Thomas Carlyle.

Sartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history online

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or bodiless, it is the one fact important for all men: - but to Dante,
in that age, it was bodied in fixed certainty of scientific shape; he
no more doubted of that _Malebolge_ Pool, that it all lay there with
its gloomy circles, with its _alti guai_, and that he himself should
see it, than we doubt that we should see Constantinople if we went
thither. Dante's heart, long filled with this, brooding over it in
speechless thought and awe, bursts forth at length into 'mystic
unfathomable song;' and this his _Divine Comedy_, the most remarkable
of all modern Books, is the result.

It must have been a great solacement to Dante, and was, as we can see,
a proud thought for him at times, That he, here in exile, could do
this work; that no Florence, nor no man or men, could hinder him from
doing it, or even much help him in doing it. He knew too, partly, that
it was great; the greatest a man could do. 'If thou follow thy star,
_Se tu segui tua stella_,' - so could the Hero, in his forsakenness, in
his extreme need, still say to himself: "Follow thou thy star, thou
shalt not fail of a glorious haven!" The labour of writing, we find,
and indeed could know otherwise, was great and painful for him; he
says, This Book, 'which has made me lean for many years.' Ah yes, it
was won, all of it, with pain and sore toil, - not in sport, but in
grim earnest. His Book, as indeed most good Books are, has been
written, in many senses, with his heart's blood. It is his whole
history, this Book. He died after finishing it; not yet very old, at
the age of fifty-six; - broken-hearted rather, as is said. He lies
buried in his death-city Ravenna: _Hic claudor Dantes patriis extorris
ab oris._ The Florentines begged back his body, in a century after;
the Ravenna people would not give it. "Here am I Dante laid, shut-out
from my native shores."

I said, Dante's Poem was a Song: it is Tieck who calls it 'a mystic
unfathomable Song;' and such is literally the character of it.
Coleridge remarks very pertinently somewhere, that wherever you find a
sentence musically worded, of true rhythm and melody in the words,
there is something deep and good in the meaning too. For body and
soul, word and idea, go strangely together here as everywhere. Song:
we said before, it was the Heroic of Speech! All _old_ Poems, Homer's
and the rest, are authentically Songs. I would say, in strictness,
that all right Poems are; that whatsoever is not _sung_ is properly no
Poem, but a piece of Prose cramped into jingling lines, - to the great
injury of the grammar, to the great grief of the reader, for most
part! What we want to get at is the _thought_ the man had, if he had
any: why should he twist it into jingle, if he _could_ speak it out
plainly? It is only when the heart of him is rapt into true passion of
melody, and the very tones of him, according to Coleridge's remark,
become musical by the greatness, depth and music of his thoughts, that
we can give him right to rhyme and sing; that we call him a Poet, and
listen to him as the Heroic of Speakers, - whose speech _is_ Song.
Pretenders to this are many; and to an earnest reader, I doubt, it is
for most part a very melancholy, not to say an insupportable business,
that of reading rhyme! Rhyme that had no inward necessity to be
rhymed; - it ought to have told us plainly, without any jingle, what it
was aiming at. I would advise all men who _can_ speak their thought,
not to sing it; to understand that, in a serious time, among serious
men, there is no vocation in them for singing it. Precisely as we love
the true song, and are charmed by it as by something divine, so shall
we hate the false song, and account it a mere wooden noise, a thing
hollow, superfluous, altogether an insincere and offensive thing.

