Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


It is only too often the custom to talk of Dante as a solitary phenomenon in his time. Even Carlyle who knew well and properly appreciated many things in medieval life and letters and especially in the literary productions of the Thirteenth Century said, that in Dante "ten silent centuries found a voice." Anyone who has followed what we have had to say with regard to the Thirteenth Century will no longer think of Dante as standing alone, but will readily appreciate that he is only the fitting culmination of a great literary era. After having gone over even as hurriedly as has been necessary in our brief space, what was accomplished in every country of Europe in literature that was destined to live not only because of the greatness of the thoughts, but also for the ultimateness of its expression, we should expect some surpassing literary genius at the end of the period. It seems almost inevitable indeed that a supreme poet, whose name stands above all others but one or two at the most in the whole history of the race, should have lived in the Thirteenth Century, and should have summed up effectually in himself all the greatness of the century and enshrined its thoughts in undying verse for all future generations.

When Dante himself dares to place his name with those of the men whom he considered the five greatest poets of all time, it seems sublimest egotism. At first thought many will at once conclude that his reason for so doing was, that in the unlettered times his critical faculty was not well developed and as he knew that his work far surpassed that of his contemporaries, he could scarcely help but conclude that his place must be among the great poets. Any such thought however, is entirely due to lack of knowledge of the conditions of Dante's life and education. He had been in the universities of Italy, and in his exile had visited Paris and probably also Oxford. He knew the poets of his country well. He appreciated them highly. It was the consciousness of genius that made him place himself so high and not any faulty comparison with others. Succeeding generations have set him even higher than the place chosen by himself and now we breathe his name only with those of Homer and Shakespeare, considering that these three sublime immortals are so far above all other poets that there is scarcely a second to them.

Dante is the most universal of poets. He has won recognition from all nations, and he has been the favorite reading of the most diverse times and conditions of men. From the very beginning he has been appreciated, and even before his death men had begun to realize something of the supremacy of his greatness. Commentaries on his works that have been preserved down to our own day were written almost during his lifetime. Only supreme interest could have tempted men to multiply these by the hard labor of patient handwriting. Petrarch who as a young man, was his contemporary, recognized him as the Prince of Italian poets who had composed in their common tongue, and even was tempted to say that the subtle and profound conceptions of the Commedia could not have been written without the special gift of the Holy Ghost. Boccaccio was wont to speak of him as the Divine Poet, and tells us that he had learned that Petrarch deliberately held aloof from the Commedia, through fear of losing his originality if he came under the spell of so great a master.

Very few realize how great a poet Dante must be considered even if only the effusions of his younger years were to be taken as the standard of his poetical ability. Some of his sonnets are as beautiful of their kind as are to be found in this form of poetry. His description of his lady-love is famous among sonnets of lovers and may only be compared with some of the Sonnets from the Portuguese in our own day, or with one or two of Camoens' original sonnets in the Portuguese. for lofty praise of the beloved in worthy numbers. After reading Dante's sonnets it is easy to understand how a half century later Petrarch was able to raise the sonnet form to an excellence that was never to be surpassed. With a beginning like this it is no wonder that the sonnet became so popular in Europe during the next three centuries, and that every young poet. down to Shakespeare's time, had an attack of sonneteering just as he might have had an attack of the measles. The first one of a pair of sonnets that are considered supreme in their class deserves a place here as an example of Dante's poetic faculty in this form, for which he is so much less known than he ought to be.

He sees completely fullest bliss abound
  Who among ladies sees my Lady's face;
Those that with her do go are surely bound
  To give God thanks for such exceeding grace.
And in her beauty such strange might is found,
  That envy finds in other hearts no place;
So she makes them walk with her, clothed all round
  With love and faith and courteous gentleness.
The sight of her makes all things lowly be;
  Nor of herself alone she gives delight,
But each through her receiveth honor due.
  And in her acts is such great courtesy,
That none can recollect that wondrous sight,
  Who sighs not for it in Love's sweetness true.

