James Russell Lowell.

The writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) online

. (page 15 of 28)
Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 15 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


It was, perhaps, from this book that Dante got the hint of making
his punishments and penances typical of the sins that earned
them. " Wherefore, whereas men lived dissolutely and unright
eously, thou hast tormented them with their own abominations."
Dante was intimate with the Scriptures. They do even a scholar
no harm. M. Victor Le Clerc, in his Histoire Litteraire de la
France au quatorzieme siecle (torn. ii. p. 72), thinks it " not impos
sible " that a passage in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, para
phrased by Dante, may have been suggested to him by Rutebeuf
or Tristan, rather than by the prophet himself ! Dante would
hardly have found himself so much at home in the company of
jongleurs as in that of prophets. Yet he was familiar with
French and Provencal poetry. Beside the evidence of the Vulgari
Eloquio, there are frequent and broad traces in the Commedia of
the Roman de la Rose, slighter ones of the Chevalier de la Cha-
rette, Guillaume d' Orange, and a direct imitation of Bernard de
Ventadour.



DANTE 213

his style as a writer of prose. In the manly sim
plicity which comes of an earnest purpose, and in
the eloquence of deep conviction, this is as far be
yond that of any of his contemporaries as his verse ;
nay, more, has hardly been matched by any Italian
from that day to this. Illustrating the position
that "the highest desire of everything and the
first given us by nature is to return to its first
cause," he says : " And since God is the beginning
of our souls and the maker of them like unto him
self, according as was written, ' Let us make man
in our image and likeness,' this soul most greatly
desires to return to him. And as a pilgrim who
goes by a way he has never travelled, who believes
every house he sees afar off to be his inn, and not
finding it to be so directs his belief to another, and
so from house to house till he come to the inn, so
our soul forthwith on entering upon the new and
never-travelled road of this life directs its eyes to
the goal of its highest good, and therefore believes
whatever thing it sees that seems to have in it any
good to be that. And because its first knowledge
is imperfect by reason of not being experienced
nor indoctrinated, small goods seem to it great.
Wherefore we see children desire most greatly an
apple, and then proceeding further on desire a
bird, and then further yet desire fine raiment, and
then a horse, and then a woman, and then riches
not great, and then greater and greater. And this
befalls because in none of these things it finds that
which it goes seeking, and thinks to find it further
on. By which it may be seen that one desirable



214 DANTE

stands before another in the eyes of our soul in
a fashion as it were pyramidal, for the smallest at
first covers the whole of them, and is as it were
the apex of the highest desirable, which is God,
as it were the base of all ; so that the further we
go from the apex toward the base the desirables
appear greater ; and this is the reason why human
desires become wider one after the other. Verily
this way is lost through error as the roads of earth
are ; for as from one city to another there is of
necessity one best and straightest way, and one
that always leads farther from it, that is, the one
which goes elsewhere, and many others, some less
roundabout and some less direct, so in human life
are divers roads whereof one is the truest and an
other the most deceitful, and certain ones less de
ceitful, and certain less true. And as we see that
that which goes most directly to the city fulfils
desire and gives repose after weariness, and that
which goes the other way never fulfils it and never
can give repose, so it falls out in our life. The
good traveller arrives at the goal and repose, the
erroneous never arrives thither, but with much
weariness of mind, always with greedy eyes looks
before him." 1 If we may apply Dante's own
method of exposition to this passage, we find him
telling us that he first sought felicity in knowledge,

" That apple sweet which through so many branches
The care of mortals goeth in pursuit of," 2

then in fame, a bird that flits before us as we fol-

1 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 12.

2 Purgatorio, XXVU. 115, 116.



DANTE 215

low, 1 then in being esteemed of men (" to be
clothed in purple, ... to sit next to Darius, . . .
and be called Darius his cousin "), then in power, 2
then in the riches of the Holy Spirit in larger and
larger measure. 3 He, too, had found that there
was but one straight road, whether to the Terres
trial Paradise or the Celestial City, and may come
to question by and by whether they be not parallel
one with the other, or even parts of the same road,
by which only repose is to be reached at last.
Then, when in old age " the noble soul returns to
God as to that port whence she set forth on the sea
of this life, . . . just as to him who comes from a
long journey, before he enters into the gate of his
city, the citizens thereof go forth to meet him, so
the citizens of the eternal life go to meet her, and
do so because of her good deeds and contempla
tions, who, having already betaken herself to God,

1 That Dante loved fame we need not be told. He several
times confesses it, especially in the De Vulgari Eloquio, I. 17.
4 ' How glorious she [the Vulgar Tongue] makes her intimates [/o-
miliares, those of her household], we ourselves have known, who
in the sweetness of this glory put our exile behind our backs."

