Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord
Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries
Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
The antiquity of Poetry
The greatness of Poets
Their influence on Civilization
The true poet one of the rarest of men
The pre-eminence of Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Goethe
Characteristics of Dante
His moral wisdom and great attainments
His terrible scorn and his isolation
State of society when Dante was born
Guelphs and Ghibellines
Dante stimulated to his great task by an absorbing sentiment
Dante’s passion for Beatrice analyzed
The worship of ideal qualities the foundation of lofty love.
The mystery of love
Its exalted realism
Dedication of Dante’s life-labors to the departed Beatrice
The Divine Comedy; a study
The Inferno; its graphic pictures
Its connection with the ideas of the Middle Ages
The physical hell of Dante in its connection with the Mediaeval doctrine of Retribution
The Purgatorio; its moral wisdom
Origin of the doctrine of Purgatory
Its consolation amid the speculations of despair
Its discussion of grand themes
The Divina Commedia makes an epoch in civilization
Dante’s life an epic
His exalted character
His posthumous influence
Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
A. D. 1265-1321.
The first great genius who aroused his country from the torpor of the Middle Ages was a poet. Poetry, then, was the first influence which elevated the human mind amid the miseries of a gloomy period, if we may except the schools of philosophy which flourished in the rising universities. But poetry probably preceded all other forms of culture in Europe, even as it preceded philosophy and art in Greece. The gay Provencal singers were harbingers of Dante, even as unknown poets prepared the way for Homer. And as Homer was the creator of Grecian literature, so Dante, by his immortal comedy, gave the first great impulse to Italian thought. Hence poets are great benefactors, and we will not let them die in our memories or hearts. We crown them, when alive, with laurels and praises; and when they die, we erect monuments to their honor. They are dear to us, since their writings give perpetual pleasure, and appeal to our loftiest sentiments. They appeal not merely to consecrated ideas and feelings, but they strive to conform to the principles of immortal art. Every great poet is as much an artist as the sculptor or the painter; and art survives learning itself. Varro, the most learned of the Romans, is forgotten, when Virgil is familiar to every school-boy. Cicero himself would not have been immortal, if his essays and orations had not conformed to the principles of art. Even an historian who would live must be an artist, like Voltaire or Macaulay. A cumbrous, or heavy, or pedantic historian will never be read, even if his learning be praised by all the critics of Germany.
Poets are the great artists of language. They even create languages, like Homer and Shakspeare. They are the ornaments of literature. But they are more than ornaments. They are the sages whose sayings are treasured up and valued and quoted from age to age, because of the inspiration which is given to them,–an insight into the mysteries of the soul and the secrets of life. A good song is never lost; a good poem is never buried, like a system of philosophy, but has an inherent vitality, like the melodies of the son of Jesse. Real poetry is something, too, beyond elaborate versification, which is one of the literary fashions, and passes away like other fashions unless redeemed by something that arouses the soul, and elevates it, and appeals to the consciousness of universal humanity. It is the poets who make revelations, like prophets and sages of old; it is they who invest history with interest, like Shakspeare and Racine, and preserve what is most vital and valuable in it. They even adorn philosophy, like Lucretius, when he speculated on the systems of the Ionian philosophers. They certainly impress powerfully on the mind the truths of theology, as Watts and Cowper and Wesley did in their noble lyrics. So that the most rapt and imaginative of men, if artists, utilize the whole realm of knowledge, and diffuse it, and perpetuate it in artistic forms. But real poets are rare, even if there are many who glory in the jingle of language and the structure of rhyme. Poetry, to live, must have a soul, and it must combine rare things,–art, music, genius, original thought, wisdom made still richer by learning, and, above all, a power of appealing to inner sentiments, which all feel, yet are reluctant to express. So choice are the gifts, so grand are the qualities, so varied the attainments of truly great poets, that very few are born in a whole generation and in nations that number twenty or forty millions of people. They are the rarest of gifted men. Every nation can boast of its illustrious lawyers, statesmen, physicians, and orators; but they can point only to a few of their poets with pride. We can count on the fingers of one of our hands all those worthy of poetic fame who now live in this great country of intellectual and civilized men,–one for every ten millions. How great the pre-eminence even of ordinary poets! How very great the pre-eminence of those few whom all ages and nations admire!
The critics assign to Dante a pre-eminence over most of those we call immortal. Only two or three other poets in the whole realm of literature, ancient or modern, dispute his throne. We compare him with Homer and Shakspeare, and perhaps Goethe, alone. Civilization glories in Virgil, Milton, Tasso, Racine, Pope, and Byron,–all immortal artists; but it points to only four men concerning whose transcendent creative power there is unanimity of judgment,–prodigies of genius, to whose influence and fame we can assign no limits; stars of such surpassing brilliancy that we can only gaze and wonder,–growing brighter and brighter, too, with the progress of ages; so remarkable that no barbarism will ever obscure their brightness, so original that all imitation of them becomes impossible and absurd. So great is original genius, directed by art and consecrated to lofty sentiments.