It will be noted that Dante has nothing to say of the personal appearance of his beloved. This is true, however, of the whole series of poems to and about her. He never seems to have thought for a moment of her physical qualities. What he finds worthy to praise is her goodness which shines out from her features so that everyone rejoices in it, while a sweetness fills the heart as if a heavenly visitor had come. For him her supreme quality is that, with all her beauty, envy finds no place in others' hearts because she is so clothed around with love and faith and courteous gentleness. It has often been said that Shakespeare did not describe the physical appearances of his heroines because he realized that this meant very little, but then Shakespeare had to write for the stage and realized that blondes and brunettes, especially in the olden time, could not be made to order and that it was better to leave the heroine's physical appearance rather vague. It would be expected, however, that Dante, with his Southern temperament, would have dwelt on the physical perfections of his fair. The next sonnet, however, of the best known group emphasizes his abstraction of all physical influence in the matter and insists on her goodness and the womanly beauty of her character. It will be found in our chapter on Women of the Century.

In his earlier years Dante considered himself one of the Troubadours, and there can be no doubt that if he had never written the Divine Comedy, he still would have been remembered as one of the great poets who wrote of love in this Thirteenth Century. Not only does he deserve a place among the greatest of the Minnesingers, the Trouvères, and the Troubadours, but he is perhaps the greatest of them. That he should have sung as he did at the end of the century only shows that he was in the stream of literary evolution and not being merely carried idly along, but helping to guide it into ever fairer channels. Dante's minor poems would have made enduring fame for any poet of less genius than himself. His prose works deserve to be read by anyone who wishes to know the character of this greatest of poets, and also to appreciate what the educational environment of the Thirteenth Century succeeded in making out of good intellectual material when presented to it. Dante's works are the real treasury of information of the most precious kind with regard to the century, since they provide the proper standpoint from which to view all that it accomplished.

While Dante was a supreme singer among the poets of a great song time, it was only natural, in the light of what we know about the literary product of the rest of this century, that he should have put into epic form the supreme product of his genius. With the great national epics in every country of Europe -- the Cid, the Arthur Legends, and the Nibelungen, at the beginning of this century, and the epical poems of the Meistersingers during its first half, it is not surprising, but on the contrary rather what might have been confidently looked for, that there should have arisen a great national epic in Italy before the end of the century. The Gothic art movement spread through all these countries, and so did the wind of the spirit of esthetic accomplishment which blew the flame of national literature in each country into a mighty blaze, that not only was never to be extinguished, but was to be a beacon light in the realm of national literatures forever after.

We have already said a word of the well-known contemporary admiration for the poet but it should be realized that due appreciation of Dante continued in Italy during all the time when Italian art and literature was at its highest. It dwindled only at periods of decadence and lack of taste. Cornelius' law with regard to Dante's influence on art is very well known. Italian art according to him, has been strong and vigorous just in proportion as it has worked under Dante's influence, while it became weak and sensuous as that influence declined. This has held true from the very beginning and has been as true for literature as for art. When the Italians became interested in trivialities and gave themselves up to weak imitations of the classics, or to pastoral poetry that was not a real expression of feeling but a passing fancy of literary folk, then Dante was for a time in obscurity. Even at the height of the Renaissance, however, when Greek was at the acme of its interest and the classics occupied so much attention that Dante might be expected to be eclipsed, the great thinkers and critics of the time still worshipped at the shrine of their great master of Italian verse. The best proof of this is to be found in Michael Angelo's famous sonnets in praise of Dante, the second of which would seem to exhaust all that can be said in praise of a brother poet.

