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Full Online Book HomeEssaysAmong My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 2
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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 2 Post by :pgoodison Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :2214

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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 2

DANTE. Continues 2

We shall barely allude to the minor poems, full of grace and depth of mystic sentiment, and which would have given Dante a high place in the history of Italian literature, even had he written nothing else. They are so abstract, however, that without the extrinsic interest of having been written by the author of the _Commedia_, they would probably find few readers. All that is certainly known in regard to the _Commedia is that it was composed during the nineteen years which intervened between Dante's banishment and death. Attempts have been made to fix precisely the dates of the different parts, but without success, and the differences of opinion are bewildering. Foscolo has constructed an ingenious and forcible argument to show that no part of the poem was published before the author's death. The question depends somewhat on the meaning we attach to the word "published." In an age of manuscript the wide dispersion of a poem so long even as a single one of the three divisions of the _Commedia would be accomplished very slowly. But it is difficult to account for the great fame which Dante enjoyed during the latter years of his life, unless we suppose that parts, at least, of his greatest work had been read or heard by a large number of persons. This need not, however, imply publication; and Witte, whose opinion is entitled to great consideration, supposes even the _Inferno not to have been finished before 1314 or 1315. In a matter where certainty would be impossible, it is of little consequence to reproduce conjectural dates. In the letter to Can Grande, before alluded to, Dante himself has stated the theme of his song. He says that "the literal subject of the whole work is the state of the soul after death simply considered. But if the work be taken allegorically, the subject is man, as by merit or demerit, through freedom of the will, he renders himself liable to the reward or punishment of justice." He tells us that the work is to be interpreted in a literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical sense, a mode then commonly employed with the Scriptures,(64) and of which he gives the following example: "To make which mode of treatment more clear, it may be applied in the following verses: _In exitu Israel de Aegypto, domus Jacob de populo barbaro, facta est Judaea sanctificatio ejus, Israel potestas ejus_.(65) For if we look only at the literal sense, it signifies the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if at the allegorical, it signifies our redemption through Christ; if at the moral, it signifies the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to a state of grace; and if at the anagogical, it signifies the passage of the blessed soul from the bondage of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory." A Latin couplet, cited by one of the old commentators, puts the matter compactly together for us:--

"_Litera gesta refert; quid credas _allegoria_;
_Moralis quid agas; quid speres _anagogia_."

Dante tells us that he calls his poem a comedy because it has a fortunate ending, and gives its title thus: "Here begins the comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth, but not in morals."(66) The poem consists of three parts, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each part is divided into thirty-three cantos, in allusion to the years of the Saviour's life; for though the Hell contains thirty-four, the first canto is merely introductory. In the form of the verse (triple rhyme) we may find an emblem of the Trinity, and in the three divisions, of the threefold state of man, sin, grace, and beatitude. Symbolic meanings reveal themselves, or make themselves suspected, everywhere, as in the architecture of the Middle Ages. An analysis of the poem would be out of place here, but we must say a few words of Dante's position as respects modern literature. If we except Wolfram von Eschenbach, he is the first Christian poet, the first (indeed, we might say the only) one whose whole system of thought is colored in every finest fibre by a purely Christian theology. Lapse through sin, mediation, and redemption, these are the subjects of the three parts of the poem: or, otherwise stated, intellectual conviction of the result of sin, typified in Virgil (symbol also of that imperialism whose origin he sang); moral conversion after repentance, by divine grace, typified in Beatrice; reconciliation with God, and actual blinding vision of him,--"The pure in heart shall see God." Here are general truths which any Christian may accept and find comfort in. But the poem comes nearer to us than this. It is the real history of a brother man, of a tempted, purified, and at last triumphant human soul; it teaches the benign ministry of sorrow, and that the ladder of that faith by which man climbs to the actual fruition of things not seen _ex quovis ligno non fit_, but only of the cross manfully borne. The poem is also, in a very intimate sense, an apotheosis of woman Indeed, as Marvell's drop of dew mirrored the whole firmament, so we find in the _Commedia the image of the Middle Ages, and the sentimental gyniolatry of chivalry, which was at best but skin-deep, is lifted in Beatrice to an ideal and universal plane. It is the same with Catholicism, with imperialism, with the scholastic philosophy, and nothing is more wonderful than the power of absorption and assimilation in this man, who could take up into himself the world that then was, and reproduce it with such, cosmopolitan truth to human nature and to his own individuality, as to reduce all contemporary history to a mere comment on his vision. We protest, therefore, against the parochial criticism which would degrade Dante to a mere partisan, which sees in him a Luther before his time, and would clap the _bonnet rouge upon his heavenly muse.

