[Note: This is taken from James Russell Lowell's Among My Books.]
On the banks of a little river so shrunken by the suns of summer that it seems fast passing into a tradition, but swollen by the autumnal rains with an Italian suddenness of passion till the massy bridge shudders under the impatient heap of waters behind it, stands a city which, in its period of bloom not so large as Boston, may well rank next to Athens in the history which teaches come l’ uom s’ eterna.
Originally only a convenient spot in the valley where the fairs of the neighboring Etruscan city of Fiesole were held, it gradually grew from a huddle of booths to a town, and then to a city, which absorbed its ancestral neighbor and became a cradle for the arts, the letters, the science, and the commerce of modern Europe. For her Cimabue wrought, who infused Byzantine formalism with a suggestion of nature and feeling; for her the Pisani, who divined at least, if they could not conjure with it, the secret of Greek supremacy in sculpture; for her the marvellous boy Ghiberti proved that unity of composition and grace of figure and drapery were never beyond the reach of genius; for her Brunelleschi curved the dome which Michel Angelo hung in air on St. Peter’s; for her Giotto reared the bell-tower graceful as an Horatian ode in marble; and the great triumvirate of Italian poetry, good sense, and culture called her mother. There is no modern city about which cluster so many elevating associations, none in which the past is so contemporary with us in unchanged buildings and undisturbed monuments. The house of Dante is still shown; children still receive baptism at the font (il mio bel San Giovanni) where he was christened before the acorn dropped that was to grow into a keel for Columbus; and an inscribed stone marks the spot where he used to sit and watch the slow blocks swing up to complete the master-thought of Arnolfo. In the convent of St. Mark hard by lived and labored Beato Angelico, the saint of Christian art, and Fra Bartolommeo, who taught Raphael dignity. From the same walls Savonarola went forth to his triumphs, short-lived almost as the crackle of his martyrdom. The plain little chamber of Michel Angelo seems still to expect his return; his last sketches lie upon the table, his staff leans in the corner, and his slippers wait before the empty chair. On one of the vine-clad hills, just without the city walls, one’s feet may press the same stairs that Milton climbed to visit Galileo. To an American there is something supremely impressive in this cumulative influence of the past full of inspiration and rebuke, something saddening in this repeated proof that moral supremacy is the only one that leaves monuments and not ruins behind it. Time, who with us obliterates the labor and often the names of yesterday, seems here to have spared almost the prints of the care piante that shunned the sordid paths of worldly honor.
Around the courtyard of the great Museum of Florence stand statues of her illustrious dead, her poets, painters, sculptors, architects, inventors, and statesmen; and as the traveller feels the ennobling lift of such society, and reads the names or recognizes the features familiar to him as his own threshold, he is startled to find Fame as commonplace here as Notoriety everywhere else, and that this fifth-rate city should have the privilege thus to commemorate so many famous men her sons, whose claim to pre-eminence the whole world would concede. Among them is one figure before which every scholar, every man who has been touched by the tragedy of life, lingers with reverential pity. The haggard cheeks, the lips clamped together in unfaltering resolve, the scars of lifelong battle, and the brow whose sharp outline seems the monument of final victory,-- this, at least, is a face that needs no name beneath it. This is he who among literary fames finds only two that for growth and immutability can parallel his own. The suffrages of highest authority would now place him second in that company where he with proud humility took the sixth place.
Dante (Durante, by contraction Dante) degli Alighieri was born at Florence in 1265, probably during the month of May. This is the date given by Boccaccio, who is generally followed, though he makes a blunder in saying, sedendo Urbano quarto nella cattedra di San Pietro, for Urban died in October, 1264. Some, misled by an error in a few of the early manuscript copies of the Divina Commedia, would have him born five years earlier, in 1260. According to Arrivabene, Sansovino was the first to confirm Boccaccio’s statement by the authority of the poet himself, basing his argument on the first verse of the Inferno,--
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”;
the average age of man having been declared by the Psalmist to be seventy years, and the period of the poet’s supposed vision being unequivocally fixed at 1300. Leonardo Aretino and Manetti add their testimony to that of Boccaccio, and 1265 is now universally assumed as the true date. Voltaire, nevertheless, places the poet’s birth in 1260, and jauntily forgives Bayle (who, he says, écrivait à Rotterdam currente calamo pour son libraire) for having been right, declaring that he esteems him neither more nor less for having made a mistake of five years. Oddly enough, Voltaire adopts this alleged blunder of five years on the next page in saying that Dante died at the age of 56, though he still more oddly omits the undisputed date of his death (1321), which would have shown Bayle to be right. The poet’s descent is said to have been derived from a younger son of the great Roman family of the Frangipani, classed by the popular rhyme with the Orsini and Colonna:--
“Colonna, Orsini, e Frangipani,
Prendono oggi e pagano domani.”
That his ancestors had been long established in Florence is an inference from some expressions of the poet, and from their dwelling having been situated in the more ancient part of the city. The most important fact of the poet’s genealogy is, that he was of mixed race, the Alighieri being of Teutonic origin. Dante was born, as he himself tells us, when the sun was in the constellation Gemini, and it has been absurdly inferred, from a passage in the Inferno, that his horoscope was drawn and a great destiny predicted for him by his teacher, Brunetto Latini. The Ottimo Comento tells us that the Twins are the house of Mercury, who induces in men the faculty of writing, science, and of acquiring knowledge. This is worth mentioning as characteristic of the age and of Dante himself, with whom the influence of the stars took the place of the old notion of destiny. It is supposed, from a passage in Boccaccio’s life of Dante, that Alighiero the father was still living when the poet was nine years old. If so, he must have died soon after, for Leonardo Aretino, who wrote with original documents before him, tells us that Dante lost his father while yet a child. This circumstance may have been not without influence in muscularizing his nature to that character of self-reliance which shows itself so constantly and sharply during his after-life. His tutor was Brunetto Latini, a very superior man (for that age), says Aretino parenthetically. Like Alexander Gill, he is now remembered only as the schoolmaster of a great poet, and that he did his duty well may be inferred from Dante’s speaking of him gratefully as one who by times “taught him how man eternizes himself.” This, and what Villani says of his refining the Tuscan idiom (for so we understand his farli scorti in bene parlare), are to be noted as of probable influence on the career of his pupil. Of the order of Dante’s studies nothing can be certainly affirmed. His biographers send him to Bologna, Padua, Paris, Naples, and even Oxford. All are doubtful, Paris and Oxford most of all, and the dates utterly undeterminable. Yet all are possible, nay, perhaps probable. Bologna and Padua we should be inclined to place before his exile; Paris and Oxford, if at all, after it. If no argument in favor of Paris is to be drawn from his Pape Satan and the corresponding paix, paix, Sathan, in the autobiography of Cellini, nor from the very definite allusion to Doctor Siger, we may yet infer from some passages in the Commedia that his wanderings had extended even farther; for it would not be hard to show that his comparisons and illustrations from outward things are almost invariably drawn from actual eyesight. As to the nature of his studies, there can be no doubt that he went through the trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) of the then ordinary university course. To these he afterward added painting (or at least drawing,--designavo un angelo sopra certe tavolette), theology, and medicine. He is said to have been the pupil of Cimabue, and was certainly the friend of Giotto, the designs for some of whose frescos at Assisi and elsewhere have been wrongly attributed to him, though we may safely believe in his helpful comment and suggestion. To prove his love of music, the episode of Casella were enough, even without Boccaccio’s testimony. The range of Dante’s study and acquirement would be encyclopedic in any age, but at that time it was literally possible to master the omne scibile, and he seems to have accomplished it. How lofty his theory of science was, is plain from this passage in the Convito: “He is not to be called a true lover of wisdom (filosofo) who loves it for the sake of gain, as do lawyers, physicians, and almost all churchmen (li religiosi), who study, not in order to know, but to acquire riches or advancement, and who would not persevere in study should you give them what they desire to gain by it.... And it may be said that (as true friendship between men consists in each wholly loving the other) the true philosopher loves every part of wisdom, and wisdom every part of the philosopher, inasmuch as she draws all to herself, and allows no one of his thoughts to wander to other things.” The Convito gives us a glance into Dante’s library. We find Aristotle (whom he calls the philosopher, the master) cited seventy-six times; Cicero, eighteen; Albertus Magnus, seven; Boethius, six; Plato (at second-hand), four; Aquinas, Avicenna, Ptolemy, the Digest, Lucan, and Ovid, three each; Virgil, Juvenal, Statius, Seneca, and Horace, twice each; and Algazzali, Alfrogan, Augustine, Livy, Orosius, and Homer (at second-hand), once. Of Greek he seems to have understood little; of Hebrew and Arabic, a few words. But it was not only in the closet and from books that Dante received his education. He acquired, perhaps, the better part of it in the streets of Florence, and later, in those homeless wanderings which led him (as he says) wherever the Italian tongue was spoken. His were the only open eyes of that century, and, as nothing escaped them, so there is nothing that was not photographed upon his sensitive brain, to be afterward fixed forever in the Commedia. What Florence was during his youth and manhood, with its Guelphs and Ghibellines, its nobles and trades, its Bianchi and Neri, its kaleidoscopic revolutions, “all parties loving liberty and doing their best to destroy her,” as Voltaire says, it would be beyond our province to tell even if we could. Foreshortened as events are when we look back on them across so many ages, only the upheavals of party conflict catching the eye, while the spaces of peace between sink out of the view of history, a whole century seems like a mere wild chaos. Yet during a couple of such centuries the cathedrals of Florence, Pisa, and Siena got built; Cimabue, Giotto, Arnolfo, the Pisani, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti gave the impulse to modern art, or brought it in some of its branches to its culminating point; modern literature took its rise; commerce became a science, and the middle class came into being. It was a time of fierce passions and sudden tragedies, of picturesque transitions and contrasts. It found Dante, shaped him by every experience that life is capable of,--rank, ease, love, study, affairs, statecraft, hope, exile, hunger, dependence, despair,--until he became endowed with a sense of the nothingness of this world’s goods possible only to the rich, and a knowledge of man possible only to the poor. The few well-ascertained facts of Dante’s life may be briefly stated. In 1274 occurred what we may call his spiritual birth, the awakening in him of the imaginative faculty, and of that profounder and more intense consciousness which springs from the recognition of beauty through the antithesis of sex. It was in that year that he first saw Beatrice Portinari. In 1289 he was present at the battle of Campaldino, fighting on the side of the Guelphs, who there utterly routed the Ghibellines, and where, he says characteristically enough, “I was present, not a boy in arms, and where I felt much fear, but in the end the greatest pleasure, from the various changes of the fight.” In the same year he assisted at the siege and capture of Caprona. In 1290 died Beatrice, married to Simone dei Bardi, precisely when is uncertain, but before 1287, as appears by a mention of her in her father’s will, bearing date January 15 of that year. Dante’s own marriage is assigned to various years, ranging from 1291 to 1294; but the earlier date seems the more probable, as he was the father of seven children (the youngest, a daughter, named Beatrice) in 1301. His wife was Gemma dei Donati, and through her Dante, whose family, though noble, was of the lesser nobility, became nearly connected with Corso Donati, the head of a powerful clan of the grandi, or greater nobles. In 1293 occurred what is called the revolution of Gian Della Bella, in which the priors of the trades took the power into their own hands, and made nobility a disqualification for office. A noble was defined to be any one who counted a knight among his ancestors, and thus the descendant of Cacciaguida was excluded.
