DANTE: "THE CENTRAL MAN OF ALL THE WORLD."
A Course of Lectures Delivered Before the Student Body of the New York State College for Teachers, Albany, 1919, 1920
JOHN T. SLATTERY, Ph.D.
With a Preface by John H. Finley, L.H.D.
New York P. J. Kenedy & Sons 1920 Copyright, 1920, by P. J. Kenedy & Sons, New York Printed in U.S.A.
THIS MODEST WORK OWES ITS PUBLICATION TO THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF
PRESIDENT ABRAM R. BRUBACHER
DEAN HARLAN H. HORNER
OF THE STATE COLLEGE FOR TEACHERS, ALBANY, N.Y.
WHERE MANY PLEASANT HOURS WERE PASSED IN DELIVERING THESE LECTURES. TO THESE FRIENDS AND TO THE STUDENT-BODY OF THE COLLEGE THE AUTHOR HAS THE HONOR OF DEDICATING THIS BOOK
I stand as does the reader at the entrance to this book which I have not as yet entered myself. I have before me the journey through the Inferno and Purgatorio, into Paradise, with a new companion. I have made the journey before many times with others, or with Dante and Virgil alone, but I know that I shall enjoy especially the companionship and comment of one with whom I have had such satisfaction of comradeship in our journey as neighbors for a little way across this earth. I invite others, and I hope they may be many, to make this brief journey with us, not because I know specifically what Dr. Slattery will say along the way, but because whatever he says out of his deep and reverent acquaintance with the Divine Comedy will help us all who follow him, whether we are of his particular faith or not, to an appreciation of the meaning of this immortal poem, and make us desire to go again and again in our reading through these spaces of the struggles of human souls.
A world-literary-movement will commemorate in 1921 the six hundredth anniversary of the death of the immortal Dante. That a medievalist should call forth the homage of the twentieth century to the extent of being honored in all civilized lands and by cultured peoples who, for the most part, do not know the language spoken by him, or who do not profess the religion of him who wrote the most religious book of Christianity, is a marvel explainable by the fact that the Divine Comedy is a drama of the soul,—the story of a struggle which every man must make to possess his own spirit against forces that would enslave it. The central interest of the poem is in the individual who may be you or I instead of Dante the subject of the work, and that fact exalts the personal element and gives the spiritual value which we of modern times appreciate as well as did the thirteenth century.
The Divine Comedy is attractive for other reasons. It may appeal to us as it did to Tennyson, because of "its divine intensity," or it may affect us as it did Charles Eliot Norton by "its powerful exposition of moral penalties and rewards," showing that righteousness is inexorable; or it may interest us because of its solid realism, its pure strength of conception, its surpassing beauty, its vivid imaginative power, its perfection of diction "without superfluousness, without defect." Whatever be the reason of our interest in Dante, the study of his Divine Comedy will ever be both a discipline "not so much to elevate our thoughts," says Coleridge, "as to send them down deeper," and a delight calling forth the deepest emotions of our being.
JOHN H. FINLEY.
Dante and His Time 1
Dante, The Man 49
Dante's Inferno 101
Dante's Purgatorio 151
Dante's Paradiso 219
DANTE AND HIS TIME
DANTE AND HIS TIME
To know Dante we must know the age which produced Christianity's greatest poet, he whom Ruskin calls "the central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral and intellectual faculties, all at their highest." Other writers are not so dependent upon their times for our clear understanding of their books. Dante to be intelligible to the modern mind, cannot be taken out of the thirteenth century. "Its contemporary history and its contemporary spirit" says Brother Azarias in his Phases of Thought and Criticism, "constitute his clearest and best commentary." Only in the light of this commentary can we hope to know his message and realize its supremacy. And that it is worth while to make the study there can be no doubt upon the part of any seeker of truth and admirer of beauty.
Emerson said: "I think if I were a professor of rhetoric I should use Dante for my text-book. Dante is the rhetorician. He is all wings, pure imagination and he writes like Euclid." James Russell Lowell told his students in answer to the question as to the best course of reading to be followed: "If I may be allowed a personal illustration, it was my own profound admiration for the Divina Commedia of Dante that lured me into what little learning I possess." Gladstone declared: "In the school of Dante I learned a great part of that mental provision ... which has served me to make the journey of human life." It surely must be of inestimable advantage to sit under the instruction of one of the race's master teachers who stimulates one to lofty thinking and deep feeling, leads one into realms of wider knowledge and helps one to know his own age by revealing a mighty past.
To see that mighty past, to live again with Dante in the thirteenth century is possible only after we have cleared the way with which ignorance and misrepresentation have encumbered the approach. Here, perhaps, more than in any other period of civilization is the dictum true that history is often a conspiracy against the truth. We moderns who are not only obsessed with the theory of evolution, but are dominated by the idea that nothing of permanent value can come from medievalism, arrogantly proclaim that ours is the greatest of centuries because we have not only what all other centuries had, but something else distinctively our own—a vast contribution to the world's progress. This self-complacency makes us forget that whatever truth there may be in the great theory of evolution, certainly the validity of the theory is not confirmed by the intellectual history of the human race. As was said of the Patriarchal Age so we may say of Dante's times "there were giants in those days" which we presume to ignore. Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, indeed stand forth in irrefutable protest against the questionable assertion of evolution that the present is intellectually superior to the past.
The evolutionary theory prejudices our age against acknowledging the high accomplishments of the past. So to know the truth we must overcome the conspiracy with which so-called history has enveloped the past, especially those generations immediately prior to Dante's. How that ignorance of the history and spirit of that period can blind even a great writer to the wonderful feats inherited from the centuries immediately preceding the thirteenth, is revealed by the assertion of Carlyle that "in Dante ten silent centuries found a voice." To state what history now regards as fact, it must be said that while Dante by his giant personality and sublime poetic genius could alone ennoble any epoch he was not "a solitary phenomenon of his time but a worthy culmination of the literary movement which, beginning shortly before 1200, produced down to 1300 such a mass of undying literature" that subsequent generations have found in it their model and inspiration and have never quite equalled its originality and worth.
In verification of this statement I have only to mention to you the names of the Cid of Spain, the Arthurian Legends of England, the Nibelungen Lied of Germany and the poems of the Meistersingers, the Trouveres and the Troubadours. The authors of these works had been taught to make themselves eternal as Dante says Brunetto Latini taught him. They are proof against the alleged dumbness of the ages just preceding Dante's. Of those times speaks Dr. Ralph Adams Cram, renowned equally for historical study and for architectural ability: "The twelfth was the century of magnificent endeavors and all that was great in its successor is here in embryo not only in art but in philosophy, religion and the conduct of life. The eleventh century is a time of aspiration and vision, of the enunciation of new principles and of the first shock of the contest between the old that was doomed and the new that was destined to unprecedented victories." (The Substance of Gothic, p. 69.)
Let us now make a general survey of Dante's century and then consider the more particular events and circumstances of his environment.
It may be a surprise to you to know that there is a book entitled The Thirteenth, the Greatest of Centuries by Dr. James J. Walsh, in its fifth edition with a sale of 70,000 copies. He indeed is not the only man of letters who signalizes that century for its greatness. To confine the quotations to two writers well known in our day, I find that Fiske in his Beginnings of New England says of the thirteenth century: "It was a wonderful time but after all less memorable as the culmination of medieval empire and medieval church than as the dawning of the new era in which we live today." Frederic Harrison, in his Survey of the Thirteenth Century says, "Of all the epochs of effort after a new life that ... is the most spiritual, the most really constructive and indeed the most truly philosophic. It had great thinkers, great rulers, great teachers, great poets, great artists, great moralists, and great workmen. It could not be called the material age, the devotional age, the political age or the poetic age in any special degree. It was equally poetic, political, industrial, artistic, practical, intellectual and devotional. And these qualities acted on a uniform conception of life with a real symmetry of purpose."
Ours is an age of thought but of thought finding concrete expression in practical invention and especially in activities in the line of manufacture and commerce. Posterity will probably characterize our age as the Industrial Age, a phrase that will signalize our period both for the development of industries not thought possible a century ago and for the evolution of the industrial worker to a position of striking importance and power. For the first time in the history of humanity the workman's status is the subject of international agreement. The League of Nations promises to treat Labor from a humanitarian point of view and so to place it on the broad, firm pathway leading to industrial peace and economical solidarity for the common good. That would seem a necessity in view of the strides of progress in other directions.
Now wireless telegraphy crosses oceans and unites continents. The wireless telephone between ships and shore is in operation. It has been found practicable to transport by submarine a cargo from Bremen to Baltimore. In aircraft the development has been just as wonderful. Less than ten years ago the world's record for long flight by aeroplane was made, with no regard for time, with two stops between Albany and New York. In July, 1919, an aeroplane making no stop covered the distance between New York and Chicago in some six hours. Furthermore an American seaplane, in three stages made the trip from New York to England and then a British Dirigible without making a stop came from England to Long Island in ninety-six hours. "This is the end and the beginning of an age" says the author of Mr. Brittling Sees It Through. "This is something far greater than the French Revolution or the Reformation and we live in it."
