Jacques Maritain Center : Great Inspirers / by J. A. Zahm, CSC

Part II

Dante and His Beatrice



Was it from a gate of Florence,
  Or from heaven's own portals fair,
Yon blithe throng at morning issued
  In the sparkling springtide air?

Children fair as meek-eyed angels,
  Garlands in their locks entwined,
Down into the flowery valley,
  Singing, dancing, gayly wind.

'Neath a laurel stood young Dante,
  Thrilling to the heart to see,
In the fairest of those damsels,
  Her who should his angel be.

Rustling in the Spring's light breezes,
  Stirr'd not every leaf above?
Dante's young soul, did it thrill not
  To the mastering touch of love?

Yes! the stream of song forever
  Fill'd his bosom from that day;
Love, young love, inspired each measure,
  Love and his resistless sway.

THUS in glowing colors does the poet Uhland picture to us the first meeting of two of the world's immortals -- Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari. It was on the first of May, 1274, in the noble city of Florence -- the city of flowers and gay festivities; the home of a refined, chivalrous and pleasure-loving people.

It was at this time the custom of the Florentines to celebrate Mayday, and even the days following, with great pomp and magnificence. The houses were decked with flowers and bunting; song and music, accompanied by the ringing of bells, filled the air with joyous sounds. Women and girls adorned with garlands and diadems took part in the festal celebration, while young men clad in white and led by one who personated the Lord of Love paraded the streets with every demonstration of rejoicing and delight.

After the procession, they left the narrow streets and somber palaces of the city and, following the banks of the verdant, meandering Arno, they repaired to the country which, at this season of the year, was as gay with the blooms of spring as mere the meadows in which, according to Ovid, the raped Proserpine gathered flowers --

Tot fuerunt illic quot habet natura colores.

Here on the most delicious of greenwards, sprinkled with violets and jonquils, crocuses and fleurs-de-lis, they danced and sang the songs of their favorite minstrels and troubadours. Tables placed under the ride- spreading branches of hornbeam and boxwood were liberally supplied with refreshments for the joyous throng of merry-makers who, in an atmosphere richly laden not only with the blended perfume of rose, thyme and violets,

But of a thousand fragrant odors sweet,

experienced to the full the joy of living. It was on such an occasion, when all Florence was in festa, when nature, in the full beauty of an Italian springtide, was at her brightest and best and her witchery was most enthralling, that Folco Portinari, a man held in much honor in those times by his fellow citizens, had gathered his neighbors at a feast in his own home. "Among them," I am quoting from Boccaccio's "Life of Dante," "was one Alighieri, and as little boys are wont to follow their fathers, especially to festive places, Dante, whose ninth. year was not yet finished, accompanied him. And here, with others of his age, of whom, both boys and girls, there were many at the house of the entertainer, the first tables having been served, he boyishly gave himself to merrymaking at such sports as were suitable to his tender years. Among the children was a little daughter of Folco, whose name was Bice -- that is, she was so called from her primitive name, Beatrice. She was, perhaps, eight years old, a pretty little thing in her girlish way, very lady-like and pleasing in her actions, and much more sedate in her manners and modest in her words than her years required. Besides this, she had very delicate features, admirably proportioned, and full, in addition to their beauty, of such dignity and charm that she was looked upon by many as an angel. She then, such as I depict her, or perchance far more beautiful, appeared at this feast before the eyes of our Dante, not, I believe, for the first time, but first with power to enamor him. And, although still a child, he received her image into his heart with such affection that, from that day forward, never so long as he lived did it depart therefrom."

"Her dress, on that day," Dante informs us in his "Vita Nuova," "was a most noble color, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her very tender age." And, describing the effect of her apparition upon him, he declares that at that moment "the spirit of life, which has its dwelling in the secretest chambers of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi" -- Behold a deity stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me."

This is the remarkable account of the emotions excited in the heart of a boy of nine by a girl of eight. But no one who is familiar with Dante's writings, and with his absolutely truthful character, will for a moment call this account in question. Nor will any reasonable man be disposed to judge of Dante's emotional experiences in the light of that of the average mortal. For we must bear in mind that he was as exceptional in his imagination and heart impressions as he was in his overtowering genius, and that in his case, to use language employed by him in another connection:

Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda --{1}

-- A little spark is followed by a great flame.

What is here related of a boy of nine --that favored alumnus Musarum, as Giovanni da Virgilio calls him -- is nothing more unnatural or impossible than what is recorded of such youthful prodigies as Mozart and Beethoven, or of John Stuart Mill, whose autobiography contains most astounding statements regarding his early intellectual development, or of the boy poet Chatterton, "the fate-marked babe," or of the precocious Pope, who was a poet almost from his childhood and who says of himself:

I lisped in numbers for the numbers came.

Nor was the impression produced upon Dante by the vision of Beatrice something wholly unique. Similar experiences are told of numerous other youthful prodigies of divers climes and periods. Thus it is recorded of Victor Hugo that, when he was a boy of nine, he fell in love with a girl of ten. The great Italian poet, Alfieri, affords another striking example of a boy who became enamored at a very early age. Speaking at a later date of this early love and of the emotions which then stirred his soul to its depths, he describes them as "effects which few persons understand, and very few expefience. But it is only to these very few that it is granted to get away from the vulgar herd and become eminent in all the arts of life." More extraordinary still, it is averred that Cupid's dart had pierced the heart of the great sculptor, Canova -- "the last of the Greeks" -- when he was only five years of age.

Not less interesting is the case of Lord Byron. In a journal kept by him in 1813 he writes:

"I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion nor know the meaning of the word. And the effect! -- My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour; and at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day: 'Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby. and your old sweetheart, Mary Duff, is married to a Mr. Coe.' And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that, after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject -- to me -- and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintances. Now, what could this be? I had never seen her since her mother's faux-pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother's at Banff; we were both the merest children; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother's maid to write for me to her, which she at last did to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I was wild and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children's apartment, at their house not far from the Plainstones at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.

"How the deuce did all this occur so early? Where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke - - it nearly choked me -- to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of everybody. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever. I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me? Or remember her pitying sister Helen for not having an admirer, too? How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory -- her brown, dark hair, and hazel eyes; her very dress! I should not be quite grieved to see her now; the reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuese, the features of the lovely Peri, which then existed in her, and still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years. I am now twenty-five and odd months. . . .

"I think my mother told the circumstances (on my hearing of her marriage) to the Parkynses, and certainly to the Pigot family, and probably mentioned it in her answer to Miss A., who was well acquainted to my childish penchant, and had sent the news on purpose for me, -- and thanks to her!