Della Bella was exiled in 1295, but the nobles did not regain their power. On the contrary, the citizens, having all their own way, proceeded to quarrel among themselves, and subdivided into the popolani grossi and popolani minuti, or greater and lesser trades,--a distinction of gentility somewhat like that between wholesale and retail tradesmen. The grandi continuing turbulent, many of the lesser nobility, among them Dante, drew over to the side of the citizens, and between 1297 and 1300 there is found inscribed in the book of the physicians and apothecaries, Dante d’ Aldighiero, degli Aldighieri, poeta Fiorentino Professor de Vericour thinks it necessary to apologize for this lapse on the part of the poet, and gravely bids us take courage, nor think that Dante was ever an apothecary. In 1300 we find him elected one of the priors of the city. In order to a perfect misunderstanding of everything connected with the Florentine politics of this period, one has only to study the various histories. The result is a spectrum on the mind’s eye, which looks definite and brilliant, but really hinders all accurate vision, as if from too steady inspection of a Catharine-wheel in full whirl. A few words, however, are necessary, if only to make the confusion palpable. The rival German families of Welfs and Weiblingens had given their names, softened into Guelfi and Ghibellini,--from which Gabriel Harvey ingeniously, but mistakenly, derives elves and goblins,--to two parties in Northern Italy, representing respectively the adherents of the pope and of the emperor, but serving very well as rallying-points in all manner of intercalary and subsidiary quarrels. The nobles, especially the greater ones,--perhaps from instinct, perhaps in part from hereditary tradition, as being more or less Teutonic by descent,--were commonly Ghibellines, or Imperialists; the bourgeoisie were very commonly Guelphs, or supporters of the pope, partly from natural antipathy to the nobles, and partly, perhaps, because they believed themselves to be espousing the more purely Italian side. Sometimes, however, the party relation of nobles and burghers to each other was reversed, but the names of Guelph and Ghibelline always substantially represented the same things. The family of Dante had been Guelphic, and we have seen him already as a young man serving two campaigns against the other party. But no immediate question as between pope and emperor seems then to have been pending; and while there is no evidence that he was ever a mere partisan, the reverse would be the inference from his habits and character. Just before his assumption of the priorate, however, a new complication had arisen. A family feud, beginning at the neighboring city of Pistoja, between the Cancellieri Neri and Cancellieri Bianchi, had extended to Florence, where the Guelphs took the part of the Neri and the Ghibellines of the Bianchi. The city was instantly in a ferment of street brawls, as actors in one of which some of the Medici are incidentally named,--the first appearance of that family in history. Both parties appealed at different times to the pope, who sent two ambassadors, first a bishop and then a cardinal. Both pacificators soon flung out again in a rage, after adding the new element of excommunication to the causes of confusion. It was in the midst of these things that Dante became one of the six priors (June, 1300),--an office which the Florentines had made bimestrial in its tenure, in order apparently to secure at least six constitutional chances of revolution in the year. He advised that the leaders of both parties should be banished to the frontiers, which was forthwith done; the ostracism including his relative Corso Donati among the Neri, and his most intimate friend the poet Guido Cavalcanti among the Bianchi. They were all permitted to return before long (but after Dante’s term of office was over), and came accordingly, bringing at least the Scriptural allowance of “seven other” motives of mischief with them. Affairs getting worse (1301), the Neri, with the connivance of the pope (Boniface VIII.), entered into an arrangement with Charles of Valois, who was preparing an expedition to Italy. Dante was meanwhile sent on an embassy to Rome (September, 1301, according to Arrivabene, but probably earlier) by the Bianchi, who still retained all the offices at Florence. It is the tradition that he said in setting forth: “If I go, who remains? and if I stay, who goes?” Whether true or not, the story implies what was certainly true, that the council and influence of Dante were of great weight with the more moderate of both parties. On October 31, 1301, Charles took possession of Florence in the interest of the Neri. Dante being still at Rome (January 27, 1302), sentence of exile was pronounced against him and others, with a heavy fine to be paid within two months; if not paid, the entire confiscation of goods, and, whether paid or no, exile; the charge against him being pecuniary malversation in office. The fine not paid (as it could not be without admitting the justice of the charges, which Dante scorned even to deny), in less than two months (March 10, 1302) a second sentence was registered, by which he with others was condemned to be burned alive if taken within the boundaries of the republic. From this time the life of Dante becomes semi-mythical, and for nearly every date we are reduced to the “as they say” of Herodotus. He became now necessarily identified with his fellow-exiles (fragments of all parties united by common wrongs in a practical, if not theoretic, Ghibellinism), and shared in their attempts to reinstate themselves by force of arms. He was one of their council of twelve, but withdrew from it on account of the unwisdom of their measures. Whether he was present at their futile assault on Florence (July 22, 1304) is doubtful, but probably he was not. From the Ottimo Comento, written at least in part by a contemporary as early as 1333, we learn that Dante soon separated himself from his companions in misfortune with mutual discontents and recriminations. During the nineteen years of Dante’s exile, it would be hard to say where he was not. In certain districts of Northern Italy there is scarce a village that has not its tradition of him, its sedia, rocca, spelonca, or torre di Dante; and what between the patriotic complaisance of some biographers overwilling to gratify as many provincial vanities as possible, and the pettishness of others anxious only to snub them, the confusion becomes hopeless. After his banishment we find some definite trace of him first at Arezzo with Uguccione della Faggiuola; then at Siena; then at Verona with the Scaligeri. He himself says: “Through almost all parts where this language [Italian] is spoken, a wanderer, wellnigh a beggar, I have gone, showing against my will the wound of fortune. Truly I have been a vessel without sail or rudder, driven to diverse ports, estuaries, and shores by that hot blast, the breath of grievous poverty; and I have shown myself to the eyes of many who perhaps, through some fame of me, had imagined me in quite other guise, in whose view not only was my person debased, but every work of mine, whether done or yet to do, became of less account.” By the election of the emperor Henry VII. (of Luxemburg, November, 1308), and the news of his proposed expedition into Italy, the hopes of Dante were raised to the highest pitch. Henry entered Italy, October, 1310, and received the iron crown of Lombardy at Milan, on the day of Epiphany, 1311. His movements being slow, and his policy undecided, Dante addressed him that famous letter, urging him to crush first the “Hydra and Myrrha” Florence, as the root of all the evils of Italy (April 16, 1311). To this year we must probably assign the new decree by which the seigniory of Florence recalled a portion of the exiles, excepting Dante, however, among others, by name. The undertaking of Henry, after an ill-directed dawdling of two years, at last ended in his death at Buonconvento (August 24, 1313; Carlyle says wrongly September); poisoned, it was said, in the sacramental bread, by a Dominican friar, bribed thereto by Florence. The story is doubtful, the more as Dante nowhere alludes to it, as he certainly would have done had he heard of it. According to Balbo, Dante spent the time from August, 1313, to November, 1314, in Pisa and Lucca, and then took refuge at Verona, with Can Grande della Scala (whom Voltaire calls, drolly enough, le grand can de Vérone, as if he had been a Tartar), where he remained till 1318. Foscolo with equal positiveness sends him, immediately after the death of Henry, to Guido da Polenta at Ravenna, and makes him join Can Grande only after the latter became captain of the Ghibelline league in December, 1318. In 1316 the government of Florence set forth a new decree allowing the exiles to return on conditions of fine and penance. Dante rejected the offer (by accepting which his guilt would have been admitted), in a letter still hot, after these five centuries, with indignant scorn. “Is this then the glorious return of Dante Alighieri to his country after nearly three lustres of suffering and exile? Did an innocence, patent to all, merit this?--this, the perpetual sweat and toil of study? Far from a man, the housemate of philosophy, be so rash and earthen hearted a humility as to allow himself to be offered up bound like a school-boy or a criminal! Far from a man, the preacher of justice, to pay those who have done him wrong as for a favor! This is not the way of retaining to my country; but if another can be found that shall not derogate from the fame and honor of Dante, that I will enter on with no lagging steps. For if by none such Florence may be entered, by me then never! Can I not everywhere behold the mirrors of the sun and stars? speculate on sweetest truths under any sky without first giving myself up inglorious, nay, ignominious, to the populace and city of Florence? Nor shall I want for bread.” Dionisi puts the date of this letter in 1315. He is certainly wrong, for the decree is dated December 11, 1316. Foscolo places it in 1316, Troya early in 1317, and both may be right, as the year began March 25. Whatever the date of Dante’s visit to Voltaire’s great Khan of Verona, or the length of his stay with him, may have been, it is certain that he was in Ravenna in 1320, and that, on his return thither from an embassy to Venice (concerning which a curious letter, forged probably by Doni, is extant), he died on September 14, 1321 (13th, according to others). He was buried at Ravenna under a monument built by his friend, Guido Novello. Dante is said to have dictated the following inscription for it on his death-bed:--
JVRA MONARCHIAE SVPEROS PHLEGETHONTA LACVSQVE LVSTRANDO CECINI VOLVERVNT FATA QVOVSQVE SED QVIA PARS CESSIT MELIORIBVS HOSPITA CASTRIS AVCTOREMQVE SVVM PETIIT FELICIOR ASTRIS HIC CLAVDOR DANTES PATRIIS EXTORRIS AB ORIS QVEM GENVIT PARVI FLORENTIA MATER AMORIS.
Of which this rude paraphrase may serve as a translation:--
The rights of Monarchy, the Heavens, the Stream of Fire, the Pit,
In vision seen, I sang as far as to the Fates seemed fit;
But since my soul, an alien here, hath flown to nobler wars,
And, happier now, hath gone to seek its Maker ‘mid the stars,
Here am I Dante shut, exiled from the ancestral shore,
Whom Florence, the of all least-loving mother, bore.
If these be not the words of Dante, what is internal evidence worth? The indomitably self-reliant man, loyal first of all to his most unpopular convictions (his very host, Guido, being a Guelph), puts his Ghibellinism (jura monarchiae) in the front. The man whose whole life, like that of selected souls always, had been a war fare, calls heaven another camp,--a better one, thank God! The wanderer of so many years speaks of his soul as a guest,--glad to be gone, doubtless. The exile, whose sharpest reproaches of Florence are always those of an outraged lover, finds it bitter that even his unconscious bones should lie in alien soil.
Giovanni Villani, the earliest authority, and a contemporary, thus sketches him: “This man was a great scholar in almost every science, though a layman; was a most excellent poet, philosopher, and rhetorician; perfect, as well in composing and versifying as in haranguing; a most noble speaker.... This Dante, on account of his learning, was a little haughty, and shy, and disdainful, and like a philosopher almost ungracious, knew not well how to deal with unlettered folk.” Benvenuto da Imola tells us that he was very abstracted, as we may well believe of a man who carried the Commedia in his brain. Boccaccio paints him in this wise: “Our poet was of middle height; his face was long, his nose aquiline, his jaw large, and the lower lip protruding somewhat beyond the upper; a little stooping in the shoulders; his eyes rather large than small; dark of complexion; his hair and beard thick, crisp, and black; and his countenance always sad and thoughtful. His garments were always dignified; the style such as suited ripeness of years; his gait was grave and gentlemanlike; and his bearing, whether public or private, wonderfully composed and polished. In meat and drink he was most temperate, nor was ever any more zealous in study or whatever other pursuit. Seldom spake he, save when spoken to, though a most eloquent person. In his youth he delighted especially in music and singing, and was intimate with almost all the singers and musicians of his day. He was much inclined to solitude, and familiar with few, and most assiduous in study as far as he could find time for it. Dante was also of marvellous capacity and the most tenacious memory.” Various anecdotes of him are related by Boccaccio, Sacchetti, and others, none of them verisimilar, and some of them at least fifteen centuries old when revamped. Most of them are neither veri nor ben trovati. One clear glimpse we get of him from the Ottimo Comento, the author of which says: “I, the writer, heard Dante say that never a rhyme had led him to say other than he would, but that many a time and oft (molte e spesse volte) he had made words say for him what they were not wont to express for other poets.” That is the only sincere glimpse we get of the living, breathing, word-compelling Dante.
Looked at outwardly, the life of Dante seems to have been an utter and disastrous failure. What its inward satisfactions must have been, we, with the Paradiso open before us, can form some faint conception. To him, longing with an intensity which only the word Dantesque will express to realize an ideal upon earth, and continually baffled and misunderstood, the far greater part of his mature life must have been labor and sorrow. We can see how essential all that sad experience was to him, can understand why all the fairy stories hide the luck in the ugly black casket; but to him, then and there, how seemed it?
Thou shalt relinquish everything of thee,
Beloved most dearly; this that arrow is
Shot from the bow of exile first of all;
And thou shalt prove how salt a savor hath
The bread of others, and how hard a path
To climb and to descend the stranger’s stairs!
Come sa di sale! Who never wet his bread with tears, says Goethe, knows ye not, ye heavenly powers! Our nineteenth century made an idol of the noble lord who broke his heart in verse once every six months, but the fourteenth was lucky enough to produce and not to make an idol of that rarest earthly phenomenon, a man of genius who could hold heartbreak at bay for twenty years, and would not let himself die till he had done his task. At the end of the Vita Nuova, his first work, Dante wrote down that remarkable aspiration that God would take him to himself after he had written of Beatrice such things as were never yet written of woman. It was literally fulfilled when the Commedia was finished twenty-five years later. Scarce was Dante at rest in his grave when Italy felt instinctively that this was her great man. Boccaccio tells us that in 1329 Cardinal Poggetto (du Poiet) caused Dante’s treatise De Monarchiâ, to be publicly burned at Bologna, and proposed further to dig up and burn the bones of the poet at Ravenna, as having been a heretic; but so much opposition was roused that he thought better of it. Yet this was during the pontificate of the Frenchman, John XXII., the reproof of whose simony Dante puts in the mouth of St. Peter, who declares his seat vacant, whose damnation the poet himself seems to prophesy, and against whose election he had endeavored to persuade the cardinals, in a vehement letter. In 1350 the republic of Florence voted the sum of ten golden florins to be paid by the hands of Messer Giovanni Boccaccio to Dante’s daughter Beatrice, a nun in the convent of Santa Chiara at Ravenna. In 1396 Florence voted a monument, and begged in vain for the metaphorical ashes of the man of whom she had threatened to make literal cinders if she could catch him alive. In 1429 she begged again, but Ravenna, a dead city, was tenacious of the dead poet. In 1519 Michel Angelo would have built the monument, but Leo X. refused to allow the sacred dust to be removed. Finally, in 1829, five hundred and eight years after the death of Dante, Florence got a cenotaph fairly built in Santa Croce (by Ricci), ugly beyond even the usual lot of such, with three colossal figures on it, Dante in the middle, with Italy on one side and Poesy on the other. The tomb at Ravenna, built originally in 1483, by Cardinal Bembo, was restored by Cardinal Corsi in 1692, and finally rebuilt in its present form by Cardinal Gonzaga, in 1780, all three of whom commemorated themselves in Latin inscriptions. It is a little shrine covered with a dome, not unlike the tomb of a Mohammedan saint, and is now the chief magnet which draws foreigners and their gold to Ravenna. The valet de place says that Dante is not buried under it, but beneath the pavement of the street in front of it, where also, he says, he saw my Lord Byron kneel and weep. Like everything in Ravenna, it is dirty and neglected.
