Stories from the Italian Poets: With Lives of the Writers, Volume 1
by Leigh Hunt
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Forese, like many of Dante's preachers, seems to have been one of those self-ignorant or self-exasperated denouncers, who "Compound for sins they are inclined to, By damning those they have no mind to." He was a glutton, who could not bear to see ladies too little clothed. The defacing of "God's image" in his own person he considered nothing.]

[Footnote 45: The passage respecting his past life is unequivocal testimony to the fact, confidently disputed by some, of Dante's having availed himself of the license of the time; though, in justice to such candour, we are bound not to think worse of it than can be helped. The words in the original are

"Se ti riduci a mente Qual fosti meco, e quale io teco fui, Ancor fia grave il memorar presente."

Literally: "If thou recallest to mind what (sort of person) thou wast with me, and what I was with thee, the recollection may oppress thee still."

His having been taken out of that kind of life by Virgil (construed in the literal sense, in which, among other senses, he has directed us to construe him), may imply, either that the delight of reading Virgil first made him think of living in a manner more becoming a man of intellect, or (possibly) that the Latin poet's description of AEneas's descent into hell turned his thoughts to religious penitence. Be this as it may, his life, though surely it could at no time have been of any very licentious kind, never, if we are to believe Boccaccio, became spotless.]

[Footnote 46: The mention of Gentucca might be thought a compliment to the lady, if Dante had not made Beatrice afterwards treat his regard for any one else but herself with so much contempt. (See page 216 of the present volume.) Under that circumstance, it is hardly acting like a gentleman to speak of her at all; unless, indeed, he thought her a person who would be pleased with the notoriety arising even from the record of a fugitive regard; and in that case the good taste of the record would still remain doubtful. The probability seems to be, that Dante was resolved, at all events, to take this opportunity of bearding some rumour.]

[Footnote 47: A celebrated and charming passage:

"Io mi son un, che quando Amore spira, noto; e a quel modo Che detta dentro, vo significando."

I am one that notes When Love inspires; and what he speaks I tell In his own way, embodying but his thoughts.

[Footnote 48: Exquisite truth of painting! and a very elegant compliment to the handsome nature of Buonaggiunta. Jacopo da Lentino, called the Notary, and Fra Guittone of Arezzo, were celebrated verse-writers of the day. The latter, in a sonnet given by Mr. Cary in the notes to his translation, says he shall be delighted to hear the trumpet, at the last day, dividing mankind into the happy and the tormented (sufferers under crudel martire), because an inscription will then be seen on his forehead, shewing that he had been a slave to love! An odd way for a poet to shew his feelings, and a friar his religion!]

[Footnote 49: Judges vii. 6.]

[Footnote 50: Summae Deus clementiae. The ancient beginning of a hymn in the Roman Catholic church; now altered, say the commentators, to "Summae parens clementiae."]

[Footnote 51: Virum non cognosco. "Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"—Luke i. 34.

The placing of Mary's interview with the angel, and Ovid's story of Calisto, upon apparently the same identical footing of authority, by spirits in all the sincerity of agonised penitence, is very remarkable. A dissertation, by some competent antiquary, on the curious question suggested by these anomalies, would be a welcome novelty in the world of letters.]

[Footnote 52: An allegory of the Active and Contemplative Life;—not, I think, a happy one, though beautifully painted. It presents, apart from its terminating comment no necessary intellectual suggestion; is rendered, by the, comment itself, hardly consistent with Leah's express love of ornament; and, if it were not for the last sentence, might be taken for a picture of two different forms of Vanity.]

[Footnote 53:

"Tal, qual di ramo in ramo si raccoglie Per la pineta in sul lito di Chiassi, Quand' Eolo scirocco fuor discioglie."

Even as from branch to branch Along the piny forests on the shore Of Chiassi, rolls the gathering melody, When Eolus hath from his cavern loosed The dripping south."—Cary.

"This is the wood," says Mr. Cary, "where the scene of Boccaccio's sublimest story (taken entirely from Elinaud, as I learn in the notes to the Decameron, ediz. Giunti, 1573, p. 62) is laid. See Dec., G. 5, N. 8, and Dryden's Theodore and Honoria. Our poet perhaps wandered in it during his abode with Guido Novello da Polenta."—Translation of Dante, ut sup. p. 121.]

[Footnote 54: Lethe, Forgetfulness; Eunoe, Well-mindedness.]

[Footnote 55:

"Senza alcuno scotto Di pentimento."

Literally, scot-free.—"Scotto," scot;—"payment for dinner or supper in a tavern" (says Rubbi, the Petrarchal rather than Dantesque editor of the Parnaso Italiano, and a very summary gentleman); "here used figuratively, though it is not a word fit to be employed on serious and grand occasions" (in cose gravi ed illustri). See his "Dante" in that collection, vol. ii. p. 297.]

[Footnote 56: The allusion to the childish girl (pargoletta) or any other fleeting vanity,

"O altra vanita con si breve use,"

is not handsome. It was not the fault of the childish girls that he liked them; and he should not have taunted them, whatever else they might have been. What answer could they make to the great poet?

Nor does Beatrice make a good figure throughout this scene, whether as a woman or an allegory. If she is Theology, or Heavenly Grace, &c. the sternness of the allegory should not have been put into female shape; and when she is to be taken in her literal sense (as the poet also tells us she is), her treatment of the poor submissive lover, with leave of Signor Rubbi, is no better than snubbing;—to say nothing of the vanity with which she pays compliments to her own beauty.

I must, furthermore, beg leave to differ with the poet's thinking it an exalted symptom on his part to hate every thing he had loved before, out of supposed compliment the transcendental object of his affections and his own awakened merits. All the heights of love and wisdom terminate in charity; and charity, by very reason of its knowing the poorness of so many things, hates nothing. Besides, it is any thing but handsome or high-minded to turn round upon objects whom we have helped to lower with our own gratified passions, and pretend a right to scorn them.]

[Footnote 57:

"Tu asperges me, et mundabor," &c. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."—Psalm li. 7.]

[Footnote 58: Beatrice had been dead ten years.]



The Paradise or Heaven of Dante, in whose time the received system of astronomy was the Ptolemaic, consists of the Seven successive Planets according to that system, or the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; of the Eighth Sphere beyond these, or that of the Fixed Stars; of the Primum Mobile, or First Mover of them all round the moveless Earth; and of the Empyrean, or Region of Pure Light, in which is the Beatific Vision. Each of these ascending spheres is occupied by its proportionate degree of Faith and Virtue; and Dante visits each under the guidance of Beatrice, receiving many lessons, as he goes, on theological and other subjects (here left out), and being finally admitted, after the sight of Christ and the Virgin, to a glimpse of the Great First Cause.


It was evening now on earth, and morning on the top of the hill in Purgatory, when Beatrice having fixed her eyes upon the sun, Dante fixed his eyes upon hers, and suddenly found himself in Heaven.

He had been transported by the attraction of love, and Beatrice was by his side.

The poet beheld from where he stood the blaze of the empyrean, and heard the music of the spheres; yet he was only in the first or lowest Heaven, the circle of the orb of the moon.

This orb, with his new guide, he proceeded to enter. It had seemed, outside, as solid, though as lucid, as diamond; yet they entered it, as sunbeams are admitted into water without dividing the substance. It now appeared, as it enclosed them, like a pearl, through the essence of which they saw but dimly; and they beheld many faces eagerly looking at them, as if about to speak, but not more distinct from the surrounding whiteness than pearls themselves are from the forehead they adorn.[1] Dante thought them only reflected faces, and turned round to see to whom they belonged, when his smiling companion set him right; and he entered into discourse with the spirit that seemed the most anxious to accost him. It was Piccarda, the sister of his friend Forese Donati, whom he had met in the sixth region of Purgatory. He did not know her, by reason of her wonderful increase in beauty. She and her associates were such as had been Vowed to a Life of Chastity and Religion, but had been Compelled by Others to Break their Vows. This had been done, in Piccarda's instance, by her brother Corso.[2] On

Dante's asking if they did not long for a higher state of bliss, she and her sister-spirits gently smiled; and then answered, with faces as happy as first love,[3] that they willed only what it pleased God to give them, and therefore were truly blest. The poet found by this answer, that every place in Heaven was Paradise, though the bliss might be of different degrees. Piccarda then shewed him the spirit at her side, lustrous with all the glory of the region, Costanza, daughter of the king of Sicily, who had been forced out of the cloister to become the wife of the Emperor Henry. Having given him this information, she began singing Ave Maria; and, while singing, disappeared with the rest, as substances disappear in water.[4]

A loving will transported the two companions, as before, to the next circle of Heaven, where they found themselves in the planet Mercury, the residence of those who had acted rather out of Desire of Fame than Love of God. The spirits here, as in the former Heaven, crowded towards them, as fish in a clear pond crowd to the hand that offers them food. Their eyes sparkled with celestial joy; and the more they thought of their joy, the brighter they grew; till one of them who addressed the poet became indistinguishable for excess of splendour. It was the soul of the Emperor Justinian. Justinian told him the whole story of the Roman empire up to his time; and then gave an account of one of his associates in bliss, Romeo, who had been minister to Raymond Beranger, Count of Provence. Four daughters had been born to Raymond Beranger, and every one became a queen; and all this had been brought about by Romeo, a poor stranger from another country. The courtiers, envying Romeo, incited Raymond to demand of him an account of his stewardship, though he had brought his master's treasury twelve-fold for every ten it disbursed. Romeo quitted the court, poor and old; "and if the world," said Justinian, "could know the heart such a man must have had, begging his bread as he went, crust by crust—praise him as it does, it would praise him a great deal more."[5]

"Hosanna, Holy God of Sabaoth, Superillumining with light of light The happy fires of these thy Malahoth!"[6]

Thus began singing the soul of the Emperor Justinian; and then, turning as he sang, vanished with those about him, like sparks of fire.

