William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 18 of 35)
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always yearned after his dear Florence ; upbraided her
that she " treated worst those who loved her best " ; and,
in his very epitaph, called her the " of all, least-loving
mother." He wandered in foreign lands, from place to
place, almost literally begging his way, " unwillingly show-
ing the wound of fortune," tasting the saltness of the
bread eaten at other men's tables, and at last dying in a
strange city. He knew the loneliness of schemes and
dreams reaching far beyond his own time, embracing the
unity and liberty of his country ; over whose distraction
and enslavement others slept in their sloth or revelled in
their pleasures. And finally, he knew the loneliness of a
transcendent religious faith, which his imagination con-
verted into a vision ever recalling his inner eye from the
gairish vanities of the world.

Before Dante was driven out by his fellow-citizens,
Beatrice had died ; his best friend, Guido Cavalcanti,
had died ; and he had lost, by the plague, two boys, aged
eight and twelve years. Carrying these scars, and another
as dark, inflicted by the disappointment of his patriotic
hopes, he went forth never to return. Although he awak
ened interest everywhere, his tarryings were comparatively
brief. He knew his own greatness. His unbending king-
liness, his serious and persistent sincerity, unfitted him for
intercourse either with vapid triflers in the crowd, or with
haughty mediocrities in high places. God made him in-
capable of fawning, or playing a part. He must appear
as he was, act as he felt, speak as he thought. It is ob-
vious from his history that he profoundly attracted the
superior men with whom he came in contact. This is not
inconsistent with the fact that speedy breaches occurred
between him and nearly all of them. He broke with
some because they betrayed the cause of his country ;
with others, on account of personal incompatibilities.
Who possessed fineness and tenaciousness of spiritual

DANTE. 2 T 7

fibre, richness and energy of mental resources, sobriety
and loftiness of imaginative contemplation, to act and re-
act in unison with the soul of Dante Alighieri ?

He had a warm intimacy with the imposing and bril-
liant military adventurer, Uguccione della Faggiuola, and
offered him the dedication of the " Inferno." There
appears to have been a strong attachment between him
and Giotto. One cannot look on the recovered portrait
of Dante by Giotto, without feeling that it must have been
drawn by a hand of love. Benvenuto da Imola relates,
that one day, when Giotto was painting a chapel at
Padua, the wondrous frescos which at this day make
the traveller linger on them with a sweet pain, unwilling
to tear himself away, Dante came in, and the painter
took the poet home with him.

When first banished, he was generously welcomed in
Lunigiana by the Marquis Mprello Malaspina. Before
long, however, he went to enjoy the splendid hospitality
of the young lord of Verona, Can Grande della Scala.
In a letter to Can Grande, dedicating the first cantos of
the " Paradiso " to him, he says, " At first sight I became
your most devoted friend." He lays down the proposition,
that " unequals, as well as equals, may be bound by the
sacred bond of friendship." In support of this, he gives
several arguments ; one of which is, that even the infinite
inequality of God and man does not prevent friendship
between them. The grandees at the court looked down
on Dante from their titular elevation : he looked down on
them from his intrinsic superiority. One day, Can Grande
said to him, concerning a favorite buffoon, " How is it that
this silly fellow can make himself loved by all, and that
thou, who art said to be so wise, canst not?" Dante
replied, " Because all creatures delight in their own re-
semblance." The offended poet departed. He paid a
long visit to Fra Maricone in the convent of Santa Croce
di Fonte Avellana, where he wrote much of his matchless
poem. Later he found a pleasant refuge with his good
friend, Bosone da Gubbio, in the castle of Colmollaro.
But his last, kindest, most faithful patron and friend was
the noble ruler of Ravenna, the high-souled and culti-


vated Guido Novello da Polenta, Here he spent the last
seven years of his life, furnished with a fitting home, his
wants supplied, treated personally with deference anu
love, employed in honorable offices. When he died,
his remains were honored with an imposing funeral.
His body, robed as a Franciscan friar, lay in state in
the palace of the Polentas ; his hands resting on the open
Bible; a golden lyre, with broken chords, lying at his feet
The erection of a becoming monument was prevented
only by the misfortunes and banishment of Guido him-

