"She passes along the street so beautiful and gracious," says Guinicelli, "that she humbles pride in all whom she greets, and makes him of our faith if he does not yet believe. And no base man can come into her presence. And I will tell you another virtue of her: no man can think ought of evil as long as he looks upon her." "The noble mind which I feel, on account of this youthful lady who has appeared, makes me despise baseness and vileness," says Lapo Gianni. The women who surround her are glorified in her glory, glorified in their womanhood and companionship with her. "The ladies around you," says Cavalcanti, "are dear to me for the sake of your love; and I pray them as they are courteous, that they should do you all honour." She is, indeed, scarcely a woman, and something more than a saint: an avatar, an incarnation of that Amor who is born of virtue and beauty, and raises men's minds to heaven; and when Cavalcanti speaks of his lady's portrait behind the blazing tapers of Orsanmichele, it seems but natural that she should be on an altar, in the Madonna's place. The idea of a mysterious incarnation of love in the lady, or of a mystic relationship between her and love, returns to these poets. Lapo Gianni tells us first that she is Amor's sister, then speaks of her as Amor's bride; nay, in this love theology of the thirteenth century, arises the same kind of confusion as in the mystic disputes of the nature of the Godhead. A Sienese poet, Ugo da Massa, goes so far as to say, "Amor and I are all one thing; and we have one will and one heart; and if I were not, Amor were not; mind you, do not think I am saying these things from subtlety ('e non pensate ch' io 'l dica per arte'); for certainly it is true that I am love, and he who should slay me would slay love."
Together with the knowledge of public life and of scholastic theories, together with the love of occult and cabalistic science, and the craft of Provencal poetry, Dante received from his Florence of the thirteenth century the knowledge of this new, this exotic and esoteric intellectual love. And, as it is the mission of genius to gather into an undying whole, to model into a perfect form, the thoughts and feelings and perceptions of the less highly endowed men who surround it, so Dante moulded out of the love passion and love philosophy of his day the "Vita Nuova." Whether the story narrated in this book is fact; whether a real woman whom he called Beatrice ever existed; some of those praiseworthy persons, who prowl in the charnel-house of the past, and put its poor fleshless bones into the acids and sublimates of their laboratory, have gravely doubted. But such doubts cannot affect us. For if the story of the "Vita Nuova" be a romance, and if Beatrice be a mere romance heroine, the real meaning and value of the book does not change in our eyes; since, to concoct such a tale, Dante must have had a number of real experiences which are fully the tale's equivalent; and to conceive and create such a figure as Beatrice, and such a passion as she inspires her poet, he must have felt as a poignant reality the desire for such a lady, the capacity for such a love. A tale merely of the soul, and of the soul's movements and actions, this "Vita Nuova;" so why should it matter if that which could never exist save in the spirit, should have been but the spirit's creation? It is, in its very intensity, a vision of love; what if it be a vision merely conceived and never realized? Hence the futility of all those who wish to destroy our faith and pleasure by saying "all this never took place." Fools, can you tell what did or did not take place in a poet's mind? Be this as it may, the "Vita Nuova," thank heaven, exists; and, thank heaven, exists as a reality to our feelings. The longed-for ideal, the perfection whose love, said Cavalcanti, raises us up to God, has seemed to gather itself into a human shape; and a real being has been surrounded by the halo of perfection emanated from the poet's own soul. The vague visions of glory have suddenly taken body in this woman, seen rarely, at a distance; the woman whom, as a child, the poet, himself a child, had already looked at with the strange, ideal fascination which we sometimes experience in our childhood. People are apt to smile at this opening of the "Vita Nuova;" to put aside this narrative of childish love together with the pathetic little pedantries of learned poetry and Kabbala, of the long gloses to each poem, and the elaborate calculations of the recurrence and combination of the number nine (and that curious little bit of encyclopaedic display about the Syrian month Tismin) as so much pretty local colouring or obsolete silliness. But there is nothing at which to laugh in such childish fascinations; the wonderful, the perfect, is more open to us as children than it is afterwards: a word, a picture, a snatch of music will have for us an ineffable, mysterious meaning; and how much more so some human being, often some other, more brilliant child from whose immediate contact we are severed by some circumstance, perhaps by our own consciousness of inferiority, which makes that other appear strangely distant, above us, moving in a world of glory which we scarcely hope to approach; a child sometimes, or sometimes some grown person, beautiful, brilliant, who sings or talks or looks at us, the child, with ways which we do not understand, like some fairy or goddess. No indeed, there is nothing to laugh at in this, in this first blossoming of that love for higher and more beautiful things, which in most of us is trodden down, left to wither, by our maturer selves; nothing to make us laugh; nay, rather to make us sigh that later on we see too well, see others too much on their real level, scrutinize too much; too much, alas, for what at best is but an imperfect creature. And in this state of fascination does the child Dante see the child Beatrice, as a strange, glorious little vision from a childish sphere quite above him; treasuring up that vision, till with his growth it expands and grows more beautiful and noble, but none the less fascinating and full of awfulness. When, therefore, the grave young poet, full of the yearning for Paradise (but Paradise vaguer, sweeter, less metaphysic and theological than the Paradise of his manhood); as yet but a gracious, learned youth, his terrible moral muscle still undeveloped by struggle, the noble and delicate dreamer of Giotto's fresco, with the long, thin, almost womanish face, marked only by dreamy eyes and lips, wandering through this young Florence of the Middle Ages—when, I say, he meets after long years, the noble and gentle woman, serious and cheerful and candid; and is told that she is that same child who was the queen and goddess of his childish fancies; then the vague glory with which his soul is filled expands and enwraps the beloved figure, so familiar and yet so new. And the blood retreats from his veins, and he trembles; and a vague god within him, half allegory, half reality, cries out to him that a new life for him has begun. Beatrice has become the ideal; Beatrice, the real woman, has ceased to exist; the Beatrice of his imagination only remains, a piece of his own soul embodied in a gracious and beautiful reality, which he follows, seeks, but never tries to approach. Of the real woman he asks nothing; no word throughout the "Vita Nuova" of entreaty or complaint, no