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First Edition 1888
Rtfrinttd 1889, 1891, 1893



DANTE . ... 1


'SORDELLO* . 221


[JAN. 1850]

THE Divina Commedia is one of the landmarks of
history. More than a magnificent poem, more than
the beginning of a language and the opening of a
national literature, more than the inspirer of art, and

1 Dante's Divine Comedy, the Inferno ; a literal Prose Trans-
lation, with the Text of the Original. By J. A. CARLYLE, M.D.,
London : 1849. I have never quite forgiven myself for not
having said more of the unpretending but honest and most
useful volume which stood at the head of this essay when it
first appeared as an article. It was placed there, according to
what was then a custom of article writers, as a peg to hang
remarks upon which might or might not be criticisms of the
particular book so noticed. It did not offer itself specially to
my use, and my attention was busy with my own work. But
this was no excuse for availing myself of a good book, and not
giving it the notice which it deserved. To an English student
beginning Dante, and wishing to study him in a scholarly
manner, it is really more useful than a verse translation can be ;
and I have always greatly regretted that the plan of translating
the whole work was dropped for want of the appreciation which
. . the first instalment ought to have had. (1878.)

& B


the glory of a great people, it is one of those rare
and solemn monuments of the mind's power, which
measure and test what it can reach to, which rise
up ineffaceably and for ever as time goes on, mark-
ing out its advance by grander divisions than its
centuries, and adopted as epochs by the consent of
all who come after. It stands with the Iliad and
Shakespeare's Plays, with the writings of Aristotle
and Plato, with the Novum Organon and the Principia,
with Justinian's Code, with the Parthenon and St.
Peter's. It is the first Christian poem ; and it opens
European literature, as the Iliad did that of Greece
and Rome. And, like the Iliad, it has never become
out of date ; it accompanies in undiminished freshness
the literature which it began.

We approach the history of such works, in which
genius seems to have pushed its achievements to a
new limit, with a kind of awe. The beginnings of all
things, their bursting out from nothing, and gradual
evolution into substance and shape, cast on the mind
a solemn influence. They come too near the fount
of being to be followed up without our feeling the
shadows which surround it. We cannot but fear,
cannot but feel ourselves cut off from this visible and
familiar world as we enter into the cloud. And as
with the processes of nature, so it is with those off-
springs of man's mind, by which he has added per


manently one more great feature to the world, and
created a new power which is to act on mankind to
the end The mystery of the inventive and creative
faculty, the subtle and incalculable combinations by
which it was led to its work, and carried through it,
are out of the reach of investigating thought. Often
the idea recurs of the precariousness of the result ;
by how little the world might have lost one of its
ornaments by one sharp pang, or one chance meet-
ing, or any other among the countless accidents
among which man runs his course. And then the
solemn recollection supervenes, that powers were
formed, and life preserved, and circumstances ar-
ranged, and actions controlled, that thus it should be :
and the work which man has brooded over, and at
last created, is the foster-child too of that " Wisdom
which reaches from end to end, strongly and sweetly
disposing all things."

It does not abate these feelings that we can follow
in some cases and to a certain extent, the progress of
a work. Indeed, the sight of the particular accidents
among which it was developed which belong per-
haps to a heterogeneous and widely discordant order
of things, which are out of proportion and out of
harmony with it, which do not explain it, which have,
as it may seem to us, no natural right to be connected
with it, to bear on its character, or contribute to its


accomplishment, to which we feel, as it were, ashamed
to owe what we can least spare, yet on which its
forming mind and purpose were dependent, and with
which they had to conspire affects the imagination
even more than cases where we see nothing. We are
tempted less to musing and wonder by the Iliad, a
work without a history, cut off from its past, the sole
relic and vestige of its age, unexplained in its origin
and perfection, than by the Divina Commedia, destined
for the highest ends and most universal sympathy,
yet the reflection of a personal history, and issuing
seemingly from its chance incidents.