Dante now found himself, before he was aware, in the third Heaven, or planet Venus, the abode of the Amorous.[7] He only knew it by the increased loveliness in the face of his companion.

The spirits in this orb, who came and went in the light of it like sparks in fire, or like voices chanting in harmony with voice, were spun round in circles of delight, each with more or less swiftness, according to its share of the beatific vision. Several of them came sweeping out of their dance towards the poet who had sung of Love, among whom was his patron, Charles Martel, king of Hungary, who shewed him the reason why diversities of natures must occur in families; and Cunizza, sister of the tyrant Ezzelino, who was overcome by this her star when on earth; and Folco the Troubadour, whose place was next Cunizza in Heaven; and Rahab the harlot, who favoured the entrance of the Jews into the Holy Land, and whose place was next Folco.[8] Cunizza said that she did not at all regret a lot which carried her no higher, whatever the vulgar might think of such an opinion. She spoke of the glories of the jewel who was close to her, Folco—contrasted his zeal with the inertness of her contemptible countrymen—and foretold the bloodshed that awaited the latter from wars and treacheries. The Troubadour, meanwhile, glowed in his aspect like a ruby stricken with the sun; for in heaven joy is expressed by effulgence, as on earth by laughter. He confessed the lawless fires of his youth, as great (he said) as those of Dido or Hercules; but added, that he had no recollection of them, except a joyous one, not for the fault (which does not come to mind in heaven), but for the good which heaven brings out of it. Folco concluded with explaining how Rahab had come into the third Heaven, and with denouncing the indifference of popes and cardinals (those adulterers of the Church) to every thing but accursed money-getting.[9]

In an instant, before he could think about it, Dante was in the fourth Heaven, the sun, the abode of Blessed Doctors of the Church. A band of them came encircling him and his guide, as a halo encircles the moon, singing a song, the beauty of which, like jewels too rich to be exported, was not conveyable by expression to mortal fancy. The spirits composing the band were those of St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Gratian the Benedictine, Pietro Lombardo, Solomon, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Paulus Orosius, Boetius, Isidore, the Venerable Bede, Richard of St. Victor, and Sigebert of Gemblours. St. Thomas was the namer of them to Dante. Their song had paused that he might speak; but when he had done speaking, they began resuming it, one by one, and circling as they moved, like the wheels of church-clocks that sound one after another with a sweet tinkling, when they summon the hearts of the devout to morning prayer.[10]

Again they stopped, and again St. Thomas addressed the poet. He was of the order of St. Dominic; but with generous grace he held up the founder of the Franciscans, with his vow of poverty, as the example of what a pope should be, and reproved the errors of no order but his own. On the other hand, a new circle of doctors of the Church making their appearance, and enclosing the first as rainbow encloses rainbow, rolling round with it in the unison of a two-fold joy, a voice from the new circle attracted the poet's ear, as the pole attracts the needle, and Saint Buonaventura, a Franciscan, opened upon the praises of St. Dominic, the loving minion of Christianity, the holy wrestler,—benign to his friends and cruel to his enemies;[11]—and so confined his reproofs to his own Franciscan order. He then, as St. Thomas had done with the doctors in the inner circle, named those who constituted the outer: to wit, Illuminato, and Agostino, and Hugues of St. Victor, and Petrus Comestor, and Pope John the Twenty-first, Nathan the Prophet, Chrysostom, Anselmo of Canterbury, Donatus who deigned to teach grammar, Raban of Mentz, and Joachim of Calabria. The two circles then varied their movement by wheeling round one another in counter directions; and after they had chanted, not of Bacchus or Apollo, but of Three Persons in One, St. Thomas, who knew Dante's thoughts by intuition, again addressed him, discoursing of mysteries human and divine, exhorting him to be slow in giving assent or denial to propositions without examination, and bidding him warn people in general how they presumed to anticipate the divine judgment as to who should be saved and who not.[12] The spirit of Solomon then related how souls could resume their bodies glorified; and the two circles uttering a rapturous amen, glowed with such intolerable brightness, that the eyes of Beatrice only were able to sustain it. Dante gazed on her with a delight ineffable, and suddenly found himself in the fifth Heaven.

It was the planet Mars, the receptacle of those who had Died Fighting for the Cross. In the middle of its ruddy light stood a cross itself, of enormous dimensions, made of light still greater, and exhibiting, first, in the body of it, the Crucified Presence, glittering all over with indescribable flashes like lightning; and secondly, in addition to and across the Presence, innumerable sparkles of the intensest mixture of white and red, darting to and fro through the whole extent of the crucifix. The movement was like that of motes in a sunbeam. And as a sweet dinning arises from the multitudinous touching of harps and viols, before the ear distinguishes the notes, there issued in like manner from the whole glittering ferment a harmony indistinct but exquisite, which entranced the poet beyond all he had ever felt. He heard even the words, "Arise and conquer," as one who hears and yet hears not.

On a sudden, with a glide like a falling star, there ran down from the right horn of the Cross to the foot of it, one of the lights of this cluster of splendours, distinguishing itself, as it went, like flame in alabaster.

"O flesh of my flesh!" it exclaimed to Dante; "O superabounding Divine Grace! when was the door of Paradise ever twice opened, as it Shall have been to thee?"[13] Dante, in astonishment, turned to Beatrice, and saw such a rapture of delight in her eyes, that he seemed, at that instant, as if his own had touched the depth of his acceptance and of his heaven.[14]

The light resumed its speech, but in words too profound in their meaning for Dante to comprehend. They seemed to be returning thanks to God. This rapturous absorption being ended, the speaker expressed in more human terms his gratitude to Beatrice; and then, after inciting Dante to ask his name, declared himself thus:

"O branch of mine, whom I have long desired to behold, I am the root of thy stock; of him thy great-grandsire, who first brought from his mother the family-name into thy house, and whom thou sawest expiating his sin of pride on the first circle of the mountain. Well it befitteth thee to shorten his long suffering with thy good works. Florence,[15] while yet she was confined within the ancient boundary which still contains the bell that summons her to prayer, abided in peace, for she was chaste and sober. She had no trinkets of chains then, no head-tires, no gaudy sandals, no girdles more worth looking at than the wearers. Fathers were not then afraid of having daughters, for fear they should want dowries too great, and husbands before their time. Families were in no haste to separate; nor had chamberers arisen to shew what enormities they dared to practise. The heights of Rome had not been surpassed by your tower of Uccellatoio, whose fall shall be in proportion to its aspiring. I saw Bellincion Berti walking the streets in a leathern girdle fastened with bone; and his wife come from her looking-glass without a painted face. I saw the Nerlis and the Vecchios contented with the simplest doublets, and their good dames hard at work at their spindles. O happy they! They were sure of burial in their native earth, and none were left desolate by husbands that loved France better than Italy. One kept awake to tend her child in its cradle, lulling it with the household words that had fondled her own infancy. Another, as she sat in the midst of her family, drawing the flax from the distaff, told them stories of Troy, and Fiesole, and Rome. It would have been as great a wonder, then, to see such a woman as Cianghella, or such a man as Lapo Salterello, as it would now be to meet with a Cincinnatus or a Cornelia.[16]

"It was at that peaceful, at that beautiful time," continued the poet's ancestor, "when we all lived in such good faith and fellowship, and in so sweet a place, that the blessed Virgin vouchsafed the first sight of me to the cries of my mother; and there, in your old Baptistery, I became, at once, Christian and Cacciaguida. My brothers were called Moronto and Eliseo. It was my wife that brought thee, from Valdipado, thy family name of Alighieri. I then followed the Emperor Conrad, and he made me a knight for my good service, and I went with him to fight against the wicked Saracen law, whose people usurp the fold that remains lost through the fault of the shepherd. There, by that foul crew, was I delivered from the snares and pollutions of the world; and so, from the martyrdom, came to this peace."