In 1373 (August 9) Florence instituted a chair of the Divina Commedia, and Boccaccio was named first professor. He accordingly began his lectures on Sunday, October 3, following, but his comment was broken off abruptly at the 17th verse of the 17th canto of the Inferno by the illness which ended in his death, December 21, 1375. Among his successors were Filippo Villani and Filelfo. Bologna was the first to follow the example of Florence, Benvenuto da Imola having begun his lectures, according to Tiraboschi, so early as 1375. Chairs were established also at Pisa, Venice, Piacenza, and Milan before the close of the century. The lectures were delivered in the churches and on feast-days, which shows their popular character. Balbo reckons (but this is guess-work) that the MS. copies of the Divina Commedia made during the fourteenth century, and now existing in the libraries of Europe, are more numerous than those of all other works, ancient and modern, made during the same period. Between the invention of printing and the year 1500 more than twenty editions were published in Italy, the earliest in 1472. During the sixteenth century there were forty editions; during the seventeenth,--a period, for Italy, of sceptical dilettanteism,--only three; during the eighteenth, thirty-four; and already, during the first half of the nineteenth, at least eighty. The first translation was into Spanish, in 1428. M. St. René Taillandier says that the Commedia was condemned by the inquisition in Spain; but this seems too general a statement, for, according to Foscolo, it was the commentary of Landino and Vellutello, and a few verses in the Inferno and Paradiso, which were condemned. The first French translation was that of Grangier, 1596, but the study of Dante struck no root there till the present century. Rivarol, who translated the Inferno in 1783, was the first Frenchman who divined the wonderful force and vitality of the Commedia. The expressions of Voltaire represent very well the average opinion of cultivated persons in respect of Dante in the middle of the eighteenth century. He says: “The Italians call him divine; but it is a hidden divinity; few people understand his oracles. He has commentators, which, perhaps, is another reason for his not being understood. His reputation will go on increasing, because scarce anybody reads him.” To Father Bettinelli he writes: “I estimate highly the courage with which you have dared to say that Dante was a madman and his work a monster.” But he adds, what shows that Dante had his admirers even in that flippant century: “There are found among us, and in the eighteenth century, people who strive to admire imaginations so stupidly extravagant and barbarous.” Elsewhere he says that the Commedia was “an odd poem, but gleaming with natural beauties, a work in which the author rose in parts above the bad taste of his age and his subject, and full of passages written as purely as if they had been of the time of Ariosto and Tasso.” It is curious to see this antipathetic fascination which Dante exercised over a nature so opposite to his own.
At the beginning of this century Châteaubriand speaks of Dante with vague commendation, evidently from a very superficial acquaintance, and that only with the Inferno, probably from Rivarol’s version. Since then there have been four or five French versions in prose or verse, including one by Lamennais. But the austerity of Dante will not condescend to the conventional elegance which makes the charm of French, and the most virile of poets cannot be adequately rendered in the most feminine of languages. Yet in the works of Fauriel, Ozanam, Ampère, and Villemain, France has given a greater impulse to the study of Dante than any other country except Germany. Into Germany the Commedia penetrated later. How utterly Dante was unknown there in the sixteenth century is plain from a passage in the “Vanity of the Arts and Sciences” of Cornelius Agrippa, where he is spoken of among the authors of lascivious stories: “There have been many of these historical pandars, of which some of obscure fame, as Aeneas Sylvius, Dantes, and Petrarch, Boccace, Pontanus,” etc. The first German translation was that of Kannegiesser (1809). Versions by Streckfuss, Kopisch, and Prince John (late king) of Saxony followed. Goethe seems never to have given that attention to Dante which his ever-alert intelligence might have been expected to bestow on so imposing a moral and aesthetic phenomenon. Unless the conclusion of the second part of “Faust” be an inspiration of the Paradiso, we remember no adequate word from him on this theme. His remarks on one of the German translations are brief, dry, and without that breadth which comes only of thorough knowledge and sympathy. But German scholarship and constructive criticism, through Witte, Kopisch, Wegele, Ruth, and others, have been of pre-eminent service in deepening the understanding and facilitating the study of the poet. In England the first recognition of Dante is by Chaucer in the “Hugelin of Pisa” of the “Monkes Tale,” and an imitation of the opening verses of the third canto of the Inferno (“Assembly of Foules”). In 1417 Giovanni da Serravalle, bishop of Fermo, completed a Latin prose translation of the Commedia, a copy of which, as he made it at the request of two English bishops whom he met at the council of Constance, was doubtless sent to England. Later we find Dante now and then mentioned, but evidently from hearsay only, till the time of Spenser, who, like Milton fifty years later, shows that he had read his works closely. Thenceforward for more than a century Dante became a mere name, used without meaning by literary sciolists. Lord Chesterfield echoes Voltaire, and Dr. Drake in his “Literary Hours” could speak of Darwin’s “Botanic Garden” as showing the “wild and terrible sublimity of Dante”! The first complete English translation was by Boyd,--of the Inferno in 1785, of the whole poem in 1802. There have been eight other complete translations, beginning with Cary’s in 1814, six since 1850, beside several of the Inferno singly. Of these that of Longfellow is the best. It is only within the last twenty years, however, that the study of Dante, in any true sense, became at all general. Even Coleridge seems to have been familiar only with the Inferno. In America Professor Ticknor was the first to devote a special course of illustrative lectures to Dante; he was followed by Longfellow, whose lectures, illustrated by admirable translations, are remembered with grateful pleasure by many who were thus led to learn the full significance of the great Christian poet. A translation of the Inferno into quatrains by T.W. Parsons ranks with the best for spirit, faithfulness, and elegance. In Denmark and Russia translations of the Inferno have been published, beside separate volumes of comment and illustration. We have thus sketched the steady growth of Dante’s fame and influence to a universality unparalleled except in the case of Shakespeare, perhaps more remarkable if we consider the abstruse and mystical nature of his poetry. It is to be noted as characteristic that the veneration of Dantophilists for their master is that of disciples for their saint. Perhaps no other man could have called forth such an expression as that of Ruskin, that “the central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral, and intellectual faculties, all at their highest, is Dante.”
The first remark to be made upon the writings of Dante is that they are all (with the possible exception of the treatise De Vulgari Eloquio) autobiographic, and that all of them, including that, are parts of a mutually related system, of which the central point is the individuality and experience of the poet. In the Vita Nuova he recounts the story of his love for Beatrice Portinari, showing how his grief for her loss turned his thoughts first inward upon his own consciousness, and, failing all help there, gradually upward through philosophy to religion, and so from a world of shadows to one of eternal substances. It traces with exquisite unconsciousness the gradual but certain steps by which memory and imagination transubstantiated the woman of flesh and blood into a holy ideal, combining in one radiant symbol of sorrow and hope that faith which is the instinctive refuge of unavailing regret, that grace of God which higher natures learn to find in the trial which passeth all understanding, and that perfect womanhood, the dream of youth and the memory of maturity, which beckons toward the forever unattainable. As a contribution to the physiology of genius, no other book is to be compared with the Vita Nuova. It is more important to the understanding of Dante as a poet than any other of his works. It shows him (and that in the midst of affairs demanding practical ability and presence of mind) capable of a depth of contemplative abstraction, equalling that of a Soofi who has passed the fourth step of initiation. It enables us in some sort to see how, from being the slave of his imaginative faculty, he rose by self-culture and force of will to that mastery of it which is art. We comprehend the Commedia better when we know that Dante could be an active, clear-headed politician and a mystic at the same time. Various dates have been assigned to the composition of the Vita Nuova. The earliest limit is fixed by the death of Beatrice in 1290 (though some of the poems are of even earlier date), and the book is commonly assumed to have been finished by 1295; Foscolo says 1294. But Professor Karl Witte, a high authority, extends the term as far as 1300. The title of the book also, Vita Nuova, has been diversely interpreted. Mr. Garrow, who published an English version of it at Florence in 1846, entitles it the “Early Life of Dante.” Balbo understands it in the same way. But we are strongly of the opinion that “New Life” is the interpretation sustained by the entire significance of the book itself.
His next work in order of date is the treatise De Monarchiâ. It has been generally taken for granted that Dante was a Guelph in politics up to the time of his banishment, and that out of resentment he then became a violent Ghibelline. Not to speak of the consideration that there is no author whose life and works present so remarkable a unity and logical sequence as those of Dante, Professor Witte has drawn attention to a fact which alone is enough to demonstrate that the De Monarchiâ was written before 1300. That and the Vita Nuova are the only works of Dante in which no allusion whatever is made to his exile. That bitter thought was continually present to him. In the Convito it betrays itself often, and with touching unexpectedness. Even in the treatise De Vulgari Eloquio, he takes as one of his examples of style: “I have most pity for those, whosoever they are, that languish in exile, and revisit their country only in dreams.” We have seen that the one decisive act of Dante’s priorate was to expel from Florence the chiefs of both parties as the sowers of strife, and he tells us (Paradiso, XVII.) that he had formed a party by himself. The king of Saxony has well defined his political theory as being “an ideal Ghibellinism” and he has been accused of want of patriotism only by those short-sighted persons who cannot see beyond their own parish. Dante’s want of faith in freedom was of the same kind with Milton’s refusing (as Tacitus had done before) to confound license with liberty. The argument of the De Monarchiâ is briefly this:
As the object of the individual man is the highest development of his faculties, so is it also with men united in societies. But the individual can only attain the highest development when all his powers are in absolute subjection to the intellect, and society only when it subjects its individual caprices to an intelligent head. This is the order of nature, as in families, and men have followed it in the organization of villages, towns, cities. Again, since God made man in his own image, men and societies most nearly resemble him in proportion as they approach unity. But as in all societies questions must arise, so there is need of a monarch for supreme arbiter. And only a universal monarch can be impartial enough for this, since kings of limited territories would always be liable to the temptation of private ends. With the internal policy of municipalities, commonwealths, and kingdoms, the monarch would have nothing to do, only interfering when there was danger of an infraction of the general peace. This is the doctrine of the first book, enforced sometimes eloquently, always logically, and with great fertility of illustration. It is an enlargement of some of the obiter dicta of the Convito. The earnestness with which peace is insisted on as a necessary postulate of civic well-being shows what the experience had been out of which Dante had constructed his theory. It is to be looked on as a purely scholastic demonstration of a speculative thesis, in which the manifold exceptions and modifications essential in practical application are necessarily left aside. Dante almost forestalls the famous proposition of Calvin, “that it is possible to conceive a people without a prince, but not a prince without a people,” when he says, Non enim gens propter regem, sed e converso rex propter gentem. And in his letter to the princes and peoples of Italy on the coming of Henry VII., he bids them “obey their prince, but so as freemen preserving their own constitutional forms.” He says also expressly: Animadvertendum sane, quod cum dicitur humanum genus potest regi per unum supremum principem, non sic intelligendum est ut ab illo uno prodire possint municipia et leges municipales. Habent namque nationes, regna, et civitates inter se proprietates quas legibus differentibus regulari oportet. Schlosser the historian compares Dante’s system with that of the United States. It in some respects resembled more the constitution of the Netherlands under the supreme stadtholder, but parallels between ideal and actual institutions are always unsatisfactory.
The second book is very curious. In it Dante endeavors to demonstrate the divine right of the Roman Empire to universal sovereignty. One of his arguments is, that Christ consented to be born under the reign of Augustus; another, that he assented to the imperial jurisdiction in allowing himself to be crucified under a decree of one of its courts. The atonement could not have been accomplished unless Christ suffered under sentence of a court having jurisdiction, for otherwise his condemnation would have been an injustice and not a penalty. Moreover, since all mankind was typified in the person of Christ, the court must have been one having jurisdiction over all mankind; and since he was delivered to Pilate, an officer of Tiberius, it must follow that the jurisdiction of Tiberius was universal. He draws an argument also from the wager of battle to prove that the Roman Empire was divinely permitted, at least, if not instituted. For since it is admitted that God gives the victory, and since the Romans always won it, therefore it was God’s will that the Romans should attain universal empire. In the third book he endeavors to prove that the emperor holds by divine right, and not by permission of the pope. He assigns supremacy to the pope in spirituals, and to the emperor in temporals. This was a delicate subject, and though the king of Saxony (a Catholic) says that Dante did not overstep the limits of orthodoxy, it was on account of this part of the book that it was condemned as heretical.
Next follows the treatise De Vulgari Eloquio. Though we have doubts whether we possess this book as Dante wrote it, inclining rather to think that it is a copy in some parts textually exact, in others an abstract, there can be no question either of its great glossological value or that it conveys the opinions of Dante. We put it next in order, though written later than the Convito, only because, like the De Monarchiâ, it is written in Latin. It is a proof of the national instinct of Dante, and of his confidence in his genius, that he should have chosen to write all his greatest works in what was deemed by scholars a patois, but which he more than any other man made a classic language. Had he intended the De Monarchiâ for a political pamphlet, he would certainly not have composed it in the dialect of the few. The De Vulgari Eloquio was to have been in four books. Whether it was ever finished or not it is impossible to say; but only two books have come down to us. It treats of poetizing in the vulgar tongue, and of the different dialects of Italy. From the particularity with which it treats of the dialect of Bologna, it has been supposed to have been written in that city, or at least to furnish an argument in favor of Dante’s having at some time studied there. In Lib. II. Cap. II., is a remarkable passage in which, defining the various subjects of song and what had been treated in the vulgar tongue by different poets, he says that his own theme had been righteousness.
