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From A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, by Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908; pp. 43-88.

A Teacher of Dante and
Other Studies in Italian Literature
Nathan Haskell Dole.



DANTE, under the similitude of a mountain, may be approached from a dozen different sides. He stands, as it were, on the summit of an age, the one predominant among a score of prominent figures. He serves to divide the dark from the light. Behind him are the centuries of intellectual night; before him lie the æons of dawn. He was of course conditioned by the thought, the atmosphere, the environment in which he was placed; but he was also the prophet of the new, of the advanced, of the future. With what passionate eloquence he held up before men’s eyes the lofty ideal of patriotism, of freedom under law, of religion, of stainless character.

It is a wonderful thing about this great man that men in all times have found in him something that appealed to their inmost needs. In countless thousands his writings have awakened a new sense of mental power, have stimulated new trains of thought and have opened up new fields of action. Students of one class have 44 discovered in him a key to history; those of another have learned by their study of his perfect art to appreciate all that is best in poesy; those of still another have thrilled with mystical exaltation at the allegorical and symbolical significance which they have read into his simplest lines. To others Nature has through his interpretation assumed a mightier meaning; to still others Religion has in his alembic distilled a subtler and more penetrating elixir of life.

Even those who approach Dante with the practical skepticism of these modern days fall under his spell. They may not be willing to confess or they may not be quite conscious of the secret of the charm, but it sways them.

Here and there a solitary voice of dissent is lifted, as where Matthew Browne is quoted with approbation as saying that Dante “was the embodiment of the jealousy, party-spirit and stunted inhuman scholasticism of the Middle Ages . . . his imagination was harsh and personal with no light relieving tough of phantasy any more than his genius was genial and attractive.” But even while one may see the force of this statement, one is again and again 45 drawn back to the melodious text and the spell begins to work anew.

A recent writer, after giving various specimens of the horrors which Dante so vividly portrayed in the Inferno — souls swept by never-ceasing hellish winds, pelted by snow, hail and putrid water, lapped by devouring flames, grilling in vile boiling pitch, entombed in everlasting ice, declared that “if this be poetry, then Caligula and Alva may be classed among the ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ and poetic inspiration may be found in slaughtering an ox, performing a surgical operation or executing a criminal in the most barbarous manner ever known to the penal code of England.”

Another critic makes this sweeping remark:

“Subtract from the ‘Inferno’ its revolting pictures, some of which the art of Doré has so vividly realised to our actual vision, and it will be seen that little or nothing of interest remains — little at all events that would be recognised under the name of poetry, however it might have passed in former times for theology or philosophy.”

Dante’s cruelty was the inheritance of the ages: the Old Testament in its most rapturous 46 flights of poetic eloquence depicted the Almighty as rejoicing in the torment or destruction of His enemies, as holding them in derision. The cruel animal out of which grew generous, gentle, civilised man, left as its inheritance the tendency to take delight in the agonies and torments of his fellows. It is not strange that even in religion this relic should crop out now in the passionate eloquence of the Church Fathers, now in the poems of a Dante or a New England Wigglesworth, now in the excesses of the Inquisition or the bigotries of the Puritans.

Dante had many predecessors who equalled or even excelled him in depicting the horrors of the Damned. Tertullian whose life ended just fourteen centuries before Shakespeare’s (170-216 A. D.) wrote thus in his book “De Spectaculis”: “At that greatest of all spectacles, the Last Judgment and final, how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness, so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians, so many wise philosophers blushing in red hot flames with their deluded pupils, so many tragic singers more tuneful in 47 the expression of their own suffering, so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish than ever before from applause.”

Minucius Felix who lived about a hundred yeas later thus described the nature of penal fire:

“In hell, the intelligent fire burns the limbs and restores them, feeds on them and nourishes them.”

Lactantius about 312 A. D. also described the divine fire:

“It always lives on itself and flourishes without any nourishment nor has it any smoke mixed with it but is pure and liquid and fluid like water — the same fire with one and the same energy will both burn the wicked and form them again and will replace as much as it will consume of their bodies and will supply itself with eternal nourishment.”

Even he of the golden voice, St. Chrysostom, whose sixty years of life ended in 407 A. D., speaking of the inextinguishable fire, says: “How horrible it is, no words can tell.” He compares it to a furiously boiling bath or a most consuming fever. “Truly,” he goes on, “we shall grate our teeth under the agony of 48 of the intolerable torment and none shall bring succour and we shall groan heavily while the flame presses us ever more fiercely.”

It does not seem to mitigate the horror of it that the good saint included himself in the general condemnation. Peter Lombard, whose life covered the first sixty years of the twelfth century, was not so generous and was more bloodthirsty: “The elect will behold the torture of the impious and as they look they will not grieve. Their minds will be sated with joy as they gaze on the unspeakable anguish of the wicked and they will sing hallelujahs for their own immunity.”

Just about a hundred years later Suso, a pupil of Eckhardt’s, tried to give some slight notion of the length of the eternity “of the sobbing, sighing, weeping, howling, lamenting,” by comparing it to a millstone as broad as the whole earth and so large as to touch the sky all around and pecked at by a little bird that should come once in a hundred thousand years, reducing it by a particle as large as the tenth part of a grain of millet, so that in a million years a particle as large as a grain of millet should be taken from it. If by the time the stone were reduced 49 to nothing there were hope for the Damned it would console them.