Like all great artistic minds, Dante was essentially conservative, and, arriving precisely in that period of transition when Church and Empire were entering upon the modern epoch of thought, he strove to preserve both by presenting the theory of both in a pristine and ideal perfection. The whole nature of Dante was one of intense belief. There is proof upon proof that he believed himself invested with a divine mission Like the Hebrew prophets, with whose writings his whole soul was imbued, it was back to the old worship and the God of the fathers that he called his people, and not Isaiah himself was more destitute of that humor, that sense of ludicrous contrast, which is an essential in the composition of a sceptic. In Dante's time, learning had something of a sacred character, the line was hardly yet drawn between the clerk and the possessor of supernatural powers, it was with the next generation, with the elegant Petrarch, even more truly than with the kindly Boccaccio, that the purely literary life, and that dilettanteism, which is the twin sister of scepticism, began. As a merely literary figure, the position of Dante is remarkable. Not only as respects thought, but as respects aesthetics also, his great poem stands as a monument on the boundary line between the ancient and modern. He not only marks, but is in himself, the transition. _Arma virumque cano_, that is the motto of classic song; the things of this world and great men. Dante says, _subjectum est homo_, not _vir_; my theme is man, not a man. The scene of the old epic and drama was in this world, and its catastrophe here; Dante lays his scene in the human soul, and his fifth act in the other world. He makes himself the protagonist of his own drama. In the _Commedia for the first time Christianity wholly revolutionizes Art, and becomes its seminal principle. But aesthetically also, as well as morally, Dante stands between the old and the new, and reconciles them. The theme of his poem is purely subjective, modern, what is called romantic; but its treatment is objective (almost to realism, here and there), and it is limited by a form of classic severity. In the same way he sums up in himself the two schools of modern poetry which had preceded him, and, while essentially lyrical in his subject, is epic in the handling of it. So also he combines the deeper and more abstract religious sentiment of the Teutonic races with the scientific precision and absolute systematism of the Romanic. In one respect Dante stands alone. While we can in some sort account for such representative men as Voltaire and Goethe (nay, even Shakespeare) by the intellectual and moral fermentation of the age in which they lived, Dante seems morally isolated and to have drawn his inspiration almost wholly from his own internal reserves. Of his mastery in style we need say little here. Of his mere language, nothing could be better than the expression of Rivarol "His verse holds itself erect by the mere force of the substantive and verb, without the help of a single epithet." We will only add a word on what seems to us an extraordinary misapprehension of Coleridge, who disparages Dante by comparing his Lucifer with Milton's Satan. He seems to have forgotten that the precise measurements of Dante were not prosaic, but absolutely demanded by the nature of his poem. He is describing an actual journey, and his exactness makes a part of the verisimilitude. We read the "Paradise Lost" as a poem, the _Commedia as a record of fact; and no one can read Dante without believing his story, for it is plain that he believed it himself. It is false aesthetics to confound the grandiose with the imaginative. Milton's angels are not to be compared with Dante's, at once real and supernatural; and the Deity of Milton is a Calvinistic Zeus, while nothing in all poetry approaches the imaginative grandeur of Dante's vision of God at the conclusion of the _Paradiso_. In all literary history there is no such figure as Dante, no such homogeneousness of life and works, such loyalty to ideas, such sublime irrecognition of the unessential; and there is no moral more touching than that the contemporary recognition of such a nature, so endowed and so faithful to its endowment, should be summed up in the sentence of Florence: _Igne comburatur sic quod moriatur_.(67)

The range of Dante's influence is not less remarkable than its intensity. Minds, the antipodes of each other in temper and endowment, alike feel the force of his attraction, the pervasive comfort of his light and warmth. Boccaccio and Lamennais are touched with the same reverential enthusiasm. The imaginative Ruskin is rapt by him, as we have seen, perhaps beyond the limit where critical appreciation merges in enthusiasm; and the matter-of-fact Schlosser tells us that "he, who was wont to contemplate earthly life wholly in an earthly light, has made use of Dante, Landino, and Vellutello in his solitude to bring a heavenly light into his inward life." Almost all other poets have their seasons, but Dante penetrates to the moral core of those who once fairly come within his sphere, and possesses them wholly. His readers turn students, his students zealots, and what was a taste becomes a religion. The homeless exile finds a home in thousands of grateful hearts. _E venne da esilio in questa pace!_

