The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by R. H. Law, M.A.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 721-733

[Rev. Robert Hartley Law "was a man of literary tastes, a wide and discriminating reader, and a contributor of verses to the 'Spectator' and other literary magazines." He was curate at St. John's in Windmere, and at Heversham Church; in 1893 he became vicar of Christ Church, Penrith. His 1937 obituary says he "was a man of literary tastes, a wide and discriminating reader, and a contributor of verses to the 'Spectator' and other literary magazines . . . a man of great personal charm and of many and varied interests. He is survived by his widow." One of his poems is called "To A Socialist Friend." It's on pg 83 of A Typical Day in a British Manufacturing Town, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. and begins, "Because I cannot share your creed / You doubt my heart, insult my reason."]

Dante offers an apparent exception to the golden rule, "Read authors, not critics." Several causes unite to render him the most difficult of the supreme poets. His style, for all its vigour and directness, has sometimes puzzling inversions; with the brevity, it has more than the obscurity of Tacitus. His allusions, in the "Divina Commedia," to the persons and events of his own time are often only intelligible by the aid of a traditional interpretation, handed down from the days when Boccacio first lectured at Florence. And, even with the help of this and of all the patient ingenuity of generations of scholars, many interesting and important questions are still unsolved.

Again, Dante's point of view was quite different from ours. Medieval Theology, The Scholastic Philosophy The Ptolemaic system, even the Theory of Judicial Astrology, have all left their impress on his work, and without some knowledge of at least the outlines of this derelict mass of obsolete science, we shall miss its true significance. Nor is this all. If, as has been frequently maintained, his writings--not excepting the "Vita Nuova"--are to be taken in a mystical as well as a literal sense, if the characters and scenes he describes so vividly serve but as the vehicle of another and profounder message, the need of an interpreter is still more obvious. We certainly cannot complain of any dearth of such interpreters. To mention only a few, and those of our own race; poets and critics so variously endowed as Carlyle and Macaulay, Carey, Landor and Mr. Ruskin, Rossetti, Dean Church, Mr. Lowell and Longfellow, Mrs. Oliphant, Dean Plumptre, Mr. Norton, and Mr. Symonds have criticised or explained or translated Dante for us. To them, notably to Dean Church's sympathetic study, and Rossetti's and Longfellow's translations, I would refer the reader who wishes to scale by the help of such ladders these frowning majestic "towers of song." Only let us not mistake the ladders for the tower; or, to abandon my metaphor, grateful as we are for all this help, we must not forget that books about Dante, translations the most literal or the most poetic, are of very little use if they do not lead us to the poet himself. After all that has been written, Dante is still his own best commentator, and he is untranslatable. He is not to be learnt, the secret of his greatness is not to be surprised at second hand.

In the following pages I offer no exhaustive criticism, still less a complete account of our poet's work. Mine is a more modest enterprise: by a few stray glimpses, hurried glances, rough hasty sketches, and haphazard quotations, to lead some of those who have not already done so, to study Dante for themselves.

Dante Alighieri was born at Florence, A.D. 1265, and died at Ravenna, A.D. 1321. Within this period the long night of the "Dark Ages" may be said to have ended, and the first grey light broken of that second dawn of Art and Letters which men call "the Renascence." But Dante belongs to the older order. Carlyle calls him "The Voice of Ten Silent Centuries," and certainly in him the mediaeval world found at once its completest and its most powerful expression.

       *        *       *        *        *

Italy--as Dante knew it--was a land torn by perpetual civil war. Nominally it was a part of that Holy Roman Empire of which Voltaire remarked, that it was "neither Roman nor holy." But the Emperor was a German prince, whose power south of the Alps was of the most shadowy description, thwarted continually by the counter-claims and rival interests of the Pope. The different cities and territories of Northern Italy, which were practically independent States, were drawn into the quarrel.