Saint Bonaventura, author of the “Biblia Pauperum,” the Doctor seraphicus whose mysticism so enthralled Luther, had the same material notion of the infernal punishments by means of fire and ice and worms and stenches and all things horrible. But none of the Church Fathers exceed St. Bernard, the opponent of Abélard.

“Oh Gehenna — a region to be shunned, where are burning fire, stiffening frost, horrible faces of demons. . . . Behold this most horrible chaos, the subterranean lake, the deepest of pits and all of fire. Likewise imagine a mighty city, horrible and dark within, burning with most obscure and terrible flames, with weeping and wailing and moaning everywhere from inexplicable woes and everything of the sort that can be conceived by the mind of man. Think of the bitterness of the punishment, for the heat of this fire is to ours as our fire is to a painted flame. And also think of the cold and the foul odours. The bitterness of this punishment is patent from the gnashing of teeth, from the groaning and the wailing and the blaspheming. 50 And so of other things. Consider the multitude of punishments; for there one will find inextinguishable most subtle fire, intolerable cold, horrible stench, palpable darkness. There will be punishment for all the senses: to the sight in horrible faces and aspects of demons; to the hearing, in lamentable groans and clamours arising from that wretched company and the cruelty of the torturers who, pitiless, never weary of torturing or are moved to pity. Consider also that in those members whereby they sinned will souls be tormented. Likewise the internal passions will reign in them: for especially will there be wraths and envyings and they will be like rabid dogs and they will yearn to die and find it impossible.”

Thus Dante showed no originality in his conception of the torments of the damned. But his pictures have a gruesome picturesqueness which seems to bring them vividly before the mind especially when we recognise in these writhing tormented wretches the faces of statesmen and popes. Many poets before Dante had taken an imaginary pilgrimage through the regions of the dead. Not to speak of the two great pagan classic prototypes, it may be that 51 he was familiar with the “Visio Tungdali” which depicted an Irish Inferno where a viler Lucifer than Tartarus boasted tormented lost souls. Then there were the famous visions of St. vision of St. Patrick and the vision of Frate Alberico and undoubtedly there were still others, for what is more natural than that men should use all the powers of their imaginations to realise to themselves what the Unseen may disclose?

Artists also have done their part both in suggestion and illustration, and we find the best commentary on Dante in the pictures that were painted about his own time to illumine the great Drama of Sin and Redemption — to Dante’s friend Giotto di Bordone who painted the Apocalyptic Vision in the Church of Santa Chiara in Naples and the Last Judgment at Padua, or to Andrea Orcagna who transferred to the walls of chapels in Pisa and Florence scenes from the “Inferno.” The quaint and crude designs that illustrate the famous edition of 1491 are in a certain sense more satisfactory than the more artistic conceptions of Michelangelo who has been called “the great art commentator of Dante” whose soul lives again in his immortal works. His Last Judgment may indeed have 52 been inspired by the “Divine Comedy” but Michelangelo and Rafael and Tintoretto, as well as Flaxman and Doré and dozens of other artists, great though they be, are too modern in spirit perfectly to bring out the mediæval spirit of Dante’s work. We must go to the Prerafaelites if we would see with Dante’s eyes. Possibly we should find anything but æsthetic, figurative, symbolical beauty in a painting of Beatrice painted by Cimabue or Taddeo Bartolo or Taddeo Gaddi. Ideals of female beauty change from age to age.

When it is realised that between three and four thousand books and innumerable articles in periodicals have been written about Dante, the comparison to a mountain approached from many different sides becomes plain prose. Keen indeed has been the interest which the world has felt for more than six hundred years in the life and works of that stern uncompromising patriot-poet. His biography has been written with great confidence and in wonderful detail, but, as in the case of Shakespeare, legend seems inextricably mixed with truth and the mere external facts are few.

Yet his personality stands out before us with 53 extraordinary distinctness. We know exactly what was his mystical conception of Beatrice, what he intended to be read into the four-fold allegory of the “Divine Comedy,” how far he was a disciple of Plato or of Aristotle; to what an extent he was influenced by the Arabian glosses of Ibn Roshd known to him as Averroes. In many of the landscapes of the “Purgatory” we detect the reminiscences of his travels; here and there are easily recognised bits of autobiographical information. The whole poem so vividly reflects his character that probably no mediæval personage is more real to us than Dante. The learning of the ages, the acuteness of the brightest scholars of Europe and America have been lavished in discussing every phrase of his prose and verse. The tides of opinion go sweeping over disputed passages as the sea sweeps over sunken boulders. One learned commentator spends years in puzzling over the question why the Latin poet Statius is so many times mentioned in the “Purgatory” and at last comes laboriously to the sensible conclusion that it was simply because the poet chose to mention him so many times.

Dante and Vergil generally occupy the foreground 54 in all the scenes that are panoramically unfolded in the first half of the great poem. So true is this that in many of the fifteenth century wood cuts illustrating the journey they are introduced no less than three times labelled with the initials V. and D. like haloes over their heads. More than one modern artist also has used his highest powers in depicting the two poets in their memorable journey — Vergil, from some antique bust or from imagination, but Dante from contemporary portraiture either in words as in Boccaccio’s description or in paintings more or less dubious.

Boccaccio, who knew Dante personally, thus describes him:

“This poet of ours was of medium stature, and when he reached the age of maturity, walked a little bent, and his gait was dignified and gentle. He was always clad in very respectable clothes, in a habit suitable to his time of life. His face was long and his nose aquiline and his eyes rather large [grossi] than small; his jaws large [grandi] and the upper lip projected over the lower; and his complexion was dark; his hair and beard thick, black and curling, and he always looked melancholy and thoughtful.”


