Obrázky na stránke
[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

rentines in the sum of 8000 lires, and condemned to two years' exile. Unable to discharge the fine, his property was confiscated, and shortly afterwards, in the month of March, a sentence was obtained by his enemies, condemning him, if taken, to the stake. To this unjust severity he alludes in a prediction in the seventeenth canto of Paradise.

Such as driven out From Athens, by his cruel sepdame's wiles, Hippolytus departed: such must thou Depart from Florence. This they wish, and this Contrive, and will ere long effectuate, there, Where gainful merchandize is made of Christ Throughout the livelong day.

From that hour his life was a series of misfortunes. Failing to secure a permission to revisit his native city, he wandered about Italy, dependent upon the generosity of friends for an asylum and a subsistence; and yet never fully releasing the hope of a remission of the sentence, he seems to have harbored a bitterness and dejection of spirits, from the annoyance of which even his friends were not exempt.

This is the first shaft

Shot from the bow of exile. Thou shalt prove
How salt the savor is of others' bread;
How hard the passage, to descend and climb
By others' stairs.

Having seen the fall of his political enemy Donati, he finally entered beneath the hospitable roof of Signori della Scala, of Verona, where a firm friendship was soon established between the patron and the poet, which lasted until death a friendship which he characterizes as the contrary to that

Which fals 'twixt other men, the granting
Did forerun the asking.

Twice he visited Paris, and one early commentator extends his pilgrimage even to Oxford. During the last years of his life he resided with Guido Novello da Polenta, at Ravenna, where he died in 1321, of a disease brought on by disappointment and melancholy, at the failure of a negotiation, which he had undertaken to effect between his patron and the Venetians. His funeral obsequies were celebrated in a gorgeous and sumptuous style by Guido, and one hundred and fifty years later a splendid monument was erected to his memory by Bernardo Bembo. His countrymen sought to wipe out their injustice to the living by expiatory offerings to his ashes, but as to this day their service is mere lip-honor, without any true sympathy with the principles which inspired the poet's song, they have only perpetuated their own meanness and

infamy; even the bad commentaries, which they have hung round his great poem, and the mincing, idle lecturers they have appointed to sit in judgment on his genius, only furnish still stronger evidence to the man of taste, that the infatuated Florentines are stubbornly bent upon the burial of his deathless numbers, and the extermination of his principles.

The Divina Commedia, by which the name of Dante is rendered illustrious and immortal, is in its conception and in all its parts, essentially a creation of the fourteenth century, of an antipapal Catholic, and of Italy. It is religion and political law in allegory, with an outline of the events and characters of his own day skilfully interwoven with the frail texture and dignified with Roman learning. Though denominated a comedy, it is not a drama: but in accordance with the arbitrary criticism of his contempora ries, by which eloquence was distributed into three forms, tragic, comic, and elegiac,-the first representing those pieces which, with a happy beginning, had a painful conclusion, and the second those of a reverse order-Dante named his poem a comely. The epithet Divina is of later origin, and arose from the character of the subjects, upon which its hundred cantos were employed. The poet introduces us to a vision which is said to have passed before his fancy, in the year 1300, representative of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. This furnishes him with a ready threefold division to his poem, of which he avails himself in a very masterly manner. The shade of Virgil becomes his conductor through the realms of Tartarus, and they enter the fearful regions of Hell hand in hand.

Hardly have they passed beneath the heavy portals, when their eyes fall upon a gang of drones and idlers, whose punishment it is to be for ever stung with gnats and wasps: in this worshipful company they discover Pope Celestine the Fifth, who had abdicated his office to play the sot with a more comfortable abandon. Ferried by Charon over the Stygian waters they meet first the spirits of those, who, before the coming of Christ, lived lives of godlessness: the second is a group of sensualists, who are suc ceeded in regular series by g'uttons, spendthrifts, choleric spirits, heret cs,` ma'efactors, debauchees, and traitors. To illustrate these characters the poet selected the choicest actors in Italian history; and from the supplies it is made to furnish, the papacy would seem to have been a sort of academy of sin to prepare and train pupils for that higher or rather deeper university of crime and wo. Besides Celestine we meet

with Nicholas the Third, Clement the Fifth, and even Boniface the Eighth, under the title of • Prince of the Pharisees.' Nor are the popes even in death deprived of their cringing parasites. Cardinals, and bishops without number, swarm in every circle, and are immortalized with every degree and species of immorality, from a sickly gourmandism up to simony, perjury, and coolly calculated murder.

Reappearing in upper light, the travellers rest upon an island from which they are directed by Cato of Utica on their road to Purgatory.