We indeed consider it the age of "big things." Dynasties fall and republics spring up. When war breaks out it is a World War involving twenty-four nations and causing 7,781,806 deaths (Nelson's Encyclopedia, V. iv, p. 519) and costing $200,000,000,000. In the first year in which we were at war, our country spent more than had been the cost of conducting the government for 124 years, including the expenses of the Civil and the Spanish-American Wars. Yes, it is an age of "big things." The Allies in the Champagne offensive of September, 1915, threw 50,000,000 shells into the German lines in three days. Was it one out of sympathy with "big things," one intent on the quiet of the higher life as contrasted with the din of the day, who said that "modern civilization is noise and the more civilization progresses, the greater will be the noise?" In any event the muses who inspired Dante, are almost dumb. Now the captains of industry are the commanding figures of the day and the student, the poet, the philosopher, the statesman have gone into innocuous desuetude. Amy Lowell is preferred to Longfellow: Charlie Chaplin draws bigger crowds than Shakespeare can interest. Trainmen get wages higher than are the salaries of some of our governors. Unskilled labor is paid more than the teachers of our youth receive. The cost of living was never higher in the history of mankind.
How illuminating to turn from this picture to that of Dante's age. Then in Florence, a bushel of wheat cost about fifteen cents, a carpenter could buy a broad ax for five cents, a saw for three cents, a plane for four cents, a chisel for one cent. The average daily wage of a woolworker was about thirty-six cents. In view of the high purchasing power of money in Dante's age, the fact that he borrowed at least seven hundred and fifty seven and a half golden florins, a debt that was not paid until after his death, leads one to think that he must have been regarded by his contemporaries as prodigal in the use of money. His financial difficulties must have given him an uneasy conscience for he insists repeatedly on the wickedness of prodigality. In fact he makes the abuse of money on the part either of a miser or of a spendthrift a sin against the social order punishable according to the gravity of the offence in Hell or Purgatory.
To return to the matter of prices in Dante's day. In England a goose could be bought for two and a half pence. A stall-fed ox commanded twenty-four shillings while his fellow brought up on grass was sold for sixteen shillings. A fat hog, two years old,—and this is interesting to us who pay seventy-five cents a pound for bacon—a fat hog two years old cost only three shillings four pence and a fat sheep shorn, one shilling and two pence. A gallon of oysters was purchasable for two pence, a dozen of the best soles for three pence. A yard of broadcloth cost only one shilling one pence, a pair of shoes four pence. These figures of English money are taken from an act of Edward III of England who was born seven years after Dante's death. Parliamentarian enactment under the same king fixed a table of wages.
For a day's work at haymaking or weeding of corn, for instance, a woman got one penny. For mowing an acre of grass or threshing a quarter of wheat a man was paid four pence. The reaper received also four pence for his day's labor. Eight hours constituted a working day. The people of the Middle Ages not only had the Saturday half-holiday but they enjoyed release from work on nearly forty vigils of feast days during the year. That they were as well off, e.g. as the unskilled laborer of our day, who demands from four to eight dollars a day as a wage, is evident from the fact that while he has to pay forty cents a pound for mutton, the workman of Edward the Third's day earned enough in four days to buy a whole sheep and a gallon of ale. So plentiful was meat in England that it was the ordinary diet of the poor. A preamble of an act of Parliament of the fourteenth century in specifying beef, pork, mutton and veal declares that these are "the food of the poorer sort." (The Thirteenth, the Greatest of Centuries, p. 479.)
Speaking of live-stock leads to the observation that the people of Dante's time for the most part lived in the country. Cities had not yet become magnets. London is supposed to have had a population of twenty-five thousand, York ten thousand four hundred, Canterbury, four thousand seven hundred, Florence, in the year 1300, according to Villani, a contemporary of Dante, had "ninety thousand enjoying the rights of citizenship. Of rich Grandi, there were fifteen hundred. Strangers passing through the city numbered about two thousand. In the elementary schools were eight thousand to ten thousand children." (Staley's Guilds of Florence, p. 555.)
The means of travel and communication, of course, were few and difficult. The roads were bad and dangerous. In France, Germany and Italy there were so many forms of government, dukedoms, baronies, marquisates, signories, city republics, each with its own custom regulations, not to speak of each having its own coinage and language, that travelers encountered obstacles almost at every step. For the most part, journeys had to be made afoot and a degree of safety was attained only if the traveler joined a large trade caravan, a pilgrimage or a governmental expedition. Night often found the party far from a hospice or inn and so they were obliged for shelter to camp on the highway or in the fields. Necessarily the traveler was subjected to innumerable privations and sufferings.
I have not been able to get accurate information as to the exact length of time required to make a trip, say from London to Paris—a distance covered the other day by an aeroplane in eighty minutes. But, the "Consuetudines" of the Hereford Cathedral, England, afford us some data upon which to base the conclusion that six weeks were necessary for such a trip, allowing another week for religious purposes. The "Consuetudines" after specifying that no canon of the cathedral was to make more than one pilgrimage beyond the seas in his lifetime, allows the clergyman seven weeks' absence to go abroad to the tomb of St. Denis in the suburbs of Paris, sixteen weeks to Rome and a year to Jerusalem.
A table of time limits between Florence and the principal cities of Europe and the East made by the Florentine Banking houses in Dante's day, showed the number of days required for consignments of specie and goods to reach their destination. Rome was reached in fifteen days, Venice and Naples in twenty days, Flanders in seventy days, England and Constantinople in seventy-five days, Cyprus in ninety days. How long it took Dante to make the trip from Florence to Rome, we do not know but history tells us that he went to the Eternal City in the year 1300. He was indeed a great traveler. During his twenty years' exile, we know that our poet's itinerary led him among other places to Padua, Venice, Ravenna, Paris and there is good reason to believe, as Gladstone contends, that he went for study to Oxford. The regret is permissible that he did not leave us an account of his journeyings. "Had he given us pictures—as he alone could have painted them—of scenes by the wayside and of the courts of which he was an honored guest," says Dr. J.A. Zahm in his Great Inspirers, "we should have had the most interesting and the most instructive travel book ever written."
We cannot but notice one great effect brought about by traveling in those days, especially by pilgrimages and by the Crusades formed in defence of pilgrimages to the Holy Land and that is, that there arose on all sides a desire for liberty and the growth of a spirit of nationality that worked to the destruction of absolute government. The power of the common people began to assert itself. In 1215, England forced from John Lackland the Magna Charta, the foundation of all the liberty of English speaking people even in modern times. The very year in which Dante was born, representatives of the townspeople were admitted as members of the English Parliament. In France, during the thirteenth century, the centralization of power in the hands of the kings went forward with the gradual diminution of the influence of the nobility—a fact operating to the people's advantage.
In 1222 the nobles forced Andrew II of Hungary to issue the Golden Bull, the instrument which Blackstone later declared turned "anarchy into law." In Germany and Sicily Frederick II published laws giving a larger measure of popular freedom. In Italy, the existence of the city republics—especially those of Florence, Sienna, Pisa—showed how successfully the ferment of liberty had penetrated the mass of the body-politic.
Coming now to regard the characteristics of Dante's age we must say that the first big thing that looms in sight is the fact that this was the golden age of Christian faith. Everywhere the Cross, the symbol of salvation, met the eye. It was the age when men lived in one faith, used one ritual, professed one creed, accepted a common doctrine and moral standard and breathed a common religious atmosphere. Heresy was not wholly absent but it was the exception. Religion regarded then not as an accident or an incident of life but as a benign influence permeating the whole social fabric, not only cared for the widow and orphan and provided for the poor, but it shaped men's thoughts, quickened their sentiments, inspired their work and directed their wills. These men believed in a world beyond the grave as an ever present reality. Hell, Purgatory, Heaven were so near to them that they, so to speak, could touch the invisible world with their hands. To them, as to Dante, "this life was but a shadowy appearance through which the eternal realities of another world were constantly betraying themselves." Of the intensity and universality of faith in that life beyond death, Dante is not the exception but the embodiment. His poem has no such false note of scepticism as we detect in Tennyson's In Memoriam. Note the words of the modern poet:
"I falter where I firmly trod And falling with my weight of cares Upon the great world's altar stairs That slope through darkness up to God, I stretch lame hands of faith and grope And gather dust and chaff and call To what I feel is Lord of all And faintly trust the larger hope."
Not thus does Dante speak. As the voice of his age he begins with faith, continues with faith and leads us to the unveiled vision of God. He both shows us his unwavering adherence to Christian doctrine in that scene in Paradiso where he is examined as to his faith by St. Peter and he teaches us that the seen is only a stepping stone into the unseen. It has been said of him in reference to his Divina Commedia, "The light of faith guides the poet's steps through the hopeless chambers of Hell with a firmness of conviction that knows no wavering. It bears him through the sufferings of Purgatory, believing strongly fits reality: it raises him on the wings of love and contemplation into Heaven's Empyrean, where he really hopes to enjoy bliss far beyond that whereof he says." (Brother Azarias.)