2 Dante several times uses the sitting a horse as an image of
rule. See especially Purgatorio, VI. 99, and Convito, Tr. IV.
c. 9.

3 " O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the know
ledge of God ! ' ' Dante quotes this in speaking of the influence of
the stars, which, interpreting it presently "by the theological
way," he compares to that of the Holy Spirit. "And thy coun
sel who hath known, except thou give wisdom and send thy Holy
Spirit from above?" (Wisdom of Solomon, ix. 17.) The last
words of the Convito are, " her [Philosophy] whose proper dwell
ing is in the depths of the Divine mind." The ordinary reading
is ragione (reason), but it seems to us an obvious blunder for ma-
gione (mansion, dwelling).



216 DANTE

seems to see those whom she believes to be nigh
unto God." l This also was to be the experience
of Dante, for who can doubt that the Paradiso
was something very unlike a poetical exercise to him
who appeals to the visions even of sleep as proof of
the soul's immortality ?

When did his soul catch a glimpse of that cer
tainty in which " the mind that museth upon many
things " can find assured rest ? We have already
said that we believe Dante's political opinions to
have taken their final shape and the De Monarchia
to have been written before 1300. 2 That the revi
sion of the Vita Nuova was completed in that year
seems probable from the last sonnet but one, which
is addressed to pilgrims on their way to the Santa
Veronica at Rome. 3 In this sonnet he still laments

1 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 28.

2 He refers to a change in his own opinions (lib. ii. 1), where
he says, " When I knew the nations to have murmured against
the preeminence of the Roman people, and saw the people imag
ining Tain things as I myself was wont." He was a Guelph by in
heritance, he became a Ghibelline by conviction.

8 It should seem from Dante's words ( " at the time when much
people went to see the blessed image," and " ye seem to come
from a far-off people ") that this was some extraordinary occa
sion, and what so likely as the jubilee of 1300 ? (Compare Para
diso, XXXI. 103-108.) Dante's comparisons are so constantly
drawn from actual eyesight, that his allusion (Inferno, XIII. 28-
33) to a device of Boniface VIII. for passing the crowds quietly
across the bridge of Saint Angelo, renders it not unlikely that he
was in Rome at that time, and perhaps conceived his poem there
as Giovanni Villani his chronicle. That Rome would deeply stir
his mind and heart is beyond question. " And certes I am of a
firm opinion that the stones that stand in her walls are worthy of
reverence, and the soil where she sits worthy beyond what is
preached and admitted of men." (Convito, Tr. IV. c. 5.)



DANTE 217

Beatrice as dead ; he would make the pilgrims
share his grief. It is the very folly of despairing
sorrow, that calls on the first comer, stranger
though he be, for a sympathy which none can fully
give, and he least of all. But in the next sonnet,
the last in the book, there is a surprising change of
tone. The transfiguration of Beatrice has begun,
and we see completing itself that natural gradation
of grief which will erelong bring the mourner to
call on the departed saint to console him for her
own loss. The sonnet is remarkable in more senses
than one, first for its psychological truth, and then
still more for the light it throws on Dante's inward
history as poet and thinker. Hitherto he had cele
brated beauty and goodness in the creature ; hence
forth he was to celebrate them in the Creator whose
praise they were. 1 We give an extempore transla
tion of this sonnet, in which the meaning is pre
served so far as is possible where the grace is left
out. We remember with some compunction as we
do it, that Dante has said, " know every one that

1 Beatrice, loda di Dio vera, Inferno, II. 103. "Surely vain are
all men by nature who are ignorant of God, and could not out of
the g-ood things that are seen know him that is, neither by con
sidering the works did they acknowledge the work-master. . . .
For, being conversant in his works, they search diligently and be
lieve their sight, because the things are beautiful that are seen.
Howbeit, neither are they to be pardoned." (Wisdom of Solomon,
xiii. 1, 7, 8.) Non adorar debitamente Dio. " For the invisible
things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, be
ing understood by the things that are made, even his eternal
power and godhead; so that they are without excuse." It was
these ' ' invisible things ' ' whereof Dante was beginning to get a
glimpse.