Thus, in the struggle between Guelf and Ghibelline, as the rival parties were called, an excuse was found for the fiercer strife of factions within the cities themselves, a strife always ending in the ruthless extermination of the vanquished party.

"Oh Italy!" exclaims the poet in one place,

      "Ah! servile Italy, grief's hostelry!
      A ship without a pilot in great tempest.

       *        *        *        *        *

      And now within thee are not without war;
      Thy living ones, and one doth gnaw the other
      Of those whom one wall and one fosse shut in
      Search, wretched one, all round about thy shores,
      Thy sea-bord, and then look within thy bosom
      If any part of thee enjoyeth peace."

Of Dante's life in his native city, of his education at the Universities of Bologna, Paris, and perhaps Oxford, space forbids me to speak. These early years concern us chiefly in that it was then he fell under the sway of the ruling passion of his life--his love for Beatrice Portinari. He seems to have first seen her when she was a child of eight and he himself only nine. They met at a little party given by her father, and Boccacio tells us how "Dante, though still a child, received her image into his heart with so much affection that from that day henceforward, as long as he lived, it never departed from him."

To tell the story of his love for Beatrice, Dante wrote the "Vita Nuova." The charm of this strange book--half prose, half poetry--is difficult to analyse. As a record of passionate experience some find it fantastic, affected, unreal. A modern Italian critic has even gone so far as to say that the heroine was not Beatrice Portinari at all, but a mere personification of Philosophy or Theology. Such a theory can only be compared with that of the "Baconian Cryptogram." The passion is there, strong and sincere, but purged of all the grosser elements; idealised, spiritualised. The flame is fierce, but smokeless, pure. The Love whose Lordship Dante owns is a very different being from the Love-God of the old Pagan word, whom the Renascence was to revive for a season. Hear the poet's description of him in one of the sonnets:--

"I found Love across my path in the light garb of a pilgrim. He seemed of a mean appearance as one who had lost his Lordship; and sighing pensively he came forward with head bent low."

Never was lover moved by so little: he is enraptured by a lance or a smile, almost slain by an averted head. Once he meets Beatrice walking with two companions:--

"And passing by the street," he writes, "she turned her eyes to that place where I stood very timidly, and in her ineffable courtesy saluted me so graciously that I seemed then to see the heights of blessedness."

At first he takes elaborate precautions to hide his passion. Like Viola, he "never told his love." His only confidant is a sonnet; his confessional, his closet, "the chamber of tears." But in her presence he cannot dissemble; his face betrays the secret of his heart, and now he ventures to worship more openly, though still from afar. Once he has a dream: his mistress is dead, and Love takes him by the hand to show him how some ladies are covering her body with a veil. This scene, it will be remembered, forms the subject of one of Rossetti's most beautiful pictures. The dream is a prophecy: for soon Beatrice really dies, and the lover cries with Jeremiah, "How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations." Some sonnets and elegies he consecrates to her memory, and then at the end of the book he writes:--

"There appeared unto me a wondrous vision, in the which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more of this Blessed One until I should have power to speak of her more worthily. . . . . Then, if it shall please Him, by whom all things live, to prolong my life several years, I hope to tell of her things never yet told of anyone."

This promise, or rather hope, with which the "Vita Nuova" closes, was to be fulfilled in the "Paradiso."

I must not linger to speak of Dante's marriage, nor of the revolution in Florence, which, breaking out when he was, though only twenty-seven, absent on an embassy, exiled him for ever from his native city. Henceforth he was to be a wanderer, or, to quote his own words: "a vessel without sail and steering gear, carried about to divers ports and roads and shores by the dry wind that springs out of sad poverty."

But his spirit is unbroken.

"I will return with hasty steps," he writes to a friend, "if you or any other can open to me a way which shall not derogate from the fame and honour of Dante; but if by no such way Florence can be entered, then Florence I will never enter. What! shall I not enjoy everywhere the light of the sun and stars?"