Into the dark abyss he made his way;
  Both nether worlds he saw, and in the might
  Of his great soul beheld God's splendour bright,
And gave to us on earth true light of day:
Star of supremest worth with its clear ray,
  Heaven's secrets he revealed to us through our dim sight;
  And had for guerdon what the base world's spite:
Oft gives to souls that noblest grace display,
Full ill was Dante's life-work understood,
  His purpose high, by that ungrateful state,
That welcomed all with kindness but the good.
  Would I were such, to bear like evil fate,
To taste his exile, share his lofty mood.
  For this I'd gladly give all earth calls great.

In the first of this pair of sonnets, however, Michael Angelo gave if possible even higher praise than this. It will be recalled that he himself, besides being the greatest of sculptors and one of the greatest of painters and architects in a wonderfully productive period, was also a very great poet. These sonnets to Dante, the one to his crucifix, and one to Vittoria Colonna, are the best proof of this. He knew how to chisel thoughts into wonderfully suitable words quite as well as marble into the beautiful forms that grew under his hands. With all his greatness, and he must have been conscious of it, he thinks that he would be perfectly willing to give up all that earth calls great, simply to share Dante's lofty mood even in his exile. No greater tribute has ever been paid by one poet to another than this, and Michael Angelo's genius was above all critical, never thoughtlessly laudatory. As emphasizing the highest enlightened taste of a great epoch this has seemed to deserve a place here also.

What should be said of him speech may not tell;
  His splendor is too great for men's dim sight;
  And easier 'twere to blame his foes aright
Than for his poorest gifts to praise him well.
He tracked the path that leads to depths of Hell
  To teach us wisdom, scaled the eternal height,
  And heaven with open gates did him invite,
Who in his own loved city might not dwell.
Ungrateful country step-dame of his fate,
  To her own loss: full proof we have in this
That souls most perfect bear the greatest woe.
Of thousand things suffice in this to state:
  No exile ever was unjust as his,
Nor did the world his equal ever know.

In England, in spite of distance of country, race and language, the appreciation of Dante began very early. Readers of Chaucer know the great Italian as the favorite poet of the Father of English poetry, and over and over again he has expressed the feeling of how much greater than anything he could hope to do was Dante's accomplishment. Readers will remember how Chaucer feels unable to tell the story of Ugolino and his starving sons in the Hunger Tower, and refers those interested in the conclusion of the tale to Dante. After the religious revolt of the early Sixteenth Century Dante was lost sight of to a great extent. His temper was too Catholic to be appreciated by Puritan England, and the Elizabethans were too much occupied with their own creation of a great national literature, to have any time for appreciation of a foreigner so different in spirit from their times. With the coming of the Oxford Movement, however, Dante at once sprang into favor, and a number of important critical appreciations of him reintroduced him to a wide reading public in England, most of whom were among the most cultured of the island. This renewed interest in Dante gave rise to some of the best critical appreciations in any language. Dean Church's famous essay is the classic English monograph on Dante, and its opening paragraph sounds the keynote of critical opinion among English speaking people.

"The Divina Commedia is one of the landmarks of history. More than a magnificent poem, more than the beginning of a language and the opening of a national literature, more than the inspirer of art and the glory of a great people, it is one of those rare and solemn monuments, of the mind's power which measure and test what it can reach to, which rise tip ineffaceably and forever as time goes on, marking out its advance by grander divisions than its centuries, and adopted as epochs by the consent of all who come after. It stands with the Iliad and Shakespeare's Plays, with the writings of Aristotle and Plato, with the Novum Organon and the Principia, with Justinian's Code, with the Parthenon and St. Peter's. It is the first Christian Poem, and it opens European literature as the Iliad did that of Greece and Rome. And, like the Iliad, it has never become out of date; it accompanies in undiminished freshness the literature which it began."