I have assumed the difficult task of presenting one of these great lights. But I do not presume to analyze his great poem, or to point out critically its excellencies. This would be beyond my powers, even if I were an Italian. It takes a poet to reveal a poet. Nor is criticism interesting to ordinary minds, even in the hands of masters. I should make critics laugh if I were to attempt to dissect the Divine Comedy. Although, in an English dress, it is known to most people who pretend to be cultivated, yet it is not more read than the “Paradise Lost” or the “Faerie Queene,” being too deep and learned for some, and understood by nobody without a tolerable acquaintance with the Middle Ages, which it interprets,–the superstitions, the loves, the hatreds, the ideas of ages which can never more return. All I can do–all that is safe for me to attempt–is to show the circumstances and conditions in which it was written, the sentiments which prompted it, its historical results, its general scope and end, and whatever makes its author stand out to us as a living man, bearing the sorrows and revelling in the joys of that high life which gave to him extraordinary moral wisdom, and made him a prophet and teacher to all generations. He was a man of sorrows, of resentments, fierce and implacable, but whose “love was as transcendent as his scorn,”–a man of vast experiences and intense convictions and superhuman earnestness, despising the world which he sought to elevate, living isolated in the midst of society, a wanderer and a sage, meditating constantly on the grandest themes, lost in ecstatic reveries, familiar with abstruse theories, versed in all the wisdom of his day and in the history of the past, a believer in God and immortality, in rewards and punishments, and perpetually soaring to comprehend the mysteries of existence, and those ennobling truths which constitute the joy and the hope of renovated and emancipated and glorified spirits in the realms of eternal bliss. All this is history, and it is history alone which I seek to teach,–the outward life of a great man, with glimpses, if I can, of those visions of beauty and truth in which his soul lived, and which visions and experiences constitute his peculiar greatness. Dante was not so close an observer of human nature as Shakspeare, nor so great a painter of human actions as Homer, nor so learned a scholar as Milton; but his soul was more serious than either,–he was deeper, more intense than they; while in pathos, in earnestness, and in fiery emphasis he has been surpassed only by Hebrew poets and prophets.
It would seem from his numerous biographies that he was remarkable from a boy; that he was a youthful prodigy; that he was precocious, like Cicero and Pascal; that he early made great attainments, giving utterance to living thoughts and feelings, like Bacon, among boyish companions; lisping in numbers, like Pope, before he could write prose; different from all other boys, since no time can be fixed when he did not think and feel like a person of maturer years. Born in Florence, of the noble family of the Alighieri, in the year 1265, his early education devolved upon his mother, his father having died while the boy was very young. His mother’s friend, Brunetto Latini, famous as statesman and scholarly poet, was of great assistance in directing his tastes and studies. As a mere youth he wrote sonnets, such as Sordello the Troubadour would not disdain to own. He delights, as a boy, in those inquiries which gave fame to Bonaventura. He has an intuitive contempt for all quacks and pretenders. At Paris he maintains fourteen different theses, propounded by learned men, on different subjects, and gains universal admiration. He is early selected by his native city for important offices, which he fills with honor. In wit he encounters no superiors. He scorches courts by sarcasms which he can not restrain. He offends the great by a superiority which he does not attempt to veil. He affects no humility, for his nature is doubtless proud; he is even offensively conscious and arrogant. When Florence is deliberating about the choice of an ambassador to Rome, he playfully, yet still arrogantly, exclaims: “If I remain behind, who goes? and if I go, who remains behind?” His countenance, so austere and thoughtful, impresses all beholders with a sort of inborn greatness; his lip, in Giotto’s portrait, is curled disdainfully, as if he lived among fools or knaves. He is given to no youthful excesses; he lives simply and frugally. He rarely speaks unless spoken to; he is absorbed apparently in thought. Without a commanding physical person, he is a marked man to everybody, even when he deems himself a stranger. Women gaze at him with wonder and admiration, though he disdains their praises and avoids their flatteries. Men make way for him as he passes them, unconsciously. “Behold,” said a group of ladies, as he walked slowly by them, “there is a man who has visited hell!” To the close of his life he was a great devourer of books, and digested their contents. His studies were as various as they were profound. He was familiar with the ancient poets and historians and philosophers; he was still better acquainted with the abstruse speculations of the schoolmen. He delighted in universities and scholastic retreats; from the cares and duties of public life he would retire to solitary labors, and dignify his retirement by improving studies. He did not live in a cell, like Jerome, or a cave, like Mohammed; but no man was ever more indebted to solitude and meditation than he for that insight and inspiration which communion with God and great ideas alone can give.