Every kind of objection, aesthetic and other, may be, and has been, made to the _Divina Commedia_, especially by critics who have but a superficial acquaintance with it, or rather with the _Inferno_, which is as far as most English critics go. Coleridge himself, who had a way of divining what was in books, may be justly suspected of not going further, though with Carey to help him. Mr. Carlyle, who has said admirable things of Dante the man, was very imperfectly read in Dante the author, or he would never have put Sordello in hell and the meeting with Beatrice in paradise. In France it was not much better (though Rivarol has said the best thing hitherto of Dante's parsimony of epithet)(68) before Ozanam, who, if with decided ultramontane leanings, has written excellently well of our poet, and after careful study. Voltaire, though not without relentings toward a poet who had put popes heels upward in hell, regards him on the whole as a stupid monster and barbarian. It was no better in Italy, if we may trust Foscolo, who affirms that "neither Pelli nor others deservedly more celebrated than he ever read attentively the poem of Dante, perhaps never ran through it from the first verse to the last."(69) Accordingly we have heard that the _Commedia was a sermon, a political pamphlet, the revengeful satire of a disappointed Ghibelline, nay, worse, of a turncoat Guelph. It is narrow, it is bigoted, it is savage, it is theological, it is mediaeval, it is heretical, it is scholastic, it is obscure, it is pedantic, its Italian is not that of _la Crusca_, its ideas are not those of an enlightened eighteenth century, it is everything, in short, that a poem should not be; and yet, singularly enough, the circle of its charm has widened in proportion as men have receded from the theories of Church and State which are supposed to be its foundation, and as the modes of thought of its author have become more alien to those of his readers. In spite of all objections, some of which are well founded, the _Commedia remains one of the three or four universal books that have ever been written.

We may admit, with proper limitations, the modern distinction between the Artist and the Moralist. With the one Form is all in all, with the other Tendency. The aim of the one is to delight, of the other to convince. The one is master of his purpose, the other mastered by it. The whole range of perception and thought is valuable to the one as it will minister to imagination, to the other only as it is available for argument. With the moralist use is beauty, good only as it serves an ulterior purpose; with the artist beauty is use, good in and for itself. In the fine arts the vehicle makes part of the thought, coalesces with it. The living conception shapes itself a body in marble, color, or modulated sound, and henceforth the two are inseparable. The results of the moralist pass into the intellectual atmosphere of mankind, it matters little by what mode of conveyance. But where, as in Dante, the religious sentiment and the imagination are both organic, something interfused with the whole being of the man, so that they work in kindly sympathy, the moral will insensibly suffuse itself with beauty as a cloud with light. Then that fine sense of remote analogies, awake to the assonance between facts seemingly remote and unrelated, between the outward and inward worlds, though convinced that the things of this life are shadows, will be persuaded also that they are not fantastic merely, but imply a substance somewhere, and will love to set forth the beauty of the visible image because it suggests the ineffably higher charm of the unseen original. Dante's ideal of life, the enlightening and strengthening of that native instinct of the soul which leads it to strive backward toward its divine source, may sublimate the senses till each becomes a window for the light of truth and the splendor of God to shine through. In him as in Calderon the perpetual presence of imagination not only glorifies the philosophy of life and the science of theology, but idealizes both in symbols of material beauty. Though Dante's conception of the highest end of man was that he should climb through every phase of human experience to that transcendental and super-sensual region where the true, the good, and the beautiful blend in the white light of God, yet the prism of his imagination forever resolved the ray into color again, and he loved to show it also where, entangled and obstructed in matter, it became beautiful once more to the eye of sense. Speculation, he tells us, is the use, without any mixture, of our noblest part (the reason). And this part cannot in this life have its perfect use, which is to behold God (who is the highest object of the intellect), except inasmuch as the intellect considers and beholds him in his effects.(70) Underlying Dante the metaphysician, statesman, and theologian, was always Dante the poet,(71) irradiating and vivifying, gleaming through in a picturesque phrase, or touching things unexpectedly with that ideal light which softens and subdues like distance in the landscape. The stern outline of his system wavers and melts away before the eye of the reader in a mirage of imagination that lifts from beyond the sphere of vision and hangs in serener air images of infinite suggestion projected from worlds not realized, but substantial to faith, hope, and aspiration. Beyond the horizon of speculation floats, in the passionless splendor of the empyrean, the city of our God, the Rome whereof Christ is a Roman,(72) the citadel of refuge, even in this life, for souls purified by sorrow and self denial, transhumanized(73) to the divine abstraction of pure contemplation. "And it is called Empyrean," he says in his letter to Can Grande, "which is the same as a heaven blazing with fire or ardor, not because there is in it a material fire or burning, but a spiritual one, which is blessed love or charity." But this splendor he bodies forth, if sometimes quaintly, yet always vividly and most often in types of winning grace.