In spite, however, of these exceptions, Dante's word is
true, "It is rare for exiles to meet with friends." The
picture of him in Paris, deserted, destitute, hungry ; sit-
ting on straw in the Latin Quarter listening to the Uni-
versity lecturers ; admitted, after extemporaneously de-
fending propositions on fourteen different subjects, to the
highest degree, and obliged to forego the honor for lack
of means to pay the fee, yet consoled by the hope of an
enduring fame, is pathetic and exciting. How touching,
too, are his words in the treatise "De Vulgari Eloquio" !
"I grieve over all sufferers ; but I have most pity for
those, whoever they may be, who, languishing in exile,
never see their native land again, except in dreams."
Yet, with the force of his invincible soul, he rallies upon
divine resources, and enjoys ideal substitutes and equiv-
alents for what he is deprived of in actuality. " Shall I
not enjoy," he exclaims, "the light of the sun and the
stars ? Shall I not be able to speculate on most delight-
ful truth under whatever sky I may be ? "

There are truly two Dantes, one, the young Dante
of the " Vita Nuova " ; the other, the mature Dante of
the " Divina Commedia." The first is represented in the
portrait by Giotto, with its meditative depth, feminine soft-
ness and sadness ; the second, in the more familiar tra-
ditional effigy, with its haggard, recalcitrant features,
iron firmness, and burning intensity, its mystic woe and
supernal pity. Both of these characters are abundantly
revealed by his own pen, since almost everything he
wrote has an autobiographic value, both direct and in-

DANTE. 219

direct. He often narrates the events of his life, and
records his feelings and judgments, in the first person.
Furthermore, the contents of his works take the form of
experiences passing through his soul, and reproduced by
his art in stereoscopic photographs that at once reflect
the delicate lineaments of his genius and betray the tre-
mendous power of his passions.

The dominant characteristic, in a moral aspect, of the
younger Dante, of Dante as he was by nature and cul-
ture, is the tenderest and most impassioned ideal love,
frankly exposing itself on every side, and seeking sympa-
thy. He speaks, confesses, implores, with an exuberant
impulsiveness of self-reference like that of Cicero, whom
he studied and loved ; and he describes his painful con-
sciousness of loving and thirst for love, with a fulness of
self-portrayal like that of Petrarch. This phase in the
character and life of Dante has been for the most part
overlooked; but no one can read his. "Vita Nuova"
and his " Canzoniere," with reference to this point, and
fail to recognize it. Free from the foibles of Cicero and
the extravagances of Petrarch, fully possessed of what
was best and most original in them, Dante, in his first
literary development, is the true link between the humane
philosopher of Rome and the romantic poet of Vaucluse.
He had the learned scope and effusive sympathy of the
one ; and he had the clinging, introspective Christian sen-
timent and faith of the other. The Romantic Literature,
between which and the Classic Literature Petrarch
stands with a hand on either, that glorious outbreak
of the spirit of chivalry and letters and song, under the
breath of the Provencal bards, contains little or nothing
of value which may not be found clearly pronounced in
the youthful poems of Dante. He says that, when his
lady passes by,

Love casts on villain hearts a blight so strong,
That all their thoughts are numbed and stricken low ;
And whom he grants to gaze on her must grow
A thing of noble stature, or must die.

Humboldt has expatiated on his sensibility to the charms
of nature, as evinced in the truth and grace of his inci-


dental descriptions. Tradition also proves his Live of
valleys, forests, high prospects, and wild solitude, by
identifying many of his tarrying-places during his exile
with the most secluded and romantic spots. The inex-
tinguishable relish of revenge and disdain, the ferocity of
hate embodied in such passages as the description of
Filippo Argenti, by which Dante is popularly recognized,
are not more unapproachable in their way than the numer-
ous passages of an earlier date in which he expresses his
love, his unhappiness, his craving for attention and sym-
pathy, are in theirs. Nothing can surpass the confiding
softness of his trustful and supplicatory unveiling of the
tender sentiments of his heart. He shuts himself " in
his chamber, and weeps till he looks like one nigh to
death " ; his " eyes are surrounded with purple circles
from his excessive suffering." " Sinful is the man whc
does not feel for me and comfort me." He even takes
"the most distasteful path, that of invoking and throwing
myself into the arms of pity." " Seeking an outlet
for my grief in verse, I composed the canzone begin-

The eyes that mourn in pity of the heart
Such pain have suffered from "their ceaseless tears,
That they are utterly subdued at last :
And would I still the ever-gnawing smart
That down to death is leading all my years,
Forth in wild sobs must I my misery cast

" In order that the conflict within me might not remain
unknown, save to the wretched man who felt it, I resolved
to compose a sonnet which should express my pitiable
state." " My self-pity wounds me as keenly as my grief

My bitter life wearies and wears me so,
That every man who sees my deathly hue
Still seems to say, " I do abandon thee."

