A History of Italian Literature/Chapter IV
THE DIVINE COMEDY
To have assumed a position so far in advance of, and so decisively discriminated from, that of any of his contemporaries, as in the Vita Nuova, would alone have ensured Dante immortality as a poet. But his lyrical works are to his epic as Shakespeare's sonnets to Shakespeare's dramas.
Any narrative in verse not familiar or humorous, nor of extreme brevity, may be entitled an epic; although we might do well to naturalise, as we have done in the case of idyll, the pretty Greek word epyll to denote a narrative composition of such compass as Keats's Eve of St. Agnes or Wordsworth's Laodamia. But there are at least three classes of epics, excluding the merely romantic like the Orlando, and the mock-heroic, from consideration. The most important in every point of view is the national, originally not the work of a man but of a people; sometimes, as in the Iliad and Odyssey indebted for its final form to the shaping hand of the most consummate genius; sometimes, as in the Finnish Kalevala, an agglomeration of legends, united by community of spirit, but not fashioned into an artistic whole. At the remotest point from these stands the artificial epic, like the Teseide of Boccaccio or the Jason of William Morris, where the poet has selected for its mere picturesqueness a subject which stands in no vital relation to himself and his times; and such epics are necessarily the most numerous.
Yet there is an intermediate class of epic, partly national, partly artificial, where the poet, conscious of a high patriotic purpose, has, like Virgil and Camoens, sung the glories of his country at their zenith; or, like Lucan, actually related contemporary history; or, like Shelley in the Revolt of Islam, bodied this forth under the veil of allegory; or, like Tasso, embalmed ere too late the feeling of an age passing away. Two great epic poets of the intermediate class have done more than this: they have preserved and expressed the sentiment of their age, its replies to the deepest questions which man can propound; have clothed these abstractions with form, colour, and music, and have lent fleeting opinion an adamantine immortality. These are Dante and Milton.
"Dante," says Shelley, "was the second epic poet, that is, the second poet the series of whose creations bore a defined and intelligible relation to the knowledge and sentiment and religion of the age in which he lived. Milton was the third." Hence Shelley in another place calls Milton "the third among the sons of light." Both these great men, in truth, versed in all the learning of their ages, and entertaining a conviction of the indefeasible truth of what they believed themselves to know which no successor will be able to share, applied themselves to embody these beliefs in works of genius. Even as great empires have vanished from the earth, and left nothing but the works of art which were not the greatness itself but merely its testimonies and symbols, so here the opinions have gone while the works remain. It almost seems a law that every great poem which thus resumes the thought of an age shall be a song, not of Carlyle's phœnix "soaring aloft, hovering with outstretched wings, filling earth with her music," but rather of the same phœnix "with spheral swan-song immolating herself in flame, that she may soar the higher and sing the clearer." Homer's theology, we may be sure, was already obsolete for the higher Greek mind when, or not long after,
"The Iliad and the Odyssee
Rose to the swelling of the voiceful sea."
Our own national epic, Shakespeare's series of historical plays, could not be written until the state of society it depicted was ceasing to exist.
Dante himself has told us the origin of his poem. In the last sonnet of his Vita Nuova he represents himself as having in thought followed Beatrice from earth to heaven:
"Beyond the sphere that doth all spheres enfold
Passes the sigh that from my heart takes flight,
By weeping Love with new perception dight
Sure way to the ethereal vault to hold;
Then having won unto that height untold,
Of Lady throned in honour hath he sight,
Resplendent so, that by the vesturing light
The spirit peregrine doth her behold
So seen, that when he doth report the same,
I miss his sense, so subtle doth it seem
Unto the grieving heart that makes demand;
Yet know I that my Lady is his theme,
For oft he nameth Beatrice's name,
And then, dear Ladies, well I understand."
Here is the germ of the Paradiso, at all events; but, to preclude all misapprehension, Dante adds: "After this sonnet there appeared to me a wondrous vision, wherein I beheld things which made me resolve to say no more concerning my Blessed One until I could treat of her more worthily. And that I may attain unto this I study with all my might, as she truly knoweth. Wherefore if it shall be the pleasure of Him by whom all things live that my life shall yet endure for some years, I hope to say concerning her that which has never been said concerning any woman." The Vita Nuova is believed to have been written about 1294, At this time, therefore, Dante was meditating a poetical apotheosis of Beatrice on a scale surpassing anything attempted before, although the natural inference from his words would seem to be that he had not yet begun to write.