O'er better waves to speed her rapid course
The light bark of my genius lifts the sail,
Well pleas'd to leave so cruel sea behind.

The journey over the mountains of Purgatory by a steep and narrow path, pent in on each side by rocks, is full of incident, and diversified with all the charms of descriptive poetry. Seating themselves on an eminence with the sun upon their left, they recover from their fatigue and interrogate the passengers upon the causes of their several dooms. Discovering Sordello, an old and tried friend, Dante flings himself into his arms, and bursts out in bitter invective upon an ungrateful land.

Ah, slavish Italy! thou inn of grief!
Vessel without pilot in loud storm!
Lady no longer of fair provinces,

But brothel-house impure! This gentle spirit
Even from the pleasant sound of his dear land
Was prompt to greet a fellow citizen
With such glad cheer: while now thy living ones
In thee abide not without war; and one
Malicious gnaws another: aye of those
Whom the same wall and the same moat contains.

Falling asleep, the dreamer is carried still farther up the mountain, and two hours after sunrise is admitted with Virgil to the realms of Purgatory. As they advance, wide surfaces of white marble are seen artfully adorned with allegorical representations of deeds of humility. The souls of the proud meet them bent down beneath the weight of large stones: then succeed other etchings in illustration of the same sin. Upon the second buttress the sin of envy is expiated, and upon the third that of anger. Advancing through the mists he meets Marco Lombardo, with whom he carries on a dispute upon the free-will, summing up the matter in these sensible lines:

If then the present race of mankind err
Seek in yourselves the cause and find it there.

Issuing from the thick vapor, they approach the fourth cornice, where the sin of gloominess is cleansed. The fifth, assigned to the sin of

avarice, has among its tenants for a wonder, Pope Adrian the Fourth, who confesses that his induction to the pastorship of Rome first opened his eyelids, and enabled him to discover “the dream and cozenage of life." After passing the fifth cornice, the two poets are overtaken by Statius, who accompanies them on their way, all communing

Mysterious lessons of sweet poesy.

Escaping beyond the seventh and last cornice, Dante is accosted by several of his friends, whose characters he sketches with rapid and vivid strokes. Before these realms are abandoned for ever, the travellers are overtaken by nightfall and pleasant dreams, and when they awake again, Virgil, not being permitted to enter the gates of Paradise, resigns his office of guide and commits his friend to his own judgment till he shall meet with Beatrice to conduct him through the streets of the Eternal City.

The reunion with his first love forms the centre of interest for the poem, if centre it can be said to have. Beatrice he had first seen at the age of ten years, and at twenty loved her. His warm affection was felt and responded to, but death intercepted the consummation of their happiness. At twenty-five he buried his relish of life, and his hopes of earthly enjoyment, in the grave with her. The earth covered her body, but the vision of her features, the soft tones of her voice, and the kindness of her heart, burst from the earthy encasement, and roamed over the world with Dante. They lay down with him and rose up with him, they were ever present images in his eyes, they echoed like the memory of past joys through his ears, they swept over his spirit like a voice from heaven, they became part of his very consciousness. And if the half, that is told of her, be true. she was worthy the homage of such a mind. To the memory of this being he turned after a life spent in vexation and anguish, persecution without and domestic discord within, and he fondled the thing of fancy with all the fervor and artlessness of a child. To this being, when he enters the regions of the blessed, he resigns himself as his conductress and prophet.

Ascending towards the first heaven, his celestial guide resolves certain of his doubts upon the nature of the objects which meet his view. The moon is assigned to those, who on earth made profession of a religious life. Among the illustrious tenants of Mercury, or the second heaven, is Justinian, who recounts the victories of the Roman Eagle, and discovers to Dante the true

[ocr errors]


policy of the Italian States, in relation to their unhappy dissensions. As they journey on up to the ninth and last heaven, Beatrice discourses to him of human redemption, and the necessity of faith; but the larger part of the doctrinal expositions are put in the mouths of Thomas Aquinas, Buonaventura, Bernard, and the Apostles. Upon the empyrean his vision is strengthened by looking upon a river of light, by which he is enabled to discern or rather contemplate the brightness of the Divine Majesty. Beatrice silently retires from his side, and he is admitted to a faint glimpse of the mysteries of the Trinity, and the union of man with God:

But the flight was not for my wing: Had not a flash darted athwart my mind And in the spleen unfolded what it sought. Here vigor fail'd the tow'ring fantasy, But yet the will roll'd onward, like a wheel In even motion, by the Love impell'd, That moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

Our imperfect analysis may give some faint idea of the action of the poem. Of its incidents, as rich and diversified as the scenes of nature herself, its images endless and choice, and never feeble, its variety always pleasing, its language vigorous and elegant, its versification melodious and exquisitely modulated, we can say but little within our present limits. It is an allegory of the boldest kind, transporting the present into the future, and awarding to virtue and vice their respective dooms. The characters are of an historical, and therefore permanent interest: the basis of the vision is laid Revelation, upon and even where it is in some of its parts at variance with our clearer knowledge of that Revelation, it loses half its offensiveness by the unobtrusive manner in which it is introduced. We come now to speak more particularly of its political and religious character.

