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qualities of the higher), not by any process of rea
son, but by the very fire of the divine love.

" Then there smote my mind
A flash of lightning wherein came its wish." 1

Perhaps it seems little to say that Dante was the
first great poet who ever made a poem wholly out
of himself, but, rightly looked at, it implies a won
derful self-reliance and originality in his genius.
His is the first keel that ever ventured into the
silent sea of human consciousness to find a new
world of poetry.

'* L' acqua ch' io prendo giammai non si corse-" 2

He discovered that not only the story of some he
roic person, but that of any man might be epical ;
that the way to heaven was not outside the world,
but through it. Living at a time when the end of
the world was still looked for as imminent, 3 he be
lieved that the second coming of the Lord was to take
place on no more conspicuous stage than the soul of

1 Dante seems to allude directly to this article of the Cath
olic faith when he says, on entering the Celestial Paradise, " to
signify transhumanizing by words could not be done," and ques
tions whether he was there in the renewed spirit only or in the
flesh also :

" If I was merely what of me thou newly

Createdst, Love, who governest the heavens,
Thou knowest, who didst lift me with thy light ! "

(Paradiso, I. 73-75.)

2 Paradiso, II. 7. Lucretius makes the same boast :

" Avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante

8 Convito, Tr. II. c. 15.


man ; that his kingdom would be established in the
surrendered will. A poem, the precious distillation
of such a character and such a life as his through
all those sorrowing but undespondent years, must
have a meaning in it which few men have meaning
enough in themselves wholly to penetrate. That its
allegorical form belongs to a past fashion, with
which the modern mind has little sympathy, we
should no more think of denying than of whitewash
ing a fresco of Giotto. But we may take it as we
may nature, which is also full of double meanings,
either as picture or as parable, either for the sim
ple delight of its beauty or as a shadow of the
spiritual world. We may take it as we may his
tory, either for its picturesqueness or its moral,
either for the variety of its figures, or as a witness
to that perpetual presence of God in his creation of
which Dante was so profoundly sensible. He had
seen and suffered much, but it is only to the man
who is himself of value that experience is valuable.
He had not looked on man and nature as most of
us do, with less interest than into the columns of
our daily newspaper. He saw in them the latest
authentic news of the God who made them, for he
carried everywhere that vision washed clear with
tears which detects the meaning under the mask,
and, beneath the casual and transitory, the eternal
keeping its sleepless watch. The secret of Dante's
power is not far to seek. Whoever can express
himself with the full force of unconscious sincerity
will be found to have uttered something ideal and
universal. Dante intended a didactic poem, but


the most picturesque of poets could not escape his
genius, and his sermon sings and glows and charms
in a manner that surprises more at the fiftieth
reading than the first, such variety of freshness is
in imagination.

There are no doubt in the Divina Comm edict, (re
garded merely as poetry) sandy spaces enough both
of physics and metaphysics, but with every deduc
tion Dante remains the first of descriptive as well
as moral poets. His verse is as various as the feel
ing it conveys ; now it has the terseness and edge
of steel, and now palpitates with iridescent softness
like the breast of a dove. In vividness he is with
out a rival. He drags back by its tangled locks
the unwilling head of some petty traitor of an Ital
ian provincial town, lets the fire glare on the sullen
face for a moment, and it sears itself into the mem
ory forever. He shows us an angel glowing with that
love of God which makes him a star even amid the
glory of heaven, and the holy shape keeps lifelong
watch in our fantasy, constant as a sentinel. He
has the skill of conveying impressions indirectly.
In the gloom of hell his bodily presence is revealed
by his stirring something, on the mount of expia
tion by casting a shadow. Would he have us feel
the brightness of an angel ? He makes him whiten
afar through the smoke like a dawn, 1 or, walk
ing straight toward the setting sun, he finds his
eyes suddenly unable to withstand a greater splen
dor against which his hand is unavailing to shield