Dante, in his first Latin Eclogue written toward the end of his life, conveys the impression that his hair was light; some scholars understand the words solitum flavescere to mean that his hair was yellow.

Leonardi Bruni who was born in 1370 — consequently nearly half a century after Dante’s death — and wrote a life of him in the vernacular, after speaking of his mediocre patrimony says:

“He was a very polished man, of decent stature and of pleasant appearance and full of gravity; slow and sparing in speech but very clever in his repartees. His own portrait is to be seen in the Chiesa di Santa Croce about the middle of the Church, on the left hand as you go toward the High Altar, admirably painted from life by a perfect painter of his day.”

It is one of the disputed questions whether Boccaccio did not take some contemporary portrait as the basis of his description. Scartazzini, in his “Introduction to the Study of Dante,” does not hesitate to say that a review of the abundant literature on Dante’s portrait convinces him that probably we have not a single authentic picture of that great poet. “Who 56 would have painted it?” he asks. “Even granting that while he was one of the Priors of Florence, one had been hung in some public place, such a portrait, though according to Bruni, found in the Chiesa di Santa Croce, would undoubtedly have been destroyed at the time when Florence condemned, banished, cursed and would gladly have put to death her great son. It requires great credulity to believe that in such times the Florentines would have endured in a public place the portrait of a banished, cursed, detested citizen. The multitude of portraits of Dante that we possess are nothing else but fancy pictures, most likely inspired by Boccaccio’s description.”

We may also ask how much dependence may be placed on the authenticity of the death-mask which some claim gives an absolutely correct notion of his features. The sympathetic translator of the “Inferno,” the late T. W. Parsons, exclaims:

How stern of lineament, how grim,

The father was of Tuscan song!

calls him “an anchorite” and continues the picture in these words: 57

The lips as Cumae’s caverns close,

The cheeks with fast and sorrow thin,

The rigid front, almost morose,

But for the patient hope within. . . .

Peace dwells not here — this rugged face

Betrays no spirit of repose;

The sullen warrior sole we trace,

The marble man of many woes.

This stern prophet, before whom women shrank and children trembled as if he had been himself a sad-eyed ghost returned from the tomb, is portrayed by some of his biographers as standing on the shore of the Gulf of Spezzia near the monastery of Santa Croce del Corno, gazing out at the wondrous prospect. The monks struck by his pensive melancholy and evident burden of sorrows approached and asked him what he desired. He replied “Peace”: —

The single boon for which he prayed

The convent’s charity was rest.

If they had asked him where in this world Peace was to be found he might have replied in the words of the “Paradiso”: In la sua voluntade e nostra pace — In His will is our peace.

The stern Dante of the “Inferno” enthralls our imagination but still it is pleasant to conceive of him as a flaxen-haired young lover writing sonnets 58 and canzoni to the beautiful ladies of Florence. In this fascinating pursuit he certainly showed precocity, but it is remarkable how little we really know of the facts. He himself tells us that he was born in Florence but what else is there that we can say of his father’s family except names?

The weight of evidence seems to hold against nobility of origin. Neither his father’s family or his mother’s was inscribed among the nobili or the popolane of the city. It is also significant that Giovanni Villani, a contemporary chronicler, does not speak of him as noble. Moreover, after the Florentines had passed a decree that no member of a noble family should take part in their affairs, Dante was elected Prior of the city. Apparently of so little importance was the Alighieri family that when the Guelfs, to which party it belonged, was politically allied, were driven from Florence by the Ghibellines in 1260, Alighiero, a humble bourgeois, either stayed behind with his second wife, whose name was Bella, or left her there. According to the best authorities the son that conferred not merely nobility but immortality on the name first saw the light in 1265. The details furnished by Boccaccio and other biographers in regard to 59 his family and education are wholly imaginary. How much truth, then, is there in Dante’s own account of his first meeting with Beatrice? How far may we go in believing that this idealised maiden was an actual earthly love, a woman of living flesh and blood?

That she stands as a symbol no one can doubt. But it is always more interesting to us practical modern readers to interpret literally rather than etherialise characters into abstractions. We accept “Pilgrim’s Progress” as an actual journey of actual people such as we meet every day, and the moment we take the heroes and heroines of Spenser’s “Faërie Queene” as personified Virtues and Vices we lose all interest in them. Even the Song of Solomon is shorn of half its beauty when it is regarded as a prophetic illustration of the love of Christ for His Church. To be sure the internal development of Dante’s life may be seen to follow metaphysical and allegorical lines. The mysticism can not be gainsaid: Dante himself bids us read between the lines. Students of a later day are too much inclined, however, to interpret them in accordance with modern transcendentalism, and of course there is room for discussion as to his meaning, but in 60 studying Dante one must never forget the difference between his viewpoint and ours. It is something like playing Bach sonatas on a modern concert-grand piano: we realise that while it may have been absolute music to the composer’s inner sense yet he never heard them except as they were rendered on a tinkling clavichord tickled with a quill.

Now it is of very little importance whether or no we give credence to the literal interpretation of Dante’s “Vita Nuova”; whether or no the donna gentilissima whom he says many called Beatrice was Messer Folco Portinari’s daughter, who in 1286 married the Cavaliere Simon dei Bardi. There is known to have been such a Beatrice and she lived only a few steps from Dante’s home. But the arguments against this tradition — for it is only tradition — are thoroughly convincing — to those who are not convinced of the contrary!

