James Russell Lowell.

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

. (page 16 of 28)
Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 16 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

sors of the laws of God and man, whom the dire
ful maw of cupidity hath enticed not unwilling to
every crime, does not the terror of the second death
torment you ? " Their first death was in their sins,
the second is what they may expect from the just
vengeance of the Emperor Henry VII. The world
Dante leads us through is that of his own thought,
and it need not surprise us therefore if we meet in
it purely imaginary beings like Tristrem l and Ke-
1 Inferno, V. 67.


noard of the club. 1 His personality is so strongly
marked that it is nothing more than natural that
his poem should be interpreted as if only he and
his opinions, prejudices, or passions were concerned.
He would not have been the great poet he was if
he had not felt intensely and humanly, but he
could never have won the cosmopolitan place he
holds had he not known how to generalize his spe
cial experience into something mediatorial for all of
us. Pietro di Dante in his comment on the thirty-
first canto of the Purgatorio says that " unless you
understand him and his figures allegorically, you
will be deceived by the bark," and adds that our
author made his pilgrimage as the representative
of the rest (in persona ceterorurn)? To give his
vision reality, he has adapted it to the vulgar my
thology, but to understand it as the author meant,
it must be taken in the larger sense. To confine

1 Paradiso, XVIII. 46. Renoard is one of the heroes (a rudely
humorous one) in La Bataille d'Alischans, an episode of the
measureless Guillaume d' Orange. It was from the graves of those
supposed to have been killed in this battle that Dante draws a
comparison, Inferno, IX. Boccaccio's comment on this passage
might have been read to advantage by the French editors of Ali-

2 We cite this comment under its received name, though it is
uncertain if Pietro was the author of it. Indeed, we strongly
doubt it. It is at least one of the earliest, for it appears, by the
comment on Paradiso, XXVI., that the greater part of it was
written before 1341. It is remarkable for the strictness with
which it holds to the spiritual interpretation of the poem, and de
serves much more to be called Ottimo, than the comment which
goes by that name. Its publication is due to the zeal and liberal
ity of the late Lord Vernon, to whom students of Dante are also
indebted for the parallel-text reprint of the four earliest editions
of the Commedia.


it to Florence or to Italy is to banish it from the
sympathies of mankind. It was not from the cam
panile of the Badia that Dante got his views of life
and man.

The relation of Dante to literature is monumen
tal, and marks the era at which the modern begins.
He is not only the first great poet, but the first
great prose writer who used a language not yet sub
dued to literature, who used it moreover for scien
tific and metaphysical discussion, thus giving an
incalculable impulse to the culture of his country
men by making the laity free of what had hitherto
been the exclusive guild of clerks. 1 Whatever
poetry had preceded him, whether in the Romance
or Teutonic tongues, is interesting mainly for its
simplicity without forethought, or, as in the Nibe-
lungen, for a kind of savage grandeur that rouses
the sympathy of whatever of the natural man is
dormant in us. But it shows no trace of the crea
tive faculty either in unity of purpose or style, the
proper characteristics of literature. If it have the
charm of wanting artifice, it has not the higher
charm of art. We are in the realm of chaos and
chance, nebular, with phosphorescent gleams here
and there, star-stuff, but uncondensed in stars.

1 See Wegele, ubi supra, p. 174, et seq. The best analysis of
Dante's opinions we have ever met with is Eniil Ruth's Studien
iiber Dante Alighieri, Tubingen, 1853. Unhappily it wants an
index, and accordingly loses a great part of its usefulness for those
not already familiar with the subject. Nor are its references suf
ficiently exact. We always respect Dr. Ruth's opinions, if we do
not wholly accept them, for they are all the results of original and
assiduous study.


The Nibelungen is not without far-reaching hints
and forebodings of something finer than we find in
it, but they are a glamour from the vague darkness
which encircles it, like the whisper of the sea upon
an unknown shore at night, powerful only over the
more vulgar side of the imagination, and leaving
no thought, scarce even any image (at least of
beauty) behind them. Such poems are the amours,
not the lasting friendships and possessions of the
mind. They thrill and cannot satisfy.