The Convito is also imperfect. It was to have consisted of fourteen treatises, but, as we have it, contains only four. In the first he justifies the use of the vulgar idiom in preference to the Latin. In the other three he comments on three of his own Canzoni. It will be impossible to give an adequate analysis of this work in the limits allowed us. It is an epitome of the learning of that age, philosophical, theological, and scientific. As affording illustration of the Commedia, and of Dante’s style of thought, it is invaluable. It is reckoned by his countrymen the first piece of Italian prose, and there are parts of it which still stand unmatched for eloquence and pathos. The Italians (even such a man as Cantù among the rest) find in it and a few passages of the Commedia the proof that Dante, as a natural philosopher was wholly in advance of his age,--that he had, among other things, anticipated Newton in the theory of gravitation. But this is as idle as the claim that Shakespeare had discovered the circulation of the blood before Harvey, and one might as well attempt to dethrone Newton because Chaucer speaks of the love which draws the apple to the earth. The truth is, that it was only as a poet that Dante was great and original (glory enough, surely, to have not more than two competitors), and in matters of science, as did all his contemporaries, sought the guiding hand of Aristotle like a child. Dante is assumed by many to have been a Platonist, but this is not true, in the strict sense of the word. Like all men of great imagination, he was an idealist, and so far a Platonist, as Shakespeare might be proved to have been by his sonnets. But Dante’s direct acquaintance with Plato may be reckoned at zero, and we consider it as having strongly influenced his artistic development for the better, that transcendentalist as he was by nature, so much so as to be in danger of lapsing into an Oriental mysticism, his habits of thought should have been made precise and his genius disciplined by a mind so severely logical as that of Aristotle. This does not conflict with what we believe to be equally true, that the Platonizing commentaries on his poem, like that of Landino, are the most satisfactory. Beside the prose already mentioned, we have a small collection of Dante’s letters, the recovery of the larger number of which we owe to Professor Witte. They are all interesting, some of them especially so, as illustrating the prophetic character with which Dante invested himself. The longest is one addressed to Can Grande della Scalla, explaining the intention of the Commedia and the method to be employed in its interpretation. The authenticity of this letter has been doubted, but is now generally admitted.
We shall barely allude to the minor poems, full of grace and depth of mystic sentiment, and which would have given Dante a high place in the history of Italian literature, even had he written nothing else. They are so abstract, however, that without the extrinsic interest of having been written by the author of the Commedia, they would probably find few readers. All that is certainly known in regard to the Commedia is that it was composed during the nineteen years which intervened between Dante’s banishment and death. Attempts have been made to fix precisely the dates of the different parts, but without success, and the differences of opinion are bewildering. Foscolo has constructed an ingenious and forcible argument to show that no part of the poem was published before the author’s death. The question depends somewhat on the meaning we attach to the word “published.” In an age of manuscript the wide dispersion of a poem so long even as a single one of the three divisions of the Commedia would be accomplished very slowly. But it is difficult to account for the great fame which Dante enjoyed during the latter years of his life, unless we suppose that parts, at least, of his greatest work had been read or heard by a large number of persons. This need not, however, imply publication; and Witte, whose opinion is entitled to great consideration, supposes even the Inferno not to have been finished before 1314 or 1315. In a matter where certainty would be impossible, it is of little consequence to reproduce conjectural dates. In the letter to Can Grande, before alluded to, Dante himself has stated the theme of his song. He says that “the literal subject of the whole work is the state of the soul after death simply considered. But if the work be taken allegorically, the subject is man, as by merit or demerit, through freedom of the will, he renders himself liable to the reward or punishment of justice.” He tells us that the work is to be interpreted in a literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical sense, a mode then commonly employed with the Scriptures, and of which he gives the following example: “To make which mode of treatment more clear, it may be applied in the following verses: In exitu Israel de Aegypto, domus Jacob de populo barbaro, facta est Judaea sanctificatio ejus, Israel potestas ejus. For if we look only at the literal sense, it signifies the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if at the allegorical, it signifies our redemption through Christ; if at the moral, it signifies the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to a state of grace; and if at the anagogical, it signifies the passage of the blessed soul from the bondage of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” A Latin couplet, cited by one of the old commentators, puts the matter compactly together for us:--
“Litera gesta refert; quid credas allegoria;
Moralis quid agas; quid speres anagogia.”
Dante tells us that he calls his poem a comedy because it has a fortunate ending, and gives its title thus: “Here begins the comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth, but not in morals.” The poem consists of three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each part is divided into thirty-three cantos, in allusion to the years of the Saviour’s life; for though the Hell contains thirty-four, the first canto is merely introductory. In the form of the verse (triple rhyme) we may find an emblem of the Trinity, and in the three divisions, of the threefold state of man, sin, grace, and beatitude. Symbolic meanings reveal themselves, or make themselves suspected, everywhere, as in the architecture of the Middle Ages. An analysis of the poem would be out of place here, but we must say a few words of Dante’s position as respects modern literature. If we except Wolfram von Eschenbach, he is the first Christian poet, the first (indeed, we might say the only) one whose whole system of thought is colored in every finest fibre by a purely Christian theology. Lapse through sin, mediation, and redemption, these are the subjects of the three parts of the poem: or, otherwise stated, intellectual conviction of the result of sin, typified in Virgil (symbol also of that imperialism whose origin he sang); moral conversion after repentance, by divine grace, typified in Beatrice; reconciliation with God, and actual blinding vision of him,--“The pure in heart shall see God.” Here are general truths which any Christian may accept and find comfort in. But the poem comes nearer to us than this. It is the real history of a brother man, of a tempted, purified, and at last triumphant human soul; it teaches the benign ministry of sorrow, and that the ladder of that faith by which man climbs to the actual fruition of things not seen ex quovis ligno non fit, but only of the cross manfully borne. The poem is also, in a very intimate sense, an apotheosis of woman Indeed, as Marvell’s drop of dew mirrored the whole firmament, so we find in the Commedia the image of the Middle Ages, and the sentimental gyniolatry of chivalry, which was at best but skin-deep, is lifted in Beatrice to an ideal and universal plane. It is the same with Catholicism, with imperialism, with the scholastic philosophy, and nothing is more wonderful than the power of absorption and assimilation in this man, who could take up into himself the world that then was, and reproduce it with such, cosmopolitan truth to human nature and to his own individuality, as to reduce all contemporary history to a mere comment on his vision. We protest, therefore, against the parochial criticism which would degrade Dante to a mere partisan, which sees in him a Luther before his time, and would clap the bonnet rouge upon his heavenly muse.
Like all great artistic minds, Dante was essentially conservative, and, arriving precisely in that period of transition when Church and Empire were entering upon the modern epoch of thought, he strove to preserve both by presenting the theory of both in a pristine and ideal perfection. The whole nature of Dante was one of intense belief. There is proof upon proof that he believed himself invested with a divine mission Like the Hebrew prophets, with whose writings his whole soul was imbued, it was back to the old worship and the God of the fathers that he called his people, and not Isaiah himself was more destitute of that humor, that sense of ludicrous contrast, which is an essential in the composition of a sceptic. In Dante’s time, learning had something of a sacred character, the line was hardly yet drawn between the clerk and the possessor of supernatural powers, it was with the next generation, with the elegant Petrarch, even more truly than with the kindly Boccaccio, that the purely literary life, and that dilettanteism, which is the twin sister of scepticism, began. As a merely literary figure, the position of Dante is remarkable. Not only as respects thought, but as respects aesthetics also, his great poem stands as a monument on the boundary line between the ancient and modern. He not only marks, but is in himself, the transition. Arma virumque cano, that is the motto of classic song; the things of this world and great men. Dante says, subjectum est homo, not vir; my theme is man, not a man. The scene of the old epic and drama was in this world, and its catastrophe here; Dante lays his scene in the human soul, and his fifth act in the other world. He makes himself the protagonist of his own drama. In the Commedia for the first time Christianity wholly revolutionizes Art, and becomes its seminal principle. But aesthetically also, as well as morally, Dante stands between the old and the new, and reconciles them. The theme of his poem is purely subjective, modern, what is called romantic; but its treatment is objective (almost to realism, here and there), and it is limited by a form of classic severity. In the same way he sums up in himself the two schools of modern poetry which had preceded him, and, while essentially lyrical in his subject, is epic in the handling of it. So also he combines the deeper and more abstract religious sentiment of the Teutonic races with the scientific precision and absolute systematism of the Romanic. In one respect Dante stands alone. While we can in some sort account for such representative men as Voltaire and Goethe (nay, even Shakespeare) by the intellectual and moral fermentation of the age in which they lived, Dante seems morally isolated and to have drawn his inspiration almost wholly from his own internal reserves. Of his mastery in style we need say little here. Of his mere language, nothing could be better than the expression of Rivarol “His verse holds itself erect by the mere force of the substantive and verb, without the help of a single epithet.” We will only add a word on what seems to us an extraordinary misapprehension of Coleridge, who disparages Dante by comparing his Lucifer with Milton’s Satan. He seems to have forgotten that the precise measurements of Dante were not prosaic, but absolutely demanded by the nature of his poem. He is describing an actual journey, and his exactness makes a part of the verisimilitude. We read the “Paradise Lost” as a poem, the Commedia as a record of fact; and no one can read Dante without believing his story, for it is plain that he believed it himself. It is false aesthetics to confound the grandiose with the imaginative. Milton’s angels are not to be compared with Dante’s, at once real and supernatural; and the Deity of Milton is a Calvinistic Zeus, while nothing in all poetry approaches the imaginative grandeur of Dante’s vision of God at the conclusion of the Paradiso. In all literary history there is no such figure as Dante, no such homogeneousness of life and works, such loyalty to ideas, such sublime irrecognition of the unessential; and there is no moral more touching than that the contemporary recognition of such a nature, so endowed and so faithful to its endowment, should be summed up in the sentence of Florence: Igne comburatur sic quod moriatur.
The range of Dante’s influence is not less remarkable than its intensity. Minds, the antipodes of each other in temper and endowment, alike feel the force of his attraction, the pervasive comfort of his light and warmth. Boccaccio and Lamennais are touched with the same reverential enthusiasm. The imaginative Ruskin is rapt by him, as we have seen, perhaps beyond the limit where critical appreciation merges in enthusiasm; and the matter-of-fact Schlosser tells us that “he, who was wont to contemplate earthly life wholly in an earthly light, has made use of Dante, Landino, and Vellutello in his solitude to bring a heavenly light into his inward life.” Almost all other poets have their seasons, but Dante penetrates to the moral core of those who once fairly come within his sphere, and possesses them wholly. His readers turn students, his students zealots, and what was a taste becomes a religion. The homeless exile finds a home in thousands of grateful hearts. E venne da esilio in questa pace!
Every kind of objection, aesthetic and other, may be, and has been, made to the Divina Commedia, especially by critics who have but a superficial acquaintance with it, or rather with the Inferno, which is as far as most English critics go. Coleridge himself, who had a way of divining what was in books, may be justly suspected of not going further, though with Carey to help him. Mr. Carlyle, who has said admirable things of Dante the man, was very imperfectly read in Dante the author, or he would never have put Sordello in hell and the meeting with Beatrice in paradise. In France it was not much better (though Rivarol has said the best thing hitherto of Dante’s parsimony of epithet) before Ozanam, who, if with decided ultramontane leanings, has written excellently well of our poet, and after careful study. Voltaire, though not without relentings toward a poet who had put popes heels upward in hell, regards him on the whole as a stupid monster and barbarian. It was no better in Italy, if we may trust Foscolo, who affirms that “neither Pelli nor others deservedly more celebrated than he ever read attentively the poem of Dante, perhaps never ran through it from the first verse to the last.” Accordingly we have heard that the Commedia was a sermon, a political pamphlet, the revengeful satire of a disappointed Ghibelline, nay, worse, of a turncoat Guelph. It is narrow, it is bigoted, it is savage, it is theological, it is mediaeval, it is heretical, it is scholastic, it is obscure, it is pedantic, its Italian is not that of la Crusca, its ideas are not those of an enlightened eighteenth century, it is everything, in short, that a poem should not be; and yet, singularly enough, the circle of its charm has widened in proportion as men have receded from the theories of Church and State which are supposed to be its foundation, and as the modes of thought of its author have become more alien to those of his readers. In spite of all objections, some of which are well founded, the Commedia remains one of the three or four universal books that have ever been written.
We may admit, with proper limitations, the modern distinction between the Artist and the Moralist. With the one Form is all in all, with the other Tendency. The aim of the one is to delight, of the other to convince. The one is master of his purpose, the other mastered by it. The whole range of perception and thought is valuable to the one as it will minister to imagination, to the other only as it is available for argument. With the moralist use is beauty, good only as it serves an ulterior purpose; with the artist beauty is use, good in and for itself. In the fine arts the vehicle makes part of the thought, coalesces with it. The living conception shapes itself a body in marble, color, or modulated sound, and henceforth the two are inseparable. The results of the moralist pass into the intellectual atmosphere of mankind, it matters little by what mode of conveyance. But where, as in Dante, the religious sentiment and the imagination are both organic, something interfused with the whole being of the man, so that they work in kindly sympathy, the moral will insensibly suffuse itself with beauty as a cloud with light. Then that fine sense of remote analogies, awake to the assonance between facts seemingly remote and unrelated, between the outward and inward worlds, though convinced that the things of this life are shadows, will be persuaded also that they are not fantastic merely, but imply a substance somewhere, and will love to set forth the beauty of the visible image because it suggests the ineffably higher charm of the unseen original. Dante’s ideal of life, the enlightening and strengthening of that native instinct of the soul which leads it to strive backward toward its divine source, may sublimate the senses till each becomes a window for the light of truth and the splendor of God to shine through. In him as in Calderon the perpetual presence of imagination not only glorifies the philosophy of life and the science of theology, but idealizes both in symbols of material beauty. Though Dante’s conception of the highest end of man was that he should climb through every phase of human experience to that transcendental and super-sensual region where the true, the good, and the beautiful blend in the white light of God, yet the prism of his imagination forever resolved the ray into color again, and he loved to show it also where, entangled and obstructed in matter, it became beautiful once more to the eye of sense. Speculation, he tells us, is the use, without any mixture, of our noblest part (the reason). And this part cannot in this life have its perfect use, which is to behold God (who is the highest object of the intellect), except inasmuch as the intellect considers and beholds him in his effects. Underlying Dante the metaphysician, statesman, and theologian, was always Dante the poet, irradiating and vivifying, gleaming through in a picturesque phrase, or touching things unexpectedly with that ideal light which softens and subdues like distance in the landscape. The stern outline of his system wavers and melts away before the eye of the reader in a mirage of imagination that lifts from beyond the sphere of vision and hangs in serener air images of infinite suggestion projected from worlds not realized, but substantial to faith, hope, and aspiration. Beyond the horizon of speculation floats, in the passionless splendor of the empyrean, the city of our God, the Rome whereof Christ is a Roman, the citadel of refuge, even in this life, for souls purified by sorrow and self denial, transhumanized to the divine abstraction of pure contemplation. “And it is called Empyrean,” he says in his letter to Can Grande, “which is the same as a heaven blazing with fire or ardor, not because there is in it a material fire or burning, but a spiritual one, which is blessed love or charity.” But this splendor he bodies forth, if sometimes quaintly, yet always vividly and most often in types of winning grace.
