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lions.- Poets, according to Dan! much so

' Alfredo Oalletti, V< Canto XXII del ' !'■■_; I
tiiia', Florence, Sansoui, 1001) pp
2 Purgatorio, ii. 112-121 ; i 7



12 ANNUAL ITALIAN LECTURE

that Virgil mentions among the heroes of Limbus sonic of the actors
in the Thebais and the Achillas— 'thy people 1 as be calls them in
addressing Stat ius.

No doubt Dante himself, and perhaps even better than he, a modern
scholar, could suggest a theoretical justification of such apparent in-
consistencies with the definition of poetry as 'beauteous fiction 1 , but
I prefer to think, what I believe to lie nearer the truth, that they
show us Dante the man ami the poet as he was made by nature:
a stern judge of himself and his contemporaries, a whole-hearted party
man, a scholar enamoured of truth and of the labour that the quest

for truth entails, hut above all a dreamer of poetic dreams. We recog-
nize in him that same Dante who desired in his youth to forgo the
pleasures and to escape the hardships of the world, and to he nuked
on the waves of a sunny and calm sea in a little boat together with
Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, and their ladies; who saw- Beatrice gliding

through the streets of Florence ' sen tendosi laudare V XN l l( > later in the
De Monorchia dreamed of a brotherhood of mankind in a universal

empire of peace, described the forest 'spessa e viva" of Eden, and,
shortly before entering it, paused in thought, if not in his steps, on the
upward way while he made the meeting of Statins with Virgil the
occasion for an indirect praise of poetry. 2 The meaning of this
episode cannot be fully understood unless other passages of the
Commedla are brought into relation with it — the description of
Limbus, the conversation with Brunetto Latini, the words spoken by
Guinizelli and Bonagiunta, and Matelda's words about the Golden
Age.

In the fourth canto of the Inferno Dante gives us the impression of
being still somewhat unfamiliar with the- handling of the situation
which he has conceived. The allegorical castle is a stiff and common-
place mediaeval structure; the great men of antiquity move in rigid
groups; there is no attempt at characterization, and Dante, by abstain-
ing from all mention of what is spoken, has given occasion for absurd
misconstructions on the part of some of his less skilful interpret
But though he did not fully succeed in expressing to himself and to
his readers the scene which he had conceived with a view to conveying

to us his appreciation of antiquity and in particular of ancient poetry,
the inspiration which moved him to assemble in a peaceful luminous

plain the wise and heroic ancients, and the scene itself, are rendered
quite clear and complete by the episode of the Purgatorio. It is

then that we realize how peacefully those dwellers in Limbus lived

1 Canzoniere, sod. wxii (Oxford Dante, [904, p 173); Vila Xuova, § 26, 41.
• Purgatorio, xxi B2 136; tx\ 55 111. ! Inferno, iv. 103-104.



DANTE: THE POET IS

with one another, and how familiarly Dai I with

them. Virgil was the central figure, around him were men whom
Dante knew by their works or bj their deeds, such aa Horace and
(Kid and Lucan, and other spirits with whose w<-ik- Dante would
have liked to have been acquainted, Buch as Plautus and Terenci
the ill-assorted representatives of the (nick world Hoi r, 1
pides, Simonides, Antiphon, and othi rs. Tog« ther with I .1 in

Dante's eyes more real even th.-m they, there were sad heroines of the
Thelitis and the AchiUeis. ' Those lords of t he highest song ' com
among themselves as Statins and Virgil talked in the Purgaiorio,
when Dante 'hearkened to their discourse which gave him under*
standing in poesy* 1 — wise ancients who knew nut onlv all tin
of 'good Btyle 1 and all the truth which human reason can grasp un-
unaided, but were also dimly conscious of the higher truth which
Christians were privileged to possess. Virgil himself fins! sentStatius
'towards Parnassus to drink in its caves and then did light him on to
God', when he wrote in the fourth eclogue 'The world is renewed,
justice returns and th< of man, and a new progeny descends

troin heaven*. And all those ancient poets who had described the
innocent happiness of the Golden Age had seen in a dream, according
to Matelda, tin' happy stateof the first nun in Eden. 'They who in
olden times sang of the golden age and its happy stal nee

dreamed in Parnassus of this place.'-'

Is then poetry nothing more than a 'beauteous fiction'? Or rather,
is not the fiction occasionally a revelation of supernatural truth

veiled and adorned hv beauty ?

Aquinas had laboured to bring ancient thought, as systematized by
Aristotle, into harmony with revealed truth; 1>.. accepted the

doctrine that ranked poets little higher than jesters who are some-
times aware of the truth, but who at their best are ftimpl) cntn

with the task of diverting, by their melodic the slothful

attention of men to truth and wisdom ; but he went farther even than
the mystics who echo* d the doctrine of Plotinus. For him the < <>m-
munion of ancient and Christian philosophy, as elicited bj Aquii
was a permanent acquisition; \<t potts (and we mny suppose nil
artists) could be not onlv, as the mystics maintained, the normal
channels by means of which the deepest and highest concepts s
revealed to mankind, but were also in a sense the worshippers of
beauty. Just as truth spanned the gap between the ancient and the

1 Translations are quoted tl from tin

tlir Commedia, edited by Sir Israel (■ollancx. London, G M Di
1 Purgatorio, xxii ,; ; uii. 70 7-'; sxvul l



14 ANNUAL ITALIAN LECTURE

Christian world, so Dante felt, I think, though he did not state it,
that art was another bridge across the same chasm, perhaps more
Circuitous but scarcely less safe. And the universal fellowship in the
republic- of letters which was to form the fundamental premiss of the
revival of classical studies was dimlv present to Dante's consciousness
even though he failed, and could not hut tail, to intuite in its fullness
an idea which was to have its natural development at a later date.

The strange lack of historical perspective peculiar to the Middle Ages

helped Dante to bring himself into communion with the ancients.
Hi' could not disc-over all the secrets of their art nor all the tendencies
of their mentality. Intellectually there is an abyss between Dante and
his classical models, hut sentimentally they wen- nearer to him than

they are to us; nearer in time because of the- lack of perspective, and
also more dearly familiar to him because he had in a sense discovered
them himself. 1 To such a discovery at any rate he came almost
unaided; and it was a discovery far less complete than he would
have wished us to believe. Swayed, as he was, by ethical prejudice
lie would never have dared to include among the ' lords of the highest
song' Terence, Caccilius, and Plautus, for he would have considered
them unpoetical (had he been acquainted with their works), because;
they did not consistently conform their muse to the requirements of
a moral purpose. Hut however restricted his knowledge it was
animated by a new spirit.

Since the rise of vernacular literature, Italians had been harassed
by the necessity of freeing their art from mediaeval conventionalities,
and they tried to accomplish this by several means : one was to
attempt to render the literature more humanistic by an admixture
of philosophical elements; another was to abandon the vernacular
language and to revert to "Latin. The latter attempt became at
first, in the hands of Geri d 1 Arezzo, Campesani, Lovato, and Mussato,
entirely external. These classicists seem to have thought that ancient
literature was superior to their own merely because of the advantage
it possessed of a more perfect medium of expression. Dante ranged
himself from the outset of his literary career with those who treaded
the former way. 2 As became: a friend and a protege'- of Cavalcanti he
followed in (iuinizelli's steps, who had been the first to introduce
philosophical thought into vernacular poetry; and, as became an
admirer of Brunetto I.atini, who had opened out the wide field of
encyclopaedic knowledge to the vernacular by writing his Tesoretto in
Italian, he endeavoured to widen its possibilities still farther. I have

1 Gallotti, <>p. rit., pp. 38-31).

' Vossler, Poctische Theorien, pp. 25 ; 1 5; 10—12.



DANTE: THE W)ET 15

already recalled incidentally how hi- attitu I I

of the Italian language changed as he paired from tb I I

the Conviv'in and the De Vttlgari EXoquentia* and from tl I

to tlu- Commedia. lint m) Far, since Guinis >rai the ;

had taken place only in externals. Dante rightly o

taken a decisive step forward when he "a> able to announce thai he

had learned his 'good Btyle' from Virgil. He, a vernacular |

no less than Stat i us entitled to call Virgil his m

succeeded in acquiring a knowledge, if nol ;

of the Virgilian art, and believed thai be h id applied the mel

the Latin poet in his own works.