And yet, though a recluse and student, he had great experiences with life. He was born among the higher ranks of society. He inherited an ample patrimony. He did not shrink from public affairs. He was intensely patriotic, like Michael Angelo; he gave himself up to the good of his country, like Savonarola. Florence was small, but it was important; it was already a capital, and a centre of industry. He represented its interests in various courts. He lived with princes and nobles. He took an active part in all public matters and disputations; he was even familiar with the intrigues of parties; he was a politician as well as scholar. He entered into the contests between Popes and Emperors respecting the independence of Italy. He was not conversant with art, for the great sculptors and painters had not then arisen. The age was still dark; the mariner’s compass had not been invented, chimneys had not been introduced, the comforts of life were few. Dames of highest rank still spent their days over the distaff or in combing flax. There were no grand structures but cathedral churches. Life was laborious, dismal, and turbulent. Law and order did not reign in cities or villages. The poor were oppressed by nobles. Commerce was small and manufactures scarce. Men lived in dreary houses, without luxuries, on coarse bread and fruit and vegetables. The crusades had not come to an end. It was the age of bad popes and quarrelsome nobles, and lazy monks and haughty bishops, and ignorant people, steeped in gloomy superstitions, two hundred years before America was discovered, and two hundred and fifty years before Michael Angelo erected the dome of St. Peter’s.
But there was faith in the world, and rough virtues, sincerity, and earnestness of character, though life was dismal. Men believed in immortality and in expiation for sin. The rising universities had gifted scholars whose abstruse speculations have never been rivalled for acuteness and severity of logic. There were bards and minstrels, and chivalric knights and tournaments and tilts, and village fêtes and hospitable convents and gentle ladies,–gentle and lovely even in all states of civilization, winning by their graces and inspiring men to deeds of heroism and gallantry.
In one of those domestic revolutions which were so common in Italy Dante was banished, and his property was confiscated; and he at the age of thirty-five, about the year 1300, when Giotto was painting portraits, was sent forth a wanderer and an exile, now poor and unimportant, to eat the bread of strangers and climb other people’s stairs; and so obnoxious was he to the dominant party in his native city for his bitter spirit, that he was destined never to return to his home and friends. His ancestors, boasting of Roman descent, belonged to the patriotic party,–the Guelphs, who had the ascendency in his early years,–that party which defended the claims of the Popes against the Emperors of Germany. But this party had its divisions and rival families,–those that sided with the old feudal nobles who had once ruled the city, and the new mercantile families that surpassed them in wealth and popular favor. So, expelled by a fraction of his own party that had gained power, Dante went over to the Ghibellines, and became an adherent of imperial authority until he died.
It was in his wanderings from court to court and castle to castle and convent to convent and university to university, that he acquired that profound experience with men and the world which fitted him for his great task. “Not as victorious knight on the field of Campaldino, not as leader of the Guelph aristocracy at Florence, not as prior, not as ambassador,” but as a wanderer did he acquire his moral wisdom. He was a striking example of the severe experiences to which nearly all great benefactors have been subjected,–Abraham the exile, in the wilderness, in Egypt, among Philistines, among robbers and barbaric chieftains; the Prince Siddârtha, who founded Buddhism, in his wanderings among the various Indian nations who bowed down to Brahma; and, still greater, the Apostle Paul, in his protracted martyrdom among Pagan idolaters and boastful philosophers, in Asia and in Europe. These and others may be cited, who led a life of self-denial and reproach in order to spread the truths which save mankind. We naturally call their lot hard, even though they chose it; but it is the school of greatness. It was sad to see the wisest and best man of his day,–a man of family, of culture, of wealth, of learning, loving leisure, attached to his home and country, accustomed to honor and independence,–doomed to exile, poverty, neglect, and hatred, without those compensations which men of genius in our time secure. But I would not attempt to excite pity for an outward condition which developed the higher virtues,–for a thorny path which led to the regions of eternal light. Dante may have walked in bitter tears to Paradise, but after the fashion of saints and martyrs in all ages of our world. He need but cast his eyes on that emblem which was erected on every pinnacle of Mediaeval churches to symbolize passing suffering with salvation infinite,–the great and august creed of the age in which he lived, though now buried amid the triumphs of an imposing material civilization whose end is the adoration of the majesty of man rather than the majesty of God, the wonders of creation rather than the greatness of the Creator.
But something more was required in order to write an immortal poem than even native genius, great learning, and profound experience. The soul must be stimulated to the work by an absorbing and ennobling passion. This passion Dante had; and it is as memorable as the mortal loves of Abélard and Héloïse, and infinitely more exalting, since it was spiritual and immortal,–even the adoration of his lamented and departed Beatrice.
