Swiftly the politic goes: is it dark? he borrows a lantern; Slowly the statesman and sure, guiding his feet by the stars.
It will be well, then, to clear up the chronology of Dante's thought. When his ancestor Cacciaguida prophesies to him the life which is to be his after 1300, he says, speaking of his exile:—
"And that which most shall weigh upon thy shoulders Will be the bad and foolish company With which into this valley thou shalt fall; * * * * * "Of their bestiality their own proceedings Shall furnish proof; so 'twill be well for thee A party to have made thee by thyself."
Here both context and grammatical construction (infallible guides in a writer so scrupulous and exact) imply irresistibly that Dante had become a party by himself before his exile. The measure adopted by the Priors of Florence while he was one of them (with his assent and probably by his counsel), of sending to the frontier the leading men of both factions, confirms this implication. Among the persons thus removed from the opportunity of doing mischief was his dearest friend Guido Cavalcanti, to whom he had not long before addressed the Vita Nuova. Dante evidently looked back with satisfaction on his conduct at this time, and thought it both honest and patriotic, as it certainly was disinterested. "We whose country is the world, as the ocean to the fish," he tells us, "though we drank of the Arno in infancy, and love Florence so much that, because we loved her, we suffer exile unjustly, support the shoulders of our judgment rather upon reason than the senses." And again, speaking of old ago, he says: "And the noble soul at this age blesses also the times past, and well may bless them, because, revolving them in memory, she recalls her righteous conduct, without which she could not enter the port to which she draws nigh, with so much riches and so great gain." This language is not that of a man who regrets some former action as mistaken, still less of one who repented it for any disastrous consequences to himself. So, in justifying a man for speaking of himself, he alleges two examples,—that of Boethius, who did so to "clear himself of the perpetual infamy of his exile"; and that of Augustine, "for, by the process of his life, which was from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best, he gave us example and teaching." After middle life, at least, Dante had that wisdom "whose use brings with it marvellous beauties, that is, contentment with every condition of time, and contempt of those things which others make their masters." If Dante, moreover, wrote his treatise De Monarchia before 1302, and we think Witte's inference, from its style and from the fact that he nowhere alludes to his banishment in it, conclusive on this point, then he was already a Ghibelline in the same larger and unpartisan sense which ever after distinguished him from his Italian contemporaries.
"Let, let the Ghibellines ply their handicraft Beneath some other standard; for this ever Ill follows he who it and justice parts,"
he makes Justinian say, speaking of the Roman eagle. His Ghibellinism, though undoubtedly the result of what he had seen of Italian misgovernment, embraced in its theoretical application the civilized world. His political system was one which his reason adopted, not for any temporary expediency, but because it conduced to justice, peace, and civilization,—the three conditions on which alone freedom was possible in any sense which made it worth having. Dante was intensely Italian, nay, intensely Florentine, but on all great questions he was, by the logical structure of his mind and its philosophic impartiality, incapable of intellectual provincialism. If the circle of his affections, as with persistent natures commonly, was narrow, his thought swept a broad horizon from that tower of absolute self which he had reared for its speculation. Even upon the principles of poetry, mechanical and other, he had reflected more profoundly than most of those who criticise his work, and it was not by chance that he discovered the secret of that magical word too few, which not only distinguishes his verse from all other, but so strikingly from his own prose. He never took the bit of art between his teeth where only poetry, and not doctrine, was concerned.
If Dante's philosophy, on the one hand, was practical a guide for the conduct of life, it was, on the other, a much more transcendent thing, whose body was wisdom her soul love, and her efficient cause truth. It is a practice of wisdom from the mere love of it, for so we must interpret his amoroso uso di sapienzia, when we remember how he has said before that "the love of wisdom for its delight or profit is not true love of wisdom." And this love must embrace knowledge in all its branches, for Dante is content with nothing less than a pancratic training, and has a scorn of dilettanti, specialists, and quacks. "Wherefore none ought to be called a true philosopher who for any delight loves any part of knowledge, as there are many who delight in composing Canzoni, and delight to be studious in them, and who delight to be studious in rhetoric and in music, and flee and abandon the other sciences which are all members of wisdom." "Many love better to be held masters than to be so." With him wisdom is the generalization from many several knowledges of small account by themselves; it results therefore from breadth of culture, and would be impossible without it. Philosophy is a noble lady (donna gentil), partaking of the divine essence by a kind of eternal marriage, while with other intelligences she is united in a less measure "as a mistress of whom no lover takes complete joy." The eyes of this lady are her demonstrations, and her smile is her persuasion. "The eyes of wisdom are her demonstrations by which truth is beheld most certainly; and her smile is her persuasions in which the interior light of wisdom is shown under a certain veil, and in these two is felt that highest pleasure of beatitude which is the greatest good in paradise." "It is to be known that the beholding this lady was so largely ordained for us, not merely to look upon the face which she shows us, but that we may desire to attain the things which she keeps concealed. And as through her much thereof is seen by reason, so by her we believe that every miracle may have its reason in a higher intellect, and consequently may be. Whence our good faith has its origin, whence comes the hope of those unseen things which we desire, and through that the operation of charity, by the which three virtues we rise to philosophize in that celestial Athens where the Stoics, Peripatetics, and Epicureans through the art of eternal truth accordingly concur in one will."
As to the double scope of Dante's philosophy we will cite a passage from the Convito, all the more to our purpose as it will illustrate his own method of allegorizing. "Verily the use of our mind is double, that is, practical and speculative, the one and the other most delightful, although that of contemplation be the more so. That of the practical is for us to act virtuously, that is, honorably, with prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. [These are the four stars seen by Dante, Purgatorio, I. 22-27.] That of the speculative is not to act for ourselves, but to consider the works of God and nature.... Verily of these uses one is more full of beatitude than the other, as it is the speculative, which without any admixture is the use of our noblest part.... And this part in this life cannot have its use perfectly, which is to see God, except inasmuch as the intellect considers him and beholds him through his effects. And that we should seek this beatitude as the highest, and not the other, the Gospel of Mark teaches us if we will look well. Mark says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Salome went to find the Saviour at the tomb and found him not, but found a youth clad in white who said to them, 'Ye seek the Saviour, and I say unto you that he is not here; and yet fear ye not, but go and say unto his disciples and Peter that he will go before them into Galilee, and there ye shall see him even as he told you.' By these three women may be understood the three sects of the active life, that is, the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Peripatetics, who go to the tomb, that is, to the present life, which is a receptacle of things corruptible, and seek the Saviour, that is, beatitude, and find him not, but they find a youth in white raiment, who, according to the testimony of Matthew and the rest, was an angel of God. This angel is that nobleness of ours which comes from God, as hath been said, which speaks in our reason and says to each of these sects, that is, to whoever goes seeking beatitude in this life, that it is not here, but go and say to the disciples and to Peter, that is, to those who go seeking it and those who are gone astray (like Peter who had denied), that it will go before them into Galilee, that is, into speculation. Galilee is as much as to say Whiteness. Whiteness is a body full of corporeal light more than any other, and so contemplation is fuller of spiritual light than anything else here below. And he says, 'it will go before,' and does not say, 'it will be with you,' to give us to understand that God always goes before our contemplation, nor can we ever overtake here Him who is our supreme beatitude. And it is said, 'There ye shall see him as he told you,' that is, here ye shall have of his sweetness, that is, felicity, as is promised you here, that is, as it is ordained that ye can have. And thus it appears that we find our beatitude, this felicity of which we are speaking, first imperfect in the active life, that is, in the operations of the moral virtues, and afterwards wellnigh perfect in the operation of the intellectual ones, the which two operations are speedy and most direct ways to lead to the supreme beatitude, the which cannot be had here, as appears by what has been said."