"Next to the beginning, the conclusion has often occupied my reflections, in the way of investigation. That the facts are thus, others know as well as I, and my memory yet tells me so, in more than a whisper. But, the more I reflect, the more I am bewildered to assign any cause for this precocity of affection."{2}

I have adduced these instances of early love attachments to show that the awakening of the deepest sensibilities and emotions -- at least in men of genius -- is far from being as exceptional as is usually imagined. Many students of Dante, calling in question Dante's early love for Beatrice as recorded in his "Vita Nuova," have concluded that this and other episodes narrated in this most artistic of autobiographies are totally without foundation in fact; that Beatrice herself never had any existence outside of the poet's fancy. Such critics reason as if there were no difference between the precocious and perfervid children of genius of sunny Italy and the stolid and phlegmatic yokels of the fog-enveloped North. Pascal's explanation of the premature loves of supremely gifted men like Dante is that "the passions are great in proportion as the intelligence is great. . . In a great soul everything is great."{3}

Dante's first meeting with Beatrice, as above described, was undoubtedly the greatest event of his life and its effect on him was as potent as it was enduring. "From that time forward," he declares in the "Vita Nuova," "Love quite governed my soul; which was immediately espoused to him, and with so safe and undisputed a lordship (by virtue of strong imagination) that I had nothing left for it but to do all his bidding continually. He oftentimes commanded me to seek if I might see this youngest of the angels: wherefore I in my boyhood often went in search of her, and found her so noble and praiseworthy that certainly of her might have been said these words of the poet Homer: 'She seemed not to be the daughter of mortal man, but of God.' And albeit her image, that was with me always, was an exultation of love to subdue me, it was yet of so perfect a quality that it never allowed me to be overruled by Love without the faithful counsel of reason whensoever such counsel was useful to be heard."

The second time that Dante, according to his own testimony, met the object of his affections was when she had attained the full bloom of youthful grace and beauty. We read in the "Vita Nuova":

"After the lapse of so many days that nine years exactly were completed since the above written appearance of this most gracious being, on the last of those days it happened that the same wonderful lady appeared to me dressed all in pure white, between two gentle ladies elder than she. And passing through a street, she turned her eyes thither where I stood sorely abashed: and by her unspeakable courtesy, which is now guerdoned in the Great Cycle, she saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that I seemed then and there to behold the very limit of blessedness."

If Dante's first vision of Beatrice was the greatest event of his life, this second apparition of "the glorious lady" of his mind was surely next in importance. When she was first made manifest to his eyes, she appeared to him as the youngest of the angels; as one who was not the daughter of mortal man, but of God. At her second appearance, when she was

Blooming in her beauty's spring,

the effect was even more magical and potent. Beatrice then became Dante's muse, as well as his angel, for swiftly like the night- blooming cereus,

His poetic might had ripen'd
Into stately blossoming.

According to Plato, it was the lover and not the beloved who was the inspirer. But in Dante's case it was quite the reverse of this. It was Beatrice, whom Dante called "my beatitude," "the glorious lady of my mind," who was not only the efficient agent of his new birth, but also the one who made him a poet, and inspired what Ruskin justly calls "the greatest religious poem yet given to men."

Dante's second meeting with Beatrice, when he "stood sorely abashed" in her presence, recalls a noble passage in Plato's "Phaedrus," in which we read:

"When the real lover beholds a godlike face, the form and very image as it were of beauty, he shudders first and is surprised by some of his old awe; then gazing fixedly, pays it reverence as though it were a god."

Dante and his inspirer were born in a glorious age -- an age of great rulers, like St. Louis, Edward I and Frederick II; an age of great scholars, like Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, St. Thomas Aquinas -- the Aristotle of the thirteenth century -- and St. Bonaventure -- the Plato of the same century; an age of great artists, like Cimabue and Giotto; an age that "built the churches where we worship"; that "framed the laws by which we move"; an age of great reformers, like St. Francis of Assisi; and great spiritual teachers, like St. Bernard and Hugh and Richard of St. Victor; the age of Magna Carta, which is the glory of all the free institutions that are the glory of the modern world; the age of the first great universities; the age that witnessed the formation of the noblest of our modern languages and the daybreak of the most splendid of our modern literatures; the age of the "Roman de la Rose," of the "Roman de Troie," of Benoit of St. Maur, and the Arthurian legends of Chrestien of Troyes; an age that rapidly carried forward the magnificent work begun by St. Benedict and Charlemagne and Alfred the Great; an age that "made Venice the mistress of the Eastern seas and bade Florence stand forth as the new type of democratic freedom; an age big with promise of the future; an age that witnessed the culmination of the Holy Roman Empire, that ushered in the Renaissance and saw the dawn of the new era in which we now live; an age from which, according to the distinguished Italian historian, Cesare Cantu, 'derives all we have and are.'"{4}

With the single exception of the Golden Age of Greece -- the age of Pericles and his inspirer, the rarely gifted Aspasia -- no other period in the history of intellectual progress had ever known such marvelous creative forces in art, literature, poetry, architecture and philosophy as the age of Dante and Beatrice. Everything seemed to converge towards them and towards their beautiful city on the Arno -- the Athens of the closing medieval world. Chivalry with all its beneficent and refining influences had aided Christianity in placing woman on the highest pedestal she had ever occupied. The troubadours and minnesingers extended to womankind in general something of the reverence which, previously, had been exhibited only to the Blessed Virgin. Indeed, the love of the troubadour and the minnesinger was the outcome of the devotion which the Christian peoples of the Middle Ages professed for the Virgin Mother. The first effect of this love was what was known as the joi d'amor, a species of mental exaltation which stimulated the poet to lead a life worthy of the lady of his heart and to make him feel that this love-stimulus was a moral and intellectual force which should elevate him far above those who were not actuated by such a dominant principle.

Non es meravilha s'ieu chan
Melhs de nul autre chantador,
Car plus trai mos cors ves Amor
E mehls sui faitz a son coman --

-- It is no wonder if I sing better
than any other singer, for
my heart draws nearer to Love
and I am better made for
Love's command.

Thus sings Bernart de Ventadorn, one of the most noted of the troubadours whose influence is observed in the writings of Dante.

As to the salutary influence of the beloved on her lover, we have it admirably expressed in a couplet of the minnesinger, Walter von der Vogelweide, when he sings:

Swer guotes wîbes minne hat
Der schamt sich aller missetât --

-- He who has a good woman's love
is ashamed of every evil deed.

It was the troubadours and the minnesingers who prepared the way for the poetical achievements of Dante. For several generations before the great Florentine's birth, lo gay saber -- the art of lyric poetry and the codified rules of chivalry -- had been the unremitting study not only of the singers of Provence -- the original home of the troubadours -- but also of those of other parts of Southern and Western Europe. And the number of those who sang the praises of their lady loves was almost incredible. According to the Catalonian troubadour, Raimon Vidal of Besadun, "All Christian people, Jews. Saracens, emperors, princes, kings, dukes, counts, viscounts, vavassors, and all other nobles with clergy, citizens and villeins, small and great, daily give their minds to composing and singing."{5} Even women devoted themselves to the cultivation of the gay saber. Among the most noted of women troubadours was the trobairitz, Beatrice, Countess of Die.

A few of the troubadours had more or less permanent occupation as court poets, but the majority of them led a wandering life. They traversed not only the whole of France, but also extended their peregrinations to the Iberian Peninsula, to England, to Italy, to the lands bordering the Danube, and to the islands of the Mediterranean. One of them was almost a rival of Marco Polo as a traveler, for it is said of him that he visited most of the then known world.