Leading the religious awakening of the thirteenth century and making possible Dante's work at the end of the century were two of the world's greatest exponents of the spiritual life, both signalized in the Paradiso. St. Dominic characterized by Dante (Par. XII, 56) as "a jealous lover of the Christian faith with mildness toward his disciples but formidable to his foes," founded an order to be "the champions of Faith and the true lights of the world." Even in its early days it gave to the world eminent scholars such as Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas, and it has never ceased to number among its members great thinkers, ardent apostles, stern ascetics and profound mystics. In Dante's time it was the only order specially charged with the office of preaching and from its founder's time down to the present day the one who acts as the Pope's Theologian has been taken from the ranks of this order. Besides preaching to all classes of Christian society and evangelizing the heathen, the Dominicans in Dante's day fought against heresy and schism, lectured in the universities, toiled among the poor, activities in which the order is still engaged.
But perhaps the man whose spiritual influence was greatest in medievalism, if not in all the history of Christianity, was Francis of Assisi, who "all seraphical in order rose a sun upon the world." (Par. XI, 37.) Born at Assisi in Umbria in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and of Pica, a member of a noble family of Provence, Francis grew up a handsome, gay and gallant youth "the prime favorite among the young nobles of the town, the foremost in every feat of arms, the leader of civil revels, the very king of frolic." A low fever contracted when with his fellow citizens he fought against the Perugians turned his thoughts to the things of eternity. Upon his recovery he determined to devote himself to the service of his fellow man for the honor of God.
His renunciation of the things of this life was dramatic. To swerve him from the new life his father had cited him to appear before the Bishop. Francis, unmoved by the appeal of his father persisted in his resolution. Stripping himself of the clothes he wore, the Bishop covering his nakedness, Francis gave his clothes to his father saying, "Hitherto I have called you Father, henceforth I desire to say only Our Father who art in heaven." Then and there as Dante sings, were solemnized Francis' nuptials with his beloved Spouse, the Lady Poverty, under which name, in the mystical language afterwards so familiar to Francis, "he comprehended the total surrender of all wordly goods, honors and privileges." He went forth and attracted disciples. With these partaking of his zeal and animated by his charity, he labored to make his generation turn from the sordid to the spiritual, diffusing over all the people a tender love of nature and God.
Among his disciples—great minds of the time—were Thomas of Celano, one of the literary geniuses of the day, the author of the sublime Dies Irae—a religious poem chanted to this day at every funeral high mass in the Catholic Church, and frequently sung or played in great opera houses,—Bonaventure, professor of philosophy and theology at the university of Paris, Roger Bacon, the friar, the renowned teacher at Paris and Oxford, Duns Scotus, the subtile doctor. In the Third Order established for those not following the monastic life the membership, in the course of time, embraced among others St. Louis, King of France, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and Dante.
He, towards the end of his exile, footsore, weary and discouraged, buffeted by the adverse winds of fortune knocked, a stranger, at the gates of the Franciscan monastery at Lunigiana. "As neither I nor any of the brothers recognized him," writes Brother Hilary, the Prior, "I asked him what he wished. He made no answer but gazed silently upon the columns and galleries of the cloister. Again I asked him what he wished and whom he sought and slowly turning his head and looking around upon the brothers and me, he answered 'Peace.'"
The monks spoke gently to him, ministered with kindly and delicate sympathy to his bodily and spiritual needs. His reticence left him and his reserve melted away. Here the object of loving hospitality, he remained finding means and opportunity for profound study. Before he departed he drew from his bosom a part of the precious manuscript of Divina Commedia and trustingly giving it into the hands of the Prior said, "Here, Brother, is a portion of my work which you may not have seen: this remembrance I leave with you: forget me not."
That he himself was not unforgetful of the sympathy of the simple and warm-hearted followers of St. Francis is evident from the fact that he gloried in his membership of the Third Order, wearing about his body the Franciscan cincture for chastity and it is not unlikely that at Ravenna before he finally closed his eyes upon the turmoil of the world full of vicissitudes, he modestly requested that he be buried in the simple habit of the order and be laid to rest in a tomb attached to their monastery. In any event such was his burial.
For our sympathetic understanding of the supremacy of religion in Dante's day, may I again quote Ralph Adams Cram, whose words on the eleventh century are equally applicable to the era of our Florentine and to his country? Dr. Cram writes: "It is hard for us to think back into such an alien spirit and time as this and so understand how with one-tenth of its present population England could support so vast and varied a religious establishment, used as we are to an age where religion is only a detail for many and for most a negligible factor. We are only too familiar with the community that could barely support one parish church, boasting its one-half dozen religious organizations, all together claiming the adherence of only a minority of the population, but in the Middle Ages, religion was not only the most important and pervasive thing, it was a moral obligation on every man, woman and child, and rejection or even indifference was unthinkable. If once we grasp this fact," continues Cram, "we can understand how in the eleventh century, the whole world should cover itself with 'its white robe of churches.'"
The second great fact observable in the times of Dante is that it was an age of inquiry and of efficient craftsmanship. Many of our generation think that Dante's day being so far removed from the age of printing and the spirit of positivism, and being given to the upholding of authority almost as an unexhaustible source of knowledge, was wholly unacquainted with scientific research. Furthermore they declare that education then was almost at its minimum stage. A little study will show that the people of that era were not unacquainted with the scientific spirit and it will also prove that if education did not prevail, in the sense that everybody had an opportunity to read and write—a consummation hardly to be expected—education in the sense of efficiency—education in the etymological sense, i.e. the training of the faculties so that the individual might develop creative self-expression and especially that he might bring out what was best in him, all which meant knowledge highly useful to himself and others—that kind of education was not uncommon.
To give an idea of the scientific inquiry and sharp observation of mind in those days, I might cite Dante as a master exponent of nature study, and adept of science. Passing over his experiment in optics given in Paradiso, given so naturally as to justify the inference that investigation in physics was then not an uncommon mode of gaining knowledge, I call your attention to an observation made by Alexander Von Humboldt, the distinguished scientist, to prove that nothing escaped the eyes of Dante, intent equally upon natural phenomena and the things of the soul. Von Humboldt suggests that the rhetorical figure employed by Dante in his description of the River of Light with its banks of wonderful flowers (Par. XXX, 61) is an application of our poet's knowledge of the phosphorescence of the ocean. If you have ever looked down the side of a steamship at night as it ploughed its way forward, and if you have ever observed in the sea the thousand darting lights just below the water line your enjoyable experience will enable you to appreciate the beauty of this passage. I now quote:
"I saw a glory like a stream flow by In brightness rushing and on either side 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."
Commenting on this passage, Von Humboldt says "It would 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 stars." This mention of a sea brings to mind the striking fact that Dean Church has pointed out, viz., when Dante speaks of the Mediterranean, he speaks not as a historian or an observer of its storms or its smiles but as a geologist. The Mediterranean is to him: "The greatest valley in which water stretcheth." (Par. IX, 82.)
So also when he speaks of light he regards it not merely in its beautiful appearances but in its natural laws (Purg. XV). And when Dante comes to describe the exact color, say of an apple blossom, his splendid and unequalled power as a scientific observer of Nature and a poet is most evident. Ruskin (Mod. Painters III, 226) commenting on the passage: flowers of a color "less than that of roses but more than that of violets" (Purg. XXXII, 58) makes this interesting remark: "It certainly would not be possible in words, to come nearer to the definition of the exact hue which Dante meant—that of the apple blossom. Had he employed any simpler color phrase, as 'pale pink' or 'violet pink' or any other such combined expression, he still could not have completely got at the delicacy of the hue; he might, perhaps, have indicated its kind, but not its tenderness; but by taking the rose-leaf as the type of the delicate red, and then enfeebling this with the violet gray he gets, as closely as language can carry him to the complete rendering of the vision although it is evidently felt by him to be in its perfect beauty ineffable."
These examples of Dante's interest in scientific observation prove his fitness to be considered a representative of his age in its love for science. Instead, however, of proposing Dante as a typical example of the experimental inquiry of his age—you may say that he is sui generis—I shall call forth other witnesses.
First let Albertus Magnus speak. He was distinguished as a theologian and philosopher and was also renowned as a scientist. In his tenth book after describing all the trees, plants and herbs then known, he says: "All that is here set down is the result of our own observation or has been borrowed from others whom we have known to have written what their personal experience has confirmed, for in these matters, experience alone can give certainty (experimentum solum certificat in talibus)."
We may be sure that such an investigator showing in his method a prodigious scientific progress was on the line so successfully followed by modern natural philosophy. This conclusion is confirmed by evidence from his other books showing that he did a great deal of experimental work, especially in chemistry. In his treatise De Mineralibus, Albertus Magnus keen to observe natural phenomena, enumerates different properties of natural magnets and states some of the properties commonly attributed to them.