shadow of desire, not a syllable of those reproaches of cruelty which Petrarch is for ever showering upon Laura. He desires nothing of Beatrice, and Beatrice cannot act wrongly; she is perfection, and perfection makes him who contemplates humble at once and proud, glorifying his spirit. Once, indeed, he would wish that she might listen to him; he has reason to think that he has fallen in her esteem, has seemed base and uncourteous in her eyes, and he would explain. But he does not wish to address her; it never occurs to him that she can ever feel in any way towards him; it is enough that he feels towards her. Let her go by and smile and graciously salute her friends: the sight of her grave and pure regalness, nay, rather divinity, of womanhood, suffices for his joy; nay, later the consciousness comes upon him that it is sufficient to know of her existence and of his love even without seeing her. And, as must be the case in such ideal passion, where the action is wholly in the mind of the lover, he is at first ashamed, afraid; he feels a terror lest his love, if known to her, should excite her scorn; a horror lest it be misunderstood and befouled by the jests of those around him, even of those same gentle women to whom he afterwards addresses his praise of Beatrice. He is afraid of exposing to the air of reality this ideal flower of passion. But the moment comes when he can hide it no longer; and, behold, the passion flower of his soul opens out more gloriously in the sunlight of the world. He is proud of his passion, of his worship; he feels the dignity and glory of being the priest of such a love. The women all round, the beautiful, courteous women, of whom, only just now, he was so dreadfully afraid, become his friends and confidants; they are quite astonished (half in love, perhaps, with the young poet) at this strange way of loving; they sympathize, admire, are in love with his love for Beatrice. And to them he speaks of her rather than to men, for the womanhood which they share with his lady consecrates them in his eyes; and they, without jealousy towards this ideal woman, though perhaps not without longing for this ideal love, listen as they might listen to some new and unaccountably sweet music, touched and honoured, and feeling towards Dante as towards some beautiful, half-mad thing. He talks of her, sings of her, and is happy; the strangest thing in this intensely real narrative of real love is this complete satisfaction of the passion in its own existence, this complete absence of all desire or hope. But this happiness is interrupted by the sudden, terrible thought that one day all this must cease; the horrible, logical necessity coming straight home to him, that one day she must die—"Di necessita conviene che la gentilissima Beatrice alcuna volta si muoia." There is nothing truer, more intensely pathetic, in all literature, than this frightful pang of evil, not real, but first imagined; this frightful nightmare vision of the end coming when reality is still happy. Have we not all of us at one time felt the horrible shudder of that sudden perception that happiness must end; that the beloved, the living, must die; that this thing the present, which we clasp tight with our arms, which throbs against our breast, will in but few moments be gone, vanished, leaving us to grasp mere phantom recollections? Compared with this the blow of the actual death of Beatrice is gentle. And then, the truthfulness of his narration how, with yearning, empty heart, hungering after those poor lost realities of happiness, after that occasional glimpse of his lady, that rare catching of her voice, that blessed consciousness of her existence, he little by little lets himself be consoled, cradled to sleep like a child which has sobbed itself out, in the sympathy, the vague love, of another—the Donna della Finestra—with whom he speaks of Beatrice; and the sudden, terrified, starting up and shaking off of any such base consolation, the wrath at any such mental infidelity to the dead one, the indignant impatience with his own weakness, with his baseness in not understanding that it is enough that Beatrice has lived and that he has loved her, in not feeling that the glory and joy of the ineffaceable past is sufficient for all present and future. A revolution in himself which gradually merges in that grave final resolve, that sudden seeing how Beatrice can be glorified by him, that solemn, quiet, brief determination not to say any more of her as yet; not till he can show her transfigured in Paradise. "After this sonnet there appeared unto me a marvellous vision, in which I beheld things that made me propose unto myself to speak no more of this blessed one, until the time when I might more worthily treat of her. And that this may come to pass, I strive with all my endeavour, even as she truly knows it. Thus, if it should please Him, through whom all things do live, that my life continue for several more years, I hope to say of her such things as have never been said of any lady. And then may it please Him, who is the lord of all courtesy, that my soul shall go forth to see the glory of its lady, that is to say, of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously looks up into the face of Him, qui est per omnia saecula benedictus"
Thus ends the "Vita Nuova;" a book, to find any equivalent for whose reality and completeness of passion, though it is passion for a woman whom the poet scarcely knows and of whom he desires nothing, we must go back to the merest fleshly love of Antiquity, of Sappho or Catullus; for modern times are too hesitating and weak. So at least it seems; but in fact, if we only think over the matter, we shall find that in no earthly love can we find this reality and completeness: it is possible only in love like Dante's. For there can be no unreality in it: it is a reality of the imagination, and leaves, with all its mysticism and idealism, no room for falsehood. Any other kind of love may be set aside, silenced, by the activity of the mind; this love of Dante's constitutes that very activity. And, after reading that last page which I have above transcribed, as those closing Latin words echo through our mind like the benediction from an altar, we feel as if we were rising from our knees in some secret chapel, bright with tapers and dim with incense; among a crowd kneeling like ourselves; yet solitary, conscious of only the glory we have seen and tasted, of that love qui est per omnia scecula benedictus.
But is it right that we should feel thus? Is it right that love, containing within itself the potentialities of so many things so sadly needed in this cold real world, as patience, tenderness, devotion, and loving-kindness—is it right that love should thus be carried away out of ordinary life and enclosed, a sacred thing for contemplation, in the shrine or chapel of an imaginary Beatrice? And, on the other hand, is it right that into the holy places of our soul, the places where we should come face to face with the unattainable ideal of our own conduct that we may strive after something nobler than mere present pleasure and profit—is it right that into such holy places, destined but for an abstract perfection, there should be placed a mere half-unknown, vaguely seen woman? In short, is not this "Vita Nuova" a mere false ideal, one of those works of art which, because they are beautiful, get worshipped as holy?
