HotFreeBooks.com
Stories from the Italian Poets: With Lives of the Writers, Volume 1
by Leigh Hunt
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

STORIES FROM THE ITALIAN POETS: WITH LIVES OF THE WRITERS.

BY LEIGH HUNT.



IN TWO VOLUMES. VOL. I.



MDCCCXLVI.



TO SIR PERCY SHELLEY, BART.

MY DEAR SIR PERCY,

As I know no man who surpasses yourself either in combining a love of the most romantic fiction with the coolest good sense, or in passing from the driest metaphysical questions to the heartiest enjoyment of humour,—I trust that even a modesty so true as yours will not grudge me the satisfaction of inscribing these volumes with your name.

That you should possess such varieties of taste is no wonder, considering what an abundance of intellectual honours you inherit; nor might the world have been the better for it, had they been tastes, and nothing more. But that you should inherit also that zeal for justice to mankind, which has become so Christian a feature in the character of the age, and that you should include in that zeal a special regard for the welfare of your Father's Friend, are subjects of constant pleasurable reflection to

Your obliged and affectionate

LEIGH HUNT.



PREFACE.

The purpose of these volumes is, to add to the stock of tales from the Italian writers; to retain as much of the poetry of the originals as it is in the power of the writer's prose to compass; and to furnish careful biographical notices of the authors. There have been several collections of stories from the Novellists of Italy, but none from the Poets; and it struck me that prose versions from these, of the kind here offered to the public, might not be unwillingly received. The stories are selected from the five principal narrative poets, Dante, Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso; they comprise the most popular of such as are fit for translation; are reduced into one continuous narrative, when diffused and interrupted, as in the instances of those of Angelica, and Armida; are accompanied with critical and explanatory notes; and, in the case of Dante, consist of an abstract of the poet's whole work. The volumes are, furthermore, interspersed with the most favourite morceaux of the originals, followed sometimes with attempts to versify them; and in the Appendix, for the furtherance of the study of the Italian language, are given entire stories, also in the original, and occasionally rendered in like manner. The book is particularly intended for such students or other lovers of the language as are pleased with any fresh endeavours to recommend it; and, at the same time, for such purely English readers as wish to know something about Italian poetry, without having leisure to cultivate its acquaintance.

I did not intend in the first instance to depart from the plan of selection in the case of Dante; but when I considered what an extraordinary person he was,—how intense is every thing which he says,—how widely he has re-attracted of late the attention of the world,—how willingly perhaps his poem might be regarded by the reader as being itself one continued story (which, in fact, it is), related personally of the writer,—and lastly, what a combination of difficulties have prevented his best translators in verse from giving the public a just idea of his almost Scriptural simplicity,—I began to think that an abstract of his entire work might possibly be looked upon as supplying something of a desideratum. I am aware that nothing but verse can do perfect justice to verse; but besides the imperfections which are pardonable, because inevitable, in all such metrical endeavours, the desire to impress a grand and worshipful idea of Dante has been too apt to lead his translators into a tone and manner the reverse of his passionate, practical, and creative style—a style which may be said to write things instead of words; and thus to render every word that is put out of its place, or brought in for help and filling up, a misrepresentation. I do not mean to say, that he himself never does any thing of the sort, or does not occasionally assume too much of the oracle and the schoolmaster, in manner as well as matter; but passion, and the absence of the superfluous, are the chief characteristics of his poetry. Fortunately, this sincerity of purpose and utterance in Dante render him the least pervertible of poets in a sincere prose translation; and, since I ventured on attempting one, I have had the pleasure of meeting with an express recommendation of such a version in an early number of the Edinburgh Review.[1]

The abstract of Dante, therefore, in these volumes (with every deprecation that becomes me of being supposed to pretend to give a thorough idea of any poetry whatsoever, especially without its metrical form) aspires to be regarded as, at all events, not exhibiting a false idea of the Dantesque spirit in point of feeling and expression. It is true, I have omitted long tedious lectures of scholastic divinity, and other learned absurdities of the time, which are among the bars to the poem's being read through, even in Italy (which Foscolo tells us is never the case); and I have compressed the work in other passages not essentially necessary to the formation of a just idea of the author. But quite enough remains to suggest it to the intelligent; and in no instance have I made additions or alterations. There is warrant—I hope I may say letter—for every thing put down. Dante is the greatest poet for intensity that ever lived; and he excites a corresponding emotion in his reader—I wish I could say, always on the poet's side; but his ferocious hates and bigotries too often tempt us to hate the bigot, and always compel us to take part with the fellow-creatures whom he outrages. At least, such is their effect on myself. Nor will he or his worshippers suffer us to criticise his faults with mere reference to the age in which he lived. I should have been glad to do so; but the claims made for him, even by himself, will not allow it. We are called upon to look on him as a divine, a prophet, an oracle in all respects for all time. Such a man, however, is the last whom a reporter is inclined to misrepresent. We respect his sincerity too much, ferocious and arrogant though it be; and we like to give him the full benefit of the recoil of his curses and maledictions. I hope I have not omitted one. On the other hand, as little have I closed my feelings against the lovely and enchanting sweetness which this great semi-barbarian sometimes so affectingly utters. On those occasions he is like an angel enclosed for penance in some furious giant, and permitted to weep through the creature's eyes.