Cacciaguida was silent. But his descendant praying to be told more of his family and of the old state of Florence, the beatified soldier resumed. He would not, however, speak of his own predecessors. He said it would be more becoming to say nothing as to who they were, or the place they came from. All he disclosed was, that his father and mother lived near the gate San Piero.[17] With regard to Florence, he continued, the number of the inhabitants fit to carry arms was at that time not a fifth of its present amount; but then the blood of the whole city was pure. It had not been mixed up with that of Campi, and Certaldo, and Figghine. It ran clear in the veins of the humblest mechanic.

"Oh, how much better would it have been," cried the soul of the old Florentine, "had my countrymen still kept it as it was, and not brought upon themselves the stench of the peasant knave out of Aguglione, and that other from Signa, with his eye to a bribe! Had Rome done its duty to the emperor, and so prevented the factions that have ruined us, Simifonte would have kept its beggarly upstart to itself; the Conti would have stuck to their parish of Acone, and perhaps the Buondelmonti to Valdigrieve. Crude mixtures do as much harm to the body politic as to the natural body; and size is not strength. The blind bull falls with a speedier plunge than the blind lamb. One sword often slashes round about it better than five. Cities themselves perish. See what has become of Luni and of Urbisaglia; and what will soon become of Sinigaglia too, and of Chiusi! And if cities perish, what is to be expected of families? In my time the Ughi, the Catellini, the Filippi, were great names. So were the Alberichi, the Ormanni, and twenty others. The golden sword of knighthood was then to be seen in the house of Galigaio. The Column, Verrey, was then a great thing in the herald's eye. The Galli, the Sacchetti, were great; so was the old trunk of the Calfucci; so was that of the peculators who now blush to hear of a measure of wheat; and the Sizii and the Arrigucci were drawn in pomp to their civic chairs. Oh, how mighty I saw them then, and how low has their pride brought them! Florence in those days deserved her name. She flourished indeed; and the balls of gold were ever at the top of the flower.[18] And now the descendants of these men sit in priestly stalls and grow fat. The over-weening Adimari, who are such dragons when their foes run, and such lambs when they turn, were then of note so little, that Albertino Donato was angry with Bellincion, his father-in-law, for making him brother to one of their females. On the other hand, thy foes, the Amidei, the origin of all thy tears through the just anger which has slain the happiness of thy life, were honoured in those days; and the honour was par taken by their friends. O Buondelmonte! why didst thou break thy troth to thy first love, and become wedded to another? Many who are now miserable would have been happy, had God given thee to the river Ema, when it rose against thy first coming to Florence. But the Arno had swept our Palladium from its bridge, and Florence was to be the victim on its altar."[19]

Cacciaguida was again silent; but his descendant begged him to speak yet a little more. He had heard, as he came through the nether regions, alarming intimations of the ill fortune that awaited him, and he was anxious to know, from so high and certain an authority, what it would really be.

Cacciaguida said, "As Hippolytus was forced to depart from Athens by the wiles of his cruel step-dame, so must even thou depart out of Florence. Such is the wish, such this very moment the plot, and soon will it be the deed, of those, the business of whose lives is to make a traffic of Christ with Rome. Thou shalt quit every thing that is dearest to thee in the world. That is the first arrow shot from the bow of exile. Thou shalt experience how salt is the taste of bread eaten at the expense of others; how hard is the going up and down others' stairs. But what shall most bow thee down, is the worthless and disgusting company with whom thy lot must be partaken; for they shall all turn against thee, the whole mad, heartless, and ungrateful set. Nevertheless, it shall not be long first, before themselves, and not thou, shall have cause to hang down their heads for shame. The brutishness of all they do, will shew how well it became thee to be of no party, but the party of thyself.[20]

"Thy first refuge thou shalt owe to the courtesy of the great Lombard, who bears the Ladder charged with the Holy Bird.[21] So benignly shall he regard thee, that in the matter of asking and receiving, the customary order of things shall be reversed between you two, and the gift anticipate the request. With him thou shalt behold the mortal, born under so strong an influence of this our star, that the nations shall take note of him. They are not aware of him yet, by reason of his tender age; but ere the Gascon practise on the great Henry, sparkles of his worth shall break forth in his contempt of money and of ease; and when his munificence appears in all its lustre, his very enemies shall not be able to hold their tongues for admiration.[22] Look thou to this second benefactor also; for many a change of the lots of people shall he make, both rich and poor; and do thou bear in mind, but repeat not, what further I shall now tell thee of thy life." Here the spirit, says the poet, foretold things which afterwards appeared incredible to their very beholders;—and then added: "Such, my son, is the heart and mystery of the things thou hast desired to learn. The snares will shortly gather about thee; but wish not to change places with the contrivers; for thy days will outlast those of their retribution."

Again was the spirit silent; and yet again once more did his descendant question him, anxious to have the advice of one that saw so far, and that spoke the truth so purely, and loved him so well.

"Too plainly, my father," said Dante, "do I see the time coming, when a blow is to be struck me, heaviest ever to the man that is not true to himself. For which reason it is fit that I so far arm myself beforehand, that in losing the spot dearest to me on earth, I do not let my verses deprive me of every other refuge. Now I have been down below through the region whose grief is without end; and I have scaled the mountain from the top of which I was lifted by my lady's eyes; and I have come thus far through heaven, from luminary to luminary; and in the course of this my pilgrimage I have heard things which, if I tell again, may bitterly disrelish with many. Yet, on the other hand, if I prove but a timid friend to truth, I fear I shall not survive with the generations by whom the present times will be called times of old."

The light that enclosed the treasure which its descendant had found in heaven, first flashed at this speech like a golden mirror against the sun, and then it replied thus:

"Let the consciences blush at thy words that have reason to blush. Do thou, far from shadow of misrepresentation, make manifest all which thou hast seen, and let the sore places be galled that deserve it. Thy bitter truths shall carry with them vital nourishment—thy voice, as the wind does, shall smite loudest the loftiest summits; and no little shall that redound to thy praise. It is for this reason that, in all thy journey, thou hast been shewn none but spirits of note, since little heed would have been taken of such as excite doubt by their obscurity."

The spirit of Cacciaguida now relapsed into the silent joy of its reflections, and the poet was standing absorbed in the mingled feelings of his own, when Beatrice said to him, "Change the current of thy thoughts. Consider how near I am in heaven to one that repayeth every wrong."

Dante turned at the sound of this comfort, and felt no longer any other wish than to look upon her eyes; but she said, with a smile, "Turn thee round again, and attend. I am not thy only Paradise." And Dante again turned, and saw his ancestor prepared to say more.

Cacciaguida bade him look again on the Cross, and he should see various spirits, as he named them, flash over it like lightning; and they did so. That of Joshua, which was first mentioned, darted along the Cross in a stream. The light of Judas Maccabeus went spinning, as if joy had scourged it.[23] Charlemagne and Orlando swept away together, pursued by the poet's eyes. Guglielmo[24] followed, and Rinaldo, and Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert Guiscard of Naples; and the light of Cacciaguida himself darted back to its place, and, uttering another sort of voice, began shewing how sweet a singer he too was amidst the glittering choir.

Dante turned to share the joy with Beatrice, and, by the lovely paling of her cheek, like a maiden's when it delivers itself of the burden of a blush,[25] knew that he was in another and whiter star. It was the planet Jupiter, the abode of blessed Administrators of Justice.

Here he beheld troops of dazzling essences, warbling as they flew, and shaping their flights hither and thither, like birds when they rise from the banks of rivers, and rejoice with one another in new-found pasture. But the figures into which the flights were shaped were of a more special sort, being mystical compositions of letters of the alphabet, now a D, now an I, now an L, and so on, till the poet observed that they completed the whole text of Scripture, which says, Diligite justitiam, qui judicatis terram—(Love righteousness, ye that be judges of the earth). The last letter, M, they did not decompose like the rest, but kept it entire for a while, and glowed so deeply within it, that the silvery orb thereabout seemed burning with gold. Other lights, with a song of rapture, then descended like a crown of lilies, on the top, of the letter; and then, from the body of it, rose thousands of sparks, as from a shaken firebrand, and, gradually expanding into the form of an eagle, the lights which had descended like lilies distributed themselves over the whole bird, encrusting it with rubies flashing in the sun.

But what, says the poet, was never yet heard of, written, or imagined,—the beak of the eagle spoke! It uttered many minds in one voice, just as one heat is given out by many embers; and proclaimed itself to have been thus exalted, because it united justice and mercy while on earth.

Dante addressed this splendid phenomenon, and prayed it to ease his mind of the perplexities of its worldly reason respecting the Divine nature and government, and the exclusion from heaven of goodness itself, unless within the Christian pale.

The celestial bird, rousing itself into motion with delight, like a falcon in the conscious energy of its will and beauty, when, upon being set free from its hood, it glances above it into the air, and claps its self-congratulating wings, answered nevertheless somewhat disdainfully, that it was impossible for man, in his mortal state, to comprehend such things; and that the astonishment he feels at them, though doubtless it would be excusable under other circumstances, must rest satisfied with the affirmations of Scripture.