This question is a grave one, and worthy to make us pause. The world is full of instances of the fatal waste of feelings misapplied: of human affections, human sympathy and compassion, so terribly necessary to man, wasted in various religious systems, upon Christ and God: of religious aspirations, contemplation, worship, and absorption, necessary to the improvement of the soul, wasted in various artistic or poetic crazes upon mere pleasant works, or pleasant fancies, of man; wastefulness of emotions, wastefulness of time, which constitute two-thirds of mankind's history and explain the vast amount of evil in past and present. The present question therefore becomes, is not this "Vita Nuova" merely another instance of this lamentable carrying off of precious feelings in channels where they result no longer in fertilization, but in corruption? The Middle Ages, especially, in its religion, its philosophy, nay, in that very love of which I am writing, are one succession of such acts of wastefulness. This question has come to me many a time, and has left me in much doubt and trouble. But on reflection I am prepared to answer that such doubts as these may safely be cast behind us, and that we may trust that instinct which, whenever we lay down the "Vita Nuova," tells us that to have felt and loved this book is one of those spiritual gains in our life which, come what may, can never be lost entirely.
The "Vita Nuova" represents the most exceptional of exceptional moral and intellectual conditions. Dante's love for Beatrice is, in great measure, to be regarded as an extraordinary and exquisite work of art, produced not by the volition of man, but by the accidental combination of circumstances. It is no more suited to ordinary life than would a golden and ivory goddess of Phidias be suited to be the wife of a mortal man. But it may not therefore be useless; nay, it may be of the highest utility. It may serve that high utilitarian mission of all art, to correct the real by the ideal, to mould the thing as it is in the semblance of the thing as it should be. Herein, let it be remembered, consists the value, the necessity of the abstract and the ideal. In the long history of evolution we have now reached the stage where selection is no longer in the mere hands of unconscious nature, but of conscious or half-conscious man; who makes himself, or is made by mankind, according to not merely physical necessities, but to the intellectual necessity of realizing the ideal, of pursuing the object, of imitating the model, before him. No man will ever find the living counterpart of that chryselephantine goddess of the Greeks; ivory and gold, nay, marble, fashioned by an artist, are one thing; flesh is another, and flesh fashioned by mere blind accident. But the man who should have beheld that Phidian goddess, who should have felt her full perfection, would not have been as easily satisfied as any other with a mere commonplace living woman; he would have sought—and seeking, would have had more likelihood of finding—the woman of flesh and blood who nearest approached to that ivory and gold perfection. The case is similar with the "Vita Nuova." No earthly affection, no natural love of man for woman, of an entire human being, body and soul, for another entire human being, can ever be the counterpart of this passion for Beatrice, the passion of a mere mind for a mere mental ideal. But if the old lust-fattened evil of the world is to diminish rather than to increase, why then every love of man for woman and of woman for man should tend, to the utmost possibility, to resemble that love of the "Vita Nuova." For mankind has gradually separated from brute kind merely by the development of those possibilities of intellectual and moral passion which the animal has not got; an animal man will never cease to be, but a man he can daily more and more become, until from the obscene goat-legged and goat-faced creature which we commonly see, he has turned into something like certain antique fauns: a beautiful creature, not noticeably a beast, a beast in only the smallest portion of his nature. In order that this may come to pass—and its coming to pass means, let us remember, the enormous increase of happiness and diminution of misery upon earth—it is necessary that day by day and year by year there should enter into man's feelings, emotions, and habits, into his whole life, a greater proportion of that which is his own, and is not shared by the animal; that his actions, preferences, the great bulk of his conscious existence, should be busied with things of the soul, truth, good, and beauty, and not with things of the body. Hence the love of such a gradually improving and humanizing man for a gradually improving and humanizing woman, should become, as much as is possible, a connection of the higher and more human, rather than of the lower and more bestial, portions of their nature; it should tend, in its reciprocal stimulation, to make the man more a man, the woman more a woman, to make both less of the mere male and female animals that they were. In brief, love should increase, instead, like that which oftenest profanes love's name, of diminishing, the power of aspiration, of self-direction, of self-restraint, which may exist within us. Now to tend to this is to tend towards the love of the "Vita Nuova;" to tend towards the love of the "Vita Nuova" is to tend towards this. Say what you will of the irresistible force of original constitution, it remains certain, and all history is there as witness, that mankind—that is to say, the only mankind in whom lies the initiative of good, mankind which can judge and select—possesses the faculty of feeling and acting in accordance with its standard of feeling and action; the faculty in great measure of becoming that which it thinks desirable to become. Now to have perceived the even imaginary existence of such a passion as that of Dante for Beatrice, must be, for all who can perceive it, the first step towards attempting to bring into reality a something of that passion: the real passion conceived while the remembrance of that ideal passion be still in the mind will bear to it a certain resemblance, even as, according to the ancients, the children born of mothers whose rooms contained some image of Apollo or Adonis would have in them a reflex, however faint, of that beauty in whose presence they came into existence. In short, it seems to me, that as the "Vita Nuova" embodies the utmost ideal of absolutely spiritual love, and as to spiritualize love must long remain one of the chief moral necessities of the world, there exists in this book a moral force, a moral value, a power in its unearthly passion and purity, which, as much as anything more deliberately unselfish, more self-consciously ethical, we must acknowledge and honour as holy.
