fabric the sacred idiom was still left. 'Quibus autem sanctum idioma remansit... hac minima pars fuit de semine Sem .. . de qua ortus est populus Israel qui antiquissima locntione sunt usi usque ad suam dispcrsionem . De Vnlgari Eloquio, Lib. i. cap. 6 —-.
of Hebrew; as indeed they probably were (i). It is curious to observe how frequently is the proverb exemplified of there being nothing new under the sun! A solemn proposal, of which the Edinburgh Review (a) speaks highly, has been made to the Asiatic Society by a learned peer of France and member of the lnstitut, to adapt the Roman letters to the various Oriental languages k3). But I dare say, M. de Volney was little aware that his plan had been put into practice so many ages since; and that of the five tongues, Persian, Turkish, Syriac, Arabic, and Hebraic, which he writes in European characters, the old Tuscan poet had already preceded his invention with regard to two the two principal of
them . Whether such a device be approved of or not, as likely to be of any general benefit either to science or commerce, the defence of Dante in his particular circumstances rests upon more substantial ground, that of experience. For to nothing else than its being written as it was, can we attribute the preservation of his verse down to this day : had the copyists been doomed to labour at words, of which not only the meaning was hidden to them, but with whose letters they were also unacquainted, it would have been altogether impossible for
(i) Of these Contiguous Countries the letters and the language , always analogous, were once probably the same. Ed. Rev. No. Lxiv.
(a) Id. Id.
(5) L'Alphabet Europeen applique aux Ungues Asiatiquts, etc. Par C. F. Volney, Comte et Pair de France et mt-inbre de 1' lnstitut.