Dante was a mystic with a very practical turn of mind. A Platonist by nature, an Aristotelian by training, his feet keep closely to the narrow path of dialectics, because he believed it the safest, while his eyes are fixed on the stars and his brain is busy with things not demonstrable, save by that grace of God which passeth all understanding, nor capable of being told unless by far off hints and adumbrations. Though he himself has directly explained the scope, the method, and the larger meaning of his greatest work, though he has indirectly pointed out the way to its interpretation in the Convito, and though everything he wrote is but an explanatory comment on his own character and opinions, unmistakably clear and precise, yet both man and poem continue not only to be misunderstood popularly, but also by such as should know better. That those who confined their studies to the Commedia should have interpreted it variously is not wonderful, for out of the first or literal meaning others open, one out of another, each of wider circuit and purer abstraction, like Dante’s own heavens, giving and receiving light. Indeed, Dante himself is partly to blame for this. “The form or mode of treatment,” he says, “is poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive, and withal definitive, divisive, probative, improbative, and positive of examples.” Here are conundrums enough, to be sure! To Italians at home, for whom the great arenas of political and religious speculation were closed, the temptation to find a subtler meaning than the real one was irresistible. Italians in exile, on the other hand, made Dante the stalking-horse from behind which they could take a long shot at Church and State, or at obscurer foes.
Infinitely touching and sacred to us is the instinct of intense sympathy which drawst hese latter toward their great forerunner, exul immeritus like themselves. But they have too often wrung a meaning from Dante which is injurious to the man and out of keeping with the ideas of his age. The aim in expounding a great poem should be, not to discover an endless variety of meanings often contradictory, but whatever it has of great and perennial significance; for such it must have, or it would long ago have ceased to be living and operative, would long ago have taken refuge in the Chartreuse of great libraries, dumb thenceforth to all mankind. We do not mean to say that this minute exegesis is useless or unpraiseworthy, but only that it should be subsidiary to the larger way. It serves to bring out more clearly what is very wonderful in Dante, namely, the omnipresence of his memory throughout the work, so that its intimate coherence does not exist in spite of the reconditeness and complexity of allusion, but is woven out of them. The poem has many senses, he tells us, and there can be no doubt of it; but it has also, and this alone will account for its fascination, a living soul behind them all and informing all, an intense singleness of purpose, a core of doctrine simple, human, and wholesome, though it be also, to use his own phrase, the bread of angels.
Nor is this unity characteristic only of the Divina Commedia. All the works of Dante, with the possible exception of the De vulgari Eloquio (which is unfinished), are component parts of a Whole Duty of Man mutually completing and interpreting one another. They are also, as truly as Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” a history of the growth of a poet’s mind. Like the English poet he valued himself at a high rate, the higher no doubt after Fortune had made him outwardly cheap. Sempre il magnanimo si magnifica in suo cuore; e così lo pusillanimo per contrario sempre si tiene meno che non è. As in the prose of Milton, whose striking likeness to Dante in certain prominent features of character has been remarked by Foscolo, there are in Dante’s minor works continual allusions to himself of great value as material for his biographer. Those who read attentively will discover that the tenderness he shows toward Francesca and her lover did not spring from any friendship for her family, but was a constant quality of his nature, and that what is called his revengeful ferocity is truly the implacable resentment of a lofty mind and a lover of good against evil, whether showing itself in private or public life; perhaps hating the former manifestation of it the most because he believed it to be the root of the latter,--a faith which those who have watched the course of politics in a democracy, as he had, will be inclined to share. His gentleness is all the more striking by contrast, like that silken compensation which blooms out of the thorny stem of the cactus. His moroseness, his party spirit, and his personal vindictiveness are all predicated upon the Inferno, and upon a misapprehension or careless reading even of that. Dante’s zeal was not of that sentimental kind, quickly kindled and as soon quenched, that hovers on the surface of shallow minds,
“Even as the flame of unctuous is wont
To move upon the outer surface only”;
it was the steady heat of an inward fire kindling the whole character of the man through and through, like the minarets of his own city of Dis. He was, as seems distinctive in some degree of the Latinized races, an unflinching à priori logician, not unwilling to “syllogize invidious verities,” wherever they might lead him, like Sigier, whom he has put in paradise, though more than suspected of heterodoxy. But at the same time, as we shall see, he had something of the practical good sense of that Teutonic stock whence he drew a part of his blood, which prefers a malleable syllogism that can yield without breaking to the inevitable, but incalculable pressure of human nature and the stiffer logic of events. His theory of Church and State was not merely a fantastic one, but intended for the use and benefit of men as they were; and he allowed accordingly for aberrations, to which even the law of gravitation is forced to give place; how much more, then, any scheme whose very starting-point is the freedom of the will!
We are thankful for a commentator at last who passes dry-shod over the turbide onde of inappreciative criticism, and, quietly waving aside the thick atmosphere which has gathered about the character of Dante both as man and poet, opens for us his City of Doom with the divining-rod of reverential study. Miss Rossetti comes commended to our interest, not only as one of a family which seems to hold genius by the tenure of gavelkind, but as having a special claim by inheritance to a love and understanding of Dante. She writes English with a purity that has in it something of feminine softness with no lack of vigor or precision. Her lithe mind winds itself with surprising grace through the metaphysical and other intricacies of her subject. She brings to her work the refined enthusiasm of a cultivated woman and the penetration of sympathy. She has chosen the better way (in which Germany took the lead) of interpreting Dante out of himself, the pure spring from which, and from which alone, he drew his inspiration, and not from muddy Fra Alberico or Abbate Giovacchino, from stupid visions of Saint Paul or voyages of Saint Brandan. She has written by far the best comment that has appeared in English, and we should say the best that has been done in England, were it not for her father’s Comento analitico, for excepting which her filial piety will thank us. Students of Dante in the original will be grateful to her for many suggestive hints, and those who read him in English will find in her volume a travelling map in which the principal points and their connections are clearly set down. In what we shall say of Dante we shall endeavor only to supplement her interpretation with such side-lights as may have been furnished us by twenty years of assiduous study. Dante’s thought is multiform, and, like certain street signs, once common, presents a different image according to the point of view. Let us consider briefly what was the plan of the Divina Commedia and Dante’s aim in writing it, which, if not to justify, was at least to illustrate, for warning and example, the ways of God to man. The higher intention of the poem was to set forth the results of sin, or unwisdom, and of virtue, or wisdom, in this life, and consequently in the life to come, which is but the continuation and fulfilment of this. The scene accordingly is the spiritual world, of which we are as truly denizens now as hereafter. The poem is a diary of the human soul in its journey upwards from error through repentance to atonement with God. To make it apprehensible by those whom it was meant to teach, nay, from its very nature as a poem, and not a treatise of abstract morality, it must set forth everything by means of sensible types and images.
“To speak thus is adapted to your mind,
Since only from the sensible it learns
What makes it worthy of intellect thereafter,
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else.”
Whoever has studied mediaeval art in any of its branches need not be told that Dante’s age was one that demanded very palpable and even revolting types. As in the old legend, a drop of scalding sweat from the damned soul must shrivel the very skin of those for whom he wrote, to make them wince if not to turn them away from evil doing. To consider his hell a place of physical torture is to take Circe’s herd for real swine. Its mouth yawns not only under Florence, but before the feet of every man everywhere who goeth about to do evil. His hell is a condition of the soul, and he could not find images loathsome enough to express the moral deformity which is wrought by sin on its victims, or his own abhorrence of it. Its inmates meet you in the street every day.
“Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed In one self place, for where we are is hell, And where hell is there we must ever be.”
It is our own sensual eye that gives evil the appearance of good, and out of a crooked hag makes a bewitching siren. The reason enlightened by the grace of God sees it as it truly is, full of stench and corruption. It is this office of reason which Dante undertakes to perform, by divine commission, in the Inferno. There can be no doubt that he looked upon himself as invested with the prophetic function, and the Hebrew forerunners, in whose society his soul sought consolation and sustainment, certainly set him no example of observing the conventions of good society in dealing with the enemies of God. Indeed, his notions of good society were not altogether those of this world in any generation. He would have defined it as meaning “the peers” of Philosophy, “souls free from wretched and vile delights and from vulgar habits, endowed with genius and memory.” Dante himself had precisely this endowment, and in a very surprising degree. His genius enabled him to see and to show what he saw to others; his memory neither forgot nor forgave. Very hateful to his fervid heart and sincere mind would have been the modern theory which deals with sin as involuntary error, and by shifting off the fault to the shoulders of Atavism or those of Society, personified for purposes of excuse, but escaping into impersonality again from the grasp of retribution, weakens that sense of personal responsibility which is the root of self-respect and the safeguard of character. Dante indeed saw clearly enough that the Divine justice did at length overtake Society in the ruin of states caused by the corruption of private, and thence of civic, morals; but a personality so intense as his could not be satisfied with such a tardy and generalized penalty as this. “It is Thou,” he says sternly, “who hast done this thing, and Thou, not Society, shalt be damned for it; nay, damned all the worse for this paltry subterfuge. This is not my judgment, but that of universal Nature from before the beginning of the world.” Accordingly the highest reason, typified in his guide Virgil, rebukes him for bringing compassion to the judgments of God, and again embraces him and calls the mother that bore him blessed, when he bids Filippo Argenti begone among the other dogs. This latter case shocks our modern feelings the more rudely for the simple pathos with which Dante makes Argenti answer when asked who he was, “Thou seest I am one that weeps.” It is also the one that makes most strongly for the theory of Dante’s personal vindictiveness, and it may count for what it is worth. We are not greatly concerned to defend him on that score, for he believed in the righteous use of anger, and that baseness was its legitimate quarry. He did not think the Tweeds and Fisks, the political wire-pullers and convention-packers, of his day merely amusing, and he certainly did think it the duty of an upright and thoroughly trained citizen to speak out severely and unmistakably. He believed firmly, almost fiercely, in a divine order of the universe, a conception whereof had been vouchsafed him, and that whatever and whoever hindered or jostled it, whether wilfully or blindly it mattered not, was to be got out of the way at all hazards; because obedience to God’s law, and not making things generally comfortable, was the highest duty of man, as it was also his only way to true felicity. It has been commonly assumed that Dante was a man soured by undeserved misfortune, that he took up a wholly new outfit of political opinions with his fallen fortunes, and that his theory of life and of man’s relations to it was altogether reshaped for him by the bitter musings of his exile. This would be singular, to say the least, in a man who tells us that he “felt himself indeed four-square against the strokes of chance,” and whose convictions were so intimate that they were not merely intellectual conclusions, but parts of his moral being. Fortunately we are called on to believe nothing of the kind. Dante himself has supplied us with hints and dates which enable us to watch the germination and trace the growth of his double theory of government, applicable to man as he is a citizen of this world, and as he hopes to become hereafter a freeman of the celestial city. It would be of little consequence to show in which of two equally selfish and short-sighted parties a man enrolled himself six hundred years ago, but it is worth something to know that a man of ambitious temper and violent passions, aspiring to office in a city of factions, could rise to a level of principle so far above them all. Dante’s opinions have life in them still, because they were drawn from living sources of reflection and experience, because they were reasoned out from the astronomic laws of history and ethics, and were not weather-guesses snatched in a glance at the doubtful political sky of the hour.
Swiftly the politic goes: is it dark? he borrows a lantern;
Slowly the statesman and sure, guiding his feet by the stars.
It will be well, then, to clear up the chronology of Dante’s thought. When his ancestor Cacciaguida prophesies to him the life which is to be his after 1300, he says, speaking of his exile:--
“And that which most shall weigh upon thy shoulders
Will be the bad and foolish company
With which into this valley thou shalt fall;
* * * * *
“Of their bestiality their own proceedings
Shall furnish proof; so ‘twill be well for thee
A party to have made thee by thyself.”
Here both context and grammatical construction (infallible guides in a writer so scrupulous and exact) imply irresistibly that Dante had become a party by himself before his exile. The measure adopted by the Priors of Florence while he was one of them (with his assent and probably by his counsel), of sending to the frontier the leading men of both factions, confirms this implication. Among the persons thus removed from the opportunity of doing mischief was his dearest friend Guido Cavalcanti, to whom he had not long before addressed the Vita Nuova. Dante evidently looked back with satisfaction on his conduct at this time, and thought it both honest and patriotic, as it certainly was disinterested. “We whose country is the world, as the ocean to the fish,” he tells us, “though we drank of the Arno in infancy, and love Florence so much that, because we loved her, we suffer exile unjustly, support the shoulders of our judgment rather upon reason than the senses.” And again, speaking of old ago, he says: “And the noble soul at this age blesses also the times past, and well may bless them, because, revolving them in memory, she recalls her righteous conduct, without which she could not enter the port to which she draws nigh, with so much riches and so great gain.” This language is not that of a man who regrets some former action as mistaken, still less of one who repented it for any disastrous consequences to himself. So, in justifying a man for speaking of himself, he alleges two examples,--that of Boethius, who did so to “clear himself of the perpetual infamy of his exile”; and that of Augustine, “for, by the process of his life, which was from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best, he gave us example and teaching.” After middle life, at least, Dante had that wisdom “whose use brings with it marvellous beauties, that is, contentment with every condition of time, and contempt of those things which others make their masters.” If Dante, moreover, wrote his treatise De Monarchiâ before 1302, and we think Witte’s inference, from its style and from the fact that he nowhere alludes to his banishment in it, conclusive on this point, then he was already a Ghibelline in the same larger and unpartisan sense which ever after distinguished him from his Italian contemporaries.