As the love of him who has read and felt the "Vita Nuova" cannot but strive towards a purer nature, so also the love of which poets sang became also nobler as the influence of the strange Tuscan school of platonic lyrists spread throughout literature, bringing to men the knowledge of a kind of love born of that idealizing and worshipping passion of the Middle Ages; but of mediaeval love chastened by the manners of stern democracy and passed through the sieve of Christian mysticism and pagan philosophy. Of this influence of the "Vita Nuova"—for the "Vita Nuova" had concentrated in itself all the intensest characteristics of Dante's immediate predecessors and contemporaries, causing them to become useless and forgotten—of this influence of the "Vita Nuova," there is perhaps no more striking example than that of the poet who, constituted by nature to be the mere continuator of the romantically gallant tradition of the troubadours, became, and hence his importance and glory, the mediator between Dante and the centuries which followed him; the man who gave to mankind, incapable as yet of appreciating or enduring the spiritual essence of the "Vita Nuova," that self-same essence of intellectual love in an immortal dilution. I speak, of course, of Petrarch. His passion is neither ideal nor strong. The man is in love, or has been in love, existing on a borderland of loving and not loving, with the beautiful woman. His elegant, refined, half-knightly, half-scholarly, and altogether courtly mind is delighted with her; with her curly yellow hair, her good red and white beauty (we are never even told that Dante's Beatrice is beautiful, yet how much lovelier is she not than this Laura, descended from all the golden-haired bright-eyed ladies of the troubadours!), with her manner, her amiability, her purity and dignity in this ecclesiastical Babylon called Avignon. He maintains a semi-artificial love; frequenting her house, writing sonnet after sonnet, rhetorical exercises, studies from the antique and the Provencal, for the most part; he, who was born to be a mere troubadour like Ventadour or Folquet, becomes, through the influence of Dante, the type of the poet Abate, of the poetic cavaliere servente; a good, weak man with aspirations, who, failing to get the better of Laura's virtue, doubtless consoles himself elsewhere, but returns to an habitual contemplation of it. He is, being constitutionally a troubadour, an Italian priest turned partly Provencal, vexed at her not becoming his mistress; then (having made up his mind, which was but little set upon her), quite pleased at her refusal: it turns her into a kind of Beatrice, and him, poor man, heaven help him! into a kind of Dante—a Dante for the use of the world at large. He goes on visiting Laura, and writing to her a sonnet regularly so many times a week, and the best, carefully selected, we feel distinctly persuaded, at regular intervals. It is a determined cultus, a sort of half-real affectation, something equivalent to lighting a lamp before a very well-painted and very conspicuous shrine. All his humanities, all his Provencal lore go into these poems—written for whom? For her? Decidedly; for she has no reason not to read the effusions of this amiable, weak priestlet; she feels nothing for him. For her; but doubtless also to be handed round in society; a new sonnet or canzone by that charming and learned man, the Abate Petrarch. There is considerable emptiness in all this: he praises Laura's chastity, then grows impatient, then praises her again; adores her, calls her cruel, his goddess, his joy, his torment; he does not really want her, but in the vacuity of his feeling, thinks he does; calls her alternately the flat, abusive, and eulogistic names which mean nothing. He plays loud and soft with this absence of desire; he fiddle faddles in descriptions of her, not passionate or burning, but delicately undressed: he sees her (but with chaste eyes) in her bath; he envies her veil, &c.; he neither violently intellectually embraces, nor humbly bows down in imagination before her; he trifles gracefully, modestly, half-familiarly, with her finger tips, with the locks of her hair, and so forth. Fancy Dante abusing Beatrice; fancy Dante talking of Beatrice in her bath; the mere idea of his indignation and shame makes one shameful and indignant at the thought. But this perfect Laura is no Beatrice, or only a half-and-half sham one. She is no ideal figure, merely a figure idealized; this is no imaginative passion, merely an unreal one. Compare, for instance, the suggestion of Laura's possible death with the suggestion of the possible death of Beatrice. Petrarch does not love sufficiently to guess what such a loss would be. Then Laura does die. Here Petrarch rises. The severing of the dear old habits, the absence of the sweet reality, the terrible sense that all is over, Death, the great poetizer and giver of love philters, all this makes him love Laura as he never loved her before. The poor weak creature, who cannot, like a troubadour, go seek a new mistress when the old one fails him, feels dreadfully alone, the world dreadfully dreary around him; he sits down and cries, and his crying is genuine, making the tears come also into our eyes. And Laura, as she becomes a more distant ideal, becomes nobler, though noble with only a faint earthly graciousness not comparable to the glory of the living Beatrice. And, as he goes on, growing older and weaker and more desolate, the thought of a glorified Laura (as all are glorified, even in the eyes of the weakest, by death) begins to haunt him as Dante was haunted by the thought of Beatrice alive. Yet, even at this very time, come doubts of the lawfulness of having thus adored (or thought he had adored) a mortal woman; he does not know whether all this may not have been vanity and folly; he tries to turn his thoughts away from Laura and up to God. Perhaps he may be called on to account for having given too much of his life to a mere earthly love. Then, again, Laura reappears beautified in his memory, and is again tremblingly half-conjured away. He is weak, and sad, and helpless, and alone; and his heart is empty; he knows not what to think nor how to feel; he sobs, and we cry with him. Nowhere could there be found a stranger contrast than this nostalgic craving after the dead Laura, vacillating and troubled by fear of sin and doubt of unworthiness of object, with that solemn ending of the "Vita Nuova," where the name of Beatrice is pronounced for the last time before it be glorified in Paradise, where Dante devotes his life to becoming worthy of saying "such words as have never been said of any lady." The ideal woman is one and unchangeable in glory, and unchangeable is the passion of her lover; but of this sweet dead Laura, whose purity and beauty and cruelty he had sung, without a tremor of self-unworthiness all her life, of her the poor weak Petrarch begins to doubt, of her and her worthiness of all this love; and when? when she is dead and himself is dying.