The Divina Commedia is singular among the great
works with which it ranks, for its strong stamp of
personal character and history. In general we asso-
ciate little more than the name not the life of a
great poet with his works ; personal interest belongs
more usually to greatness in ita active than its crea-
tive forms. But the whole idea and purpose of the
Commedia, as well as its filling up and colouring, are
determined by Dante's peculiar history. The loftiest,
perhaps, in its aim and flight of all poems, it is also
the most individual ; the writer's own life is chronicled
in it, as well as the issues and upshot of all things.
It is at once the mirror to all time of the sins and
perfections of men, of the judgments and grace of
God, and the record, often the only one, of the trans-


lent names, and local factions, and obscure ambitions,
and forgotten crimes, of the poet's own day ; and in
that awful company to which he leads us, in the most
unearthly of his scenes, we never lose sight of himself.
And when this peculiarity sends us to history, it
seems as if the poem which was to hold such a place
in Christian literature hung upon and grew out of
chance events, rather than the deliberate design of
its author. History indeed here, as generally, is but
a feeble exponent of the course of growth in a great
mind and great ideas. It shows us early a bent and
purpose the man conscious of power and intending
to use it and then the accidents among which he
worked : but how that current of purpose threaded
its way among them, how it was thrown back, de-
flected, deepened, by them, we cannot learn from
history. It presents but a broken and mysterious
picture. A boy of quick and enthusiastic temper
grows up into youth in a dream of love. The lady
of his mystic passion dies early. He dreams of her
still, not as a wonder of earth, but as a Saint in
Paradise, and relieves his heart in an autobiography,
a strange and perplexing work of fiction quaint and
subtle enough for a metaphysical conceit ; but, on the
other hand, with far too much of genuine and deep
feeling. It is a first essay ; he closes it abruptly as
if dissatisfied with his work, but with the resolution


of raising at a future day a worthy monument to the
memory of her whom he has lost. It is the promise
and purpose of a great work. But a prosaic change
seems to come over this half-ideal character. The
lover becomes the student the student of the thir-
teenth century struggling painfully against difficul-
ties, eager and hot after knowledge, wasting eyesight
and stinting sleep, subtle, inquisitive, active -minded
and sanguine, but omnivorous, overflowing with dialec-
tical forms, loose in premiss and ostentatiously rigid
in syllogism, fettered by the refinements of half-
awakened taste, and the mannerisms of the Proven-
cals. Boethius and Cicero, and the mass of mixed
learning within his reach, are accepted as the conso-
lation of his human griefs; he is filled with the
passion of universal knowledge, and the desire to
communicate it. Philosophy has become the lady of
his soul to write allegorical poems in her honour,
and to comment on them with all the apparatus of
his learning in prose, his mode of celebrating her.
Further, he marries ; it is said, not happily. The
antiquaries, too, have disturbed romance by discover-
ing that Beatrice also was married some years before
her death. He appears, as time goes on, as a burgher
of Florence, the father of a family, a politician, an
envoy, a magistrate, a partisan, taking his full share
in the quarrels of the day. At length we see him,


at once an exile, and the poet of the Commedia.
Beatrice reappears shadowy, melting at times into
symbol and figure but far too living and real,
addressed with too intense and natural feeling, to
be the mere personification of anything. The lady
of the philosophical Canzoni has vanished. The
student's dream has been broken, as the boy's had
been ; and the earnestness of the man, enlightened
by sorrow, overleaping the student's formalities and
abstractions, reverted in sympathy to the earnestness
of the boy, and brooded once more on that Saint in
Paradise, whose presence and memory had once been
so soothing, and who now seemed a real link between
him and that stable country, " where the angels are
in peace." Round her image, the reflection of purity,
and truth, and forbearing love, was grouped that con-
fused scene of trouble and effort, of failure and suc-
cess, which the poet saw round him ; round her
image it arranged itself in awful order and that
image, not a metaphysical abstraction, but the living
memory, freshened by sorrow, and seen through the
softening and hallowing vista of years, of Beatrice
Portinari no figment of imagination, but God's
creature and servant A childish love, dissipated by
study and business, and revived in memory by heavy
sorrow a boyish resolution, made in a moment of
feeling, interrupted, though it would be hazardous to


say in Dante's case, laid aside, for apparently more
manly studies, gave the idea and suggested the form
of the " Sacred poem of earth and heaven."

