Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Mediæval Imitations of the Classics
By Thomas Warton (17281790)
From the History of English Poetry
IT must be allowed, that the scenes of Virgils sixth book have many fine strokes of the terrible; but Dantes colouring is of a more gloomy temperature. There is a sombrous cast in his imagination; and he has given new shades of horror to the classical hell. We may say of Dante, that
Grows darker at his frown.
The sensations of fear impressed by the Roman poet are less harassing to the repose of the mind; they have a more equable and placid effect. The terror of Virgils tremendous objects is diminished by correctness of composition and elegance of style. We are reconciled to his Gorgons and Hydras, by the grace of expression, and the charms of versification.
In the meantime, it may seem a matter of surprise, that the Italian poets of the thirteenth century, who restored, admired, and studied the classics, did not imitate their beauties. But while they possessed the genuine models of antiquity, their unnatural and eccentric habits of mind and manners, their attachments to system, their scholastic theology, superstition, ideal love, and above all their chivalry, had corrupted every true principle of life and literature, and consequently prevented the progress of taste and propriety. They could not conform to the practices and notions of their own age, and to the ideas of the ancients, at the same time. They were dazzled with the imageries of Virgil and Homer, which they could not always understand or apply, or which they saw through the mist of prejudice and misconception. Their genius having once taken a false direction, when recalled to copy a just pattern, produced only constraint and affectation, a distorted and unpleasing resemblance. The early Italian poets disfigured instead of adorning their works, by attempting to imitate the classics. The charms which we so much admire in Dante, do not belong to the Greeks and Romans. They are derived from another origin, and must be traced back to a different stock. Nor is it at the same time less surprising, that the later Italian poets, in more enlightened times, should have paid so respectful a compliment to Dante as to acknowledge no other model, and with his excellencies to transcribe and perpetuate all his extravagancies.