Such was the native Dante, exquisitely affectionate, sen-
sitive, confiding, melancholy, lonesome, baring his weak-
nesses, and yearning for sympathy.
What an incredible exterior change, when we turn from

DANTE. 221

this romantic portrait, and contemplate the elder Dante j
Dante as he became in self-defence against the cruel in-
justice and hardships he endured ! Then he blushed
with shame : a look from Beatrice made him faint : he
said, " My tears and sighs of anguish so waste my heart
when I am alone, that any one who heard me would feel
compassion for me." Now, encased in his seven-fold
shield of pride, he scorns the shafts of wrong and of ridi-
cule, saying, " I feel me on all sides well-squared to for-
tune's blows." He never lost his interior tenderness for
humanity ; his enthusiasm for the sublime sentiments of.
poesy and religion ; his vital loyalty to truth, beauty, lib-
erty. But, towards the frowns of his foes and the indif-
ference of the world, he put on an adamantine self-respect
which shed all outward blows. He incarnates, as he is
commonly seen, an unconquerable pride, lofty as the top
of Etna, hard as its petrified lava, hot as its molten core,
but interspersed with touches of pity and love as surpris-
ingly soft and beautiful as though lilies and violets sud-
denly bloomed out of the scoriae on the edge of its crater.
His contemporary, Giovanni Villani, describes him as " a
scholar, haughty and disdainful, who knew not how to
deal gracefully with the ignorant." He himself, in his
great poem, makes his ancestor Cacciaguida foretell, that
of all his future calamities, what will try him most is " the
vile company amidst which he will be thrown." Disgust
and scorn of the plebeian herds of aimless, worthless
men, however, never became an end with him, a pleasure
in itself, but merely a means by which he protected him-
self against the wrongs and lack of appreciation he suf-
fered. They served as an ideal foil by which he kept
himself on the eminence where God had set him, saved
his nobility and dignity from sinking even with his for-
tunes. This is what distinguishes the office of a generous
pride from that arrogant and poisonous egotism which'
feeds itself with misanthropy. The pride which nourished
the virtue and undying usefulness of Dante, which helped
to keep his genius from decay, and alone kept his will
from drooping, has no alliance with the stung and exud-
ing conceit of selfish men-haters. This is why the Jiau-


teur is grand in him which .in .a Menecrates is ludicrous,
and in a Swift detestable.

In the twenty-fifth canto of the last part of the " Divi-
na Commedia," Dante prophesies that he shall return to
ungrateful Florence, and receive the laurel-wreath beside
the font where he was baptized. Then, in present default
of this fruition, he makes St. Peter crown him in Para-
dise. What a royal comfort to give himself this ideal
meed ! What matchless courage to dare to paint the
fruition with his own hand, and hold the picture before
mankind ! He always felt himself in others with wonder-
ful keenness, and passionately coveted love, and its phan-
tom, fame. But after his disappointments and exile,
he would not bend to ask for either. In the free realm
of the soul he imperiously appropriated them, and bade
posterity ratify the boons.

The progress of his poem mirrors the perfecting of his
character. In the " Inferno " he says :

Now needs thy best of man ;
For not on downy plumes nor under shade
Of canopy reposing, fame is won,
Without which whosoe'er consumes his days
Leaveth such vestige of himself on earth
As smoke in air or foam upon the wave.

But at length, in the " Paradiso," weaned from the fretful
Babel, calmly pitying the ignoble strife and clamor, he
looks down, from the exalted loneliness of his own relig-
ious mind, on the fond anxiety, the vain arguments, the
poor frenzies of mortal men.

In statutes one, and one in medicine,

Was hunting : this, the priesthood followed ; that,

By force of sophistry, aspired to rule ;

To rob, another ; and another sought,

By civil business, wealth ; one, moiling, lay

Tangled in net of sensual delight ;

And one to wistless indolence resigned.