1 Purgatorio, XVI. 142. Here is Milton's " Far off his coming


him. Even its reflected light, then, is brighter
than the direct ray of the sun. 1 And how much
more keenly do we feel the parched lips of Master
Adam for those rivulets of the Casentino which
run down into the Arno, " making their channels
cool and soft " ! His comparisons are as fresh, as
simple, and as directly from nature as those of
Homer. 2 Sometimes they show a more subtle
observation, as where he compares the stooping of
Antaeus over him to the leaning tower of Cari-
senda, to which the clouds, flying in an opposite di
rection to its inclination, give away their motion. 3
His suggestions of individuality, too, from attitude
or speech, as in Fariuata, Sordello, or Pia, 4 give
in a hint what is worth acres of so-called character-
painting. In straightforward pathos, the single and
sufficient thrust of phrase, he has no competitor.
He is too sternly touched to be effusive and tearful :

" Io non piangeva, si dentro impietrai." 6

His is always the true coin of speech,

1 Purgatorio, XV. 7, et seq.

2 See, for example, Inferno, XVII. 127-132 ; Ib. XXIV. 7-12 ;
Purgatorio, 11.124-129; Ib., III. 79-84; Ib., XXVII. 76-81;
Paradiso, XIX. 91-93 ; Ib. XXI. 34-39 ; Ib. XXIII. 1-9.

8 Inferno, XXXI. 136-138.

" And those thin clonds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars."

(Coleridge, Dejection, an Ode.)

See also the comparison of the dimness of the faces seen around
him in Paradise to " a pearl on a white forehead." (Paradise,
IH. 14.)

* Inferno, X. 35-41 ; Pnrgatorio, VI. 61-66 ; Ib., X. 133.
5 For example, Cavalcanti's Come dicesti egli ebbe ? (Inferno, X.
67, 68.) Anselmuccio's Tu guardi si, padre, che hoi ? ( Inferno,

xxxin. 51.)


" SI lucida e si tonda
Che nel suo conio mil la ci s' inforsa,"

and never the highly ornamented promise to pay,
token of insolvency.

No doubt it is primarily by his poetic qualities
that a poet must be judged, for it is by these, if by
anything, that he is to maintain his place in litera
ture. And he must be judged by them absolutely,
with reference, that is, to the highest standard,
and not relatively to the fashions and opportunities
of the age in which he lived. Yet these considera
tions must fairly enter into our decision of another
side of the question, and one that has much to do
with the true quality of the man, with his charac
ter as distinguished from his talent, and therefore
with how much he will influence men as well as
delight them. We may reckon up pretty exactly a
man's advantages and defects as an artist ; these he
has in common with others, and they are to be mea
sured by a recognized standard ; but there is some
thing in his genius that is incalculable. It would
be hard to define the causes of the difference of im
pression made upon us respectively by two such
men as ^Eschylus and Euripides, but we feel pro
foundly that the latter, though in some respects a
better dramatist, was an infinitely lighter weight.
2Eschylus stirs something in us far deeper than the
sources of mere pleasurable excitement. The man
behind the verse is far greater than the verse itself,
and the impulse he gives to what is deepest and
most sacred in us, though we cannot always explain
it, is none the less real and lasting. Some men


always seem to remain outside their work ; others
make their individuality felt in every part of it ;
their very life vibrates in every verse, and we do
not wonder that it has " made them lean for many
years." The virtue that has gone out of them
abides in what they do. The book such a man
makes is indeed, as Milton called it, " the precious
lifeblood of a master spirit." Theirs is a true im
mortality, for it is their soul, and not their talent,
that survives in their work. Dante's concise forth-
rightness of phrase, which to that of most other
poets is as a stab * to a blow with a cudgel, the
vigor of his thought, the beauty of his images, the
refinement of his conception of spiritual things,
are marvellous if we compare him with his age
and its best achievement. But it is for his power
of inspiring and sustaining, it is because they find
in him a spur to noble aims, a secure refuge in
that defeat which the present always seems, that
they prize Dante who know and love him best. He
is not merely a great poet, but an influence, part of
the soul's resources in time of trouble. From him
she learns that, " married to the truth, she is a mis
tress, but otherwise a slave shut out of all lib
erty." 2

All great poets have their message to deliver us,
from something higher than they. We venture on
no unworthy comparison between him who reveals

1 To the " bestiality " of certain arguments Dante says, " one
would wish to reply, not with words, but with a knife. " ( Con-
Vito, Tr. IV. c. 14.)