Some stories of his exile, of the way he bore himself during those years of exile, have come down to us. We hear of him at Padua, at Lunigiana with Malaspina, at Verona protected by Della Scala; of his paying a second visit to Paris, and of his last refuge with Guido da Polenta--kinsman of the hapless Franchesca da Rimini--at Ravenna, the city in the marshes, which is still honoured by his tomb.

But during those years of wandering he is taking other than earthly journeys; that life of dependence and hardship is not his only, not his intensest life. He is the guest of other and more awful powers than the petty princelets who give him bread. He is threading the wondrous maze of Hell, and Purgatory, and Heaven. He writes:

      "Midway upon the journey of our life,
      I found myself within a forest dark."

Here he meets the shade of Virgil, sent by Beatrice to guide him through the dismal realm of Hell, and up the steep mount of Purgatory. Together the living and the dead poet enter, where

      "Written in sombre colour
            Upon the summit of a gate"

is the dread inscription--

      "Through me the way is to the city dolent:
      Through me the way is to eternal dole:
      Through me the way among the people lost.
       *        *        *        *        *
      All hope abandon, ye who enter here."

As one reads one is impressed with the clearness, the distinctness of every scene in the dread vision. Hell is mapped out and measured for us, so also are Purgatory and Heaven. The description is so circumstantial that one might model them. But though the details of these horrors and splendours are necessary for the poet's purpose of impressing upon us the reality of his vision, our main interest is not in this Infernal and Celestial architecture, but in the denizens of these stupendous realms.

I can, however, only mention very few of those whom Dante meets.

There is Pope Celestine, the only pope who resigned the tiara during life. Says the poet--

      "I looked and beheld the shade of him
      Who made through cowardice the Great Refusal."

In the second circle are Semiramis and Cleopara.

      "And more than a thousand
      Whom Love hath separated from our Life."

Their punishment is to be ever buffeted and whirled onward by the fierceness of clashing winds. Here Dante longs to speak to

      "Those two who go together,
      And seem upon the wind to be so light."

It is Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. He calls them nearer, and they come

      "As Turtle Doves called onward,
      With open and steady wings to the sweet nest."

Francesca tells him the story of their ill-fated and guilty love. How

      "Love that exempts no one beloved from loving,
      Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly
      That as thou seest it doth not yet desert me;
      Love has conducted us unto one death."

When Dante asks her how they came to know they loved, she answers:

      "There is no greater sorrow
      Than to be mindful of the happy time
      In misery."

Or to quote Tennyson's beautiful rendering:

            "Sorrow's crown of sorrow
      Is remembering happier things."

Nevertheless she yields to his request.

      "But if to recognise the earliest root
      Of Love in us thou hast so great desire,
      I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
      One day we reading were for our delight
      Of Lancelot, how love did him enthral,
      Alone we were and without any fear.
      Full many a time our eyes together drew
      That reading and drove the colour from our faces;
      But one point only was it that o'ercame us.
      When as we read of the much longed-for smile
      Being by such a noble lover kissed,
      This one who ne'er from me shall be divided
      Kissed her upon the mouth all palpitating.
      That day no further did we read therein."

While Francesca is speaking--

      "The other one did weep, so that for pity
      I swooned away as if I had been dying,
      And fell, even as a dead body falls."

Many have felt the sad beauty of this story: none more than our own Keats, who writes of--

                    "That second circle of sad Hell
      Where 'mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flow
      Of rain and hailstones, lovers need not tell
      Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw:
      Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
      I floated with about that melancholy storm."

Within the gloomy city of Dis, with its iron ramparts, the traveller finds two men whom he had known--one an enemy, one a friend--in life: Farinata Degli Uberti and Cavalcante, each imprisoned in a tomb of red-hot iron.

      "Behold, then, Farinata who has risen.

      He uprose erect with breast and front,
      E'en as if Hell he had in great despite."