Such a man is Petrarch; and yet, by the irresistible purifying and elevating power of the "Vita Nuova,'" this man came to write not other albas and serenas, not other love-songs to be added to the love-songs of Provence, but those sonnets and canzoni which for four centuries taught the world, too coarse as yet to receive Dante's passion at first hand, a nobler and more spiritual love. After Petrarch a gradual change takes place in the poetic conception of love: except in learned revivalisms or in loose buffooneries, the mere fleshly love of Antiquity disappears out of literature; and equally so, though by a slower process of gradual transformation, vanishes also the adoring, but undisguisedly adulterous love of the troubadours and minnesingers. Into the love Instincts of mankind have been mingled, however much diluted, some drops of the more spiritual passion of Dante. The puella of Antiquity, the noble dame of feudal days, is succeeded in Latin countries, in Italy, and France, and Spain, and Portugal, by the gloriosa donna imitated from. Petrarch, and imitated by Petrarch from Dante; a long-line of shadowy figures, veiled in the veil of Madonna Laura, ladies beloved of Lorenzo and Michael Angelo, of Ariosto, and Tasso, and Camoens, and Cervantes, passes through the world; nay, even the sprightly-mistress of Ronsard, half-bred pagan and troubadour has airs of dignity and mystery which make us almost think that in this dainty coquettish French body, of Marie or Helene or Cassandrette, there really may be an immortal soul. But with the Renaissance—that movement half of mediaeval democratic progress, and half of antique revivalism, and to which in reality belongs not merely Petrarch, but Dante, and every one of the Tuscan poets, Guinicelli, Lapo Gianni, Cavalcanti, who broke with the feudal poetry of Provence and Sicily—with the Renaissance, or rather with its long-drawn-out end, comes the close, for the moment, of the really creative activity of the Latin peoples in the domain of poetry. All the things for two centuries which Italy and France and Spain and Portugal (which we must remember for the sake of Camoens) continue to produce, are but developments of parts left untouched; or refinements of extreme detail, as in the case, particularly, of the French poets of the sixteenth century; but poetry receives from these races nothing new or vital, no fresh ideal or fruitful marriage of ideals. And here begins, uniting in itself all the scattered and long-dormant powers of Northern poetry, the great and unexpected action of England. It had slept through the singing period of the Middle Ages, and was awakened, not by Germany or Provence, but by Italy: Boccaccio and Petrarch spoke, and, as through dreams, England in Chaucer's voice, made answer. Again, when the Renaissance had drawn to a close, far on in the sixteenth century, English poetry was reawakened; and again by Italy. This time it was completely wakened, and arose and slept no more. And one of the great and fruitful things achieved by English poetry in this its final awakening was to give to the world the new, the modern, perhaps the definitive, the final ideal of love. England drank a deep draught—how deep we see from Sidney's and Spenser's sonnets—of Petrarch; and in this pleasant dilution, tasted and felt the burning essence of the "Vita Nuova;" for though Dante remained as the poet, the poet of heaven and hell, this happy half-and-half Petrarch had for full two centuries completely driven into oblivion the young Dante who had loved Beatrice. For England, for this magnificent and marvellous outburst of all the manifold poetic energy stored up and quintupled during that long period of inertness, there could however be no foreign imported ideal of love; there was no possibility of a new series of spectral Lauras, shadows projected by a shadow. Already, long ago, at the first call of Petrarch, Chaucer, by the side of the merely mediaeval love types—of brutish lust and doglike devotion—of the Wife of Bath and of Griseldis, had rough-sketched a kind of modern love, the love which is to become that of Romeo and Hamlet, in his story of Palemon and Arcite. Among the poetic material which existed in England at the close of the sixteenth century was the old, long-neglected, domestic love, quiet, undemonstrative, essentially unsinging, of the early Northern (as indeed also of the Greek and Hindoo) epics; a domestic love which, in a social condition more closely resembling our own than any other, even than that of the Italian democracies, which had preceded it; among a people who permitted a woman to choose her own husband, and forbade a man wooing another man's wife, had already, in ballads and folk poetry, begun a faint-twitter of song. To this love of the man and the woman who hope to marry, strong and tender, but still (as Coleridge remarked of several of the lesser Elizabethan playwrights) most outspokenly carnal, was united by the pure spirit of Spenser, by the unerring genius of Shakespeare, that vivifying drop of burning, spiritual love taken from out of the "Vita Nuova," which had floated, like some sovereign essential oil, on the top of Petrarch's rose-water. Henceforward the world possesses a new kind of love: the love of Romeo, of Hamlet, of Bassanio, of Viola, and of Juliet; the love of the love poems of Shelley, of Tennyson, of Browning and Browning's wife. A love whose blindness, exaggeration of passion, all that might have made it foolish and impracticable, leads no longer to folly and sin, but to an intenser activity of mankind's imagination of the good and beautiful, to a momentary realization in our fancy of all our vague dreams of perfection; a love which, though it may cool down imperceptibly and pale in its intenseness, like the sunrise fires into a serene sky, has left some glory round the head of the wife, some glory in the heart of the husband, has been, however fleeting, a vision of beauty which has made beauty more real. And all this owing to the creation, the storing up, the purification by the Platonic poets of Tuscany, of that strange and seemingly so artificial and unreal thing, mediaeval love; the very forms and themes of whose poetry, the serena and the alba, which had been indignantly put aside by the early Italian lyrists, being unconsciously revived, and purified and consecrated in the two loveliest love poems of Elizabethan poetry: the serena, the evening song of impatient expectation in Spenser's Epithalamium; the alba, the dawn song of hurried parting, in the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet."
Let us recapitulate. The feudal Middle Ages gave to mankind a more refined and spiritual love, a love all chivalry, fidelity, and adoration, but a love steeped in the poison of adultery; and to save the pure and noble portions of this mediaeval love became the mission of the Tuscan poets of that strange school of Platonic love which in its very loveliness may sometimes seem so unnatural and sterile. For, by reducing this mediaeval love to a mere intellectual passion, seeking in woman merely a self-made embodiment of cravings after perfection, they cleansed away that deep stain of adultery; they quadrupled the intensity of the ideal element; they distilled the very essential spirit of poetic passion, of which but a few drops, even as diluted by Petrarch, precipitated, when mingled with the earthly passion of future poets, to the bottom, no longer to be seen or tasted, all baser ingredients.
And, while the poems of minnesingers and troubadours have ceased to appeal to us, and remain merely for their charm of verse and of graceful conceit; the poetry written by the Italians of the thirteenth century for women, whose love was but an imaginative fervour, remains concentrated in the "Vita Nuova;" and will remain for all time the sovereign purifier to which the world must have recourse whenever that precipitate of baser instincts, which thickened like slime the love poetry of Antiquity, shall rise again and sully the purity of the love poetry of to-day.
More than a year has elapsed since the moment when, fancying that this series of studies must be well-nigh complete, I attempted to explain in an introductory chapter what the nature of this book of mine is, or would fain be. I had hoped that each of these studies would complete its companions; and that, without need for explicit explanation, my whole idea would have become more plain to others than it was at that time even to myself. But instead, it has become obvious that the more carefully I had sought to reduce each question to unity, the more that question-subdivided and connected itself with other questions; and that, with the solution of each separate problem, had arisen a new set of problems which infinitely complicated the main lessons to be deduced from a study of that many-sided civilization to which, remembering the brilliant and mysterious offspring of Faustus and Helena, I have given the name of Euphorion. Hence, as it seems, the necessity for a few further words of explanation.