It would be impossible to estimate the influence of the troubadours in the development of European literature. They were the first poets of the modern era to emphasize the value of technique in poetry and to provide those exquisite models of form which have been used by the poets of succeeding ages.

There was, however, a marked difference between the troubadours of Provence and those of Italy. The former were usually knights who were skilled in versification, while the latter were men of learning and deep philosophical insight as well as distinguished lyrists. As compared with the Provençal troubadour, or inventor of new songs, the Italian trovatore exhibited in his work more of the characteristics of the Roman vates, or inspired bard. He was more given to mysticism and searching analysis of things of the soul. Among the most illustrious of these creators of the dolce stil nuovo -- the sweet new style -- were Guido Guinicelli, Cino de Pistoia and Guido Cavalcanti, who were among the earliest and most loyal friends of Dante Alighieri.

Dante's debt to the troubadours of both the Provençal and Italian schools was almost as great as his obligations to the eminent scholars among his contemporaries. As St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Bernard, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor were his masters in the sacred sciences of dogmatic and mystical theology, so were his predecessors in the gay saber and the dolce stil nuovo his teachers in all those forms of verse in which he achieved such distinction. The sonnet, the ballad, the madrigal, the canzone, the terza nina, which he carried to such a marvelous pitch of perfection, were all of Provençal origin and all ready to his hand when he met his lodestar, Beatrice, and when, under her inspiration, he began those matchless works that have placed him in the forefront of the greatest of the world's poets.

The first sonnet which Dante wrote, or at least the first one that has come down to us, was composed while under the exaltation produced by his second vision of Beatrice, when she saluted him "with so virtuous a bearing" that he seemed "to behold the very limits of blessedness." This was followed by many other poems devoted to the praise of his lady, of her who made

His heart strong for his soul's behoof,

and who in grace and beauty was

As high as nature's skill can soar.

These poems, with a running commentary, were the first fruits of his genius, and constitute that wonderful love story known as the "Vita Nuova," or the "New Life." It is a record of that new life which he began after meeting Beatrice, "the muse of his understanding and the angel of his soul." And what a beautiful and unique record it is! And what a fascinating story of sublimated and ennobling love!

There is nothing in the "Vita Nuova" that recalls the erotic utterances of Sappho and Anacreon; nothing that is suggestive of the "Amores" of Ovid or of the "Epithalamium to Peleus and Thetis" by Catullus. In the conception of these pagan singers love was a mere physical emotion. It had nothing of that delicacy of sentiment of the lover for his beloved; nothing of that affection, devotion and silent adoration which were the products of Christian teaching and medieval chivalry.{6} The tender, overmastering love that elevates the soul to the heights of religious worship; the love that, to quote Dante, "makes ill thought to perish"; that drives into "foul hearts a deadly chill," is a love which was quite foreign to that celebrated by the amorous lyrists of Greece and Rome, for the love of the pagans was fully as sensual as that of their gods and goddesses, of which Goethe sings:

In der heroischen Zeit, da Götter and Göttinen liebten,
Folgte Begierde dem Blick, folgte Genuss der Begier --{7}

-- In the heroical times when loved each god and each goddess
Longing attended on sight; then with fruition was blessed.

To such carnal-minded poets the pure, spiritual love of Dante for Beatrice would be quite incomprehensible.

Nor can the "New Life" be compared with the "Fabliaux et Contes," that were so popular during the Middle Ages, nor with the lyrics of the troubadours and trouvères. It is quite unlike that charming idyl "Aucassin and Nicolette" or the prose romances of Arthur and Charlemagne, and is immeasurably superior to the chansons of Arnault Daniel, Bertran de Born and Folquet de Marselba.

The "Vita Nuova" is not only the sweetest and most delicate of love stories, but it i. also one of the most remarkable of autobiographies. It is a delicate and touching psychological account of Dante's love for Beatrice and of the emotions which she excited in his soul during her short life on earth.

In no other autobiography, except, possibly, in the "Confessions" of St. Augustine, will one find such glowing fervor and such fervid intensity. And in no other poet do we find a spirit that is so passionate and so pure; so strong and so tender; so radiant and so loyal. Those who know Dante only through his Inferno find him stern, somber, ruthless, unrelenting. But they do not know him, and are incapable of judging a soul in which the rigor of inexorable justice coexisted with ineffable pity and tenderness. Mrs. Browning in her "Vision of the Poets" gives a proper estimate of the great Florentine's character when she pictures him as

                . . . Dante stern
And sweet, whose spirit was an urn
For wine and milk poured out in turn.

As a record of real life, the "Vita Nuova" is unsurpassed in literature. But unlike most love poems and romances which dilate on the personal graces and charms of their heroines --

The vermeil tinctur'd lip,
Love-darting eyes and tresses like the morn --

Dante's "New Life" tells us nothing about the physical characteristics of Beatrice, except that she had light hair and a pearl-like complexion. The poet gives no other indication that would aid an artist in painting a portrait. There is, it is true, a canzone known as "Il Ritratto" -- The Portrait -- sometimes attributed to Dante, in which he is supposed to paint the picture of his beloved as she appeared to him in all the glory of her youthful beauty, but the authenticity of this poem is doubtful. It lacks that profound reverence, that exquisite spirituality which so characterizes all that Dante writes about the mistress of his heart in those of his works which scholars generally accept as authentic.

Petrarch loves to dilate on the beautiful, angelic mouth -- la bella bocca angelica -- of Laura; Ariosto revels in word paintings of the golden tresses, the sweetest eyes, the roses fragrant-warm of the red lips of his mistress, while Tasso depicts the lovely mouth of his Leonora as

Purpurea conca in cui si nutre Candor di perle elette e pellegrine --

-- A crimson shell, where pearls of snowy sheen Do grow its smooth and curved lips atween.

There is nothing of this in Dante. He gives us an image of Beatrice's personal graces by telling us of the impression she produced on him. He portrays the beauty of her soul as reflected in her deportment and in that dolce riso -- sweet smile -- which raised him above the things of earth; the sweet smile, which, in the terrestrial paradise, drew him to her con l'antica rete --with the olden meshes -- that had held him captive in his youth; the sweet smile -- reflecting somewhat of the beauty of the Deity -- that uplifted him from star to star, and carried him to the highest empyrean -- carried him even to the throne of God.

Nor was there in Dante's love of Beatrice any of that overweening love of self, that excessive egotism, that convulsive passion and jealousy which are so characteristic of youthful lovers; nothing of the sensual and querulous loves which fill the pages of pagan poets and modern romancers and dramatists. Dante's love, though deep and sensitive, was nevertheless as calm as it was pure and loyal. It was a love which, as he assures us, caused him to forgive everyone who had offended him and to make him feel that he no longer had an enemy in the world.

But with all this it was likewise a love which, almost from its beginning, was tinctured with sadness and melancholy. He felt himself unworthy of the great happiness which he experienced in the presence of Beatrice, and was continually haunted by the thought of her early death.

His forebodings were almost prophetic. The day of mourning came sooner than he anticipated. Dante was occupied in writing a canzone in praise of his lady, but he had hardly finished the first stanza when, as he writes in the "Vita Nuova," "the Lord God of justice called my most gracious lady unto Himself, that she might be glorious under the banner of that blessed Queen Mary, whose name had always a deep reverence in the words of holy Beatrice."