But there is no reason why we should regard “La Vita Nuova” as simply and solely allegorical. Dante says his most gentle lady was a year younger than himself, that she was born, lived and died in the Via del Corso, that at her father’s death she was bowed with grief, that 61 she herself died in the first hour of the ninth of June, 1290, on the very threshold of the second period of her life; that is to say, at the age of twenty-four. He relates that the image of Beatrice that he wore imprinted on his heart was of such noble virtue that it never suffered Love to hold lordship over him without the faithful counsel of Reason; that it made his heart light and gay, inflamed him with holy charity, impelled him to love his neighbours and forgive his enemies, withdrew his imagination from all things vile, guided him in the straight path, and raised him to the love of the highest good, which is God.

After her fair limbs are laid in the dust he tells of their meetings and of the influence which his love for her had exerted upon his life and character. When first he saw her he was near the end and she was near the beginning of their ninth year:

“She appeared to me,” he says, “clad in most noble colour, a modest and becoming red, and she was girt and adorned in such wise as suited her very youthful time of life.”

The thrill that passed over him foretold the coming of the strong God destined to rule over 62 him, and this strong God commanded him oftentimes when he was a boy to seek to see that most youthful angel — quest’ angiola giovanissima — who was his bliss, and he says that he saw her of such noble and praiseworthy deportment that in the words of Homer “she seemed not the daughter of mortal man but of God.” And when nine years has passed since he first saw her, “it chanced that this admirable lady appeared to him again clad in whitest white [colore bianchissimo] — between two older ladies, and as she passed along the street she let her eyes fall upon him as he stood timidly regarding her and saluted him with such ineffable courtesy that it seemed to him that he then experienced all the bounds of bliss — [tutti i termini della beatudine]. For the first time her voice sounded in his ears and so intoxicated was he by the sweetness of it that he retired to his own chamber and dreamed that a marvellous vision appeared to him — a cloud of fire colour wherein he discerned the shape of his Lord, that is Love, who in his arms bore the Lady of the Salutation, sleeping, wrapt in a diaphanous robe of crimson cloth. In one hand he held the youth’s heart all on fire and he awoke her that slept and prevailed 63 upon her to eat it and she ate it timidly. Then the lord of fearful aspect changed from joy to lament and as he wept he gathered up the lady into his arms and went away with her toward heaven.”

From that moment, as expressed in the, to us, grotesque image of his lady devouring his flaming heart, love wastes his flesh; his appearance become grievous to his friends, nor could they doubt, since they saw so many signs of love in his face that it was love that was wasting him; but when they asked “for whom” he smiled and left them, as he left us, to conjecture. It certainly seems absurd that he should have seen the face of a girl who lived a few doors from him only twice in eighteen years and only once heard her voice.

But Dante’s face, wasted by his youthful passion for his idealised love, appeals to our imagination. Would that we had it painted by Giotto!

There are many paintings in words which present Beatrice and her friends to us and they must all be interpreted to the eye in the style of the mediæval painters — a style that one perhaps grows to like. The environment is quite 64 certain to be ecclesiastical. He prefers to use a circumlocution for church. He calls it the place where are heard words concerning the Queen of Glory and where he could behold his bliss. This circumlocution is characteristic of Dante’s prose style. He never calls Florence by name but rather speaks of it as the city where my lady was stationed by the all High Father — la cittade ove la mia donna fu posta dall’ Altissimo Sire — or as the city where his gentilissima donna was born, lived and died.

In this church, between Dante and Beatrice, sat a gentle lady of very pleasing aspect who often looked at him, wondering that he should gaze at her; and many persons noticed it and supposed that the unnamed lady was the one who was wasting his life. So he allows her to be the screen of the truth and for months and years he dissembles, even writing rhymes for her, so as to keep his secret the more to himself.

Afterward he tells her how the Lord of the Angels summoned to his glory a young lady of the city of most gentle appearance who had been exceedingly beautiful; and he beheld her body lying without its soul in the midst of many ladies who were weeping piteously. And 65 because she had once been in the company of the lady of his heart he writes or devises two sonnets as a guerdon to her.

Then follow more visions: he goes on a journey and his most sweet lord appears to his imagination like a pilgrim meanly clad, out of spirits and gazing on a fair, rapid and most pellucid stream which flows along by the road where he is walking.

But when he returns to Florence he takes another lady for his screen and shield and cultivates her so assiduously that men impute vice to him; and his most gentle Beatrice, hearing the injurious gossip, when she sees him in a public place denies him her most sweet salute in which lay all his bliss. He retires to his chamber and after many tears and lamentations falls asleep. Love, whom he had called to his aid, appears like a youth clad in purest white and with grave and thoughtful face. The poet takes the occasion to compose another sonnet or rather, this time, a ballata which is to go forth on Love’s trace and explain to the lady the reasons for his apparent faithlessness.

He next sees Beatrice at a wedding and the sight of her robs him of all his senses, even the 66 spirit of sight; and the ladies that are present beholding him as he leans against a mural painting, make mock at him together with Beatrice. “Ah!” he cries, “if this lady realised my state she would not make sport of me: she would rather have pity on me.”

One more picture from “La Vita Nuova.” He had been ill many days, suffering grievous anguish, and on the ninth day, as he thinks of the slight tenure of his life, it suddenly occurs to him that “gentlest Beatrice” must also some time die. Then bewilderment overcomes him, he closes his eyes in a sort of frenzy; ladies with dishevelled hair appear to him and say: “Thou too must die,” and then strange faces horrible to behold come and say: “Thou art dead!”