At first sight there may seem to be some want of agreement in what Dante says here of the soul's incapacity of the vision of God in this life with the triumphant conclusion of his own poem. But here as elsewhere Dante must be completed and explained by himself. "We must know that everything most greatly desires its own perfection, and in that its every desire is appeased, and by that everything is desired. [That is, the one is drawn toward, the other draws.] And this is that desire which makes every delight maimed, for no delight is so great in this life that it can take away from the soul this thirst so that desire remain not in the thought." "And since it is most natural to wish to be in God, the human soul naturally wills it with all longing. And since its being depends on God and is preserved thereby it naturally desires and wills to be united with God in order to fortify its being. And since in the goodnesses of human nature is shown some reason for those of the Divine, it follows that the human soul unites itself in a spiritual way with those so much the more strongly and quickly as they appear more perfect, and this appearance happens according as the knowledge of the soul is clear or impeded. And this union is what we call Love, whereby may be known what is within the soul, seeing those it outwardly loves.... And the human soul which is ennobled with the ultimate potency, that is, reason, participates in the Divine nature after the manner of an eternal Intelligence, because the soul is so ennobled and denuded of matter in that sovran potency that the Divine light shines in it as in an angel." This union with God may therefore take place before the warfare of life is over, but is only possible for souls perfettamente naturati, perfectly endowed by nature. This depends on the virtue of the generating soul and the concordant influence of the planets. "And if it happen that through the purity of the recipient soul, the intellectual virtue be well abstracted and absolved from every corporeal shadow, the Divine bounty is multiplied in it as a thing sufficient to receive the same." "And there are some who believe that if all the aforesaid virtues [powers] should unite for the production of a soul in their best disposition, so much of the Deity would descend into it that it would be almost another incarnate God." Did Dante believe himself to be one of these? He certainly gives us reason to think so. He was born under fortunate stars, as he twice tells us, and he puts the middle of his own life at the thirty-fifth year, which is the period he assigns for it in the diviner sort of men.
The stages of Dante's intellectual and moral growth may, we think, be reckoned with some approach to exactness from data supplied by himself. In the poems of the Vita Nuova, Beatrice, until her death, was to him simply a poetical ideal, a type of abstract beauty, chosen according to the fashion of the day after the manner of the 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." 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. We think Miss Rossetti a little hasty in allowing that in the years which immediately followed Beatrice's death Dante gave himself up "more or less to sensual gratification and earthly aim." The earthly aim we in a certain sense admit; the sensual gratification we reject as utterly inconsistent, not only with Dante's principles, but with his character and indefatigable industry. Miss Rossetti illustrates her position by a subtle remark on "the lulling spell of an intellectual and sensitive delight in good running parallel with a voluntary and actual indulgence in evil." The dead Beatrice beckoned him toward the life of contemplation, and it was precisely during this period that he attempted to find happiness in the life of action. "Verily it is to be known, that we may in this life have two felicities, following two ways, good and best, which lead us thither. The one is the active, the other the contemplative life, the which (though by the active we may attain, as has been said, unto good felicity) leads us to the best felicity and blessedness." "The life of my heart, that is, of my inward self, was wont to be a sweet thought which went many times to the feet of God, that is to say, in thought I contemplated the kingdom of the Blessed. And I tell the final cause why I mounted thither in thought when I say, 'Where it [the sweet thought] beheld a lady in glory,' that I might make it understood that I was and am certain, by her gracious revelation, that she was in heaven, [not on earth, as I had vainly imagined,] whither I went in thought, so often as was possible to me, as it were rapt." This passage exactly answers to another in Purgatorio, XXX. 115-138:—
"Not only by the work of those great wheels That destine every seed unto some end, According as the stars are in conjunction, But by the largess of celestial graces, * * * * * "Such had this man become in his New Life Potentially, that every righteous habit Would have made admirable proof in him; * * * * * "Some time I did sustain him with my look (volto); Revealing unto him my youthful eyes, I led him with me turned in the right way. As soon as ever of my second age I was upon the threshold and changed life, Himself from me he took and gave to others. When from the flesh to spirit I ascended, And beauty and virtue were in me increased, I was to him less dear and less delightful, And into ways untrue he turned his steps, Pursuing the false images of good That never any promises fulfil Nor prayer for inspiration me availed, By means of which in dreams and otherwise I called him back, so little did he heed them. So low he fell, that all appliances For his salvation were already short Save showing him the people of perdition."
Now Dante himself, we think, gives us the clew, by following which we may reconcile the contradiction, what Miss Rossetti calls "the astounding discrepancy," between the Lady of the Vita Nuova who made him unfaithful to Beatrice, and the same Lady in the Convito, who in attributes is identical with Beatrice herself. We must remember that the prose part of the Convito, which is a comment on the Canzoni, was written after the Canzoni themselves. How long after we cannot say with certainty, but it was plainly composed at intervals, a part of it probably after Dante had entered upon old age (which began, as he tells us, with the forty-fifth year), consequently after 1310. Dante had then written a considerable part of the Divina Commedia, in which Beatrice was to go through her final and most ethereal transformation in his mind and memory. We say in his memory, for such idealizations have a very subtle retrospective action, and the new condition of feeling or thought is uneasy till it has half unconsciously brought into harmony whatever is inconsistent with it in the past. The inward life unwillingly admits any break in its continuity, and nothing is more common than to hear a man, in venting an opinion taken up a week ago, say with perfect sincerity, "I have always thought so and so." Whatever belief occupies the whole mind soon produces the impression on us of having long had possession of it, and one mode of consciousness blends so insensibly with another that it is impossible to mark by an exact line where one begins and the other ends. Dante in his exposition of the Canzoni must have been subject to this subtlest and most deceitful of influences. He would try to reconcile so far as he conscientiously could his present with his past. This he could do by means of the allegorical interpretation. "For it would be a great shame to him," he says in the Vita Nuova, "who should poetize something under the vesture of some figure or rhetorical color, and afterwards, when asked, could not strip his words of that vesture in such wise that they should have a true meaning." Now in the literal exposition of the Canzone beginning, "Voi che intendendo il terzo ciel movete," he tells us that the grandezza of the Donna Gentil was "temporal greatness" (one certainly of the felicities attainable by way of the vita attiva), and immediately after gives us a hint by which we may comprehend why a proud man might covet it. "How much wisdom and how great a persistence in virtue (abito virtuoso) are hidden for want of this lustre!" When Dante reaches the Terrestrial Paradise which is the highest felicity of this world, and therefore the consummation of the Active Life, he is welcomed by a Lady who is its symbol,
"Who went along Singing and culling floweret after floweret."
and warming herself in the rays of Love, or "actual speculation," that is, "where love makes its peace felt." That she was the symbol of this is evident from the previous dream of Dante, in which he sees Leah, the universally accepted type of it,
"Walking in a meadow, Gathering flowers; and singing she was saying, 'Know whosoever may my name demand That I am Leah, who go moving round My beauteous hands to make myself a garland,'"
that is to say, of good works. She, having "washed him thoroughly from sin,"
"All dripping brought Into the dance of the four beautiful,"
who are the intellectual virtues Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude, the four stars, guides of the Practical Life, which he had seen when he came out of the Hell where he had beheld the results of sin, and arrived at the foot of the Mount of Purification. That these were the special virtues of practical goodness Dante had already told us in a passage before quoted from the Convito. That this was Dante's meaning is confirmed by what Beatrice says to him,
"Short while shalt thou be here a forester (silvano) And thou shalt be with me forevermore A citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman";
for by a "forest" he always means the world of life and action. At the time when Dante was writing the Canzoni on which the Convito was a comment, he believed science to be the "ultimate perfection itself, and not the way to it," but before the Convito was composed he had become aware of a higher and purer light, an inward light, in that Beatrice, already clarified wellnigh to a mere image of the mind, "who lives in heaven with the angels, and on earth with my soul."
So spiritually does Dante always present Beatrice to us, even where most corporeal, as in the Vita Nuova, that many, like Biscione and Rossetti, have doubted her real existence. But surely we must consent to believe that she who speaks of
"The fair limbs wherein I was enclosed, which scattered are in earth,"
was once a creature of flesh and blood,—
"A creature not too bright and good For human nature's daily food."