Cavalcante asks for his son, who is Dante's friend. He mistakes Dante's answer to mean that his son is dead.

      "'How! is he not still alive?' he cries.
      'Does not the sweet light strike upon his eyes?'"

and falls back in despair into his burning sepulchre. Two noble figures these! The pride of the one, the affection of the other, make them forget their torment.

We must not linger to speak of the monstrous wood where Dante hears strange voices, as of men in hiding, and where, after he has, at Virgil's bidding, broken a twig off one of the trees:

      "The trunk cried, 'Why dost thou mangle me?'
       *        *        *        *        *
      Men once we were, and now are changed to trees';"

nor of Capaneus defying the fiery rain and blaspheming Jove in his torments; nor of Brunetto Latini, Dante's old tutor and friend, also exposed to the burning showers. Horror succeeds horror. On the monster Geryon's back they reach

      "A place within the depths of Hell
      Called Malebolge,"

a vast circle divided into eight gulfs, each more dreadful than the last.

Here, with his head fixed in a hole in the livid stone, is found Pope Nicholas V. He mistakes Dante for the reigning Pope Boniface, whom he expects to join him after his death.

The poet's indignation kindles as he thinks of the sins of the rulers of the church: their selfishness, their greed, their venality. He asks the Pope:

      "I pray thee, tell me now how great a treasure
      Our Lord demanded of St. Peter first
      Before He put the keys into his keeping;
      Truly, He nothing asked but 'Follow Me.'
      Nor Peter, nor the rest, asked of Matthias
      Silver or gold when he by lot was chosen
      Unto the place the guilty soul had lost."

But it was not so with St. Peter's successors:

      "Ye have made yourselves a god of gold and silver;
      And from the idolater how differ ye,
      Save that he one, and ye a hundred worship."

But we must hasten. There is not time to dwell on all the monstrous sights: the false prophets whose heads are twisted so that they must ever walk backwards; the lake of boiling pitch; the grotesque struggle of the demons quarrelling over their escaped prey; Caiaphas lying prone on his cross for all who pass to tread on him; the souls whose doom is to change into serpents and back into men; Ulysses in his perpetual winding-sheet of flame; Mahomet's mutilated figure; the wondrous circle of giants whom Dante takes for huge towers--all these we must pass by. In the last circle of all, where the souls of the worst sinners are held frozen in eternal ice, are two brothers who slew one another in their mutual hate, but now are

                           "Pressed so close
      The hair upon their heads together mingled."

There, too, the poet tells us:

      "I beheld two frozen in one hole,
      So that one head a hood was to the other.
       *        *        *        *        *
      The uppermost in the other set his teeth."

It is Count Ugolino and his enemy the Archbishop Ruggieri, who had caused the Count and his sons to be shut up to starve in "The Tower of Famine" at Pisa. He tells Dante of his sons' death before his eyes and of his own last hideous meal. The Archbishop's punishment is that now for ever shall Ugolino batten on his flesh:

      "When he had said this, with his eyes distorted,
      The wretched skull resumed he with his teeth,
      Which, as a dog's upon the bone were strong."

They see Lucifer, king of hell, with three heads and three mouths; in each he mangles a traitor, Cassius, Brutus, and Judas Iscariot. Climbing up Lucifer's hairy body they emerge at the antipodes:

      "To rebehold the stars."

Never had the light of day shone so sweetly for our poet as when he left those realms of sorrow. And Dante makes his readers share his ecstasy:

      Soon as I issued forth from the dead air
       *        *        *        *        *
      The beauteous planet that to love incites
      Was making all the Orient to laugh."