The blow so stunned the poet lover that his friends despaired of his life. So overwhelming was his loss that he imagined the whole of Florence mourned with him the loss of its most precious jewel. And recalling the words of Jeremias, he exclaimed in the depths of his sorrow: "How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is the mistress of the Gentiles become as a widow?" And so fully was he convinced that all the people of Florence shared his bereavement that he wrote to the principal men of the city an epistle beginning with the lament of Jeremias, "Quomodo sedet sola civitas." He was saddened by the thought that pilgrims from a distant country, who passed through the grief-stricken city, had not heard of his Beatrice, or of the great loss that Florence had suffered in the untimely death of his beloved. Approaching them and speaking for the city mournful, as well as for himself, he, in broken voice, tells them, the pilgrim-folk:

If ye will but stay, whom I accost,
And listen to my words a little space,
At going ye shall mourn with a loud voice.
It is Beatrice that she hath lost;

Of whom the least word spoken holds such grace That men weep hearing it, and have no choice.{7}

Dante's grief at the loss of the angel of his soul, the muse of his intellect, was as deep as the love which inflamed his heart when he first met her at the May festival at the home of her father, and when, nine years later, she saluted him with that gracious smile which was to him as a beacon-light during the whole of his extraordinary career.

But Dante did not allow his terrible loss to dispirit or unman him. It served rather as a stimulus to make him more worthy of his angel in heaven; more loyal to the one he thenceforth called

That lady of all gentle memories

who had so illumined his mind during her brief sojourn on earth; to make him gird himself for an achievement that would immortalize both the lover and the beloved.

In the last sonnet of the "Vita Nuova," in which the poet fancies seeing in Heaven

A lady round whom splendors move
In homage --

a lady whom he recognizes as his loved Beatrice, -- he tells us of having

A new perception born of grieving Love.

"After writing this sonnet," he declares, "it was given me to behold a very wonderful vision, wherein I saw things which determined me that I would say nothing further of this most blessed one, until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labor all I can, as she well knoweth. Wherefore, if it be His pleasure, through whom is the life of all things, that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman."

In "The Convito" Dante informs us how, after a period of deep mourning, he proceeded to prepare himself to write of his loved one what had "not before been written of any woman."

"When," he informs us, "the first delight of my soul -- Beatrice -- was lost, no comforting availed me. None the less, after a certain time my mind, which sought a cure, set about returning to that method which some disconsolates had taken for consoling themselves. And I took to reading that book, not known to many, of Boethius, whereby he, captive and outcast, had consoled himself; also Cicero's 'De Amicitia,' referring to Laelius and his dear friend Scipio. And, although at first it was hard for me to enter into their significance, I fully entered thereinto so far as the art of grammar which I possessed and a little force of mind of my own would allow. By which force of mind I saw, as if dreamily, many things -- as may be seen in the 'Vita Nuova.' I thus found not only a remedy to my tears but utterances of authors and of sciences and of books; considering which I fully judged that Philosophy, which had been the mistress of these authors, sciences and books, was a supreme thing. And I imagined her fashioned as a noble lady; and I could not imagine her in any action other than merciful. . . . And then I began to go where she displayed herself in truth -- that is to the schools of the religious and the disputations of the Philosophizing: so that in a short time, perhaps thirty months, I began to feel so much of her sweetness that the love of her chased away and destroyed every other thought."{8}

The great crisis in Dante's life had now passed. In his case, as in that of all truly noble souls, final and affliction had purified his heart and given him the strength required for the great work he was about to undertake. The image of his donna angelica -- his angelicized lady -- which had gladdened him in his wonderful vision, daily became brighter and more comforting. Divested of her earthly veil, she appears before him in all her beauty and goodness, with a halo of glory encircling her head. Enraptured and transformed, the ardent and faithful lover finds himself endowed with new strength and courage. His Beatrice, beata e bella --blessed and beautiful -- again comforts him with that sweet smile in which he declares he was wont, while she was on earth, to find

Lo fondo Della mia grazia e del mio paradiso --{9}

-- The bottom Both of my grace and of my Paradise.

She beckons him heavenwards, and, in words of passing sweetness, bids him prepare himself to join her in that home of the blessed where they shall never again be separated --where, as Michelangelo wrote long afterwards,

Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country's -- closed against him -- fled.

From the date of that wonderful vision Dante was a new man -- a man of approved courage, and prepared to encounter all the trials and difficulties of life. He knew not, indeed, what the future had in store for him. He could not foresee that he was to be banished from that Florence which he loved so tenderly and which he was never to see again; that he was to be separated forever from family and friends and all that he held most dear; that he was to be a wanderer wherever his beautiful Italian was spoken; that he was to endure all the anguish and rebuffs of poverty and exile. Only long years afterwards did he hear from the lips of his ancestor, Cacciaguida, the prophetic words:

Thou shalt have proof how savoreth of salt
The bread of others, and how hard the road
The going down and up another's stairs.{10}

But love knows no difficulties; recoils not before opposition, however formidable; is victorious, even when all the world conspires against it. When his country demanded his services Dante generously threw himself into the political arena, and at a time, too, when factional strife was fiercest and when participation in government affairs so frequently led to banishment and death. And when he was ostracized from the land of his birth and from the home to which he was never to return under penalty of being burned alive -- igne comburatur sic quod moriatur{11} -- the heart-scathed exile, made strong and brave by his deep and abiding love for Beatrice, was ready to confront all "the arrows of outrageous fortune," and like Belisarius, able to show himself greatest and noblest when all the world seemed be arrayed against him.

Dazzled and comforted by his wonderful vision, Dante, as he had resolved, wrote no more in praise of Beatrice until he had fully prepared himself for his great life-work --for what was to be an imperishable monument to her who was to be the protagonist of his immortal masterpiece as well as its inspiring muse. The "Divina Commedia" --that marvelous tribute to Beatrice and, through her, to "the eternal womanly" -- was gradually assuming form in the poet's mind, and he could already discern, as in a mirror darkly, the beauty and the glory of the incomparable creation of his genius.

But what immense labor was involved in the poet's preparation for his great undertaking! It meant the making himself master of all the knowledge of his time -- of becoming proficient in science and literature; in philosophy and theology; in the teachings of the master- minds of Greece and Rome, as well as those of the Scholastics and Fathers of the Church. It meant a thorough familiarity with the works of Aristotle and St. Augustine; of St. Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus; of Hugh and Richard of St. Victor; of St. Bernard and St. Bonaventure; and of a host of others.{12} It meant a broad knowledge of nature; of her manifold forces and beauties. It meant long years of close study of the divers phenomena of earth, sea and sky and the countless manifestations of animal and vegetable life. It meant, above all, a far-reaching knowledge of the human heart, of its promptings, its ambitions, its secret mainsprings of action. It meant psychological analysis of the highest order; a high and never- failing sense of justice and a keen insight into things eternal and divine.