And the occasion of this startling unfolding of the
poetic gift, of this passage of a soft and dreamy boy,
into the keenest, boldest, sternest of poets, the free
and mighty leader of European song, was, what is
not ordinarily held to be a source of poetical inspira-
tion, the political life. The boy had sensibility,
high aspirations, and a versatile and passionate nature ;
the student added to this energy, various learning,
gifts of language, and noble ideas on the capacities
and ends of man. But it was the factions of Florence
which made Dante a great poet. But for them, he
might have been a modern critic and essayist born
before his time, and have held a high place among
the writers of fugitive verses ; in Italy, a graceful
but trifling and idle tribe, often casting a deep and
beautiful thought into a mould of expressive diction,
but oftener toying with a foolish and glittering con-
ceit, and whose languid genius was exhausted by a
sonnet. He might have thrown into the shade the
Guidos and Cinos of his day, to be eclipsed by
Petrarch. But he learned in the bitter feuds of Italy
not to trifle ; they opened to his view, and he had an
eye to see, the true springs and abysses of this mortal
life motives and passions stronger than lovers'


sentiments, evils beyond the consolations of Boethius
and Cicero ; and from that fiery trial which without
searing his heart, annealed his strength and purpose,
he drew that great gift and power by which he stands
pre-eminent even among his high compeers, the gift
of being real. And the idea of the Commedia took
shape, and expanded into its endless forms of terror
and beauty, not under the roof-tree of the literary
citizen, but when the exile had been driven out to
the highways of the world, to study nature on the
sea or by the river or on the mountain track, and to
study men in the courts of Verona and Ravenna,
and in the schools of Bologna and Paris perhaps
of Oxford.

The connexion of these feuds with Dante's poem
has given to the middle age history of Italy an interest
of which it is not undeserving in itself, full as it is of
curious exhibitions of character and contrivance, but
to which politically it cannot lay claim, amid the
social phenomena, so far grander in scale and purpose
and more felicitous in issue, of the other western
nations. It is remarkable for keeping up an antique
phase, which, in spite of modern arrangements, it has
not yet lost. It is a history of cities. In ancient
history all that is most memorable and instructive
gathers round cities; civilisation and empire were
concentrated within walls ; and it baffled the ancient


mind to conceive how power should be possessed arid
wielded, by numbers larger than might be collected
in a single market-place. The Roman Empire indeed
aimed at being one in its administration and law;
but it was not a nation, nor were its provinces nations.
Yet everywhere but in Italy it prepared them for
becoming nations. And while everywhere else parts
were uniting and union was becoming organisation
and neither geographical remoteness, nor unwieldiness
of numbers, nor local interests and differences, were
untractable obstacles to that spirit of fusion which
was at once the ambition of the few and the instinct
of the many ; and cities, even where most powerful,
had become the centres of the attracting and joining
forces, knots in the political network while this was
going on more or less happily throughout the rest of
Europe, in Italy the ancient classic idea lingered in
its simplicity, its narrowness and jealousy, wherever
there was any political activity. The history of
Southern Italy indeed is mainly a foreign one, the
history of modern Rome merges in that of the Papacy ;
but Northern Italy has a history of its own, and that
is a history of separate and independent cities points
of reciprocal and indestructible repulsion, and within,
theatres of action where the blind tendencies and
traditions of classes and parties weighed little on the
freedom of individual character, and citizens could


watch and measure and study one another with the
minuteness of private life.