It would perhaps be possible, if we went into rninu
Dante's assumed claim to priority, for we can discern minor

indications that students wire moving in the same direction. Hut
Dante has written thai 'the large-souled man ever exalte himself in
his heart, and so counterwise the Binall-souled man ever holds bin
less than he really is* 1 ; and he was certainly not incli
small-souled man, nor to belittle his own achievement . Even the
fact that the ancient poets in Limbus admil him, Dan h of

their group could be taken to symbolise the newly established iink
bet ween ancient and contemporary poets, the re-born fellowship among
poets of different ages and countries, H\ the side of Homer a I II
listening to their discourse- on poetry, as he listened later to the

conversation betwe* n Virgil and Stat in >. Dante could not have felt in his

heart of hearts th.it poet iv was merely fiction, or thai beaut) in poetry

was nothing more than a clumsy device intended to rivet th.

tion of readers while the lessons of virtue and truth w< re ezpoui

All this would be immaterial except in its historical bearing, if it

were true thai nadirs are concerned only with the finished product of
the potts art. not with the poet's progressive effort to achi<
expression. On the contrary it is this process which should, and in
reality does, mainly interest an intelligent reader, and helps him to
understand and to value the poet's achievement. It is fortius n
that l)ante"s attitude toward- the fundamental problem of the moral
justification of art is s () pregnant of meaning. On the thcorvl
side we have seen that he is in the main faithful to the doctrii
the rat ionalists; in his creal ive activity he reaches instead far l>< yond
the limits imposed upon poetry 1>\ that doctrine. 1!
consciousness of the importance of his art which he does not form
as a theory, hut which nevertheless underlii l< rable i

his work.

1 Convivio, i. ti 1-7 130 W mnsl . p



16 ANNUAL ITALIAN LECTURE

And Dante's consciousness of the importance of poetry, no less than
his familiar communion with his ancient and contemporary models and
masters, is made clear by yet another consideration. In the Middle
Ages the study of the technicalities of poetry and literature was pur-
sued with great zest. 1 While the Becret of classical artistic creation
became gradually obscured in the course of the centuries, men sought
to facilitate creation by a const uillv repeated endeavour to lay down
poetical rules, rather than t<> rediscover the secret of creation.
Towards the end of the mediaeval period books were written, in Italy
and elsewhere, for the training and the use of prose writers and poets ;
but such books were as dead and uninspiring as grammars. They
were nothing but. series of extracts chosen according to the prevailing
taste or expressly composed for the purpose. Literary composition
was actively pursued, but it involved externals alone. Dante evinced
a great interest in the technicalities of poetry, and though he did not
always succeed in escaping the pitfalls of contemporary methods he
threw considerable light on many a literary question. This fact has
a twofold interest : it witnesses once more, if indirectly, to Dante's
attitude towards poetry, and it shows the charm of the simple
mediaeval conditions. Every artist of the Middle Ages, however
great, was a craftsman, and as such was not ashamed to learn, to
practise, and to teach the humble technicalities of his trade. Dante's
words on this subject are well known, but I may be allowed to recall
a few of the more significant.

As early as the days when he was writing the Vita Nuova Dante was
watching himself at his work and judging of his own position among
contemporary poets. When the persistent questions of a lady
revealed to him his inconsistency in his relation with Beatrice, he
suddenly changed the manner of his poetry and deliberately carried
out a literary reform.' 2 In the course of the prose part of that book
he gives us an abstract of literary history and criticism, which besides
showing the limitations of his classical learning seems to contain the
seed out of which later developed the De Vulgar* Eloquentia. And
he gives us more than this information. Poetry is to him, we learn,
a relief from the anguish of love, but he tells us also how the
phantoms which flitted indistinctly through his mind occasionally
took shape of a sudden, and found expression in verse : 'I remained
during several days in the desire of speaking, and the fear of beginning.
After which it happened, as I passed one day along a path which lay
beside a stream of very clear water, that there came upon me a great

1 Janitschek, op. cit., pp. 16-17.
* Vita Xttova, § xviii. 7-69.



DANTE: THE POET 17

desire to say something in rhyme; . . . Whereupon I declare tint
my tongue spake as though by its own impulse, and said, " Ladies that
have intelligence of love 1 ". 1

Later in the Convivio he extolled the vernacular as the natural and
worthy medium of poetical expression; he even put forward a claim,
tentative in its form but daring in substance, to the independence of
art and morals. The De Vulgari Eloquentia, which contains some
of Dante's most original philosophical conceptions, is substantially
a vindication of the fitness and dignity of the vernacular as a medium
of literary expression; it is an attempt at constructing a literan
'Volgare 1 for the use of all his contemporaries and the irril
were to come after. But the scope and the effect of tin- theoretical
speculations are of little relevance as compared with the (native work
in the Commedia.