But Dante is not merely the founder of modern
literature. He would have been that if he had
never written anything more than his Canzoni,
which for elegance, variety of rhythm, and fervor
of sentiment were something altogether new. They
are of a higher mood than any other poems of the
same style in their own language, or indeed in any
other. In beauty of phrase and subtlety of analogy
they remind one of some of the Greek tragic cho
ruses. We are constantly moved in them by a
nobleness of tone, whose absence in many admired
lyrics of the kind is poorly supplied by conceits.
So perfect is Dante's mastery of his material, that
in compositions, as he himself has shown, so arti
ficial, 1 the form seems rather organic than mechan-

1 See the second book of the De Vulgari Eloquio. The only
other Italian poet who reminds us of Dante in sustained dignity
is Guido Guinicelli. Dante esteemed him highly, calls him max-
imus in the De Vulgari Eloquio, and " the father of me and of my
betters," in the XXVI. Purgatorio. See some excellent specimens
of him in Mr. D. G. Rossetti's remarkable volume of translations
from the early Italian poets. Mr. Rossetti would do a real and
lasting service to literature by employing his singular gift in put
ting Dante's minor poems into English.


ical, which cannot be said of the best of the Pro-
venc. al poets who led the way in this kind. Dante's
sonnets also have a grace and tenderness which
have been seldom matched. His lyrical excellence
would have got him into the Collections, and he
woidd have made here and there an enthusiast as
Donne does in English, but his great claim to re
membrance is not merely Italian. It is that he
was the first Christian poet, in any proper sense of
the word, the first who so subdued dogma to the
uses of plastic imagination as to make something
that is still poetry of the highest order after it has
suffered the disenchantment inevitable in the most
perfect translation. Verses of the kind usually
called sacred (reminding one of the adjective's
double meaning) had been written before his time
in the vulgar tongue, such verses as remain invio
lably sacred in the volumes of specimens, looked
at with distant reverence by the pious, and with
far other feelings by the profane reader. There
were cycles of poems in which the physical conflict
between Christianity and Paganism l furnished the
subject, but in which the theological views of the
authors, whether doctrinal or historical, could hardly
be reconciled with any system of religion ancient
or modern. There were Church legends of saints
and martyrs versified, fit certainly to make any
other form of martyrdom seem amiable to those
who heard them, and to suggest palliative thoughts
about Diocletian. Finally, there were the romances

1 The old French poems confound all unbelievers together as
pagans and worshippers of idols.


of Arthur and his knights, which later, by means
of allegory, contrived to be both entertaining and
edifying ; every one who listened to them paying
the minstrel his money, and having his choice
whether he would take them as song or sermon.
In the heroes of some of these certain Christian
virtues were typified, and around a few of them, as
the Holy Grail, a perfume yet lingers of cloistered
piety and withdrawal. Wolfram von Eschenbach,
indeed, has divided his Parzival into three books,
of Simplicity, Doubt, and Healing, which has led
Gervinus to trace a not altogether fanciful analogy
between that poem and the Dimna Commedia.
The doughty old poet, who says of himself,

" Of song I have some slight control,
But deem her of a feeble soul
That doth not love my naked sword
Above my sweetest lyric word,"

tells us that his subject is the choice between good
and evil ;

" Whose soul takes Untruth for its bride
And sets himself on Evil's side,
Chooses the Black, and sure it is
His path leads down to the abyss ;
But he who doth his nature feed
With steadfastness and loyal deed
Lies open to the heavenly light
And takes his portion with the White."

But Wolfram's poem has no system, and shows
good feeling rather than settled conviction. Above
all it is wandering (as he himself confesses), and
altogether wants any controlling purpose. But to
whatever extent Christianity had insinuated itself


into and colored European literature, it was mainly
as mythology. The Christian idea had never yet
incorporated itself. It was to make its avatar in
Dante. To understand fully what he accomplished
we must form some conception c f what is meant by
the Christian idea. To bring it into fuller relief,
let us contrast it with the Greek idea as it appears
in poetry ; for we are not dealing with a question
of theology so much as with one of aesthetics.