No better introduction to Dante could be obtained than this from Dean Church. Those who have found it difficult to get interested in the great Florentine poet, and who have been prone to think that perhaps the pretended liking for him on the part of many people was an affectation rather than a sincere expression of opinion, should read this essay and learn something of the wealth of sympathy there is in Dante for even the man of these modern times. Our Thirteenth Century poet is not easy to read but there is probably no reading in all the world that brings with it so much of intellectual satisfaction, so much of awakening of the best feelings in man, so many glimpses into the depths of his being, as some lines from Dante pondered under favorable circumstances. Like one of these Gothic cathedrals of the olden times he never grows old, but, on the contrary, every favorite passage seems to have a new message for each mood of the reader. This is particularly true for the spiritual side of man's being as has been pointed out by Dean Church in a well-known passage toward the end of his essay.

"Those who know the Divina Commedia best will best know how hard it is to be the interpreter of such a mind; but they will sympathize with the wish to call attention to it. They know, and would wish others also to know, not by hearsay, but by experience, the power of that wonderful poem. They know its austere yet submitting beauty; they know what force there is in its free and earnest and solemn verse to strengthen, to tranquillize, to console. It is a small thing that it has the secret of Nature and Man; that a few keen words have opened their eyes to new sights in earth, and sea, and sky; have taught them new mysteries of sound; have made them recognize, in distinct image of thought, fugitive feelings, or their unheeded expression, by look, or gesture, or motion; that it has enriched the public and collective memory of society with new instances, never to be lost, of human feeling and fortune; has charmed mind and ear by the music of its stately march, and the variety and completeness of its plan. But besides this, they know how often its seriousness has put to shame their trifling, its magnanimity their faint-heartedness, its living energy their indolence, its stern and sad grandeur rebuked low thoughts, its thrilling tenderness overcome sullenness and assuaged disress, its strong faith quelled despair, and soothed perplexity, its vast grasp imparted the sense of harmony to the view of clashing truth. They know how often they have found in times of trouble, if not light, at least that deep sense of reality, permanent though unseen, which is more than light can always give -- in the view which it has suggested to them of the judgments and love of God."

As might have been expected from the fact of Dante's English popularity paralleling the Oxford Movement, both the great English Cardinals who were such prominent agents in that movement, looked upon him as a favorite author. Both of them have given him precious tributes. Newman's lofty compliment was the flattery of imitation when he wrote the Dream of Gerontius, that poem for poets which has told the men of our generation more about the immediate hereafter than anything written in these latter centuries. No poet of the intervening period, or of any other time, has so satisfactorily presented the after world as these writers so distant in time, so different in environment, -- the one an Italian of the Thirteenth, the other an Englishman of the Nineteenth Century.

Cardinal Manning's tribute was much more formal though not less glorious. It occurs in the introduction to Father Bowden's English edition of the German critic Hettinger's appreciation of Dante, and deserves a place here because it shows how much a representative modern churchman thinks of the great Florentine poet.

"There are three works which always seem to me to form a triad of Dogma, of Poetry, and of Devotion, -- The Summa ot St. Thomas, The Divina Commedia, and the Paradisus Animae (a manual of devotional exercises by Horstius). All three contain the same outline of Faith. St. Thomas traces it on the intellect, Dante upon the imagination, and the Paradisus Animae upon the heart. The poem unites the book of Dogma and the book of Devotion, clothed in conceptions of intensity and of beauty which have never been surpassed nor equalled. No uninspired hand has ever written thoughts so high in words, so resplendent as the last stanza of the Divina Commedia. It was said of St. Thomas, 'Post Summan Thomae nihil restat nisi lumen gloriae,' -- After the Summa of Thomas nothing is left except the light of glory. It may be said of Dante, 'Post Dantis Paradisum nihil restat nisi visio Dei,' -- After Dante's Paradise nothing is left except the vision of God."