In those introductory pages written some fifteen months ago, I tried to bring home to the reader a sense which has haunted me throughout the writing of this volume; namely, that instead of having deliberately made up my mind to study the Renaissance, as one makes up one's mind to visit Greece or Egypt or the Holy Land; I have, on the contrary, quite accidentally and unconsciously, found myself wandering about in spirit among the monuments of this particular historic region, even as I might wander about in the streets of Siena where I wrote last year, of Florence whence I write at present; wandering about among these things, and little by little feeling a particular interest in one, then in another, according as each happened to catch my fancy or to recall some already known thing. Now these, which for want of a better word I have just called monuments, and just now, less clearly, but also less foolishly, merely things—these things were in reality not merely individual and really existing buildings, books, pictures, or statues, individual and really registered men, women, and events; they were the mental conceptions which I had extracted out of these realities; the intellectual types made up (as the mediaeval symbols of justice are made up of the visible paraphernalia, robe, scales and sword, for judging and weighing and punishing) of the impressions left on the mind by all those buildings, or books, or pictures, or statues, or men, women, and events. They were not the iniquities of this particular despot nor the scandalous sayings of that particular humanist, but the general moral chaos of the Italian fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; not the poem of Pulci, of Boiardo, of Ariosto in especial, but a vast imaginary poem made up of them all; not the mediaeval saints of Angelico and the pagan demi-gods of Michael Angelo, but the two tremendous abstractions: the spirit of Mediaevalism in art, and the spirit of Antiquity; the interest in the distressed soul, and the interest in the flourishing body. And, as my thoughts have gone back to Antiquity and onwards to our own times, their starting-point has nevertheless been the Tuscan art of the fifteenth century, their nucleus some notes on busts by Benedetto da Maiano and portraits by Raphael.
My dramatis persona have been modes of feeling and forms of art. I have tried to explain the life and character, not of any man or woman, but of the moral scepticism of Italy, of the tragic spirit of our Elizabethan dramatists; I have tried to write the biography of the romance poetry of the Middle Ages, of the realism of the great portrait painters and sculptors of the Renaissance. But these, my dramatis persona, are, let me repeat it, abstractions: they exist only in my mind and in the minds of those who think like myself. Hence, like all abstractions, they represent the essence of a question, but not its completeness, its many-sidedness as we may see it in reality. Hence it is that I have frequently passed over exceptions to the rule which I was stating, because the explanation of these exceptions would have involved the formulating of a number of apparently irrelevant propositions; so that any one who please may accuse me of inexactness; and, to give an instance, cover the margins of my essay on Mediaeval Love with a whole list of virtuous love stories of the Middle Ages; or else ferret out of Raynouard and Von der Hagen a dozen pages of mediaeval poems in praise of rustic life. These objections will be perfectly correct, and (so far as my knowledge permitted me) I might have puzzled the reader with them myself; but it remains none the less certain that, in the main, mediaeval love was not virtuous, and mediaeval peasantry not admired by poets; and none the less certain, I think, also, that in describing the characteristics and origin of an abstract thing, such as mediaeval love, or mediaeval feeling towards the country and country folk, it was my business to state the rule and let alone the exceptions.
There is another matter which gives me far greater concern. In creating and dealing with an abstraction, one is frequently forced, if I may use the expression, to cut a subject in two, to bring one of its sides into full light and leave the other in darkness; nay, to speak harshly of one side of an art or of a man without being able to speak admiringly of another side.
This one-sidedness, this apparent injustice of judgment, has in some cases been remedied by the fact that I have treated in one study those things which I was forced to omit in another study; as, in two separate essays, I have pointed out first the extreme inferiority of Renaissance sculpture to the sculpture of Antiquity with regard to absolute beauty of form; and then the immeasurable superiority of Renaissance over antique sculpture in the matter of that beauty and interest dependent upon mere arrangement and handling, wherein lies the beauty-creating power of realistic schools. But most often I have shown one side, not merely of an artist or an art, but of my own feeling, without showing the other; and in one case this inevitable one-sidedness has weighed upon me almost like personal guilt, and has almost made me postpone the publication of this book to the Greek Kalends, in hopes of being able to explain and to atone. I am alluding to Fra Angelico. I spoke of him in a study of the progress of mere beautiful form, the naked human form moreover, in the art of the Renaissance; I looked at his work with my mind full of the unapproachable superiority of antique form; I judged and condemned the artist with reference to that superb movement towards nature and form and bodily beauty which was the universal movement of the fifteenth century; I lost patience with this saint because he would not turn pagan; I pushed aside, because he did not seek for a classic Olympus, his exquisite dreams of a mediaeval Paradise. I had taken part, as its chronicler, with the art which seeks mere plastic perfection, the art to which Angelico said, "Retro me Sathana." It was my intention to close even this volume with a study of the poetical conception of early Renaissance painting, of that strange kind of painting in which a thing but imperfect in itself, a mere symbol of lovely ideas, brings home to our mind, with a rush of associations, a sense of beauty and wonder greater perhaps than any which we receive from the sober reality of perfect form. Again, there are the German masters—the great engravers, Kranach, Altdorfer, Aldegrever, especially; of whom, for their absolute pleasure in ugly women, for their filthy delight in horrors, I have said an immense amount of ill; and of whom, for their wonderful intuition of dramatic situation, their instinct of the poetry of common things, and their magnificently imaginative rendering of landscape, I hope some day to say an equal amount of good.
I have spoken of the lesson which may be derived from studies even as humble as these studies of mine; since, in my opinion, we cannot treat history as a mere art—though history alone can gives us now-a-days tragedy which has ceased to exist on our stage, and wonder which has ceased to exist in our poetry—we cannot seek in it mere selfish enjoyment of imagination and emotion, without doing our soul the great injury of cheating it of some of those great indignations, some of those great lessons which make it stronger and more supple in the practical affairs of life. Each of these studies of mine brings its own lesson, artistic or ethical, important or unimportant; its lesson of seeking certainty in our moral opinions, beauty in all and whatever our forms of art, spirituality in our love. But besides these I seem to perceive another deduction, an historical fact with a practical application; to see it as the result not merely perhaps of the studies of which this book is the fruit, but of those further studies, of the subtler sides of Mediaeval and Renaissance life and art which at present occupy my mind and may some day add another series of essays to this: a lesson still vague to myself, but which, satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily, I shall nevertheless attempt to explain; if indeed it requires to be brought home to the reader.