Then he knows not where he is and it seems to him that the ladies with the dishevelled hair pass by piteously weeping and the sun grows dark and the stars change colour and, as it were, weep and the birds as they fly fall dead and mighty earthquakes occur. And a certain friend comes to him saying; “Dost thou know? Thine admirable lady is departed from this world!” And as with streaming eyes 67 he looks toward heaven it seems to him he sees a multitude of angels returning thither, before them a cloudlet of exceeding whiteness and they sing gloriously Osanna in Excelsis.

So strong is his errant fancy that it shows to him the lady dead as she lay, her head covered with a white veil and face seeming to say: “Now do I behold the beginning of peace.” It is only a vision but so real that he wakes with a sound of grievous lamentation and calls on Death to take him away. And a young and gentle lady, of nearest kinship, supposing it is the pain of his infirmity, weeps for fear and the other ladies in the chamber send her away and try to comfort him.

The Beatrice of the Vita Nuova died, according to Dante, on the ninth of June, 1290, and he vowed that if his life should be prolonged to say of her what was never said of any woman. He was to go to behold the glory of the lady of his soul, that blessed Beatrice who in heaven looked on the face of Him qui est per omnia saecula benedictus!

No modern critical spirit must breathe on this ideal picture of a mediæval Love. The tears and the sentimentality, the burning hearts 68 and the white-robed angels, the illness and the secrecy hiding or rather one might say betraying the affliction which was a delight were all a part of the phenomenon. In Florence where, according to the Troubadours, “joy and song and love were perfect and adorned,” such a celebration of a heart-passion was natural and comprehensible. In June, 1283, a thousand or more men all clad in white gowns, with a leader called the Lord of Love, gave themselves up to games and sports and dancing and processions through the city with trumpets and other instruments of gaiety, and the festival lasted for two whole months and was the most famous ever held in Tuscany.

When a city or nation suddenly awakens to a new life, intellectual or moral or religious or artistic, there is likely to be an excess of joy in all manifestations of the revival. In the early days of this country a new religious effervescence was called by the name of enthusiasm. Dante lived in the Florence of the thirteenth century: what splendours of fresh architecture, of noble painting, of rich sculptures must have delighted his eyes! What generous rivalry of letters and song! The “Purgatory betrays his admiration 69 for the plastic arts; everywhere we find evidences of his love for music.

Nothing of political life, no reflection of the unsafer passions that were gathering for fatal explosion are to be found in the Vita Nuova. It is a simple love story with no plot: a succession of visions and love-poems, sonnets and canzoni, strung together with quaint and curiously symbolical artifice. One must understand the ancient significance of numbers to realise how the figure nine rules the destiny of Beatrice. The mystic three and one and three thrice multiplied plus one, making the so-called perfect number, regulate the arrangement of the poems, longer and shorter. Both Dante and Beatrice are nine or on the verge of nine when they first meet and twice nine when they meet again and the date of the fair lady’s death is the ninth of June.

The “Divine Comedy” consists of three parts, aggregating a hundred cantos. Hell is laid out in nine circles, Purgatory in seven besides the Ante-Purgatory and the Terrestrial Paradise; Paradise has nine heavens. There are three wild beasts, three blessed women, three guides, three faces of Lucifer; even the verse is the terza rima.


Yet in spite of the artificiality and the laboured puns and conceits that are lavished in descriptions, in spite of the circumlocutions and the lack of definiteness, in spite of the symbolism and the allegory, Dante’s Beatrice stands out as one of the most living and natural maidens in the world: real, because she appeals peculiarly to the imagination and therefore — because painted with the few masterly touches of the poet — most picturesque and beautiful. No details encumber the free play of fancy and therefore she is a maiden for all hearts to love whether depicted under the stiff draperies of a modern Prerafaelite or in the realism of a Dresden Koch — so pure, so chaste, so beautiful, so divine!

Gaspary sees in her the ideal of platonic love; but aside from the probability that Dante was wholly unacquainted with what we understand by platonic love, it seems to me that the utter one-sidedness of the passion is fatal to any such idea: a platonic affection is a mutual exchange of love with the idea of possession excluded. The woman has the same interest in the man as the man has in the woman. Sex is ignored. But in Dante’s case Beatrice is worshipped from 71 afar and, dying, becomes the regnant influence of his life. Had it been a vulgar earthly passion, had he dreamed of a union other than spiritual, the symbolical significance of the Vita Nuova would have been an absurdity. This lofty purity is what sets this golden book studded with gems above the Song of Solomon.

When we go from the Vita Nuova to the great vision, we are assuredly in the domain of the symbolical. We may regard Dante himself in this marvellous journey under a twofold aspect: he represents humanity, he is the poet of the Vita Nuova. In either case Beatrice is something more concrete than abstract theology or even divine wisdom: she is abstract woman, she is also perhaps the Saving Church. But to us she is interesting only as the one woman, only as a picturesque figure, as seen by the poet as a man and not as a mediæval theologian.

