Henry Dwight Sedgwick.

Dante : an elementary book for those who seek in the great poet the teacher of spiritual life online

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which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of
the heart, began to tremble so violently that the
least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in
trembling it said these words: Ecce deus fortior me,
qui veniens dominabitur mihi [Here is a deity
stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me],
... I say that, from that time forward. Love quite
governed my soul; which was immediately espoused
to him, and with so safe and undisputed a lordship
(by virtue of strong imagination), that I had nothing
left for it but to do all his bidding continually. He
oftentimes commanded me to seek if I might see this
youngest of the Angels: wherefore I in my boyhood
often went in search of her, and found her so noble
and praiseworthy that certainly of her might have
been said those words of the poet Homer: *She seemed
not to be the daughter of a mortal man, but of God.'
And albeit her image, that was with me always, was
an exultation of Love to subdue me, it was yet of so
perfect a quality that it never allowed me to be over-
ruled by Love without the faithful counsel of
reason. . . .

"After the lapse of so many days that nine years
exactly were completed since the above-written


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appearance of this most gracious beings on the last
of those days it happened that the same wonderful
lady appeared to me dressed all in pure white, be-
tween two gentle ladies elder than she. And passing
through a street, she turned her eyes thither where
I stood sorely abashed: and by her unspeakable
courtesy, which is now guerdoned in the Great
Cycle, she saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that
I seemed then and there to behold the very limits of
blessedness. The hour of her most sweet salutation
was certainly the ninth of that day; and because it
was the first time that any words from her reached
mine ears, I came into such sweetness that I parted
thence as one intoxicated. And betaking me to the
loneliness of mine own room, I fell to thinking of
this most courteous lady, thinking of whom I was
overtaken by a pleasant slumber, wherein a marvel-
ous vision was presented to me." Here he tells of a
vision. Love, of terrible aspect, appeared holding
Beatrice in his arms and Dante's heart in his hand,
and gave Beatrice to eat of the heart and she ate as
one fearing. "From that night forth, the natural
functions of my body began to be vexed and impeded,
for I was given up wholly to thinking of this most
gracious creature: whereby in short space I became
so weak and so reduced that it was irksome to many
of my friends to look upon me; while others, being
moved by spite, went about to discover what it was
my wish should be concealed. Wherefore I (perceiv-
ing the drift of their unkindly questions), by Love's
will, who directed me according to the counsels of
reason, told them how it was Love himself who had


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thus dealt with me: and I said so^ because the thing
was so plainly to be discerned in my countenance
that there was no longer any means of concealing it.
But when they went on to ask, 'And by whose help
hath Love done this ?' I looked in their faces smiling,
and spake no word in return."

It so happened, that in church one day Dante was
gazing at Beatrice, and that another lady, of a
pleasant face, sat in a line between him and her, and
people, seeing the direction but mistaking the
object of his sight, thought that this other lady was
his love; and he, learning this, encouraged the error,
and, resolving to make use of her as a "screen to the
truth," wrote rimes in her honor. But this lady
went away to another city, and then at Love's in-
stigation Dante took another "screen" lady to be
his protection, "in such sort that the matter was
spoken of by many in terms scarcely courteous;
through the which I had oftenwhiles many trouble-
some hours. And by this it happened (to wit : by this
false and evil rumour which seemed to mis fame me
of vice) that she who was the destroyer of all evil
and the queen of all good, coming where I was,
denied me her most sweet salutation, in the which
alone was my blessedness.

"And here it is fitting for me to depart a little from
this present matter, that it may be rightly under-
stood of what surpassing virtue her salutation was to
me. To the which end I say that when she appeared
in any place, it seemed to me, by the hope of her
excellent salutation, that there was no man mine
enemy any longer; and such warmth of charity


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came upon me that most certainly in that moment
I would have pardoned whosoever had done me an
injury; and if one should then have questioned me
concerning any matter, I could only have said unto
him 'Love,' with a countenanoe clothed in humble-
ness* ..."

"And when for the first time this beatitude was
denied me, I became possessed with such grief that
parting myself from others, I went into a lonely
place to bathe the ground with most bitter tears:
and when, by this heat of weeping, I was somewhat
relieved, I betook myself to my chamber, where I
could lament unheard. . . ."