Two cities were the centres of ancient history in
its most interesting time. And two cities of modern
Italy represent, with entirely undesigned but curiously
exact coincidence, the parts of Athens and Eome.
Venice, superficially so unlike, is yet in many of its
accidental features, and still more in its spirit, the
counterpart of Rome, in its obscure and mixed origin,
in its steady growth, in its quick sense of order and
early settlement of its polity, in its grand and serious
public spirit, in its subordination of the individual to
the family, and the family to the state, in its combina-
tion of remote dominion with the liberty of a solitary
and sovereign city. And though the associations and
the scale of the two were so different though Rome
had its hills and its legions, and Venice its lagunes
and galleys the long empire of Venice, the heir of
Carthage and predecessor of England on the seas, the
great aristocratic republic of a thousand years, is the
only empire that has yet matched Rome in length and
steadiness of tenure. Brennus and Hannibal were
not resisted with greater constancy than Doria and
Louis XII. ; and that great aristocracy, long so proud,
so high-spirited, so intelligent, so practical, who com-
bined the enterprise and wealth of merchants, the self-
devotion of soldiers and gravity of senators, with the


uniformity and obedience of a religious order, may
compare without shame its Giustiniani, and Zenos,
and Morosini, with Roman Fabii and Claudii. And
Rome could not be more contrasted with Athens than
Venice with Italian and contemporary Florence
stability with fitfulness, independence impregnable
and secure, with a short-lived and troubled liberty,
empire meditated and achieved, with a course of
barren intrigues and quarrels. Florence, gay, capri-
cious, turbulent, the city of party, the head and busy
patroness of democracy in the cities round her
Florence, where popular government was inaugurated
with its utmost exclusiveness and most pompous
ceremonial ; waging her little summer wars against
Ghibelline tyrants, revolted democracies, and her own
exiles ; and further, so rich in intellectual gifts, in
variety of individual character, in poets, artists, wits,
historians Florence in its brilliant days recalled the
image of ancient Athens, and did not depart from its
prototype in the beauty of its natural site, in its noble
public buildings, in the size and nature of its territory.
And the course of its history is similar and the result
of similar causes a traditional spirit of freedom, with
its accesses of fitful energy, its periods of grand
display and moments of glorious achievement, but
producing nothing politically great or durable, and
sinking at length into a resigned servitude. It had


its Peisistratidae more successful than those of Athens ;
it had, too, its Harmodius and Aristogeiton ; it had
its great orator of liberty, as potent and as unfortunate
as the antagonist of Philip. And finally, like Athens,
it became content with the remembrance of its former
glory, with being the fashionable and acknowledged
seat of refinement and taste, with being a favoured
dependency on the modern heir of the Caesars. But
if to Venice belongs a grander public history, Floren-
tine names and works, like Athenian, will be living
among men, when the Brenta shall have been left
unchecked to turn the lagunes into ploughland, and
when Home herself may no longer be the seat of the

The year of Dante's birth was a memorable one
in the annals of Florence, of Italy, and of Chris-
tendom. 1 The year 1265 was the year of that great
victory of Benevento, where Charles of Anjou over-
threw Manfred of Naples, and destroyed at one blow
the power of the house of Swabia. From that time
till the time of Charles V., the emperors had no
footing in Italy. Further, that victory set up the
French influence in Italy, which, transient in itself,
produced such strange and momentous consequences,
by the intimate connexion to which it led between

1 May 1265. (Pelli.) Battle of Benevento: Feb. 26, 126|.
The Florentine year began March 25.


the French kings and the popes. The protection of
France was dearly bought by the captivity of Avignon,
the great western schism, and the consequent secu-
larisation of the Papacy, which lasted on uninterrupted
till the Council of Trent. Nearly three centuries of
degradation and scandal, unrelieved by one heroic
effort among the successors of Gregory VII., connected
the Keformation with the triumph of Charles and the
Pope at Be ne veil to. Finally, by it the Guelf party
was restored for good in Florence ; the Guelf
democracy, which had been trampled down by the
Uberti and Manfred's chivalry at Monteaperti, once
more raised its head ; and fortune, which had long
wavered between the rival lilies, finally turned against
the white one, till the name of Ghibelline became a
proscribed one in Florence, as Jacobite was once in
Scotland, or Papist in England, or Royalist in France.
The names of Guelf and Ghibelline were the
inheritance of a contest which, in its original meaning,
had been long over. The old struggle between the
priesthood and the empire was still kept up tradi-
tionally, but its ideas and interests were changed:
they were still great and important ones, but not
those of Gregory VII. It had passed over from the
mixed region of the spiritual and temporal into the
purely political. The cause of the popes was that of
the independence of Italy the freedom and alliance