It will be remembered that Dante in middle age — as he expresses it in his characteristic circumlocution, nell mezzo del cammin di nostra vita — finds himself wandering in a dark forest, prevented by three wild beasts from climbing the mountain that should bring him 72 to the Terrestrial Paradise; the first is a beautiful spotted panther, variously interpreted as meaning Florence or the sin of incontinence; the second is a rabid lion that makes the very air affrighted, this signifying France or pride or ambition or violence; and the third a lean she-wolf that seems burdened with hungry cravings, meaning Rome or fraud, or the avarice of the Guelfs or the hatred of Dante’s enemies. Dante himself vouchsafes no explanation and the range of choice is very wide.

As he slowly retreats into the pass that had filled the lake of his heart with terror he beholds one who through long silence seemed feeble or hoarse. It is Vergil who has come to rescue him. Vergil throughout the Middle Ages is regarded as a powerful magician, a necromancer, the pagan prophet of Christianity. To Dante he is the honour and light of poetry, his master and his author, the one from whom alone he took the beautiful style — lo bello stile — that had done him honour, but in the mystic sense the type of right reason.

As Vergil proceeds to lead Dante through the eternal place where he should hear the despairing shrieks of those ancient spirits of woe who cry 73 out for the second death, he relates how the rescue came about:

“I was among those that dwell suspended in limbo, betwixt hell and heaven; and a lady blessed and beautiful [beata e bella] called me and I besought her to command. Her eyes shone brighter than the Sun or Venus and sweet and low she began in her own tongue with her angelic voice.”

Here, by the way, is the excuse for Dante’s composing the poem in Italian instead of Latin as at first he intended: the vernacular was vastly richer in poetic possibilities, for a living literature must have a spoken language as its organ and Beatrice’s own tongue was the melodious Tuscan, young and beautiful daughter of Vergil’s Latin. Those words of Vergil give to our ears the incomparable music of its form, so hopelessly beyond the power of any translation, prose or rhythmical, to express: —

E donna mi chiamo beata e bella

Tal che di comandar io la richiesi.

Lucevan gli occhi suoi più che la stella

E cominciommi a dir soave e piana

Con angelica voce in sua favella.

Beatrice tells the courteous Mantuan how, as she was sitting with the ancient Rachel, Lucia 74 (by whom the commentators understand Dante to mean illuminating grace) comes as a messenger from a gentle lady in heaven who breaks stern Judgment and disarms Justice, (this being either the Virgin Mary or the Divine Goodness personified), and tells her of the desperate strait of him who for love of her had deserted the vulgar herd and was now combating death beside the flood of passions and political tumults more stormy than the sea.

And Beatrice tells him how, swifter than men seek their advantage and flee their hurt, she had come down from that seat of beatitude, and as she said it, weeping she turned her lucent eyes upon him.

Is not that a picture to linger in the memory? Those two gracious figures, one of course in the Roman toga, the type of the noble Roman who used to meet Augustus at the villa of Maecenas, the other the beautiful Florentine Donna, the type of all that was loveliest and best in Italian womanhood, dressed, though a spirit, in robes such as she was wont to wear at Florentine festivals.

It is the only picture that relieves the gloom of hell unless one — as one must 75 indeed — except the description of Limbo. Dante and his serene Guide are welcomed there by four great shades — quattro grand’ ombre — Homer, sword in hand, lord of the rest, the sovereign poet; Horace the Satirist, Ovid and Lucan; and they welcome Dante as the sixth. And together the fair school of that lord of loftiest song pass on until they reach the foot of a noble castle seven times girt by lofty walls, defended round about by a beautiful streamlet. They ford it as if it had been dry land and through seven gates enter upon a meadow of fresh verdure — prato di fresca verdura — where were people with slow and serious eyes, with great authority in their looks who spake seldom but with sweet voices.

In an open place, lofty and luminous, were gathered all these great spirits on the enamelled green: Hector and Aeneas, Caesar in armour with his falcon eyes and Aristotle the Master of those that know, seated in the midst of the filosofica famiglia, all of whom looked up to him, all did him honour; and nearest to him Socrates and Plato and then all the pagan poets and great men, worthy of heaven indeed, but through fatal ignorance deprived of that 76 higher felicity but not unhappy, knowing not of the higher heavens for those that believed.

Out from that calm and quiet retreat Vergil leads Dante into the air that trembles, into the darkness that stifles and they begin the dread descent through the spiral circles narrowing down into the awful pits where the Damned are forever punished.

Dante has been criticised for his cruel imagination of the pangs of hell. But he only followed the fashion of his day and generation, he only accepted the faith of his Church. Moreover, viewed symbolically, each punishment is seen to be but the logical outcome of the special sin: blasphemers are seen lying prone in the desert of sand beaten by a rain of fire, their helplessness before God typified in their attitude; in the third pit those guilty of simony, who sold the precious pearl for worldly possessions, who sought the bad, who trod the good under foot, have now darkness for light, bitter for sweet, and are depicted with their heads and bodies in the dirt and their legs in the air. Thieves are changed into serpents, church-robbers, like Vanni Fucci, adding sacrilege to theft are burnt to all eternity in a consuming fire, ever sinking to ashes and rising 77 again like the phœnix. Mohammed, who rent the Christian Church, is split from chin to rump, while those guilty of cold treachery, unwarmed by a spark of feeling, are in the lowest deeps where the tears freeze in their eyes and they are themselves rigid with never-yielding frost.

In the eighth song, while they are crossing the turbid waters of the Styx in the ancient boat of Phlegyas, a soul full of filthy mud stretches out his two hands to them. Vergil thrusts him disdainfully back saying: “Away, with the other dogs” — Via costa con gli altri cani — and to Dante, after expressing a blessing on the mother who bore him, he expresses all his scorn for that persona orgogliosa — that haughty personage who together with proud kings like swine in the vile filth are now wallowing.