“Let, let the Ghibellines ply their handicraft
Beneath some other standard; for this ever
Ill follows he who it and justice parts,”
he makes Justinian say, speaking of the Roman eagle. His Ghibellinism, though undoubtedly the result of what he had seen of Italian misgovernment, embraced in its theoretical application the civilized world. His political system was one which his reason adopted, not for any temporary expediency, but because it conduced to justice, peace, and civilization,--the three conditions on which alone freedom was possible in any sense which made it worth having. Dante was intensely Italian, nay, intensely Florentine, but on all great questions he was, by the logical structure of his mind and its philosophic impartiality, incapable of intellectual provincialism. If the circle of his affections, as with persistent natures commonly, was narrow, his thought swept a broad horizon from that tower of absolute self which he had reared for its speculation. Even upon the principles of poetry, mechanical and other, he had reflected more profoundly than most of those who criticise his work, and it was not by chance that he discovered the secret of that magical word too few, which not only distinguishes his verse from all other, but so strikingly from his own prose. He never took the bit of art between his teeth where only poetry, and not doctrine, was concerned.
If Dante’s philosophy, on the one hand, was practical a guide for the conduct of life, it was, on the other, a much more transcendent thing, whose body was wisdom her soul love, and her efficient cause truth. It is a practice of wisdom from the mere love of it, for so we must interpret his amoroso uso di sapienzia, when we remember how he has said before that “the love of wisdom for its delight or profit is not true love of wisdom.” And this love must embrace knowledge in all its branches, for Dante is content with nothing less than a pancratic training, and has a scorn of dilettanti, specialists, and quacks. “Wherefore none ought to be called a true philosopher who for any delight loves any part of knowledge, as there are many who delight in composing Canzoni, and delight to be studious in them, and who delight to be studious in rhetoric and in music, and flee and abandon the other sciences which are all members of wisdom.” “Many love better to be held masters than to be so.” With him wisdom is the generalization from many several knowledges of small account by themselves; it results therefore from breadth of culture, and would be impossible without it. Philosophy is a noble lady (donna gentil), partaking of the divine essence by a kind of eternal marriage, while with other intelligences she is united in a less measure “as a mistress of whom no lover takes complete joy.” The eyes of this lady are her demonstrations, and her smile is her persuasion. “The eyes of wisdom are her demonstrations by which truth is beheld most certainly; and her smile is her persuasions in which the interior light of wisdom is shown under a certain veil, and in these two is felt that highest pleasure of beatitude which is the greatest good in paradise.” “It is to be known that the beholding this lady was so largely ordained for us, not merely to look upon the face which she shows us, but that we may desire to attain the things which she keeps concealed. And as through her much thereof is seen by reason, so by her we believe that every miracle may have its reason in a higher intellect, and consequently may be. Whence our good faith has its origin, whence comes the hope of those unseen things which we desire, and through that the operation of charity, by the which three virtues we rise to philosophize in that celestial Athens where the Stoics, Peripatetics, and Epicureans through the art of eternal truth accordingly concur in one will.”
As to the double scope of Dante’s philosophy we will cite a passage from the Convito, all the more to our purpose as it will illustrate his own method of allegorizing. “Verily the use of our mind is double, that is, practical and speculative, the one and the other most delightful, although that of contemplation be the more so. That of the practical is for us to act virtuously, that is, honorably, with prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. [These are the four stars seen by Dante, Purgatorio, I. 22-27.] That of the speculative is not to act for ourselves, but to consider the works of God and nature.... Verily of these uses one is more full of beatitude than the other, as it is the speculative, which without any admixture is the use of our noblest part.... And this part in this life cannot have its use perfectly, which is to see God, except inasmuch as the intellect considers him and beholds him through his effects. And that we should seek this beatitude as the highest, and not the other, the Gospel of Mark teaches us if we will look well. Mark says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Salome went to find the Saviour at the tomb and found him not, but found a youth clad in white who said to them, ‘Ye seek the Saviour, and I say unto you that he is not here; and yet fear ye not, but go and say unto his disciples and Peter that he will go before them into Galilee, and there ye shall see him even as he told you.’ By these three women may be understood the three sects of the active life, that is, the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Peripatetics, who go to the tomb, that is, to the present life, which is a receptacle of things corruptible, and seek the Saviour, that is, beatitude, and find him not, but they find a youth in white raiment, who, according to the testimony of Matthew and the rest, was an angel of God. This angel is that nobleness of ours which comes from God, as hath been said, which speaks in our reason and says to each of these sects, that is, to whoever goes seeking beatitude in this life, that it is not here, but go and say to the disciples and to Peter, that is, to those who go seeking it and those who are gone astray (like Peter who had denied), that it will go before them into Galilee, that is, into speculation. Galilee is as much as to say Whiteness. Whiteness is a body full of corporeal light more than any other, and so contemplation is fuller of spiritual light than anything else here below. And he says, ‘it will go before,’ and does not say, ‘it will be with you,’ to give us to understand that God always goes before our contemplation, nor can we ever overtake here Him who is our supreme beatitude. And it is said, ‘There ye shall see him as he told you,’ that is, here ye shall have of his sweetness, that is, felicity, as is promised you here, that is, as it is ordained that ye can have. And thus it appears that we find our beatitude, this felicity of which we are speaking, first imperfect in the active life, that is, in the operations of the moral virtues, and afterwards wellnigh perfect in the operation of the intellectual ones, the which two operations are speedy and most direct ways to lead to the supreme beatitude, the which cannot be had here, as appears by what has been said.”
At first sight there may seem to be some want of agreement in what Dante says here of the soul’s incapacity of the vision of God in this life with the triumphant conclusion of his own poem. But here as elsewhere Dante must be completed and explained by himself. “We must know that everything most greatly desires its own perfection, and in that its every desire is appeased, and by that everything is desired. [That is, the one is drawn toward, the other draws.] And this is that desire which makes every delight maimed, for no delight is so great in this life that it can take away from the soul this thirst so that desire remain not in the thought.” “And since it is most natural to wish to be in God, the human soul naturally wills it with all longing. And since its being depends on God and is preserved thereby it naturally desires and wills to be united with God in order to fortify its being. And since in the goodnesses of human nature is shown some reason for those of the Divine, it follows that the human soul unites itself in a spiritual way with those so much the more strongly and quickly as they appear more perfect, and this appearance happens according as the knowledge of the soul is clear or impeded. And this union is what we call Love, whereby may be known what is within the soul, seeing those it outwardly loves.... And the human soul which is ennobled with the ultimate potency, that is, reason, participates in the Divine nature after the manner of an eternal Intelligence, because the soul is so ennobled and denuded of matter in that sovran potency that the Divine light shines in it as in an angel.” This union with God may therefore take place before the warfare of life is over, but is only possible for souls perfettamente naturati, perfectly endowed by nature. This depends on the virtue of the generating soul and the concordant influence of the planets. “And if it happen that through the purity of the recipient soul, the intellectual virtue be well abstracted and absolved from every corporeal shadow, the Divine bounty is multiplied in it as a thing sufficient to receive the same.” “And there are some who believe that if all the aforesaid virtues [powers] should unite for the production of a soul in their best disposition, so much of the Deity would descend into it that it would be almost another incarnate God.” Did Dante believe himself to be one of these? He certainly gives us reason to think so. He was born under fortunate stars, as he twice tells us, and he puts the middle of his own life at the thirty-fifth year, which is the period he assigns for it in the diviner sort of men.
The stages of Dante’s intellectual and moral growth may, we think, be reckoned with some approach to exactness from data supplied by himself. In the poems of the Vita Nuova, Beatrice, until her death, was to him simply a poetical ideal, a type of abstract beauty, chosen according to the fashion of the day after the manner of the Provençal poets, but in a less carnal sense than theirs. “And by the fourth nature of animals, that is, the sensitive, man has another love whereby he loves according to sensible appearance, even as a beast.... And by the fifth and final nature, that is, the truly human, or, to speak better, angelic, that is, rational, man has a love for truth and virtue.... Wherefore, since this nature is called mind, I said that love discoursed in my mind to make it understood that this love was that which is born in the noblest of natures, that is, [the love] of truth and virtue, and to shut out every false opinion by which it might be suspected that my love was for the delight of sense.” This is a very weighty affirmation, made, as it is, so deliberately by a man of Dante’s veracity, who would and did speak truth at every hazard. Let us dismiss at once and forever all the idle tales of Dante’s amours, of la Montanina, Gentucca, Pietra, Lisetta, and the rest, to that outer darkness of impure thoughts là onde la stoltezza dipartille. We think Miss Rossetti a little hasty in allowing that in the years which immediately followed Beatrice’s death Dante gave himself up “more or less to sensual gratification and earthly aim.” The earthly aim we in a certain sense admit; the sensual gratification we reject as utterly inconsistent, not only with Dante’s principles, but with his character and indefatigable industry. Miss Rossetti illustrates her position by a subtle remark on “the lulling spell of an intellectual and sensitive delight in good running parallel with a voluntary and actual indulgence in evil.” The dead Beatrice beckoned him toward the life of contemplation, and it was precisely during this period that he attempted to find happiness in the life of action. “Verily it is to be known, that we may in this life have two felicities, following two ways, good and best, which lead us thither. The one is the active, the other the contemplative life, the which (though by the active we may attain, as has been said, unto good felicity) leads us to the best felicity and blessedness.” “The life of my heart, that is, of my inward self, was wont to be a sweet thought which went many times to the feet of God, that is to say, in thought I contemplated the kingdom of the Blessed. And I tell the final cause why I mounted thither in thought when I say, ‘Where it [the sweet thought] beheld a lady in glory,’ that I might make it understood that I was and am certain, by her gracious revelation, that she was in heaven, [not on earth, as I had vainly imagined,] whither I went in thought, so often as was possible to me, as it were rapt.” This passage exactly answers to another in Purgatorio, XXX. 115-138:--
“Not only by the work of those great wheels
That destine every seed unto some end,
According as the stars are in conjunction,
But by the largess of celestial graces,
* * * * *
“Such had this man become in his New Life
Potentially, that every righteous habit
Would have made admirable proof in him;
* * * * *
“Some time I did sustain him with my look (volto);
Revealing unto him my youthful eyes,
I led him with me turned in the right way.
As soon as ever of my second age
I was upon the threshold and changed life,
Himself from me he took and gave to others.
When from the flesh to spirit I ascended,
And beauty and virtue were in me increased,
I was to him less dear and less delightful,
And into ways untrue he turned his steps,
Pursuing the false images of good
That never any promises fulfil
Nor prayer for inspiration me availed,
By means of which in dreams and otherwise
I called him back, so little did he heed them.
So low he fell, that all appliances
For his salvation were already short
Save showing him the people of perdition.”
Now Dante himself, we think, gives us the clew, by following which we may reconcile the contradiction, what Miss Rossetti calls “the astounding discrepancy,” between the Lady of the Vita Nuova who made him unfaithful to Beatrice, and the same Lady in the Convito, who in attributes is identical with Beatrice herself. We must remember that the prose part of the Convito, which is a comment on the Canzoni, was written after the Canzoni themselves. How long after we cannot say with certainty, but it was plainly composed at intervals, a part of it probably after Dante had entered upon old age (which began, as he tells us, with the forty-fifth year), consequently after 1310. Dante had then written a considerable part of the Divina Commedia, in which Beatrice was to go through her final and most ethereal transformation in his mind and memory. We say in his memory, for such idealizations have a very subtle retrospective action, and the new condition of feeling or thought is uneasy till it has half unconsciously brought into harmony whatever is inconsistent with it in the past. The inward life unwillingly admits any break in its continuity, and nothing is more common than to hear a man, in venting an opinion taken up a week ago, say with perfect sincerity, “I have always thought so and so.” Whatever belief occupies the whole mind soon produces the impression on us of having long had possession of it, and one mode of consciousness blends so insensibly with another that it is impossible to mark by an exact line where one begins and the other ends. Dante in his exposition of the Canzoni must have been subject to this subtlest and most deceitful of influences. He would try to reconcile so far as he conscientiously could his present with his past. This he could do by means of the allegorical interpretation. “For it would be a great shame to him,” he says in the Vita Nuova, “who should poetize something under the vesture of some figure or rhetorical color, and afterwards, when asked, could not strip his words of that vesture in such wise that they should have a true meaning.”