Of the wanderings of Dante in quest of knowledge and of the sufferings and privations which he had, for long years, to endure while accomplishing his vow to his Beatrice, but little is known with certainty. In the beginning of "The Convito," the poet gives a most pathetic account of the mortifications and miseries which he had to experience during his long and unmerited exile. "Ah," he writes, "that it had pleased the Disposer of the Universe that the occasion for my excuse had never occurred! for thus neither would others have offended against me nor should I have suffered penalty unjustly --the penalty, I say, of exile and poverty. Since it was the pleasure of the citizens of the most fair and famous daughter of Rome, Florence, to cast me forth from her most sweet bosom (in which I was born and nurtured up to the summit of my life and in which, with the good allowance of them, I desire with all my heart to rest my tired spirit, and to terminate the time which is given to me) to the regions, well-nigh all, to which this language extends, have I gone pilgriming, almost begging, exhibiting contrary to my will the wound of fortune, which many times is wont to be imputed to the, wounded one. Truly have I been a bark without sail and without rudder, carried to divers ports and strands and shores by the dry wind which dolorous poverty exhales. And I have seemed vile to the eyes of many who perchance, from a certain fame, had imagined me in other form; in the sight of whom not only was my person debased but every work, whether already done or remaining to be done, was accounted of less worth."{13}

Boccaccio, in a Latin poem addressed to Petrarch, refers to the same trials and peregrinations when he writes:

Thou know'st perchance how Phoebus' self did guide
  Our Tuscan Dante up the lofty side
Of snow-clad Cyrrha; how our Poet won
  Parnassus' peak, and founts of Helicon:
How, with Apollo, ranging wide he sped
  Through Nature's whole domain and visited
Imperial Rome, and Paris, and so passed
  O'er seas to Britain's distant shores at last.{14}

And Giovanni da Serravalle, bishop of Fermo, who, at the request of a number of English bishops at the Council of Constance, translated the "Divina Commedia" into Latin, does not hesitate to state that Dante studied theology in Oxford as well as in Paris -- Dilexit theologiam sacram in qua diu studuit tam ni Oxoniis, in regno Anglie quam Parisiis. in regno Frantie.{15}

Journeys to the places mentioned could now be made in a few hours, or in a few days, at most, and with every comfort. But it was quite different in the time of Dante. Means of communication were few and difficult. Highways were as wretched and dangerous as they were limited in number. Italy, Germany and France were then divided into countless little states -- baronies, marquisates, city-republics -- each of which had its own laws and its own form of government, its own peculiar dress and customs, coinage and language. Everywhere the traveler found his way barred by tolls and exactions of all kinds. To travel to distant parts with any degree of safety and convenience it was necessary to join a large trade caravan or to accompany the train of some powerful lord or government functionary. What is now, thanks to our splendid roads and our superbly equipped automobiles and railway cars, a pleasant trip of but a few hours or days, was then a long and dangerous journey of weeks and months, during which the traveler was subject to innumerable privations and sufferings of which we have now no conception. All journeys, except in the case of the rich and the powerful, were made afoot. Lodging houses, outside of monastic institutions, were as rare as they were cheerless and uncomfortable. To go from Florence to Paris was then a more serious undertaking than it would now be to journey around the world, or to traverse the Continent of Africa from Mombasa to the mouth of the Congo. It required both courage and endurance to travel in those days, and one who made the journey from Rome to the British Isles was regarded as possessing the qualities of both an adventurer and a hero.{16}

To keep his promise to write of Beatrice what before had never been written of any woman, Dante resolved to undertake one of these long and trying journeys. We have no record of the poet's wanderings during the long period intervening between his banishment from his beloved Florence and his death as an exile in Ravenna. More is the pity. For had Dante left us an account --such as he alone could have written -- of his journeyings in the different countries which we know he visited; had he told us of his experiences in the different universities in which he sought the knowledge which he was in quest of; had he given us pictures --as he alone could have painted them -- of scenes by the wayside and of the courts at which he was an honored guest, we should have the most interesting and most instructive travel book ever written, and one which would serve to fill out the numerous lacunae which exist in the life of the world's incomparable poet.

But notwithstanding this absence of a record which would now be so invaluable in all that concerned his exterior life and his relations with his fellow men, we are not entirely without indications concerning his inner life -- concerning the occupations of that ardent soul who was ever aflame with the love of his Beatrice, a love which withdrew him from the vulgar herd -- della volgare schiera -- and preoccupied him, wherever he was, to the exclusion of all other things. For Dante, although the most self-concealing of men, was, paradoxical as it may seem, one of the most self-revealing. He is unconsciously his own biographer. Like Shakespeare, he is always, without appearing to do so, writing about himself. In all his works, as in those of Goethe, there is Dichtung und Wahrheit -- poetry and truth. And although his contemporaries have left but scant material for even a brief biography of one of whom Michelangelo declared

Simil uom nè maggior non nacque mai --

-- Ne'er walked the earth a greater man than he.

he is, nevertheless, in all that concerns his real character and his opinions regarding all the great questions of the present and the hereafter, the best known man that ever lived. For no one has put in clearer or more beautiful language his views on so many subjects of transcendent importance, as did Dante Alighieri. So true is this that if it were possible to meet him, we should feel that he was an intimate friend who had never concealed anything from us -- who had discoursed with us on all subjects: science, literature, philosophy, theology, love, poverty, happiness, the world to come and all that of which it most imports us to have accurate knowledge.

After her death, Beatrice, in the eyes of Dante, as we read in the "Vita Nuova,"

Divenne spirital bellezza grande --

-- Grew perfectly and spiritually fair.

But her beauteous image was never more vividly before him than during the countless vicissitudes of his long and troubled exile. The sweet and precious memory of his noble and gentle lady sustained him in poverty and made the bread which he ate at the table of others savor less of salt, and the stairs in the homes of strangers less difficult to ascend. His enemies may, indeed, compel him to spend his life in exile, but the footsore, grief-worn wayfarer never feels alone. The consoling spirit, the angel of his soul, who was the joy of his youth, is still with him to encourage and support him and fix his mind on higher things. And he is cheered and strengthened in his lofty purpose by the touching and ever reechoing words of his poet friend, Cino da Pistoia, addressed to him on the occasion of Beatrice's death:

Perche' Dio l'aggia locata fra i suoi Ella tuttora dimora con voi --

-- God hath her with Himself eternally, Yet she inhabits every hour with thee.

During Dante's twenty years of exile; during that long period when he was engaged on his great epos of the soul -- that poema sacro "to which both heaven and earth had set their hand" -- a poem which deals with the deepest mysteries of our existence and the greatest problems of the universe, visible and invisible, and treats of subjects -- avia Pieridum loca -- that before had been "unattempted in prose or rhyme," he could well say

L'acqua ch' io prendo giammai non si corse --{17}

-- The sea I sail has never yet been passed.

But during these long years of lost dreams, years of sorrow and disappointment and shattered hopes, years when his life seemed to be a dismal failure, his vigils and wanderings were always cheered and blessed by the almost sensible presence of one "all compact of angel instincts breathing Paradise."