In his book on Botany he treats of the organic structure and physiology of plants so accurately as to draw from Meyer, a botanist of the nineteenth century, this appreciative tribute. "No botanist who lived before Albert can be compared to him unless Theophrastus, with whom he was not acquainted: and after him none has painted nature with such living colors or studied it so profoundly until the time of Conrad Gesner and Cesalpino"—a high compliment indeed for Albertus for leadership in science for three centuries. To quote Von Humboldt again, "I have found in the book of Albertus Magnus, De Natura Locorum, considerations on the dependence of temperature concurrently on latitude and elevation and on the effect of different angles of incidence of the sun's rays in heating the ground, which have excited my surprise."
Albertus Magnus gains renown also from his distinguished pupil Roger Bacon who, some think, should have the honor of being regarded as the father of inductive science—an honor posterity has conferred upon another of the same family name who lived 300 years later. We, who wear eye-glasses would be willing, I think, to vote the honor to the elder Bacon, because if we do not owe to him the discovery of lenses, we are his debtors for his clarification of the principles of lenses and for his successful efforts in establishing them on a mathematical basis. In any event, he was a pioneer in inductive science.
Before gunpowder is known to have been discovered in the West, the friar Roger Bacon must have made some interesting experiments along the line of explosives, else he could not have made the following remarkable statement as to the property of gunpowder: "One may cause to burst from bronze, thunderbolts more formidable than those produced by nature. A small quantity of prepared matter causes a terrible explosion accompanied by a brilliant light. One may multiply this phenomenon so far as to destroy a city or an army." Anticipating the use of even motor boats and automobiles driven by gasoline, this thirteenth century scientist wrote: "Art can construct instruments of navigation such that the largest vessels governed by a single man will traverse rivers and seas more rapidly than if they were filled with oarsmen. One may also make carriages which, without the aid of any animal, will run with remarkable swiftness." This man whose clarity of vision anticipated those discoveries of the nineteenth century, left three disciples after him,—John of Paris, William of Mara and Gerard Hay—who followed their master's methods, especially of testing by observation and by careful searching of authorities, every proposition that came up for study.
Perhaps the most striking argument in favor of the experimental attitude of Dante's century is that afforded by certain facts in the history of medicine of that epoch. Then surgery began to make vast strides. Pagel, regarded in our time as the best informed writer on the history of medicine, has this to say of the surgery in Dante's age. "The stream of literary works on surgery flows richer during this period. While surgeons are far from being able to emancipate themselves from the ruling pathological theories, there is no doubt that in one department, that of manual technics, free observation came to occupy the first place in the effort for scientific progress. Investigation is less hampered and concerns itself with practical things and not with artificial theories. Experimental observation was in this not repressed by an unfortunate and iron-bound appeal to reasoning." (The Popes and Science, p. 172.)
As to medical practice in the thirteenth century, interesting data are furnished by the Bulletin of Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Journal of the American Medical Association, January, 1908. The former publication gives us remarkable instances of surgical operations and of the treatment of Bright's disease, matters which we might have thought possible only in the nineteenth century; the latter publishes in full the law for the regulation of the practice of medicine issued by Emperor Frederick II in 1240 or 1241. According to that law binding on the two Sicilies, three years of preparatory university work were required before the student could begin the study of medicine. Then he had to devote three years to the study of medicine and finally he had to spend a year under a physician's direction before a license was issued to him. In connection with this high standard of a medical education, the law of Frederick II forbade not only the sale of impure drugs under penalty of confiscation of goods, but also the preparation of them under penalty of death—stern legislation, anticipating by nearly seven centuries the American Pure Drug Law. (The Popes and Science, p. 419.)
Undoubtedly the experimental demonstration and original observation of Dante's time sprang either from the training or pedagogical methods of the great universities of that period. There were universities at Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Montpelier, Orleans, Angers. Spain had four universities; Italy, ten. The number of students in attendance must amaze us if we think that higher education did not then prevail. Professor Thomas Davidson in his History of Education, says: "The number of students reported as having attended some of the universities in those early days almost passes belief, e.g. Oxford is said to have had about 30,000 about the year 1300 and half that number as early as 1224. The numbers attending the University of Paris were still greater. The numbers become less surprising when we remember with what poor accommodations—a bare room and an armful of straw—the students of those days were content and what numbers of them even a single teacher like Abelard could, long before, draw into lonely retreats."
That in the twelfth and following centuries there was no lack of enthusiasm for study, notwithstanding the troubled conditions of the times, is very clear. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, education rose in many European states to a height which it had not attained since the days of Seneca and Quintilian.
The curriculum followed by a student in Dante's time embraced the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, namely Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and Astrology. The higher education comprised also Physics, Metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, and Theology. Of the cultural effect of the old education, Professor Huxley spoke in the highest praise on the occasion of his inaugural address as rector of Aberdeen University. "I doubt," he said, "if the curriculum of any modern university shows so clear and generous a comprehension of what is meant by culture as the old Trivium and Quadrivium does." (The Thirteenth the Greatest of Centuries, p. 466.)
Speaking of education in those distant days, one thinks of the supreme intellect of medieval life, the giant genius St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy was the food of Dante and became the basis not only of Dante's great poem but of Christian Apologetics down to our own day, when Pope Leo XIII directed that all Catholic seminaries and universities implant the doctrine expounded by Thomas, Angel of the Schools. A philosopher whose breadth and lucidity of mind gave such perennial interest to a system of thought that it is still followed more generally than that of any other school of philosophy—taught in the regular course even at Oxford, Harvard, Columbia—such a philosopher could have left the impress of his genius upon seven succeeding centuries only if his work had been to philosophy what Dante's Divina Commedia is to literature.
The subject of scholastic philosophy now more or less claims attention here, since the coming to our country of the most distinguished exponent of Neo-scholasticism. Cardinal Mercier before becoming a prince of the Church, held the chair of neo-scholastic philosophy at Louvain where he made his department so distinguished for deep scholarship that pupils came from afar to sit under his instruction or to prepare themselves for a doctorate of philosophy whose requirements at Louvain were perhaps, more exacting than at any other modern university.
In 1889 Bishop John H. Keane engaged in the task of getting together a faculty for the Catholic University at Washington went to Louvain to see Dr. Mercier. "I want you to go to Washington and become head of our school of philosophy," said the visitor. "I am perfectly willing to go, nothing could please me more. But we must first get the permission of the Pope," answered the Belgian scholar. Bishop Keane went to Rome and presented the matter to Leo XIII. "Better leave him where he is," replied the Pope. "He is more needed in Belgium than in the United States." So it was owing to the wisdom of Pope Leo in keeping the right man in the right place that Belgium's strongest man was held for his country against the evil hour to be a terror to wrongdoers and an inspiration and object of reverence.
The World's War revealed Belgium's Primate not only as a great lucid thinker who shattered the subtilities with which the philosophy of might tried to confuse the mind of the world, but also as an undaunted leader who could not be frightened or defeated by all the forces of militarism. To my mind the secret of the dominating influence working upon Cardinal Mercier's character and making him a world-hero came from his training in scholastic philosophy and from his having assimilated the spirit of the thirteenth century.
That period indeed not only trained its people to a high spiritual ideal but gave them golden opportunities to express themselves and to put forth, under the inspiration of religion, the best that was in them. The medium was the guild system which, working from a self-protecting alliance of traders, extended itself to every existing form of industry and commerce and gave "the workman a position of self-respect and independence such as he had never held before and has failed to achieve since" (Cram).
A remarkable thing about the guild system was that it established and maintained what we, today, call technical schools for the training of apprentices. But more remarkable was the spirit which animated the system. Operare est orare was its principle. As a result of that teaching that labor is practical prayer, that the worker should labor not simply for a wage, but for perfection, men with untiring energy straining for finer and better work came to make the best things their minds could conceive, their taste could plan, their hands could fashion. Bell-making in Dante's day attained such perfection that the form and composition of bells have ever since been imitated. Workers of precious metals produced such wonderful chalices that succeeding generations have never equalled the ancient model. The masonry of medievalism has secrets of construction lost to our age. Mechanical engineering solved without the use of steel girders problems in the structural work of cathedrals, palaces, fortresses and bridges that causes open-eyed astonishment in the twentieth century. Wood carving as seen in many medieval chairs, tables, and choir equipment is of design so exquisite and of finish of detail so artistic that it is the despair of the cabinet makers of our age.
The beauty of the thirteenth century needlework made into chasubles, copes, albs, stoles, altar covers,—triumphs of artistic excellence, is seen in the typical example of the Cope of Ascoli for which Mr. Pierpont Morgan about ten years ago, paid sixty thousand dollars. So high a price was paid for this ecclesiastical vestment not because it was an antique but because marvelous expertness in artcraft had given it such value. Be it recorded to the honor of the American millionaire, that he returned the treasure to a church in Italy when he discovered that he had unknowingly bought stolen property.