He would probably at first contemplate nothing more than the expansion of the thought of his sonnet into a vision somewhat resembling that of Laura in Petrarch's Trionfi; but ere long he might say to himself, inverting the question which Ellwood the Quaker addressed to Milton: "Thou hast told us of Paradise gained, what hast thou to tell us of Paradise lost?" and, granted the existence of the intermediate realm of Purgatory, the entire scheme of the Divina Commedia would be present to his mind. As poets but rarely "imitate the example of those two prudent insects the bee and the spider," he would begin with the Inferno, where, notwithstanding the inscription, offensive to an age as far in advance of its sentiment as Dante himself was in advance of Homer's polytheism and anthropomorphism, which he has thought fit to place upon the portal, Beatrice could have neither part nor lot. It must be long indeed before he could rejoin her.
It can hardly be said, then, that Beatrice is the heroine of his poem, unless Helen of Troy is the heroine of the Iliad. Neither poem could have existed without the woman; the action of each turns entirely upon her; but the appearance of each is infrequent until, in Beatrice's case, she appears as the pervading spirit of the Paradiso. Yet, had we merely known her from the Divina Commedia, their opinion who regard her as a mere symbol would not have appeared so groundless as it must in the light of the transparent autobiography of the Vita Nuova. If the great epic has given her her world-wide fame, she is indebted for her personality to the brief lyrics and snatches of impassioned prose. The old love, though not extinct, had been transformed into something far more expansive, as alchemists are said to revive a glowing rose from the ashes of a faded one. When Dante himself essays to give Can Grande some insight into the purpose of his poem, he does not mention Beatrice, but says: "The object of the whole work is to make those who live in this life leave their state of misery, and to lead them to a state of happiness." By this, as Symonds points out, is not to be understood that the purpose of the poem was the admonition of individuals. "It was both moral and political. The status miseriae was the discord of divided Christendom as well as of the unregenerate will; the status felicitatis was the pacification of the world under the coequal sway of Emperor and Pope in Rome, as well as the restoration of the human soul to faith."
The conception, therefore, was essentially mediaeval. It expressed the beliefs and aspirations of the Middle Age. It was in poetry what the work of another of the greatest of the Italians, St. Thomas Aquinas, had been in theology and philosophy—an endeavour to stereotype the dominant convictions of the age. And therefore, although not among the only genuine epics in the highest sense—those which the nations have written for themselves—the Divina Commedia approaches these more nearly than any other epic of the second class; for, although the utterance of a single voice, it says what the average mediaeval man would have said had he known how. The nearest parallel is Milton's epic, which sets forth the view of divine things which had commended itself to a large portion of the Christian world, but still only to a portion, and therefore a less memorable deliverance than Dante's. One needs only to consider how much lower the Middle Ages would stand in our estimation if their great interpreter had never written, to appreciate the enormous importance of Dante's work for history and culture.
Dante's great position, nevertheless, in this point of view, somewhat detracts from his originality in other respects. He is the man of his age, not a man in advance of his age. He does not, like Goethe, point the path of progress along an illimitable future. He has no prevision of Bacon and Galileo; nor is he fertile in germs, hints, or prefigurements of greater things to come. His philosophy is that of Aquinas, and his science that of Aristotle. This in no way impairs his poetical power, and it still remains the greatest of marvels that the transcendent poet and the most representative thinker of the age should have met in the same person. Much that appears original in him is really not peculiar to him, as, for instance, his generous treatment of the heathen world. There was nothing in this that could surprise any contemporary. The beatification of the Emperor Trajan was already an approved legend, and similar promotions in the instances of Ripheus and Statins only carry the principle somewhat further. His astonishing treatment of Ulysses might be regarded as a strong counterpoise, but it must be remembered that he was unacquainted with Homer, and probably took his view of the character of Ulysses from the Æneid. On the whole, his attitude towards the classical world is highly to his credit; but it merely expresses the dim perception of his age, that greater men and greater civilisations had flourished before them, and that inspiration from these was wanting to transform the semi-barbarism around them into a well-ordered society. Hence Dante's loving devotion to Virgil, the only portrait in his epic that evinces any considerable power of character painting; and his tenderness to all things classical. Had he flourished along with Petrarch and Boccaccio, Dante would have been a great humanist, his scholarship and statesmanship would have found wider and more profitable fields of action than his own age vouchsafed to them; but we should not have had the Divine Comedy, towering above every other work of the age much higher even than Shakespeare towers above contemporary dramatists; and all his own, even to its metrical structure, since terza rima appears to have been Dante's invention.