218 DANTE

nothing harmonized by a musical band can be
transmuted from its own speech to another without
breaking all its sweetness and harmony," l and
Cervantes was of the same mind : 2

" Beyond the sphere that hath the widest gyre
Passeth the sigh 8 that leaves my heart below ;
A new intelligence doth love bestow
On it with tears that ever draws it higher ;
When it wins thither where is its desire,
A Lady it beholds who honor so
And light receives, that, through her splendid glow,
The pilgrim spirit * sees her as in fire ;
It sees her such, that, telling me again
I understand it not, it speaks so low
Unto the mourning heart that bids it tell ;
Its speech is of that noble One I know,
For ' Beatrice ' I often hear full plain,
So that, dear ladies, I conceive it well. ' '

No one can read this in its connection with what
goes before and what follows without feeling that
a new conception of Beatrice had dawned upon the
mind of Dante, dim as yet, or purposely made to
seem so, and yet the authentic forerunner of the
fulness of her rising as the light of his day and the

1 Convito, Tr. I. c. 7.

2 " And here we would have forgiven Mr. Captain if he had not
betrayed him (traido, traduttore, traditore) to Spain and made
him a Castilian, for he took away much of his native worth, and
so will all those do who shall undertake to turn a poem into an
other tongue ; for with all the care they take and ability they
show, they will never reach the height of its original conception,"
says the Curate, speaking of a translation of Ariosto. (Don
Quixote, P. I. c. 6.)

8 In his own comment Dante says, " I tell whither goes my
thought, calling it by the name of one of its effects."

* Spirito means in Italian both breath (spirto ed acqua fessi,
Purgatorio, XXX. 98) and spirit.



DANTE 219

guide of his feet, the divine wisdom whose glory
pales all meaner stars. The conception of a poem
in which Dante's creed in politics and morals should
be picturesquely and attractively embodied, and of
the high place which Beatrice should take in it,
had begun vaguely to shape itself in his thought.
As he brooded over it, of a sudden it defined itself
clearly. " Soon after this sonnet there appeared
to me a marvellous vision 1 wherein I saw things
which made me propose not to say more of that
blessed one until I could treat of her more wor
thily. And to arrive at that I study all I can, as
she verily knows. So that, if it be the pleasure of
Him through whom all things live, that my life
hold out yet a few years, I hope to say that of her
which was never yet said of any (woman). And
then may it please Him who is the Lord of Cour
tesy that my soul may go to see the glory of her
Lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice who gloriously
beholds the face of Him qui est per omnia scecula
benedictus." It was the method of presentation
that became clear to Dante at this time, the plan
of the great poem for whose completion the expe
rience of earth and the inspiration of heaven were
to combine, and which was to make him lean for
many years. 2 The doctrinal scope of it was already
determined. Man, he tells us, is the only creature
who partakes at once of the corruptible and incor-

1 By visione Dante means something seen waking by the inner
eye. He believed also that dreams were sometimes divinely in
spired, and argues from such the immortality of the souL ( Con
vito, Tr. II. c. 9. )

2 Paradiso, XXV. 1-3.



220 DANTE

mptible nature ; " and since every nature is or
dained to some ultimate end, it follows that the end
of man is double. And as among all beings he
alone partakes of the corruptible and incorrupti
ble, so alone among all beings he is ordained to a
double end, whereof the one is his end as corrupti
ble, the other as incorruptible. That unspeakable
Providence therefore foreordered two ends to be
pursued by man, to wit, beatitude in this life,
which consists in the operation of our own virtue,
and is figured by the Terrestrial Paradise, and the
beatitude of life eternal, which consists in a frui
tion of the divine countenance, whereto our own
virtue cannot ascend unless aided by divine light,
which is understood by the Celestial Paradise."
The one we attain by practice of the moral and
intellectual virtues as they are taught by philoso
phers, the other by spiritual teachings transcending
human reason, anil the practice of the theological
virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. For one,
Reason suffices (" which was wholly made known
to us by philosophers "), for the other we need the
light of supernatural truth revealed by the Holy
Spirit and " needful for us." Men led astray by
cupidity turn their backs on both, and in their bes
tiality need bit and rein to keep them in the way.
" Wherefore to man was a double guidance needful
according to the double end," the Supreme Pontiff
in spiritual, the Emperor in temporal things. 1