Of iron-mongery of Dante's time, the author of the Thirteenth the Greatest of Centuries writes as follows: "It is difficult to understand how one of the village blacksmiths of the time made a handsome gate that has been the constant admiration of posterity ever since, or designed high hinges for doors that artists delight to copy, or locks and latches and bolts that are transported to our museums to be looked at with interest not only because they are antiques but for the wonderful combination of the beautiful and the useful which they illustrate. The surprise grows the greater when we realize that these beautiful objects were made not only in one place or even in a few places, but in nearly every town of any size in England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain at various times during the thirteenth century and that at any time a town of considerably less than ten thousand inhabitants seemed to be able to obtain among its own inhabitants, men who could make such works of art not as copies nor in servile imitation of others, but with original ideas of their own, and make them in such perfection that in many cases they have remained the models for many centuries."
That is especially true of the thirteenth century glass windows as seen, for example, in the Cathedrals of York, Lincoln, Westminster, Canterbury, Chartres, Rheims, and in Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle, Paris. Modern art with all its boasting cannot begin to make anything comparable to that antique glass made and put in place by faith and love long before Columbus discovered America. There are tiny bits of it in this country as a result of the relic hunting of our soldiers in the World's War. Many of them got a fragment of the shattered glass of Rheims, "petrified color" deep sky blue, ruby, golden green, and sent it home to a sweetheart, a wife or sister to be mounted on a ring or set in a pin.
The donors for the most part of the glass of the thirteenth century Cathedrals, were guilds at that time. For the Cathedral of Chartres e.g. the drapers and the furriers gave five windows, the porters one, the tavern-keepers two, the bakers two.
In Dante's time glass-making reached its climax and then the curve began to decline, until in the eighteenth century and in the early part of the nineteenth century glass-making reached its lowest point.
Great as was Dante's day in the efficiency and education promoted by the Guild system—Dante himself was a member of it—the achievement of his era in architecture was the "most notable perhaps because what happened there epitomizes all that was done elsewhere and the nature of what was accomplished is precisely that which informed the whole body of medieval achievement." (The Substance of Gothic, p. 137.)
In the course of the century that gave birth to Dante, architecture rose to a glory never equalled before or after. In France alone between the years of 1180 and 1270 eighty great cathedrals and five hundred abbey houses were constructed. It was in this century that Notre Dame, Paris, arose, "the only un-Greek thing" said R.M. Stevenson, "which unites majesty elegance and awfulness." But it was not alone. Other Notre Dames sprung up in Germany, Italy and Spain. In England also, in that period there were more than twenty cathedrals in the course of construction, some of them in places as small as Wells, whose population never exceeded four thousand.
To look today upon Wells with its facade of nearly three hundred statues, one hundred and fifty-three of which are life size or heroic and then to realize that this magnificent poem in stone was composed by villagers unknown to us and unhonored and unsung, is to open our eyes to the wonders accomplished by the foremost age of architecture.
So wonderful are those cathedrals that Ferguson, the standard English authority on Gothic architecture, does not hesitate to say; "If any one man were to devote a lifetime to the study of one of our great cathedrals, assuming it to be complete in all its medieval arrangements—it is questionable whether he would master all its details and fathom all the reasonings and experiments which led to the result before him.
"And when we consider that not only in the great cities alone, but in every convent and in every parish, thoughtful men were trying to excel what had been done and was doing by their predecessors and their fellows, we shall understand what an amount of thought is built into the walls of our churches, castles, colleges and dwelling houses. My own impression is that not one-tenth part of it has been reproduced in all the works written on the subject up to this day and much of it is probably lost never again to be recovered for the instruction and delight of future ages."
The irreparable shattering of the greatest of these monuments of the past, occurred in our day. The Cathedral of Rheims, the crowning perfection of architecture having survived "the ravages of wars, the brutishness of revolutions, the smug complacency of restoration which had stripped it of its altars, its shrines and its tombs of unnumbered kings" was the target for two years of German shell and shrapnel and today it stands gaunt and scathed in a circle of ruin. But even in its ruin it shows infinite majesty and if it is left as it is,—and may that be so—for restoration would only vulgarize its incomparable art, Rheims will stand as a monument both to the thirteenth century which had made it the supreme type of the Gothic ideal to raise men's souls to God, and to the twentieth century against whose materialism it was an offence and a protest.
The third characteristic of the age of Dante is its chivalry, which placed woman on the highest pedestal she had ever occupied. In literature that unique influence is seen in a new and an exalted conception of love. Love is now coupled with nobility of life. The troubadours had sung of love as a quality belonging to gentle folk, meaning by that phrase the nobility, and nobility had been defined by the Emperor Frederick II, patron of the troubadours, as a combination of ancestral wealth and fine manners. In the Banquet (bk. IV) Dante rejects that definition and transfers nobility from the social to the moral order holding that "nobility exists where virtue dwells."
Love, the flowering of this nobility, may be found in the heart of him even lowest in the social scale provided that he is a virtuous man. It is not an affair solely of gentle blood. It has no pedigree of birth or richness. "In this sense the true lover need not be a gentleman but he must be a gentle man, loving not by genteel code of caste but by gentle code of character." (J.B. Fletcher: Dante p. 27.)
Thus Dante makes Guido Guinicelli say: "Love and the gentle heart are one and the same thing." And Dante himself in one of his Canzoni writes:
"Let no man predicate That aught the name of gentleman should have Even in a king's estate Except the heart there be a gentle man's."
Love, Then, Became In Literature Such A Refined Emotion That To Quote Dante: "It Makes Ill Thought To Perish, It Drives Into Foul Hearts A Deadly Chill" And On The Other Hand It Fills Indeed The Lover With Such Delicacy Of Sentiment For His Beloved That She Is His Inspiration To Virtue And The Muse Who Directs His Pen. In Harmony With "The Sweet New Style" Of Sincerity With Which Dante Treats Of Love, Thomas Bernart De Ventadorn Sings:
"It is no wonder if I sing better than any other singer, for my heart draws near to Love and I am a better man for Love's command."
Not in literature alone but in actual life did chivalry exalt "the eternal womanly." In Dante's age, to quote the author of Phases of Thought and Criticism, "Knights passed from land to land in search of adventure, vowed to protect and defend the widow and the orphan and the lonely woman at the hazard of their lives: they went about with a prayer on their lips and in their hearts the image of the lady-love whom they had chosen to serve and to whom they had pledged loyalty and fidelity: they strove to be chaste in body and soul and as a tower of strength for the protection of this spirit of chastity, they were taught to venerate the Virgin Mother Mary and cultivate toward her a tender devotion as the purest and holiest ideal of womanhood. This spirit of chivalry is the ruling spirit of Dante's life and the inspiration of some of his sublimest flights."
All these high achievements of Dante's century are all the more notable in view of the fact that war with its horror and destruction was never absent from those times. Every European country was involved often in war and Asia and Africa were not free from its devastation.
In such stirring times, Dante was born at Florence. A city of flowers and gay festivities, the home of a cultured pleasure-loving people, it was the frequent scene of feuds and factions handed down from sire to son. The hatred they engendered and the desolation they caused may be understood from the reading of Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy whose scene is laid in Verona in the year 1303 and to the families concerned in which Dante makes allusion in the sixth canto of his Purgatorio. But Verona and Florence were not the only cities involved by the militarism of the age. Especially in northern Italy were strife and bloodshed common. Province, city, town, hamlet and even households were torn by internal dissensions, which only complicated the main conflict of that day, viz., the world struggle for supremacy of pope and emperor.
The imperial party called Ghibellines, composed mainly of aristocrats and their followers, aimed to break down the barriers which kept the German Emperor out of Italy, their object being to have him subjugate the whole country, even the states of the Pope. The papal or popular party, known as Guelfs, had as its purpose the independence of Italy—the freedom and alliance of the great cities of the north of Italy and dependence of the center and southern parts on the Roman See. A few months after Dante's death, the Ghibellines, the imperial party, suffered a defeat by the overthrow of King Manfred from which they never recovered. But in Florence for many years they maintained their struggle.
To add to the confusion of the Florentines whose sympathy was mostly Guelf—i.e. favorable to the papal or popular cause—the Guelf party of Florence was divided into two factions, the Bianchi and the Neri, the history of whose tumults often leading to blood and mischief may be known by the frequent allusions of our poet. Embroiled by those feuds, Dante is found not only as a prior among the ruling Bianchi but as a soldier under arms at the battle of Campaldino and at the siege of Caprona. Later when the Neri were restored to power, Dante was banished and never again beheld his beloved city. In exile Dante transferred his allegiance to the Ghibellines though he upheld the Guelf view as to the primacy of the Church. Subsequently he tried, but in vain, to form a party independent of Guelf, Ghibelline, Bianchi or Neri.
May I conclude this chapter by giving you another view of Dante's environment? To point out the degeneracy of Florence, Dante becomes a laudator acti temporis in a picture of the earlier Florence that has never been equalled.