But we must hurry even faster through the trials of Purgatory and the joys of Heaven. The poets ascend the mountain, whose first slopes are the steepest (as the first steps of penitence). Cato of Utica guards the entrance to the steep mountain. Virgil addresses him and he allows their passage, but first Dante must be cleansed from the stains of hell, and girt with a smooth rush, the badge of humility. Then they begin their upward course. Here, as before, they hold converse with the spirits they meet upon the way. But how great the difference! Here are no damned despairing souls: they are once more in the land of hope. All are ascending--some slowly, some more quickly--and winning their way to the summit of the hill, pressing on to the celestial light. The shades pray Dante to make known to their friends on earth their need of their prayers. Sordello--the troubadour, the forerunner of Dante--the hero of Mr. Browning's strange poem, is their guide part of the way. Within Purgatory itself, in those places where particular sins are expiated, examples of the opposite virtues are graven on the walls. In one place it is the Story of the Annunciation; again it is Trajan's great beneficence which won him, heathen though he was, a place in Heaven at Pope Gregory's prayer. In the Thirtieth Canto, Dante, who has passed through the terrestrial paradise, sees appear a lady whose beauty he compares to the sun's face tempered by the mists, so that they eye can endure to gaze upon it:

      "Thus in the bosom of a cloud of flowers,
      Which from those hands angelical descended,
      And downward fell again inside and out
      Over her snow-white veil with olive cinct
      Appeared a lady under a green mantle,
      Vested in colour of the living flame,
      And my own spirit
       *        *        *        *        *
      Of ancient love the mighty influence felt."

It is Beatrice come down from Heaven to lead Dante thither; he turns to Virgil for him to share his joy, but Virgil has vanished, he is needed no longer.

"Look at me well," she says, "in sooth, I'm Beatrice." But Dante dare not meet her eye:

      "As to the son the mother seems superb,
      So she appeared to me; for somewhat bitter
      Tasteth the savour of severe compassion."

It was not the simple girl he had known, but Beatrice glorified, decked in the hues of heaven, shining with the pure radiance of the eternal. Dante too, had known changes since last they met: life had gone hardly with him: the trials, the scenes he had lived through had left their stains upon his soul. Little wonder he shrank from her "severe compassion."

The story of the Paradise is of Dante's ascent, with Beatrice for his guide, through the ten heavens. Of his converse with the saints glorified who dwell there: with Justinian, the Roman Emperor and lawgiver; with St. Thomas Aquinas, the Seraphic Doctor; they see the celestial stairway; they see St. Benedict; talk with St. Peter and St. James.

In the tenth heaven they reach the River of Light.

      "And light I was in fashion of a river,
      *        *        *        *        *
      Out of this river issued living sparks,
      Like unto rubies that are set in gold."

And then the mystic splendours of the White Rose of Paradise.

      "In fashion then as of a snow-white rose
      Displayed itself to me, the saintly host,
      Whom Christ with his own blood had made his bride.

      But the other host, that flying sees and sings
      The glory of Him who doth enamour it,
      And the goodness that created it so noble;
      Even as a swarm of bees
      Sank into the great flower, that is adorned
      With leaves so many, and thence reascended
      To where its love abideth evermore.
      Their faces had they all of living flame,
      And wings of gold, and all the rest so white,
      No snow unto that limit doth attain."

Lost in wonder at this vision, he does not notice that Beatrice is no longer with him. St. Bernard appears to him and tells him to look up to the throne if he would see her whom he seeks.

      "I lifted up my eyes
      And saw her, as she made herself a crown,
      Reflecting from herself the eternal rays."

I will close our review with part of Dante's farewell words to his throned mistress:

      "'O Lady, thou in whom my hope is strong,
      And who for my salvation didst endure,
      In Hell to leave the imprint of thy feet.
      *        *        *        *        *
      Thou from a slave has brought me into freedom,
      *        *        *        *        *
      Preserve toward me thy magnificence,
      So that this soul of mine, which thou has healed,
      Pleasing to thee, be loosened from the body.'
      Thus I implored: and she so far away
      Smiled as it seemed and looked once more at me,
      Then unto the Eternal fountain turned."