I wish to dwell for a moment, perhaps longer than to some may seem dignified, on this ideal or sentimental love. It may seem trivial and unimportant to the eye of youth, or a man of the world, or a woman of sensual nature, or to unthinking fools and butterflies; but it is invested with dignity to one who meditates on the mysteries of the soul, the wonders of our higher nature,–one of the things which arrest the attention of philosophers.
It is recorded and attested, even by Dante himself, that at the early age of nine he fell in love with Beatrice,–a little girl of one of his neighbors,–and that he wrote to her sonnets as the mistress of his devotion. How could he have written sonnets without an inspiration, unless he felt sentiments higher than we associate with either boys or girls? The boy was father of the man. “She appeared to me,” says the poet, “at a festival, dressed in that most noble and honorable color, scarlet,–girded and ornamented in a manner suitable to her age; and from that moment love ruled my soul. And after many days had passed, it happened that, passing through the street, she turned her eyes to the spot where I stood, and with ineffable courtesy she greeted me; and this had such an effect on me that it seemed I had reached the furthest limit of blessedness. I took refuge in the solitude of my chamber; and, thinking over what had happened to me, I proposed to write a sonnet, since I had already acquired the art of putting words into rhyme,” This, from his “Vita Nuova,” his first work, relating to the “new life” which this love awoke in his young soul.
Thus, according to Dante’s own statement, was the seed of a never-ending passion planted in his soul,–the small beginning, so insignificant to cynical eyes, that it would almost seem preposterous to allude to it; as if this fancy for a little girl in scarlet, and in a boy but nine years of age, could ripen into anything worthy to be soberly mentioned by a grave and earnest poet, in the full maturity of his genius,–worthy to give direction to his lofty intellect, worthy to be the occasion of the greatest poem the world has seen from Homer to modern times. Absurd! ridiculous! Great rivers cannot rise from such a spring; tall trees cannot grow from such a little acorn. Thus reasons the man who does not take cognizance of the mighty mysteries of human life. If anything tempted the boy to write sonnets to a little girl, it must have been the chivalric element in society at that period, when even boys were required to choose objects of devotion, and to whom they were to be loyal, and whose honor they were bound to defend. But the grave poet, in the decline of his life, makes this simple confession, as the beginning of that sentiment which never afterwards departed from him, and which inspired him to his grandest efforts.
But this youthful attachment was unfortunate. Beatrice did not return his passion, and had no conception of its force, and perhaps was not even worthy to call it forth. She may have been beautiful; she may have been gifted; she may have been commonplace. It matters little whether she was intellectual or not, beautiful or not. It was not the flesh and blood he saw, but the image of beauty and loveliness which his own mind created. He idealized the girl; she was to him all that he fancied. But she never encouraged him; she denied his greetings, and even avoided his society. At last she died, when he was twenty-seven, and left him–to use his own expression–“to ruminate on death, and envy whomsoever dies.” To console himself, he read Boëthius, and religious philosophy was ever afterwards his favorite study. Nor did serenity come, so deep were his sentiments, so powerful was his imagination, until he had formed an exalted purpose to write a poem in her honor, and worthy of his love. “If it please Him through whom all things come,” said Dante, “that my life be spared, I hope to tell such things of her as never before have been seen by any one.”
Now what inspired so strange a purpose? Was it a Platonic sentiment, like the love of Petrarch for Laura, or something that we cannot explain, and yet real,–a mystery of the soul in its deepest cravings and aspirations? And is love, among mortals generally, based on such a foundation? Is it flesh and blood we love; is it the intellect; is it the character; is it the soul; is it what is inherently interesting in woman, and which everybody can see,–the real virtues of the heart and charms of physical beauty? Or is it what we fancy in the object of our adoration, what exists already in our own minds,–the archetypes of eternal ideas of beauty and grace? And do all men worship these forms of beauty which the imagination creates? Can any woman, or any man, seen exactly as they are, incite a love which is kindred to worship? And is any love worthy to be called love, if it does not inspire emotions which prompt to self-sacrifice, labor, and lofty ends? Can a woman’s smiles incite to Herculean energies, and drive the willing worshipper to Aönian heights, unless under these smiles are seen the light of life and the blessedness of supernatural fervor? Is there, and can there be, a perpetuity in mortal charms without the recognition or the supposition of a moral beauty connected with them, which alone is pure and imperishable, and which alone creates the sacred ecstasy that revels in the enjoyment of what is divine, or what is supposed to be divine, not in man, but in the conceptions of man,–the ever-blazing glories of goodness or of truth which the excited soul doth see in the eyes and expression of the adored image? It is these archetypes of divinity, real or fancied, which give to love all that is enduring. Destroy these, take away the real or fancied glories of the soul and mind, and the holy flame soon burns out. No mortal love can last, no mortal love is beautiful, unless the visions which the mind creates are not more or less realized in the object of it, or when a person, either man or woman, is not capable of seeing ideal perfections. The loves of savages are the loves of brutes. The more exalted the character and the soul, the greater is the capacity of love, and the deeper its fervor. It is not the object of love which creates this fervor, but the mind which is capable of investing it with glories. There could not have been such intensity in Dante’s love had he not been gifted with the power of creating so lofty and beautiful an ideal; and it was this he worshipped,–not the real Beatrice, but the angelic beauty he thought he saw in her. Why could he not see the perfections he adored shining in other women, who perhaps had a higher claim to them? Ah, that is the mystery! And you cannot solve it any easier than you can tell why a flower blooms or a seed germinates. And why was it that Dante, with his great experience, could in later life see the qualities he adored in no other woman than in the cold and unappreciative girl who avoided him? Suppose she had become his wife, might he not have been disenchanted, and his veneration been succeeded by a bitter disappointment? Yet, while the delusion lasted, no other woman could have filled her place; in no other woman could he have seen such charms; no other love could have inspired his soul to make such labors.
