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Full Online Book HomeEssaysAmong My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 5
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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 5 Post by :Nifty Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :3487

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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE. Continues 5

DANTE. Continues 5

Rome was always the central point of Dante's speculation. A shadow of her old sovereignty was still left her in the primacy of the Church, to which unity of faith was essential. He accordingly has no sympathy with heretics of whatever kind. He puts the ex-troubadour Bishop of Marseilles, chief instigator of the horrors of Provence, in paradise.(227) The Church is infallible in spiritual matters, but this is an affair of outward discipline merely, and means the Church as a form of polity. Unity was Dante's leading doctrine, and therefore he puts Mahomet among the schismatics, not because he divided the Church, but the faith.(228) Dante's Church was of this world, but he surely believed in another and spiritual one. It has been questioned whether he was orthodox or not. There can be no doubt of it so far as outward assent and conformity are concerned, which he would practice himself and enforce upon others as the first postulate of order, the prerequisite for all happiness in this life. In regard to the Visible Church he was a reformer, but no revolutionist; it is sheer ignorance to speak of him as if there were anything new or exceptional in his denunciation of the corruptions of the clergy. They were the commonplaces of the age, nor were they confined to laymen.(229) To the absolute authority of the Church Dante admitted some exceptions. He denies that the supreme Pontiff has the unlimited power of binding and loosing claimed for him. "Otherwise he might absolve me impenitent, which God himself could not do."(230)

"By malison of theirs is not so lost
Eternal Love that it cannot return."(231)

Nor does the sacredness of the office extend to him who chances to hold it. Philip the Fair himself could hardly treat Boniface VIII. worse than he. With wonderful audacity, he declares the Papal throne vacant by the mouth of Saint Peter himself.(232) Even if his theory of a dual government were not in question, Dante must have been very cautious in meddling with the Church. It was not an age that stood much upon ceremony. He himself tells us he had seen men burned alive, and the author of the _Ottimo Comento says: "I the writer saw followers of his (Fra Dolcino) burned at Padua to the number of twenty-two together."(233) Clearly, in such a time as this, one must not make "the veil of the mysterious Terse" _too thin.(234)

In the affairs of this life Dante was, as we have said, supremely practical, and he makes prudence the chief of the cardinal virtues.(235) He has made up his mind to take things as they come, and to do at Rome as the Romans do.

"Ah, savage company! but in the Church
With saints, and in the tavern with the gluttons!"(236)

In the world of thought it was otherwise, and here Dante's doctrine, if not precisely esoteric, was certainly not that of his day, and must be gathered from hints rather than direct statements. The general notion of God was still (perhaps is largely even now) of a provincial, one might almost say a denominational, Deity. The popular poets always represent Macon, Apolm, Tervagant, and the rest as quasi-deities unable to resist the superior strength of the Christian God. The Paynim answers the arguments of his would-be converters with the taunt that he would never worship a divinity who could not save himself from being done ignominiously to death. Dante evidently was not satisfied with the narrow conception which limits the interest of the Deity to the affairs of Jews and Christians That saying of Saint Paul, "Whom, therefore, ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you," had perhaps influenced him, but his belief in the divine mission of the Roman people probably was conclusive. "The Roman Empire had the help of miracles in perfecting itself," he says, and then enumerates some of them. The first is that "under Numa Pompilius, the second king of the Romans, when he was sacrificing according to the rite of the Gentiles, a shield fell from heaven into the city chosen of God."(237) In the _Convito we find "Virgil speaking in the person of God," and Aeacus "wisely having recourse to God," the god being Jupiter.(238) Ephialtes is punished in hell for rebellion against "the Supreme Jove,"(239) and, that there may be no misunderstanding, Dante elsewhere invokes the

"Jove Supreme,
Who upon earth for us wast crucified."(240)