"Florence was abiding in peace, sober and modest. She had not necklace or coronal or women with ornamented shoes or girdle which was more to be looked at than the person. Nor yet did the daughter at her birth give fear to her father, for the time and dowry did not outrun measure on this or that side. She had not houses empty of families. I saw Bellencion Berti go girt with leather and bone and his lady come from the mirror with unpainted face. I saw him of the Nerlo and him of the Vecchio satisfied with unlined skin and their ladies with the spindle and the distaff. O! fortunate women, each was sure of her burial place" (Paradiso IV, 97).
But time changed all that. With her population vastly increased in Dante's day and her commerce on all seas and on every road and her banking system controlling the markets of Europe and the East, Florence had become such a mighty city that Pope Boniface VIII could say to the Florentine embassy who came to Rome to take part in the Jubilee of 1300: "Florence is the greatest of cities. She feeds, clothes, governs us all. Indeed she appears to rule the world. She and her people are, in truth, the fifth element of the universe." (The Guilds of Florence, p. 562.)
Such greatness was attained according to Dante only at the loss of pristine simplicity and virtue. So he apostrophizes his native city: "Rejoice O Florence, since thou art so mighty that thou canst spread thy wings over sea and land and thy name is known throughout Hell." Notorious for crime Florence still kept a big place in her life for religion. There "religion was abused but its beneficial effects continued to be manifest—vice was flagrant but it never lost the sense of shame—men were cruel but their cruelty was followed by sincere regrets—misfortunes were frequent and signal but they were accepted with resignation or with the hope of retrieval or men gloried in them on account of the cause in which they suffered." (Brother Azarias.)
And, meanwhile, side by side with fierce and bloody struggles the creative forces of art and architecture were making marvelous progress before the very eyes of Dante. Niccolo Pisano had finished his Sienna pulpit and with his son was engaged on his immortal works of sculpture. Orcagna had made a wonderful tabernacle for the Florentine church of San Michele, Cimabue had painted the Madonna which is now in the Rucellai chapel. Giotto had completed his work at Assisi and Rome and would soon give to the world the Florentine Campanile. Fra Sisto and Fra Ristoro had built the church Santa Maria Novella at Florence and Arnolfo di Cambio, while Dante was writing sonnets, had begun the duomo or cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The stout walls and lofty tower of the Bargello had sprung into beauteous being. Santa Croce destined to be the burial place of illustrious Italians, had been built and remains today one of Florence's greatest churches. St. John's Baptistry, il mio bel Giovanni, had received its external facing of marble, and in ten years after Dante's death would get its massive bronze doors which are unparalleled in the world.
The century closed with the opening of the great Jubilee at Rome. March twenty-fifth of the following year, 1300, Dante places as the time for his journey through the realms of the unseen—the story of which is told in the Divina Commedia. If sympathy with Dante and his work is not aroused already, perhaps these two quotations may quicken your interest.
Charles Elliot Norton writes: "There are few other works of man, perhaps there is no other, which affords such evidence as the Divine Comedy, of uninterrupted consistency of purpose, of sustained vigor of imagination, and of steady force of character controlling alike the vagaries of the poetic temperament, the wavering of human purpose, the fluctuation of human powers, the untowardness of circumstances. From the beginning to the end of his work of many years there is no flagging of energy, no indication of weakness. The shoulders burdened by a task almost too great for mortal strength, never tremble under their load."
And Dr. Frank Crane, a foremost writer of the syndicate press, says "I have put a good deal of hard labor digging into Dante and while I cannot say that I ever got from him any direct usable material, yet I no more regret my hours spent with him than I regret the beautiful landscapes I have seen, the great music I have heard, the wise and noble souls I have met, the wondrous dreams I have had. These are all a part of one's education, of one's equipment for life and perhaps the best part."
DANTE THE MAN
DANTE THE MAN
Fifty-five years ago when called on for a poem to celebrate the sixth hundredth anniversary of Dante's birth, Tennyson, feeling his own littleness before "this central man of all the world," wrote:
"King, that has reigned six hundred years and grown In power and ever growest I, wearing but the garland of a day, Cast at thy feet one flower that fades away."
New tributes to the genius of Dante will be offered by our generation, for already great preparations are under way in all parts of Italy and the literary world to commemorate in 1921, the six hundredth anniversary of the death of the author of the greatest of all Christian poems. The question naturally suggests itself: Has not the world moved forward many centuries from Dante's viewpoint and lost interest in many things regarded as truths or at least as burning issues by Dante? Who is now concerned with the Ptolomaic system of astronomy, which is so often the subject of Dante's thought? Who is now interested in the tragic jealousies and injustices suffered by the people of Florence which led to the bitter feuds that helped to make Dante the great poet? Who, in this twentieth century so intent upon making the world safe for democracy, has sympathy with Dante's advocated scheme of a world-wide absolute monarchy as the cure for the ills of the society of his day? Is this generation which sees Italy united as a result of the overthrow of the Papal states, so universally concerned with Papal claims which were matters of vital importance to Dante and his generation? Is our era, which unfortunately looks upon religion as a negligible factor and not as the animating principle of life, interested in the golden age of faith of which Dante is the embodiment, and his message in which the eternal is the object?
Yet, Dante's following is today larger than ever before; his empire over minds and hearts is more extensive. The moving pictures feature his Inferno; the press issues, even in languages not his own, such a mass of books and articles concerning him that a specialist can hardly keep track of the output. In the universities, especially of Harvard, Cornell and Columbia, not to speak of those in other lands, the courses on Dante attract an unusually large number of students. Outside of the academic atmosphere there are thousands of readers who still find in his writings, a solace in grief, a strength in temptation, a deep sense of reality, permanent though unseen, of the love of God and of His justice. The reasons are not far away.
"Our poet," says Grandgent "was a many sided genius who has a message for nearly everyone."
Dante's compelling renown among us, is due says Dr. Frank Crane both "to the intrinsic greatness of the man's personality and to the sheer beauty of his craftsmanship."
"The secret of Dante's power" writes James Russell Lowell "is not far to seek. Whoever can express himself with the full force of unconscious sincerity will be found to have uttered something ideal and universal."
Whether one or all these reasons are the true explanation of the twentieth century's great interest in Dante, the fact remains, as Tennyson said, that far from being a waning classic, Dante "in power ever grows," and the interest he calls forth constitutes, as James Bryce observed in his Lowell Institute lectures "the literary phenomenon of England and America."
Now to Dante as the man let us turn. To know the fibre of his manhood will help us to appreciate the genius of his art. "It is needful to know Dante as man" wrote Charles Elliot Norton, "in order fully to appreciate him as poet." The thought is expressed in another way by James Russell Lowell: "The man behind the verse is far greater than the verse itself and Dante is not merely a great poet but an influence, part of the soul's resources in time of trouble. From him the soul learns that 'married to the truth she is a mistress but otherwise a slave shut out of all liberty'" (The Banquet). But that knowledge is dependent upon our intimacy with the life and spirit of Dante. In many other cases the knowledge of the life and personality of an author may not be essential to either our enjoyment or our understanding of his work. In the case of Dante "he faces his own mirror and so appears in the mid-foreground of his reflected word." Before looking into that mirror for Dante's picture, let us first recall some of the established facts in his life and then see what manner of man he appeared to those who were his contemporaries or who lived chronologically near him.
Dante was born in Florence in the year 1265. His father was a notary belonging to an old but decadent Guelph family, his mother, named Bella, was a daughter of Durante Abati, a Ghibelline noble. Whether his own family was regarded among the first families of nobility or not, it is certain that Dante enjoyed the honor of knowing that one of his forebears, Cacciaguida, had been knighted by Emperor Conrad II on the Second Crusade. Precocious Dante must have been, as a boy, with faculties and emotions extraordinarily developed, for in his ninth year, while attending a festal party, he fell in love with a little girl named Beatrice Portinari, eight years old. "Although still a child" to quote Boccaccio his earliest biographer "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." She became the wife of Simone dei Bardi, and died in her twenty-fourth year, the subject of many sonnets from her mystic lover who, if he had never written anything else, would have been entitled, by his book of sonnets, his New Life, to rank as a poet of the first class.