Dante then recounts further visions of Love, in
one of which Love said: "It is my will that thou
compose certain things in rhyme, in the which thou
shalt set forth how strong a mastership I have ob-
tained over thee, through her; and how thou wast
hers even from childhood." And he inserts odes and
sonnets on which he makes comments; and he nar-
rates sundry episodes, how he saw Beatrice at a
wedding feast; how she grieved for the death of her
father; how he had a presentiment of her death; and
other episodes. And in the middle he puts a long
digression on poetry. Then he takes up the thread

"But returning to the matter of my discourse.
This excellent lady, of whom I spake in what hath
gone before, came at last into such favour with all
men, that when she passed anywhere folk ran to
behold her; which thing was a deep joy to me: and
when she drew near unto any, so much truth and


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simpleness entered into his heart, that he dared
neither to lift his eyes nor to return her salutation:
and unto this, many who have felt it can bear wit-
ness. She went along crowned and clothed with
humility, showing no whit of pride in all that she
heard and saw : and when she had gone by, it was said
of many : *This is not a woman, but one of the beauti-
ful angels of Heaven,' and there were some that said:
'This is surely a miracle; blessed be the Lord, who
hath power to work thus marvelously/ I say, of
very sooth, that she showed herself so gentle and so
full of all perfection, that she bred in those who
looked upon her a soothing quiet beyond any speech;
neither could any look upon her without sighing
immediately. These things, and things yet more
wonderful, were brought to pass through her mirac-
ulous virtue." So he wrote a sonnet to express in
poetry what he had just said:

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare

La donna mia, quand' ella altrui saluta,

Ch' ogni lingua divien tremando muta,

£ gli occhi non ardiscon di guardare.
Ella sen va, sentendosi laudare,

Benignamente d'umilt^ vestuta;

E par che sia una cosa venuta

Di cielo in terra a miracol mostrare.
Mostrasi si piacente a chi la mira,

Che d^ per gli occhi una dolcezza al core,

Che intender non la pu5 chi non la prova.
E par che della sua labbia si muova

Uno spirto soave e pien d'amore,

Che va dicendo ail'anima: sospira.


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My lady looks so gentle and so pure

When yielding salutation by the way,

That the tongue trembles and has nought to say,
And the eyes, which fain would see, may not endure.
And still, amid the praise she hears secure.

She walks with humbleness for her array;

Seeming a creature sent from Heaven to stay
On earth, and show a miracle made sure.
She is so pleasant in the eyes of men
That through the sight the inmost heart doth gain

A sweetness which needs proof to know it by:
And from between her lips there seems to move
A soothing spirit that is full of love,

Saying forever to the soul, "O si^T

He also wrote another sonnet and began an ode
to tell of the manner in which he was subject to her
influence. Then he says: "I was still occupied with
this poem . . . when the Lord God of justice called
my most gracious lady unto Himself^ that she might
be glorious under the banner of that blessed Queen
Mary, whose name had always a deep reverence in
the words of holy Beatrice."

Then follow certain episodes, somewhat apart from
the main matter of the story, the last of which,
however, leads up to the sonnet that begins:

Oltre la spera, che pid larga gira,
Passa il sospiro ch' esce del mio core:
Intelligenza nuova, che I'Amore
Piangendo mette in lui, pur su lo tira.

Beyond the sphere which spreads to widest space
Now soars the sigh that my heart sends above:
A new perception born of grieving Love

Guideth it upward the untrodden ways.


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And he says: "After writing this sonnet^ it was
given unto me to behold a very wonderful vision;
wherein I saw things which determined me that I
would say nothing further, of this most blessed one^
until such time as I could discourse more worthily
concerning her. And to this end I labour all I can;
as she well knoweth. Wherefore if it be His pleasure
through whom is the life of all things^ that my life
continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I
shall yet write concerning her what hath not before
been written of any woman. After the which, may
it seem good unto Him who is the Master of Grace,
that my spirit should go hence to behold the glory
of its lady: to wit, of that Blessed Beatrice who now
gazeth continually on His countenance qui est per
omnia saecula benedictus** (Rossetti's translation).