Dante was a mystic with a very practical turn of mind. A Platonist by nature, an Aristotelian by training, his feet keep closely to the narrow path of dialectics, because he believed it the safest, while his eyes are fixed on the stars and his brain is busy with things not demonstrable, save by that grace of God which passeth all understanding, nor capable of being told unless by far off hints and adumbrations. Though he himself has directly explained the scope, the method, and the larger meaning of his greatest work,(74) though he has indirectly pointed out the way to its interpretation in the _Convito_, and though everything he wrote is but an explanatory comment on his own character and opinions, unmistakably clear and precise, yet both man and poem continue not only to be misunderstood popularly, but also by such as should know better.(75) That those who confined their studies to the _Commedia should have interpreted it variously is not wonderful, for out of the first or literal meaning others open, one out of another, each of wider circuit and purer abstraction, like Dante's own heavens, giving and receiving light.(76) Indeed, Dante himself is partly to blame for this. "The form or mode of treatment," he says, "is poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive, and withal definitive, divisive, probative, improbative, and positive of examples." Here are conundrums enough, to be sure! To Italians at home, for whom the great arenas of political and religious speculation were closed, the temptation to find a subtler meaning than the real one was irresistible. Italians in exile, on the other hand, made Dante the stalking-horse from behind which they could take a long shot at Church and State, or at obscurer foes.(77)

Infinitely touching and sacred to us is the instinct of intense sympathy which drawst hese latter toward their great forerunner, _exul immeritus like themselves.(78) But they have too often wrung a meaning from Dante which is injurious to the man and out of keeping with the ideas of his age. The aim in expounding a great poem should be, not to discover an endless variety of meanings often contradictory, but whatever it has of great and perennial significance; for such it must have, or it would long ago have ceased to be living and operative, would long ago have taken refuge in the Chartreuse of great libraries, dumb thenceforth to all mankind. We do not mean to say that this minute exegesis is useless or unpraiseworthy, but only that it should be subsidiary to the larger way. It serves to bring out more clearly what is very wonderful in Dante, namely, the omnipresence of his memory throughout the work, so that its intimate coherence does not exist in spite of the reconditeness and complexity of allusion, but is woven out of them. The poem has many senses, he tells us, and there can be no doubt of it; but it has also, and this alone will account for its fascination, a living soul behind them all and informing all, an intense singleness of purpose, a core of doctrine simple, human, and wholesome, though it be also, to use his own phrase, the bread of angels.

Nor is this unity characteristic only of the _Divina Commedia_. All the works of Dante, with the possible exception of the _De vulgari Eloquio (which is unfinished), are component parts of a Whole Duty of Man mutually completing and interpreting one another. They are also, as truly as Wordsworth's "Prelude," a history of the growth of a poet's mind. Like the English poet he valued himself at a high rate, the higher no doubt after Fortune had made him outwardly cheap. _Sempre il magnanimo si magnifica in suo cuore; e cosi lo pusillanimo per contrario sempre si tiene meno che non e._(79) As in the prose of Milton, whose striking likeness to Dante in certain prominent features of character has been remarked by Foscolo, there are in Dante's minor works continual allusions to himself of great value as material for his biographer. Those who read attentively will discover that the tenderness he shows toward Francesca and her lover did not spring from any friendship for her family, but was a constant quality of his nature, and that what is called his revengeful ferocity is truly the implacable resentment of a lofty mind and a lover of good against evil, whether showing itself in private or public life; perhaps hating the former manifestation of it the most because he believed it to be the root of the latter,--a faith which those who have watched the course of politics in a democracy, as he had, will be inclined to share. His gentleness is all the more striking by contrast, like that silken compensation which blooms out of the thorny stem of the cactus. His moroseness,(80) his party spirit, and his personal vindictiveness are all predicated upon the _Inferno_, and upon a misapprehension or careless reading even of that. Dante's zeal was not of that sentimental kind, quickly kindled and as soon quenched, that hovers on the surface of shallow minds,