I give Dante my highest praise when I say of his _Divine Comedy_ that
it is, in all senses, genuinely a Song. In the very sound of it there
is a _canto fermo_; it proceeds as by a chant. The language, his
simple _terza rima_, doubtless helped him in this. One reads along
naturally with a sort of _lilt_. But I add, that it could not be
otherwise; for the essence and material of the work are themselves
rhythmic. Its depth, and rapt passion and sincerity, makes its
musical; - go _deep_ enough, there is music everywhere. A true inward
symmetry, what one calls an architectural harmony, reigns in it,
proportionates it all: architectural; which also partakes of the
character of music. The three kingdoms, _Inferno_, _Purgatorio_,
_Paradiso_, look-out on one another like compartments of a great
edifice; a great supernatural world-cathedral, piled-up there, stern,
solemn, awful; Dante's World of Souls! It is, at bottom, the
_sincerest_ of all Poems; sincerity, here too, we find to be the
measure of worth. It came deep out of the author's heart of hearts;
and it goes deep, and through long generations, into ours. The people
of Verona, when they saw him on the streets, used to say, "_Eccovi l'
uom ch' è stato all' Inferno_, See, there is the man that was in
Hell!" Ah, yes, he had been in Hell; - in Hell enough, in long severe
sorrow and struggle; as the like of him is pretty sure to have been.
Commedias that come-out _divine_ are not accomplished otherwise.
Thought, true labour of any kind, highest virtue itself, is it not the
daughter of Pain? Born as out of the black whirlwind; - true _effort_,
in fact, as of a captive struggling to free himself: that is Thought.
In all ways we are 'to become perfect through _suffering_.' - But, as I
say, no work known to me is so elaborated as this of Dante's. It has
all been as if molten, in the hottest furnace of his soul. It had made
him 'lean' for many years. Not the general whole only; every
compartment of it is worked-out, with intense earnestness, into truth,
into clear visuality. Each answers to the other; each fits in its
place, like a marble stone accurately hewn and polished. It is the
soul of Dante, and in this the soul of the middle ages, rendered
forever rhythmically visible there. No light task; a right intense
one: but a task which is _done_.

Perhaps one would say, _intensity_, with the much that depends on it,
is the prevailing character of Dante's genius. Dante does not come
before us as a large catholic mind; rather as a narrow and even
sectarian mind: it is partly the fruit of his age and position, but
partly too of his own nature. His greatness has, in all senses,
concentered itself into fiery emphasis and depth. He is world-great
not because he is world-wide, but because he is world-deep. Through
all objects he pierces as it were down into the heart of Being. I know
nothing so intense as Dante. Consider, for example, to begin with the
outermost development of his intensity, consider how he paints. He has
a great power of vision; seizes the very type of a thing; presents
that and nothing more. You remember that first view he gets of the
Hall of Dite: _red_ pinnacle, redhot cone of iron glowing through the
dim immensity of gloom; - so vivid, so distinct, visible at once and
forever! It is as an emblem of the whole genius of Dante. There is a
brevity, an abrupt precision in him: Tacitus is not briefer, more
condensed; and then in Dante it seems a natural condensation,
spontaneous to the man. One smiting word; and then there is silence,
nothing more said. His silence is more eloquent than words. It is
strange with what a sharp decisive grace he snatches the true likeness
of a matter: cuts into the matter as with a pen of fire. Plutus, the
blustering giant, collapses at Virgil's rebuke; it is 'as the sails
sink, the mast being suddenly broken.' Or that poor Brunetto Latini,
with the _cotto aspetto_, 'face _baked_,' parched brown and lean; and
the 'fiery snow,' that falls on them there, a 'fiery snow without
wind,' slow, deliberate, never-ending! Or the lids of those Tombs;
square sarcophaguses, in that silent dim-burning Hall, each with its
Soul in torment; the lids laid open there; they are to be shut at the
Day of Judgment, through Eternity. And how Farinata rises; and how
Cavalcante falls - at hearing of his Son, and the past tense '_fue_'!
The very movements in Dante have something brief; swift, decisive,
almost military. It is of the inmost essence of his genius this sort
of painting. The fiery, swift Italian nature of the man, so silent,
passionate, with its quick abrupt movements, its silent 'pale rages,'
speaks itself in these things.

For though this of painting is one of the outermost developments of a
man, it comes like all else from the essential faculty of him; it is
physiognomical of the whole man. Find a man whose words paint you a
likeness, you have found a man worth something; mark his manner of
doing it, as very characteristic of him. In the first place, he could
not have discerned the object at all, or seen the vital type of it,
unless he had, what we may call, _sympathised_ with it, - had sympathy
in him to bestow on objects. He must have been _sincere_ about it too;
sincere and sympathetic: a man without worth cannot give you the
likeness of any object; he dwells in vague outwardness, fallacy and
trivial hearsay, about all objects. And indeed may we not say that
intellect altogether expresses itself in this power of discerning what
an object is? Whatsoever of faculty a man's mind may have will come
out here. Is it even of business, a matter to be done? The gifted man
is he who _sees_ the essential point, and leaves all the rest aside as
surplusage: it is his faculty too, the man of business's faculty, that
he discern the true _likeness_, not the false superficial one, of the
thing he has got to work in. And how much of _morality_ is in the kind
of insight we get of anything; 'the eye seeing in all things what it
brought with it the faculty of seeing'! To the mean eye all things are
trivial, as certainly as to the jaundiced they are yellow. Raphael,
the Painters tell us, is the best of all Portrait-painters withal. No
most gifted eye can exhaust the significance of any object. In the
commonest human face there lies more than Raphael will take-away with