I would not be understood as declaring that married love must be necessarily a disenchantment. I would not thus libel humanity, and insult plain reason and experience. Many loves are happy, and burn brighter and brighter to the end; but it is because there are many who are worthy of them, both men and women,–because the ideal, which the mind created, is realized to a greater or less degree, although the loftier the archetype, the less seldom is it found. Nor is it necessary that perfection should be found. A person may have faults which alienate and disenchant, but with these there may be virtues so radiant that the worship, though imperfect, remains,–a respect, on the whole, so great that the soul is lifted to admiration. Who can love this perishable form, unless one sees in it some traits which belong to superior and immortal natures? And hence the sentiment, when pure, creates a sort of companionship of beings robed in celestial light, and exorcises those degrading passions which belong to earth. But Dante saw no imperfections in Beatrice: perhaps he had no opportunity to see them. His own soul was so filled with love, his mind soared to such exalted regions of adoration, that when she passed away he saw her only in the beatified state, in company with saints and angels; and he was wrapped in ecstasies which knew no end,–the unbroken adoration of beauty, grace, and truth, even of those eternal ideas on which Plato based all that is certain, and all that is worth living for; that sublime realism without which life is a failure, and this world is “a mockery, a delusion, and a snare.”
This is the history and exposition of that love for Beatrice with which the whole spiritual life of Dante is identified, and without which the “Divine Comedy” might not have been written. I may have given to it disproportionate attention; and it is true I might have allegorized it, and for love of a woman I might have substituted love for an art,–even the art of poetry, in which his soul doubtless lived, even as Michael Angelo, his greatest fellow-countryman, lived in the adoration of beauty, grace, and majesty. Oh, happy and favored is the person who lives in the enjoyment of an art! It may be humble; it may be grand. It may be music; it may be painting, or sculpture, or architecture, or poetry, or oratory, or landscape gardening, yea, even farming, or needle-work, or house decoration,–anything which employs the higher faculties of the mind, and brings order out of confusion, and takes one from himself, from the drudgery of mechanical labors, even if it be no higher than carving a mantelpiece or making a savory dish; for all these things imply creation, alike the test and the reward of genius itself, which almost every human being possesses, in some form or other, to a greater or less degree,–one of the kindest gifts of Deity to man.
The great artist, kindled by his visions of imperishable loveliness in the person of his departed Beatrice, now resolves to dedicate to her honor his great life-labor,–even his immortal poem, which should be a transcript of his thoughts, a mirror of his life, a record of his sorrows, a painting of his experiences, a description of what he saw, a digest of his great meditations, a thesaurus of the treasures of the Mediaeval age, an exposition of its great and leading ideas in philosophy and in religion. Every great man wishes to leave behind some monument of his labors, to bless or instruct mankind. Any man without some form of this noble ambition lives in vain, even if his monument be no more than a cultivated farm rescued from wildness and sterility.
Now Dante’s monument is “the marvellous, mystic, unfathomable song,” in which he sang his sorrows and his joys, revealed his visions, and recorded the passions and sentiments of his age. It never can be popular, because it is so difficult to be understood, and because its leading ideas are not in harmony with those which are now received. I doubt if anybody can delight in that poem, unless he sympathizes with the ideas of the Middle Ages; or, at least, unless he is familiar with them, and with the historical characters who lived in those turbulent and gloomy times. There is more talk and pretension about that book than any one that I know of. Like the “Faerie Queene” or the “Paradise Lost,” it is a study rather than a recreation; one of those productions which an educated person ought to read in the course of his life, and which if he can read in the original, and has read, is apt to boast of,–like climbing a lofty mountain, enjoyable to some with youth and vigor and enthusiasm and love of nature, but a very toilsome thing to most people, especially if old and short-winded and gouty.