The thought at the foundation of the Divina Commedia, nevertheless, is more ancient than Dante, although the details evince marvellous fertility of invention. The idea of a descent to the under-world is the groundwork of a primitive Assyrian epic in comparison with whose antiquity the similar narratives in the Buddhistic and other scriptures are but of yesterday. It is found in Plato's Republic and the Odyssey, both unknown to Dante, who had, however, the sixth book of the Æneid by heart, and implies his obligation by making Virgil his guide. This is a much more likely source for his poem than the vision of Tundal and other similar mediaeval legends, which are nevertheless important as showing how strong was the hold of the conception upon the popular mind. The vast difference between Virgil's treatment and Dante's needs no elucidation. Virgil writes like a philosopher, and Dante like a prophet. There is, no doubt, abundance of allegory in the Divina Commedia, but, generally speaking, the poet's vision is direct and immediate. Symonds puts the essence of the poem into a word by calling it apocalyptic, and perhaps there is no other great work to which on the whole it presents so close an analogy as the Revelation of St. John; but neither this nor any forerunner affords any precedent for Dante's astonishing innovation of peopling the unseen worlds mainly with his own and his readers' contemporaries, men whose hands he had clasped or repelled, with whom he had sat at the council-board or whom he had encountered in conflict, or who, personally unknown, had thrilled him with the report of their fortunes or misfortunes, their good deeds or their crimes.
Let any one try to imagine a modern poet treating the nineteenth century in the same manner, and he will be penetrated by a sense of the gigantic nature of the attempt, success in which could only be possible to an intense realist capable of making his phantoms as substantial as when they walked the earth. Yet this is only one side of Dante's mighty task, which was not only to render the unseen world visible and almost palpable, but to embody what he fondly believed to be a system of infallible dogmatic truth. It need hardly be said that it is to the consummate execution of the former part of his mission that he is chiefly indebted for his fame with the world at large. The Inferno, where description and portraiture predominate, has impressed the imagination of mankind far more powerfully than the more mystical and doctrinal Purgatorio and Paradiso.
This is not the judgment of the most refined readers. "The acutest critics," says Shelley, "have justly reversed the judgment of the vulgar, and the order of the great acts of the Divina Commedia is the measure of the admiration which they accord to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise." "The whole Purgatorio, says Symonds, "is a monument to the beauty and tranquillity of Dante's soul. The whole Paradiso is a proof of its purity and radiance and celestial love." This is true, and yet it is indisputable that in thinking of Dante the Inferno always comes first to the mind, and that this portion of his poem, had one part only been published, would have done far more to preserve his name than either of the others in the like case, and this although it is far more tainted than they are with his most characteristic and least pardonable faults. The chief causes, no doubt, are that the material sublime is always more impressive to the mass of men than the moral; that there is an element of risk and adventure in the poet's journey among the shades absent from the other two parts; and that Virgil is a more tangible and human personage than Beatrice. Yet it must also be admitted that the diviner beauty of the two latter parts suffers from an admixture of theological and philosophical disquisition, not the less tedious because it was impossible for the poet to avoid it. Milton tells us that the fallen spirits reasoned "of fate, freewill, foreknowledge absolute," but judiciously avoids reporting their observations.
Dante's place in comparison with the other chief poets of the world is difficult to determine, for none but he has written an apocalypse. He is emphatically the Seer among them, the "Soothsayer" in the original sense of the term, the most independent of poetical fiction and convention. He is also by far the most individual and autobiographic, and the only one who is the hero of his own poem. Milton, who is most naturally paralleled with him, does not deliver a revelation, but records a history. This at once places Dante in a higher category than Milton as an elementary force, and when we consider the circumstances of their respective ages it seems impossible to deny that Dante was by far the more wonderful man. This does not necessarily establish the superiority of the Divina Commedia to Paradise Lost. Isaiah presents himself in a more august and venerable character than Homer, but his prophecy is not as majestic as the Iliad. It is also difficult, when assigning the relative ranks of poets, to discriminate strictly between the claims that arise from mere poetical endowment and the significance of their position in history. One may stand upon the higher pedestal, and the other may have the sweeter voice.