We suppose no one would open the Divina Commedia to study theology, or political law. Whoever the adventurer may be, who shall set himself upon such a task, will find himself in the issue at loggerheads with all the world and with himself also. Pagans in heaven or on their way thither after death have too strong an odor of sentimentalism to suit the Protestant; Popes in hell are not very relishable food for rumination to the Romanist. The worship of the blessed Virgin as " Regina Cali," purgatory as a place of moral preparation for heaven, and Paradise distributed with a great parade of astronomy over the planets of the solar system, are not the things most congruous with the Bible and the developments of modern science. We stop not now to contemplate its


faults and its blemishes. They are many and great. Nor shall we delve in every fleeting dash of the poet's pencil to catch a faint foreshadowing of some great traditional system, which would fain have a resurrection in these latter days. Nor again for our present design shall we chase off into his political treatise De Monarchia in glorification of the Romans, and in prophecy of their destiny as the future rulers of the Universe. All this, well enough in its season, is wholly irrelevant to the important question, What is the religion of the Divina Commedia ? Man has so long and so effectually made his wit and acquirements subserve the ends of his passions, that in an analysis of any given character, we have come to consider not how he reasons, nor what formal statements he makes of his views, but what his ob. ject is. The heart in this case overshadows the intellect, and the latter does duty as a hireling under the lash. Dante in his work on Monarchy glorified the Romans to tickle the vanity of the Emperor, and secure his assistance against the Pontiff: he ascribed prerogatives to a Cæsar, which would have constituted a fouler and a sterner despotism than that of the Vatican. He reasons, and subtilizes, and poetizes, till he gets an Empire into the seventh heaven of political perfectibility, and carries up there with it many of the most odious features of Catholicism. All this seems anything but pleasant for an American heart: but we care not a whit for these vagaries. We put the thing in another light by the common sense question, why did he so compromise his nobler principles? And when history answers, it was to awaken a stupid race and a superstitious Emperor to a sense of the spiritual degradation to which the Papacy reduced them, we are satisfied we thank the poet for his motives and objects, and reject his means. Leaving then such moot points, we go in quest of a more important fact, which is to answer a more practical question. What is the genius of the religious sentiments of the Divina Commedia ? What its pervading spirit, and whitherward was the poet's helm directed? And we hesitate not to affirm that that genius and spirit are Protestantism, and that helm is hard down' for Evangelicism. We affirm it in the face of sacerdotal copes and stoles, and tapers, and saints' intercession, and all the doctrines of the schoolmen in their most subtle or stupid form, scattered through its endless terzinas, and adorned with all the tasteful drapery of a true poet. We affirm it in the face of the universal popularity



of the poem with Catholic Italians, of its specious and artful defence by that prince of controversialists, the Cardinal Bellarmine, and of its ingenious believe-nothing, and doubt-nothing analysis by that prince of historical critics, Bayle. Dante has impressed upon it his own signet, and that signet does not read Popery, nor Christianity, nor Paganism, nor fiction, nor caprice, but--Dante. It is individual, with dash of the monomaniac; religious, with a just detestation of a horde of usurpers and apostates, and Christian-like, with as much of the Sprit as could eke through the turmeric of Missals and Pontificals. His inner life was fed by principle, instead of form: he loved truth, he eschewed hypocrisy, and he clung with rapture and enthusiasm around the living and life-giving doctrines, which even through a spurious Christianity and a tyrannical government, he could catch a glimpse of, and could discern to be the only, and the sure safeguard of spiritual and political liberty. He was a Catholic-a Romanist, if you please-because the Bible was a sealed book, and he knew no other form of Revelation. But in his poem he chose of Catholicism what was best, and most approximating to Evangelicism. He was a poet; and as such sought communion with kindred spirits of former days, and with the lovelier and purer shapes of nature. He was a sworn adherent to his holy faith, but he shrank from its impure exposition at Rome, to hold sweet converse with the scholastics, and ventured with them to the farthest verge of the catholic circle, to enjoy the healthful exercise of that liberty, wherewith God makes free. He was a gene rous spirit, and a bruised one: and far from rebuking the dejection of his latter years, we are moved to prize the more highly that humane temperament which could suffer continued exhaustion from such miscreants and ingrates as those, with whom his lot was cast, without drying up for ever the fountains of sympathy and kindness. He loved the pure poetry of his Virgil, the angelic vision of his Beatrice, the truthful doctrines of freedom and the holy consolations of revealed religion. He hated Popes, Cardinals, and bishops; intriguers and despots; lechers, gluttons, and misers: but, what is far above all this, he heartily detested the union of Church and State. He denounced it in didactic essays, and in the rapid eloquence of song: he preached against it to his countrymen, and drew his own good blade in evidence of his sincerity and trust and it was his ardor to subvert the papacy which carried him over to what is just