In the year 1309 the first part of the “Divine Comedy,” the Inferno, was finished by Dante, at the age of forty-four, in the tenth year of his pilgrimage, under the roof of the Marquis of Lunigiana; and it was intrusted to the care of Fra Ilario, a monk living on the beautiful Ligurian shores. As everybody knows, it is a vivid, graphic picture of what was supposed to be the infernal regions, where great sinners are punished with various torments forever and ever. It is interesting for the excellence of the poetry, the brilliant analyses of characters, the allusion to historical events, the bitter invectives, the intense sarcasms, and the serious, earnest spirit which underlies the descriptions. But there is very little of gentleness or compassion, in view of the protracted torments of the sufferers. We stand aghast in view of the miseries and monsters, furies and gorgons, snakes and fires, demons, filth, lakes of pitch, pools of blood, plains of scorching sands, circles, and chimeras dire,–a physical hell of utter and unspeakable dreariness and despair, awfully and powerfully described, but still repulsive. In each of the dismal abodes, far down in the bowels of the earth, which Dante is supposed to have visited with Virgil as a guide, in which some infernal deity presides, all sorts of physical tortures are accumulated, inflicted on traitors, murderers, robbers,–men who have committed great crimes, unpunished in their lifetime; such men as Cain, Judas, Ugolino,–men consigned to an infamous immortality. On the great culprits of history, and of Italy especially, Dante virtually sits in judgment; and he consigns them equally to various torments which we shudder to think of.
And here let me say, as a general criticism, that in the Inferno are brought out in tremendous language the opinions of the Middle Ages in reference to retribution. Dante does not rise above them, with all his genius; he is not emancipated from them. It is the rarest thing in this world for any man, however profound his intellect and bold his spirit, to be emancipated from the great and leading ideas of his age. Abraham was, and Moses, and the founder of Buddhism, and Socrates, and Mohammed, and Luther; but they were reformers, more or less divinely commissioned, with supernatural aid in many instances to give them wisdom. But Homer was not, nor Euripides, nor the great scholastics of the Middle Ages, nor even popes. The venerated doctors and philosophers, prelates, scholars, nobles, kings, to say nothing of the people, thought as Dante did in reference to future punishment,–that it was physical, awful, accumulative, infinite, endless; the wrath of avenging deity displayed in pains and agonies inflicted on the body, like the tortures of inquisitors, thus appealing to the fears of men, on which chiefly the power of the clergy was based. Nor in these views of endless physical sufferings, as if the body itself were eternal and indestructible, is there the refinement of Milton, who placed misery in the upbraidings of conscience, in mental torture rather than bodily, in the everlasting pride and rebellion of the followers of Satan and his fallen angels. It was these awful views of protracted and eternal physical torments,–not the hell of the Bible, but the hell of priests, of human invention,–which gives to the Middle Ages a sorrowful and repulsive light, thus nursing superstition and working on the fears of mankind, rather than on the conscience and the sense of moral accountability. But how could Dante have represented the ideas of the Middle Ages, if he had not painted his Inferno in the darkest colors that the imagination could conceive, unless he had soared beyond what is revealed into the unfathomable and mysterious and unrevealed regions of the second death?
After various wanderings in France and Italy, and after an interval of three years, Dante produced the second part of the poem,–the Purgatorio,–in which he assumes another style, and sings another song. In this we are introduced to an illustrious company,–many beloved friends, poets, musicians, philosophers, generals, even prelates and popes, whose deeds and thoughts were on the whole beneficent. These illustrious men temporarily expiate the sins of anger, of envy, avarice, gluttony, pride, ambition,–the great defects which were blended with virtues, and which are to be purged out of them by suffering. Their torments are milder, and amid them they discourse on the principles of moral wisdom. They utter noble sentiments; they discuss great themes; they show how vain is wealth and power and fame; they preach sermons. In these discourses, Dante shows his familiarity with history and philosophy; he unfolds that moral wisdom for which he is most distinguished. His scorn is now tempered with tenderness. He shows a true humanity; he is more forgiving, more generous, more sympathetic. He is more lofty, if he is not more intense. He sees the end of expiations: the sufferers will be restored to peace and joy.
But even in his purgatory, as in his hell, he paints the ideas of his age. He makes no new or extraordinary revelations. He arrives at no new philosophy. He is the Christian poet, after the pattern of his age.