The bird then bent over its questioner, as a stork does over the nestling newly fed when it looks up at her, and then wheeling round, and renewing its warble, concluded it with saying, "As my notes are to thee that understandest them not, so are the judgments of the Eternal to thine earthly brethren. None ever yet ascended into these heavenly regions that did not believe in Christ, either after he was crucified or before it. Yet many, who call Christ! Christ! shall at the last day be found less near to him than such as knew him not. What shall the kings of Islam say to your Christian kings, when they see the book of judgment opened, and hear all that is set down in it to their dishonour? In that book shall be read the desolation which Albert will inflict on Bohemia:[26]—in that book, the woes inflicted on Paris by that adulterator of his kingdom's money, who shall die by the hog's teeth:—in that book, the ambition which makes such mad fools of the Scotch and English kings, that they cannot keep within their bounds:—in that book, the luxury of the Spaniard, and the effeminate life of the Bohemian, who neither knows nor cares for any thing worthy:—in that book, the lame wretch of Jerusalem, whose value will be expressed by a unit, and his worthlessness by a million:—in that book, the avarice and cowardice of the warder of the Isle of Fire, in which old Anchises died; and that the record may answer the better to his abundant littleness, the writing shall be in short-hand; and his uncle's and his brother's filthy doings shall be read in that book—they who have made such rottenness of a good old house and two diadems; and there also shall the Portuguese and the Norwegian be known for what they are, and the coiner of Dalmatia, who beheld with such covetous eyes the Venetian ducat. O blessed Hungary, if thou wouldst resolve to endure no longer!—O blessed Navarre, if thou wouldst but keep out the Frenchman with thy mountain walls! May the cries and groans of Nicosia and Famagosta be an earnest of those happier days, proclaiming as they do the vile habits of the beast, who keeps so close in the path of the herd his brethren."

The blessed bird for a moment was silent; but as, at the going down of the sun, the heavens are darkened, and then break forth into innumerable stars which the sun lights up,[27] so the splendours within the figure of the bird suddenly became more splendid, and broke forth into songs too beautiful for mortal to remember.

O dulcet love, that dost shew thee forth in smiles, how ardent was thy manifestation in the lustrous sparkles which arose out of the mere thoughts of those pious hearts!

After the gems in that glittering figure had ceased chiming their angelic songs, the poet seemed to hear the murmur of a river which comes falling from rock to rock, and chews, by the fulness of its tone, the abundance of its mountain spring; and as the sound of the guitar is modulated on the neck of it, and the breath of the pipe is accordant to the spiracle from which it issues, so the murmuring within the eagle suddenly took voice, and, rising through the neck, again issued forth in words. The bird now bade the poet fix his attention on its eye; because, of all the fires that composed its figure, those that sparkled in the eye were the noblest. The spirit (it said) which Dante beheld in the pupil was that of the royal singer who danced before the ark, now enjoying the reward of his superiority to vulgar discernment. Of the five spirits that composed the eyebrow, the one nearest the beak was Trajan, now experienced above all others in the knowledge of what it costs not to follow Christ, by reason of his having been in hell before he was translated to heaven. Next to Trajan was Hezekiah, whose penitence delayed for him the hour of his death: next Hezekiah, Constantine, though, in letting the pope become a prince instead of a pastor, he had unwittingly brought destruction on the world: next Constantine, William the Good of Sicily, whose death is not more lamented than the lives of those who contest his crown and lastly, next William, Riphaeus the Trojan. "What erring mortal," cried the bird, "would believe it possible to find Riphaeus the Trojan among the blest?—but so it is; and he now knows more respecting the divine grace than mortals do, though even he discerns it not to the depth."[28]

The bird again relapsing into silence, appeared to repose on the happiness of its thoughts, like the lark which, after quivering and expatiating through all its airy warble, becomes mute and content, having satisfied its soul to the last drop of its sweetness.[29]

But again Dante could not help speaking, being astonished to find Pagans in Heaven; and once more the celestial figure indulged his curiosity. It told him that Trajan had been delivered from hell, for his love of justice, by the prayers of St. Gregory; and that Riphaeus, for the same reason, had been gifted with a prophetic knowledge of the Redemption; and then it ended with a rapture on the hidden mysteries of Predestination, and on the joy of ignorance itself when submitting to the divine will. The two blessed spirits, meanwhile, whom the bird mentioned, like the fingers of sweet lutenist to sweet singer, when they quiver to his warble as it goes, manifested the delight they experienced by movements of accord simultaneous as the twinkling of two eyes.[30]

Dante turned to receive his own final delight from the eyes of Beatrice, and he found it, though the customary smile on her face was no longer there. She told him that her beauty increased with such intensity at every fresh ascent among the stars, that he would no longer have been able to bear the smile; and they were now in the seventh Heaven, or the planet Saturn, the retreat of those who had passed their lives in Holy Contemplation.

In this crystal sphere, called after the name of the monarch who reigned over the Age of Innocence, Dante looked up, and beheld a ladder, the hue of which was like gold when the sun glisters it, and the height so great that its top was out of sight; and down the steps of this ladder he saw coming such multitudes of shining spirits, that it seemed as if all the lights of heaven must have been there poured forth; but not a sound was in the whole splendour. It was spared to the poet for the same reason that he missed the smile of Beatrice. When they came to a certain step in the ladder, some of the spirits flew off it in circles or other careers, like rooks when they issue from their trees in the morning to dry their feathers in the sun, part of them going away without returning, others returning to the point they left, and others contenting themselves with flying round about it. One of them came so near Dante and Beatrice, and brightened with such ardour, that the poet saw it was done in affection towards them, and begged the loving spirit to tell them who it was.

"Between the two coasts of Italy," said the spirit, "and not far from thine own country, the stony mountains ascend into a ridge so lofty that the thunder rolls beneath it. Catria is its name. Beneath it is a consecrated cell; and in that cell I was called Pietro Damiano.[31] I so devoted myself to the service of God, that with no other sustenance than the juice of the olive, I forgot both heat and cold, happy in heavenly meditation. That cloister made abundant returns in its season to these granaries of the Lord; but so idle has it become now, that it is fit the world should know its barrenness. The days of my mortal life were drawing to a close, when I was besought and drawn into wearing the hat which descends every day from bad head to worse.[32] St. Peter and St. Paul came lean and barefoot, getting their bread where they could; but pastors now-a-days must be lifted from the ground, and have ushers going before them, and train-bearers behind them, and ride upon palfreys covered with their spreading mantles, so that two beasts go under one skin.[33] O Lord, how long!"

At these words Dante saw more splendours come pouring down the ladder, and wheel round and round, and become at every wheel more beautiful. The whole dazzling body then gathered round the indignant speaker, and shouted something in a voice so tremendous, that the poet could liken it to nothing on earth. The thunder was so overwhelming, that he did not even hear what they said.[34]

Pallid and stunned, he turned in affright to Beatrice, who comforted him as a mother comforts a child that wants breath to speak. The shout was prophetic of the vengeance about to overtake the Church. Beatrice then directed hisattention to a multitude of small orbs, which increased one another's beauty by interchanging their splendours. They enclosed the spirits of those who most combined meditation with love. One of them was Saint Benedict; and others Macarius and Romoaldo.[35] The light of St. Benedict issued forth from among its companions to address the poet; and after explaining how its occupant was unable farther to disclose himself, inveighed against the degeneracy of the religious orders. It then rejoined its fellows, and the whole company clustering into one meteor, swept aloft like a whirlwind. Beatrice beckoned the poet to ascend after them. He did so, gifted with the usual virtue by her eyes; and found himself in the twin light of the Gemini, the constellation that presided over his birth. He was now in the region of the fixed stars.

"Thou art now," said his guide, "so near the summit of thy prayers, that it behoves thee to take a last look at things below thee, and see how little they should account in thine eyes." Dante turned his eyes downwards through all the seven spheres, and saw the earth so diminutive, that he smiled at its miserable appearance. Wisest, thought he, is the man that esteems it least; and truly worthy he that sets his thoughts on the world to come. He now saw the moon without those spots in it which made him formerly attribute the variation to dense and rare. He sustained the brightness of the face of the sun, and discerned all the signs and motions and relative distances of the planets. Finally, he saw, as he rolled round with the sphere in which he stood, and by virtue of his gifted sight, the petty arena, from hill to harbour, which filled his countrymen with such ferocious ambition; and then he turned his eyes to the sweet eyes beside him.[36]

Beatrice stood wrapt in attention, looking earnestly towards the south, as if she expected some appearance. She resembled the bird that sits among the dewy leaves in the darkness of night, yearning for the coming of the morning, that she may again behold her young, and have light by which to seek the food, that renders her fatigue for them a joy. So stood Beatrice, looking; which caused Dante to watch in the same direction, with the feelings of one that is already possessed of some new delight by the assuredness of his expectation.[37]

The quarter on which they were gazing soon became brighter and brighter, and Beatrice exclaimed, "Behold the armies of the triumph of Christ!" Her face appeared all fire, and her eyes so full of love, that the poet could find no words to express them.