Dante's painting is not graphic only, brief, true, and of a vividness
as of fire in dark night; taken on the wider scale, it is everyway
noble, and the outcome of a great soul. Francesca and her Lover, what
qualities in that! A thing woven as out of rainbows, on a ground of
eternal black. A small flute-voice of infinite wail speaks there, into
our very heart of hearts. A touch of womanhood in it too; _della bella
persona, che mi fu tolta_; and how, even in the Pit of woe, it is a
solace that _he_ will never part from her! Saddest tragedy in these
_alti guai_. And the racking winds, in that _aer bruno_, whirl them
away again, to wail forever! - Strange to think: Dante was the friend
of this poor Francesca's father; Francesca herself may have sat upon
the Poet's knee, as a bright innocent little child. Infinite pity, yet
also infinite rigour of law: it is so Nature is made; it is so Dante
discerned that she was made. What a paltry notion is that of his
_Divine Comedy's_ being a poor splenetic impotent terrestrial libel;
putting those into Hell whom he could not be avenged-upon on earth! I
suppose if ever pity, tender as a mother's, was in the heart of any
man, it was in Dante's. But a man who does not know rigour cannot pity
either. His very pity will be cowardly, egoistic, - sentimentality, or
little better. I know not in the world an affection equal to that of
Dante. It is a tenderness, a trembling, longing, pitying love: like
the wail of Æolean harps, soft, soft; like a child's young heart; - and
then that stern, sore-saddened heart! These longings of his towards
his Beatrice; their meeting together in the _Paradiso_; his gazing in
her pure transfigured eyes, her that had been purified by death so
long, separated from him so far: - one likens it to the song of angels;
it is among the purest utterances of affection, perhaps the very
purest, that ever came out of a human soul.

For the _intense_ Dante is intense in all things; he has got into the
essence of all. His intellectual insight as painter, on occasion too
as reasoner, is but the result of all other sorts of intensity.
Morally great, above all, we must call him; it is the beginning of
all. His scorn, his grief are as transcendent as his love; - as indeed,
what are they but the _inverse_ or _converse_ of his love? '_A Dio
spiacenti ed a' nemici sui_, Hateful to God and to the enemies of
God:' lofty scorn, unappeasable silent reprobation and aversion; '_Non
ragionam di lor_, We will not speak of _them_, look only and pass.' Or
think of this; 'They have not the _hope_ to die, _Non han speranza di
morte_.' One day, it had risen sternly benign on the scathed heart of
Dante, that he, wretched, never-resting, worn as he was, would full
surely _die_; 'that Destiny itself could not doom him not to die.'
Such words are in this man. For rigour, earnestness and depth, he is
not to be paralleled in the modern world; to seek his parallel we must
go into the Hebrew Bible, and live with the antique Prophets there.

I do not agree with much modern criticism, in greatly preferring the
_Inferno_ to the two other parts of the Divine _Commedia_. Such
preference belongs, I imagine, to our general Byronism of taste, and
is like to be a transient feeling. The _Purgatorio_ and _Paradiso_,
especially the former, one would almost say, is even more excellent
than it. It is a noble thing that _Purgatorio_, 'Mountain of
Purification'; an emblem of the noblest conception of that age. If Sin
is so fatal, and Hell is and must be so rigorous, awful, yet in
Repentance too is man purified; Repentance is the grand Christian act.
It is beautiful how Dante works it out. The _tremolar dell' onde_ that
'trembling' of the ocean-waves, under the first pure gleam of morning,
dawning afar on the wandering Two, is as the type of an altered mood.
Hope has now dawned; never-dying Hope, if in company still with heavy
sorrow. The obscure sojourn of dæmons and reprobate is underfoot; a
soft breathing of penitence mounts higher and higher, to the Throne of
Mercy itself. "Pray for me," the denizens of that Mount of Pain all
say to him. "Tell my Giovanna to pray for me," my daughter Giovanna;
"I think her mother loves me no more!" They toil painfully up by that
winding steep, 'bent-down like corbels of a building,' some of
them, - crushed-together so 'for the sin of pride'; yet nevertheless in
years, in ages and æons, they shall have reached the top, which is
Heaven's gate, and by Mercy shall have been admitted in. The joy too
of all, when one has prevailed; the whole Mountain shakes with joy,
and a psalm of praise rises, when one soul has perfected repentance
and got its sin and misery left behind! I call all this a noble
embodiment of a true noble thought.