Dante replies: “Master, I should be full fain to see him swallowed up in this mire before we depart from the lake.”* Vergil assures him that it is fitting he should have such a wish gratified, and a moment later he beholds him in such torment under the 78 attentions of the fangosi genti — the filthy tribe — that he praises and thanks God for it. Thus Dante revenges himself on Filippo Argenti whom he calls lo fiorentino spirito bizarro, where the strange word bizarro seems to mean “of wily but inexorable temper.”

The most familiar picture from the “Inferno” is that of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, her lover, borne swiftly on the murky air — aer nero — like starlings, hither, thither, up and down — di quà, di l’, di giù, di sù; — so light upon the wind. And when for one brief moment the wind is silent come those million-times cited lines:

Nessun maggior dolore

Che ricordarsi del tempo felice

Nella miseria.

But are they true — those words so entirely contrary to those others:

’T is better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all?

If Paolo and Francesca loved guiltily and were punished in accordance with the nature of their crime, was not most of the bitterness removed by the fact that they were at least together through the long æons of measureless time? Or can 89 we read into the punishment the quite modern idea that their enforced companionship was a greater torment than separation would have been? In accordance with the materialism of the “Divine Comedy” the physical agonies of the damned were even keener than they would have been in the flesh. But, evidently, Dante, whose stern being was nevertheless attuned to all the harmonies of love, felt deep sorrow for the hapless pair who though technically guilty, have more than any historic lovers carried the sympathy of the world. The few lines in which the story is told contain the quintessence of a tragedy which has been elaborated into long dramas, has been presented on the lyric stage and has inspired the rhapsodies of the greatest musicians. Nowhere is Dante’s art more admirably illustrated than in that final line of Francesca’s pathetic explanation where never once she complains of Fate or hints that the punishment is undeserved. Having told of the temptation and of the fatal kiss she hints at the jealous husband’s vengeance in these words: Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante — “We read no further in the book that day.”


Among the multitude of picturesque though horrible details in the “Inferno” perhaps the ride of the two Poets on the shoulders of the monster Geryon from the seventh circle — of those that have done violence to Art — down to the eighth where Pope Nicholas III suffers, is the most striking: We see the huge dragon stretching out his long tail, gathering in the air with with his paws and moving his mighty vans. “I was in the air on every side,” says Dante. “Every sight vanished save that of the dragon. It went away, swimming slowly, slowly wheeled and descended, but I perceived it not save that the wind blew on my face and from below.”

Every detail fills the mind with the satisfaction of vision: it is a triumph of description.

Another picture from the “Inferno” which haunts the memory is that of the monarch of the dolorous realm with his three faces, red, yellow and black, with his six enormous wings like those of a bat and flapping forth three winds congealing all Cocytus;

“With his six eyes he weeps and over his three chins trickle the tears and the bloody slaver, while in his three mouths he is crunching with his teeth, like a hemp-masher, Judas 81 Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius” — the three champion traitors of the world.

Tutto avem veduto — they had seen it all. They have now reached the centre of the earth which according to the Ptolemaic system is also the centre of the Universe, and when al last they pass through the hidden passage to return to the bright world, they behold through a round aperture the beauteous things that the heavens bear and once more look upon the stars. It has been a long hard journey for only four and twenty hours. The rest of his pilgrimage takes much more time to accomplish and seems to offer far less in the way of picturesque detail. The descriptions are more transcendental and offer less occasion to the artist that would attempt to illustrate the poem. The concrete shapes, though so horrible, that swarm through the pages of the “Inferno,” give place to brilliant lights, to angelic songs.

Exquisitely beautiful and pictorial is the beginning of the “Purgatory.” At the very first we have the atmosphere like soft Oriental sapphire; the fair planet that incites to love makes all the East smile, the heavens seem to rejoice in all the four stars — symbols of the four 82 cardinal virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice; and the contrast to the fearful region which we have just left makes all the more vivid the beauty of the hopeful landscape which is introductory to the region of purgative pains.

After speech with the younger Cato who appears like an aged man with a reverend white beard and his face illumined by the rays of the four holy stars, they pass across the plain until they behold the glittering sea — il tremolar della marina, and soon they come to the shores of those desert waters which man crosses only once. How beautiful is the approach of the swift boat — preceded by a light swifter than aught earthly flies, and guided by the angel of God, the Celestial Pilot in the stern and a convoy of a hundred spirits singing together with one voice!

The description of the gate of Purgatory is fine with its symbolical three steps: the first of white marble, mirror-like, polished; the second of rugged rock, rough, coarse-grained and cracked; the third of fiery porphyry like blood that gushes from the vein; and the silent warder dressed in ashen gray standing on the topmost 83 step with naked sword reflecting dazzling rays and holding the silver and the golden key.

Then when they have entered they pass the walls sculptured with a multitude of intaglios each so lovingly described. It is interesting to note that Dante expressed his belief that Polykleitos, the Greek sculptor, was able to surpass Nature in his art and he practically recommends the practice of adorning churches with representations of Biblical scenes so that those unable to read might through their eyes win instruction.

Vergil accompanies Dante through most of the circles of Purgatory and when at last the seven P’s, standing for the peccavi of the seven mortal sins, have been cleared from the poet’s brow Vergil pronounces his will free, upright and sane — Libero, dritto, sano è tuo arbitrio — and he is ready to enter into the terrestrial paradise.