When she died, Dante's grief, like that of Constance, filled her room up with something fairer than the reality had ever been. There is no idealizer like unavailing regret, all the more if it be a regret of fancy as much as of real feeling. She early began to undergo that change into something rich and strange in the sea of his mind which so completely supernaturalized her at last. It is not impossible, we think, to follow the process of transformation. During the period of the Convito Canzoni, when he had so given himself to study that to his weakened eyes "the stars were shadowed with a white blur," this star of his imagination was eclipsed for a time with the rest. As his love had never been of the senses (which is bestial), so his sorrow was all the more ready to be irradiated with celestial light, and to assume her to be the transmitter of it who had first awakened in him the nobler impulses of his nature,—
("Such had this man become in his New Life Potentially,")
and given him the first hints of a higher, nay, of the highest good. With that turn for double meaning and abstraction which was so strong in him, her very name helped him to allegorize her into one who makes blessed (beat), and thence the step was a short one to personify in her that Theosophy which enables man to see God and to be mystically united with him even in the flesh. Already, in the Vita Nuova, she appears to him as afterwards in the Terrestrial Paradise, clad in that color of flame which belongs to the seraphim who contemplate God in himself, simply, and not in his relation to the Son or the Holy Spirit. When misfortune came upon him, when his schemes of worldly activity failed, and science was helpless to console, as it had never been able wholly to satisfy, she already rose before him as the lost ideal of his youth, reproaching him with his desertion of purely spiritual aims. It is, perhaps, in allusion to this that he fixes the date of her death with such minute precision on the 9th June, 1390, most probably his own twenty-fifth birthday, on which he passed the boundary of adolescence.
That there should seem to be a discrepancy between the Lady of the Vita Nuova and her of the Convito, Dante himself was already aware when writing the former and commenting it. Explaining the sonnet beginning Gentil pensier, he says, "In this sonnet I make two parts of myself according as my thoughts were divided in two. The one part I call heart, that is, the appetite, the other soul, that is, reason.... It is true that in the preceding sonnet I take side with the heart against the eyes [which were weeping for the lost Beatrice], and that appears contrary to what I say in the present one; and therefore I say that in that sonnet also I mean by my heart the appetite, because my desire to remember me of my most gentle Lady was still greater than to behold this one, albeit I had already some appetite for her, but slight as should seem: whence it appears that the one saying is not contrary to the other." When, therefore, Dante speaks of the love of this Lady as the "adversary of Reason," he uses the word in its highest sense, not as understanding (Intellectus), but as synonymous with soul. Already, when the latter part of the Vita Nuova, nay, perhaps the whole of the explanatory portion of it, was written the plan of the Commedia was complete, a poem the higher aim of which was to keep the soul alive both in this world and for the next. As Dante tells us, the contradiction in his mind was, though he did not become aware of it till afterwards, more apparent than real. He sought consolation in study, and, failing to find it in Learning (scienza), he was led to seek it in Wisdom (sapienza), which is the love of God and the knowledge of him. He had sought happiness through the understanding; he was to find it through intuition. The lady Philosophy (according as she is moral or intellectual) includes both. Her gradual transfiguration is exemplified in passages already quoted. The active life leads indirectly by a knowledge of its failures and sins (Inferno), or directly by a righteous employment of it (Purgatorio), to the same end. The use of the sciences is to induce in us the ultimate perfection, that of speculating upon truth; the use of the highest of them, theology, the contemplation of God. To this they all lead up. In one of those curious chapters of the Convito, where he points out the analogy between the sciences and the heavens, Dante tells us that he compares moral philosophy with the crystalline heaven or Primum Mobile, because it communicates life and gives motion to all the others below it. But what gives motion to the crystalline heaven (moral philosophy) itself? "The most fervent appetite which it has in each of its parts to be conjoined with each part of that most divine quiet heaven" (Theology). Theology, the divine science, corresponds with the Empyrean, "because of its peace, the which, through the most excellent certainty of its subject, which is God, suffers no strife of opinions or sophistic arguments." No one of the heavens is at rest but this, and in none of the inferior sciences can we find repose, though he likens physics to the heaven of the fixed stars, in whose name is a suggestion of the certitude to be arrived at in things demonstrable. Dante had this comparison in mind, it may be inferred, when he said,
"Well I perceive that never sated is Our intellect unless the Truth illume it Beyond which nothing true expands itself. It rests therein as wild beast in his lair; When it attains it, and it can attain it; If not, then each desire would frustrate be. Therefore springs up, in fashion of a shoot, Doubt at the foot of truth, and this is nature Which to the top from height to height impels us."
The contradiction, as it seems to us, resolves itself into an essential, easily apprehensible, if mystical, unity. Dante at first gave himself to the study of the sciences (after he had lost the simple, unquestioning faith of youth) as the means of arriving at certainty. From the root of every truth to which he attained sprang this sucker (rampollo) of doubt, drawing out of it the very sap of its life. In this way was Philosophy truly an adversary of his soul, and the reason of his remorse for fruitless studies which drew him away from the one that alone was and could be fruitful is obvious enough. But by and by out of the very doubt came the sweetness of a higher and truer insight. He became aware that there were "things in heaven and earth undreamt of in your philosophy," as another doubter said, who had just finished his studies, but could not find his way out of the scepticism they engendered as Dante did.
"Insane is he who hopeth that our reason Can traverse the illimitable way Which the one Substance in three Persons follows! Mortals, remain contented at the Quia; For, if ye had been able to see all, No need there were [had been] for Mary to bring forth. And ye have seen desiring without fruit, Those whose desire would have been quieted Which evermore is given them for a grief. I speak of Aristotle and of Plato And many others."
Whether at the time when the poems of the Vita Nuova were written the Lady who withdrew him for a while From Beatrice was (which we doubt) a person of flesh and blood or not, she was no longer so when the prose narrative was composed. Any one familiar with Dante's double meanings will hardly question that by putting her at a window, which is a place to look out of, he intended to imply that she personified Speculation, a word which he uses with a wide range of meaning, sometimes as looking for, sometimes as seeing (like Shakespeare's
"There is no speculation in those eyes"),
sometimes as intuition, or the beholding all things in God, who is the cause of all. This is so obvious, and the image in this sense so familiar, that we are surprised it should have been hitherto unremarked. It is plain that, even when the Vita Nuova was written, the Lady was already Philosophy, but philosophy applied to a lower range of thought, not yet ascended from flesh to spirit. The Lady who seduced him was the science which looks for truth in second causes, or even in effects, instead of seeking it, where alone it can be found, in the First Cause; she was the Philosophy which looks for happiness in the visible world (of shadows), and not in the spiritual (and therefore substantial) world. The guerdon of his search was doubt. But Dante, as we have seen, made his very doubts help him upward toward certainty; each became a round in the ladder by which he climbed to clearer and clearer vision till the end. Philosophy had made him forget Beatrice; it was Philosophy who was to bring him back to her again, washed clean in that very stream of forgetfulness that had made an impassable barrier between them. Dante had known how to find in her the gift of Achilles's lance,
"Which used to be the cause First of a sad and then a gracious boon."
There is another possible, and even probable, theory which would reconcile the Beatrice of the Purgatorio with her of the Vita Nuova. Suppose that even in the latter she signified Theology, or at least some influence that turned his thoughts to God? Pietro di Dante, commenting the pargoletta passage in the Purgatorio, says expressly that the poet had at one time given himself to the study of theology and deserted it for poesy and other mundane sciences. This must refer to a period beginning before 1290. Again there is an early tradition that Dante in his youth had been a novice in a Franciscan convent, but never took the vows. Buti affirms this expressly in his comment on Inferno, XVI. 106-123. It is perhaps slightly confirmed by what Dante says in the Convito, that "one cannot only turn to Religion by making himself like in habit and life to St. Benedict, St. Augustine, St. Francis, and St. Dominic, but likewise one may turn to good and true religion in a state of matrimony, for God wills no religion in us but of the heart." If he had ever thought of taking monastic vows, his marriage would have cut short any such intention. If he ever wished to wed the real Beatrice Portinari, and was disappointed, might not this be the time when his thoughts took that direction? If so, the impulse came indirectly, at least, from her.
We have admitted that Beatrice Portinari was a real creature,
"Col sangue suo e con le sue giunture";
but how real she was, and whether as real to the poet's memory as to his imagination, may fairly be questioned. She shifts, as the controlling emotion or the poetic fitness of the moment dictates, from a woman loved and lost to a gracious exhalation of all that is fairest in womanhood or most divine in the soul of man and ere the eye has defined the new image it has become the old one again, or another mingled of both.