As the moon, when the depths of heaven are serene with her fulness, looks abroad smiling among her eternal handmaids the stars, that paint every gulf of the great hollow with beauty;[38] so brightest, above myriads of splendours around it, appeared a sun which gave radiance to them all, even as our earthly sun gives light to the constellations.

"O Beatrice!" exclaimed Dante, overpowered, "sweet and beloved guide!"

"Overwhelming," said Beatrice, "is the virtue with which nothing can compare. What thou hast seen is the Wisdom and the Power, by whom the path between heaven and earth has been laid open."[39]

Dante's soul—like the fire which falls to earth out of the swollen thunder-cloud, instead of rising according to the wont of fire—had grown too great for his still mortal nature; and he could afterwards find within him no memory of what it did.

"Open thine eyes," said Beatrice, "and see me now indeed. Thou hast beheld things that empower thee to sustain my smiling."

Dante, while doing as he was desired, felt like one who has suddenly waked up from a dream, and endeavours in vain to recollect it.

"Never," said he, "can that moment be erased from the book of the past. If all the tongues were granted me that were fed with the richest milk of Polyhymnia and her sisters, they could not express one thousandth part of the beauty of that divine smile, or of the thorough perfection which it made of the whole of her divine countenance."

But Beatrice said, "Why dost thou so enamour thee of this face, and lose the sight of the beautiful guide, blossoming beneath the beams of Christ? Behold the rose, in which the Word was made flesh.[40] Behold the lilies, by whose odour the way of life is tracked."

Dante looked, and gave battle to the sight with his weak eyes.[41]

As flowers on a cloudy day in a meadow are suddenly lit up by a gleam of sunshine, he beheld multitudes of splendours effulgent with beaming rays that smote on them from above, though he could not discern the source of the effulgence. He had invoked the name of the Virgin when he looked; and the gracious fountain of the light had drawn itself higher up within the heaven, to accommodate the radiance to his faculties. He then beheld the Virgin herself bodily present,—her who is fairest now in heaven, as she was on earth; and while his eyes were being painted with her beauty,[42] there fell on a sudden a seraphic light from heaven, which, spinning into a circle as it came, formed a diadem round her head, still spinning, and warbling as it spun. The sweetest melody that ever drew the soul to it on earth would have seemed like the splitting of a thunder-cloud, compared with the music that sung around the head of that jewel of Paradise.[43]

"I am Angelic Love," said the light, "and I spin for joy of the womb in which our Hope abided; and ever, O Lady of Heaven, must I thus attend thee, as long as thou art pleased to attend thy Son, journeying in his loving-kindness from sphere to sphere."

All the other splendours now resounded the name of Mary. The Virgin began ascending to pursue the path of her Son; and Dante, unable to endure her beauty as it rose, turned his eyes to the angelical callers on the name of Mary, who remained yearning after her with their hands outstretched, as a babe yearns after the bosom withdrawn from his lips. Then rising after her themselves, they halted ere they went out of sight, and sung "O Queen of Heaven" so sweetly, that the delight never quitted the air.

A flame now approached and thrice encircled Beatrice, singing all the while so divinely, that the poet could retain no idea expressive of its sweetness. Mortal imagination cannot unfold such wonder. It was Saint Peter, whom she had besought to come down from his higher sphere, in order to catechise and discourse with her companion on the subject of faith.

The catechising and the discourse ensued, and were concluded by the Apostle's giving the poet the benediction, and encircling his forehead thrice with his holy light. "So well," says Dante, "was he pleased with my answers."[44]

"If ever," continued the Florentine, "the sacred poem to which heaven and earth have set their hands, and which for years past has wasted my flesh in the writing, shall prevail against the cruelty that shut me out of the sweet fold in which I slept like a lamb, wishing harm to none but the wolves that beset it,—with another voice, and in another guise than now, will I return, a poet, and standing by the fount of my baptism, assume the crown that belongs to me; for I there first entered on the faith which gives souls to God; and for that faith did Peter thus encircle my forehead."[45]

A flame enclosing Saint James now succeeded to that of Saint Peter, and after greeting his predecessor as doves greet one another, murmuring and moving round, proceeded to examine the mortal visitant on the subject of Hope. The examination was closed amidst resounding anthems of," Let their hope be in thee;"[46] and a third apostolic flame ensued, enclosing Saint John, who completed the catechism with the topic of Charity. Dante acquitted himself with skill throughout; the spheres resounded with songs of "Holy, holy," Beatrice joining in the warble; and the poet suddenly found Adam beside him. The parent of the human race knew by intuition what his descendant wished to learn of him; and manifesting his assent before he spoke, as an animal sometimes does by movements and quiverings of the flesh within its coat, corresponding with its good-will,[47] told him, that his fall was not owing to the fruit which he tasted, but to the violation of the injunction not to taste it; that he remained in the Limbo on hell-borders upwards of five thousand years; and that the language he spoke had become obsolete before the days of Nimrod.

The gentle fire of Saint Peter now began to assume an awful brightness, such as the planet Jupiter might assume, if Mars and it were birds, and exchanged the colour of their plumage.[48] Silence fell upon the celestial choristers; and the Apostle spoke thus:

"Wonder not if thou seest me change colour. Thou wilt see, while I speak, all which is round about us colour in like manner. He who usurps my place on earth,—my place, I say,—ay, mine,—which before God is now vacant,—has converted the city in which my dust lies buried into a common-sewer of filth and blood; so that the fiend who fell from hence rejoices himself down there."

At these words of the Apostle the whole face of Heaven was covered with a blush, red as dawn or sunset; and Beatrice changed colour, like a maiden that shrinks in alarm from the report of blame in another. The eclipse was like that which took place when the Supreme died upon the Cross.

Saint Peter resumed with a voice not less awfully changed than his appearance:

"Not for the purpose of being sold for money was the spouse of Christ fed and nourished with my blood, and with the blood of Linus,—the blood of Cletus. Sextus did not bleed for it, nor Pius, nor Callixtus, nor Urban; men, for whose deaths all Christendom wept. They died that souls might be innocent and go to Heaven. Never was it intention of ours, that the sitters in the holy chair should divide one half of Christendom against the other; should turn my keys into ensigns of war against the faithful; and stamp my very image upon mercenary and lying documents, which make me, here in Heaven, blush and turn cold to think of. Arm of God, why sleepest thou? Men out of Gascony and Cahors are even now making ready to drink our blood. O lofty beginning, to what vile conclusion must thou come! But the high Providence, which made Scipio the sustainer of the Roman sovereignty of the world, will fail not its timely succour. And thou, my son, that for weight of thy mortal clothing must again descend to earth, see thou that thou openest thy mouth, and hidest not from others what has not been hidden from thyself."

As white and thick as the snows go streaming athwart the air when the sun is in Capricorn, so the angelical spirits that had been gathered in the air of Saturn streamed away after the Apostle, as he turned with the other saints to depart; and the eyes of Dante followed them till they became viewless.[49]

The divine eyes of Beatrice recalled him to herself; and at the same instant the two companions found themselves in the ninth Heaven or Primum Mobile, the last of the material Heavens, and the mover of those beneath it.

[Footnote 49: In spite of the unheavenly nature of invective, of something of a lurking conceit in the making an eclipse out of a blush, and in the positive bathos, and I fear almost indecent irrelevancy of the introduction of Beatrice at all on such an occasion, much more under the feeble aspect of one young lady blushing for another,—this scene altogether is a very grand one; and the violence itself of the holy invective awful.

Here he had a glimpse of the divine essence, in likeness of a point of inconceivably sharp brightness enringed with the angelic hierarchies. All earth, and heaven, and nature, hung from it. Beatrice explained many mysteries to him connected with that sight; and then vehemently denounced the false and foolish teachers that quit the authority of the Bible for speculations of their own, and degrade the preaching of the gospel with ribald jests, and legends of Saint Anthony and his pig.[50]

Returning, however, to more celestial thoughts, her face became so full of beauty, that Dante declares he must cease to endeavour to speak of it, and that he doubts whether the sight can ever be thoroughly enjoyed by any save its Maker.[51] Her look carried him upward as before, and he was now in the Empyrean, or region of Pure Light;—of light made of intellect full of love; love of truth, full of joy; joy, transcendant above all sweetness.

Streams of living radiance came rushing and flashing round about him, swathing him with light, as the lightning sometimes enwraps and dashes against the blinded eyes; but the light was love here, and instead of injuring, gave new power to the object it embraced.

With this new infusion of strength into his organs of vision, Dante looked, and saw a vast flood of it, effulgent with flashing splendours, and pouring down like a river between banks painted with the loveliest flowers. Fiery living sparkles arose from it on all sides, and pitched themselves into the cups of the flowers, where they remained awhile, like rubies set in gold; till inebriated with the odours, they recast themselves into the bosom of the flood; and ever as one returned, another leaped forth. Beatrice bade him dip his eyes into the light, that he might obtain power to see deeper into its nature; for the river, and the jewels that sprang out of it to and fro, and the laughing flowers on the banks, were themselves but shadows of the truth which they included; not, indeed, in their essential selves, but inasmuch as without further assistance the beholder's eyes could not see them as they were. Dante rushed to the stream as eagerly as the lips of an infant to the breast, when it has slept beyond its time; and his eyelashes had no sooner touched it, than the length of the river became a breadth and a circle, and its real nature lay unveiled before him, like a face when a mask is taken off. It was the whole two combined courts of Heaven, the angelical and the human, in circumference larger than would hold the sun, and all blazing beneath a light, which was reflected downwards in its turn upon the sphere of the Primum Mobile below it, the mover of the universe. And as a green cliff by the water's side seems to delight in seeing itself reflected from head to foot with all its verdure and its flowers; so, round about on all sides, upon thousands of thrones, the blessed spirits that once lived on earth sat beholding themselves in the light. And yet even all these together formed but the lowest part of the spectacle, which ascended above them, tier upon tier, in the manner of an immeasurable rose,—all dilating itself, doubling still and doubling, and all odorous with the praises of an ever-vernal sun. Into the base of it, as into the yellow of the flower, with a dumb glance that yet promised to speak, Beatrice drew forward her companion, and said, "Behold the innumerable assemblage of the white garments! Behold our city, how large its circuit! Behold our seats, which are, nevertheless, so full, that few comers are wanted to fill them! On that lofty one at which thou art looking, surmounted with the crown, and which shall be occupied before thou joinest this bridal feast, shall be seated the soul of the great Henry, who would fain set Italy right before she is prepared for it.[52] The blind waywardness of which ye are sick renders ye like the bantling who, while he is dying of hunger, kicks away his nurse. And Rome is governed by one that cannot walk in the same path with such a man, whatever be the road.[53] But God will not long endure him. He will be thrust down into the pit with Simon Magus; and his feet, when he arrives there, will thrust down the man of Alagna still lower.[54]"

In the form, then, of a white rose the blessed multitude of human souls lay manifest before the eyes of the poet; and now he observed, that the winged portion of the blest, the angels, who fly up with their wings nearer to Him that fills them with love, came to and fro upon the rose like bees; now descending into its bosom, now streaming back to the source of their affection. Their faces were all fire, their wings golden, their garments whiter than snow. Whenever they descended on the flower, they went from fold to fold, fanning their loins, and communicating the peace and ardour which they gathered as they gave. Dante beheld all,—every flight and action of the whole winged multitude,—without let or shadow; for he stood in the region of light itself, and light has no obstacle where it is deservedly vouchsafed.

"Oh," cries the poet, "if the barbarians that came from the north stood dumb with amazement to behold the magnificence of Rome, thinking they saw unearthly greatness in the Lateran, what must I have thought, who had thus come from human to divine, from time to eternity, from the people of Florence to beings just and sane?"

Dante stood, without a wish either to speak or to hear. He felt like a pilgrim who has arrived within the place of his devotion, and who looks round about him, hoping some day to relate what he sees. He gazed upwards and downwards, and on every side round about, and saw movements graceful with every truth of innocence, and faces full of loving persuasion, rich in their own smiles and in the light of the smiles of others.

He turned to Beatrice, but she was gone;—gone, as a messenger from herself told him, to resume her seat in the blessed rose, which the messenger accordingly pointed out. She sat in the third circle from the top, as far from Dante as the bottom of the sea is from the region of thunder; and yet he saw her as plainly as if she had been close at hand. He addressed words to her of thanks for all she had done for him, and a hope for her assistance after death; and she looked down at him and smiled.

The messenger was St. Bernard. He bade the poet lift his eyes higher; and Dante beheld the Virgin Mary sitting above the rose, in the centre of an intense redness of light, like another dawn. Thousands of angels were hanging buoyant around her, each having its own distinct splendour and adornment, and all were singing, and expressing heavenly mirth; and she smiled on them with such loveliness, that joy was in the eyes of all the blessed.

At Mary's feet was sitting Eve, beautiful—she that opened the wound which Mary closed; and at the feet of Eve was Rachel, with Beatrice; and at the feet of Rachel was Sarah, and then Judith, then Rebecca, then Ruth, ancestress of him out of whose penitence came the song of the Miserere;[55] and so other Hebrew women, down all the gradations of the flower, dividing, by the line which they made, the Christians who lived before Christ from those who lived after; a line which, on the opposite side of the rose, was answered by a similar one of Founders of the Church, at the top of whom was John the Baptist. The rose also was divided horizontally by a step which projected beyond the others, and underneath which, known by the childishness of their looks and voices, were the souls of such as were too young to have attained Heaven by assistance of good works.

St. Bernard then directed his companion to look again at the Virgin, and gather from her countenance the power of beholding the face of Christ as God. Her aspect was flooded with gladness from the spirits around her; while the angel who had descended to her on earth now hailed her above with "Ave, Maria!" singing till the whole host of Heaven joined in the song. St. Bernard then prayed to her for help to his companion's eyesight. Beatrice, with others of the blest, was seen joining in the prayer, their hands stretched upwards; and the Virgin, after benignly looking on the petitioners, gazed upwards herself, shewing the way with her own eyes to the still greater vision. Dante then looked also, and beheld what he had no words to speak, or memory to endure.

He awoke as from a dream, retaining only a sense of sweetness that ever trickled to his heart.

Earnestly praying afterwards, however, that grace might be so far vouchsafed to a portion of his recollection, as to enable him to convey to his fellow-creatures one smallest glimpse of the glory of what he saw, his ardour was so emboldened by help of the very mystery at whose sight he must have perished had he faltered, that his eyes, unblasted, attained to a perception of the Sum of Infinitude. He beheld, concentrated in one spot—written in one volume of Love—all which is diffused, and can become the subject of thought and study throughout the universe—all substance and accident and mode—all so compounded that they become one light. He thought he beheld at one and the same time the oneness of this knot, and the universality of all which it implies; because, when it came to his recollection, his heart dilated, and in the course of one moment he felt ages of impatience to speak of it.

But thoughts as well as words failed him; and though ever afterwards he could no more cease to yearn towards it, than he could take defect for completion, or separate the idea of happiness from the wish to attain it, still the utmost he could say of what he remembered would fall as short of right speech as the sounds of an infant's tongue while it is murmuring over the nipple; for the more he had looked at that light, the more he found in it to amaze him, so that his brain toiled with the succession of the astonishments. He saw, in the deep but clear self-subsistence, three circles of three different colours of the same breadth, one of them reflecting one of the others as rainbow does rainbow, and the third consisting of a fire equally breathing from both.[56]

O eternal Light! thou that dwellest in thyself alone, thou alone understandest thyself, and art by thyself understood, and, so understanding, thou laughest at thyself, and lovest.

The second, or reflected circle, as it went round, seemed to be painted by its own colours with the likeness of a human face.[57]

But how this was done, or how the beholder was to express it, threw his mind into the same state of bewilderment as the mathematician experiences when he vainly pores over the circle to discover the principle by which he is to square it.

He did, however, in a manner discern it. A flash of light was vouchsafed him for the purpose; but the light left him no power to impart the discernment; nor did he feel any longer impatient for the gift. Desire became absorbed in submission, moving in as smooth unison as the particles of a wheel, with the Love that is the mover of the sun and the stars.[58]

[Footnote 1: A curious and happy image.

"Tornan de' nostri visi le postille Debili si, che perla in bianca fronte Non vien men tosto a le nostre pupille: Tali vid' io piu facce a parlar pronte." ]

[Footnote 2: "Rodolfo da Tossignano, Hist. Seraph. Relig. P. i. p. 138, as cited by Lombardi, relates the following legend of Piccarda: 'Her brother Corso, inflamed with rage against his virgin sister, having joined with him Farinata, an infamous assassin, and twelve other abandoned ruffians, entered the monastery by a ladder, and carried away his sister forcibly to his own house; and then, tearing off her religious habit, compelled her to go in a secular garment to her nuptials. Before the spouse of Christ came together with her new husband, she knelt down before a crucifix, and recommended her virginity to Christ. Soon after, her whole body was smitten with leprosy, so as to strike grief and horror into the beholders; and thus, in a few days, through the divine disposal, she passed with a palm of virginity to the Lord. Perhaps (adds the worthy Franciscan), our poet not being able to certify himself entirely of this occurrence, has chosen to pass it over discreetly, by making Piccarda say, 'God knows how, after that, my life was framed.'"—Cary, ut sup. p. 137.]

[Footnote 3: A lovely simile indeed.

"Tanto lieta Ch' arder parea d'amor nel primo foco."

[Footnote 4: Costanza, daughter of Ruggieri, king of Sicily, thus taken out of the monastery, was mother to the Emperor Frederick the Second. "She was fifty years old or more at the time" (says Mr. Cary, quoting from Muratori and others); "and because it was not credited that she could have a child at that age, she was delivered in a pavilion; and it was given out, that any lady who pleased was at liberty to see her. Many came and saw her, and the suspicion ceased."—Translation of Dante, ut sup. p. 137.]

[Footnote 5: Probably an allusion to Dante's own wanderings.]

[Footnote 6:

"Hosanna Sanctus Deus Sabaoth Superillustrans claritate tua Felices ignes horum Malahoth." Malahoth; Hebrew, kingdoms.]

[Footnote 7: The epithet is not too strong, as will be seen by the nature of the inhabitants.]

[Footnote 8: Charles Martel, son of the king of Naples and Sicily, and crowned king of Hungary, seems to have become acquainted with Dante during the poet's youth, when the prince met his royal father in the city of Florence. He was brother of Robert, who succeeded the father, and who was the friend of Petrarch.

"The adventures of Cunizza, overcome by the influence of her star," says Cary, "are related by the chronicler Rolandino of Padua, lib. i. cap. 3, in Muratori, Rer. Ital. Script. tom. viii. p. 173. She eloped from her first husband, Richard of St. Boniface, in the company of Sordello (see Purg. canto vi. and vii.); with whom she is supposed to have cohabited before her marriage: then lived with a soldier of Trevigi, whose wife was living at the same time in the same city; and, on his being murdered by her brother the tyrant, was by her brother married to a nobleman of Braganzo: lastly, when he also had fallen by the same hand, she, after her brother's death, was again wedded in Verona."—Translation of Dante, ut sup. p. 147. See what Foscolo says of her in the Discorso sul Testo, p. 329.

Folco, the gallant Troubadour, here placed between Cunizza and Rahab, is no other than Folques, bishop of Thoulouse, the persecutor of the Albigenses. It is of him the brutal anecdote is related, that, being asked, during an indiscriminate attack on that people, how the orthodox and heterodox were to be distinguished, he said, "Kill all: God will know his own."

For Rahab, see Joshua, chap. ii. and vi.; and Hebrews. xi. 31]

[Footnote 9: The reader need not be required to attend to the extraordinary theological disclosures in the whole of the preceding passage, nor yet to consider how much more they disclose, than theology or the poet might have desired.]

[Footnote 10: These fifteen personages are chiefly theologians and schoolmen, whose names and obsolete writings are, for the most part, no longer worth mention. The same may be said of the band that comes after them.

Dante should not have set them dancing. It is impossible (every respectfulness of endeavour notwithstanding) to maintain the gravity of one's imagination at the thought of a set of doctors of the Church, Venerable Bede included, wheeling about in giddy rapture like so many dancing dervises, and keeping time to their ecstatic anilities with voices tinkling like church-clocks. You may invest them with as much light or other blessed indistinctness as you please; the beards and the old ages will break through. In vain theologians may tell us that our imaginations are not exalted enough. The answer (if such a charge must be gravely met) is, that Dante's whole Heaven itself is not exalted enough, how ever wonderful and beautiful in parts. The schools, and the forms of Catholic worship, held even his imagination down. There is more heaven in one placid idea of love than in all these dances and tinklings.]

[Footnote 11:

"Benigno a' suoi, ed a' nimici crudo."

Cruel indeed;—the founder of the Inquisition! The "loving minion" is Mr. Cary's excellent translation of "amoroso drudo." But what a minion, and how loving! With fire and sword and devilry, and no wish (of course) to thrust his own will and pleasure, and bad arguments, down other people's throats! St. Dominic was a Spaniard. So was Borgia. So was Philip the Second. There seems to have been an inherent semi-barbarism in the character of Spain, which it has never got rid of to this day. If it were not for Cervantes, and some modern patriots, it would hardly appear to belong to the right European community. Even Lope de Vega was an inquisitor; and Mendoza, the entertaining author of Lazarillo de Tormes, a cruel statesman. Cervantes, however, is enough to sweeten a whole peninsula.]

[Footnote 12: What a pity the reporter of this advice had not humility enough to apply it to himself!]

[Footnote 13:

"O sanguis meus, o superinfusa Gratia Dei, sicut tibi, cui Bis unquam coeli janua reclusa?"

The spirit says this in Latin, as if to veil the compliment to the poet in "the obscurity of a learned language." And in truth it is a little strong.]

[Footnote 14:

"Che dentro a gli occhi suoi ardeva un riso Tal, ch' io pensai co' miei toccar lo fondo De la mia grazia e del mio Paradiso."

That is, says Lombardi, "I thought my eyes could not possibly be more favoured and imparadised" (Pensai che non potessero gli occhi miei essere graziati ed imparadisati maggiormente)—Variorum edition of Dante, Padua, 1822, vol. iii. p. 373.]

[Footnote 15: Here ensues the famous description of those earlier times in Florence, which Dante eulogises at the expense of his own. See the original passage, with another version, in the Appendix.]

[Footnote 16: Bellincion Berti was a noble Florentine, of the house of the Ravignani. Cianghella is said to have been an abandoned woman, of manners as shameless as her morals. Lapo Salterelli, one of the co-exiles of Dante, and specially hated by him, was a personage who appears to have exhibited the rare combination of judge and fop. An old commentator, in recording his attention to his hair, seems to intimate that Dante alludes to it in contrasting him with Cincinnatus. If so, Lapo might have reminded the poet of what Cicero says of his beloved Caesar;—that he once saw him scratching the top of his head with the tip of his finger, that he might not discompose the locks.]

[Footnote 17:

"Chi ei si furo, e onde venner quivi, Piu e tacer che ragionare onesto."

Some think Dante was ashamed to speak of these ancestors, from the lowness of their origin; others that he did not choose to make them a boast, for the height of it. I suspect, with Lombardi, from his general character, and from the willingness he has avowed to make such boasts (see the opening of canto xvi., Paradise, in the original), that while he claimed for them a descent from the Romans (see Inferno, canto xv. 73, &c.), he knew them to be] poor in fortune, perhaps of humble condition. What follows, in the text of our abstract, about the purity of the old Florentine blood, even in the veins of the humblest mechanic, may seem to intimate some corroboration of this; and is a curious specimen of republican pride and scorn. This horror of one's neighbours is neither good Christianity, nor surely any very good omen of that Italian union, of which "Young Italy" wishes to think Dante such a harbinger.

All this too, observe, is said in the presence of a vision of Christ on the Cross!]

[Footnote 18: The Column, Verrey (vair, variegated, checkered with argent and azure), and the Balls or (Palle d'oro), were arms of old families. I do not trouble the reader with notes upon mere family-names, of which nothing else is recorded.]

[Footnote 19: An allusion, apparently acquiescent, to the superstitious popular opinion that the peace of Florence was bound up with the statue of Mars on the old bridge, at the base of which Buondelmonte was slain.

With this Buondelmonte the dissensions in Florence were supposed to have first begun. Macchiavelli's account of him is, that he was about to marry a young lady of the Amidei family, when a widow of one of the Donati, who had designed her own daughter for him, contrived that he should see her; the consequence of which was, that he broke his engagement, and was assassinated. Historie Fiorentine, lib. ii.]

[Footnote 20:

"Tu lascerai ogni cosa diletta Piu caramente; e questo e quello strale Che l'arco de l'esilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e com'e duro calle Lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

E quel che piu ti gravera le spalle, Sara la compagnia malvagia e scempia Con la qual tu cadrai in questa valle:

Che tutta ingrata, tutta matta ed empia Si fara contra te: ma poco appresso Ella, non tu, n'avra rossa la tempia.

Di sua bestialitate il suo processo Fara la pruova, si ch' a te fia bello Averti fatta parte per te stesso."

[Footnote 21: The Roman eagle. These are the arms of the Scaligers of Verona.]

[Footnote 22: A prophecy of the renown of Can Grande della Scala, who had received Dante at his court.]

[Footnote 23: "Letizia era ferza del paleo"]

[Footnote 24: Supposed to be one of the early Williams, Princes of Orange; but it is doubted whether the First, in the time of Charlemagne, or the Second, who followed Godfrey of Bouillon. Mr. Cary thinks the former; and the mention of his kinsman Rinaldo (Ariosto's Paladin?) seems to confirm his opinion; yet the situation of the name in the text brings it nearer to Godfrey; and Rinoardo (the name of Rinaldo in Dante) might possibly mean "Raimbaud," the kinsman and associate of the second William. Robert Guiscard is the Norman who conquered Naples.]

[Footnote 25: Exquisitely beautiful feeling!

[Footnote 29: Most beautiful is this simile of the lark:

"Prima cantando, e poi tace contenta De l'ultima dolcezza che la sazia."

In the Pentameron and Pentalogia, Petrarch is made to say, "All the verses that ever were written on the nightingale are scarcely worth the beautiful triad of this divine poet on the lark [and then he repeats them]. In the first of them, do you not see the trembling of her wings against the sky? As often as I repeat them, my ear is satisfied, my heart (like hers) contented.

