Milton v. Dante, the Cage Match

Continuing the ecclesiastical theme begun by Cat, our shepard, I thought I’d share some thoughts on related readings.

I’ve been on a damnation kick lately (possibly spurred by a recent birthday) and have read in the last few weeks C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, all of Wayne Barlowe’s fascinating infernal art and text, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. I suppose I’ll have to get around to the Holy Bible at some point.

Curious about my reading list, my sainted mother asked how I find Milton and Dante and how they compare. I sent her this brief review:

…I am not quite done with Inferno, but here’s my sense of how these two poets differ.

The Dante is in translation, and evidently his many translators disagree on how various passages should be read, and whether the translation should be literal or in spirit (as interpreted by the translator.)

The guy who did my version (Mark Musa) wrote a lengthy introduction titled, “How to Be a Good Lover,” in which he argued for a gentle but active approach to translation. He sees Dante as speaking to Everyman and interprets the poet’s choice of words as colloquial, so translates them in kind. He tries to mirror Dante’s puns but did not try to mirror his rhyme, which he sees in other translations as making for a tortured work that serves the wrong master. He frequently prints the original Italian lines in his page notes so that you can decide for yourself if the cognates make sense. Interestingly, there is a good bit of falconry referenced in this (Dante lived in the 1300s) and obviously he knew the sport; the translations of it are accurate and meaningful.*

All that said, I find Dante’s poem a little too pedestrian, considering the subject matter. He seems to be using the work mostly as a vehicle to make his political statements and lampoon his contemporary rivals. I could be wrong (probably am considering the legs this poem has!) and even after Inferno I will have the epic’s other two parts to read (Purgatorio, Paradiso) so will reserve judgment.

Milton, on the other hand, is glorious, top to bottom. I wept in a couple places where the meaning and the beauty of the words hit a harmonic note. Milton uses every device to get his message across: It reads on one level as an adventure story (I’m sure its original audience ate that up–sex and violence and all!). On other levels it makes painfully clear the wages of sin, and then counters its own arguments with plausible, thoroughly modern excuses for our worst behaviors. No one is set up as a straw man. There are no purely rhetorical figures, a fact that amazed me. Satan, whom Milton paints with incredible complexity and even pity, would be a high-paid talking head in today’s media. Hell, maybe he is!

Milton’s angels are brave and wise in ways that do not seem at all contrived. They seem inspired. Adam and Eve are drawn as complicated full-scale people, faulty in ways we instantly recognize and better in ways we should want to emulate. Eve, like Satan, is thoroughly complex; and while she gets her due, she goes down swinging and comes back up better off. Milton makes Adam do the best he can as a wide-eyed, somewhat naive man who truly loves his wife and his God but cannot do either of them full justice.

It’s just great, start to finish…

* Interesting falconry references from the Dante: First, Emperor Fredrick II, that paragon of falconry lore and higher learning, is right now burning in Hell, according to our guide. In Canto X, we learn that Fredrick repents eternally for the sin of Epicureanism, the seeking of modest pleasures and worldly knowledge. Well, so much for that option!

In Canto XVII, Dante’s narrator and his companion Virgil travel into a lower circle of Hell on the back of the monstrous, winged Geryon, who is none too happy about providing this service. Near the end of the flight, Geryon’s annoyance becomes hard to conceal:

As the falcon on the wing for many hours,
having found no prey, and having seen no signal
(so that the falconer sighs: “Oh, he falls already”),

descends, worn out, circling a hundred times
(instead of swooping down), settling at some distance
from his master, perched in anger and disdain,

so Geryon brought us down to the bottom
at the foot of the jagged cliff, almost against it
and once he got our bodies off his back,

he shot off like a shaft shot from a bowstring.

Here and in the next passage (from Canto XXII) we see something remarkable about these falconry references that prove to me Dante not only knew falconry but expected his 14th century readers to know it as well: These two passages are descriptions not of glorious falconry but of mundane failures, “blown slips” we might call them today.

In this passage, two angry devils are in pursuit of a cheating government bureaucrat (evidently as common an occupation in the Middle Ages as today):

Little good it did, for wings could not outstrip
the flight of terror: down the sinner dived
and up the fiend was forced to strain his chest

like a falcon swooping down on a wild duck:
the duck dives quickly out of sight, the falcon
must fly back up dejected and defeated.

In the meantime, Calcabrina, furious
also took off, hoping the shade would make it,
so he could pick a fight with his companion.

And when he saw the grafter hit the pitch,
he turned his claws to grapple with his brother,
and they tangled in mid-air above the ditch;

but the other was a full-fledged hawk as well
and used his claws on him, and both of them
went plunging straight into the boiling pond.

I’d wager Dante spent many a day in the field with hawks and falcons. Or rather, I wouldn’t risk to wager, lest there be eternal consequence!


  1. I am reading the Divine Comedy currently also- just about done with the Inferno. I think all books should include some falconry references.

  2. Hey Steve! Lauren McGough's little sister here. Thanks for this great post! I am writing a short paper over falconry throughout Dante's divine comedy and this finding this was quite the motivator!

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