"Even as the flame of unctuous is wont
To move upon the outer surface only";(81)

it was the steady heat of an inward fire kindling the whole character of the man through and through, like the minarets of his own city of Dis.(82) He was, as seems distinctive in some degree of the Latinized races, an unflinching _a priori logician, not unwilling to "syllogize invidious verities,"(83) wherever they might lead him, like Sigier, whom he has put in paradise, though more than suspected of heterodoxy. But at the same time, as we shall see, he had something of the practical good sense of that Teutonic stock whence he drew a part of his blood, which prefers a malleable syllogism that can yield without breaking to the inevitable, but incalculable pressure of human nature and the stiffer logic of events. His theory of Church and State was not merely a fantastic one, but intended for the use and benefit of men as they were; and he allowed accordingly for aberrations, to which even the law of gravitation is forced to give place; how much more, then, any scheme whose very starting-point is the freedom of the will!

We are thankful for a commentator at last who passes dry-shod over the _turbide onde of inappreciative criticism, and, quietly waving aside the thick atmosphere which has gathered about the character of Dante both as man and poet, opens for us his City of Doom with the divining-rod of reverential study. Miss Rossetti comes commended to our interest, not only as one of a family which seems to hold genius by the tenure of gavelkind, but as having a special claim by inheritance to a love and understanding of Dante. She writes English with a purity that has in it something of feminine softness with no lack of vigor or precision. Her lithe mind winds itself with surprising grace through the metaphysical and other intricacies of her subject. She brings to her work the refined enthusiasm of a cultivated woman and the penetration of sympathy. She has chosen the better way (in which Germany took the lead) of interpreting Dante out of himself, the pure spring from which, and from which alone, he drew his inspiration, and not from muddy Fra Alberico or Abbate Giovacchino, from stupid visions of Saint Paul or voyages of Saint Brandan. She has written by far the best comment that has appeared in English, and we should say the best that has been done in England, were it not for her father's _Comento analitico_, for excepting which her filial piety will thank us. Students of Dante in the original will be grateful to her for many suggestive hints, and those who read him in English will find in her volume a travelling map in which the principal points and their connections are clearly set down. In what we shall say of Dante we shall endeavor only to supplement her interpretation with such side-lights as may have been furnished us by twenty years of assiduous study. Dante's thought is multiform, and, like certain street signs, once common, presents a different image according to the point of view. Let us consider briefly what was the plan of the _Divina Commedia and Dante's aim in writing it, which, if not to justify, was at least to illustrate, for warning and example, the ways of God to man. The higher intention of the poem was to set forth the results of sin, or unwisdom, and of virtue, or wisdom, in this life, and consequently in the life to come, which is but the continuation and fulfilment of this. The scene accordingly is the spiritual world, of which we are as truly denizens now as hereafter. The poem is a diary of the human soul in its journey upwards from error through repentance to atonement with God. To make it apprehensible by those whom it was meant to teach, nay, from its very nature as a poem, and not a treatise of abstract morality, it must set forth everything by means of sensible types and images.

"To speak thus is adapted to your mind,
Since only from the sensible it learns
What makes it worthy of intellect thereafter,
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else."(84)

Whoever has studied mediaeval art in any of its branches need not be told that Dante's age was one that demanded very palpable and even revolting types. As in the old legend, a drop of scalding sweat from the damned soul must shrivel the very skin of those for whom he wrote, to make them wince if not to turn them away from evil doing. To consider his hell a place of physical torture is to take Circe's herd for real swine. Its mouth yawns not only under Florence, but before the feet of every man everywhere who goeth about to do evil. His hell is a condition of the soul, and he could not find images loathsome enough to express the moral deformity which is wrought by sin on its victims, or his own abhorrence of it. Its inmates meet you in the street every day.

"Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there we must ever be."(85)

It is our own sensual eye that gives evil the appearance of good, and out of a crooked hag makes a bewitching siren. The reason enlightened by the grace of God sees it as it truly is, full of stench and corruption.(86) It is this office of reason which Dante undertakes to perform, by divine commission, in the _Inferno_. There can be no doubt that he looked upon himself as invested with the prophetic function, and the Hebrew forerunners, in whose society his soul sought consolation and sustainment, certainly set him no example of observing the conventions of good society in dealing with the enemies of God. Indeed, his notions of good society were not altogether those of this world in any generation. He would have defined it as meaning "the peers" of Philosophy, "souls free from wretched and vile delights and from vulgar habits, endowed with genius and memory."(87) Dante himself had precisely this endowment, and in a very surprising degree. His genius enabled him to see and to show what he saw to others; his memory neither forgot nor forgave. Very hateful to his fervid heart and sincere mind would have been the modern theory which deals with sin as involuntary error, and by shifting off the fault to the shoulders of Atavism or those of Society, personified for purposes of excuse, but escaping into impersonality again from the grasp of retribution, weakens that sense of personal responsibility which is the root of self-respect and the safeguard of character. Dante indeed saw clearly enough that the Divine justice did at length overtake Society in the ruin of states caused by the corruption of private, and thence of civic, morals; but a personality so intense as his could not be satisfied with such a tardy and generalized penalty as this. "It is Thou," he says sternly, "who hast done this thing, and Thou, not Society, shalt be damned for it; nay, damned all the worse for this paltry subterfuge. This is not my judgment, but that of universal Nature(88) from before the beginning of the world."(89) Accordingly the highest reason, typified in his guide Virgil, rebukes him for bringing compassion to the judgments of God,(90) and again embraces him and calls the mother that bore him blessed, when he bids Filippo Argenti begone among the other dogs.(91) This latter case shocks our modern feelings the more rudely for the simple pathos with which Dante makes Argenti answer when asked who he was, "Thou seest I am one that weeps." It is also the one that makes most strongly for the theory of Dante's personal vindictiveness,(92) and it may count for what it is worth. We are not greatly concerned to defend him on that score, for he believed in the righteous use of anger, and that baseness was its legitimate quarry. He did not think the Tweeds and Fisks, the political wire-pullers and convention-packers, of his day merely amusing, and he certainly did think it the duty of an upright and thoroughly trained citizen to speak out severely and unmistakably. He believed firmly, almost fiercely, in a divine order of the universe, a conception whereof had been vouchsafed him, and that whatever and whoever hindered or jostled it, whether wilfully or blindly it mattered not, was to be got out of the way at all hazards; because obedience to God's law, and not making things generally comfortable, was the highest duty of man, as it was also his only way to true felicity. It has been commonly assumed that Dante was a man soured by undeserved misfortune, that he took up a wholly new outfit of political opinions with his fallen fortunes, and that his theory of life and of man's relations to it was altogether reshaped for him by the bitter musings of his exile. This would be singular, to say the least, in a man who tells us that he "felt himself indeed four-square against the strokes of chance," and whose convictions were so intimate that they were not merely intellectual conclusions, but parts of his moral being. Fortunately we are called on to believe nothing of the kind. Dante himself has supplied us with hints and dates which enable us to watch the germination and trace the growth of his double theory of government, applicable to man as he is a citizen of this world, and as he hopes to become hereafter a freeman of the celestial city. It would be of little consequence to show in which of two equally selfish and short-sighted parties a man enrolled himself six hundred years ago, but it is worth something to know that a man of ambitious temper and violent passions, aspiring to office in a city of factions, could rise to a level of principle so far above them all. Dante's opinions have life in them still, because they were drawn from living sources of reflection and experience, because they were reasoned out from the astronomic laws of history and ethics, and were not weather-guesses snatched in a glance at the doubtful political sky of the hour.

Swiftly the politic goes: is it dark? he borrows a lantern;
Slowly the statesman and sure, guiding his feet by the stars.