Here we find the glory of God gleaming upon the
young prophet and leading him on. It is a story illu-
mined more by the light of heaven than of earth.
The poet takes his memories of Beatrice, the beauti-
ful girl with whom he played as a child and saw at
rare intervals in his adolescence, and arranges them
in order, as if they were comments, around a num-
ber of his earliest poems, both sonnets and odes,
so that the poems are strung like beads on the
thread of his experience. And since, at the time of
writing, after the death of Beatrice, he has plimged
into the study of scholastic philosophy, he gives to
all his memories a touch of allegory, and indicates
darkly how, to the discerning mind, they embody
deep truths concerning the turning of the soul to
God. At the same time, possessed by a sense that the


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mystery of Godhead is in all about us, he seeks to
indicate the presence of this mystery by recounting
his visions, real or imaginary, and by dwelling upon
mystic numbers, three, nine, and seven. No doubt,
the conscious artist is at work; and the whole scheme
of the book shows that Dante has been under the
influence of Guido Guinizelli's famous ode:

AI cor gentil ripara sempre Amore
Siccome augello in selva alia verdura.

N^ fe' Amore avanti gentil core,
N^ gentil core avanti Amor, Natura:

Within the gentle heart Love shelters him,
As girds within the green shade of the grove.

Before the gentle heart, in Nature's scheme.
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.


For Dante human love, such love as his for Bea-
trice, is a ray of God's light ; and this it is impossible
for the human tongue to describe. Nevertheless, by
means of poetry, theology, and philosophy, it may
be stammeringly hinted at; and this he did in the
Fita Nuova, As to the fashion and workmanship of
the little book, Dante makes use of familiar methods.
Visions of Love, the purifying power of his lady's
salutation, the idea of a "screen" lady, are all in
conventional use in Proven9al and Italian poetry;
and, as I have said, the whole book is shaped and
colored by his youthful enthusiasm for lyric poetry
and scholastic philosophy, but still out of the pages,
of this record of his new life shines the illumination
of a soul that is radiant with light of the revelation
of God.


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BEATRICE PORTINARI married Simone de'
Bardi^ a member of a great Florentine bank-
ing house, in 1287, and died in 1290. The Vita
Nuova was probably written a year or two after-
wards, as Dante was nearing thirty. During this
early period of his manhood, covered by the narra-
tive in the Vita Nuova, notwithstanding the "great
internal drama that centered around Beatrice, he
led the ordinary life of a citizen of Florence of the
educated upper class. His biographer, Leonardo
Bruni (1369-1444), says: "He devoted himself not
only to literature but to the other liberal studies,
leaving nothing one side that is appropriate to make
a man excel. Nor, for all this, did he shut himself up
in an easy life, or keep himself apart from the world,
but he lived and went about with other young men
of his age, well-behaved, alert, and good at every
manly exercise. So much so that in the great and
memorable battle of Campaldino, a mere lad but
well thought of, he took part on horseback in the
front rank and fought vigorously, and ran into great
danger. . . . After the battle Dante returned home
and devoted himself to his studies more than ever,



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but nevertheless he did not neglect the polite society
of the town. It is extraordinary that though he
studied continually^ nobody would have thought
that he was a student^ because of his gay manners
(usanza lieta)"

Of this lieta usanza we get a glimpse in the fol-
lowing sonnet to Guido Cavalcanti^ the poet:

Guide, vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io
Fossimo presi per incantamento,
E messi ad un vascel, ch' ad ogni vento
Per mare andasse a voler vostro e mio;

Sicch^ f ortima, od altro tempo rio
Non ci potesse dare impedlmento,
Anzi, vivendo sempre in un talento,
Di stare insieme crescesse il disio.

E Monna Vanna e Monna Lagia poi.
Con quella ch' h sul numero del trenta.
Con noi ponesse il buono incantatore:

E quivi ragionar sempre d'amore;
E ciascuna di lor fosse contenta,
Siccome io credo che sariamo npi.

Guido, I wish that Lapo,i thou, and I,
Could be by spells convey'd, as it were now,
Upon a barque, with all the winds that blow

Across all seas at our good will to hie.

So no mischance nor temper of the sky
Should mar our course with spite or cruel slip;
But we, observing old companionship.

To be companions still should long thereby.