And now that we have followed our poet's guidance through those visionary realms his glories has called into being, and peopled with immortal phantoms, we are driven to ask, "What is the secret charm which the Divine Comedy has exerted over so many generations. What does it all mean? What did it mean for Dante? What may it mean for us?

I have already said that part of Dante's significance for us lies in the fact that his was the deepest, strongest, sweetest voice of the Middle Ages.

The poet has put the whole of the Middle Ages into his book--their strength and weakness, their tears and even their laughter; their intensity, whether of love or hate, or pitiless vengeance or sublime forgiveness. The political ideas of the reformers of the day, the science of Ptolemy, the philosophy of Duns Scotus and Abelard, the theology of Thomas Aquinas--all are there. Though in his political life a strong partisan, Dante here appears as the stern, unselfish patriot trying to heal, if by cautery, the bleeding wounds of his beloved Italy.

But the Divine Comedy is no mere encyclopedia of the Middle Ages--though it is certainly that--interspersed with furious or eloquent tracts and pamphlets against the abuses of the day. If that were all it would arouse but a languid historical or antiquarian interest now. It is the vision that holds us. It is because we feel that verily this man saw the things he tells; because we feel that he has made something, created for us a Hell and Heaven; that he has scooped out the vast abyss, that he has raised the precipitous hill; that he, and he only, has given to us glimpses of the mystic rose, of the River and Throne of Light. Here lies his power, this is his strength. But how does he establish such a proprietary right? He was not the first, nor yet the last poet to go down into Hell, or scale the ramparts of Heaven. Homer had descended into the world of shades, so too had Virgil.

But Virgil's Tartarus brings no thrill of terror, his Elysium no spasm of joy. It is a miracle of art, but that is all. We see in him an elegant and cultivated poet, enriching with his graceful genius what he regards as idle fables of the vulgar. Virgil believes not in his Tartarus, at best he is but describing what he has resolved to feign. But Dante does believe in his Hell; he is the true Vates, poet and prophet also.

And as Dante excels Virgil by his sincerity, so is he Milton's superior in his vividness. The distinction is easy to draw. Dante went down to Hell to describe it the better. Milton's vision has a certain aloofness. He gives us a fine perspective, his Pandemonium looms vast and splendid but indistinct. We get a bird's-eye view. But as Macaulay in his famous essay on Milton has contrasted and compared the two poets at some length, I need not say more here.

One important result of Dante's intensity of belief and clearness of realisation is his severely simple, nervous virile style. He never stoops to throw a glamour of words loosely strung ogether over the poverty of the mistiness of an imperfectly apprehended idea. He has an instinct--I had almost said an inspiration--for the right word. And when he can get his effect with one word he never weakens it by adding a second. Thus his images are always clear-cut, he has no dealings with the vague. These characteristics of Dante's style shine but dimly through a translation; as I said at the outset, he is untranslatable. The version from which I have quoted--that by Longfellow--has at least the merit of close fidelity to the original, and yet how bald the English sounds!

Of Dante's feeling for Nature, of his landscapes, his joy in light, in colour; of those wonderful similes whereby he lights up the gloom of Hell, or shades the too dazzling radiance of Paradise, I must not speak.

I will end as I began, with a word of warning. Let no one undertake the study of Dante lightly; he is no toy to wile away the tedium of an idle hour. He has reared for our refuge the most splendid citadel of song that ever poet built. Is there no consecration needed before we turn the key and enter the frowning gateway? Surely, as he himself bowed low to the shad of Virgil, and followed his guide without faltering along the fiery paths of the intricate infernal maze, so must we, if we would learn all Dante has to teach us, surrender for the time our very soul into his hands.

We must forget the six centuries which have rolled by since the poet lost himself in the dark wood; we must see with him, believe with him; must share in his hates and sorrows and the great love that sweetened them. Then our poet will yield us up his secret; Hell will be laid bare to us, and Heaven opened.

Proofread by LNL, August, 2023