"Nor one nor other seemed now what it was, E'en as proceedeth on before the flame Upward along the paper a brown color, Which is not black as yet, and the white dies."
As the mystic Griffin in the eyes of Beatrice (her demonstrations), so she in his own,
"Now with the one, now with the other nature; Think, Reader, if within myself I marvelled When I beheld the thing itself stand still And in its image it transformed itself."
At the very moment when she had undergone her most sublimated allegorical evaporation, his instinct as poet, which never failed him, realized her into woman again in those scenes of almost unapproached pathos which make the climax of his Purgatorio. The verses tremble with feeling and shine with tears. Beatrice recalls her own beauty with a pride as natural as that of Fair Annie in the old ballad, and compares herself as advantageously with the "brown, brown bride" who had supplanted her. If this be a ghost, we do not need be told that she is a woman still. We must remember, however, that Beatrice had to be real that she might be interesting, to be beautiful that her goodness might be persuasive, nay, to be beautiful at any rate, because beauty has also something in it of divine. Dante has told, in a passage already quoted, that he would rather his readers should find his doctrine sweet than his verses, but he had his relentings from this Stoicism.
"'Canzone, I believe those will be rare Who of thine inner sense can master all, Such toil it costs thy native tongue to learn; Wherefore, if ever it perchance befall That thou in presence of such men shouldst fare As seem not skilled thy meaning to discern, I pray thee then thy grief to comfort turn, Saying to them, O thou my new delight, 'Take heed at least how fair I am to sight.'"
We believe all Dante's other Ladies to have been as purely imaginary as the Dulcinea of Don Quixote, useful only as motives, but a real Beatrice is as essential to the human sympathies of the Divina Commedia as her glorified Idea to its allegorical teaching, and this Dante understood perfectly well. Take her out of the poem, and the heart of it goes with her; take out her ideal, and it is emptied of its soul. She is the menstruum in which letter and spirit dissolve and mingle into unity. Those who doubt her existence must find Dante's graceful sonnet to Guido Cavalcante as provoking as Sancho's story of his having seen Dulcinea winnowing wheat was to his master, "so alien is it from all that which eminent persons, who are constituted and preserved for other exercises and entertainments, do and ought to do." But we should always remember in reading Dante that with him the allegorical interpretation is the true one (verace sposizione), and that he represents himself (and that at a time when he was known to the world only by his minor poems) as having made righteousness (rettitudine, in other words, moral philosophy) the subject of his verse. Love with him seems first to have meant the love of truth and the search after it (speculazione), and afterwards the contemplation of it in its infinite source (speculazione in its higher and mystical sense). This is the divine love "which where it shines darkens and wellnigh extinguishes all other loves." Wisdom is the object of it, and the end of wisdom to contemplate God the true mirror (verace spegio, speculum), wherein all things are seen as they truly are. Nay, she herself "is the brightness of the eternal light, the unspotted mirror of the majesty of God."
There are two beautiful passages in the Convito, which we shall quote, both because they have, as we believe a close application to Dante's own experience, and because they are good specimens of his style as a writer of prose. In the manly simplicity which comes of an earnest purpose, and in the eloquence of deep conviction, this is as far beyond that of any of his contemporaries as his verse, nay, more, has hardly been matched by any Italian from that day to this. Illustrating the position that "the highest desire of everything and the first given us by nature is to return to its first cause," he says: "And since God is the beginning of our souls and the maker of them like unto himself, according as was written, 'Let us make man in our image and likeness,' this soul most greatly desires to return to him. And as a pilgrim who goes by a way he has never travelled, who believes every house he sees afar off to be his inn, and not finding it to be so directs his belief to another, and so from house to house till he come to the inn, so our soul forthwith on entering upon the new and never-travelled road of this life directs its eyes to the goal of its highest good, and therefore believes whatever thing it sees that seems to have in it any good to be that. And because its first knowledge is imperfect by reason of not being experienced nor indoctrinated, small goods seem to it great. Wherefore we see children desire most greatly an apple, and then proceeding further on desire a bird, and then further yet desire fine raiment, and then a horse, and then a woman, and then, riches not great, and then greater and greater. And this befalls because in none of these things it finds that which it goes seeking, and thinks to find it further on. By which it may be seen that one desirable stands before another in the eyes of our soul in a fashion as it were pyramidal, for the smallest at first covers the whole of them, and is as it were the apex of the highest desirable, which is God, as it were the base of all; so that the further we go from the apex toward the base the desirables appear greater; and this is the reason why human desires become wider one after the other. Verily this way is lost through error as the roads of earth are; for as from one city to another there is of necessity one best and straightest way, and one that always leads farther from it, that is, the one which goes elsewhere, and many others, some less roundabout and some less direct, so in human life are divers roads whereof one is the truest and another the most deceitful, and certain ones less deceitful, and certain less true. And as we see that that which goes most directly to the city fulfils desire and gives repose after weariness, and that which goes the other way never fulfils it and never can give repose, so it falls out in our life. The good traveller arrives at the goal and repose, the erroneous never arrives thither, but with much weariness of mind, always with greedy eyes looks before him." If we may apply Dante's own method of exposition to this passage, we find him telling us that he first sought felicity in knowledge,
"That apple sweet which through so many branches The care of mortals goeth in pursuit of,"
then in fame, a bird that flits before us as we follow, then in being esteemed of men ("to be clothed in purple, ... to sit next to Darius, ... and be called Darius his cousin "), then in power, then in the riches of the Holy Spirit in larger and larger measure. He, too, had found that there was but one straight road, whether to the Terrestrial Paradise or the Celestial City, and may come to question by and by whether they be not parallel one with the other, or even parts of the same road, by which only repose is to be reached at last. Then, when in old age "the noble soul returns to God as to that port whence she set forth on the sea of this life, ... just as to him who comes from a long journey, before he enters into the gate of his city, the citizens thereof go forth to meet him, so the citizens of the eternal life go to meet her, and do so because of her good deeds and contemplations, who, having already betaken herself to God, seems to see those whom she believes to be nigh unto God." This also was to be the experience of Dante, for who can doubt that the Paradiso was something very unlike a poetical exercise to him who appeals to the visions even of sleep as proof of the soul's immortality?
When did his soul catch a glimpse of that certainty in which "the mind that museth upon many things" can find assured rest? We have already said that we believe Dante's political opinions to have taken their final shape and the De Monarchia to have been written before 1300. That the revision of the Vita Nuova was completed in that year seems probable from the last sonnet but one, which is addressed to pilgrims on their way to the Santa Veronica at Rome. In this sonnet he still laments Beatrice as dead; he would make the pilgrims share his grief. It is the very folly of despairing sorrow, that calls on the first comer, stranger though he be, for a sympathy which none can fully give, and he least of all. But in the next sonnet, the last in the book, there is a surprising change of tone. The transfiguration of Beatrice has begun, and we see completing itself that natural gradation of grief which will erelong bring the mourner to call on the departed saint to console him for her own loss. The sonnet is remarkable in more senses than one, first for its psychological truth, and then still more for the light it throws on Dante's inward history as poet and thinker. Hitherto he had celebrated beauty and goodness in the creature; henceforth he was to celebrate them in the Creator whose praise they were. We give an extempore translation of this sonnet, in which the meaning is preserved so far as is possible where the grace is left out. We remember with some compunction as we do it, that Dante has said, "know every one that nothing harmonized by a musical band can be transmuted from its own speech to another without breaking all its sweetness and harmony," and Cervantes was of the same mind:
"Beyond the sphere that hath the widest gyre Passeth the sigh that leaves my heart below; A new intelligence doth love bestow On it with tears that ever draws it higher; When it wins thither where is its desire, A Lady it beholds who honor so And light receives, that, through her splendid glow, The pilgrim spirit sees her as in fire; It sees her such, that, telling me again I understand it not, it speaks so low Unto the mourning heart that bids it tell; Its speech is of that noble One I know, For 'Beatrice' I often hear full plain, So that, dear ladies, I conceive it well."
