The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Was Dante a Musician?

by Rev. Percy L. Watchurst, B.D.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 809-816

In one of Robert Browning's most imaginative poems (One Word More. To E.B.B. 1855), he tells us that Rafael wrote a hundred sonnets, and that Dante once prepared to paint an angel. The idea grows out of his beautiful thought expressed later in the poem that every man, even the meanest, has two sides to his nature; "one to face the world with, one to show a woman when he loves her." Rafael's matchless Madonnas were for all the world to see and wonder at, his sonnets were for one only, his heart's true love.

Dante's Divine Comedy was written for all men and for all ages, his painted angel was for the eyes of Beatrice alone, and as he dreams of that unpainted picture of the Florentine poet, Browning says we would rather see that angel than read a fresh Inferno.

If instead of thinking of Dante as an artist, he had described him as a musician, Browning's imagination would have had some solid facts to work upon. It is curious that the wonderful use which Dante makes of music is so little noticed by the commentators. Indeed, one may read many books by Dante without finding a single reference to the subject.

In Dean Plumptre's six volumes, one or two significant sentences are all that can be found, and in Dean Church's exhaustive essay, so profound in its insight, so perfect in its expression, no mention is made of the many passages in which Dante makes such exquisite use of musical illustration.

Every reader of the Paradiso is struck with the marvellous way in which Dante describes light, light in the changing heavens, light in the wings and in the faces of the angels, light in the eyes of Beatrice, until at last his own powers, exercised by reason of use, are made strong enough to gaze upon the supreme Vision, the vision of Him who is Light of Light. And yet the references to music, not only in the Paradiso but also in the Purgatorio, are not less frequent, and hardly less full of spiritual meaning, even than those to glorious and divine Light.

It is the object of this paper to try and point out, by way of illustration, the place which music held in Dante's thought, and to indicate its significance in a spiritual interpretation of his great poem.

There is no sweet sound of harmony in the Inferno, with one slight but beautiful exception. Among those whose only fault was that of having lived and died outside the pale of the Christian Church, Dante sees some of the noblest of the human race, men for whom he had the most profound veneration, and while his theology compelled him to place them in the Inferno since they had never been baptized, he imagines them in a place of pleasant streams and green meadows, and as he watches Socrates and Plato, Thales and Seneca, and others like them, he says they seldom spake, "but all their words were tuneful sweet." This line only makes the other sounds which he describes more terrible. For the rest of his journey through that awful gloom, the words he utters as soon as he has passed through its portals, find their dread echo over and over again.

      "Here sighs with lamentations and loud moans
      Resounded through the air pierc'd by no star,
      That e'en I wept at entering. Various tongues,
      Horrible languages, outcries of woe,
      Accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
      With hands together smote that swell'd the sounds,
      Made up a tumult, that for ever whirls
      Round through that air with solid darkness stain'd
      Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies."

In circle after circle his marvellous power of imagination is used to describe discord in every possible form. Troops of lost spirits set up an awful wail together; far as his ear can reach, sighs make the very air to tremble as the multitude express their grief; Cerberus, the cruel monster barks and howls like a dog, until his victims are stunned with the thundering sound, and long in vain for deafness; others raise such shrill clamour, that Dante clings in fear to his guide; he hears sounds like that of some awful tempest tearing up a forest, or that of crashing waves making the shore to tremble; when he sees the suicides turned into horrid trees, he hears their sad plainings, and groaning and hisses; the din of falling water as it leaps with hideous crash in the thick darkness adds a new terror to his soul; ghosts gibber in low melancholy sounds; in Malebolge the cries of the damned are such that he must needs close both ears against their volley; deeper yet a horn blew such a blast as made the thunder feeble; and in the thick ribbed ice he hears the teeth of the sinners chattering in shrill note like the stork. Such sounds he hears in hell, no voice of music, no soft strains of harmony, but discord of every imaginable kind.

As soon as Dante and Virgil reach the confines of the mountain of Purgatory, they hear the strains of holy music. Very significant are the words of the first hymn which greets their ear from spirit voices after their dread journey through the depths of hell.

      " 'In Exitu Israel de Aegypto.'
      All with one voice together sang, with what in the remainder
      Of that hymn is writ."

Bearing in mind, as we need to do at every step, that the whole poem is not only descriptive of what the poet thought the unseen really was, but that it also expresses in an allegory the personal experience of the individual soul on earth as he passes through the three stages--first of the knowledge of his sin, then strife with it and purging from it, and finally finding peace with God and the joy that comes from knowing and seeing and loving Him, what words could be more fitting or more beautiful than those of Ps. cxiv.?