It is noticeable also that Dante, with evident design, constantly alternates examples drawn from Christian and Pagan tradition or mythology.(241) He had conceived a unity in the human race, all of whose branches had worshipped the same God under divers names and aspects, had arrived at the same truth by different roads. We cannot understand a passage in the twenty-sixth _Paradiso_, where Dante inquires of Adam concerning the names of God, except as a hint that the Chosen People had done in this thing even as the Gentiles did.(242) It is true that he puts all Pagans in Limbo, "where without hope they live in longing," and that he makes baptism essential to salvation.(243) But it is noticeable that his Limbo is the Elysium of Virgil, and that he particularizes Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, and others as prisoners there with the rest till the descent of Christ into hell.(244) But were they altogether without hope? and did baptism mean an immersion of the body or a purification of the soul? The state of the heathen after death had evidently been to Dante one of those doubts that spring up at the foot of every truth. In the _De Monarchia he says: "There are some judgments of God to which, though human reason cannot attain by its own strength, yet is it lifted to them by the help of faith and of those things which are said to us in Holy Writ,--as to this, that no one, however perfect in the moral and intellectual virtues both as a habit (of the mind) and in practice, can be saved without faith, it being granted that he shall never have heard anything concerning Christ; for the unaided reason of man cannot look upon this as just; nevertheless, with the help of faith, it can."(245) But faith, it should seem, was long in lifting Dante to this height; for in the nineteenth canto of the _Paradiso_, which must have been written many years after the passage just cited, the doubt recurs again, and we are told that it was "a cavern," concerning which he had "made frequent questioning." The answer is given here:--

"Truly to him who with me subtilizes,
_If so the Scripture were not over you_,
For doubting there were marvellous occasion."

But what Scripture? Dante seems cautious, tells us that the eternal judgments are above our comprehension, postpones the answer, and when it comes, puts an orthodox prophylactic before it:--

"Unto this kingdom never
Ascended one who had not faith in Christ
Before or since he to the tree was nailed
But look thou, _many crying are, 'Christ, Christ!'
Who at the judgment shall be far less near
To him than some shall be who knew not Christ_."

There is, then, some hope for the man born on the bank of Indus who has never heard of Christ? Dante is still cautious, but answers the question indirectly in the next canto by putting the Trojan Ripheus among the blessed:--

"Who would believe, down in the errant world,
That e'er the Trojan Ripheus in this round
Could be the fifth one of these holy lights?
Now knoweth he enough of what the world
Has not the power to see of grace divine,
Although _his sight may not discern the bottom."

Then he seems to hesitate again, brings in the Church legend of Trajan brought back to life by the prayers of Gregory the Great that he might be converted, and after an interval of fifty lines tells us how Ripheus was saved:--

"The other one, through grace that from so deep
A fountain wells that never hath the eye
Of any creature reached its primal wave,
Set all his love below on righteousness;
Wherefore from grace to grace did God unclose
His eye to our redemption yet to be,
Whence he believed therein, and suffered not
From that day forth the stench of Paganism,
And he reproved therefor the folk perverse.
Those maidens three, whom at the right hand wheel(246)
Thou didst behold, were unto him for baptism
More than a thousand years before baptizing."

If the reader recall a passage already quoted from the _Convito_,(247) he will perhaps think with us that the gate of Dante's _Limbo is left ajar even for the ancient philosophers to slip out. The divine judgments are still inscrutable, and the ways of God past finding out, but faith would seem to have led Dante at last to a more merciful solution of his doubt than he had reached when he wrote the _De Monarchia_. It is always humanizing to see how the most rigid creed is made to bend before the kindlier instincts of the heart. The stern Dante thinks none beyond hope save those who are dead in sin, and have made evil their good. But we are by no means sure that he is not right in insisting rather on the implacable severity of the law than on the possible relenting of the judge. Exact justice is commonly more merciful in the long run than pity, for it tends to foster in men those stronger qualities which make them good citizens, an object second only with the Roman-minded Dante to that of making them spiritually regenerate, nay, perhaps even more important as a necessary preliminary to it. The inscription over the gate of hell tells us that the terms on which we receive the trust of life were fixed by the Divine Power (which can what it wills), and are therefore unchangeable; by the Highest Wisdom, and therefore for our truest good; by the Primal Love, and therefore the kindest. These are the three attributes of that justice which moved the maker of them. Dante is no harsher than experience, which always exacts the uttermost farthing; no more inexorable than conscience, which never forgives nor forgets. No teaching is truer or more continually needful than that the stains of the soul are ineffaceable, and that though their growth may be arrested, their nature is to spread insidiously till they have brought all to their own color. Evil is a far more cunning and persevering propagandist than Good, for it has no inward strength, and is driven to seek countenance and sympathy. It must have company, for it cannot bear to be alone in the dark, while

"Virtue can see to do what Virtue would
By her own radiant light."