But indeed the Three compartments mutually support one another, are
indispensable to one another. The _Paradiso_, a kind of inarticulate
music to me, is the redeeming side of the _Inferno_; the _Inferno_
without it were untrue. All three make-up the true Unseen World, as
figured in the Christianity of the Middle Ages; a thing forever
memorable, forever true in the essence of it, to all men. It was
perhaps delineated in no human soul with such depth of veracity as in
this of Dante's; a man _sent_ to sing it, to keep it long memorable.
Very notable with what brief simplicity he passes out of the every-day
reality, into the Invisible one; and in the second or third stanza, we
find ourselves in the World of Spirits; and dwell there, as among
things palpable, indubitable! To Dante they _were_ so; the real world,
as it is called, and its facts, was but the threshold to an infinitely
higher Fact of a World. At bottom, the one was as _preter_-natural as
the other. Has not each man a soul? He will not only be a spirit, but
is one. To the earnest Dante it is all one visible Fact; he believes
it, sees it; is the Poet of it in virtue of that. Sincerity, I say
again, is the saving merit, now as always.

Dante's Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, are a symbol withal, an emblematic
representation of his Belief about this Universe: - some Critic in a
future age, like those Scandinavian ones the other day, who has ceased
altogether to think as Dante did, may find this too all an 'Allegory,'
perhaps an idle Allegory! It is a sublime embodiment, or sublimest, of
the soul of Christianity. It expresses, as in huge worldwide
architectural emblems, how the Christian Dante felt Good and Evil to
be the two polar elements of this Creation, on which it all turns;
that these two differ not by _preferability_ of one to the other, but
by incompatibility absolute and infinite; that the one is excellent
and high as light and Heaven, the other hideous, black as Gehenna and
the Pit of Hell! Everlasting Justice, yet with Penitence, with
everlasting Pity, - all Christianism, as Dante and the Middle Ages had
it, is emblemed here. Emblemed: and yet, as I urged the other day,
with what entire truth of purpose; how unconscious of any embleming!
Hell, Purgatory, Paradise: these things were not fashioned as emblems;
was there, in our Modern European Mind, any thought at all of their
being emblems? Were they not indubitable awful facts; the whole heart
of man taking them for practically true, all Nature everywhere
confirming them? So is it always in these things. Men do not believe
an Allegory. The future Critic, whatever his new thought may be, who
considers this of Dante to have been all got-up as an Allegory, will
commit one sore mistake! - Paganism we recognised as a veracious
expression of the earnest awe-struck feeling of man towards the
Universe; veracious, true once, and still not without worth for us.
But mark here the difference of Paganism and Christianism; one great
difference. Paganism emblemed chiefly the Operations of Nature; the
destinies, efforts, combinations, vicissitudes of things and men in
this world; Christianism emblemed the Law of Human Duty, the Moral Law
of Man. One was for the sensuous nature: a rude helpless utterance of
the _first_ Thought of men, - the chief recognised virtue, Courage,
Superiority to Fear. The other was not for the sensuous nature, but
for the moral. What a progress is here, if in that one respect only! -

* * * * *

And so in this Dante, as we said, had ten silent centuries, in a very
strange way, found a voice. The _Divina Commedia_ is of Dante's
writing; yet in truth _it_ belongs to ten Christian centuries, only
the finishing of it is Dante's. So always. The craftsman there, the
smith with that metal of his, with these tools, with these cunning
methods, - how little of all he does is properly _his_ work! All past
inventive men work there with him; - as indeed with all of us, in all
things. Dante is the spokesman of the Middle Ages; the Thought they
lived by stands here in everlasting music. These sublime ideas of his,
terrible and beautiful, are the fruit of the Christian Meditation of
all the good men who had gone before him. Precious they; but also is
not he precious? Much, had not he spoken, would have been dumb; not
dead, yet living voiceless.