The darkness of Egypt is passed, the wilderness is at hand, Paradise is yet far off. Then too we need to remember that Dante in common with the thought of his time, saw in Scripture several meanings in addition to the literal and historical one, and that the Exodus was regarded by all the theologians as an allegory of Christian experience.

All this we need to bear in mind as we hear the strains of this first hymn in the confines of the Purgatorio. It is typical of many others all through the course of this second part of the Comedy. Again and again the songs of the angels aid the poets and also aid the sinners who are being purged from their sins in the different circles of the mountain, and as Dante loses the marks of sin from his own forehead, the event is sometimes marked by a burst of heavenly song and music.

May we not gather from this that to Dante music is not only the expression of spiritual joy, as we shall see again and again in the Paradiso, but also that it has an influence over the heart which helps the soul in its strife against sin, that it is one of the means used for that divine purging which makes men fit for heaven?

Specially noticeable is the effect of the music upon Dante himself. One might argue that none but a musician, certainly none but a man with music in his soul, could so feel and so write.

Two illustrations may be given, the first from Canto ii., the second from Canto viii.:

      "Then I,
      If new laws have not quite destroyed
      Memory and use of that sweet song of love,
      That whilom all my cares had power to 'swage;
      Please thee it a little to console
      My spirit, that incumber'd with its frame,
      Travelling so far, of pain is overcome.'
      'Love that discourses in my thoughts,' he then
      Began in such soft accents, that within
      The sweetness thrills me yet.

      " 'Te Lucis Ante' so devoutly then
      Came from its lip, and in so soft a strain,
      That all my sense in ravishment was lost,
      And the rest after, softly and devout,
      Follow'd through all the hymn, with upward gaze
      Directed to the bright supernal wheels."

Brief mention may be made of a few other passages before we pass to the Paradiso.

Before they reach the seven stages into which the mountain itself is divided, they meet a band of spirits singing the "Miserere," others are chanting the hymn "Salve, Regina," and as they come to the entrance gate of the Purgatorio itself, the Te Deum is sung.

      " 'We praise thee, O God,' methought I heard
      In accents blended with sweet melody.
      The strains came o'er mine ear, e'en as the sound
      Of choral voices, that in solemn chant
      With organ mingle, and now high and clear,
      Come swelling, now float indistinct away."

In the circle of the proud, voices in strain ineffable sing "Blessed are the poor in spirit," the significance of the passage needing no comment, and the poet adds

      "Ah! how far unlike to these
      The straits of hell; here songs to usher us,
      There shrieks of woe!"

As they are leaving the circle of the envious, the sweet chant of "Blessed are the merciful" falls upon their ears, while amongst the wrathful, the choir, with one voice, one measure, and with perfect concord sing the "Agnus Dei," and his leader tells him that the spirits whom they hear are those who loose the bonds of wrath. There is an exquisite passage also in Canto xx., where are found the spirits whose sin on earth has been avarice, a sin which Dante specially loathed. It may be quoted in full, and here again the suitability of the hymn to the particular sinners who hear it is obviously plain and striking.

      "Forthwith from every side a shout arose
      So vehement, that suddenly my guide
      Drew near, and cried: 'Doubt not while I conduct thee.'
      'Glory!' all shouted (such the sounds mine ear
      Gathered from those, who near me swell'd the sounds)
      'Glory in the highest be to God.' We stood
      Immoveably suspended, like to those,
      The Shepherds, who first heard in Bethlehem's field
      That song till ceas'd the trembling, and the song
      Was ended."

Among the lustful, an angel of God, with joy in his mien, and a voice far surpassing that of men, sings the refrain we should expect from past analogy, "Blessed are the pure in heart."

When they reach the earthly paradise at the summit of the mountain, music literally fills the air. In Canto xxix. alone, five times the poet calls to mind the blessed strains that he had heard. "Blessed are they whose sins are cover'd" is the first song that "the lovely dame" sings to him; soon after "a sweet melody ran through the luminous air"; again only a few lines later, the sound of melody is heard afresh; then he catches the sound of the word "Hosanna"; and yet once again, four and twenty elders sing their song of praise.

In the remaining Cantos, the music becomes so heavenly that it is almost beyond the power of Dante's sense to understand it, his cleansing is not yet quite complete, earth still clings to him.