Greek art at its highest point is doubtless the
most perfect that we know. But its circle of mo
tives was essentially limited ; and the Greek drama
in its passion, its pathos, and its humor is prima
rily Greek, and secondarily human. Its tragedy
chooses its actors from certain heroic families, and
finds its springs of pity and terror in physical suf
fering and worldly misfortune. Its best examples,
like the Antigone, illustrate a single duty, or, like
the Hippolytus, a single passion, on which, as on
a pivot, the chief character, statuesquely simple in
its details, revolves as pieces of sculpture are some
times made to do, displaying its different sides in
one invariable light. The general impression left
on the mind (and this is apt to be a truer one than
any drawn from single examples) is that the duty
is one which is owed to custom, that the passion
leads to a breach of some convention settled by
common consent, 1 and accordingly it is an outraged

1 Dante is an ancient in this respect as in many others, but the
difference is that with him society is something divinely ordaiiied.
He follows Aristotle pretty closely, but on his own theory crime
and sin are identical


society whose figure looms in the background,
rather than an offended God. At most it was one
god of many, and meanwhile another might be
friendly. In the Greek epic, the gods are parti
sans, they hold caucuses, they lobby and log-roll
for their candidates. The tacit admission of a re
vealed code of morals wrought a great change.
The complexity and range of passion is vastly in
creased when the offence is at once both crime and
sin, a wrong done against order and against con
science at the same time. The relation of the
Greek tragedy to the higher powers is chiefly an
tagonistic, struggle against an implacable destiny,
sublime struggle, and of heroes, but sure of defeat
at last. And that defeat is final. Grand figures
are those it exhibits to us, in some respects un
equalled, and in their severe simplicity they com
pare with modern poetry as sculpture with paint
ing^ Considered merely as works of art, these
products of the Greek imagination satisfy our
highest conception of form. They suggest inevi
tably a feeling of perfect completeness, isolation,
and independence, of something rounded and fin
ished in itself. The secret of those old shapers
died with them ; their wand is broken, their book
sunk deeper than ever plummet sounded. The
type of their work is the Greek temple, which
leaves nothing to hope for in unity and perfection
of design, in harmony and subordination of parts,
and in entireness of impression. But in this aes
thetic completeness it ends. It rests solidly and
complacently on the earth, and the mind rests there
with it.


Now the Christian idea has to do with the hu
man soul, which Christianity may be almost said
to have invented. While all Paganism represents
a few preeminent families, the founders of dynas
ties or ancestors of races, as of kin with the gods,
Christianity makes every pedigree end in Deity,
makes monarch and slave the children of one God.
Its heroes struggle not against, but upward and
onward toward, the higher powers who are always
on their side. Its highest conception of beauty
is not aesthetic, but moral. With it prosperity
and adversity have exchanged meanings. It finds
enemies in those worldly good-fortunes where Pa
gan and even Hebrew literature saw the highest
blessing, and invincible allies in sorrow, poverty,
humbleness of station, where the former world
recognized only implacable foes. While it utterly
abolished all boundary lines of race or country
and made mankind unitary, its hero is always the
individual man whoever and wherever he may
be. Above all, an entirely new conception of the
Infinite and of man's relation to it came in with
Christianity. That, and not the finite, is always the
background, consciously or not. It changed the
scene of the last act of every drama to the next
world. Endless aspiration of all the faculties be
came thus the ideal of Christian life, and to express
it more or less perfectly the ideal of essentially
Christian art. It was this which the Middle Ages
instinctively typified in the Gothic cathedral, no
accidental growth, but the visible symbol of an in
ward faith, which soars forever upward, and


yearns toward heaven like a martyr-flame suddenly
turned to stone.

It is not without significance that Goethe, who,
like Dante, also absorbed and represented the ten
dency and spirit of his age, should, during his youth
and while Europe was alive with the moral and in
tellectual longing which preluded the French Revo
lution, have loved the Gothic architecture. It is
no less significant that in the period of reaction
toward more positive thought which followed, he
should have preferred the Greek. His greatest
poem, conceived during the former era, is Gothic.
Dante, endeavoring to conform himself to literary
tradition, began to write the Divina Commedia in
Latin, and had elaborated several cantos of it in
that dead and intractable material. But that poetic
instinct, which is never the instinct of an individ
ual, but of his age, could not so be satisfied, and
leaving the classic structure he had begun to stand
as a monument of failure, he completed his work
in Italian. Instead of endeavoring to manufacture
a great poem out of what was foreign and artificial,
he let the poem make itself out of him. The epic
which he wished to write in the universal language
of scholars, and which might have had its ten lines
in the history of literature, would sing itself in pro
vincial Tuscan, and turns out to be written in the
universal dialect of mankind. Thus all great poets
have been in a certain sense provincial, Homer,
Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Burns, Scott in the
" Heart of Midlothian " and " Bride of Lammer-
moor," because the office of the poet is always


vicarious, because nothing that has not been living
experience can become living expression, because
the collective thought, the faith, the desire of a na
tion or a race, is the cumulative result of many ages,
is something organic, and is wiser and stronger
than any single person, and will make a great states
man or a great poet out of any man who can en
tirely surrender himself to it.