No one can read this in its connection with what goes before and what follows without feeling that a new conception of Beatrice had dawned upon the mind of Dante, dim as yet, or purposely made to seem so, and yet the authentic forerunner of the fulness of her rising as the light of his day and the guide of his feet, the divine wisdom whose glory pales all meaner stars. The conception of a poem in which Dante's creed in politics and morals should be picturesquely and attractively embodied, and of the high place which Beatrice should take in it, had begun vaguely to shape itself in his thought. As he brooded over it, of a sudden it defined itself clearly. "Soon after this sonnet there appeared to me a marvellous vision wherein I saw things which made me propose not to say more of that blessed one until I could treat of her more worthily. And to arrive at that I study all I can, as she verily knows. So that, if it be the pleasure of Him through whom all things live, that my life hold out yet a few years, I hope to say that of her which was never yet said of any (woman). And then may it please Him who is the Lord of Courtesy that my soul may go to see the glory of her Lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice who gloriously beholds the face of Him qui est per omnia saecula benedictus." It was the method of presentation that became clear to Dante at this time,—the plan of the great poem for whose completion the experience of earth and the inspiration of heaven were to combine, and which was to make him lean for many years. The doctrinal scope of it was already determined. Man, he tells us, is the only creature who partakes at once of the corruptible and incorruptible nature; "and since every nature is ordained to some ultimate end, it follows that the end of man is double. And as among all beings he alone partakes of the corruptible and incorruptible, so alone among all beings he is ordained to a double end, whereof the one is his end as corruptible, the other as incorruptible. That unspeakable Providence therefore foreordered two ends to be pursued by man, to wit, beatitude in this life, which consists in the operation of our own virtue, and is figured by the Terrestrial Paradise, and the beatitude of life eternal, which consists in a fruition of the divine countenance, whereto our own virtue cannot ascend unless aided by divine light, which is understood by the Celestial Paradise." The one we attain by practice of the moral and intellectual virtues as they are taught by philosophers, the other by spiritual teachings transcending human reason, and the practice of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. For one, Reason suffices ("which was wholly made known to us by philosophers"), for the other we need the light of supernatural truth revealed by the Holy Spirit and "needful for us." Men led astray by cupidity turn their backs on both, and in their bestiality need bit and rein to keep them in the way. "Wherefore to man was a double guidance needful according to the double end," the Supreme Pontiff in spiritual, the Emperor in temporal things.
But how to put this theory of his into a poetic form which might charm while it was teaching? He would typify Reason in Virgil (who would serve also as a symbol of political wisdom as having celebrated the founding of the Empire), and the grace of God in that Beatrice whom he had already supernaturalized into something which passeth all understanding. In choosing Virgil he was sure of that interest and sympathy which his instinct led him to seek in the predisposition of his readers, for the popular imagination of the Middle Ages had busied itself particularly with the Mantuan poet. The Church had given, him a quasi-orthodoxy by interpreting his jam redit et virgo as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. At Naples he had become a kind of patron saint, and his bones were exhibited as relics. Dante himself may have heard at Mantua the hymn sung on the anniversary of St. Paul, in which the apostle to the Gentiles is represented as weeping at the tomb of the greatest of poets. Above all, Virgil had described the descent of Aeneas to the under-world. Dante's choice of a guide was therefore, in a certain degree, made for him. But the mere Reason of man without the illumination of divine Grace cannot be trusted, and accordingly the intervention of Beatrice was needed,—of Beatrice, as Miss Rossetti admirably well expresses it "already transfigured, potent not only now to charm and soothe, potent to rule; to the Intellect a light, to the Affections a compass and a balance, a sceptre over the Will."
The wood obscure in which Dante finds himself is the world. The three beasts who dispute his way are the sins that most easily beset us, Pride, the Lusts of the Flesh, and Greed. We are surprised that Miss Rossetti should so localize and confine Dante's meaning as to explain them by Florence, France, and Rome. Had he written in so narrow a sense as this, it would indeed be hard to account for the persistent power of his poem. But it was no political pamphlet that Dante was writing. Subjectum est Homo, and it only takes the form of a diary by Dante Alighieri because of the intense realism of his imagination, a realism as striking in the Paradiso as the Inferno, though it takes a different shape. Everything, the most supersensual, presented itself to his mind, not as abstract idea, but as visible type. As men could once embody a quality of good in a saint and see it, as they even now in moments of heightened fantasy or enthusiasm can personify their country and speak of England, France, or America, as if they were real beings, so did Dante habitually. He saw all his thoughts as distinctly as the hypochondriac sees his black dog, and, as in that, their form and color were but the outward form of an inward and spiritual condition. Whatever subsidiary interpretations the poem is capable of, its great and primary value is as the autobiography of a human soul, of yours and mine, it may be, as well as Dante's. In that lie its profound meaning and its permanent force. That an exile, a proud man forced to be dependent, should have found some consolation in brooding over the justice of God, weighed in such different scales from those of man, in contrasting the outward prosperity of the sinner with the awful spiritual ruin within, is not wonderful, nay, we can conceive of his sometimes finding the wrath of God sweeter than his mercy. But it is wonderful that out of the very wreck of his own life he should have built this three-arched bridge, still firm against the wash and wear of ages, stretching from the Pit to the Empyrean, by which men may pass from a doubt of God's providence to a certainty of his long-suffering and loving-kindness.
"The Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms That it receives whatever turns to it."
A tear is enough to secure the saving clasp of them. It cannot be too often repeated that Dante's Other World is not in its first conception a place of departed spirits. It is the Spiritual World, whereof we become denizens by birth and citizens by adoption. It is true that for artistic purposes he makes it conform so far as possible with vulgar preconceptions, but he himself has told us again and again what his real meaning was. Virgil tells Dante,—
"Thou shalt behold the people dolorous Who have foregone the good of intellect."
The "good of the intellect," Dante tells us after Aristotle, is Truth. He says that Virgil has led him "through the deep night of the truly dead." Who are they? Dante had in mind the saying of the Apostle, "to be carnally minded is death." He says: "In man to live is to use reason. Then if living is the being of man, to depart from that use is to depart from being, and so to be dead. And doth not he depart from the use of reason who doth not reason out the object of his life?" "I say that so vile a person is dead, seeming to be alive. For we must know that the wicked man may be called truly dead." "He is dead who follows not the teacher. And of such a one some might say, how is he dead and yet goes about? I answer that the man is dead and the beast remains." Accordingly he has put living persons in the Inferno, like Frate Alberigo and Branca d' Oria, of whom he says with bitter sarcasm that he still "eats and drinks and puts on clothes," as if that were his highest ideal of the true ends of life. There is a passage in the first canto of the Inferno which has been variously interpreted:—
"The ancient spirits disconsolate Who cry out each one for the second death."
Miss Rossetti cites it as an example of what she felicitously calls "an ambiguity, not hazy, but prismatic, and therefore not really perplexing." She gives us accordingly our choice of two interpretations, "'each cries out on account of the second death which he is suffering,' and 'each cries out for death to come a second time and ease him of his sufferings.'" Buti says: "Here one doubts what the author meant by the second death, and as for me I think he meant the last damnation, which shall be at the day of judgment, because they would wish through envy that it had already come, that they might have more companions, since the first death is the first damnation, when the soul parted from the body is condemned to the pains of hell for its sins. The second is when, resuscitated at the judgment day, they shall be finally condemned, soul and body together.... It may otherwise be understood as annihilation." Imola says, "Each would wish to die again, if he could, to put an end to his pain. Do not hold with some who think that Dante calls the second death the day of judgment," and then quotes a passage from St. Augustine which favors that view. Pietro di Dante gives us four interpretations among which to choose, the first being that, "allegorically, depraved and vicious men are in a certain sense dead in reputation, and this is the first death; the second is that of the body." This we believe to be the true meaning. Dante himself, in a letter to the "most rascally (scelestissimis) dwellers in Florence," gives us the key: "but you, transgressors of the laws of God and man, whom the direful maw of cupidity hath enticed not unwilling to every crime, does not the terror of the second death torment you?" Their first death was in their sins, the second is what they may expect from the just vengeance of the Emperor Henry VII. The world Dante leads us through is that of his own thought, and it need not surprise us therefore if we meet in it purely imaginary beings like Tristrem and Renoard of the club. His personality is so strongly marked that it is nothing more than natural that his poem should be interpreted as if only he and his opinions, prejudices, or passions were concerned. He would not have been the great poet he was if he had not felt intensely and humanly, but he could never have won the cosmopolitan place he holds had he not known how to generalize his special experience into something mediatorial for all of us. Pietro di Dante in his comment on the thirty-first canto of the Purgatorio says that "unless you understand him and his figures allegorically, you will be deceived by the bark," and adds that our author made his pilgrimage as the representative of the rest (in, persona ceterorum). To give his vision reality, he has adapted it to the vulgar mythology, but to understand it as the author meant, it must be taken in the larger sense. To confine it to Florence or to Italy is to banish it from the sympathies of mankind. It was not from the campanile of the Badia that Dante got his views of life and man.