Now in the literal exposition of the Canzone beginning, “Voi che intendendo il terzo ciel movete,” he tells us that the grandezza of the Donna Gentil was “temporal greatness” (one certainly of the felicities attainable by way of the vita attiva), and immediately after gives us a hint by which we may comprehend why a proud man might covet it. “How much wisdom and how great a persistence in virtue (abito virtuoso) are hidden for want of this lustre!” When Dante reaches the Terrestrial Paradise which is the highest felicity of this world, and therefore the consummation of the Active Life, he is welcomed by a Lady who is its symbol,
“Who went along
Singing and culling floweret after floweret.”
and warming herself in the rays of Love, or “actual speculation,” that is, “where love makes its peace felt.” That she was the symbol of this is evident from the previous dream of Dante, in which he sees Leah, the universally accepted type of it,
“Walking in a meadow,
Gathering flowers; and singing she was saying,
‘Know whosoever may my name demand
That I am Leah, who go moving round
My beauteous hands to make myself a garland,’”
that is to say, of good works. She, having “washed him thoroughly from sin,”
“All dripping brought
Into the dance of the four beautiful,”
who are the intellectual virtues Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude, the four stars, guides of the Practical Life, which he had seen when he came out of the Hell where he had beheld the results of sin, and arrived at the foot of the Mount of Purification. That these were the special virtues of practical goodness Dante had already told us in a passage before quoted from the Convito. That this was Dante’s meaning is confirmed by what Beatrice says to him,
“Short while shalt thou be here a forester (silvano) And thou shalt be with me forevermore A citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman”; for by a “forest” he always means the world of life and action. At the time when Dante was writing the Canzoni on which the Convito was a comment, he believed science to be the “ultimate perfection itself, and not the way to it,” but before the Convito was composed he had become aware of a higher and purer light, an inward light, in that Beatrice, already clarified wellnigh to a mere image of the mind, “who lives in heaven with the angels, and on earth with my soul.”
So spiritually does Dante always present Beatrice to us, even where most corporeal, as in the Vita Nuova, that many, like Biscione and Rossetti, have doubted her real existence. But surely we must consent to believe that she who speaks of
“The fair limbs wherein
I was enclosed, which scattered are in earth,”
was once a creature of flesh and blood,--
“A creature not too bright and good
For human nature’s daily food.”
When she died, Dante’s grief, like that of Constance, filled her room up with something fairer than the reality had ever been. There is no idealizer like unavailing regret, all the more if it be a regret of fancy as much as of real feeling. She early began to undergo that change into something rich and strange in the sea of his mind which so completely supernaturalized her at last. It is not impossible, we think, to follow the process of transformation. During the period of the Convito Canzoni, when he had so given himself to study that to his weakened eyes “the stars were shadowed with a white blur,” this star of his imagination was eclipsed for a time with the rest. As his love had never been of the senses (which is bestial), so his sorrow was all the more ready to be irradiated with celestial light, and to assume her to be the transmitter of it who had first awakened in him the nobler impulses of his nature,--
(“Such had this man become in his New Life Potentially,”)
and given him the first hints of a higher, nay, of the highest good. With that turn for double meaning and abstraction which was so strong in him, her very name helped him to allegorize her into one who makes blessed (beat), and thence the step was a short one to personify in her that Theosophy which enables man to see God and to be mystically united with him even in the flesh. Already, in the Vita Nuova, she appears to him as afterwards in the Terrestrial Paradise, clad in that color of flame which belongs to the seraphim who contemplate God in himself, simply, and not in his relation to the Son or the Holy Spirit. When misfortune came upon him, when his schemes of worldly activity failed, and science was helpless to console, as it had never been able wholly to satisfy, she already rose before him as the lost ideal of his youth, reproaching him with his desertion of purely spiritual aims. It is, perhaps, in allusion to this that he fixes the date of her death with such minute precision on the 9th June, 1390, most probably his own twenty-fifth birthday, on which he passed the boundary of adolescence.
That there should seem to be a discrepancy between the Lady of the Vita Nuova and her of the Convito, Dante himself was already aware when writing the former and commenting it. Explaining the sonnet beginning Gentil pensier, he says, “In this sonnet I make two parts of myself according as my thoughts were divided in two. The one part I call heart, that is, the appetite, the other soul, that is, reason.... It is true that in the preceding sonnet I take side with the heart against the eyes [which were weeping for the lost Beatrice], and that appears contrary to what I say in the present one; and therefore I say that in that sonnet also I mean by my heart the appetite, because my desire to remember me of my most gentle Lady was still greater than to behold this one, albeit I had already some appetite for her, but slight as should seem: whence it appears that the one saying is not contrary to the other.” When, therefore, Dante speaks of the love of this Lady as the “adversary of Reason,” he uses the word in its highest sense, not as understanding (Intellectus), but as synonymous with soul. Already, when the latter part of the Vita Nuova, nay, perhaps the whole of the explanatory portion of it, was written the plan of the Commedia was complete, a poem the higher aim of which was to keep the soul alive both in this world and for the next. As Dante tells us, the contradiction in his mind was, though he did not become aware of it till afterwards, more apparent than real. He sought consolation in study, and, failing to find it in Learning (scienza), he was led to seek it in Wisdom (sapienza), which is the love of God and the knowledge of him. He had sought happiness through the understanding; he was to find it through intuition. The lady Philosophy (according as she is moral or intellectual) includes both. Her gradual transfiguration is exemplified in passages already quoted. The active life leads indirectly by a knowledge of its failures and sins (Inferno), or directly by a righteous employment of it (Purgatorio), to the same end. The use of the sciences is to induce in us the ultimate perfection, that of speculating upon truth; the use of the highest of them, theology, the contemplation of God. To this they all lead up. In one of those curious chapters of the Convito, where he points out the analogy between the sciences and the heavens, Dante tells us that he compares moral philosophy with the crystalline heaven or Primum Mobile, because it communicates life and gives motion to all the others below it. But what gives motion to the crystalline heaven (moral philosophy) itself? “The most fervent appetite which it has in each of its parts to be conjoined with each part of that most divine quiet heaven” (Theology). Theology, the divine science, corresponds with the Empyrean, “because of its peace, the which, through the most excellent certainty of its subject, which is God, suffers no strife of opinions or sophistic arguments.” No one of the heavens is at rest but this, and in none of the inferior sciences can we find repose, though he likens physics to the heaven of the fixed stars, in whose name is a suggestion of the certitude to be arrived at in things demonstrable.
Dante had this comparison in mind, it may be inferred, when he said,
“Well I perceive that never sated is
Our intellect unless the Truth illume it
Beyond which nothing true expands itself.
It rests therein as wild beast in his lair;
When it attains it, and it can attain it;
If not, then each desire would frustrate be.
Therefore springs up, in fashion of a shoot,
Doubt at the foot of truth, and this is nature
Which to the top from height to height impels us.”
The contradiction, as it seems to us, resolves itself into an essential, easily apprehensible, if mystical, unity. Dante at first gave himself to the study of the sciences (after he had lost the simple, unquestioning faith of youth) as the means of arriving at certainty. From the root of every truth to which he attained sprang this sucker (rampollo) of doubt, drawing out of it the very sap of its life. In this way was Philosophy truly an adversary of his soul, and the reason of his remorse for fruitless studies which drew him away from the one that alone was and could be fruitful is obvious enough. But by and by out of the very doubt came the sweetness of a higher and truer insight. He became aware that there were “things in heaven and earth undreamt of in your philosophy,” as another doubter said, who had just finished his studies, but could not find his way out of the scepticism they engendered as Dante did.
“Insane is he who hopeth that our reason
Can traverse the illimitable way
Which the one Substance in three Persons follows!
Mortals, remain contented at the Quia;
For, if ye had been able to see all,
No need there were [had been] for Mary to bring forth.
And ye have seen desiring without fruit,
Those whose desire would have been quieted
Which evermore is given them for a grief.
I speak of Aristotle and of Plato
And many others.”
Whether at the time when the poems of the Vita Nuova were written the Lady who withdrew him for a while From Beatrice was (which we doubt) a person of flesh and blood or not, she was no longer so when the prose narrative was composed. Any one familiar with Dante’s double meanings will hardly question that by putting her at a window, which is a place to look out of, he intended to imply that she personified Speculation, a word which he uses with a wide range of meaning, sometimes as looking for, sometimes as seeing (like Shakespeare’s “There is no speculation in those eyes”), sometimes as intuition, or the beholding all things in God, who is the cause of all. This is so obvious, and the image in this sense so familiar, that we are surprised it should have been hitherto unremarked. It is plain that, even when the Vita Nuova was written, the Lady was already Philosophy, but philosophy applied to a lower range of thought, not yet ascended from flesh to spirit. The Lady who seduced him was the science which looks for truth in second causes, or even in effects, instead of seeking it, where alone it can be found, in the First Cause; she was the Philosophy which looks for happiness in the visible world (of shadows), and not in the spiritual (and therefore substantial) world. The guerdon of his search was doubt. But Dante, as we have seen, made his very doubts help him upward toward certainty; each became a round in the ladder by which he climbed to clearer and clearer vision till the end. Philosophy had made him forget Beatrice; it was Philosophy who was to bring him back to her again, washed clean in that very stream of forgetfulness that had made an impassable barrier between them.
Dante had known how to find in her the gift of Achilles’s lance,
“Which used to be the cause
First of a sad and then a gracious boon.”
There is another possible, and even probable, theory which would reconcile the Beatrice of the Purgatorio with her of the Vita Nuova. Suppose that even in the latter she signified Theology, or at least some influence that turned his thoughts to God? Pietro di Dante, commenting the pargoletta passage in the Purgatorio, says expressly that the poet had at one time given himself to the study of theology and deserted it for poesy and other mundane sciences. This must refer to a period beginning before 1290. Again there is an early tradition that Dante in his youth had been a novice in a Franciscan convent, but never took the vows. Buti affirms this expressly in his comment on Inferno, XVI. 106-123. It is perhaps slightly confirmed by what Dante says in the Convito, that “one cannot only turn to Religion by making himself like in habit and life to St. Benedict, St. Augustine, St. Francis, and St. Dominic, but likewise one may turn to good and true religion in a state of matrimony, for God wills no religion in us but of the heart.” If he had ever thought of taking monastic vows, his marriage would have cut short any such intention. If he ever wished to wed the real Beatrice Portinari, and was disappointed, might not this be the time when his thoughts took that direction? If so, the impulse came indirectly, at least, from her.
We have admitted that Beatrice Portinari was a real creature,
“Col sangue suo e con le sue giunture”;
but how real she was, and whether as real to the poet’s memory as to his imagination, may fairly be questioned. She shifts, as the controlling emotion or the poetic fitness of the moment dictates, from a woman loved and lost to a gracious exhalation of all that is fairest in womanhood or most divine in the soul of man and ere the eye has defined the new image it has become the old one again, or another mingled of both.
“Nor one nor other seemed now what it was,
E’en as proceedeth on before the flame
Upward along the paper a brown color,
Which is not black as yet, and the white dies.”
As the mystic Griffin in the eyes of Beatrice (her demonstrations), so she in his own,
“Now with the one, now with the other nature;
Think, Reader, if within myself I marvelled
When I beheld the thing itself stand still
And in its image it transformed itself.”
At the very moment when she had undergone her most sublimated allegorical evaporation, his instinct as poet, which never failed him, realized her into woman again in those scenes of almost unapproached pathos which make the climax of his Purgatorio. The verses tremble with feeling and shine with tears. Beatrice recalls her own beauty with a pride as natural as that of Fair Annie in the old ballad, and compares herself as advantageously with the “brown, brown bride” who had supplanted her. If this be a ghost, we do not need be told that she is a woman still. We must remember, however, that Beatrice had to be real that she might be interesting, to be beautiful that her goodness might be persuasive, nay, to be beautiful at any rate, because beauty has also something in it of divine. Dante has told, in a passage already quoted, that he would rather his readers should find his doctrine sweet than his verses, but he had his relentings from this Stoicism.
“’Canzone, I believe those will be rare
Who of thine inner sense can master all,
Such toil it costs thy native tongue to learn;
Wherefore, if ever it perchance befall
That thou in presence of such men shouldst fare
As seem not skilled thy meaning to discern,
I pray thee then thy grief to comfort turn,
Saying to them, O thou my new delight,
‘Take heed at least how fair I am to sight.’”
We believe all Dante’s other Ladies to have been as purely imaginary as the Dulcinea of Don Quixote, useful only as motives, but a real Beatrice is as essential to the human sympathies of the Divina Commedia as her glorified Idea to its allegorical teaching, and this Dante understood perfectly well. Take her out of the poem, and the heart of it goes with her; take out her ideal, and it is emptied of its soul. She is the menstruum in which letter and spirit dissolve and mingle into unity. Those who doubt her existence must find Dante’s graceful sonnet to Guido Cavalcante as provoking as Sancho’s story of his having seen Dulcinea winnowing wheat was to his master, “so alien is it from all that which eminent persons, who are constituted and preserved for other exercises and entertainments, do and ought to do.” But we should always remember in reading Dante that with him the allegorical interpretation is the true one (verace sposizione), and that he represents himself (and that at a time when he was known to the world only by his minor poems) as having made righteousness (rettitudine, in other words, moral philosophy) the subject of his verse. Love with him seems first to have meant the love of truth and the search after it (speculazione), and afterwards the contemplation of it in its infinite source (speculazione in its higher and mystical sense). This is the divine love “which where it shines darkens and wellnigh extinguishes all other loves.” Wisdom is the object of it, and the end of wisdom to contemplate God the true mirror (verace spegio, speculum), wherein all things are seen as they truly are. Nay, she herself “is the brightness of the eternal light, the unspotted mirror of the majesty of God.”