Two years after the death of Beatrice, Dante married Gemma Donati, a member of an old aristocratic family of Florence and by her had four children. In the period between the death of Beatrice and his marriage he had seen military service, having borne arms as a Guelph at the battle of Campaldino (Purg. V, 91-129) in which the Florentines defeated the Ghibelline league of Arezzo and he took part at the siege of Caprona and was present at its surrender by the Pisans (Inf., XXI, 95.) When he was thirty years old he became a member of the Special Council of the Republic, consisting of eight of the best and most influential citizens and in 1300, at the age of thirty-five, midway in the journey of his life, he was elected one of the six Priors (chief magistrates of his city) for the months of June and July. Shortly after this Dante with three others went to Rome on an embassy to Pope Boniface VIII to get that pontiff's veto to the intervention of Charles de Valois, brother of Philip IV of France, in the affairs of Florence. But there was delay in the transaction of the business and that gave the stranger time to win the city by treachery. When the news reached Dante, he hurried homeward. At Sienna he learned that his house had been pillaged and burned and he himself had been accused of malfeasance in office. Without a trial he was condemned to a heavy fine and to perpetual banishment under penalty that if he returned he would be burned alive. Then began his twenty years' exile—years in which he went sometimes almost begging and at all times even when he was an honored guest in the home of nobility—knowing as only an exile can know "how bitter is the bread of dependence and how steep the stranger's stairs." It was during his exile that Dante completed his immortal Divina Commedia, the child of his thought "cradled into poetry by wrong." Dante never again saw Florence for which he yearned with all the intensity of the Hebrew captives weeping on the rivers of Babylon for a sight of Jerusalem. Death came to free his undaunted soul in the year 1321 while he was a guest at Ravenna of Guido Novello da Polenta, a nephew of Francesca da Rimini. At Ravenna the last seat of Roman arts and letters, in a sepulchre attached to the convent of the Franciscan monks, he was buried with the honors due to a saint and a sage. The inscription on his epitaph said to have been composed by him on his deathbed, is paraphrased by Lowell in the following words:
"The rights of Monarchy, the Heavens, the stream of Fire, the Pit In vision seen, I sang as far as to the Fates seemed fit. But since my soul, an alien here, hath flown to nobler wars, And happier now, hath gone to seek its Maker with the stars, Here am I, Dante, shut, exiled from the ancestral shore Whom Florence, the fairest of all-least-loving mothers, bore."
Such is the brief outline of the outward life of him of whom Michelangelo declared:
"Ne'er walked the earth a greater man than he."
It will help us to a better understanding of that man if his likeness is impressed upon our memory. The portrait made by his friend Giotto, shows him as a young man perhaps of twenty to twenty-five years, with a face noble, beardless, strong, intelligent and pensive—a face which would not lead one to suspect an appreciation of humor. Yet writers find two distinct forms of that quality—a playfulness in his eclogues and a grotesqueness in certain of his assignments to punishments in Hell. Contrasting with this picture of his early life is the face of his death mask and of the Naples bust, suggesting the lines
"How stern of lineament, how grim The father was of Tuscan song."
Here we see him mature with strength of character in every feature and a seriousness of mien which shows a man with whom one might not take liberties. It was of Dante in mature life that Boccaccio wrote: "Our poet was of moderate height and after reaching maturity was accustomed to walk somewhat bowed with a slow and gentle pace, clad always in such sober dress as befitted his ripe years. His face was long, his nose aquiline and his eyes rather large than small. His jaws were large and his lower lip protruded beyond the upper. His complexion was dark and his expression very melancholy and thoughtful. His manners, whether in public or at home, were wonderful, composed and restrained, and in all ways he was more courteous and civil than any one else."
Bruni, on the other hand, who wrote a century later describes Dante as if he had in mind Giotto's fresco of the poet. This is Bruni's word-picture: "He was a man of great refinement, of medium height and a pleasant but deeply serious face. It was remarkable that although he studied incessantly, none would have supposed from his happy manner and youthful way of speaking that he had studied at all." However well these pictures may visualize the poet for us, I cannot help thinking that Dante himself, after the manner of great artists who paint their own pictures, gives us a far better portrait of himself. What we know of him from others is as nothing compared to the revelation he has made of himself in his writings. For, as Dr. Zahm, in his Great Inspirers, has said: "Dante, although the most concealing of men was, paradoxical as it may seem, the most self-revealing." The indirect recorder of his own life, he discloses to us an intimate view of his spiritual struggles, of the motives which actuated him, of the passions he experienced, not to speak of the judgments he formed upon all great questions. "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, poetry, happiness, the world to come and all that of which it most imports us to have accurate knowledge." Let us then see the man as reflected in his writings.
First of all he reveals himself as a man profoundly animated by religion. He is not a Huysmanns or a Francois Coppee, a Brunetiere, a Paul Bourget, forsaking the religious teachings of his youth only to embrace them in mature life. Never for a moment did he deflect from the Catholic doctrine, though his studies led him to the consideration of the most subtle arguments raised against it. He was indeed the defender and champion of faith, having no sympathy for a mind which would lose itself in seeking the solution of the incomprehensible mysteries of religion. So he has Virgil say:
"Insensate he who thinks with mortal ken To pierce Infinitude which doth enfold Three persons in one substance. Seek not, then, O Mortal race, for reasons, but believe And be content, for had all been seen No need there was for Mary to conceive. Men have ye known who thus desired in vain And whose desires, that might at rest have been, Now constitute a source of endless pain. Plato, the Stagerite, and many more I here allude to. Then his head he bent, Was silent and a troubled aspect wore." (Purg., III, 34.)
Guided by the wisdom he thus enunciated Dante from youth to death maintained a child-like faith that satisfied his intellect and animated his sentiments. His faith really grew into a passion. His fidelity to the truth of the doctrines of the Church or to the sacred offices of the papacy was never shaken either by the scandals of clerical life or the opposition of different popes to his political ideals. Frequently he raised his voice in protest yet, notwithstanding his censures against what he considered abuses in the external administration of the Church and the policy of her popes, on his part there was not the least suspicion of unsettled faith or revolutionary design. Strongly convinced of the divinity of the Church, his passionate nature could not help execrating the human element that would weaken her influence. "He teaches that the mystical Vine of the Church still grows and Peter and Paul who died for it, still live. He holds by that Church. He begs Christians not to be moved feather-like by every wind of doctrine. 'You have' he tells them 'the Old Testament and the New. The Pastor of the Church guides you, let this suffice for your salvation'" (Brother Azarias). In his devotional life Dante is just as ardent as he is firm in his adherence to dogma. While all Catholics are held to profess a common creed, each may follow the bent of his disposition and sympathy in pious practices, theologically called devotions. It seems to me that Dante had three such devotions which he practised intensely in his inner life.
First, devotion to the sacred Humanity of Christ. In eleven places does he speak at length of Christ's two-fold nature as God and Man; in ten places does he refer to Christ as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and wherever Cristo occurs at the end of a line, Dante out of reverence for the Sacred Person does not rime with it, but repeats the name itself. The climax of the Purgatorio is the apparition of the Griffin, the symbol of Christ. Further, on the stellar white cross of red-glowing Mars the poet shows the figure of the Redeemer. In the Empyrean Christ is represented in the unveiled glory of His human and divine natures. So teaching the doctrine of the Incarnation most clearly and most ardently Dante seeks to promote this cultus as the soul of the Catholic religion.
Dante's second special devotion is to the Blessed Virgin. His Paradiso contains the best treatise on Mariology. The whole Divine Comedy indeed is the poet's loving testimonial of gratitude to the Madonna. It was through Mary that his visionary voyage to the other world was made possible. She rescued him when he was enslaved by sin and sent as his successive guides Virgil, Beatrice and St. Bernard. She of all creatures is proclaimed on every terrace of Purgatory first in virtue and highest in dignity and her example is exhibited as an unfailing source of inspiration to the Souls, to endure suffering cheerfully and to make themselves, like her, the exemplars of goodness in the highest degree. In Paradiso she is seen by the poet in all her unspeakable loveliness and beatitude and as Queen of Angels and of Saints her intercession is favorably invoked that Dante might enjoy the Vision of God himself. In the last canto of the poem her super-eminence and incomparable excellence are sung "with a sweetness of expression, a depth of philosophy and a tenderness of feeling that have never been surpassed in human language."
"Thou Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, Humble and high beyond all other creatures, The limit fixed of the eternal counsel; Thou art the one who such nobility To human nature gave that its Creator Did not disdain to make Himself its creature. Within thy womb rekindled was the love By heat of which in the eternal peace, After such wise, this flower was germinated. Here unto us thou art a noonday torch Of charity, and below there among mortals Thou art the living fountainhead of hope.
Lady, thou art so great and so prevailing, That he who wishes grace nor runs to thee, His aspirations without wings would fly. Not only thy benignity gives succor To him who asketh it, but oftentimes Forerunneth of its own accord the asking. In thee compassion is, in thee is pity, In thee magnificence; in thee unites Whatever of goodness is in any creature."
The third private devotion of Dante is devotion to the Souls in Purgatory—a pious practice founded upon the scriptural words: "It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins." Not only does Dante answer the objection raised as to the efficacy of prayer offered for the souls in Purgatory (VI, 28) but in many passages he promises his own prayers and works and seeks to arouse in others on earth a helpful sympathy for those souls. "Truly" he says, "we ought to help them to wash away their stains which they have borne hence, so that, pure and light, they may go forth to the starry spheres," (Purg. VI, 34.)
To sum up Dante's attachment to his religion we can truly say not only his life but his great poem radiates the spirit and doctrine of the Church. Hettinger says of Dante: "In truth he anticipated the most pregnant developments of Catholic doctrine, mastered its subtlest distinctions and treated its hardest problems with almost faultless accuracy. Were all the libraries in the world destroyed and the Sacred Scripture with them, the whole Catholic system of doctrine and morals might be almost reconstructed out of the Divina Commedia."