The relation of Dante to literature is monumental, and marks the era at which the modern begins. He is not only the first great poet, but the first great prose writer who used a language not yet subdued to literature, who used it moreover for scientific and metaphysical discussion, thus giving an incalculable impulse to the culture of his countrymen by making the laity free of what had hitherto been the exclusive guild of clerks. Whatever poetry had preceded him, whether in the Romance or Teutonic tongues, is interesting mainly for its simplicity without forethought, or, as in the Nibelungen, for a kind of savage grandeur that rouses the sympathy of whatever of the natural man is dormant in us. But it shows no trace of the creative faculty either in unity of purpose or style, the proper characteristics of literature. If it have the charm of wanting artifice, it has not the higher charm of art. We are in the realm of chaos and chance, nebular, with phosphorescent gleams here and there, star stuff, but uncondensed in stars. The Nibelungen is not without far-reaching hints and forebodings of something finer than we find in it, but they are a glamour from the vague darkness which encircles it, like the whisper of the sea upon an unknown shore at night, powerful only over the more vulgar side of the imagination, and leaving no thought, scarce even any image (at least of beauty) behind them. Such poems are the amours, not the lasting friendships and possessions of the mind. They thrill and cannot satisfy.
But Dante is not merely the founder of modern literature. He would have been that if he had never written anything more than his Canzoni, which for elegance, variety of rhythm, and fervor of sentiment were something altogether new. They are of a higher mood than any other poems of the same style in their own language, or indeed in any other. In beauty of phrase and subtlety of analogy they remind one of some of the Greek tragic choruses. We are constantly moved in them by a nobleness of tone, whose absence in many admired lyrics of the kind is poorly supplied by conceits. So perfect is Dante's mastery of his material, that in compositions, as he himself has shown, so artificial, the form seems rather organic than mechanical, which cannot be said of the best of the Provencal poets who led the way in this kind. Dante's sonnets also have a grace and tenderness which have been seldom matched. His lyrical excellence would have got him into the Collections, and he would have made here and there an enthusiast as Donne does in English, but his great claim to remembrance is not merely Italian. It is that he was the first Christian poet, in any proper sense of the word, the first who so subdued dogma to the uses of plastic imagination as to make something that is still poetry of the highest order after it has suffered the disenchantment inevitable in the most perfect translation. Verses of the kind usually called sacred (reminding one of the adjective's double meaning) had been written before his time in the vulgar tongue,—such verses as remain inviolably sacred in the volumes of specimens, looked at with distant reverence by the pious, and with far other feelings by the profane reader. There were cycles of poems in which the physical conflict between Christianity and Paganism furnished the subject, but in which the theological views of the authors, whether doctrinal or historical, could hardly be reconciled with any system of religion ancient or modern. There were Church legends of saints and martyrs versified, fit certainly to make any other form of martyrdom seem amiable to those who heard them, and to suggest palliative thoughts about Diocletian. Finally, there were the romances of Arthur and his knights, which later, by means of allegory, contrived to be both entertaining and edifying; every one who listened to them paying the minstrel his money, and having his choice whether he would take them as song or sermon. In the heroes of some of these certain Christian virtues were typified, and around a few of them, as the Holy Grail, a perfume yet lingers of cloistered piety and withdrawal. Wolfram von Eschenbach, indeed, has divided his Parzival into three books, of Simplicity, Doubt, and Healing, which has led Gervinus to trace a not altogether fanciful analogy between that poem and the Divina Commedia. The doughty old poet, who says of himself,—
"Of song I have some slight control, But deem her of a feeble soul That doth not love my naked sword Above my sweetest lyric word,"
tells us that his subject is the choice between good and evil;
"Whose soul takes Untruth for its bride And sets himself on Evil's side, Chooses the Black, and sure it is His path leads down to the abyss; But he who doth his nature feed With steadfastness and loyal deed Lies open to the heavenly light And takes his portion with the White."
But Wolfram's poem has no system, and shows good feeling rather than settled conviction. Above all it is wandering (as he himself confesses), and altogether wants any controlling purpose. But to whatever extent Christianity had insinuated itself into and colored European literature, it was mainly as mythology. The Christian idea had never yet incorporated itself. It was to make its avatar in Dante. To understand fully what he accomplished we must form some conception of what is meant by the Christian idea. To bring it into fuller relief, let us contrast it with the Greek idea as it appears in poetry; for we are not dealing with a question of theology so much as with one of aesthetics.
Greek art at its highest point is doubtless the most perfect that we know. But its circle of motives was essentially limited; and the Greek drama in its passion, its pathos, and its humor is primarily Greek, and secondarily human. Its tragedy chooses its actors from certain heroic families, and finds its springs of pity and terror in physical suffering and worldly misfortune. Its best examples, like the Antigone, illustrate a single duty, or, like the Hippolytus, a single passion, on which, as on a pivot, the chief character, statuesquely simple in its details, revolves as pieces of sculpture are sometimes made to do, displaying its different sides in one invariable light. The general impression left on the mind (and this is apt to be a truer one than any drawn from single examples) is that the duty is one which is owed to custom, that the passion leads to a breach of some convention settled by common consent, and accordingly it is an outraged society whose figure looms in the background, rather than an offended God. At most it was one god of many, and meanwhile another might be friendly. In the Greek epic, the gods are partisans, they hold caucuses, they lobby and log-roll for their candidates. The tacit admission of a revealed code of morals wrought a great change. The complexity and range of passion is vastly increased when the offence is at once both crime and sin, a wrong done against order and against conscience at the same time. The relation of the Greek Tragedy to the higher powers is chiefly antagonistic, struggle against an implacable destiny, sublime struggle, and of heroes, but sure of defeat at last. And that defeat is final. Grand figures are those it exhibits to us, in some respects unequalled, and in their severe simplicity they compare with modern poetry as sculpture with painting. Considered merely as works of art, these products of the Greek imagination satisfy our highest conception of form. They suggest inevitably a feeling of perfect completeness, isolation, and independence, of something rounded and finished in itself. The secret of those old shapers died with them; their wand is broken, their book sunk deeper than ever plummet sounded. The type of their work is the Greek Temple, which leaves nothing to hope for in unity and perfection of design, in harmony and subordination of parts, and in entireness of impression. But in this aesthetic completeness it ends. It rests solidly and complacently on the earth, and the mind rests there with it.
Now the Christian idea has to do with the human soul, which Christianity may be almost said to have invented. While all Paganism represents a few pre-eminent families, the founders of dynasties or ancestors of races, as of kin with the gods, Christianity makes every pedigree end in Deity, makes monarch and slave the children of one God. Its heroes struggle not against, but upward and onward toward, the higher powers who are always on their side. Its highest conception of beauty is not aesthetic, but moral. With it prosperity and adversity have exchanged meanings. It finds enemies in those worldly good-fortunes where Pagan and even Hebrew literature saw the highest blessing, and invincible allies in sorrow, poverty, humbleness of station, where the former world recognized only implacable foes. While it utterly abolished all boundary lines of race or country and made mankind unitary, its hero is always the individual man whoever and wherever he may be. Above all, an entirely new conception of the Infinite and of man's relation to it came in with Christianity. That, and not the finite, is always the background, consciously or not. It changed the scene of the last act of every drama to the next world. Endless aspiration of all the faculties became thus the ideal of Christian life, and to express it more or less perfectly the ideal of essentially Christian art. It was this which the Middle Ages instinctively typified in the Gothic cathedral,—no accidental growth, but the visible symbol of an inward faith,—which soars forever upward, and yearns toward heaven like a martyr-flame suddenly turned to stone.
