August 26, 2010

Dante and Milton, according to Sayers

"Dante and Milton, endowed with temperaments curiously alike and intellects evenly matched, did, at three centuries' distance from one another, encounter much the same vital problems, endure similar vicissitudes, tread the same path foot for foot, produce a body of work which is comparable not only in general but in detail, and build each his enduring monument with a poem [Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost] which is the statement and justification of his faith."

Dorothy L. Sayers. "Dante and Milton," Further Papers on Dante (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 148-182.

Yet Dorothy L. Sayers admits there is little textual evidence for a direct influence of one over the other, and she is quick to state her bias towards towards Dante. It soon becomes clear that her strategy is to use Milton as a foil for Dante, and consequently, to denigrate Renaissance Humanism as the corruption of medieval Catholicism (indeed, she says that she and Dante "share the same faith").

In contrast to Milton, whose expectation of perfection in everyone and every institution led to a life of shocks, failures and disillusionments, Dante's whole nature, his entire being, was present in and expressed by his faith. And Sayers is eager to point out that "nowhere in Dante do we find the smallest vestige of contempt for, or resentment against, Women in general." This is because "Dante was sexually centralised" and Milton was not. In other words, Dante was a grounded realist, while Milton's "idealism was his undoing, and his very virtues betrayed him." This helps to explain why Milton makes the God of Paradise Lost into a set of abstract properties and theological affectations; and why Milton landed in between the heresies of Arianism on the one hand (disbelief in the full divinity of Christ) and Pelagianism (human nature is sufficient in itself to achieve salvation and perfection) on the other. 

"Milton," Sayers finally observes, "was a Dante deprived of Beatrice."

1 comment:

  1. Both of those texts were essentially about the inevitable death of The Beloved in all of its possible forms, or the fact that death rules to here in meat-body land. Neither of them came to a satisfactory conclusion.

    By contrast the author of this remarkably beautiful set of words came to a full resolution of what He called Raymond's Problem

    The above words are taken from this remarkable book.