He felt that his loved one, still alive with the warmth of love and grace and beauty, as she was during her short existence on earth, was ever near him and presiding over his thoughts and life. Of this sweet and ever-present inspirer of his mind be could, of a truth, exclaim in the words of Petrarch:

Dolce del mio pensier ôra Beatrice.

For Beatrice not only mitigated the bitterness of his long and cruel exile, but she gave him strength to complete the colossal monument which he had vowed to erect in her honor. Her sweet small voice, what Chateaubriand would call her "visible melody," taught him the significance of the cross and the purifying value of suffering. She taught him also how to transmute the seeming tragedy of his life into immortal song and, at the end of his long quest of peace, she had him cheerfully sing with the blessed in Paradise

E la sua voluntade e nostra pace --{18}

-- And His will is our peace.

One loves to walk in the footsteps of Dante as under the impulse of his wonderful vision, and his abiding love of Beatrice, he wanders from refuge to refuge and from country to country. Following the indications, brief though they be, of the "Divina Commedia," we can see him scaling the sun-kissed Apennines and the snow-mantled Alps, or silently moving along the flower-clad banks of the Po or the Rhone, gathering in the early dawn springtime blooms, that brim

With sunbeams, leaves grown tender in the dew

or seeking repose under an umbrageous oak where he is gently fanned by zephyrs whose breath gives

Purple to the violet, blushes to the rose.

We can follow him along the "amber-fretted strands" of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean when he finds them overspread by "the sweet blue of Oriental sapphire," or "gently trembling wavelets." We can, in fancy, fix our gaze on him as he contemplates the rushing torrent of Aquacheta, the superb scenery of the Adige and of the Lago di Garda and the musical streamlets of the Casentino and the Upper Arno. We may observe him as he strolls through the pine woods of Ravenna, with their gentle whisperings and ‘melodious murmurs, or as he carefully scans the rocky chasms and landslides of the Tyrol, the originals of those which are so marked a feature of parts of his Inferno. But still more may we study him as he confers with the scholars of Bologna and Padua and Paris; as he takes his seat in the Street of Straw,{19} in, Paris, with other enthusiastic students of the great French school in which were still heard the echoes of Aquinas, that prince of theologians who was to exert so potent an influence on the author of the "Divina Commedia" and whose death, it is interesting to note, preceded by only a few weeks Dante's first meeting with Beatrice -- a meeting that marked the beginning of his new life.

Whether Dante's wayfaring was during the rigor of winter or during the balmy springtide, his poet soul was ever alive to all the myriad beauties of earth and sea and sky -- to the blush and fragrance of the fresh-blown rose; the caroling of the joyous lark "in the gleam of the new-born day"; the twinkling of the stars in a clear Italian sky; the silvery music of a mountain stream; the gorgeousness of the clouds painted by the rising or setting sun. Everything -- from the humblest floweret to the loftiest Alpine peak -- was submitted by him to the scrutiny, of a trained artist and to the critical acumen of the profound man of science. And wheresoever he happened to be, he was always intent on collecting material for the great monument which was to perpetuate the sweet name of his Beata Beatrix. In the countless forms of life, in the myriad phenomena of the physical world, he found perennial founts of poesy, which enabled him to present with rare vividness the most recondite subjects of philosophy and theology.

And who can estimate the joy and the happiness that inundated the soul of the poet as he was thus engaged in fulfilling the noble promise which he had made to write of his beloved what never before had been said of any woman? In the eyes of the world he vas a lone exile pursuing his solitary way and living on the charity of strangers. But he was not alone. For his lodestar was always within his ken, beckoning him onwards and upwards. His angel Beatrice was ever near him, and through her he detects countless beauties in nature which escape the ordinary observer -- beauties which he transfers to the pages of that sacred poem of which his angel muse is not only the inspirer but also the very soul.

It is safe to say that, after the death of Beatrice, the happiest days that Dante ever knew were when he was condemned to what was, in the eyes of the world, the lonely and joyless existence of an exile. For it was then that flashed upon his inward eye those sublime conceptions which were to adorn the magnificent monument which he had designed in honor of the mistress of his soul -- then that he could, in the words of Wordsworth, refer to his angel Beatrice as one

Who ever dwells with me, whom I have loved
With such communion that no place on earth
  Can ever be a solitude for me --

then that he could declare with Shelley,

In me communion with this purest being
  Kindled intenser zeal, and made me wise
In knowledge, which, in hers mine own mind seeing,
  Left in the human world few mysteries.

Dowered with a memory which was like Wax to receive and like marble to retain, Dante was able to enrich his wonderfully comprehensive mind with that marvelous knowledge which has ever been the delight and the amazement of all readers of the "Divina Commedia." And can we marvel that his graphic pen, aided by such a memory and blessed by such a muse as his, has given us those exquisite word-paintings, those unique analyses of the human heart which so distinguish his matchless work -- a work which is an ever-enduring monument both to the poet and to his beloved inspirer?

There are, I know, some to whom this language will seem extravagant and unwarranted. Basing their knowledge of Dante on a cursory reading of his Inferno, they can see in the great vates sacer -- poet-prophet -- only a heartless cynic and loveless pessimist, and in his "Divine Comedy" only a poor, splenetic, impotent, terrestrial libel; putting those into hell whom he could not be avenged upon on earth." These people cannot understand Dante's love for Beatrice and, still less, his unchanged devotion to her after her death. To such, I commend Carlyle's "Lectures on Heroes," in which he declares: "I know not in the world an affection equal to that of Dante. It is a tenderness, a trembling, longing, pitying love; like the wail of AEolian, harps, soft, soft; like a child's young heart; -- and then that stern, sore-saddened heart! These longings of his towards his Beatrice; their meeting together in the Paradiso; his gazing into her pure, transfigured eyes, he that had been purified by death so long, separated from him so far; -- one likens it to the song of angels; it is among the purest utterances of affection, perhaps the very purest, that ever came out of a human soul."{20}

This is in harmony with what Shelley writes in his "Defense of Poetry," when he asserts that Dante's "apotheosis of Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of his own love and her loveliness, by which, as steps, he feigns himself to have ascended to the throne of the Supreme Cause, is the most glorious imagination of modern poetry. The Last canto of the 'Divine Comedy,'" he continues, "is a perpetual hymn of everlasting love."

To one who has studied Dante's works with care, it is impossible to conceive their author as either a cynic or a pessimist. His perpetual banishment from all that he loved so dearly was, indeed, a great blow to him. So, too, was the frustration of all his hopes for the aggrandizement of his beloved Italy. But notwithstanding all these trials and disappointments, there is reason to believe that his life was more happy than that of most men -- that it was certainly far happier than that of his persecutors. For his was the life of the spirit -- a life which from his eighteenth to his fifty-sixth year -- the year of his death -- was devoted to singing the praises of one who had entered his soul with what he, called an ever-burning fire -- col fuoco ond io sempr' ardo -- a life which was blessed by the ever-present image and by the unfailing care of one who he felt was to him both inspirer and guardian angel. For, when her faithful one, in the middle of life's journey, has wandered from his true pathway, it is Beatrice who sends Virgil to conduct him through the dark and dolorous regions of hell. And when the poet has been purified from all sin on the holy mount of Purgatory, it is Beatrice that appears to him in a triumphal car in the enchanting splendors of the Terrestrial Paradise. It is she who, in the abodes of the blessed, accompanies him from star to star and, by her sweet smile, guides him to the presence of the Infinite. And as she was to him during her sojourn on earth his very life breath and heart blood, so is she now, in the kingdom of the redeemed, the one who suggests those tender verses of love, those touching words of fragrant thanksgiving with which the poet's immortal epopee is filled.