It is plain that the Middle Ages must have accepted or invented some relief from punishment, or every Christian country would have been overwhelmed with the blackness of despair. Men could not live, if they felt they could not expiate their sins. Who could smile or joke or eat or sleep or have any pleasure, if he thought seriously there would be no cessation or release from endless pains? Who could discharge his ordinary duties or perform his daily occupations, if his father or his mother or his sister or his brother or his wife or his son or his daughter might not be finally forgiven for the frailties of an imperfect nature which he had inherited? The Catholic Church, in its benignity,–at what time I do not know,–opened the future of hope amid the speculations of despair. She saved the Middle Ages from universal gloom. If speculation or logic or tradition or scripture pointed to a hell of reprobation, there must be also a purgatory as the field of expiation,–for expiation there must be for sin, somewhere, somehow, according to immutable laws, unless a mantle of universal forgiveness were spread over sinners who in this life had given no sufficient proofs of repentance and faith. Expiation was the great element of Mediaeval theology. It may have been borrowed from India, but it was engrafted on the Christian system. Sometimes it was made to take place in this life; when the sinner, having pleased God, entered at once upon heavenly beatitudes. Hence fastings, scourgings, self-laceration, ascetic rigors in dress and food, pilgrimages,–all to purchase forgiveness; which idea of forgiveness was scattered to the winds by Luther, and replaced by grace,–faith in Christ attested by a righteous life. I allude to this notion of purgatory, which early entered into the creeds of theologians, and which was adopted by the Catholic Church, to show how powerful it was when human consciousness sought a relief from the pains of endless physical torments.
After Dante had written his Purgatorio, he retired to the picturesque mountains which separate Tuscany from Modena and Bologna; and in the hospitium of an ancient monastery, “on the woody summit of a rock from which he might gaze on his ungrateful country, he renewed his studies in philosophy and theology.” There, too, in that calm retreat, he commenced his Paradiso, the subject of profound meditations on what was held in highest value in the Middle Ages. The themes are theological and metaphysical. They are such as interested Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura, Anselm and Bernard. They are such as do not interest this age,–even the most gifted minds,–for our times are comparatively indifferent to metaphysical subtleties and speculations. Beatrice and Peter and Benedict alike discourse on the recondite subjects of the Bible in the style of Mediaeval doctors. The themes are great,–the incarnation, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, salvation by faith, the triumph of Christ, the glory of Paradise, the mysteries of the divine and human natures; and with these disquisitions are reproofs of bad popes, and even of some of the bad customs of the Church, like indulgences, and the corruptions of the monastic system. The Paradiso is a thesaurus of Mediaeval theology,–obscure, but lofty, mixed up with all the learning of the age, even of the lives of saints and heroes and kings and prophets. Saint Peter examines Dante upon faith, James upon hope, and John upon charity. Virgil here has ceased to be his guide; but Beatrice, robed in celestial loveliness, conducts him from circle to circle, and explains the sublimest doctrines and resolves his mortal doubts,–the object still of his adoration, and inferior only to the mother of our Lord, regina angelorum, mater carissima, whom the Church even then devoutly worshipped, and to whom the greatest sages prayed.
“Thou virgin mother, daughter of thy Son,
Humble and high beyond all other creatures,
The limit fixed of the eternal counsel,–
Thou art the one who such nobility
To human nature gave, that its Creator
Did not disdain to make himself its creature.
Not only thy benignity gives succor
To him who asketh it, but oftentimes
Forerunneth of its own accord the asking.
In thee compassion is; in thee is pity;
In thee magnificence; in thee unites
Whate’er of goodness is in any creature.”
In the glorious meditation of those grand subjects which had such a charm for Benedict and Bernard, and which almost offset the barbarism and misery of the Middle Ages,–to many still regarded as “ages of faith,”–Dante seemingly forgets his wrongs; and in the company of her whom he adores he seems to revel in the solemn ecstasy of a soul transported to the realms of eternal light. He lives now with the angels and the mysteries,–
“Like to the fire
That in a cloud imprisoned doth break out expansive.
Thus, in that heavenly banqueting his soul
Outgrew himself, and, in the transport lost,
Holds no remembrance now of what she was.”
The Paradise of Dante is not gloomy, although it be obscure and indefinite. It is the unexplored world of thought and knowledge, the explanation of dogmas which his age accepted. It is a revelation of glories such as only a lofty soul could conceive, but could not paint,–a supernal happiness given only to favored mortals, to saints and martyrs who have triumphed over the seductions of sense and the temptations of life,–a beatified state of blended ecstasy and love.
“Had I a tongue in eloquence as rich as is the coloring in fancy’s
‘Twere all too poor to utter the least part of that enchantment.”
Such is this great poem; in all its parts and exposition of the ideas of the age,–sometimes fierce and sometimes tender, profound and infantine, lofty and degraded, like the Church itself, which conserved these sentiments. It is an intensely religious poem, and yet more theological than Christian, and full of classical allusions to pagan heroes and sages,–a most remarkable production considering the age, and, when we remember that it is without a prototype in any language, a glorious monument of reviving literature, both original and powerful.