1 De Monarchic, lib. iii. ult. See the whole passage in Miss
Rossetti, p. 39. It is noticeable that Dante says that the Pope is
to lead (by example), the Emperor to direct (by the enforcing of



DANTE 221

But how to put this theory of his into a poetic
form which might charm while it was teaching?
He would typify Reason in Virgil (who would
serve also as a symbol of political wisdom as hav
ing celebrated the founding of the Empire), and
the grace of God in that Beatrice whom he had
already supernaturalized into something which pass-
eth all understanding. In choosing Virgil he was
sure of that interest and sympathy which his in
stinct led him to seek in the predisposition of his
readers, for the popular imagination of the Middle
Ages had busied itself particularly with the Man-
tuan poet. The Church had given him a quasi-
orthodoxy by interpreting his jam redit et virgo as
a prophecy of the birth of Christ. At Naples he
had become a kind of patron saint, and his bones
were exhibited as relics. Dante himself may have
heard at Mantua the hymn sung on the anniversary
of St. Paul, in which the apostle to the Gentiles is
represented as weeping at the tomb of the greatest
of poets. Above all, Virgil had described the de
scent of ^Eneas to the under-world. Dante's choice
of a guide was therefore, in a certain degree, made
for him. But the mere Reason l of man without

justice). The duty, we are to observe, was a double but not a di
vided one. To exemplify this unity was indeed one object of the
Commedia.

1 " What Reason seeth here

Myself [Virgil] can tell thee ; beyond that await

For Beatrice, since 'tis a work of Faith."

(Purgatorio, XVIII. 46-48 .)

Beatrice here evidently impersonates Theology. It would be in
teresting to know what was the precise date of Dante's theological
studies. The earlier commentators all make him go to Paris, the



222 DANTE

the illumination of divine Grace cannot be trusted,
and accordingly the intervention of Beatrice was
needed, of Beatrice, as Miss Rossetti admirably
well expresses it, " already transfigured, potent not
only now to charm and soothe, potent to rule ; to
the Intellect a light, to the Affections a compass
and a balance, a sceptre over the Will."

The wood obscure in which Dante finds himself
is the world. 1 The three beasts who dispute his
way are the sins that most easily beset us, Pride,
the Lusts of the Flesh, and Greed. We are sur
prised that Miss Rossetti should so localize and
confine Dante's meaning as to explain them by
Florence, France, and Rome. Had he written in
so narrow a sense as this, it would indeed be hard
to account for the persistent power of his poem.

great fountain of such learning, after his banishment. Boccaccio
indeed says that he did not return to Italy till 1311. Wegele
(Dante's Leben und Werke, p. 85) puts the date of his journey be
tween 1292 and 1297. Ozanam, with a pathos comically touching
to the academic soul, laments that poverty compelled hkn to leave
the university without the degree he had so justly earned. He
consoles himself with.tne thought that " there remained to him
an incontestable erudition and the love of serious studies." (Dante
et la philosophic catholique, p. 112.) It is sad that we cannot write
Dantes Alighierius, S. T. D. ! Dante seems to imply that he be
gan to devote himself to Philosophy and Theology shortly after
Beatrice's death. (Convito, Tr. II. c. 13.) He compares himself
to one who, "seeking silver, should, without meaning it, find
gold, which an occult cause presents to him, not perhaps without
the divine command." Here again apparently is an allusion to
his having found Wisdom while he sought Learning. He had
thought to find God in the beauty of his works, he learned to seek
all things in God.

1 In a more general view, matter, the domain of the senses, no
doubt with a recollection of Aristotle's S\TJ.



DANTE 223

But it was no political pamphlet that Dante was
writing. Subjectum est Homo, and it only takes
the form of a diary by Dante Alighieri because of
the intense realism of his imagination, a realism as
striking in the Paradiso as the Inferno, though
it takes a different shape. Everything, the most
supersensual, presented itself to his mind, not as
abstract idea, but as visible type. As men could
once embody a quality of good in a saint and see
it, as they even now in moments of heightened
fantasy or enthusiasm can personify their country
and speak of England, France, or America, as if
they were real beings, so did Dante habitually. 1
He saw all his thoughts as distinctly as the hypo
chondriac sees his black dog, and, as in that, their
form and color were but the outward form of an in
ward and spiritual condition. Whatever subsidiary^
interpretations the poem is capable of, its great
and primary value is as the Autobiography of a
human soul, of yours and mine^ it may be, as well
as Dante's. In that lie its profound meaning and
its permanent force. That an txile, a proud man
forced to be dependent, should have found some
consolation in brooding over the justice of God,
weighed in such different scales from those of man,
in contrasting the outward prosperity of the sinner
with the awful spiritual ruin within, is not wonder
ful, nay, we can conceive of his sometimes finding
the wrath of God sweeter s than his mercy. But it