If a poet's craftsmanship be a thing of the earth, Dante had good
reason to say that 'heaven and earth had set hand to the poem 1 !
And it is remarkable to note how much he tells us about his own
craftsmanship and how proud he was of its excellence. Words have
a sound for him as well as a meaning; there i> also a class distinction
among them as well as among styles; and who knows how much
more he would have told us about his beliefs and his tastes h id he
finished the treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia ? When he attempted the
'sestina' for the first time in Italian, or when he invented a new and
even more complicated scheme of verse, lie took pride in his sua i
The so-called 'rime della pietra', whatever their ultimate purposi
show evident traces of the enjoyment the poet took in setting him-
self a difficult task and in accomplishing his task to his own sat
tion. In the course of his description of the weird transformations to
which the thieves are subjected in Malebolge he challenges comparison
with two even of the ancient poets whom he has placed in the com-
pany of Homer in Limbus no less on account of the excellence of his
description than on account of the complexity of his invention. W •
may disagree with his estimate of the relative merits of the principal
troubadours, but we cannot deny that it is justified by a deep insight
into problems of technique, that it is in point of fait the verdicl of
a master craftsman upon the work of his equals.

But we have observed that he was not satisfied with mere techni-
calities. The De Vulgari Eloquentia itself is an attempt to bring the

1 Vita Kuova, § xxv, § xviii. 67 69, § xix. 10 12. (IV E y lfnli.ni I
together with Dante's \'ttu Nuova, translated !>> D. <■. Ki rioo,
Newnes, 11)04, p. 196.)

2 Amor,tu vedi ben che questa duun i : sit De Vulgari I



18 ANNUAL ITALIAN LECTURE

classical spirit to bear upon the formalistic teaching of the Middle
Ages. In an episode of the Purgatorio Dante points out with striking
judiciousness the real basis of the reform of'Stil Nuovo'; he says :
1 I am one who, when love inspires me, takes note, and go Betting it
forth after the fashion which he dictates within me'. 1 Long before
any scholar had proposed or nought to solve the fundamental problem

of aesthetics the poet Dante intuited the secret of all artistic activity
from an idealistic standpoint. No man can write verse, however
learned and subtle he may be, who is unable to receive an impression
th.it is itself a poem ; an impression which sings in his heart before it
sounds in the ears of his listeners. That is how love dictates.

Hut it is the business of the poet to focus his attention on that
impression, to see it as clearly and fully as he is able, until it appears
embodied in some line which is remarkable for its charm as it. is
felicitous as an improvisation — 'Donne elf avete intelletto d'amore 1 —
or until he is able to express it by a skilful use of poetical technique.
This is the labour of 'setting it out after the' fashion which love
dictates 1 , and this is also the ' knot 1 which earlier poets and poets of
a later age have been often unable to solve. 2

Dante as a poet performs miracles in some of the openings of his
lyrics or some of his verses in the Comnied'ta. In an age of conven-
tion and formalism he went to Virgil to school ; in an age when
nothing gave reason to hope for the appearance of a masterpiece of
form and structure, he produced such a masterpiece. His creative
work is immensely superior in merit to his theori/.ings, but even tin se
show how, in spite of the limitations of contemporary philosophy and
rhetoric he was able to slip through the meshes of the network which
encircled him, and to bring the vernacular poetry of Italy, when it
was still in its infancy, to heights of perfection and finish that have
seldom been equalled and never surpassed.

1 Purgatorio, xxiv. f>2-54.

1 1'. Tommasini-Mattiuccij Inn noticina dantesca a propotito detio ' Stil Nuovo',

in 'Giornale storico delta letteratura italiana', lviii, l'.ll I , pp. 96-121. Vittorio
K<>ssi, // ' dolce atil nuovo' in Lectura Dantis, ' Le opere uiiiiori ', Flon
Sausoui, 190(i, p. 4'J.



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