There is one other point which we will dwell on for a moment as bearing on the question of Dante's orthodoxy. His nature was one in which, as in Swedenborg's, a clear practical understanding was continually streamed over by the northern lights of mysticism, through which the familiar stars shine with a softened and more spiritual lustre. Nothing is more interesting than the way in which the two qualities of his mind alternate, and indeed play into each other, tingeing his matter-of-fact sometimes with unexpected glows of fancy, sometimes giving an almost geometrical precision to his most mystical visions. In his letter to Can Grande he says: "It behooves not those to whom it is given to know what is best in us to follow the footprints of the herd; much rather are they bound to oppose its wanderings. For the vigorous in intellect and reason, endowed with a certain divine liberty, are constrained by no customs. Nor is it wonderful, since they are not governed by the laws, but much more govern the laws themselves." It is not impossible that Dante, whose love of knowledge was all-embracing, may have got some hint of the doctrine of the Oriental Sufis. With them the first and lowest of the steps that lead upward to perfection is the Law, a strict observance of which is all that is expected of the ordinary man whose mind is not open to the conception of a higher virtue and holiness. But the Sufi puts himself under the guidance of some holy man (Virgil in the _Inferno_), whose teaching he receives implicitly, and so arrives at the second step, which is the Path (_Purgatorio_) by which he reaches a point where he is freed from all outward ceremonials and observances, and has risen from an outward to a spiritual worship. The third step is Knowledge (_Paradiso_), endowed by which with supernatural insight, he becomes like the angels about the throne, and has but one farther step to take before he reaches the goal and becomes one with God. The analogies of this system with Dante's are obvious and striking. They become still more so when Virgil takes leave of him at the entrance of the Terres trial Paradise with the words:--

"Expect no more a word or sign from me;
Free and upright and sound is thy free-will,
And error were it not to do its bidding;
Thee o'er thyself I therefore crown and mitre,"(248)

that is, "I make thee king and bishop over thyself; the inward light is to be thy law in things both temporal and spiritual." The originality of Dante consists in his not allowing any divorce between the intellect and the soul in its highest sense, in his making reason and intuition work together to the same end of spiritual perfection. The unsatisfactoriness of science leads Faust to seek repose in worldly pleasure; it led Dante to find it in faith, of whose efficacy the short-coming of all logical substitutes for it was the most convincing argument. That we cannot know, is to him a proof that there is some higher plane on which we can believe and see. Dante had discovered the incalculable worth of a single idea as compared with the largest heap of facts ever gathered. To a man more interested in the soul of things than in the body of them, the little finger of Plato is thicker than the loins of Aristotle.

We cannot but think that there is something like a fallacy in Mr. Buckle's theory that the advance of mankind is necessarily in the direction of science, and not in that of morals. No doubt the laws of morals existed from the beginning, but so also did those of science, and it is by the application, not the mere recognition, of both that the race is benefited. No one questions how much science has done for our physical comfort and convenience, and with the mass of men these perhaps must of necessity precede the quickening of their moral instincts; but such material gains are illusory, unless they go hand in hand with a corresponding ethical advance. The man who gives his life for a principle has done more for his kind than he who discovers a new metal or names a new gas, for the great motors of the race are moral, not intellectual, and their force lies ready to the use of the poorest and weakest of us all. We accept a truth of science so soon as it is demonstrated, are perfectly willing to take it on authority, can appropriate whatever use there may be in it without the least understanding of its processes, as men send messages by the electric telegraph, but every truth of morals must be redemonstrated in the experience of the individual man before he is capable of utilizing it as a constituent of character or a guide in action. A man does not receive the statements that "two and two make four," and that "the pure in heart shall see God," on the same terms. The one can be proved to him with four grains of corn; he can never arrive at a belief in the other till he realize it in the intimate persuasion of his whole being. This is typified in the mystery of the incarnation. The divine reason must forever manifest itself anew in the lives of men, and that as individuals. This atonement with God, this identification of the man with the truth,(249) so that right action shall not result from the lower reason of utility, but from the higher of a will so purified of self as to sympathize by instinct with the eternal laws,(250) is not something that can be done once for all, that can become historic and traditional, a dead flower pressed between the leaves of the family Bible, but must be renewed in every generation, and in the soul of every man, that it may be valid. Certain sects show their recognition of this in what are called revivals, a gross and carnal attempt to apply truth, as it were, mechanically, and to accomplish by the etherization of excitement and the magnetism of crowds what is possible only in the solitary exaltations of the soul. This is the high moral of Dante's poem. We have likened it to a Christian basilica; and as in that so there is here also, painted or carven, every image of beauty and holiness the artist's mind could conceive for the adornment of the holy place. We may linger to enjoy these if we will, but if we follow the central thought that runs like the nave from entrance to choir, it leads us to an image of the divine made human, to teach us how the human might also make itself divine. Dante beholds at last an image of that Power, Love, and Wisdom, one in essence, but trine in manifestation, to answer the needs of our triple nature and satisfy the senses, the heart, and the mind.