1 As we have seen, even a sigh becomes He. This makes one of
the difficulties of translating his minor poems. The modern mind
is incapable of this subtlety.



224 DANTE

is wonderful that out of the very wreck of his own
life he should have built this three-arched bridge,
still firm against the wash and wear of ages,
stretching from the Pit to the Empyrean, by which
men may pass from a doubt of God's providence to
a certainty of his long-suffering and loving-kind
ness.

" The Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms
That it receives whatever turns to it." 1

A tear is enough to secure the saving clasp of
them. 2 It cannot be too often repeated that Dante's
Other World is not in its first conception a place
of departed spirits. It is the Spiritual World,
whereof we become denizens by birth and citizens
by adoption. It is true that for artistic purposes
he makes it conform so far as possible with vulgar
preconceptions, but he himself has told us again
and again what his real meaning was. Virgil tells
Dante,

" Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect." 8

The " good of the intellect," Dante tells us after
Aristotle, is Truth. 4 He says that Virgil has led
him " through the deep night of the truly dead" 6
Who are they ? Dante had in mind the saying of
the Apostle, "to be carnally minded is death."
He says : " In man to live is to use reason. Then
if living is the being of man, to depart from that
use is to depart from being, and so to be dead.

1 Purgatario, III. 122, 123.

2 Purgatario, V. 107.

8 Inferno, III. 17, 18 (hanno perduto = thrown away).

* Convito, Tr. II. c. 14.

6 Purgatorio, XXTTT. 121, 122.



DANTE 225

And doth not he depart from the use of reason
who doth not reason out the object of his life ? ''
" I say that so vile a person is dead, seeming to be
alive. For we must know that the wicked man may
be called truly dead." " He is dead who follows
not the teacher. And of such a one some might say,
how is he dead and yet goes about ? I answer that
the man is dead and the beast remains." 1 Ac
cordingly he has put living persons in the Inferno,
like Frate Alberigo and Branca d' Oria, of whom
he says with bitter sarcasm that he still " eats and
drinks and puts on clothes," as if that were his
highest ideal of the true ends of life. 2 There is a
passage in the first canto of the Inferno 3 which
has been variously interpreted :

" The ancient spirits disconsolate
Who cry out each one for the second death"

Miss Eossetti cites it as an example of what she
felicitously calls " an ambiguity, not hazy, but pris
matic, and therefore not really perplexing." She
gives us accordingly our choice of two interpreta
tions : " ' Each cries out on account of the second
death which he is suffering,' and ' Each cries out
for death to come a second time and ease him of
his sufferings.' " 4 Buti says : " Here one doubts
what the author meant by the second death, and as
for me I think he meant the last damnation, which

1 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 7.

2 Inferno, XXXIII. 118, et seq.
8 Inferno, I. 116, 117.

* Mr. Longfellow's for, like the Italian per, gives us the same
privilege of election. We " freeze for cold," we "hunger for
food."



226 DANTE

shall be at the day of judgment, because they
would wish through envy that it had already come,
that they might have more companions, since the
first death is the first damnation, when the soul
parted from the body is condemned to the pains of
hell for its sins. The second is when, resuscitated
at the judgment day, they shall be finally con
demned, soul and body together. ... It may
otherwise be understood as annihilation." Imola
says, " Each would wi^h to die again, if he could,
to put an end to his pain. Do not hold with some
who think that Dante calls the second death the
day of judgment," and then quotes a passage from
St. Augustine which favors that view. Pietro di
Dante gives us four interpretations among which
to choose, the first being that, " allegorically, de
praved and vicious men are in a certain sense dead
in reputation, and this is the first death ; the sec
ond is that of the body." This we believe to be
the true meaning. Dante himself, in a letter to
the " most rascally (scelestissimis) dwellers in
Florence," gives us the key : " but you, transgres


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 15 of 28)