Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Among My Books by James Russell Lowell

Part 1 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download Among My Books pdf
File size: 0.7 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

E-text prepared by Ted Garvin, Thomas Berger, and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team


Second Series



A love and honor which more than thirty years have deepened, though
priceless to him they enrich, are of little import to one capable of
inspiring them. Yet I cannot deny myself the pleasure of so far intruding
on your reserve as at least to make public acknowledgment of the debt I
can never repay.








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[2] 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;[3] 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

Dante (Durante, by contraction Dante) degli Alighieri was born at
Florence in 1265, probably during the month of May.[5] 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,[6] 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.[7] Leonardo Aretino and Manetti add their testimony to
that of Boccaccio, and 1265 is now universally assumed as the true date.
Voltaire,[8] nevertheless, places the poet's birth in 1260, and jauntily
forgives Bayle (who, he says, _ecrivait a 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,[9] when the
sun was in the constellation Gemini, and it has been absurdly inferred,
from a passage in the _Inferno_,[10] 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.[11] 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_),[12] 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_[13] and the
corresponding _paix, paix, Sathan,_ in the autobiography of Cellini, nor
from the very definite allusion to Doctor Siger,[14] we may yet infer
from some passages in the _Commedia_ that his wanderings had extended
even farther;[15] 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_),[16]
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."[17] 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."[18] In the same year he assisted at the siege and
capture of Caprona.[19] 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_[20] Professor
de Vericour[21] 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[22]
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,[23] had extended to Florence,
where the Guelphs took the part of the Neri and the Ghibellines of the
Bianchi.[24] 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,[25] 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.[26] 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[27] by a contemporary as early as 1333, we learn that Dante
soon separated himself from his companions in misfortune with mutual
discontents and recriminations.[28] 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.[29] 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."[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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 Verone_, 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[33] 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.[34] 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[35] 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.[36] Dante is said to have
dictated the following inscription for it on his death-bed:--


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.[37]

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:[38] "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![39]

_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[40] Cardinal Poggetto (du Poiet) caused Dante's treatise _De
Monarchia_, 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,[41] whose damnation the poet himself seems to prophesy,[42] 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[43] 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

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.[44] M. St. Rene Taillandier says that the _Commedia_ was condemned
by the inquisition in Spain; but this seems too general a statement, for,
according to Foscolo,[45] 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_.[46] 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."[47] 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."[48] 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."[49] 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 Chateaubriand speaks of Dante with vague
commendation, evidently from a very superficial acquaintance, and that
only with the _Inferno_, probably from Rivarol's version.[50] 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, Ampere, 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.[51] 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,"[52] 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,[53] 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"[54]
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.[55] 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.[56] 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 Monarchia_. 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 Monarchia_ 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"[57] 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 Monarchia_ 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_.[58] 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.[59] 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.[60]

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.[61]

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 Monarchia_, 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
Monarchia_ 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.[62] 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 Cantu 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,[63] 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

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,[64] 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_.[65] 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."[66] 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_.[67]

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)[68] 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."[69] 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.[70] Underlying Dante the
metaphysician, statesman, and theologian, was always Dante the poet,[71]
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,[72]
the citadel of refuge, even in this life, for souls purified by sorrow
and self denial, transhumanized[73] 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

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,[74] 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.[75] 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.[76] 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.[77]

Infinitely touching and sacred to us is the instinct of intense sympathy
which drawst hese latter toward their great forerunner, _exul immeritus_
like themselves.[78] 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 cosi lo pusillanimo per contrario sempre si
tiene meno che non e._[79] 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,[80] 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";[81]

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.[82] He was, as seems distinctive in some degree of the Latinized
races, an unflinching _a priori_ logician, not unwilling to "syllogize
invidious verities,"[83] 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."[84]

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."[85]

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.[86]
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."[87] 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[88] from before the
beginning of the world."[89] Accordingly the highest reason, typified in
his guide Virgil, rebukes him for bringing compassion to the judgments of
God,[90] and again embraces him and calls the mother that bore him
blessed, when he bids Filippo Argenti begone among the other dogs.[91]
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,[92] 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

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,[93] 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_.[94] 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."[95] 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."[96] 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."[97] If
Dante, moreover, wrote his treatise _De Monarchia_ before 1302, and we
think Witte's inference,[98] 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.[99] 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.[100] 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,[101] 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[102] 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[103] 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."[104] "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_),[105] 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."[106] 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."[107] "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

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."[109]

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."[110] "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."[111] 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.[112] 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."[113] "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."[114] 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,[115] 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.[116]

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 Provencal 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._"[117] 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 _la onde la stoltezza
dipartille._[118] 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."[119] "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."[120]
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[121]
Nor prayer for inspiration me availed,[122]
_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,"[123] 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[124] man might covet it. "How much wisdom and
how great a persistence in virtue (_abito virtuoso_) are hidden for want
of this lustre!"[125] When Dante reaches the Terrestrial Paradise[126]
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

"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."[127] That she was the symbol of
this is evident from the previous dream of Dante,[128] 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

"All dripping brought
Into the dance of the four beautiful,"[130]

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_.[131] That this was Dante's
meaning is confirmed by what Beatrice says to him,[132]

"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.[133] 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,"[134] 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."[135]

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[136] 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,"[137] 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),[138] 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

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_,[139] 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.[140] 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

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."[142] 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.[143] 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.[144] To this
they all lead up. In one of those curious chapters of the _Convito_,[145]
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).[146] 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."[147] 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[148] 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."[149]

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[150] 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."[151]

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.[152] 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.[153]
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."[154]

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_,[155] 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."[156]

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."[157]

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.[158] 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.[159]
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.'"[160]

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.[161] 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[162] 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."[163] 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.[164] 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."[165] 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."[166]

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."[167] If we may apply Dante's own method of exposition to
this passage, we find him telling us that he first sought felicity in

"That apple sweet which through so many branches
The care of mortals goeth in pursuit of,"[168]

then in fame, a bird that flits before us as we follow,[169] 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,[170] then
in the riches of the Holy Spirit in larger and larger measure.[171] 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."[172] 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 Monarchia_ to have been written before 1300.[173] 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.[174] 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

Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest