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among other things, anticipated Newton in the
theory of gravitation. But this is as idle as the
claim that Shakespeare had discovered the circula
tion of the blood before Harvey, 1 and one might
as well attempt to dethrone Newton because Chau
cer speaks of the love which draws the apple to
the earth. The truth is, that it was only as a poet
that Dante was great and original (glory enough,
surely, to have not more than two competitors),
and in matters of science, as did all his contempo
raries, sought the guiding hand of Aristotle like a
child. Dante is assumed by many to have been a
Platonist, but this is not true, in the strict sense
of the word. Like all men of great imagination,
he was an idealist, and so far a Platonist, as Shake
speare might be proved to have been by his son
nets. But Dante's direct acquaintance with Plato
may be reckoned at zero, and we consider it as hav
ing strongly influenced his artistic development for
the better, that transcendentalist as he was by na
ture, so much so as to be in danger of lapsing into
1 See Field's Theory of Colon.


an Oriental mysticism, his habits of thought should
have been made precise and his genius disciplined
by a mind so severely logical as that of Aristotle.
This does not conflict with what we believe to be
equally true, that the Platonizing commentaries on
his poem, like that of Landino, are the most satis
factory. Beside the prose already mentioned, we
have a small collection of Dante's letters, the re
covery of the larger number of which we owe to
Professor Witte. They are all interesting, some
of them especially so, as illustrating the prophetic
character with which Dante invested himself. The
longest is one addressed to Can Grande della
Scala, explaining the intention of the Commedia
and the method to be employed in its interpreta
tion. The authenticity of this letter has been
doubted, but is now generally admitted.

We shall barely allude to the minor poems, full
of grace and depth of mystic sentiment, and which
would have given Dante a high place in the his
tory of Italian literature, even had he written noth
ing else. They are so abstract, however, that with
out the extrinsic interest of having been written by
the author of the Commedia, they would probably
find few readers. All that is certainly known in
regard to the Commedia is that it was composed
during the nineteen years which intervened be
tween Dante's banishment and death. Attempts
have been made to fix precisely the dates of the
different parts, but without success, and the differ
ences of opinion are bewildering. Foscolo has con
structed an ingenious and forcible argument to


show that no part of the poem was published before
the author's death. The question depends some
what on the meaning we attach to the word " pub
lished." In an age of manuscript the wide disper
sion of a poem so long even as a single one of the
three divisions of the Commedia would be accom
plished very slowly. But it is difficult to account
for the great fame which Dante enjoyed during
the latter years of his life, unless we suppose that
parts, at least, of his greatest work had been read
or heard by a large number of persons. This
need not, however, imply publication ; and Witte,
whose opinion is entitled to great consideration,
supposes even the Inferno not to have been fin
ished before 1314 or 1315. In a matter where
certainty would be impossible, it is of little con
sequence to reproduce conjectural dates. In the
letter to Can Grande, before alluded to, Dante him
self has stated the theme of his song. He says that
" the literal subject of the whole work is the state of
the soul after death simply considered. But if the
work be taken allegorically, the subject is man, as
by merit or demerit, through freedom of the will,
he renders himself liable to the reward or punish
ment of justice." He tells us that the work is to
be interpreted in a literal, allegorical, moral, and
anagogical sense, a mode then commonly employed
with the Scriptures, 1 and of which he gives the fol
lowing example : " To make which mode of treat
ment more clear, it may be applied in the following
verses : In exitu Israel de ^Egypto, domus Jacob

1 As by Dante himself in the Convito.


de populo barbaro, facto, est Judaea sanctificatio
ejus, Israel potestas ejus. 1 For if we look only at
the literal sense, it signifies the going out of the
children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses ;
if at the allegorical, it signifies our redemption
through Christ; if at the moral, it signifies the
conversion of the soul from the grief and misery
of sin to a state of grace ; and if at the anagogical,
it signifies the passage of the blessed soul from the
bondage of this corruption to the freedom of eternal
glory." A Latin couplet, cited by one of the old
commentators, puts the matter compactly together
for us :

" Litera gesta refert ; quid credos allegaria ;
Moral is quid agas ; quid speres anagogia." 1

Dante tells us that he calls his poem a comedy be
cause it has a fortunate ending, and gives its title
thus : " Here begins the comedy of Dante Alighieri,
a Florentine by birth, but not in morals." 2 The
poem consists of three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and
Paradise. Each part is divided into thirty-three
cantos, in allusion to the years of the Saviour's life ;
for though the Hell contains thirty-four, the first
canto is merely introductory. In the form of the
verse (triple rhyme) we may find an emblem of
the Trinity, and in the three divisions, of the three
fold state of man, sin, grace, and beatitude. Sym
bolic meanings reveal themselves, or make them
selves suspected, everywhere, as in the architecture
of the Middle Ages. An analysis of the poem

1 Psalm cxiv. 1, 2.

2 He commonly prefaced his letters with some such phrase as
txul immerittu.


would be out of place here, but we must say a few
words of Dante's position as respects modern litera
ture. If we except Wolfram von Eschenbach, he is
the first Christian poet, the first (indeed, we might
say the only) one whose whole system of thought is
colored in every finest fibre by a purely Christian
theology. Lapse through sin, mediation, and re
demption, these are the subjects of the three parts
of the poem : or, otherwise stated, intellectual con
viction of the result of sin, typified in Virgil (sym
bol also of that imperialism whose origin he sang) ;
moral conversion after repentance, by divine grace,
typified in Beatrice ; reconciliation with God, and
actual blinding vision of him " The pure in
heart shall see God." Here are general truths
which any Christian may accept and find comfort
in. But the poem comes nearer to us than this.
It is the real history of a brother man, of a tempted,
purified, and at last triumphant human soul ; it
teaches the benign ministry of sorrow, and that the
ladder of that faith by which man climbs to the
actual fruition of things not seen ex quovis ligno
nonfit, but only of the cross manfully borne. The
poem is also, in a very intimate sense, an apotheosis
of woman. Indeed, as Mar veil's drop of dew mir
rored the whole firmament, so we find in the Corn-
media the image of the Middle Ages, and the sen
timental gyniolatry of chivalry, which was at best
but skin-deep, is lifted in Beatrice to an ideal and
universal plane. It is the same with Catholicism,
with imperialism, with the scholastic philosophy ;
and nothing is more wonderful than the power of


absorption and assimilation in this man, who could
take up into himself the world that then was, and
reproduce it with such cosmopolitan truth to human
nature and to his own individuality, as to reduce
all contemporary history to a mere comment on his
vision. We protest, therefore, against the parochial
criticism which would degrade Dante to a mere par
tisan, which sees in him a Luther before his time,
and would clap the bonnet rouge upon his heavenly

Like all great artistic minds, Dante was essen
tially conservative, and, arriving precisely in that
period of transition when Church and Empire were
entering upon the modern epoch of thought, he
strove to preserve both by presenting the theory of
both in a pristine and ideal perfection. The whole
nature of Dante was one of intense belief. There
is proof upon proof that he believed himself in
vested with a divine mission. Like the Hebrew
prophets, with whose writings his whole soul was
imbued, it was back to the old worship and the God
of the fathers that he called his people ; and not
Isaiah himself was more destitute of that humor, that
sense of ludicrous contrast, which is an essential in
the composition of a sceptic. In Dante's time, learn
ing had something of a sacred character ; the line
was hardly yet drawn between the clerk and the
possessor of supernatural powers ; it was with the
next generation, with the elegant Petrarch, even
more truly than with the kindly Boccaccio, that the
purely literary life, and that dilettantism, which is
the twin sister of scepticism, began. As a merely


literary figure, the position of Dante is remarkable.
Not only as respects thought, but as respects aesthet
ics also, his great poem stands as a monument on
the boundary line between the ancient and modern.
He not only marks, but is in himself, the transi
tion. Arma mrumque cano, that is the motto of
classic song ; the things of this world and great
men. Dante says, subjectum est homo, not vir ;
my theme is man, not a man. The scene of the
old epic and drama was in this world, and its ca
tastrophe here ; Dante lays his scene in the human
soul, and his fifth act in the other world. He
makes himself the protagonist of his own drama.
In the Commedia for the first time Christianity
wholly revolutionizes Art, and becomes its seminal
principle. But aesthetically also, as well as mor
ally, Dante stands between the old and the new,
and reconciles them. The theme of his poem is
purely subjective, modern, what is called romantic ;
but its treatment . is objective (almost to realism,
here and there), and it is limited by a form of
classic severity. In the same way he sums up in
himself the two schools of modern poetry which had
preceded him, and, while essentially lyrical in his
subject, is epic in the handling of it. So also he
combines the deeper and more abstract religious
sentiment of the Teutonic races with the scientific
precision and absolute systematism of the Romanic.
In one respect Dante stands alone. While we can
in some sort account for such representative men
as Voltaire and Goethe (nay, even Shakespeare)
by the intellectual and moral fermentation of the


age in which they lived, Dante seems morally iso
lated and to have drawn his inspiration almost
wholly from his own internal reserves. Of his
mastery in style we need say little here. Of his
mere language, nothing could be better than the ex
pression of Rivarol : " His verse holds itself erect
by the mere force of the substantive and verb, with
out the help of a single epithet." We will only add
a word on what seems to us an extraordinary mis
apprehension of Coleridge, who disparages Dante
by comparing his Lucifer with Milton's Satan. He
seems to have forgotten that the precise measure
ments of Dante were not prosaic, but absolutely de
manded by the nature of his poem. He is describ
ing an actual journey, and his exactness makes a
part of the verisimilitude. We read the " Paradise
Lost " as a poem, the Commedia as a record of
fact ; and no one can read Dante without believing
his story, for it is plain that he believed it himself.
It is false aesthetics to confound the grandiose with
the imaginative. Milton's angels are not to be
compared with Dante's, at once real and supernat
ural ; and the Deity of Milton is a Calvinistic Zeus,
while nothing in all poetry approaches the imagi
native grandeur of Dante's vision of God at the
conclusion of the Paradiso. In all literary history
there is no such figure as Dante, no such homoge-
neousness of life and works, such loyalty to ideas,
such sublime irrecognition of the unessential ; and
there is no moral more touching than that the
contemporary recognition of such a nature, so en
dowed and so faithful to its endowment, should be


summed up in the sentence of Florence: Igne
comburatur sic quod moriatur. 1

The range of Dante's influence is not less re
markable than its intensity. Minds, the antipodes
of each other in temper and endowment, alike feel
the force of his attraction, the pervasive comfort of
his light and warmth. Boccaccio and Lamennais
are touched with the same reverential enthusiasm.
The imaginative Ruskin is rapt by him, as we have
seen, perhaps beyond the limit where critical appre
ciation merges in enthusiasm ; and the matter-of-
fact Schlosser tells us that " he, who was wont to
contemplate earthly life wholly in an earthly light,
has made use of Dante, Landino, and Vellutello in
his solitude to bring a heavenly light into his in
ward life." Almost all other poets have their sea
sons, but Dante penetrates to the moral core of
those who once fairly come within his sphere, and
possesses them wholly. His readers turn students,
his students zealots, and what was a taste becomes
a religion. The homeless exile finds a home in
thousands of grateful hearts : E da esilio venne a
questa pace.

1 In order to fix more precisely In the mind the place of Dante
in relation to the history of thought, literature, and events, we
subjoin a few dates : Dante born, 1265 ; end of Crusades, death of
St. Louis, 1270 ; Aquinas died, 1274 ; Bonaventura died, 1274 ;
Giotto born, 1276 ; Albertus Magnus died, 1280 ; Sicilian vespers,
1282 ; death of Ugolino and Francesca da Rimini, 1282 ; death of
Beatrice, 1290 ; Roger Bacon died, 1202 ; death of Gimabue, 1302 ;
Dante's banishment, 1302 ; Petrarch born, 1304 ; Fra Dolcino
burned, 1307 ; Pope Clement V- at Avignon, 1309 ; Templars sap-
pressed, 1312 ; Boccaccio born, 1313 ; Dante died, 1321 ; Wycliffe
born, 1324 ; Chaucer born, 1328.


Every kind of objection, aesthetic and other, may
be, and has been, made to the Divina Commedia,
especially by critics who have but a superficial ac
quaintance with it, or rather with the Inferno,
which is as far as most English critics go. Cole
ridge himself, who had a way of divining what was
in books, may be justly suspected of not going fur
ther, though with Gary to help him. Mr. Carlyle,
who has said admirable things of Dante the man,
was very imperfectly read in Dante the author, or
he would never have put Sordello hi hell and the
meeting with Beatrice in paradise. In France it
was not much better (though Rivarol has said the
best thing hitherto of Dante's parsimony of epi
thet x ) before Ozanam, who, if with decided ultra
montane leanings, has written excellently well of
our poet, and after careful study. Voltaire, though
not without relentings toward a poet who had put
popes heels upward in hell, regards him on the
whole as a stupid monster and barbarian. It was
no better in Italy, if we may trust Foscolo, who
affirms that " neither Pelli nor others deservedly
more celebrated than he ever read attentively the
poem of Dante, perhaps never ran through it from

1 Rivarol characterized only a single quality of Dante's style,
who knew how to spend as well as spare. Even the Inferno, on
which he based his remark, might have put him on his guard.
Dante understood very well the use of ornament in its fitting
place. Est enim exornatio alicujus convenientis additio, he tells us
in his De Vulgari Eloquio (lib. ii. cap. i.). His simile of the
doves (Inferno, V. 82 et seq.), perhaps the most exquisite in all
poetry, quite oversteps Rivarol's narrow limit of " substantive and


the first verse to the last." l Accordingly we have
heard that the Commedia was a sermon, a political
pamphlet, the revengeful satire of a disappointed
Ghibelline, nay, worse, of a turncoat Guelph. It
is narrow, it is bigoted, it is savage, it is theologi
cal, it is mediaeval, it is heretical, it is scholastic, it
is obscure, it is pedantic, its Italian is not that of la
Crusca, its ideas are not those of an enlightened
eighteenth century, it is everything, in short, that a
poem should not be; and yet, singularly enough,
the circle of its charm has widened in proportion
as men have receded from the theories of Church
and State which are supposed to be its foundation,
and as the modes of thought of its author have be
come more alien to those of his readers. In spite
of all objections, some of which are well founded,
the Commedia remains one of the three or four uni
versal books that have ever been written.

We may admit, with proper limitations, the mod
ern distinction between the Artist and the Moralist.
With the one Form is all in all, with the other
Tendency. The aim of the one is to delight, of the
other to convince. The one is master of his pur
pose, the other mastered by it. The whole range
of perception and thought is valuable to the one
as it will minister to imagination, to the other only
as it is available for argument. With the moralist
use is beauty, good only as it serves an ulterior
purpose ; with the artist beauty is use, good in and
for itself. In the fine arts the vehicle makes part
of the thought, coalesces with it. The living con-

1 Discvrso std testo, ec., XVIII.


ception shapes itself a body in marble, color, or
modulated sound, and henceforth the two are insep
arable. The results of the moralist pass into the
intellectual atmosphere of mankind, it matters lit
tle by what mode of conveyance. But where, as
in Dante, the religious sentiment and the imagina
tion are both organic, something interfused with
the whole being of the man, so that they work in
kindly sympathy, the moral will insensibly suffuse
itself with beauty as a cloud with light. Then that
fine sense of remote analogies, awake to the asso
nance between facts seemingly remote and unre
lated, between the outward and inward worlds,
though convinced that the things of this life are
shadows, will be persuaded also that they are not
fantastic merely, but imply a substance somewhere,
and will love to set forth the beauty of the visible
image because it suggests the ineffably higher
charm of the unseen original. Dante's ideal of
life, the enlightening and strengthening of that na
tive instinct of the soul which leads it to strive
backward toward its divine source, may sublimate
the senses till each becomes a window for the light
of truth and the splendor of God to shine through.
In him as in Calderon the perpetual presence of
imagination not only glorifies the philosophy of life
and the science of theology, but idealizes both in
symbols of material beauty. Though Dante's con
ception of the highest end of man was that he
should climb through every phase of human experi
ence to that transcendental and supersensual region
where the true, the good, and the beautiful blend


in the white light of God, yet the prism of his im
agination forever resolved the ray into color again,
and he loved to show it also where, entangled and
obstructed in matter, it became beautiful once more
to the eye of sense. Speculation, he tells us, is the
use, without any mixture, of our noblest part (the
reason). And this part cannot in this life have its
perfect use, which is to behold God (who is the
highest object of the intellect), except inasmuch
as the intellect considers and beholds him in his
effects. 1 Underlying Dante the metaphysician,
statesman, and theologian, was always Dante the
poet, 2 irradiating and vivifying, gleaming through
in a picturesque phrase, or touching things unex
pectedly with that ideal light which softens and
subdues like distance in the landscape. The stern
outline of his system wavers and melts away before
the eye of the reader in a mirage of imagination
that lifts from beyond the sphere of vision and
hangs in serener air images of infinite suggestion
projected from worlds not realized, but substantial
to faith, hope, and aspiration. Beyond the horizon

1 Convito, Tr. IV. c. xxii.

2 It is remarkable that when Dante, in 1297, as a preliminary
condition to active politics, enrolled himself in the guild of physi
cians and apothecaries, he is qualified only with the title poeta.
The arms of the Alighieri (curiously suitable to him who sovra gli
altri come aquila vola) were a wing of gold in a field of azure.
His vivid sense of beauty even hovers sometimes like a corposant
over the somewhat stiff lines of his Latin prose. For example, in
his letter to the kings and princes of Italy on the coming of Henry
VII. : " A new day brightens, revealing the dawn which already
scatters the shades of long calamity ; already the breezes of
morning gather ; the lips of heaven are reddening ! "


of speculation floats, in the passionless splendor of
the empyrean, the city of our God, the Rome
whereof Christ is a Roman, 1 the citadel of refuge,
even in this life, for souls purified by sorrow and
self-denial, transhumanized 2 to the divine abstrac
tion of pure contemplation. " And it is called Em
pyrean," he says in his letter to Can Grande,
" which is the same as a heaven blazing with fire
or ardor, not because there is in it a material fire
or burning, but a spiritual one, which is blessed
love or charity." But this splendor he bodies forth,
if sometimes quaintly, yet always vividly and most
often in types of winning grace.

Dante was a mystic with a very practical turn of
mind. A Platonist by nature, an Aristotelian by
training, his feet keep closely to the narrow path of
dialectics, because he believed it the safest, while
his eyes are fixed on the stars and his brain is busy
with things not demonstrable, save by that grace
of God which passeth all understanding, nor capa
ble of being told unless by far-off hints and adum
brations. Though he himself has directly explained
the scope, the method, and the larger meaning of his
greatest work, 3 though he has indirectly pointed out
the way to its interpretation in the Convito, and
though everything he wrote is but an explanatory
comment on his own character and opinions, un
mistakably clear and precise, yet both man and
poem continue not only to be misunderstood popu-

1 Purgatorio, XXXII. 100.

8 Paradise, I. 70.

8 In a letter to Can Grande (XI. of the Epistdae).


larly, but also by such as should know better. 1
That those who confined their studies to the Corn-
media should have interpreted it variously is not
wonderful, for out of the first or literal meaning
others open, one out of another, each of wider cir
cuit and purer abstraction, like Dante's own hea
vens, giving and receiving light. 2 Indeed, Dante
himself is partly to blame for this. " The form or
mode of treatment," he says, " is poetic, fictive, de
scriptive, digressive, transumptive, and withal de
finitive, divisive, probative, improbative, and posi
tive of examples." Here are conundrums enough,
to be sure ! To Italians at home, for whom the
great arenas of political and religious speculation
were closed, the temptation to find a subtler mean
ing than the real one was irresistible. Italians in
exile, on the other hand, made Dante the stalking-
horse from behind which they could take a long
shot at Church and State, or at obscurer foes. 3 In
finitely touching and sacred to us is the instinct of
intense sympathy which draws these latter toward

1 Witte, Wegele, and Ruth in German, and Ozanam in French,
have rendered ignorance of Dante inexcusable among men of cul

2 Inferno, VII. 75. "Nay, his style," says Miss Rossetti, "is
more than concise : it is elliptical, it is recondite. A first thought
often lies coiled up and hidden under a second ; the words -which
state the conclusion involve the premises and develop the sub
ject." (p. 3.)

8 A complete vocabulary of Italian billingsgate might be se
lected from Biagioli. Or see the concluding pages of Nannucci's
excellent tract, Intorno alle voci usate da Dante, Corfu, 1840. Even
Foscolo could not always refrain. Dante should have taught them
to shun such vulgarities. See Inferno, XXX. 131-148.


their great forerunner, exul immeritus like them
selves. 1 But they have too often wrung a mean
ing from Dante which is injurious to the man and
out of keeping with the ideas of his age. The aim
in expounding a great poem should be, not to dis
cover an endless variety of meanings often contra

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