Of course John Ruskin had a thorough-going admiration for so great a spiritual thinker as Dante and expressed it in no uncertain terms. With his wonderful power to point out the significance of unexpected manifestations of human genius, Ruskin has even succeeded in minimizing one of the great objections urged against Dante, better perhaps than could be done by anyone else, for English speaking people at least. For many readers Dante is almost unbearable, because of certain grotesque elements they find in him. This has been the source and cause of more unfavorable criticism than anything else in the great Florentine's writings. Ruskin of course saw it but appreciated it at its proper significance, and has made clear in a passage that every Dante reader needs to go over occasionally, in order to assure himself that certain unusual things in Dante's attitude towards life are an expression rather of the highest human genius and its outlook on life, than some narrow limitation of medievalism. Ruskin said

"I believe that there is no test of greatness in nations, periods, nor men more sure than the development, among them or in them, of a noble grotesque, and no test of comparative smallness or limitation, of one kind or another, more sure than the absence of grotesque invention or incapability of understanding it. I think that the central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral and intellectual faculties, all at their highest is Dante; and in him the grotesque reaches at once the most distinct and the most noble development to which it was ever brought in the human mind. Of the grotesqueness in our own Shakespeare I need hardly speak, nor of its intolerableness to his French critics; nor of that of AEschylus and Homer, as opposed to the lower Greek writers: and so I believe it will be found, at all periods, in all minds of the first order."

Great reverence for Dante might have been expected in Italy but the colder Northern nations shared it.

In Germany modern admiration for Dante began with that great wave of critical appreciation which entered into German literature with the end of the Eighteenth and the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. As might almost have been expected, Frederick Schlegel was one of the first modern German admirers of Dante, though his brother August, whose translations of Shakespeare began that series of German studies of Shakespeare which has been so fruitful during the past century, was also an open admirer of the medieval poet. Since then there has practically been no time when Germany has not had some distinguished Dante scholar, and when it has not been supplying the world with the products of profound study and deep scholarship with regard to him. The modern educational world has come to look so confidently toward Germany for the note of its critical appreciation, that the Dante devotion of the Germans will be the best possible encouragement for those who need to have the feeling, that their own liking is shared by good authorities, before they are quite satisfied with their appreciation. Dean Plumptre has summed up the Dante movement in Germany in a compendious paragraph that must find a place here.

"In the year 1824, Scartazzini, the great Dante scholar of the Nineteenth Century, recognizes a new starting point. The period of neglect of supercilious criticism comes to an end, and one of reverence, admiration and exhaustive study begins. His account of the labors of German scholars during the sixty years that have followed fills a large part of his volume. Translations of the Commedia by Kopisch, Kannegiesser, Witte, Philalethes (the nom de plume of John, King of Saxony), Josefa Von Hoffinger, of the Minor Poems by Witte and Krafft, endless volumes and articles on all points connected with Dante's life and character, the publications of the Deutsche Dante-Gesellschaft from 1867 to 1877, present a body of literature which has scarcely a parallel in history. It is no exaggeration to say that the Germans have, taught Italians to understand and appreciate their own poet, just as they have at least helped to teach Englishmen to understand Shakespeare."

Nor must it be thought that only the literary lights of Germany thoroughly appreciated the great Florentine. The greater the genius of the man the more his admiration for Dante if he but once becomes interested in him. A noteworthy example of this is Alexander Von Humboldt the distinguished German scientist, who was generally looked upon as perhaps the greatest thinker in European science during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. He is said to have been very faithful in his study of Dante and has expressed his admiration in no uncertain terms. Curiously enough he found much to admire him for in matters scientific, for while it is not generally realized, Dante was an acute observer of Nature and has given expression in his works to many observations with regard to subjects that would now be considered within the scope of natural science, in a way to anticipate many supposedly modern hits of information. With regard to this Humboldt said in his Cosmos

"When the glory of the Aramaic Greek and Roman dominion -- or I might almost say, when the ancient world had passed away, -- we find in the great and inspired founder of a new era, Dante Alighieri, occasional manifestations of the deepest sensibility to the charms of the terrestrial life of Nature, whenever he abstracts himself from the passionate and subjective control of that despondent mysticism which constituted the general circle of his ideas." How little Humboldt seems to have realized in his own absorption in external nature, that the qualities he blames in Dante are of the very essence of his genius, rounding out his humanity to an interest in all man's relations, supernatural as well as natural, and that without them he would not be the world poet for all time that he is.