To understand Dante aright we must remember that he was in many things absolutely sui generis. He was especially so in all that concerned her who, as he declares in the Paradiso, "doth imparadise my mind" and who was

The compassionate, who piloted
The plumage of my wings in such high flight.{21}

Dr. Döllinger expresses the same idea, when he declares that "Dante's relation to Beatrice, to this combination of the earthly and the heavenly, of abstract symbolism with the most living personality, is something quite unique, inexperienced in any other human life. To him she is womanhood in its purity, loveliness and ideal perfection, and, with the remembrance of her earthly beauty, is coupled the conviction, founded upon experiences or visions, that she is his protecting intercessory genius in heaven, as, without knowing it, she had been on earth the guardian angel of his youth."{22}

Dante kept, and how nobly! the promise which he had made to his Beatrice, who, since the age of nine, had been an ever increasing need of his soul and who gave to it "its unity and the ceaseless rhythm of its song." And he kept it as only he could keep it. For only he could keep it who was deeply imbued with the childlike faith of the Middle Ages; who was a master of all the knowledge of his time; who was a consummate theologian, such as Giovanni da Virgilio averred Dante to be --

Theologus Dantes, nullius dogmatis expers --

and who, besides this, was, as the same singer declared,

Gloria Musarum -- the sovran poet of the world.

And how Dante's heart must have thrilled with joy when, after so many vicissitudes, he as finally able to pen the last verse of the Paradiso:

L'Amor che move ii sole e l' altre stelle --

-- The Love which moves the sun and the other stars

and to offer to his Beatrice in Heaven what he had vowed to her in the heyday of his generous manhood. Tasso predicted that Leonora's name would ever be linked with his own and that he and his beloved would both soar together on the wings of fame --

            -- Ella a miei versi, ed io
Circondava al suo nome altere piume,
E l' un per l' altro ando volando a prova.

Dante could, and with greater reason, have made the same prophecy respecting himself and his loved Beatrice. He could have addressed her in Byron's vigorous paraphrase of the above verses of Tasso and exclaimed:

  Yes, Beatrice, thou shalt have
One half the laurel which o'ershades my grave.
No power in death can tear our names apart
As none in life could rend thee from my heart.

And what a joyous paean rises from the poet's loyal heart, when, in his last vision of his angel Beatrice in the deep-domed empyrean, he intones those sweet notes of undying love:

Dal primo giorno, ch'io vidi 'l suo viso In questa vita, infino a questa vista Non e 'l seguir al mio canto preciso --{23}

-- From the first time I beheld her face In this life to the moment of this look The sequence of my song has ne'er been severed.

Led onwards and upwards by the sweet smile of his angelicized inspirer -- "the sunshine of his eyes" -- Dante was at last in

          The heaven that is pure light;
Light intellectual replete with love;
Love of true happiness replete with joy,
Joy that transcends all sweetness of delight.{24}

And as he, with jubilant delight, contemplates his Beatrice

Upon the throne her merits have assigned her,
Whereon she makes herself a crown
Reflecting for herself the eternal rays,{25}

he recalls all that she has been to him since their first meeting in their early youth, and, with a heart full of gratitude, he breaks forth in that matchless prayer of thanksgiving and petition which is the culmination of all that he had ever uttered in her praise. No nobler tribute was ever addressed to a woman than the last words addressed by Dante to his angel Beatrice, in which he gives such sublime expression to the sentiments of his grateful and overflowing heart. There is no more beautiful picture in all literature than that which represents the poet lover fixing his gaze on his gracious guide and inspirer, and addressing her in these touching words:

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,
Of whatsoever things I have beheld,
  As coming from thy power and from thy goodness
  I recognize the power and the grace.
Thou from a slave hast brought me unto freedom,
  By all those ways, by all the expedients,
  Whereby thou hadst the power of doing it.
Preserve towards me thy magnificence
  So that this soul of mine, which thou hast healed,
  Pleasing to thee he loosened from the body.{26}

As the full beauty of this exquisite apostrophe is not exhibited in the translation, the original is here inserted for the benefit of those who may desire to read it in Dante's melodious Italian.

O Donna, in cui la mia speranza vige,
  E che soffristi per la mia salute
  In Inferno lasciar le tue vestige;
Di tante cose quante io ho vedute,
  Dal tuo potere e dalla tua bontate
  Riconosco Ia grazia e la virtute.
'Tu m' hai di servo tratto a libertate
  Per tutte quelle vie, per tutti i modi
  Che di ciò fare avei la potestate.
La tua magnificenza in me custodi,
  Si che l'anima che fatta hai sana,
  Piacente a te dal corpo si disnodi.

A smile from Beatrice seated on her throne of glory tells her ever-faithful one -- her fidel d'amore -- that his prayer is answered and that she will be his mediatrix in heaven as she was his inspirer on earth.

Never before had it entered the mind of any poet thus to apotheosize the lady of his affections; to contemplate in her eyes the most sublime mysteries of faith; to introduce her among the most exalted spirits of the heavenly host; to make her the symbol of theology and revealed truth and to constitute her for himself the medium of graces and blessings from the Most High. Thus to apotheosize the young maiden who had won his undying love at the threshold of youth, and to make her the symbol of all that is most pure, most holy, most profound, most, elevated; presupposed, as has well been said, conditions which were unique in the entire history of literature -- a love very intense and very pure, born at a period of lively and simple faith, in a soul profoundly religious, in an intelligence marvelously open to all the knowledge of its time, and served by the most powerful and most delicate poetic talent which the world has ever known.

The experience and achievement of Dante were unique. The girl of nine years, garbed in "a subdued and goodly crimson," whom he first met in the home of her father on that memorable Mayday, when

His soul sprang up astonished, sprang full statured in an hour,

became his beneficent genius and the inspirer of that noble work that the world has named "divine." And as she made him the greatest of poets, so he transformed and transfigured her and "made of her the perfect type of Christian virtue, the ideal symbol of divine science, the living image of that infinite happiness enjoyed by the elect," and, at the same time, he erected in her honor a monument more glorious than any ever dedicated to the memory of an Alexander, a Caesar or a Napoleon -- one that will continue to delight, instruct and elevate the world as long as the good, the beautiful, the true shall continue to move the hearts and stir the souls of humankind.

<< Great Inspirers >>

{1} Paradiso, I, 34.

{2} "The Life and Letters of Lord Byron," p. 7, edited by Thomas Moore, Esqu., New York, 1858.