And Lady Joan and Lady Lagia.2

1 Lapo Gianni, the poet.

2 Rossetti wrote "Beatrice" following a reading of the
Italian text now no longer accepted.


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And her the thirtiethi on my roll, with us
Should our good wizard set, o'er seas to move
And not to talk of anything but love:
And they three ever to be well at ease

As we should be, I think, if this were thus.


Boccaccio says: "His mind and intelligence grow-
ing with his years, he did not turn to lucrative studies
to which everybody hurries nowadays, but with a
praiseworthy love of enduring fame he despised
transitory riches and gave himself over to acquire
complete knowledge of poetry and of the poetic art.
In the course of this he became very familiar with
Virgil> Horace, Ovid, Statins, and every other
famous poet; he not only took pains to know them,
but by writing poetry in an elevated style he strove
to imitate them, as his works show,"

His works show that he not only studied poetry,
but all books of philosophy and learning that he
could lay hands on: volumes of Aristotle that had
been translated into Latin, such bits of Plato as
were accessible, scraps of Homer, certain works of
Cicero, Seneca, and Boethius, treatises that came
from the Arabic through the Moors, St. Augustine,
Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. He began
his studies while quite young. He says, quoting
Aristotle: "All men by nature desire to know,"
and no doubt after the death of Beatrice, in order
to distract his mind, he took to study with far
greater zeal.

1 This number, ^thirtieth," seems to be the "Screen Lady."


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There is one episode concerning his life related in
the latter part of the Vita Nuova, which, if we accept
Dante's subsequent explanation of it, bears upon the
matter of his studies at this time; his explanation
also raises the whole question of his use of allegory,
and as this is necessary to an understanding of the
Commedia, it is worth while to pause over it. He tells
how, a year after Beatrice's death, he was standing,
with all his sorrow depicted in his face, and says:
'*! lifted mine eyes to look; and then perceived a
young and very beautiful lady, who was gazing
upon me from a window with a gaze full of pity,
so that the very sum of pity appeared gathered
together in her. ... It happened after this, that
whensoever I was seen of this lady, she became pale
and of a piteous countenance, as though it had been
with love; whereby she remembered me many times
of my own most noble lady, who was wont to be of
a like paleness. And I know that often, when I could
not weep nor in any way give ease unto mine anguish,
I went to look upon this lady, who seemed to bring
the tears into my eyes by the mere sight of her.
... At length, by the constant sight of this lady,
mine eyes began to be gladdened overmuch with her
company; through which thing many times I had
much unrest, and rebuked myself as a base person."
And a little further on he says: "The sight of this
lady brought me into so unwonted a condition that
I often thought of her as of one too dear unto me;
and I began to consider her thus: This lady is
young, beautiful, gentle, and wise: perchance it was
Love himself who set her in my path, that so my


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life might find peace.' And there were times when
I thought yet more fondly, until my heart consented
unto its reasoning" (D. G. Rossetti).

There can be little doubt that this episode is liter-
ally true, and that Dante, as a relief from sorrow,
turned toward this gentle Lady of the Window, and
transferred some, at least, of his devotion from
Beatrice to her. Afterwards, it seems, he was blamed
by his friends and acquaintances for levity and in-
constancy; and, in the Convivio, he boldly asserts
that the Lady of the Window is mere allegory, and
that he meant by her nothing but Philosophy. It is
very hard for modern readers to accept this expla-
nation; it looks as if Dante's love, and perhaps his
pride, had revolted at his own inconstancy, and that
he had succeeded in persuading himself, and sought
to persuade his friends, that he had not really fallen
in love with another woman.

But in judging human conduct we are dealing
with subtle mysteries of motives, impulses, feelings,
thoughts that shift, meet, combine, and separate
like clouds; and it may be that Dante had begun to
fix his thoughts so much more upon the divine sym-
bolism in Beatrice than upon her earthly person that
he had really transferred all his thoughts to that
allegorical plane, and that at the period of his writ-
ing the gentle Lady of the Window had undergone a
similar transformation. In those times almost every-
thing, especially where the deeper emotions were
concerned, was interpreted as the literal expression
of some spiritual reality. To-day we are far removed
from that theory; nevertheless, life as it reveals


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itself has too many "shoots of everlastingness*' for
the human heart to accept the reports of our senses
as literally true. Only the hard-and-fast materialist
accepts the sensual presentation of the external
world as true and final. Most of us look upon the
literal presentation of life with a reservation and
bow our heads before the mystery.