It is supposed that Dante got his inspiration for the scenery of the earthly paradise from his memory of Ravenna where he lived two years — the heavenly forest dense and green — la divina foresta spessa e viva — through which he makes his way, the soil everywhere breathing fragrance, the wind making low music in the pines, his brow 84 cooled by the soft breeze — blowing toward the west, the river of clear waters with grasses bending down to meet their own reflections, the varied May blossoms full of dew and amid them the fair lady, Matilda, the type of virtuous activity, who appears solitary singing like a maid in love — cantando come donna innamorata. She gathers the flowers that paint her pathway: —

Then as fair lady moving in the dance

Turns with her soles just lifted from the ground

And scarcely one foot forward doth advance,

She among red and golden flowers turned round

To me.

She leads him forward and exclaims “My brother look and listen” — Frate mio, guarda e ascolta. A sweet melody runs through the luminous air; under the green branches is seen something like a blazing fire and the sweet sound becomes a song. A fair array brighter than the full moon in March approaches: there are people clad in spotless white; the water of the stream grows resplendent; flamelets like streaming pennants mark the air with seven broad zones of colour like a rainbow and four and twenty elders crowned with fleur de lys walk two by two singing “Blessed art 85 thou among the daughters of Adam and blessed forever be thy beauties.”

These are followed by four living creatures — animali — crowned with bright green leafage, each feathered with six wings, argus-eyed. Then comes a triumphal two-wheeled chariot drawn by a gryphon — half eagle, half lion, typifying the dual nature of Christ: the bird-members gold, the rest vermilion and white. Three ladies, representing (it is supposed) Faith, Hope and Charity, one, ruddy as fire, one like bright emerald, one white as new-fallen snow, come dancing about the chariot on the right; on the left are four in festal array, dressed in imperial purple; these are the four cardinal virtues and the colour of their garb typifies their dominance over human life. These take their step from their leader, Prudence, whose three eyes look at the past, the present and the future. Then come two old men and four others humble in appearance, representing and personifying the latter books of the Testament. They are robed in white and are crowned with roses. And a hundred voices sing Benedictus qui venis and those lovely words from the Aeneid, 86 manibus o date lilia plenis — “scatter lilies in handfuls.”

And now to Dante’s streaming eyes appears, within a cloud of flowers falling within and without the chariot, a lady with an olive-wreath, symbol of peace and wisdom, above a white veil and robed in colour of living flame under a green mantle: the three colours of Faith, Charity and Hope. Vergil suddenly vanishes. The lady hid by the veil and circled by the leaf of Minerva haughty in her manner cries: “Behold me! Beatrice am I” — Guardami ben: ben son, ben son Beatrice! With the sternest reproach in her voice she asks how he dares to approach the mountain. And his eyes cast down see his own shame reflected in the clear crystal stream. Then she grows silent and the angels sing in Latin: “In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust.” And their compassion for him causes the ice around his heart to melt and the breath and water with anguish pour from his breast through his mouth and through his eyes.

But when she has sufficiently humiliated him and filled him with contrition, Matilda drags him into the stream and then the beautiful lady opens her arms, clasps his head and causes him 87 to swallow some of the water which brings forgetfulness of sins, and when he had thus been bathed she brings him within the minuet of the four Beautiful Ones — the cardinal virtues, and each of them covers him with her arm.

All this richness of symbolical but picturesque imagery would form a panoramic frieze such as it would seem an Abbey might take delight in realising.

The “Paradiso” offers far less of satisfying illustrative material. One reads on and on, as in a mist of indefinite light and with ineffable sounds of music ringing in the ears. All one feels is that Dante is with his thrice-sanctified mistress in bliss unspeakable. One could not depict with success the strange bodiless dance of the two companies of saints so elaborately compared to the marshalling of the stars in heaven. No artist could satisfactorily portray such supernal flights of the poet’s imagination. No, to find fit and agreeable pictures one must travel back into the “Purgatory” and there occasionally will come across a hint of a landscape such as the patient copyer of mediæval missals loved to introduce into his illuminations, such as this for instance in the seventh canto: 88

Twixt hill and plain a winding path did trend

Which led within the bosom of the vale,

To where the ledge doth more than half descend.

Gold, silver, crimson, ceruse splendour pale,

The Indian wood so lucent and serene,

Fresh emerald, when its outer coat doth scale,

Placed in that vale the plants and flowers between,

Would each and all be found surpassed in hue,

As less by greater overpowered is seen.

Alas, that no translation can do justice to the music of that exquisite verse! Dante had all the mediæval delight in green. The two angels with the two pointless swords that appear in the seventh book of the “Purgatory” are dressed in green like new born leaves, and spread green wings. That does not comport with our usual idea of angels but possibly amid the throng of dazzlingly white spirits the eye might find infinite rest in verdant-winged angels.

No one can doubt that Dante was an artist. To say nothing of his mastery of poetic form, his loving reference to colour and to plastic creation shows how thoroughly permeated he was with the spirit that at that time was beginning to spread through Italy and was to bring forth such wonderful paintings, statues and architecture. The obligation of art to the great poet has never been sufficiently realised; it never can be.


 *  Maestro, molto sarei vago

     Di vederlo attuffare in questa broda

     Prima che noi uscissimo del lago.


III.  Lyric Poetry and Petrarca

Page Design and Notes Page Design and any Notes Copyright  © 2007 by Elfinspell

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