It will be well, then, to clear up the chronology of Dante's thought. When his ancestor Cacciaguida prophesies to him the life which is to be his after 1300,(93) he says, speaking of his exile:--

"And that which most shall weigh upon thy shoulders
Will be the bad and foolish company
With which into this valley thou shalt fall;
* * * * *
"Of their bestiality their own proceedings
Shall furnish proof; _so 'twill be well for thee
A party to have made thee by thyself_."

Here both context and grammatical construction (infallible guides in a writer so scrupulous and exact) imply irresistibly that Dante had become a party by himself before his exile. The measure adopted by the Priors of Florence while he was one of them (with his assent and probably by his counsel), of sending to the frontier the leading men of both factions, confirms this implication. Among the persons thus removed from the opportunity of doing mischief was his dearest friend Guido Cavalcanti, to whom he had not long before addressed the _Vita Nuova_.(94) Dante evidently looked back with satisfaction on his conduct at this time, and thought it both honest and patriotic, as it certainly was disinterested. "We whose country is the world, as the ocean to the fish," he tells us, "though we drank of the Arno in infancy, and love Florence so much that, _because we loved her, we suffer exile unjustly, support the shoulders of our judgment rather upon reason than the senses."(95) And again, speaking of old ago, he says: "And the noble soul at this age blesses also the times past, and well may bless them, because, revolving them in memory, she recalls her righteous conduct, without which she could not enter the port to which she draws nigh, with so much riches and so great gain." This language is not that of a man who regrets some former action as mistaken, still less of one who repented it for any disastrous consequences to himself. So, in justifying a man for speaking of himself, he alleges two examples,--that of Boethius, who did so to "clear himself of the perpetual infamy of his exile"; and that of Augustine, "for, by the process of his life, which was from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best, he gave us example and teaching."(96) After middle life, at least, Dante had that wisdom "whose use brings with it marvellous beauties, that is, contentment with every condition of time, and contempt of those things which others make their masters."(97) If Dante, moreover, wrote his treatise _De Monarchia before 1302, and we think Witte's inference,(98) from its style and from the fact that he nowhere alludes to his banishment in it, conclusive on this point, then he was already a Ghibelline in the same larger and unpartisan sense which ever after distinguished him from his Italian contemporaries.

"Let, let the Ghibellines ply their handicraft
Beneath some other standard; for this ever
Ill follows he who it and justice parts,"

he makes Justinian say, speaking of the Roman eagle.(99) His Ghibellinism, though undoubtedly the result of what he had seen of Italian misgovernment, embraced in its theoretical application the civilized world. His political system was one which his reason adopted, not for any temporary expediency, but because it conduced to justice, peace, and civilization,--the three conditions on which alone freedom was possible in any sense which made it worth having. Dante was intensely Italian, nay, intensely Florentine, but on all great questions he was, by the logical structure of his mind and its philosophic impartiality, incapable of intellectual provincialism.(100) If the circle of his affections, as with persistent natures commonly, was narrow, his thought swept a broad horizon from that tower of absolute self which he had reared for its speculation. Even upon the principles of poetry, mechanical and other,(101) he had reflected more profoundly than most of those who criticise his work, and it was not by chance that he discovered the secret of that magical word too few, which not only distinguishes his verse from all other, but so strikingly from his own prose. He never took the bit of art(102) between his teeth where only poetry, and not doctrine, was concerned.

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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 3 Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 3

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DANTE. Continues 3If Dante's philosophy, on the one hand, was practical a guide for the conduct of life, it was, on the other, a much more transcendent thing, whose body was wisdom her soul love, and her efficient cause truth. It is a practice of wisdom from the mere love of it, for so we must interpret his _amoroso uso di sapienzia_, when we remember how he has said before(103) that "the love of wisdom for its delight or profit is not true love of wisdom." And this love must embrace knowledge in all its branches, for Dante is content with
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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 1 Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 1

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DANTE. Continues 1If these be not the words of Dante, what is internal evidence worth? The indomitably self-reliant man, loyal first of all to his most unpopular convictions (his very host, Guido, being a Guelph), puts his Ghibellinism (_jura monarchiae_) in the front. The man whose whole life, like that of selected souls always, had been a war fare, calls heaven another camp,--a better one, thank God! The wanderer of so many years speaks of his soul as a guest,--glad to be gone, doubtless. The exile, whose sharpest reproaches of Florence are always those of an outraged lover, finds it bitter
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