2 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 2.


to us the beauty of this world's love and the gran
deur of this world's passion and him who shows
that love of God is the fruit whereof all other loves
are but the beautiful and fleeting blossom, that the
passions are yet sublimer objects of contemplation,
when, subdued by the will, they become patience
in suffering and perseverance in the upward path.
But we cannot help thinking that if Shakespeare
be the most comprehensive intellect, so Dante is
the highest spiritual nature that has expressed it
self in rhythmical form. Had he merely made us
feel how petty the ambitions, sorrows, and vexa
tions of earth appear when looked down on from
the heights of our own character and the seclusion
of our own genius, or from the region where we
commune with God, he had done much :

" I with my sight returned through one and all

The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance." *

But he has done far more ; he has shown us the
way by which that country far beyond the stars
may be reached, may become the habitual dwelling-
place and fortress of our nature, instead of being
the object of its vague aspiration in moments of
indolence. At the Round Table of King Arthur
there was left always one seat empty for him who
should accomplish the adventure of the Holy GraiL
It was called the perilous seat because of the dan
gers he must encounter who would win it. In the
company of the epic poets there was a place left
for whoever should embody the Christian idea of a
i Paradiso, XXII. 132-135; Ib., XXVII. 110.


triumphant life, outwardly all defeat, inwardly vic
torious, who should make us partakers of that cup
of sorrow in which all are communicants with
Christ. He who should do this would indeed
achieve the perilous seat, for he must combine
poesy with doctrine in such cunning wise that the
one lose not its beauty nor the other its severity,
and Dante has done it. As he takes possession of
it we seem to hear the cry he himself heard when
Virgil rejoined the company of great singers,

" All honor to the loftiest of poets I "


CHAUCER had been in his grave one hundred
and fifty years ere England had secreted choice
material enough for the making of another great
poet. The nature of men living together in socie
ties, as of the individual man, seems to have its pe
riodic ebbs and floods, its oscillations between the
ideal and the matter-of-fact, so that the doubtful
boundary line of shore between them is in one gen
eration a hard sandy actuality strewn only with
such remembrances of beauty as a dead sea-moss
here and there, and in the next is whelmed with
those lacelike curves of ever-gaining, ever-receding
foam, and that dance of joyous spray which for a
moment catches and holds the sunshine.

From the two centuries between 1400 and 1600
the indefatigable Ritson in his Bibliographia Po-
etica has made us a catalogue of some six hundred
English poets, or, more properly, verse-makers.
Ninety-nine in a hundred of them are mere names,
most of them no more than shadows of names, some
of them mere initials. Nor can it be said of them
that their works have perished because they were
written in an obsolete dialect ; for it is the poem
that keeps the language alive, and not the language


that buoys up the poem. The revival of letters, as
it is called, was at first the revival of ancient let
ters, which, while it made men pedants, could do
very little towards making them poets, much less
towards making them original writers. There
was nothing left of the freshness, vivacity, inven
tion, and careless faith in the present which make
many of the productions of the Norman Trouveres
delightful reading even now. The whole of Eu
rope during the fifteenth century produced no
book which has continued readable, or has become
in any sense of the word a classic. I do not mean
that that century has left us no illustrious names,
that it was not enriched with some august intel
lects who kept alive the apostolic succession of
thought and speculation, who passed along the still
unextinguished torch of intelligence, the lampada
vitce, to those who came after them. But a clas
sic is properly a book which maintains itself by
virtue of that happy coalescence of matter and
style, that innate and exquisite sympathy between
the thought that gives life and the form that con
sents to every mood of grace and dignity, which
can be simple without being vulgar, elevated with
out being distant, and which is something neither
ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of
growing old. It is not his Latin which makes
Horace cosmopolitan, nor can Beranger's French
prevent his becoming so. No hedge of language
however thorny, no dragon-coil of centuries, will
keep men away from these true apples of the Hes-
perides if once they have caught sight or scent of