{3} A mesure que l'on a plus d'esprit les passions sont plus grandes, parce que les passions n'étant que des sentiments et des pensées qu'appartiennent purement a l'esprit, quoiqu'elles soient occasionnées par le corps, il est visible qu'elles ne sont plus que l'esprit même -- Dans une grande âme tout est grand. "Discours sur les Passions de l'Amour," Tom. III, pp. 121-122, Paris, 1908.

{4} Da essa deriva quanto aliamo e siamo. "Dante e il Suo Secolo," p. 3, Florence, 1865.

{5} Cf. H. J. Chaytor, "The Troubadours," p. 122, Cambridge, 1912.

{6} "Whatever was most noble in the self-devotion of the Crusaders; most beneficial to the world in the foundation of the knightly orders; most brilliant in the lives of Richard, the Edwards, Tancred, Godfrey of Bouillon; most enthusaistic in the lives of Rudel, Dante, Petrarch; most humane in the courtesy of the Black Prince; most splendid in the courage of Gaston de Foix; in the constancy of Sir Walter Manny; in the loyalty of Blondel; in the piety of St. Louis -- may be claimed by the evanescent and impalpable yet potent spirit which we call Chivalry." A. Symonds, "An Introduction to the Study of Dante," p. 256, London, 1906.

Chivalry was "a part of the life of the ages which built the cathedrals, and instituted the orders of the Temple and St. John, of St. Francis and St. Dominic, and the same ages produced Magna Charta, the legislation of Edward I, the 'Summa' of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the 'Divine Comedy,'" F. W. Cornish, "Chivalry," p. 193, London, 1911.

{7} "Römische Elegien," I, 3.

{8} "Vita Nuova," penultimate sonnet.

In the vicissitudes of life and fortune, no two of the supreme poets of the world more closely resemble each other than Dante and Camoes, the great epic genius of Portugal. Both endured poverty and exile the greater part of their lives. Both in early life came under the sweet influence of womanly goodness and beauty. Both lost their fair and gentle inspirers almost before they had attained the full bloom of youthful grace and loveliness. To both the premature deaths of their ladyloves were the most poignant afflictions of their lives.

When Camoes learned of the death of his beloved, the beautiful Catherina de Atayde, he was desolate beyond measure and expressed his supreme anguish in a way that recalls the overwhelming grief of Dante at the death of Beatrice. It is because of the similarity of the joys and sorrows of these sovereign poets that I have associated Dante's sonnet on the loss of Beatrice with the exquisite sonnet of Camoes -- as translated by Mr. Richard Garnett -- in which he addresses his cherished Catherina as

Soul of my soul, that dist so early wing
  From our poor world thou heldest in disdain,
  Bound be I ever to my mortal pain
So thou hast peace before the Eternal King!
If to the realms where thou dost soar and sing
  Remembrance of aught earthly may attain,
  Forget not the deep love thou dist so fain
Discover my fond eyes inhabiting
And if my yearning heart unsatisfied,
  And pang on earth incurable have might
  To profit thee and me, pour multiplied
Thy meek entreaties to the Lord of Light,
  That swiftly He would raise thee to my side,
As suddenly He rapt thee from my sight.

{9} "Il Convito," II, Cap. XIII.

{10} Paradiso, XV, 36.

{11} Paradiso, XVII, 58-60.

{12} Cf. F. X. Kraus, "Dante, Sein Leben und Sein Werk, Sein Verhältniss zur Kunst und zur Politik," p. 53, Berlin, 1897.

{13} "Dante," writes the scholarly Dr. Döllinger, "possessed a rare cultivation of mind and his learning was so comprehensive and various that, if we except Roger Bacon, who belonged to an earlier period, very few can be found to come up to him, and none who surpassed him." "Studies in European History," p. 102, London, 1890.

Cf. also P. H. Wicksteed, "Dante and Aquinas," London, 1913; E. G. Gardner, "Dante and the Mystics," London, 1913; Paget Toynbee, "Dante Studies and Researches," London, 1902; E. Moore, "Studies in Dante," Oxford, 1896; and Karl Witte, "Dante Forschungen," Heilbronn, 1869-79.

{14} "Il Convito," I, Cap. III.

{15} Cf. W. E. Gladstone, "Did Dante Study in Oxford?" in the Nineteenth Century, June 1892, and the reply by A. Bartolini, entitled, "Il Viaggio di Dante a Oxford; a Proposito d'un Articolo di Gladstone," in L'Arcadia, An. VI, No. III.

{16} Fratris Joannis de Serravalle, "Translatio et Commentum," p. 15, Prato, 1891. The same writer also informs us that Dante had qualified himself for his doctorate in the University of Paris, but that poverty prevented him from getting his degree. "Fuit (Dantes" Bachallarius in Universitate Parisiensi," declares Serravalle, "in qua legit Sententias pro forma Magisterii, Legit Bibliam, respondit omnibus Doctoribus, ut moris est, et fecit omnes actus, qui fieri debent fieri, nisi inceptio, seu conventus; et ad incipiendum, seu faciendum conventum, deerat sibi pecunia: pro qua acquirenda rediit Florentiam." P. 15.

{17} For an interesting account of Dante's "Lehr- und Wanderjahre," see Kraus, op. cit., Cap. IV.

{18} Paradiso, II, 7.

{19} Paradiso, III, 85.

{20} So called because the floors of the schools along this street were strewn with straw on which, in lieu of benches, the students sat while listening to the lectures given by their masters. It was in the region now known as the Quartier Latin.

If one may judge from a medieval poem, the lodgings of the students who attended lectures in the Street of Straw were as uncomfortable and as ill provided as their straw-strewn lecture-rooms. Their beds were hard mattresses stretched on the floor and their food consisted chiefly of beans, peas, and cabbage, of which the chief condiment was a good appetite. The lectures were often begun before daybreak and without artificial light and were not infrequently three hours in length. But despite these early lectures and their many attendant discomforts the students of the Street of Straw -- our Dante among them -- were always wide awake and exhibited an intense interest in their lectures, as is evinced by the verses of a certain medieval poet who thus pictures the eager searchers after knowledge:

Aure et mente bibit et verba cadentia promo
Promptus utroque levat, oculique et mentis in illo
Fixa vigilque manet acies aurisque maritat
Pronuba dilectam cupida cum mente Minervam.

Cf. H. Rashdall, "The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages," Vol. II, Part II, p. 652, and "Forschungen zur Deutschen Geschichte," Vol. XX, p. 475 et seq.

Of all the privations and miseries which Dante had to endure while he was, in poverty and adversity, preparing himself to fulfill his promise to glorify his Beatrice, those of this university days in Paris were not the least trying.

{21} "Lecture on Heroes," p. 92, New York, 1916.

{22} Paradiso, XXV, 49.

{23} "Studies in European History," p. 92, London, 1890.

{24} Paradiso, III, 28.

{25} Dante's brief but comprehensive description of heaven is so beautiful and so in keeping with the teaching of his great master, "the Angel of the Schools," that I need not apologize for reproducing it here in the musical original:

Al ciel ch'è pura luce; Luce intelletual piena d'amore, Amor di vero ben pien di letizia, Letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.

{26} Paradiso, XXXI, 71-72.

{27} Paradiso, XXXI, 79-90.

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