As the Gothic cathedral, then, is the type of the
Christian idea, so is it also of Dante's poem. And
as that in its artistic unity is but the completed
thought of a single architect, which yet could never
have been realized except out of the faith and by the
contributions of an entire people, whose beliefs and
superstitions, whose imagination and fancy, find
expression in its statues and its carvings, its calm
saints and martyrs now at rest forever in the seclu
sion of their canopied niches, and its wanton gro
tesques thrusting themselves forth from every pin
nacle and gargoyle, so in Dante's poem, while it is
as personal and peculiar as if it were his private
journal and autobiography, we can yet read the
diary and the autobiography of the thirteenth cen
tury and of the Italian people. Complete and har
monious in design as his work is, it is yet no Pagan
temple enshrining a type of the human made divine
by triumph of corporeal beauty ; it is not a private
chapel housing a single saint and dedicate to one
chosen bloom of Christian piety or devotion ; it is
truly a cathedral, over whose high altar hangs the
emblem of suffering, of the Divine made human to
teach the beauty of adversity, the eternal presence


of the spiritual, not overhanging and threatening,
but informing and sustaining the material. In this
cathedral of Dante's there are side-chapels as is fit,
with altars to all Christian virtues and perfections ;
but the great impression of its leading thought is
that of aspiration, for ever and ever. In the three
divisions of the poem we may trace something more
than a fancied analogy with a Christian basilica.
There is first the ethnic forecourt, then the purga
torial middle space, and last the holy of holies
dedicated to the eternal presence of the media
torial God.

But what gives Dante's poem a peculiar claim to
the title of the first Christian poem is not merely its
doctrinal truth or its Christian mythology, but the
fact that the scene of it is laid, not in this world,
but in the soul of man ; that it is the allegory
of a human life, and therefore universal in its sig
nificance and its application. The genius of Dante
has given to it such a self-subsistent reality, that
one almost gets to feel as if the chief value of con
temporary Italian history had been to furnish it
with explanatory foot-notes, and the age in which it
was written assumes towards it the place of a satel
lite. For Italy, Dante is the thirteenth century.

Most men make the voyage of life as if they car
ried sealed orders which they were not to open till
they were fairly in mid-ocean. But Dante had
made up his mind as to the true purpose and mean
ing of our existence in this world shortly after he
had passed his twenty-fifth year. He had already
conceived the system about which as a connecting


thread the whole experience of his life, the whole
result of his studies, was to cluster in imperishable
crystals. The corner-stone of his system was the
Freedom of the Will (in other words, the right of
private judgment with the condition of accounta
bility), which Beatrice calls the " noble virtue." 1
As to every man is offered his choice between good
and evil, and as, even upon the root of a nature
originally evil a habit of virtue may be engrafted, 2
no man is excused. " All hope abandon ye who
enter in," for they have thrown away reason which
is the good of the intellect, " and it seems to me no
less a marvel to bring back to reason him in whom
it is wholly spent than to bring back to life him
who has been four days in the tomb." 3 As a guide
of the will in civil affairs the Emperor ; in spirit
ual, the Pope. 4 Dante is not one of those reform
ers who would assume the office of God to " make all
things new." He knew the power of tradition and

1 Purgatorio, XVIII. 73. He defines it in the De Monarchia
(lib. i. 14). Among other things he calls it " the first begin
ning of our liberty." Paradiso, V. 19, 20, he calls it " the great
est gift that in his largess God creating made." " Dico quod judi-
cium medium est apprehensionis et appetitus." (De Monarchia, ubi

" Right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides."

(Troilus and Cressida.)

2 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 22.