What time from all these empty things escaped,

With Beatrice, I thus gloriously

Was raised aloft, and made the guest of heaven.

The beginning is the most easily appreciated by the vui-


gar ; the end is the least popular, because it is the most
original and marvellous. The " Inferno " is sculpture ;
the " Purgatorio," painting ; the " Paracliso," music. The
scene rises from contending passions, through purifying
penance, to perfected love. An excited multitude, gazing,
wander with him through the first ; a smaller and quiet-
er throng accompany him over the second ; a select,
ever-lessening number follow him up the third ; and at
last he is left on the summit, alone, rapt in the beatific


SOME peculiarities, generally in literary history traced-
to Petrarch, have given him the reputation of more orig-
inality as a man and as an author, more novelty and power
of character, than he really possessed. Still his influence,
both personal and literary, has been remarkable. And
his tender philanthropy, ardent patriotism, romantic mel-
ancholy, the music of his plaintive though monotonous
lyre, combine to lend a deep interest alike to his person
and his story.

The love of friends, the chivalric love of woman, the
love of fame, the love of books, the love of the great men
of the past, the love of nature, the love of solitude,
these were the dominant sentiments in the soul of Pe-
trarch. Of course all these sentiments had been felt and
expressed many times before. Chivalry, which in its es-
sence is an imaginative heightening of sympathy, gave
them an especial enrichment and refinement, a vividness
and an exaltation not known in previous ages. The Trou-
badours, the immediate predecessors of Petrarch, had
sung the chief of them with variety and emphasis, bor-
rowing something from the classic traditions, but adding
more through that union of ecclesiastical Christianity and
Germanic feeling which formed the peculiar genius of
knighthood. In the works of Petrarch the sentiments
of classic philosophy and poesy blend with the sentiments
of the best Christian Fathers who had written on the
monastic life, and with the sentiments of the Provencal


bards. His originality and importance consist, first, in
the peculiar combination he gave to these pre-existing
ideas and feelings ; secondly, in the new tone and accent
lent to them by his personal character and experience ;
and thirdly, in the fresh impetus imparted for their repro-
duction and circulation in subsequent authors by the pop-
ularity of his writings and by the conspicuousness of his
position as the reviver of letters at the close of the Dark

The strength of Petrarch is his sympathetic wealth of
consciousness. His learning, eloquence, and love of lib-
erty, his gentleness and magnanimity, his purity, height,
and constancy of feeling are admirable. He says :

And new tears born of old desires declare

That still I am as I was wont to be,

And that a thousand changes change not me.

His weaknesses are an exorbitant, all-too-susceptible
vanity, the prominence of a complacency forever alternat-
ing between fruition and mortification, the painful min-
gling of an effeminate self-fondling with a querulous self-
dissatisfaction. The Petrarchan strain has been caught
and echoed interminably since his day. The morbid sub-
jective school, in some sense founded by him, has been
continued by Rousseau, St. Pierre, Chateaubriand, the
young Goethe, Byron, Lenau, and scores of other power-
ful authors, who have carried it much further than he, and
made it more and more complicated by additionally inter-
weaving their own idiosyncrasies. Still above the jar of
tones the fundamental chords he sounded are clearly dis-
tinguishable ; a troubled excess of sensibility, exaggerated
aspirations, separation from the crowd, a high-strung love
of nature and seclusion, all grouped around an unhappy
and importunate sense of self.

Petrarch was fitted by his poetic temperament to enter
into the charms of the withdrawn scenes of nature, beau-
tiful and wild landscapes, with an intensity uncommon in
his day; in ours, partly through his influence, more fre-
quent. The unaffectedness of his taste for nature is
shown by the exquisite loveliness of the sites he chose for