There are two beautiful passages in the Convito, which we shall quote, both because they have, as we believe a close application to Dante’s own experience, and because they are good specimens of his style as a writer of prose. In the manly simplicity which comes of an earnest purpose, and in the eloquence of deep conviction, this is as far beyond that of any of his contemporaries as his verse, nay, more, has hardly been matched by any Italian from that day to this. Illustrating the position that “the highest desire of everything and the first given us by nature is to return to its first cause,” he says: “And since God is the beginning of our souls and the maker of them like unto himself, according as was written, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness,’ this soul most greatly desires to return to him. And as a pilgrim who goes by a way he has never travelled, who believes every house he sees afar off to be his inn, and not finding it to be so directs his belief to another, and so from house to house till he come to the inn, so our soul forthwith on entering upon the new and never-travelled road of this life directs its eyes to the goal of its highest good, and therefore believes whatever thing it sees that seems to have in it any good to be that. And because its first knowledge is imperfect by reason of not being experienced nor indoctrinated, small goods seem to it great. Wherefore we see children desire most greatly an apple, and then proceeding further on desire a bird, and then further yet desire fine raiment, and then a horse, and then a woman, and then, riches not great, and then greater and greater.
And this befalls because in none of these things it finds that which it goes seeking, and thinks to find it further on. By which it may be seen that one desirable stands before another in the eyes of our soul in a fashion as it were pyramidal, for the smallest at first covers the whole of them, and is as it were the apex of the highest desirable, which is God, as it were the base of all; so that the further we go from the apex toward the base the desirables appear greater; and this is the reason why human desires become wider one after the other. Verily this way is lost through error as the roads of earth are; for as from one city to another there is of necessity one best and straightest way, and one that always leads farther from it, that is, the one which goes elsewhere, and many others, some less roundabout and some less direct, so in human life are divers roads whereof one is the truest and another the most deceitful, and certain ones less deceitful, and certain less true. And as we see that that which goes most directly to the city fulfils desire and gives repose after weariness, and that which goes the other way never fulfils it and never can give repose, so it falls out in our life. The good traveller arrives at the goal and repose, the erroneous never arrives thither, but with much weariness of mind, always with greedy eyes looks before him.”
If we may apply Dante’s own method of exposition to this passage, we find him telling us that he first sought felicity in knowledge,
“That apple sweet which through so many branches
The care of mortals goeth in pursuit of,”
then in fame, a bird that flits before us as we follow, then in being esteemed of men (“to be clothed in purple, ... to sit next to Darius, ... and be called Darius his cousin “), then in power, then in the riches of the Holy Spirit in larger and larger measure. He, too, had found that there was but one straight road, whether to the Terrestrial Paradise or the Celestial City, and may come to question by and by whether they be not parallel one with the other, or even parts of the same road, by which only repose is to be reached at last. Then, when in old age “the noble soul returns to God as to that port whence she set forth on the sea of this life, ... just as to him who comes from a long journey, before he enters into the gate of his city, the citizens thereof go forth to meet him, so the citizens of the eternal life go to meet her, and do so because of her good deeds and contemplations, who, having already betaken herself to God, seems to see those whom she believes to be nigh unto God.” This also was to be the experience of Dante, for who can doubt that the Paradiso was something very unlike a poetical exercise to him who appeals to the visions even of sleep as proof of the soul’s immortality?
When did his soul catch a glimpse of that certainty in which “the mind that museth upon many things” can find assured rest? We have already said that we believe Dante’s political opinions to have taken their final shape and the De Monarchiâ to have been written before 1300. That the revision of the Vita Nuova was completed in that year seems probable from the last sonnet but one, which is addressed to pilgrims on their way to the Santa Veronica at Rome. In this sonnet he still laments Beatrice as dead; he would make the pilgrims share his grief. It is the very folly of despairing sorrow, that calls on the first comer, stranger though he be, for a sympathy which none can fully give, and he least of all. But in the next sonnet, the last in the book, there is a surprising change of tone. The transfiguration of Beatrice has begun, and we see completing itself that natural gradation of grief which will erelong bring the mourner to call on the departed saint to console him for her own loss. The sonnet is remarkable in more senses than one, first for its psychological truth, and then still more for the light it throws on Dante’s inward history as poet and thinker. Hitherto he had celebrated beauty and goodness in the creature; henceforth he was to celebrate them in the Creator whose praise they were. We give an extempore translation of this sonnet, in which the meaning is preserved so far as is possible where the grace is left out. We remember with some compunction as we do it, that Dante has said, “know every one that nothing harmonized by a musical band can be transmuted from its own speech to another without breaking all its sweetness and harmony,” and Cervantes was of the same mind:
“Beyond the sphere that hath the widest gyre
Passeth the sigh that leaves my heart below;
A new intelligence doth love bestow
On it with tears that ever draws it higher;
When it wins thither where is its desire,
A Lady it beholds who honor so
And light receives, that, through her splendid glow,
The pilgrim spirit sees her as in fire;
It sees her such, that, telling me again
I understand it not, it speaks so low
Unto the mourning heart that bids it tell;
Its speech is of that noble One I know,
For ‘Beatrice’ I often hear full plain,
So that, dear ladies, I conceive it well.”
No one can read this in its connection with what goes before and what follows without feeling that a new conception of Beatrice had dawned upon the mind of Dante, dim as yet, or purposely made to seem so, and yet the authentic forerunner of the fulness of her rising as the light of his day and the guide of his feet, the divine wisdom whose glory pales all meaner stars. The conception of a poem in which Dante’s creed in politics and morals should be picturesquely and attractively embodied, and of the high place which Beatrice should take in it, had begun vaguely to shape itself in his thought. As he brooded over it, of a sudden it defined itself clearly. “Soon after this sonnet there appeared to me a marvellous vision wherein I saw things which made me propose not to say more of that blessed one until I could treat of her more worthily. And to arrive at that I study all I can, as she verily knows. So that, if it be the pleasure of Him through whom all things live, that my life hold out yet a few years, I hope to say that of her which was never yet said of any (woman). And then may it please Him who is the Lord of Courtesy that my soul may go to see the glory of her Lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice who gloriously beholds the face of Him qui est per omnia saecula benedictus.” It was the method of presentation that became clear to Dante at this time,--the plan of the great poem for whose completion the experience of earth and the inspiration of heaven were to combine, and which was to make him lean for many years. The doctrinal scope of it was already determined. Man, he tells us, is the only creature who partakes at once of the corruptible and incorruptible nature; “and since every nature is ordained to some ultimate end, it follows that the end of man is double. And as among all beings he alone partakes of the corruptible and incorruptible, so alone among all beings he is ordained to a double end, whereof the one is his end as corruptible, the other as incorruptible. That unspeakable Providence therefore foreordered two ends to be pursued by man, to wit, beatitude in this life, which consists in the operation of our own virtue, and is figured by the Terrestrial Paradise, and the beatitude of life eternal, which consists in a fruition of the divine countenance, whereto our own virtue cannot ascend unless aided by divine light, which is understood by the Celestial Paradise.” The one we attain by practice of the moral and intellectual virtues as they are taught by philosophers, the other by spiritual teachings transcending human reason, and the practice of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. For one, Reason suffices (“which was wholly made known to us by philosophers”), for the other we need the light of supernatural truth revealed by the Holy Spirit and “needful for us.” Men led astray by cupidity turn their backs on both, and in their bestiality need bit and rein to keep them in the way. “Wherefore to man was a double guidance needful according to the double end,” the Supreme Pontiff in spiritual, the Emperor in temporal things.
But how to put this theory of his into a poetic form which might charm while it was teaching? He would typify Reason in Virgil (who would serve also as a symbol of political wisdom as having celebrated the founding of the Empire), and the grace of God in that Beatrice whom he had already supernaturalized into something which passeth all understanding. In choosing Virgil he was sure of that interest and sympathy which his instinct led him to seek in the predisposition of his readers, for the popular imagination of the Middle Ages had busied itself particularly with the Mantuan poet. The Church had given, him a quasi-orthodoxy by interpreting his jam redit et virgo as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. At Naples he had become a kind of patron saint, and his bones were exhibited as relics. Dante himself may have heard at Mantua the hymn sung on the anniversary of St. Paul, in which the apostle to the Gentiles is represented as weeping at the tomb of the greatest of poets. Above all, Virgil had described the descent of Aeneas to the under-world. Dante’s choice of a guide was therefore, in a certain degree, made for him. But the mere Reason of man without the illumination of divine Grace cannot be trusted, and accordingly the intervention of Beatrice was needed,--of Beatrice, as Miss Rossetti admirably well expresses it “already transfigured, potent not only now to charm and soothe, potent to rule; to the Intellect a light, to the Affections a compass and a balance, a sceptre over the Will.”
The wood obscure in which Dante finds himself is the world. The three beasts who dispute his way are the sins that most easily beset us, Pride, the Lusts of the Flesh, and Greed. We are surprised that Miss Rossetti should so localize and confine Dante’s meaning as to explain them by Florence, France, and Rome. Had he written in so narrow a sense as this, it would indeed be hard to account for the persistent power of his poem. But it was no political pamphlet that Dante was writing. Subjectum est Homo, and it only takes the form of a diary by Dante Alighieri because of the intense realism of his imagination, a realism as striking in the Paradiso as the Inferno, though it takes a different shape. Everything, the most supersensual, presented itself to his mind, not as abstract idea, but as visible type. As men could once embody a quality of good in a saint and see it, as they even now in moments of heightened fantasy or enthusiasm can personify their country and speak of England, France, or America, as if they were real beings, so did Dante habitually. He saw all his thoughts as distinctly as the hypochondriac sees his black dog, and, as in that, their form and color were but the outward form of an inward and spiritual condition. Whatever subsidiary interpretations the poem is capable of, its great and primary value is as the autobiography of a human soul, of yours and mine, it may be, as well as Dante’s. In that lie its profound meaning and its permanent force. That an exile, a proud man forced to be dependent, should have found some consolation in brooding over the justice of God, weighed in such different scales from those of man, in contrasting the outward prosperity of the sinner with the awful spiritual ruin within, is not wonderful, nay, we can conceive of his sometimes finding the wrath of God sweeter than his mercy. But it is wonderful that out of the very wreck of his own life he should have built this three-arched bridge, still firm against the wash and wear of ages, stretching from the Pit to the Empyrean, by which men may pass from a doubt of God’s providence to a certainty of his long-suffering and loving-kindness.
“The Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms
That it receives whatever turns to it.”
A tear is enough to secure the saving clasp of them. It cannot be too often repeated that Dante’s Other World is not in its first conception a place of departed spirits. It is the Spiritual World, whereof we become denizens by birth and citizens by adoption. It is true that for artistic purposes he makes it conform so far as possible with vulgar preconceptions, but he himself has told us again and again what his real meaning was. Virgil tells Dante,--
“Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect.”
The “good of the intellect,” Dante tells us after Aristotle, is Truth. He says that Virgil has led him “through the deep night of the truly dead.” Who are they? Dante had in mind the saying of the Apostle, “to be carnally minded is death.” He says: “In man to live is to use reason. Then if living is the being of man, to depart from that use is to depart from being, and so to be dead. And doth not he depart from the use of reason who doth not reason out the object of his life?” “I say that so vile a person is dead, seeming to be alive. For we must know that the wicked man may be called truly dead.” “He is dead who follows not the teacher. And of such a one some might say, how is he dead and yet goes about? I answer that the man is dead and the beast remains.” Accordingly he has put living persons in the Inferno, like Frate Alberigo and Branca d’ Oria, of whom he says with bitter sarcasm that he still “eats and drinks and puts on clothes,” as if that were his highest ideal of the true ends of life. There is a passage in the first canto of the Inferno which has been variously interpreted:--
“The ancient spirits disconsolate
Who cry out each one for the second death.”
Miss Rossetti cites it as an example of what she felicitously calls “an ambiguity, not hazy, but prismatic, and therefore not really perplexing.” She gives us accordingly our choice of two interpretations, “’each cries out on account of the second death which he is suffering,’ and ‘each cries out for death to come a second time and ease him of his sufferings.’” Buti says: “Here one doubts what the author meant by the second death, and as for me I think he meant the last damnation, which shall be at the day of judgment, because they would wish through envy that it had already come, that they might have more companions, since the first death is the first damnation, when the soul parted from the body is condemned to the pains of hell for its sins. The second is when, resuscitated at the judgment day, they shall be finally condemned, soul and body together.... It may otherwise be understood as annihilation.” Imola says, “Each would wish to die again, if he could, to put an end to his pain. Do not hold with some who think that Dante calls the second death the day of judgment,” and then quotes a passage from St. Augustine which favors that view. Pietro di Dante gives us four interpretations among which to choose, the first being that, “allegorically, depraved and vicious men are in a certain sense dead in reputation, and this is the first death; the second is that of the body.” This we believe to be the true meaning. Dante himself, in a letter to the “most rascally (scelestissimis) dwellers in Florence,” gives us the key: “but you, transgressors of the laws of God and man, whom the direful maw of cupidity hath enticed not unwilling to every crime, does not the terror of the second death torment you?” Their first death was in their sins, the second is what they may expect from the just vengeance of the Emperor Henry VII. The world Dante leads us through is that of his own thought, and it need not surprise us therefore if we meet in it purely imaginary beings like Tristrem and Renoard of the club. His personality is so strongly marked that it is nothing more than natural that his poem should be interpreted as if only he and his opinions, prejudices, or passions were concerned. He would not have been the great poet he was if he had not felt intensely and humanly, but he could never have won the cosmopolitan place he holds had he not known how to generalize his special experience into something mediatorial for all of us. Pietro di Dante in his comment on the thirty-first canto of the Purgatorio says that “unless you understand him and his figures allegorically, you will be deceived by the bark,” and adds that our author made his pilgrimage as the representative of the rest (in, persona ceterorum). To give his vision reality, he has adapted it to the vulgar mythology, but to understand it as the author meant, it must be taken in the larger sense. To confine it to Florence or to Italy is to banish it from the sympathies of mankind. It was not from the campanile of the Badia that Dante got his views of life and man.
[Note: This essay is continued in Dante, Part 2. That page also includes all footnotes referenced above.]
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