Dante was convinced that he was always con-
fronted by an allegory. "The things which are seen
are temporal, but the things which are not seen are
eternal*' (II Cor. iv, 18). All thoughtful men of the
Middle Ages accepted life as a parable, and bestirred
themselves to find out the meaning behind the veil.
Theologians employed this method in the inter-
pretation of Holy Writ ; St. Paul did so, and so do all
interpreters from St. Paul to Swedenborg, and from
Swedenborg until to-day. In Dante's time the same
method was employed in interpreting the classical
poets. Boccaccio expresses the common view: "Holy
Writ, which we call theology, sometimes under the
figure of a story, sometimes under that of a vision,
sometimes under the guise of lamentation, or in many
another way, means to show us the deep mystery
about the incarnation of the Word, His life, the
things that happened at His death. His triumphant
resurrection. His miraculous ascension^ and about
everything He did. . . . So, poets in their works,
which we call poetry, by the fiction of different gods,
by the metamorphosis of men into idle shapes, and
sometimes by light-minded discoursing, have shown
us the causes of things, the consequences of virtues
and vices, what we ought to shun and what to


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follow, so that at the last we may come, by doing
what is right, to that goal which they [the pagan
poets] who did not rightly know the true God be-
lieved to be the height of salvation."

Dante also, in his famous letter to Can Grande
della Scala, lord of Verona, which serves as a preface
to the Commedia, sets forth the method of allegori-
cal explanation, and gives this example of the differ-
ent ways of interpreting a verse from the Bible:
" 'When Israel went out of Egypt, the House of
Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was
his sanctuary and Israel his dominion' (Psalm cxiv,
1-2). Should we consider the letter only, the exit of
the Children of Israel from Egypt in the time of
Moses, is what is signified to us; if the allegory, our
redemption through Christ is signified to us; if the
moral sense, the conversion of the mind from the grief
and misery of sin to the state of grace is signified
to us; if the anagogical, the exit of the holy soul
from the slavery of this corruption to the liberty of
eternal glory is signified. And although these mystic
senses are called by various names they may all
in general be called allegorical, since they differ from
the literal or historical."

This mode of interpretation, that appears so fan-
tastic to us, was to the men of that time as familiar
and natural as any of our rules of deduction sanc-
tioned by logic. Dante applied this method, not as
an artist, but unconsciously in all good faith to
Beatrice Portinari and to the gentle Lady of the
Window. Literally they were two lovely maidens;
allegorically they could easily become Theology and


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Philosophy. So^ when Dante explains to us that the
second lady is in fact Philosophy, he may in very
truth have dropped from • his mind her perishable
part and be concerned solely with her spiritual
significance. At least, he says so himself: "I, who
was seeking to console myself, found not only a cure
for my tears, but words of authors, and of sciences,
and of books, pondering upon which I judged that
Philosophy, who was the ladj'^ of these authors, of
these sciences, and of these books, was a thing su-
preme; and I conceived her after the fashion of a
gentle lady, and I might not conceive her in any
attitude save that of compassion; wherefore the
sense for truth so loved to gaze upon her that I
could scarce turn it away from her; and impelled
by this imagination of her, I began to go where she
was in very truth revealed, to wit, to the schools of
the religious orders, and to the disputations of the
philosophers; so that in a short time, I suppose some
thirty months, I began to feel so much of her sweet- .
ness that the love of her expelled and destroyed
every other thought" (Conv, II, ch. 18).

It may be that Dante, under the influence of his
studies and his pride, has distorted the natural,
literal interpretation of the Lady of the Window,
or, it may be that the original passage in the Vita
Nuova is allegorical; in either view the episode helps
us to realize how completely the habit of accepting
life as a mere colored veil concealing the reality be-
hind had possession of Dante, and thereby helps us

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Online LibraryHenry Dwight SedgwickDante : an elementary book for those who seek in the great poet the teacher of spiritual life → online text (page 3 of 13)