them. If poems die, it is because there was never
true life in them, that is, that true poetic vitality
which no depth of thought, no airiness of fancy, no
sincerity of feeling, can singly communicate, but
which leaps throbbing at touch of that shaping
faculty the imagination. Take Aristotle's ethics,
the scholastic philosophy, the theology of Aquinas,
the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the small poli
tics of a provincial city of the Middle Ages, mix in
at will Grecian, Roman, and Christian mythology,
and tell me what chance there is to make an im
mortal poem of such an incongruous mixture. Can
these dry bones live ? Yes, Dante can create such
a soul under these ribs of death that one hundred
and fifty editions of his poem shall be called for in
these last sixty years, the first half of the sixth cen
tury since his death. Accordingly I am apt to be
lieve that the complaints one sometimes hears of
the neglect of our older literature are the regrets
of archaeologists rather than of critics. One does
not need to advertise the squirrels where the nut-
trees are, nor could any amount of lecturing per
suade them to spend their teeth on a hollow nut.

On the whole, the Scottish poetry of the fifteenth
century has more meat in it than the English, but
this is to say very little. Where it is meant to be
serious and lofty it falls into the same vices of un
reality and allegory which were the fashion of the
day, and which there are some patriots so fearfully
and wonderfully made as to relish. Stripped of
the archaisms (that turn every y to a meaningless
s, spell which quhillc, shake schaik, bugle bowgill t


powder puldir, and will not let us simply whistle
till we have puckered our mouths to quhissill') in
which the Scottish antiquaries love to keep it dis
guised, as if it were nearer to poetry the further
it got from all human recognition and sympathy,
stripped of these, there is little to distinguish it
from the contemporary verse-mongering south of
the Tweed. Their compositions are generally as
stiff and artificial as a trellis, in striking contrast
with the popular ballad-poetry of Scotland (some
of which possibly falls within this period, though
most of it is later), which clambers, lawlessly if you
will, but at least freely and simply, twining the
bare stem of old tradition with graceful sentiment
and lively natural sympathies. I find a few sweet
and flowing verses in Dunbar's " Merle and Night
ingale," indeed one whole stanza that has always
seemed exquisite to me. It is this :

" Ne'er sweeter noise was heard by living man
Than made this merry, gentle nightingale.
Her sound went with the river as it ran
Out through the fresh and flourished lusty vale ;
O merle, quoth she, O fool, leave off thy tale,
For in thy song good teaching there is none,
For both are lost, the time and the travail
Of every love but upon God alone."

But except this lucky poem, I find little else in the
serious verses of Dunbar that does not seem to me
tedious and pedantic. I dare say a few more lines
might be found scattered here and there, but I
hold it a sheer waste of time to hunt after these
thin needles of wit buried in unwieldy haystacks
of verse. If that be genius, the less we have of it


the better. His "Dance of the Seven Deadly
Sins," over which the excellent Lord Hailes went
into raptures, is wanting in everything but coarse
ness ; and if his invention dance at all, it is like a
galley-slave in chains under the lash. It would be
well for us if the sins themselves were indeed such
wretched bugaboos as he has painted for us. What
he means for humor is but the dullest vulgarity ;
his satire would be Billingsgate if it could, and,
failing, becomes a mere offence in the nostrils, for
it takes a great deal of salt to keep scurrility sweet.
Mr. Sibbald, in his " Chronicle of Scottish Poetry,"
has admiringly preserved more than enough of it,
and seems to find a sort of national savor therein,
such as delights his countrymen in a haggis, or the
German in his sauer-kraut. The uninitiated for
eigner puts his handkerchief to his nose, wonders,
and gets out of the way as soon as he civilly can.
Barbour's " Brus," if not precisely a poem, has
passages whose simple tenderness raises them to
that level. That on Freedom is familiar. 1 But its
highest merit is the natural and unstrained tone of
manly courage in it, the easy and familiar way in
which Barbour always takes chivalrous conduct as
a matter of course, as if heroism were the least you
could ask of any man. I modernize a few verses
to show what I mean. When the King of England
turns to fly from the battle of Bannockburn (and

1 Though always misapplied in quotation, as if he had used the
word in that generalized meaning which is common now, but
which could not without an impossible anachronism have been
present to his mind. He meant merely freedom from prison.