of the great cities of the north, and the dependence
of the centre and south on the Roman See. To keep
the Emperor out of Italy to create a barrier of
powerful cities against him south of the Alps to
form behind themselves a compact territory, rich,
removed from the first burst of invasion, and main-
taining a strong body of interested feudatories, had
now become the great object of the popes. It may
have been a wise policy on their part, for the main-
tenance of their spiritual influence, to attempt to
connect their own independence with the political
freedom of the Italian communities; but certain it
is that the ideas and the characters which gave a
religious interest and grandeur to the earlier part of
the contest, appear but sparingly, if at all, in its later

The two parties did not care to keep in view
principles which their chiefs had lost sight of. The
Emperor and the Pope were both real powers, able
to protect and assist ; . and they divided between
them those who required protection and assistance.
Geographical position, the rivalry of neighbourhood,
family tradition, private feuds, and above all private
interest, were the main causes which assigned cities,
families, and individuals to the Ghibelline or Guelf
party. One party called themselves the Emperor's
liegemen, and their watchward was authority and


law; the other side were the liegemen of Holy
Church, and their cry was liberty ; and the distinc-
tion as a broad one is true. But a democracy would
become Ghibelline, without scruple, if its neighbour
town was Guelf ; and among the Guelf liegemen of
the Church and liberty, the pride of blood and love
of power were not a whit inferior to that of their
opponents. Yet, though the original principle of
the contest was lost, and the political distinctions
of parties were often interfered with by interest or
accident, it is not impossible to trace in the two
factions differences of temper, of moral and political
inclinations, which though visible only on a large
scale and in the mass, were quite sufficient to give
meaning and reality to their mutual opposition.
These differences had come down, greatly altered of
course, from the quarrel in which the parties took
their rise. The Ghibellines as a body reflected the
worldliness, the licence, the irreligion, the reckless
selfishness, the daring insolence, and at the same
time the gaiety and pomp, the princely magnificence
and generosity and largeness of mind of the house of
Swabia ; they were the men of the court and camp,
imperious and haughty from ancient lineage or the
Imperial cause, yet not wanting in the frankness and
courtesy of nobility; careless of public opinion and
public rights, but not dead to the grandeur of public


objects and public services. Among them were found,
or to them inclined, all who, whether from a base or
a lofty ambition, desired to place their will above
law l the lord of the feudal castle, the robber-knight
of the Apennine pass, the magnificent but terrible
tyrants of the cities, the pride and shame of Italy,
the Visconti and Scaligers. That renowned Ghibel-
line chief, whom the poet finds in the fiery sepulchres
of the unbelievers with the great Ghibelline emperor
and the princely Ghibelline cardinal the disdainful
and bitter but lofty spirit of Farinata degli Uberti,
the conqueror, and then singly and at his own risk,
the saviour of his country which had wronged him,
represents the good as well as the bad side of his

The Guelfs, on the other hand, were the party of
the middle classes ; they rose out of and held to the
people ; they were strong by their compactness, their
organisation in cities, their commercial relations and
interests, their command of money. Further, they

1 "Maghinardo da Susinana (il Demonic, Purg. 14) fu uno
grande e savio tiranno . . . gran castellano, e con molti fedeli :
savio fu di guerra e beue avventuroso in piu battaglie, e al suo
tempo fece gran cose. Ghibellino era di sua nazione e in sue
opere ; ma co' Fiorentini era Guelfo e nirnico di tutti i loro
nimici, o Guelfi o Ghibellini che fossono." G. Vill. vii. 149.
A Ghibelline by birth and disposition j yet, from circumstances,
a close ally of the Guelfs of Florence.



were professedly the party of strictness and religion,
a profession which fettered them as little as their
opponents were fettered by the respect they claimed
for imperial law. But though by personal unscrupu-
lousness and selfishness, and in instances of public
vengeance, they sinned as deeply as the Ghibellines,
they stood far more committed as a party to a public
meaning and purpose to improvement in law and

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Online LibraryR. W. (Richard William) ChurchDante, and other essays → online text (page 1 of 15)