In one point of view, Dante's figure is the most imposing of any poet's; for, intensely local as he is, he yet interprets all mediaeval Europe. When, however, he is compared with his closest analogue, Milton, simply as a poet, it is not so clear that the comparison is to his advantage. The great characteristics which chiefly discriminate him from all other poets are an ineffable purity, such as we see in the early Italian painters, and an intensity of minute description which surpasses the similar performances of others, except, England may say with pride, Robert Browning's, as the work of the etching tool surpasses the work of the pen. These gifts are best displayed upon a small scale, and hence Dante's cabinet pieces are more successful than his vast pictures. They depend, too, in the last resort upon the poet's own fidelity of observation, and hence his best delineations retrace what he has actually seen. His general description of the Inferno is more impressive from its unflinching realism than from its imaginative sublimity. There is no grandeur in his picture of Lucifer, though much quaint ingenuity. Milton's "not less than archangel ruined" tells us more and affects us more profoundly than all Dante's elaborate word-painting. If Milton has nothing so beautiful as the exquisite comparison of Beatrice to a bird awaiting the dawn that she may gather food for her young, neither has Dante anything so sublime as Milton's comparison of the flying fiend to a fleet discerned afar off as hanging in the clouds, or of Satan equipped for battle to the comet "that fires the length of Ophiuchus huge." The magnificent lines in which Tennyson has celebrated the might and music of Milton would seem inappropriate to Dante. In an age when minute description is in fashion, Dante's virtuoso-like skill in graphic delineation has been favourable to his renown; but a reaction must ensue when a bolder and ampler style of handling is again appreciated at its worth.
If, however, Dante is on the whole inferior to Milton in poetry pure and simple, he is more important as a representative of a great era of mankind. In him the Middle Age lives as it does in its cathedrals; and when the cathedrals have crumbled, the Divine Comedy will be as fresh as it is now. Nor is this significance merely historical or antiquarian. From the very first it was appreciated by contemporaries. Repentant Florence endowed lectures upon the Divine Comedy, and Boccaccio was the first lecturer. In the next century Frezzi tries to transpose it into another key; and Attavanti cites from the pulpit Dantes ille noster as copiously and reverentially as any of the Fathers. Even in the age of the Renaissance, Pius the Fourth's cardinals cap quotations from Dante as the last notes of Palestrina's Mass of Pope Marcellus die down the aisles of St. Peter's. If he afterwards fell into comparative abeyance for a time, it must be remembered that Italy lay prostrate in the seventeenth century, and that his genius did not sort well with the especial mission assigned to her in the eighteenth.
There can be no surer proof of Dante's eternal vitality than that the revival of his fame coincided with the manifestation of ideas apparently the reverse of his own. The French Revolution brought the mediaeval poet into fashion; and although his best expositors, whom it is upon the whole most profitable to study, have been those so nearly at his own intellectual standpoint as Dean Church and Maria Rossetti, his most eloquent champions have been those who, on a superficial view, might seem to have least in common with him—Lamennais, Shelley, Carlyle, Symonds, Mazzini, Leopardi. The feelings of the man of the nineteenth century, attracted by the divine and eternal elements in Dante with a vehemence proportioned to his repulsion by the transient and accidental, are thus powerfully expressed by the greatest of living Italian poets:
"Dante, how is it that my vows I bear,
Submitted at thy shrine to bend and pray,
To Night alone relinquishing thy lay,
And with returning sun returning there?
Never for me hath Lucy breathed a prayer,
Matilde with lustral fount washed sin away,
Or Beatrice on celestial way
Led up her mortal love by starry stair.
Thy Holy Empire I abhor, the head
Of thy great Frederick in Olona's vale
Most joyfully had cloven, crown and brains.
Empire and Church in crumbling ruin fail:
Above, thy ringing song from heaven is sped:
The Gods depart, the poet's hymn remains."