It is not without significance that Goethe, who, like Dante, also absorbed and represented the tendency and spirit of his age, should, during his youth and while Europe was alive with the moral and intellectual longing which preluded the French Revolution, have loved the Gothic architecture. It is no less significant that in the period of reaction toward more positive thought which followed, he should have preferred the Greek. His greatest poem, conceived during the former era, is Gothic. Dante, endeavoring to conform himself to literary tradition, began to write the Divina Commedia in Latin, and had elaborated several cantos of it in that dead and intractable material. But that poetic instinct, which is never the instinct of an individual, but of his age, could not so be satisfied, and leaving the classic structure he had begun to stand as a monument of failure, he completed his work in Italian. Instead of endeavoring to manufacture a great poem out of what was foreign and artificial, he let the poem make itself out of him. The epic which he wished to write in the universal language of scholars, and which might have had its ten lines in the history of literature, would sing itself in provincial Tuscan, and turns out to be written in the universal dialect of mankind. Thus all great poets have been in a certain sense provincial,—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Burns, Scott in the "Heart of Midlothian" and "Bride of Lammermoor,"—because the office of the poet is always vicarious, because nothing that has not been living experience can become living expression, because the collective thought, the faith, the desire of a nation or a race, is the cumulative result of many ages, is something organic, and is wiser and stronger than any single person, and will make a great statesman or a great poet out of any man who can entirely surrender himself to it.
As the Gothic cathedral, then, is the type of the Christian idea, so is it also of Dante's poem. And as that in its artistic unity is but the completed thought of a single architect, which yet could never have been realized except out of the faith and by the contributions of an entire people, whose beliefs and superstitions, whose imagination and fancy, find expression in its statues and its carvings, its calm saints and martyrs now at rest forever in the seclusion of their canopied niches, and its wanton grotesques thrusting themselves forth from every pinnacle and gargoyle, so in Dante's poem, while it is as personal and peculiar as if it were his private journal and autobiography, we can yet read the diary and the autobiography of the thirteenth century and of the Italian people. Complete and harmonious in design as his work is, it is yet no Pagan temple enshrining a type of the human made divine by triumph of corporeal beauty; it is not a private chapel housing a single saint and dedicate to one chosen bloom of Christian piety or devotion; it is truly a cathedral, over whose high altar hangs the emblem of suffering, of the Divine made human to teach the beauty of adversity, the eternal presence of the spiritual, not overhanging and threatening, but informing and sustaining the material. In this cathedral of Dante's there are side-chapels as is fit, with altars to all Christian virtues and perfections; but the great impression of its leading thought is that of aspiration, for ever and ever. In the three divisions of the poem we may trace something more than a fancied analogy with a Christian basilica. There is first the ethnic forecourt, then the purgatorial middle-space, and last the holy of holies dedicated to the eternal presence of the mediatorial God.
But what gives Dante's poem a peculiar claim to the title of the first Christian poem is not merely its doctrinal truth or its Christian mythology, but the fact that the scene of it is laid, not in this world, but in the soul of man; that it is the allegory of a human life, and therefore universal in its significance and its application. The genius of Dante has given to it such a self-subsistent reality, that one almost gets to feel as if the chief value of contemporary Italian history had been to furnish it with explanatory foot-notes, and the age in which it was written assumes towards it the place of a satellite. For Italy, Dante is the thirteenth century.
Most men make the voyage of life as if they carried sealed orders which they were not to open till they were fairly in mid-ocean. But Dante had made up his mind as to the true purpose and meaning of our existence in this world, shortly after he had passed his twenty-fifth year. He had already conceived the system about which as a connecting thread the whole experience of his life, the whole result of his studies, was to cluster in imperishable crystals. The cornerstone of his system was the Freedom of the Will (in other words, the right of private judgment with the condition of accountability), which Beatrice calls the "noble virtue." As to every man is offered his choice between good and evil, and as, even upon the root of a nature originally evil a habit of virtue may be engrafted, no man is excused. "All hope abandon ye who enter in," for they have thrown away reason which is the good of the intellect, "and it seems to me no less a marvel to bring back to reason him in whom it is wholly spent than to bring back to life him who has been four days in the tomb." As a guide of the will in civil affairs the Emperor; in spiritual, the Pope. Dante is not one of those reformers who would assume the office of God to "make all things new." He knew the power of tradition and habit, and wished to utilize it for his purpose. He found the Empire and the Papacy already existing, but both needing reformation that they might serve the ends of their original institution. Bad leadership was to blame, men fit to gird on the sword had been turned into priests, and good preachers spoiled to make bad kings. The spiritual had usurped to itself the prerogatives of the temporal power.
"Rome, that reformed the world, accustomed was Two suns to have which one road and the other, Of God and of the world, made manifest. One has the other quenched, and to the crosier The sword is joined, and ill beseemeth it, * * * * * "Because, being joined one feareth not the other."
Both powers held their authority directly from God, "not so, however, that the Roman Prince is not in some things subject to the Roman Pontiff, since that human felicity [to be attained only by peace, justice, and good government, possible only under a single ruler] is in some sort ordained to the end of immortal felicity. Let Caesar use that reverence toward Peter which a first-born son ought to use toward a father; that, shone upon by the light of paternal grace, he may more powerfully illumine the orb of earth over which he is set by him alone who is the ruler of all things spiritual and temporal." As to the fatal gift of Constantine, Dante demonstrates that an Emperor could not alienate what he held only in trust; but if he made the gift, the Pope should hold it as a feudatory of the Empire, for the benefit, however, of Christ's poor. Dante is always careful to distinguish between the Papacy and the Pope. He prophesies for Boniface VIII. a place in hell, but acknowledges him as the Vicar of Christ, goes so far even as to denounce the outrage of Guillaume de Nogaret at Anagni as done to the Saviour himself. But in the Spiritual World Dante acknowledges no such supremacy, and, when he would have fallen on his knees before Adrian V., is rebuked by him in a quotation from the Apocalypse:—
"Err not, fellow-servant am I With thee and with the others to one power."
So impartial was this man whose great work is so often represented as a kind of bag in which he secreted the gall of personal prejudice, so truly Catholic is he, that both parties find their arsenal in him. The Romanist proves his soundness in doctrine, the anti-Romanist claims him as the first Protestant, the Mazzinist and the Imperialist can alike quote him for their purpose. Dante's ardent conviction would not let him see that both Church and Empire were on the wane. If an ugly suspicion of this would force itself upon him, perhaps he only clung to both the more tenaciously; but he was no blind theorist. He would reform the Church through the Church, and is less anxious for Italian independence than for Italian good government under an Emperor from Germany rather than from Utopia.
The Papacy was a necessary part of Dante's system, as a supplement to the Empire, which we strongly incline to believe was always foremost in his mind. In a passage already quoted, he says that "the soil where Rome sits is worthy beyond what men preach and admit," that is, as the birthplace of the Empire. Both in the Convito and the De Monarchia he affirms that the course of Roman history was providentially guided from the first. Rome was founded in the same year that brought into the world David, ancestor of the Redeemer after the flesh. St. Augustine said that "God showed in the most opulent and illustrious Empire of the Romans how much the civil virtues might avail even without true religion, that it might be understood how, this added, men became citizens of another city whose king is truth, whose law charity, and whose measure eternity." Dante goes further than this. He makes the Romans as well as the Jews a chosen people, the one as founders of civil society, the other as depositaries of the true faith. One side of Dante's mind was so practical and positive, and his pride in the Romans so intense, that he sometimes seems to regard their mission as the higher of the two. Without peace which only good government could give, mankind could not arrive at the highest virtue, whether of the active or contemplative life. "And since what is true of the part is true of the whole, and it happens in the particular man that by sitting quietly he is perfected in prudence and wisdom, it is clear that the human race in the quiet or tranquillity of peace is most freely and easily disposed for its proper work which is almost divine, as it is written, 'Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels' Whence it is manifest that universal peace is the best of those things which are ordained for our beatitude. Hence it is that not riches, not pleasures, not honors, not length of life, not health, not strength, not comeliness, was sung to the shepherds from on high, but peace." It was Dante's experience of the confusion of Italy, where
"One doth gnaw the other Of those whom one wall and one fosse shut in,"
that suggested the thought of a universal umpire, for that, after all, was to be the chief function of his Emperor. He was too wise to insist on a uniformity of political institutions a priori, for he seems to have divined that the surest stay of order, as of practical wisdom, is habit, which is a growth, and cannot be made offhand. He believed with Aristotle that vigorous minds were intended by nature to rule, and that certain races, like certain men, are born to leadership. He calls democracies, oligarchies, and petty princedoms (tyrannides) "oblique policies which drive the human race to slavery, as is patent in all of them to one who reasons." He has nothing but pity for mankind when it has become a many-headed beast, "despising the higher intellect irrefragable in reason, the lower which hath the face of experience." He had no faith in a turbulent equality asserting the divine right of I'm as good as you. He thought it fatal to all discipline: "The confounding of persons hath ever been the beginning of sickness in the state." It is the same thought which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Ulysses:—
"Degree being vizarded, The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask, When degree is shaked, Which is the ladder to all high designs, The enterprise is sick."