8 Convilo, Tr. IV. c. 7. " Qui descenderit ad inferos, non ascen-
det." (Job vii. 9.)

4 But it may be inferred that he put the interests of mankind
above both. " For citizens," he says, " exist not for the sake of
consuls, nor the people for the sake of the king, but, on the con
trary, consuls for the sake of citizens, and the king for the sake of
the people."


habit, and wished to utilize it for his purpose. He
found the Empire and the Papacy already existing,
but both needing reformation that they might serve
the ends of their original institution. Bad leader
ship was to blame ; men fit to gird on the sword had
been turned into priests, and good preachers spoiled
to make bad kings. 1 The spiritual had usurped to
itself the prerogatives of the temporal power.

" Rome, that reformed the world, accustomed was

Two suns to have which one road and the other,
Of God and of the world, made manifest.
One has the other quenched, and to the crosier
The sword is joined, and ill beseemeth it,

Because, being joined one feareth not the other." 2
Both powers held their authority directly from God,
" not so, however, that the Roman Prince is not in
some things subject to the Roman Pontiff, since
that human felicity [to be attained only by peace,
justice, and good government, possible only under
a single ruler] is in some sort ordained to the end
of immortal felicity. Let Caesar use that reverence
toward Peter which a first-born son ought to use
toward a father ; that, shone upon by the light of
paternal grace, he may more powerfully illumine
the orb of earth over which he is set by him alone
who is the ruler of all things spiritual and tempo
ral." 3 As to the fatal gift of Constantine, Dante
demonstrates that an Emperor could not alienate
what he held only in trust ; but if he made the
gift, the Pope should hold it as a feudatory of the

1 Paradiso, VIII. 145, 146. a Purgatorio, XVI. 106-112.

8 De Monarchia, ult.


Empire, for the benefit, however, of Christ's poor. 1
Dante is always careful to distinguish between the
Papacy and the Pope. He prophesies for Boniface
VIII. a place in hell, 2 but acknowledges him as the
Vicar of Christ, goes so far even as to denounce
the outrage of Guillaume de Nogaret at Anagni as
done to the Saviour himself. 3 But in the Spiritual
World Dante acknowledges no such supremacy,
and, when he would have fallen on his knees before
Adrian V., is rebuked by him in a quotation from
the Apocalypse :

" Err not, fellow-servant am I
With thee and with the others to one power." *

So impartial was this man whose great work is
so often represented as a kind of bag in which he
secreted the gall of personal prejudice, so truly
Catholic is he, that both parties find their arsenal
in him. The Romanist proves his soundness in
doctrine, the anti-Romanist claims him as the first
Protestant ; the Mazzinist and the Imperialist can
alike quote him for their purpose. Dante's ardent
conviction would not let him see that both Church

1 De Monarchia, lib. iii. 10. " Poterat tamen Imperator in pa-
trocinium EcclesiaB patrimonium et alia deputare immoto semper
snperiori dominio cujus unitas divisionem non patitur. Poterat et
Vicarius Dei recipere, non tanquam possessor, sed tanquara fruc-
tuum pro Ecclesia proque Christi pauperibus dispensator." He
tells us that St. Dominic did not ask for the tithes which belong
to the poor of God. (Paradise, XTI. 93, 94.) " Let them return
whence they came," he says (De Monarchia, lib. ii. 12) ; "they
came well, let them return ill, for they were well given and ill

2 Inferno, XIX. 53 ; Paradise, XXX. 145-148.

Purgatorio, XX. 86-92. * Purgatorio, XIX. 134, 135.


and Empire were on the wane. If an ugly suspi
cion of this would force itself upon him, perhaps
he only clung to both the more tenaciously ; but
he was no blind theorist. He would reform the
Church through the Church, and is less anxious for
Italian independence than for Italian good govern
ment under an Emperor from Germany rather than
from Utopia.

The Papacy was a necessary part of Dante's sys
tem, as a supplement to the Empire, which we
strongly incline to believe was always foremost in
his mind. In a passage already quoted, he says
that "the soil where Rome sits is worthy beyond
what men preach and admit," that is, as the birth
place of the Empire. Both in the Convito and the
De Monarchia he affirms that the course of Roman
history was providentially guided from the first.
Rome was founded in the same year that brought

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 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 16 of 28)