In America Dante came to his own almost as soon as literature obtained her proper place in our new country. The first generation of distinctly literary men comprise the group at Cambridge including Longfellow, Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell, and others of minor importance. It soon became a favorite occupation among these men to give certain leisure hours to Dante. The Cambridge Dante society added not a little to the world's knowledge of the poet. Longfellow's translation and edition of Dante's works was a monumental achievement, for which its author is likely to be remembered better by future generations than perhaps for any of his original work. Future generations are likely to remember James Russell Lowell for his essays on Dante and Shakespeare better than for anything else. His Dante monograph is as magnificently illuminating as that of Dean Church's and perhaps even more satisfying to critical readers. That these men should have been content to give so much of their time to the study of the Thirteenth Century poet shows in what appreciation he must be held by the rest of us if we would give him his due place in literature.

There are many misunderstandings with regard to Dante which apparently only some serious study of the poet serves to remove satisfactorily. Most people consider that he was a distant, prophetic, religious genius, and that his poetry has in it very little of sympathy for humanity. While it is generally conceded that he saw man projected on the curtain of eternity, and realized all his relationships to the universe and to his Creator better than perhaps any other poet of all time, it is usually thought that one must have something of the medieval frame of mind in order to read him with interest and admiration. Such impressions are largely the result of reading only a few lines of Dante, and, finding them difficult of thorough comprehension, allowing one's self to be forced to the conclusion that he is not of interest to the modern reader. The Inferno being the first part of Dante's great poem is the one oftenest read in this passing fashion and so many ideas with regard to Dante are derived from this portion, which is not only not the masterpiece of the work but, if taken alone, sadly misrepresents the genius of the poet. His is no morbid sentimentality and does not need the adventitious interest of supreme suffering.

As a matter of fact the Purgatorio is a much better introduction to Dante's real greatness, and is considered by the generality of Dante scholars as the more humanly sympathetic if not really the supreme expression of his creative faculty. The ascent of the Mount of Expiation with its constant note of hope and the gradually increasing facility of the ascent as the summit is approached, touches condolent cords in the human heart and arouses feelings that are close to what is best in human aspiration in spite of its consciousness of defect. Over and over again in the Purgatorio one finds evidence of Dante's wonderful powers of observation. The poet is first of all according to the etymology of the word a creator, one who gives life to the figments of his imagination so that we recognize them as vital manifestations of human genius, but is also the seer, the man who sees deeper into things and sees more of them than anyone else. Ordinarily Dante is considered by those who do not know him as not having been an observer of things human and around him in life. There are passages in his works, however, that entirely refute this.

The story that he went about the cities of North Italy during his exile, with countenance so gloomy and stare so fixed that men pointed to him and spoke of him as one who had visited Hell, and the other tradition, however well it may be founded, that the women sometimes pointed him out to their children and then used the memory of him as a bogy man to scare them into doing unpleasant things afterwards, would seem to indicate that he had occupied himself very little with the things around him, and that above all he had paid very little attention to the ways of childhood. He has shown over and over again, especially in the Purgatorio, that the simplest and most natural actions of child-life had been engraved upon his heart for he uses them with supreme truth in his figures. He knows how

"An infant seeks his mother's breast
When fear or anguish vex his troubled heart," --

but he knows too, how the child who has done wrong, confesses its faults.

"As little children, dumb with shame's keen smart,
Will listening stand with eyes upon the ground,
Owning their faults with penitential heart,
So then stood I."

There is a passage in the Inferno in which he describes so vividly the rescue of a child from the flames by its mother that Plumptre has even ventured to suggest that Dante himself may have been the actual subject of the rescue. Because it helps to an appreciation of Dante's intensity of expression and poignancy of vision the passage itself, with Plumptre's comment, seems deserving of quotation:

"Then suddenly my Guide his arms did fling
Around me, as a mother, roused by cries,
Sees the fierce flames around her gathering
And takes her boy, nor ever halts but flies,
Caring for him than for herself far more,
Though one scant shift her only robe supplies."