"Within the deep and luminous subsistence
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles
Of threefold color and of one dimension,
And by the second seemed the first reflected
As iris is by iris, and the third
Seemed fire that equally by both is breathed.
* * * * *
"Within itself, of its own very color,
Seemed to me painted with our effigy,
Wherefore my sight was all absorbed therein."

He had reached the high altar where the miracle of transubstantiation is wrought, itself also a type of the great conversion that may be accomplished in our own nature (the lower thing assuming the qualities of the higher), not by any process of reason, but by the very fire of the divine love.

"Then there smote my mind
A flash of lightning wherein came its wish."(251)

Perhaps it seems little to say that Dante was the first great poet who ever made a poem wholly out of himself, but, rightly looked at, it implies a wonderful self-reliance and originality in his genius. His is the first keel that ever ventured into the silent sea of human consciousness to find a new world of poetry.

"L'acqua ch' io prendo giammai non si corse."(252)

He discovered that not only the story of some heroic person, but that of any man might be epical; that the way to heaven was not outside the world, but through it. Living at a time when the end of the world was still looked for as imminent,(253) he believed that the second coming of the Lord was to take place on no more conspicuous stage than the soul of man; that his kingdom would be established in the surrendered will. A poem, the precious distillation of such a character and such a life as his through all those sorrowing but undespondent years, must have a meaning in it which few men have meaning enough in themselves wholly to penetrate. That its allegorical form belongs to a past fashion, with which the modern mind has little sympathy, we should no more think of denying than of whitewashing a fresco of Giotto. But we may take it as we may nature, which is also full of double meanings, either as picture or as parable, either for the simple delight of its beauty or as a shadow of the spiritual world. We may take it as we may history, either for its picturesqueness or its moral, either for the variety of its figures, or as a witness to that perpetual presence of God in his creation of which Dante was so profoundly sensible. He had seen and suffered much, but it is only to the man who is himself of value that experience is valuable. He had not looked on man and nature as most of us do, with less interest than into the columns of our daily newspaper. He saw in them the latest authentic news of the God who made them, for he carried everywhere that vision washed clear with tears which detects the meaning under the mask, and, beneath the casual and transitory, the eternal keeping its sleepless watch. The secret of Dante's power is not far to seek. Whoever can express _himself with the full force of unconscious sincerity will be found to have uttered something ideal and universal. Dante intended a didactic poem, but the most picturesque of poets could not escape his genius, and his sermon sings and glows and charms in a manner that surprises more at the fiftieth reading than the first, such variety of freshness is in imagination.

There are no doubt in the _Divina Commedia (regarded merely as poetry) sandy spaces enough both of physics and metaphysics, but with every deduction Dante remains the first of descriptive as well as moral poets. His verse is as various as the feeling it conveys; now it has the terseness and edge of steel, and now palpitates with iridescent softness like the breast of a dove. In vividness he is without a rival. He drags back by its tangled locks the unwilling head of some petty traitor of an Italian provincial town, lets the fire glare on the sullen face for a moment, and it sears itself into the memory forever. He shows us an angel glowing with that love of God which makes him a star even amid the glory of heaven, and the holy shape keeps lifelong watch in our fantasy constant as a sentinel. He has the skill of conveying impressions indirectly. In the gloom of hell his bodily presence is revealed by his stirring something, on the mount of expiation by casting a shadow. Would he have us feel the brightness of an angel? He makes him whiten afar through the smoke like a dawn,(254) or, walking straight toward the setting sun, he finds his eyes suddenly unable to withstand a greater splendor against which his hand is unavailing to shield him. Even its reflected light, then, is brighter than the direct ray of the sun.(255) And how mack more keenly do we feel the parched lips of Master Adam for those rivulets of the Casentino which run down into the Arno, "making their channels cool and soft"! His comparisons are as fresh, as simple, and as directly from nature as those of Homer.(256) Sometimes they show a more subtle observation, as where he compares the stooping of Antaeus over him to the leaning tower of Garisenda, to which the clouds, flying in an opposite direction to its inclination, give away their motion.(257) His suggestions of individuality, too, from attitude or speech, as in Farinata, Sordello, or Pia,(258) give in a hint what is worth acres of so-called character-painting. In straightforward pathos, the single and sufficient thrust of phrase, he has no competitor. He is too sternly touched to be effusive and tearful:

"Io non piangeva, si dentro impietrai."(259)

His is always the true coin of speech,

"Si lucida e si tonda
Che nel suo conio nulla ci s'inforsa,"

and never the highly ornamented promise to pay, token of insolvency.

No doubt it is primarily by his poetic qualities that a poet must be judged, for it is by these, if by anything, that he is to maintain his place in literature. And he must be judged by them absolutely, with reference, that is, to the highest standard, and not relatively to the fashions and opportunities of the age in which he lived. Yet these considerations must fairly enter into our decision of another side of the question, and one that has much to do with the true quality of the man, with his character as distinguished from his talent, and therefore with how much he will influence men as well as delight them. We may reckon up pretty exactly a man's advantages and defects as an artist; these he has in common with others, and they are to be measured by a recognized standard; but there is something in his _genius that is incalculable. It would be hard to define the causes of the difference of impression made upon us respectively by two such men as Aeschylus and Euripides, but we feel profoundly that the latter, though in some respects a better dramatist, was an infinitely lighter weight. Aeschylus stirs something in us far deeper than the sources of mere pleasurable excitement. The man behind the verse is far greater than the verse itself, and the impulse he gives to what is deepest and most sacred in us, though we cannot always explain it, is none the less real and lasting. Some men always seem to remain outside their work; others make their individuality felt in every part of it; their very life vibrates in every verse, and we do not wonder that it has "made them lean for many years." The virtue that has gone out of them abides in what they do. The book such a man makes is indeed, as Milton called it, "the precious lifeblood of a master spirit." Theirs is a true immortality, for it is their soul, and not their talent, that survives in their work. Dante's concise forthrightness of phrase, which to that of most other poets is as a stab(260) to a blow with a cudgel, the vigor of his thought, the beauty of his images, the refinement of his conception of spiritual things, are marvellous if we compare him with his age and its best achievement. But it is for his power of inspiring and sustaining, it is because they find in him a spur to noble aims, a secure refuge in that defeat which the present always seems, that they prize Dante who know and love him best. He is not merely a great poet, but an influence, part of the soul's resources in time of trouble. From him she learns that, "married to the truth, she is a mistress, but otherwise a slave shut out of all liberty."(261)

All great poets have their message to deliver us, from something higher than they. We venture on no unworthy comparison between him who reveals to us the beauty of this world's love and the grandeur of this world's passion and him who shows that love of God is the fruit whereof all other loves are but the beautiful and fleeting blossom, that the passions are yet sublimer objects of contemplation, when, subdued by the will, they become patience in suffering and perseverance in the upward path. But we cannot help thinking that if Shakespeare be the most comprehensive intellect, so Dante is the highest spiritual nature that has expressed itself in rhythmical form. Had he merely made us feel how petty the ambitions, sorrows, and vexations of earth appear when looked down on from the heights of our own character and the seclusion of our own genius, or from the region where we commune with God, he had done much:

"I with my sight returned through one and all
The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance."(262)

But he has done far more; he has shown us the way by which that country far beyond the stars may be reached, may become the habitual dwelling-place and fortress of our nature, instead of being the object of its vague aspiration in moments of indolence. At the Round Table of King Arthur there was left always one seat empty for him who should accomplish the adventure of the Holy Grail. It was called the perilous seat because of the dangers he must encounter who would win it. In the company of the epic poets there was a place left for whoever should embody the Christian idea of a triumphant life, outwardly all defeat, inwardly victorious, who should make us partakers of that cup of sorrow in which all are communicants with Christ. He who should do this would indeed achieve the perilous seat, for he must combine poesy with doctrine in such cunning wise that the one lose not its beauty nor the other its severity,--and Dante has done it. As he takes possession of it we seem to hear the cry he himself heard when Virgil rejoined the company of great singers,

"All honor to the loftiest of poets!"

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