      "The blessed shore approaching, then was heard so sweetly
      'Tu asperges me,' that I
      May not remember, much less tell the sound.
      Unearthly was the hymn, which then arose.
      I understood it not, nor to the end
      Endur'd the harmony."

When we reach the Paradiso, it is no exaggeration to say that the harmonies of heaven are never silent. In the first Canto, there is a reference to the mysterious subject of the music of the spheres. Dante accepted the idea of the ancient astronomers that the various stars revolved round the earth. They also taught that this revolution of the heavenly bodies produced a never ceasing harmony. But in all these details, Aristotle is Dante's teacher, and this idea of the music produced by the stars was denied by him, and it is significant that this is one of the few details in which Dante departs from the authority of his great master in Science.*

*See Mr. Wicksteed's note on Canto i. 76, in the Temple Classics' edition of the Paradiso.

The heavens then were in ceaseless motion, that motion produced divine harmony, that harmony was never silent. In addition to this, both saints and angels are continually singing hymns of praise and glory. Music is the pastime of heaven. (Canto ix. 75).

Very remarkable is the way in which in many passages of the Paradiso, the poet unites together music, motion, and light. Here again illustrations will help us best.

      "Soon as its final word the blessed flame
      Had rais'd for utterance, straight the holy mill
      Began to wheel, nor yet had once revolv'd,
      Or ere another, circling, compass'd it,
      Motion to motion, song to song, enjoining,
      Song, that as much our muses doth excel
      Our Syrens with their tuneful pipes, as ray
      Of primal splendour doth its faint reflex."

These lines form the opening of Canto xii. in the sun. Those which follow are from Canto xiv. in Mars, the often quoted description of the cross of light, one of the most superb of all Dante's imaginative conceptions. The passage may be perhaps quoted in full, as we read it we notice again this wonderful union of music, motion and light.

      "Here memory mocks the toil of genius. Christ
      Beam'd on that cross; and pattern fails me now;
      But whoso takes his cross, and follows Christ,
      Will pardon me for that I leave untold,
      When in the flecker'd dawning he shall spy
      The glitterance of Christ. From horn to horn,
      And 'tween the summit and the base did move
      Lights, scintillating as they met and pass'd.
      Thus oft are seen, with ever-changeful glance,
      Straight or athwart, now rapid and now slow,
      The atomies of bodies, long or short,
      To move along the sunbeam, whose slant line
      Checkers the shadow, interpos'd by art
      Against the noontide heat. And as the chime
      Of minstrel music, dulcimer, and harp,
      With many strings, a pleasant dinning makes
      To him, who heareth not distinct the note;
      So from the lights, which there appear'd to me,
      Gather'd along the cross a melody,
      That, indistinctly heard, with ravishment
      Possess'd me. Yet I mark'd it was a hymn
      Of lofty praises, for their came to me
      'Arise and conquer,' as to one who hears
      And comprehends not. Me such ecstasy
      O'ercome, that never till that hour was thing,
      That held me in so sweet imprisonment."

No attempt will be made even to mention the many hymns which Dante heard in Paradise. Again and again he is filled with an ecstasy of joy as he hears that heavenly music. The sweetest melodies of earth seem like a "rent cloud when it grates the thunder" compared with those divine harmonies.

One remarkable passage, however, cannot be passed by altogether. Dante and his guide are in Saturn, the seventh heaven. In this lofty sphere, there is no smile upon the face of Beatrice. She answers his doubt before he questions her. Did she smile in that heaven, Dante could not bear the radiance of the light; like Semele, he would turn to ashes. His wonder is again aroused when he discovers that there is no music as in the lower spheres, and the explanation given to him, is the same as that which explains the absence of the smile of Beatrice.

"Mortal art thou in hearing as in sight," was the reply: "and what forbade the smile of Beatrice, interrupts our song."

Thus, the only moment when heaven is silent to Dante is when he is not yet able to receive the fuller glory of the height to which he has risen. For the rest, the saints and the angels are ever singing forth their joy and praise.

As we read the Paradiso, a question often occurs to our mind that we ask ourselves as we read the book of Revelation. How much should we regard as literal fact, how much as allegory and metaphor? May we not reasonably believe that in heaven there is both light and music? If that be so, we must believe that the true light, the real harmony are there, what we see and hear on earth but a dim shadow, a faint and broken echo.

Typed by Blossom Barden, Jan. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024