It must not be thought, however, that Dante's quality as an observer was limited to the actions of human beings. His capacity to see many other things is amply manifested in his great poem. Even the smallest of living things, that would surely be thought beneath his notice, became the subject of similies that show how much everything in nature interested the spirit of genius. The passage with regard to the ants has often been quoted, and is indeed a surprising manifestation of nature study at an unexpected time and from an entirely unanticipated quarter. Dante saw the souls of those who were so soon to enter into the realm of blessedness, and who were already in the last circle of purgatory, greeting each other with the kiss of peace and his picturesque simile for it is

"So oft, within their dusk brown host, proceed
This ant and that, till muzzle muzzle meet;
Spying their way, or how affairs succeed."

As for the birds his pages are full of references to them and all of his bird similies are couched in terms that show how sympathetically observant he was of their habits and ways. He knows their different methods of flying in groups and singly, he has observed them on their nests and knows their wonderful maternal anxiety for their young, and describes it with a vividness that would do credit to a naturalist of the modern time who had made his home in the woods. Indeed some of his figures taken from birds constitute examples of the finest passages of poetic description of living nature that have ever been written. The domestic animals, moreover, especially the cat and the dog, come in for their share of this sympathetic observance, and he is able to add greatly to the vividness of the pictures he paints by his references to the well-known habits of these animals. It is no wonder that the tradition has grown up that he was fond of such pets and possessed several of them that were well-known to the early commentators on his poems, and the subject of no little erudition.

Nothing escaped the attention of this acute observer in the world around him, and over and over again one finds surprising bits of observation with regard to natural phenomena usually supposed to be quite out of the range of the interest of medieval students generally, and above all of literary men of this Middle Age. Alexander Von Humboldt calls attention in a well-known passage in his Cosmos to the wonderful description of the River of Light in the Thirtieth Canto of the Paradiso.

"I saw a glory like a stream flow by,
  In brightness rushing and on either shore
Were banks that with spring's wondrous hues might vie.
  And from that river living sparks did soar,
And sank on all sides in the flow'rets' bloom,
  Like precious rubies set in golden ore.
Then, as if drunk with all the rich perfume,
  Back to the wondrous torrent did they roll,
And as one sank another filled its room."

Humboldt explains this as follows, with a suggestion that deserves to be remembered.

"It would almost seem as if this picture had its origin in the poet's recollection of that peculiar and rare phosphorescent condition of the ocean in which luminous points appear to rise from the breaking waves, and, spreading themselves over the surface of the waters, convert the liquid plain into a moving sea of sparkling stars."

Probably the best way for a modern to realize how much of interest there may be for him in Dante is to consider the great Italian epic poet in comparison with our greatest of English epic poets, Milton. While any such comparison in the expressive Latin phrase is sure to walk lame, it serves to give an excellent idea of the methods of the two men in the illustration of their ideas. We venture therefore to quote a comparison between these two poets from a distinguished critic who knows both of them well, and whose modern training in English methods of thought, would seem to make him likely to be partial to the more modern poet though as a matter of fact he constantly leans toward the great medieval bard.

"The poetry of Milton differs from that of Dante as the hieroglyphics of Egypt differ from the picture-writing of Mexico. The images which Dante employs speak for themselves; they stand simply for what they are. Those of Milton have a signification which is often discernible only to the initiated . . . . However strange, however grotesque, he never shrinks from describing it. He gives us the shape, the color, the sound, the smell, the taste; he counts the numbers; he measures the size. His similies are the illustrations of a traveler. Unlike those of other poets, and especially of Milton, they are introduced in a plain business-like manner, not for the sake of any of the beauty in the objects from which they are drawn; not for the sake of any ornament they may impart to the poem; but simply in order to make the meaning of the writer as clear to the reader as it is to himself."