On the whole, is it not an utterance, this Mystic Song, at once of one
of the greatest human souls, and of the highest thing that Europe had
hitherto realised for itself? Christianism, as Dante sings it, is
another than Paganism in the rude Norse mind; another than 'Bastard
Christianism' half-articulately spoken in the Arab Desert
seven-hundred years before! - The noblest _idea_ made _real_ hitherto
among men, is sung, and emblemed-forth abidingly, by one of the
noblest men. In the one sense and in the other, are we not right glad
to possess it? As I calculate, it may last yet for long thousands of
years. For the thing that is uttered from the inmost parts of a man's
soul, differs altogether from what is uttered by the outer part. The
outer is of the day, under the empire of mode; the outer passes away,
in swift endless changes; the inmost is the same yesterday, today and
forever. True souls, in all generations of the world, who look on this
Dante, will find a brotherhood in him; the deep sincerity of his
thoughts, his woes and hopes, will speak likewise to their sincerity;
they will feel that this Dante too was a brother. Napoleon in
Saint-Helena is charmed with the genial veracity of old Homer. The
oldest Hebrew Prophet, under a vesture the most diverse from ours,
does yet, because he speaks from the heart of man, speak to all men's
hearts. It is the one sole secret of continuing long memorable. Dante,
for depth of sincerity, is like an antique Prophet too; his words,
like theirs, come from his very heart. One need not wonder if it were
predicted that his Poem might be the most enduring thing our Europe
has yet made; for nothing so endures as a truly spoken word. All
cathedrals, pontificalities, brass and stone, and outer arrangement
never so lasting, are brief in comparison to an unfathomable
heart-song like this: one feels as if it might survive, still of
importance to men, when these had all sunk into new irrecognisable
combinations, and had ceased individually to be. Europe has made much;
great cities, great empires, encyclopædias, creeds, bodies of opinion
and practice: but it has made little of the class of Dante's Thought.
Homer yet _is_, veritably present face to face with every open soul of
us; and Greece, where is _it_? Desolate for thousands of years; away,
vanished; a bewildered heap of stones and rubbish, the life and
existence of it all gone. Like a dream; like the dust of King
Agamemnon! Greece was; Greece, except in the _words_ it spoke, is not.

The uses of this Dante? We will not say much about his 'uses.' A human
soul who has once got into that primal element of _Song_, and
sung-forth fitly somewhat therefrom, has worked in the _depths_ of our
existence; feeding through long times the life-_roots_ of all
excellent human things whatsoever, - in a way that 'utilities' will not
succeed well in calculating! We will not estimate the Sun by the
quantity of gas-light it saves us; Dante shall be invaluable, or of no
value. One remark I may make: the contrast in this respect between the
Hero-Poet and the Hero-Prophet. In a hundred years, Mahomet, as we
saw, had his Arabians at Grenada and at Delhi; Dante's Italians seem
to be yet very much where they were. Shall we say, then, Dante's
effect on the world was small in comparison? Not so: his arena is far
more restricted: but also it is far nobler, clearer; - perhaps not less
but more important. Mahomet speaks to great masses of men, in the
coarse dialect adapted to such; a dialect filled with inconsistencies,
crudities, follies: on the great masses alone can he act, and there
with good and with evil strangely blended. Dante speaks to the noble,
the pure and great, in all times and places. Neither does he grow
obsolete, as the other does. Dante burns as a pure star, fixed there
in the firmament, at which the great and the high of all ages kindle
themselves: he is the possession of all the chosen of the world for
uncounted time. Dante, one calculates, may long survive Mahomet. In
this way the balance may be made straight again.

But, at any rate, it is not by what is called their effect on the
world by what _we_ can judge of their effect there, that a man and his
work are measured. Effect? Influence? Utility? Let a man _do_ his
work; the fruit of it is the care of Another than he. It will grow its
own fruit; and whether embodied in Caliph Thrones and Arabian
Conquests, so that it 'fills all Morning and Evening Newspapers,' and
all Histories, which are a kind of distilled Newspapers; or not
embodied so at all; - what matters that? That is not the real fruit of
it! The Arabian Caliph, in so far only as he did something, was
something. If the great Cause of Man, and Man's work in God's Earth,
got no furtherance from the Arabian Caliph, then no matter how many
scimetars he drew, how many gold piasters pocketed, and what uproar
and blaring he made in this world - he was but a loud-sounding inanity
and futility; at bottom, he _was_ not at all. Let us honour the great
empire of _Silence_, once more! The boundless treasury which we do
_not_ jingle in our pockets, or count up and present before men! It is
perhaps, of all things, the usefulest for each of us to do, in these
loud times. - -

* * * * *

As Dante, the Italian man, was sent into our world to embody musically
the Religion of the Middle Ages, the Religion of our Modern Europe,
its Inner Life; so Shakspeare, we may say, embodies for us the Outer

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 30 of 43)