Of the few forms of feeling and imagination which I have treated—things so different from one another as the feeling for nature and the chivalric poem, as modern art, with its idealism and realism, and modern love—of these forms, emotional and artistic, which Antiquity did not know, or knew but little, the reader may have observed that I have almost invariably traced the origin deep into that fruitful cosmopolitan chaos, due to the mingling of all that was still unused of the remains of Antiquity with all that was untouched of the intellectual and moral riches of the barbarous nations, to which we give the name of Middle Ages; and that I have, as invariably, followed the development of these precious forms, and their definitive efflorescence and fruit-bearing, into that particular country where certain mediaeval conditions had ceased to exist, namely Italy. In other words, it has seemed to me that the things which I have studied were originally produced during the Middle Ages, and consequently in the mediaeval countries, France, Germany, Provence; but did not attain maturity except in that portion of the Middle Ages which is mediaeval no longer, but already more than half modern, the Renaissance, which began in Italy not with the establishment of despotisms and the coming of Greek humanists, but with the independence of the free towns and with the revival of Roman tradition.
Why so? Because, it appears to me, after watching the lines of my thought converging to this point, because, with a few exceptions, the Middle Ages were rich in great beginnings (indeed a good half of all that makes up our present civilization seems to issue from them): but they were poor in complete achievements; full of the seeds of modern institutions, arts, thoughts, and feelings, they yet show us but rarely the complete growth of any one of them: a fruitful Nile flood, but which must cease to drown and to wash away, which must subside before the germs that it has brought can shoot forth and mature. The sense of this comes home to me most powerfully whenever I think of mediaeval poetry and mediaeval painting.
The songs of the troubadours and minnesingers, what are they to our feelings? They are pleasant, even occasionally beautiful, but they are empty, lamentably empty, charming arrangements of words; poetry which fills our mind or touches our heart comes only with the Tuscan lyrists of the thirteenth century. The same applies to mediaeval narrative-verse: it is, with one or two exceptions or half exceptions, such as "The Chanson de Roland" and Gottfried's "Tristan und Isolde," decidedly wearisome; a thing to study, but scarcely a thing to delight in. I do not mean to say that the old legends of Wales and Scandinavia, subsequently embodied by the French and German poets of the Middle Ages, are without imaginative or emotional interest; nothing can be further from my thoughts. The Nibelung story possesses, both in the Norse and in the Middle High German version, a tragic fascination; and a quaint fairy-tale interest, every now and then rising to the charm of a Decameronian novella, is possessed by many of the Keltic tales, whether briefly told in the Mabinogion or lengthily detailed by Chrestien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach. But all this is the interest of the mere story, and you would enjoy it almost as much if that story were related not by a poet but by a peasant; it is the fascination of the mere theme, with the added fascination of our own unconscious filling up and colouring of details. And the poem itself, whence we extract this theme, remains, for the most part, uninteresting. The figures are vague, almost shapeless and colourless; they have no well-understood mental and moral anatomy, so that when they speak and act the writer seems to have no clear conception of the motives or tempers which make them do so; even as in a child's pictures, the horses gallop, the men run, the houses stand, but without any indication of the muscles which move the horse, of the muscles which hold up the man, of the solid ground upon which is built, nay rather, into which is planted, the house. Hatred of Hagen, devotion of Ruedger, passionate piety of Parzival—all these are things of which we do not particularly see the how or why; we do not follow the reasons, in event or character, which make these men sacrifice themselves or others, weep, storm, and so forth; nay, even when these reasons are clear from the circumstances, we are not shown the action of the mechanism, we do not see how Brunhilt is wroth, how Chriemhilt is revengeful, how Herzeloid is devoted to Parzival. There is, in the vast majority of this mediaeval poetry, no clear conception of the construction and functions of people's character, and hence no conception either of those actions and reactions of various moral organs which, after all, are at the bottom of the events related. Herein lies the difference between the forms of the Middle Ages and those of Antiquity; for how perfectly felt, understood, is not every feeling and every action of the Homeric heroes, how perfectly indicated! We can see the manner and reason of the conflict of Achilles and Agamemnon, of the behaviour of the returned Odysseus, as clearly as we see the manner and reason of the movements of the fighting Centaurs and Lapithae, or the Amazons; nay, even the minute mood of comparatively unimportant figures, as Helen, Brisei's, and Nausicaa, is indicated in its moral anatomy and attitude as distinctly as is the manner in which the maidens of the Parthenon frieze slowly restrain their steps, the boys curb their steeds, or the old men balance their oil jars. Nothing of this in mediaeval literature, except perhaps in "Flamenca" and "Tristan," where the motive of action, mere imaginative desire, is all-permeating and explains everything. These people clearly had no interest, no perception, connected with character: a valorous woman, a chivalrous knight, an insolent steward, a jealous husband, a faithful retainer; things recognized only in outline, made to speak and act only according to a fixed tradition, without knowledge of the internal mechanism of motive; these sufficed. Hence it is that mediaeval poetry is always like mediaeval painting (for painting continued to be mediaeval with Giotto's pupils long after poetry had ceased to be mediaeval with Dante and his school), where the Virgin sits and holds the child without body wherewith to sit or arms wherewith to hold; where angels flutter forward and kneel in conventional greeting, with obviously no bended knees beneath their robes, nay, with knees, waist, armpits, all anywhere; where men ride upon horses without flat to their back; where processions of the blessed come forth, guided by fiddling seraphs, vague, faint faces, sweet or grand, heads which might wave like pieces of cut-out paper upon their necks, arms and legs here and there, not clearly belonging to any one; creatures marching, soaring, flying, singing, fiddling, without a bone or a muscle wherewith to do it all. And meanwhile, in this mediaeval poetry, as in this mediaeval painting, there are yards and yards of elaborate preciousness: all the embossed velvets, all the white-and-gold-shot brocades, all the silks and satins, and jewel-embroidered stuffs of the universe cast stiffly about these phantom men and women, these phantom horses and horsemen. It is not until we turn to Italy, and to the Northern man, Chaucer, entirely under Italian influence, that we obtain an approach to the antique clearness of perception and comprehension; that we obtain not only in Dante something akin to the muscularities of Signorelli and Michael Angelo; but in Boccaccio and Chaucer, in Cavalca and Petrarch, the equivalent of the well-understood movement, the well-indicated situation of the simple, realistic or poetic, sketches of Filippino and Botticelli.