"Still more striking is the similarity between Dante and Milton. This may be said to lie rather in the kindred nature of their subjects, and in the parallel development of their minds, than in any mere external resemblance. In both the man was greater than the poet, the souls of both were 'like a star and dwelt apart.' Both were academically trained in the deepest studies of their age; the labour which made Dante lean made Milton blind. The 'Doricke sweetnesse' of the English poet is not absent from the tender pages of the Vita Nuova. The middle life of each was spent in active controversy; each lent his services to the state; each felt the quarrels of his age to be the 'business of posterity,' and left his warnings to ring in the ears of a later time. The lives of both were failures. 'On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,' they gathered the concentrated experience of their lives into one immortal work, the quintessence of their hopes, their knowledge, and their sufferings. But Dante is something more than this. Milton's voice is grown faint to us -- we have passed into other modes of expression and of thought."

The comparison with Vergil is still more striking and more favorable to the Italian poet. "Dante's reputation has passed through many vicissitudes, and much trouble has been spent by critics in comparing him with other poets of established fame. Read and commented upon in the Italian universities in the generation immediately succeeding his death, his name became obscured as the sun of the Renaissance rose higher towards its meridian. In the Seventeenth Century he was less read than Petrarch. Tasso, or Ariosto; in the Eighteenth he was almost universally neglected. His fame is now fully vindicated. Translations and commentaries issue from every press in Europe and America. Dante Societies are formed to investigate the difficulties of his works. He occupies in the lecture-rooms of regenerated Italy a place by the side of those great masters whose humble disciple he avowed himself to be. The Divine Comedy is indeed as true an epic as the AEneid, and Dante is as real a classic as Vergil. His metre is as pliable and flexible to every mood of emotion, his diction as plaintive and as sonorous. Like him he can immortalize by a simple expression, a person, a place, or a phase of nature. Dante is even truer in description than Vergil, whether he paints the snow falling in the Alps, or the homeward flight of birds, or the swelling of an angry torrent. But under this gorgeous pageantry of poetry there lies a unity of conception, a power of philosophic grasp, an earnestness of religion, which to the Roman poet were entirely unknown."

If we would have a very recent opinion as to the position of Dante as a literary man and as a great intellectual force, perhaps no better can be obtained than from some recent expressions of Mr. Michael Rossetti, whose Italian descent, English training, and literary and artistic heredity, seem to place him in an ideal position for writing this generation's ultimate judgment with regard to the great poet of the Thirteenth Century. In his Literature of Italy he said

"One has to recur time after time, to that astounding protagonist, phenomenon and hero, Dante Alighieri. If one were to say that Italian literature consists of Dante, it would, no doubt, be an exaggeration, and a gross one, and yet it would contain a certain ultimate nucleus of truth."

"Dante fixed the Italian language, and everyone had to tread in his vestiges. He embodied all the learning and thought of his age and transcended them. He went far ahead of all his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors; he wrote the first remarkable book in Italian prose, La Vita Nuova; and a critical exposition of it in the Convito; in Latin, a linguistic treatise, the De Vulgari Eloquio, which upholds the Vulgare Illustre, or speech of the best cultivated classes, markedly in Tuscany and Bologna, against the common dialects; and a political study, De Monarchia, of the most fundamental quality, which even to us moderns continues to be sane and convincing in its essence, though its direct line of argument has collapsed; and finally, and most important by far, he produced in La Commedia Divina the one poem of modern Europe that counterbalances Shakespeare and challenges antiquity. This is the sole book which makes it a real pity for anyone to be ignorant of Italian. Regarded singly, it is much the most astonishing poem in the world, dwarfing all others by its theme, pulverizing most of them by its majesty and sustainment, unique in the force of its paraded personality and the thunderous reverberation of its judgments on the living and the dead."

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