Barbour with his usual generosity tells us he has
heard that Sir Aymer de Valence led him away
by the bridle-rein against his will), Sir Giles

" Saw the king thus and his menie
Shape them to flee so speedily,
He came right to the king in hy [hastily]
And said, ' Sir, since that is so
That ye thus gate your gate will go,
Have ye- good-day, for back will I :
Yet never fled I certainly,
And I choose here to bide and die
Than to live shamefully and fly.' "

The " Brus " is in many ways the best rhymed
chronicle ever written. It is national in a high
and generous way, but I confess I have little faith
in that quality in literature which is commonly
called nationality, a kind of praise seldom given
where there is anything better to be said. Liter
ature that loses its meaning, or the best part of it,
when it gets beyond sight of the parish steeple, is
not what I understand by literature. To tell you
when you cannot fully taste a book that it is be
cause it is so thoroughly national, is to condemn
the book. To say it of a poem is even worse, for
it is to say that what should be true of the whole
compass of human nature is true only to some
north-and-by-east-half-east point of it. I can un
derstand the nationality of Firdusi when, looking
sadly back to the former glories of his country, he
tells us that " the nightingale still sings old Per
sian " ; 1 can understand the nationality of Burns
when he turns his plough aside to spare the rough


burr thistle, and hopes he may write a song or two
for dear auld Scotia's sake. That sort of national
ity belongs to a country of which we are all citi
zens, that country of the heart which has no
boundaries laid down on the map. All great poe
try must smack of the soil, for it must be rooted in
it, must suck life and substance from it, but it must
do so with the aspiring instinct of the pine that
climbs forever toward diviner air, and not in the
grovelling fashion of the potato. Any verse that
makes you and me foreigners is not only not great
poetry, but no poetry at all. Dunbar's works were
disinterred and edited some thirty years ago by
Mr. Laing, and whoso is national enough to like
thistles may browse there to his heart's content.
I am inclined for other pasture, having long ago
satisfied myself by a good deal of dogged reading
that every generation is sure of its own share of
bores without borrowing from the past.

A little later came Gawain Douglas, whose trans
lation of the ^Eneid is linguistically valuable, and
whose introductions to the seventh and twelfth books
the one describing winter and the other May
have been safely praised, they are so hard to read.
There is certainly some poetic feeling in them, and
the welcome to the sun comes as near enthusiasm as
is possible for a ploughman, with a good steady yoke
of oxen, who lays over one furrow of verse, and
then turns about to lay the next as cleverly along
side it as he can. But it is a wrong done to good
taste to hold up this item kind of description any
longer as deserving any other credit than that of


a good memory. It is a mere bill of parcels, a
post-mortem inventory of nature, where imagina
tion is not merely not called for, but would be out
of place. Why, a recipe in the cookery-book is as
much like a good dinner as this kind of stuff is like
true word-painting. The poet with a real eye in
his head does not give us everything, but only the
best of everything. He selects, he combines, or
else gives what is characteristic only ; while the
false style of which I have been speaking seems to
be as glad to get a pack of impertinences on its
shoulders as Christian in the Pilgrim's Progress
was to be rid of his. One strong verse that can
hold itself upright (as the French critic Kivarol
said of Dante) with the bare help of the substan
tive and verb, is worth acres of this dead cord- wood
piled stick on stick, a boundless continuity of dry-
ness. I would rather have written that half-stanza
of Longfellow's, in the " Wreck of the Hesperus,"
of the " billow that swept her crew like icicles from
her deck," than all Gawain Douglas's tedious enu
meration of meteorological phenomena put together.
A real landscape is never tiresome ; it never pre
sents itself to us as a disjointed succession of iso
lated particulars ; we take it in with one sweep of
the eye, its light, its shadow, its melting grada
tions of distance : we do not say it is this, it is that,
and the other ; and we may be sure that if a descrip
tion in poetry is tiresome there is a grievous mis
take somewhere. All the pictorial adjectives in
the dictionary will not bring it a hair's-breadth
nearer to truth and nature. The fact is that what


we see is in the rnind to a greater degree than we
are commonly aware. As Coleridge says,

" O lady, we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live ! ' '

I have made the unfortunate Dunbar the text for
a diatribe on the subject of descriptive poetry, be
cause I find that this old ghost is not laid yet, but
comes back like a vampire to suck the life out of a
true enjoyment of poetry, and the medicine by
which vampires were cured was to unbury them,
drive a stake through them, and get them under

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