"Boccaccio.—I agree with you in the perfect and unrivalled beauty of the first; but in the third there is a redundance. Is not contenta quite enough without che la sazia?The picture is before us, the sentiment within us; and, behold, we kick when we are full of manna.

"Petrarch.—I acknowledge the correctness and propriety of your remark; and yet beauties in poetry must be examined as carefully as blemishes, and even more."—p. 92.

Perhaps Dante would have argued that sazia expresses the satiety itself, so that the very superfluousness becomes a propriety.]

[Footnote 30:

"E come a buon cantor buon citarista Fa seguitar to guizzo de la corda In che piu di piacer lo canto acquista;

Si, mentre che parlo, mi si ricorda, Ch'io vidi le due luci benedette, Pur come batter d'occhi si concorda,

Con le parole muover le fiammette." ]

[Footnote 31: A corrector of clerical abuses, who, though a cardinal, and much employed in public affairs, preferred the simplicity of a private life. He has left writings, the eloquence of which, according to Tiraboschi, is "worthy of a better age." Petrarch also makes honourable mention of him. See Cary, ut sup. p. 169. Dante lived a good while in the monastery of Catria, and is said to have finished his poem there.—Lombardi in loc. vol. III. p. 547.]

[Footnote 32: The cardinal's hat.]

[Footnote 33: "Si che duo bestie van sott' una pelle."]

[Footnote 34:

"Dintorno a questa (voce) vennero e fermarsi, E fero un grido di si alto suono, Che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi;

Ne io lo 'ntesi, si mi vinse il tuono."

Around this voice they flocked, a mighty crowd, And raised a shout so huge, that earthly wonder Knoweth no likeness for a peal so loud;

Nor could I hear the words, it spoke such thunder.

If a Longinus had written after Dante, he would have put this passage into his treatise on the Sublime.]

[Footnote 35: Benedict, the founder of the order called after his name. Macarius, an Egyptian monk and moralist. Romoaldo, founder of the Camaldoli.]

[Footnote 36: The reader of English poetry will be reminded of a passage in Cowley

"Lo, I mount; and lo, How small the biggest parts of earth's proud title shew! Where shall I find the noble British land? Lo, I at last a northern speck espy, Which in the sea does lie, And seems a grain o' the sand. For this will any sin, or bleed? Of civil wars is this the meed? And is it this, alas, which we, Oh, irony of words! do call Great Brittanie?"

And he afterwards, on reaching higher depths of silence, says very finely, and with a beautiful intimation of the all-inclusiveness of the Deity by the use of a singular instead of a plural verb,—

"Where am I now? angels and God is here."

All which follows in Dante, up to the appearance of Saint Peter, is full of grandeur and loveliness.]

[Footnote 37:

"Come l' augello intra l'amate fronde, Posato al nido de' suoi dolci nati La notte che le cose ci nasconde,

Che per veder gli aspetti desiati, E per trovar lo cibo onde gli pasca, In che i gravi labor gli sono aggrati,

Previene 'l tempo in su l'aperta frasca, E con ardente affetto il sole aspetta, Fiso guardando pur che l'alba nasca;

Cosi la donna mia si stava eretta E attenta, involta in ver la plaga Sotto la quale il sol mostra men fretta:

Si the veggendola io sospesa e vaga, Fecimi quale e quei che disiando Altro vorria, e sperando s'appaga." ]

[Footnote 38:

"Quale ne' plenilunii sereni Trivia ride tra le Ninfe eterne, Che dipingono 'l ciel per tutti i seni."

[Footnote 39: He has seen Christ in his own unreflected person.]

[Footnote 40: The Virgin Mary.]

[Footnote 41:

"Mi rendei A la battaglia de' debili cigli."]

[Footnote 42:

"Ambo le luci mi dipinse."

[Footnote 43:

"Qualunque melodia piu dolce suona Qua giu, e piu a se l'anima tira, Parebbe nube che squarciata tuona,

Comparata al sonar di quella lira Onde si coronava il bel zaffiro Del quale il ciel piu chiaro s' inzaffira." ]

[Footnote 44:

"Benedicendomi cantando Tre volte cinse me, si com' io tacqui, L' Apostolico lume, al cui comando

Io avea detto; si nel dir gli piacqui."

It was this passage, and the one that follows it, which led Foscolo to suspect that Dante wished to lay claim to a divine mission; an opinion which has excited great indignation among the orthodox. See his Discorso sul Testo, ut sup. pp. 61, 77-90 and 335-338; and the preface of the Milanese Editors to the "Convito" of Dante,—Opere Minori, 12mo, vol ii. p. xvii. Foscolo's conjecture seems hardly borne out by the context; but I think Dante had boldness and self-estimation enough to have advanced any claim whatsoever, had events turned out as he expected. What man but himself (supposing him the believer he professed to be) would have thought of thus making himself free of the courts of Heaven, and constituting St. Peter his applauding catechist!]

[Footnote 45: The verses quoted in the preceding note conclude the twenty-fourth canto of Paradise; and those, of which the passage just given is a translation, commence the twenty-fifth:

"Se mai continga, che 'l poema sacro Al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra Si che m' ha fatto per piu anni macro,

Vinca la crudelta che fuor mi serra Del bello ovile ov' io dormi' agnello Nimico a' lupi che gli danno guerra;

Con altra voce omai, con altro vello Ritornero poeta, ed in sul fonte Del mio battesmo prendero 'l capello:

Perocche ne la fede che fa conte L' anime a Dio, quiv' entra' io, e poi Pietro per lei si mi giro la fronte." ]

[Footnote 46: "Sperent in te." Psalm ix. 10. The English version says, "And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee."]

[Footnote 47:

"Tal volta un animal coverto broglia Si che l' affetto convien che si paia Per lo seguir che face a lui la 'nvoglia."

A natural, but strange, and surely not sufficiently dignified image for the occasion. It is difficult to be quite content with a former one, in which the greetings of St. Peter and St. James are compared to those of doves murmuring and sidling round about one another; though Christian sentiment may warrant it, if we do not too strongly present the Apostles to one's imagination.]

[Footnote 48:

"Tal ne la sembianza sua divenne, Qual diverebbe Giove, s' egli e Marte Fossero augelli e cambiassersi penne."

Nobody who opened the Commedia for the first time at this fantastical image would suppose the author was a great poet, or expect the tremendous passage that ensues!]

[Footnote 49: In spite of the unheavenly nature of invective, of something of a lurking conceit in the making an eclipse out of a blush, and in the positive bathos, and I fear almost indecent irrelevancy of the introduction of Beatrice at all on such an occasion, much more under the feeble aspect of one young lady blushing for another,—this scene altogether is a very grand one; and the violence itself of the holy invective awful.

A curious subject for reflection is here presented. What sort of pope would Dante himself have made? Would he have taken to the loving or the hating side of his genius? To the St. John or the St. Peter of his own poem? St. Francis or St. Dominic?—I am afraid, all things considered, we should have had in him rather a Gregory the Seventh or Julius the Second, than a Benedict the Eleventh or a Ganganelli. What fine Church-hymns he would have written!]

[Footnote 50: She does not see (so blind is even holy vehemence!) that for the same reason the denouncement itself is out of its place. The preachers brought St. Anthony and his pig into their pulpits; she brings them into Heaven!]

[Footnote 51:

"Certo io credo Che solo il suo fattor tutta la goda." ]

[Footnote 52: The Emperor Henry of Luxembourg, Dante's idol; at the close of whose brief and inefficient appearance in Italy, his hopes of restoration to his country were at an end.]

[Footnote 53: Pope Clement the Fifth. Dante's enemy, Boniface, was now dead, and of course in Tartarus, in the red-hot tomb which the poet had prepared for him.]

[Footnote 54: Boniface himself. Pope Clement's red hot feet are to thrust down Pope Boniface into a gulf still hotter. So says the gentle Beatrice in Heaven, and in the face of all that is angelical!]

[Footnote 55: David.]

[Footnote 56: The Trinity.]

[Footnote 57: The Incarnation.]

[Footnote 58: In the Variorum edition of Dante, ut sup. vol. iii. p. 845, we are informed that a gentleman of Naples, the Cavaliere Giuseppe de Cesare, was the first to notice (not long since, I presume) the curious circumstance of Dante's having terminated the three portions of his poem with the word "stars." He thinks that it was done as a happy augury of life and renown to the subject. The literal intention, however, seems to have been to shew us, how all his aspirations terminated.]


Critical Notice



Pulci, who is the first genuine romantic poet, in point of time, after Dante, seems, at first sight, in the juxtaposition, like farce after tragedy; and indeed, in many parts of his poem, he is not only what he seems, but follows his saturnine countryman with a peculiar propriety of contrast, much of his liveliest banter being directed against the absurdities of Dante's theology. But hasty and most erroneous would be the conclusion that he was nothing but a banterar. He was a true poet of the mixed order, grave as well as gay; had a reflecting mind, a susceptible and most affectionate heart; and perhaps was never more in earnest than when he gave vent to his dislike of bigotry in his most laughable sallies.

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