Its appearance was of course an epoch, calling out the admiration of Italians, and of all who could understand it,–of all who appreciated its moral wisdom in every other country of Europe. And its fame has been steadily increasing, although I fear much of the popular enthusiasm is exaggerated and unfelt. One who can read Italian well may see its “fiery emphasis and depth,” its condensed thought and language, its supernal scorn and supernal love, its bitterness and its forgiveness; but very few sympathize with its theology or its philosophy, or care at all for the men whose crimes he punishes, and whose virtues he rewards.
But there is great interest in the man, as well as in the poem which he made the mirror of his life, and the register of his sorrows and of those speculations in which he sought to banish the remembrance of his misfortunes. His life, like his poem, is an epic. We sympathize with his resentments, “which exile and poverty made perpetually fresh.” “The sincerity of his early passion for Beatrice,” says Hallam, “pierces through the veil of allegory which surrounds her, while the memory of his injuries pursues him into the immensity of eternal light; and even in the company of saints and angels his unforgiving spirit darkens at the name of Florence…. He combines the profoundest feelings of religion with those patriotic recollections which were suggested by the reappearance of the illustrious dead.”
Next to Michael Angelo he was the best of all famous Italians, stained by no marked defects but bitterness, pride, and scorn; while his piety, his patriotism, and elevation of soul stand out in marked contrast with the selfishness and venality and hypocrisy and cruelty of the leading men in the history of his times. “He wrote with his heart’s blood;” he wrote in poverty, exile, grief, and neglect; he wrote like an inspired prophet of old. He seems to have been specially raised up to exalt virtue, and vindicate the ways of God to man, and prepare the way for a new civilization. He breathes angry defiance to all tyrants; he consigns even popes to the torments he created. He ridicules fools; he exposes knaves. He detests oppression; he is a prophet of liberty. He sees into all shams and all hypocrisies, and denounces lies. He is temperate in eating and drinking; he has no vices. He believes in friendship, in love, in truth. He labors for the good of his countrymen. He is affectionate to those who comprehend him. He accepts hospitalities, but will not stoop to meanness or injustice. He will not return to his native city, which he loves so well, even when permitted, if obliged to submit to humiliating ceremonies. He even refuses a laurel crown from any city but from the one in which he was born. No honors could tempt him to be untrue unto himself; no tasks are too humble to perform, if he can make himself useful. At Ravenna he gives lectures to the people in their own language, regarding the restoration of the Latin impossible, and wishing to bring into estimation the richness of the vernacular tongue. And when his work is done he dies, before he becomes old (1321), having fulfilled his vow. His last retreat was at Ravenna, and his last days were soothed with gentle attentions from Guido da Polenta, that kind duke who revived his fainting hopes. It was in his service, as ambassador to Venice, that Dante sickened and died. A funeral sermon was pronounced upon him by his friend the duke, and beautiful monuments were erected to his memory. Too late the Florentines begged for his remains, and did justice to the man and the poet; as well they might, since his is the proudest name connected with their annals. He is indeed one of the great benefactors of the world itself, for the richness of his immortal legacy.
Could the proscribed and exiled poet, as he wandered, isolated and alone, over the vine-clad hills of Italy, and as he stopped here and there at some friendly monastery, wearied and hungry, have cast his prophetic eye down the vistas of the ages; could he have seen what honors would be bestowed upon his name, and how his poem, written in sorrow, would be scattered in joy among all nations, giving a new direction to human thought, shining as a fixed star in the realms of genius, and kindling into shining brightness what is only a reflection of its rays; yea, how it would be committed to memory in the rising universities, and be commented on by the most learned expositors in all the schools of Europe, lauded to the skies by his countrymen, received by the whole world as a unique, original, unapproachable production, suggesting grand thoughts to Milton, reappearing even in the creations of Michael Angelo, coloring art itself whenever art seeks the sublime and beautiful, inspiring all subsequent literature, dignifying the life of letters, and gilding philosophy as well as poetry with new glories,–could he have seen all this, how his exultant soul would have rejoiced, even as did Abraham, when, amid the ashes of the funeral pyre he had prepared for Isaac, he saw the future glories of his descendants; or as Bacon, when, amid calumnies, he foresaw that his name and memory would be held in honor by posterity, and that his method would be received by all future philosophers as one of the priceless boons of genius to mankind!
Vita Nuova; Divina Commedia,–Translations by Carey and Longfellow, Boccaccio’s Life of Dante; Wright’s St. Patrick’s Purgatory; Dante et la Philosophie Catholique du Treizième Siècle, par Ozinan; Labitte, La Divine Comédie avant Dante; Balbo’s Life and Times of Dante; Hallam’s Middle Ages; Napier’s Florentine History; Villani; Leigh Hunt’s Stories from the Italian Poets; Botta’s Life of Dante; J. R. Lowell’s article on Dante in American Cyclopaedia; Milman’s Latin Christianity; Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-worship; Macaulay’s Essays; The Divina Commedia from the German of Schelling; Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique; La Divine Comédie, by Lamennais; Dante, by Labitte.