This, you will say, is a mere impression; it is no explanation, still less such an explanation as may afford a lesson. Not so. This strange inconclusiveness in all mediaeval things, till the moment comes when they cease to be mediaeval; this richness in germs and poverty in mature fruit, cannot be without its reason. And this reason, to my mind, lies in one word, the most terrible word of any, since it means suffering and hopelessness; a word which has haunted my mind ever since I have looked into mediaeval things: the word Wastefulness. Wastefulness; the frightful characteristic of times at once so rich and so poor, the explanation of the long starvation and sickness that mankind, that all mankind's concerns—art, poetry, science, life—endured while the very things which would have fed and revived and nurtured, existed close at hand, and in profusion. Wastefulness, in this great period of confusion, of the most precious things that we possess: time, thought, and feeling refused to the realities of the world, and lavished on the figments of the imagination. Why this vagueness, this imperfection in all mediaeval representations of life? Because even as men's eyes were withdrawn, by the temporal institutions of those days, from the sight of the fields and meadows which were left to the blind and dumb thing called serf; so also the thoughts of mankind, its sympathy and intentions, were withdrawn from the mere earthly souls, the mere earthly wrongs and woes of men by the great self-organized institution of mediaeval religion. Pity of the body of Christ held in bondage by the Infidel; love of God; study of the unknowable things of Heaven: such are the noblest employments of the mediaeval soul; how much of pity, of love, may remain for man; how much of study for the knowable? To Wastefulness like this—to misapplication of mind ending almost in palsy—must we ascribe, I think, the strange sterility of such mediaeval art as deals not merely with pattern, but with the reality of man's body and soul. And we might be thankful, if, during our wanderings among mediaeval things, we had seen the starving of only art and artistic instincts; but the soul of man has lain starving also; starving for the knowledge which was sought only of Divine things, starving for the love which was given only to God.
The explanation, therefore, and its lesson, may thus be summed up in the one word Wastefulness. And the fruitfulness of the Renaissance, all that it has given to us of art, of thought, of feeling (for the "Vita Nuova" is its fruit), is due, as it seems to me, to the fact that the Renaissance is simply the condition of civilization when, thanks to the civil liberty and the spiritual liberty inherited from Rome and inherited from Greece, man's energies of thought and feeling were withdrawn from the unknowable to the knowable, from Heaven to Earth; and were devoted to the developing of those marvellous new things which Antiquity had not known, and which had lain neglected and wasted during the Middle Ages.
I have seen the pictures and statues and towns which I have described, and I have read the books of which I attempt to give an impression; but here my original research, if such it may be called, comes to an end. I have trusted only to myself for my impressions; but I have taken from others everything that may be called historical fact, as distinguished from the history of this or that form of thought or of art which I have tried to elaborate. My references are therefore only to standard historical works, and to such editions of poets and prose writers as have come into my hands. How much I am endebted to the genius of Michelet; nay, rather, how much I am, however unimportant, the thing made by him, every one will see and judge. With regard to positive information I must express my great obligations to the works of Jacob Burckhardt, of Prof. Villari, and of Mr. J.A. Symonds in everything that concerns the political history and social condition of the Renaissance. Mr. Symonds' name I have placed last, although this is by no means the order of importance in which the three writers appear in my mind, because vanity compels me to state that I have deprived myself of the pleasure and profit of reading his volumes on Italian literature, from a fear that finding myself doubtless forestalled by him in various appreciations, I might deprive my essays of what I feel to be their principal merit, namely, the spontaneity and wholeness of personal impression. With regard to philological lore, I may refer, among a number of other works, to M. Gaston Paris' work on the Cycle of Charlemagne, M. de la Villemarque's companion volume on Keltic romances, and Professor Rajna's "Fonti dell' Ariosto." My knowledge of troubadours, trouveres, and minnesingers is obtained mainly from the great collections of Raynouard, Wackernagel, Maetzner, Bartsch, and Von der Hagen, and from Bartsch's and Simrock's editions and versions of Gottfried von Strassburg, Hartmann von Aue, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. "Flamenca" I have read in Professor Paul Meyer's beautiful edition, text and translation; "Aucassin et Nicolette," in an edition published, if I remember rightly, by Janet; and also in a very happy translation contained in Delvau's huge collection of "Romans de Chevalerie," which contains, unfortunately sometimes garbled, as many of the prose stories of the Carolingian and Amadis cycle as I, at all events, could endure to read. For the early Italian poets, excepting Carducci's "Cino da Pistoia," my references are the same as those in Rossetti's "Dante and his Cycle," especially the "Rime Antiche" and the "Poeti del Primo Secolo." Professor d'Ancona's pleasant volume has greatly helped me in the history of the transformation of the courtly poetry of the early Middle Ages into the folk poetry of Tuscany. I owe a good deal also, with regard to this same essay "The Outdoor Poetry," to Roskoff's famous "Geschichte des Teufels," and to Signor Novati's recently published "Carmina Medii AEvi." The Italian novellieri, Bandello, Cinthio, and their set, I have used in the Florentine editions of 1820 or 1825; Masuccio edited by De Sanctis. For the essay on the Italian Renaissance on the Elizabethan Stage, I have had recourse, chiefly, to the fifteenth century chronicles in the "Archivio Storico Italiano," and to Dyce's Webster, Hartley Coleridge's Massinger and Ford, Churton Collins' Cyril Tourneur, and J.O. Halliwell's Marston.
The essays on art have naturally profited by the now inevitable Crowe and Cavalcaselle; but in this part of my work, while I have relied very little on books, I have received more than the equivalent of the information to be obtained from any writers in the suggestions and explanations of my friend Mr. T. Nelson MacLean, who has made it possible for a mere creature of pens and ink to follow the differences of technique of the sculptors and medallists of the fifteenth century; a word of thanks also, for various such suggestions as can come only from a painter, to my old friend Mr. John S. Sargent, of Paris.
I must conclude these acknowledgments by thanking the Editors of the Contemporary, British Quarterly, and National Reviews, and of the Cornhill Magazine, for permission to republish such of the essays or fragments of essays as have already appeared in those periodicals.