as bad, high monarchism. These are the affections, and principles, and purposes, which enter into his great poem: and they glow there like liquid gold in every line, every image, every word. As Protestants we follow the Ghibelline with our hopes and prayers through all the changes of his allegory: and at every step we are conscious that a Catholic garb is concealing an evangelical person, because in every light and under every circumstance, he is acting upon the fundamental principle of evangelicism, individuality as opposed to massive organism.

Dante was a fourteenth century man with his face toward the millenium instead of the deluge: an inhabitant of a dark age, but not like the obscure bat bending its wings towards the dens and caves of the earth, but like a young eagle peering for light and setting his eye full upon the dazzling sun: he was leaving confusion and death behind him, and had hope before to cheer and enliven his pathway: and when he lacked wisdom, his heart did not turn towards any Mecca to worship and ask, but he bent his eyes upwards and looked upon heaven through its own veil of pure ether, and made the air the glad communicator of his orisons, the omnipresent confessional for his trespasses.

There is in heaven a light, whose goodly shine
Makes the Creator visible to all
Created, that in seeing him alone
Have peace and in a circle spreads so far
That the circumference were too loose a zone
To girdle in the sun.

The poetry of the Divine comedy is that of a fertile imagination and varied learning, under the conduct of eloquence and honest indignation. The theme, and the minor parts, were those which stirred and animated his soul of souls they brought up strange pictures with dark colorings of bitter wrongs before his memory, and melancholy threw her sable garment over his fancy. Now he is carried away by an impassioned eulogy of the good and the noble, now he pours forth torrents of scorching rebuke upon the vices of Italy, and now he brands the sloth and tetchy wantonness of the Pope and his minions with epithets of biting sarcasm. With a lively sympathy for

the beautiful and the gentle, he seldom views them in their feminine attitudes, and never paints them. Alone of all the poets of Italy he never wrote a line of twattle or slip-slop. Hell in his vision is gloomy, frowning, malignant ; vice has lost its seductive charms, and is bold and froward in despair. Suffering only nourishes the fiendlike hate of the tenants of that nether



pit: horror, like a glare of fire in murky darkness, rests upon every countenance. The heavy hand of fortune had almost identified Dante's thoughts with gloom and sullenness and it may truly be said of him, what Johnson unjustly said of Milton, that hell grew darker at his frown.'

It is the poetry of learning, erudite, scholastic, and occasionally ostentatious. His era was that of the revival of Roman letters; those of Greece and the East being yet unknown. It was the age of angelic and seraphic Doctors in subtle theology: when thought began to recover the use of its limbs, but had to turn infant again, creeping along the ground, and amusing itself with rattles and rubbish. But the marks of a towering genius are manifest in the selection that is made of materials, and the groups into which they are disposed. Dante poured the lifeless dogmas into the crucible of his heart, and purified and vivified reason by passion. In the peculiar province of the poet he stands unrivalled in rich variety of images, and in the picturesque character of language. The ordinary actors upon the same stage with him are introduced with great skill, and neither

their numbers nor their obscurity are suffered to act as dead weights upon the interest of the composition. The chief events of history are sketched with a few brilliant strokes of which the only blemish is that they are suggestive rather than didactic: a few brief notes, however, are sufficient to guide the reader, and the fewer and briefer they are made the better for the object of the poem and the memory of its author.

Dante is blessed with a translation into every tongue, whose literature is worth the mention, and is cursed with a thousand dull commentators, who are seeking, like barnacles upon the hull of a mighty ship, to traverse the ocean of time. To the English reader the translation of Cary, which we have employed in our extracts, offers as correct a notion of the spirit of the man and the genius of the poet, as a translation can. It is polished, and sometimes labored: animated and frequently brilliant; always full, without overrunning the measure of its office. Dante deserves a wider acquaintance with Americans, for it may be safely said, that an American Protestant can alone echo the fervor and the spirit of the Anti-papal poet.

[blocks in formation]
« PredošláPokračovať »