Intensity, indeed, is the characteristic of Dante's spiritual life. In bringing that quality to his faith and religious practice he was only manifesting the operation of the dominating quality which regulated his whole life and shaped all his mental and emotional habits. The realm of his thought and feeling was truly the land of the strenuous life. Having once set out to say of Beatrice what had never been said of any woman, Dante applied himself to his prodigious task with a consistency of purpose that was unmoved by persecution and unshaken by time. In all the years that he spent in the composition of the Divina Commedia there was no flagging of interest, no indication of weakness. No one ever applied himself with more complete absorption or with greater power of unfaltering concentration, just as no one ever felt more deeply the outrageous arrows of fortune or the transcendent supremacy of love. It is precisely because of this intensity that his thoughts and feelings affect us so profoundly six centuries later.
Intense in his own life Dante had no sympathy with slackers or the lukewarm whom he characterizes as never having been alive, i.e. of never having awakened to responsibility to take part in good or evil. As a consequence they never contributed anything to society. Because in this life they shifted from one side to another, they are now depicted running perpetually after an aimlessly dodging banner. Here is the description of the punishment of the lukewarm:
"Now sighs, cries, and shrill shrieks rang through the starless air: Whereat at first I began to weep, strange tongues, hurried speech, words of pain, accents of wrath, voices loud and weak, and the sound of hands accompanying them, made a tumult which revolves forever in that air endlessly dark, like sands blowing before a whirlwind. And I, whose head was hooded with horror, exclaimed: 'Master, what is it I hear? What kind of people is it that seems so vanquished by grief? And he replied: 'This is the miserable way followed by the sorry souls of those who lived without infamy and without glory. They are mingled with the mean choir of those angels who were not rebels and were not faithful to God, but were for themselves. Heaven cast them out lest its beauty should be spoiled; and deep Hell will not receive them, because the damned might derive some satisfaction from them.'
"'Master,' I said, 'what is so grievous to them which makes them complain so loud?' 'I shall tell thee right briefly' he answered. 'These people have no hope of death and their blind life's so vile that they are envious of any other lot. The world allows no report of them to last: mercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them but look and pass by!' And I, looking, saw a banner which ran circling so swift that it seemed scornful of all rest: and after it there came trailing such a long train of people that I should never have thought death had undone so many. When I had made out one or two of them I saw and recognized the shade of him who, for cowardice, made the great refusal. Forthwith I understood and was convinced that this was the sect of poltroons, obnoxious both to God and to God's enemies. These luckless creatures who never had been really alive, were naked and badly stung by flies and wasps which were there. These insects streaked their faces with blood which, mixed with tears, was caught by disgusting worms at their feet—" (Inferno III, 33. Grandgent's translation.) In reading that description of the punishment of the lukewarm, one cannot fail to observe that not one is called by name. Because they "lived without infamy and without glory" their name deserves to be lost forever to the world.
Of the renown of Dante's own name our poet has no misgivings. He reveals himself as a man having supreme confidence in his own powers. Boccaccio represents him as saying when he was with his party at the head of the government of the republic of Florence, and when there was question of sending him on an embassy to Rome, "If I go, who stays? And if I stay, who goes?" "As if he alone," is the comment of Boccaccio, "was worth among them all, and as if the others were nothing worth except through him." It is certain that Dante put a high valuation upon his genius, an estimate due, perhaps, to the belief he held, like Napoleon, in the potency of his star. He was born under the constellation of the Gemini and to them in gratitude for his self-recognized talent he gives praise:
"O glorious stars, O light impregnated With mighty virtue, from which I acknowledge All of my genius whatso'er it be, With you was born, and hid himself with you, He who is father of all mortal life, When first I tasted of the Tuscan air." (Par. XXII, 112)
Certain it is that Dante acted on the counsel which, addressed to himself, he puts into the mouth of his beloved teacher, Brunetto Latini, "Follow thy star and thou cans't not miss the glorious port." (Inf., XV, 55.) In Purgatorio Dante says: "My name as yet marks no great sound," but he boasts that he will surpass in fame the Guidos, writers of verse: "Perchance some one is already born who will drive both from out the nest." He is so sure that posterity will confer immortality upon his work that he does not hesitate to make himself sixth among the greatest writers of the world. This passage occurs when he enters Limbus accompanied by Virgil to whom a group of spirits, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, make salutation. (Inf., IV, 76.) Posterity has bestowed greater renown on Dante's name than even he presumed to hope, for it has placed him in the Court of Letters with only one of the writers of antiquity, Homer, and with two subsequent writers, Cervantes and Shakespeare.
Naturally we think that a writer who was so positively confident and boastful of his powers must have been given to pride and Dante indeed plainly indicates to us that he was guilty of this. But it was pride, we think, that was honorable and not a vice, a pride of which a lesser light, Lacordaire says, "By the grace of God, I abhor mediocrity." In the dark wood Dante represents the Lion (Pride) as preventing him from ascending the mountain—"He seemed to be coming to me with head upreared and with such raging hunger, that the air appeared to be in fear of him." (Inf., I, 43.)
And that the poet's trepidation was justified he later makes known (Purg. XI, 136) when he expresses the fear that for pride he may be eternally punished. Perhaps it was because Dante recognized the pride of his learning, of his ancestry, of his associations with distinguished personages as his besetting sin that he exercised his skill as a master in showing us profound imagery representing the characteristics of pride. Carved out of the mountain in the first circle of a terrace of Purgatory are scenes illustrative of humility. While looking on these scenes, which seem to live and speak in their beautiful and compelling reality, the poet turns and sees approaching the forms of the proud. On earth they had exalted themselves as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders, so now they are seen bent under huge burdens of stone, crumpled up in postures of agonizing discomfort. The poet, to let us know that he shares in their punishment, says:
"With equal pace as oxen in the yoke, I, with that laden spirit, journey'd on Long as the mild instructor suffer'd me." (Purg. XII, 1)
He apostrophizes them, but the words are really an upbraiding of himself for pride.
"O ye proud Christians, wretched weary ones, Who in the vision of the mind infirm, Confidence have in your backsliding steps, Do ye not comprehend that we are worms Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly That flieth unto judgment without screen? Who floats aloft your spirit high in air? Like are ye unto insects undeveloped Even as the worm in whom formation fails! As to sustain a ceiling or a roof In place of corbel, sometimes a figure Is seen to join unto its knees its breast Which makes of the unreal, real anguish Arise in him who sees it: fashioned thus Beheld I these, when I had ta'en good heed True is it, they were more or less bent down According as they were more or less laden And he who had most patience on his looks Weeping did seem to say I can no more." (Purg. X, 121)
Like all great men of undoubted sincerity Dante was intellectually big enough to change his mind when a new view presented itself in condemnation of an earlier judgment. So his "Vernacular Composition" retracts a statement he had made in the New Life where he had held that as amatory poems were addressed to ladies ignorant of Latin, Love should be the only subject the poet ought to present in the vernacular. He learned later and published his new view that there is good precedent for treating in the vulgar tongue not only Love but also Righteousness and War.
Other examples of his honesty of mind are furnished in the Paradise where he expresses through the mouths of his disembodied teachers views opposed to those he had already advanced in his other works. Thus his theory of the spots on the moon, his statement as to the respective rank of the angelic orders, his assumption that Hebrew was the language of Adam and Eve—all yield to a maturer conception in contradiction to his original views. He is, it is true, sometimes blinded by partisanship or lacking in the historical perspective necessary for a true judgment of his contemporaries—but Dante is naturally so sincere a man that he is eager to be just to every one. Perhaps there is no better instance of the exercise of this quality than in his assigning to the heaven of Jupiter, Constantine, to whose supposed donation of vast territories, then regarded as genuine, Dante ascribes the corruption of the Church.
Many readers, whose acquaintance with our poet does not extend beyond the Inferno, see in him only the incarnation of savagery and scorn. They fail to pay tribute to the wonderful power of his friendship or to recognize that his sufferings of adversity and injustice gave birth to deep passion. To them he seems only to place his few friends in Heaven and in Hell to roast all his enemies. It must be at once confessed that there are instances in the Divina Commedia which, taken by themselves, would lead one to so superficial an estimate of the man. In Canto VIII of the Inferno Dante with his guide, Virgil, enters a bark on the Styx and sails across the broad marsh. During the passage a spirit all covered with mud addresses Dante, who recognizes him as Filippo Argenti, a Florentine notorious for his arrogance and brutal violence. "Master," says Dante to Virgil, "I should be glad to see him dipped in this swill ere we quit the lake." And he to me, 'Before the shore comes to thy view thou shalt be satisfied.' A little while after this I saw the muddy people make such a rending of him that even now I praise and thank God for it. Such gloating over suffering surely seems to say to you: Here we have a man of a cruel vindictive nature.