his residences at Vaucluse, Parma, Garignano and Arqua.
For sixteen years he spent much of his time in the pic-
turesque seclusion of Vaucluse. This romantic valley,
with its celebrated fountain, sixteen miles from Avignon,
will forever be associated with his tender passion and his
charming fame. In this profound retreat, amid this rug-
ged scenery, " in a shady garden formed for contempla-
tion and sacred to Apollo," or in a deeper grotto at the
source of the swift Sorga, which he was " confident re-
sembled the place where Cicero went to declaim," he
roamed and mused, he nursed and sang his love for Laura.
He said his disgust of the frivolousness and heartlessness,
plottings and vices of the city drove him for the soothing
delights of the country to this retired haunt, which had
the virtue of giving freedom to his heart and wings to his
imagination. After his frequent journeys on literary and
state commissions to the courts of princes in famous
cities, he always hurried back to his beloved Vaucluse,
comparing his condition to " that of a thirsty stag, who,
stunned with the noise of the dogs, seeks the cool stream
and the silent shade." Here he passed much time alone,
among the rocks and defiles, and by the brink of the
fountain ; also much time with his friend Philip de Cabas-
sole. These two friends often strolled through the val-
ley and over the cliffs, discussing literary and philosophi-
cal questions, until their servants, alarmed at their long
absence, went forth with torches to seek them.

Petrarch always had a sincere fondness for solitude, a
deep familiarity with its true genius. Few have written
on the subject so well as he in his treatise on the " Leis-
ure of the Religious," in which with such glow and
sweetness he depicts the advantages of the monastic life ;
and in his elaborate dissertation " Concerning the Solitary
Life." The latter work was sketched in his early man-
hood, but not completed till twenty years afterward. The
argument of it is that the true end of life for every man
is perfection ; and that the distractions, insincerities, cor-
ruptions of crowded society are fatal to progress in this ;
while the calmness, freedom, and devout meditation of
solitude are highly favorable to it. Whenever he touches


on this theme the pen of Petrarch seems impregnated
with the softest fire. Born for solitude, enamored of
leisure, liberty, reverie, and ideal virtue, he fled the noise
and pestilential vice of cities with horror, and sought the
silence and purity of the fields and the woods with
depth of pleasure which his pages clearly reflect

Still have I sought a life of solitude
This know the rivers, and each wood, and plain
That I might 'scape the blind and sordid train
Who from the path have flown of peace and good.

After secretly fleeing back to Vaucluse, he writes to a
friend : " I had resolved to return here no more : in jus-
tification of my inconstancy I have nothing to allege but
the necessity I feel for solitude." At another time he
writes : " The love of solitude and repose is natural to
me. Too much known, too much sought in my own
country, praised and flattered even to nausea, I seek a
corner where I may live unknown and without glory. My
desert of Vaucluse presents itself with all its charm. Its
hills, its fountains, and its woods, so favorable to my
studies, possess my soul with a sweet emotion I cannot
describe. I am no longer astonished that Camillus, that
great man whom Rome exiled, sighed after his country.
Solitude is my country."

The pictures in the imagination of Petrarch as after-
ward was the case with Rousseau were so vivid and so
delightful that his own undisturbed reveries gave him the
most satisfactory employment. His ideal enjoyments by
himself, with none to contradict, nothing to jar or vex,
were a more than sufficient substitute for the usual inter-
course of men. It was a necessity with him to express
what he thought and felt, to mirror himself in sympathy
either actual or imaginary. To restrain his emotions in
disguises or in bonds, to accept commands from others,
was ever intolerably irksome to him. These are the very
qualities to make vulgar society distasteful, solitude deli-
cious. " Nothing is so fatiguing," he says, "as to converse
with many, or with one whom we do not love and who is
not familiar with the same subjects as ourselves." " On


the mountains, in the valleys and caves, along the banks
of the river, walking accompanied only by my own reflec-
tions, meeting with no person to distract my mind, I every
day grow more calm. I find Athens, Rome, Florence here,
as my imagination desires. Here I enjoy all my friends,
the living, and the long dead whom I know only by their
works. Here is no tyrant to intimidate, no proud citizen
to insult, no wicked tongue to calumniate. Neither quar-
rels, clamors, lawsuits, nor the din of war reach us here.
There are no great lords here to whom court must be
paid. Avarice, ambition, and envy left afar, everything
breathes joy, freedom, and simplicity." These sentiments
were sincere expressions. The apparent inconsistencies
with them shown in his life, his frequent intimacies with
great personages and brilliant courts, merely prove that
there was also another side to his soul ; that in spite of
his own belief that he was weaned from the public and
sick of celebrity, he really had all his life strong desires
for congenial society, usefulness, honor and fame.

At the very time that he told the King of Bohemia that
his chief desire was " to lead a secluded life at its foun-
tain-head among the woods and mountains, and that when

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 18 of 35)