Yet no one can read Dante without feeling that he had a high sense of the worth of freedom, whether in thought or government. He represents, indeed, the very object of his journey through the triple realm of shades as a search after liberty. But it must not be that scramble after undefined and indefinable rights which ends always in despotism, equally degrading whether crowned with a red cap or an imperial diadem. His theory of liberty has for its corner-stone the Freedom of the Will, and the will is free only when the judgment wholly controls the appetite. On such a base even a democracy may rest secure, and on such alone.
Rome was always the central point of Dante's speculation. A shadow of her old sovereignty was still left her in the primacy of the Church, to which unity of faith was essential. He accordingly has no sympathy with heretics of whatever kind. He puts the ex-troubadour Bishop of Marseilles, chief instigator of the horrors of Provence, in paradise. The Church is infallible in spiritual matters, but this is an affair of outward discipline merely, and means the Church as a form of polity. Unity was Dante's leading doctrine, and therefore he puts Mahomet among the schismatics, not because he divided the Church, but the faith. Dante's Church was of this world, but he surely believed in another and spiritual one. It has been questioned whether he was orthodox or not. There can be no doubt of it so far as outward assent and conformity are concerned, which he would practice himself and enforce upon others as the first postulate of order, the prerequisite for all happiness in this life. In regard to the Visible Church he was a reformer, but no revolutionist; it is sheer ignorance to speak of him as if there were anything new or exceptional in his denunciation of the corruptions of the clergy. They were the commonplaces of the age, nor were they confined to laymen. To the absolute authority of the Church Dante admitted some exceptions. He denies that the supreme Pontiff has the unlimited power of binding and loosing claimed for him. "Otherwise he might absolve me impenitent, which God himself could not do."
"By malison of theirs is not so lost Eternal Love that it cannot return."
Nor does the sacredness of the office extend to him who chances to hold it. Philip the Fair himself could hardly treat Boniface VIII. worse than he. With wonderful audacity, he declares the Papal throne vacant by the mouth of Saint Peter himself. Even if his theory of a dual government were not in question, Dante must have been very cautious in meddling with the Church. It was not an age that stood much upon ceremony. He himself tells us he had seen men burned alive, and the author of the Ottimo Comento says: "I the writer saw followers of his [Fra Dolcino] burned at Padua to the number of twenty-two together." Clearly, in such a time as this, one must not make "the veil of the mysterious Terse" too thin.
In the affairs of this life Dante was, as we have said, supremely practical, and he makes prudence the chief of the cardinal virtues. He has made up his mind to take things as they come, and to do at Rome as the Romans do.
"Ah, savage company! but in the Church With saints, and in the tavern with the gluttons!"
In the world of thought it was otherwise, and here Dante's doctrine, if not precisely esoteric, was certainly not that of his day, and must be gathered from hints rather than direct statements. The general notion of God was still (perhaps is largely even now) of a provincial, one might almost say a denominational, Deity. The popular poets always represent Macon, Apolm, Tervagant, and the rest as quasi-deities unable to resist the superior strength of the Christian God. The Paynim answers the arguments of his would-be converters with the taunt that he would never worship a divinity who could not save himself from being done ignominiously to death. Dante evidently was not satisfied with the narrow conception which limits the interest of the Deity to the affairs of Jews and Christians That saying of Saint Paul, "Whom, therefore, ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you," had perhaps influenced him, but his belief in the divine mission of the Roman people probably was conclusive. "The Roman Empire had the help of miracles in perfecting itself," he says, and then enumerates some of them. The first is that "under Numa Pompilius, the second king of the Romans, when he was sacrificing according to the rite of the Gentiles, a shield fell from heaven into the city chosen of God." In the Convito we find "Virgil speaking in the person of God," and Aeacus "wisely having recourse to God," the god being Jupiter. Ephialtes is punished in hell for rebellion against "the Supreme Jove," and, that there may be no misunderstanding, Dante elsewhere invokes the
"Jove Supreme, Who upon earth for us wast crucified."
It is noticeable also that Dante, with evident design, constantly alternates examples drawn from Christian and Pagan tradition or mythology. He had conceived a unity in the human race, all of whose branches had worshipped the same God under divers names and aspects, had arrived at the same truth by different roads. We cannot understand a passage in the twenty-sixth Paradiso, where Dante inquires of Adam concerning the names of God, except as a hint that the Chosen People had done in this thing even as the Gentiles did. It is true that he puts all Pagans in Limbo, "where without hope they live in longing," and that he makes baptism essential to salvation. But it is noticeable that his Limbo is the Elysium of Virgil, and that he particularizes Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, and others as prisoners there with the rest till the descent of Christ into hell. But were they altogether without hope? and did baptism mean an immersion of the body or a purification of the soul? The state of the heathen after death had evidently been to Dante one of those doubts that spring up at the foot of every truth. In the De Monarchia he says: "There are some judgments of God to which, though human reason cannot attain by its own strength, yet is it lifted to them by the help of faith and of those things which are said to us in Holy Writ,—as to this, that no one, however perfect in the moral and intellectual virtues both as a habit [of the mind] and in practice, can be saved without faith, it being granted that he shall never have heard anything concerning Christ; for the unaided reason of man cannot look upon this as just; nevertheless, with the help of faith, it can." But faith, it should seem, was long in lifting Dante to this height; for in the nineteenth canto of the Paradiso, which must have been written many years after the passage just cited, the doubt recurs again, and we are told that it was "a cavern," concerning which he had "made frequent questioning." The answer is given here:—
"Truly to him who with me subtilizes, If so the Scripture were not over you, For doubting there were marvellous occasion."
But what Scripture? Dante seems cautious, tells us that the eternal judgments are above our comprehension, postpones the answer, and when it comes, puts an orthodox prophylactic before it:—
"Unto this kingdom never Ascended one who had not faith in Christ Before or since he to the tree was nailed But look thou, many crying are, 'Christ, Christ!' Who at the judgment shall be far less near To him than some shall be who knew not Christ."
There is, then, some hope for the man born on the bank of Indus who has never heard of Christ? Dante is still cautious, but answers the question indirectly in the next canto by putting the Trojan Ripheus among the blessed:—
"Who would believe, down in the errant world, That e'er the Trojan Ripheus in this round Could be the fifth one of these holy lights? Now knoweth he enough of what the world Has not the power to see of grace divine, Although his sight may not discern the bottom."
Then he seems to hesitate again, brings in the Church legend of Trajan brought back to life by the prayers of Gregory the Great that he might be converted, and after an interval of fifty lines tells us how Ripheus was saved:—
"The other one, through grace that from so deep A fountain wells that never hath the eye Of any creature reached its primal wave, Set all his love below on righteousness; Wherefore from grace to grace did God unclose His eye to our redemption yet to be, Whence he believed therein, and suffered not From that day forth the stench of Paganism, And he reproved therefor the folk perverse. Those maidens three, whom at the right hand wheel Thou didst behold, were unto him for baptism More than a thousand years before baptizing."