The stories from goodnatured Pulci I have been obliged to compress for other reasons—chiefly their excessive diffuseness. A paragraph of the version will sometimes comprise many pages. Those of Boiardo and Ariosto are more exact; and the reader will be good enough to bear in mind, that nothing is added to any of the poets, different as the case might seem here and there on comparison with the originals. An equivalent for whatever is said is to be found in some part of the context—generally in letter, always in spirit. The least characteristically exact passages are some in the love-scenes of Tasso; for I have omitted the plays upon words and other corruptions in style, in which that poet permitted himself to indulge. But I have noticed the circumstance in the comment. In other respects, I have endeavoured to make my version convey some idea of the different styles and genius of the writers,—of the severe passion of Dante; of the overflowing gaiety and affecting sympathies of Pulci, several of whose passages in the Battle of Roncesvalles are masterpieces of pathos; of the romantic and inventive elegance of Boiardo; the great cheerful universality of Ariosto, like a healthy anima mundi; and the ambitious irritability, the fairy imagination, and tender but somewhat effeminate voluptuousness of the poet of Armida and Rinaldo. I do not pretend that prose versions of passages from these writers can supersede the necessity of metrical ones, supposing proper metrical ones attainable. They suffice for them, in some respects, less than for Dante, the manner in their case being of more importance to the effect. But with all due respect to such translators as Harrington, Rose, and Wiffen, their books are not Ariosto and Tasso, even in manner. Harrington, the gay "godson" of Queen Elizabeth, is not always unlike Ariosto; but when not in good spirits he becomes as dull as if her majesty had frowned on him. Rose was a man of wit, and a scholar; yet he has undoubtedly turned the ease and animation of his original into inversion and insipidity. And Wiffen, though elegant and even poetical, did an unfortunate thing for Tasso, when he gave an additional line and a number of paraphrastic thoughts to a stanza already tending to the superfluous. Fairfax himself, who, upon the whole, and with regard to a work of any length, is the best metrical translator our language has seen, and, like Chapman, a genuine poet, strangely aggravated the sins of prettiness and conceit in his original, and added to them a love of tautology amounting to that of a lawyer. As to Hoole, he is below criticism; and other versions I have not happened to see. Now if I had no acquaintance with the Italian language, I confess I would rather get any friend who had, to read to me a passage out of Dante, Tasso, or Ariosto, into the first simple prose that offered itself, than go to any of the above translators for a taste of it, Fairfax excepted; and we have seen with how much allowance his sample would have to be taken. I have therefore, with some restrictions, only ventured to do for the public what I would have had a friend do for myself.

The Critical and Biographical Notices I did not intend to make so long at first; but the interest grew upon me; and I hope the reader will regard some of them—Dante's and Tasso's in particular—as being "stories" themselves, after their kind,—"stories, alas, too true;" "romances of real life." The extraordinary character of Dante, which is personally mixed up with his writings beyond that of any other poet, has led me into references to his church and creed, unavoidable at any time in the endeavour to give a thorough estimate of his genius, and singularly demanded by certain phenomena of the present day. I hold those phenomena to be alike feeble and fugitive; but only so by reason of their being openly so proclaimed; for mankind have a tendency to the absurd, if their imaginations are not properly directed; and one of the uses of poetry is, to keep the faculty in a healthy state, and cause it to know its duties. Dante, in the fierce egotism of his passions, and the strange identification of his knowledge with all that was knowable, would fain have made his poetry both a sword against individuals, and a prop for the support of the superstition that corrupted them. This was reversing the duty of a Christian and a great man; and there happen to be existing reasons why it is salutary to chew that he had no right to do so, and must not have his barbarism confounded with his strength. Machiavelli was of opinion, that if Christianity had not reverted to its first principles, by means of the poverty and pious lives of St. Francis and St. Dominic,[2] the faith would have been lost. It may have been; but such are not the secrets of its preservation in times of science and progression, when the spirit of inquiry has established itself among all classes, and nothing is taken for granted, as it used to be. A few persons here and there, who confound a small superstitious reaction in England with the reverse of the fact all over the rest of Europe, may persuade themselves, if they please, that the world has not advanced in knowledge for the last three centuries, and so get up and cry aloud to us out of obsolete horn-books; but the community laugh at them. Every body else is inquiring into first principles, while they are dogmatising on a forty-ninth proposition. The Irish themselves, as they ought to do, care more for their pastors than for the Pope; and if any body wishes to know what is thought of his Holiness at head-quarters, let him consult the remarkable and admirable pamphlet which has lately issued from the pen of Mr. Mazzini.[3] I have the pleasure of knowing excellent Roman Catholics; I have suffered in behalf of their emancipation, and would do so again to-morrow; but I believe that if even their external form of Christianity has any chance of survival three hundred years hence, it will have been owing to the appearance meanwhile of some extraordinary man in power, who, in the teeth of worldly interests, or rather in charitable and sage inclusion of them, shall have proclaimed that the time had arrived for living in the flower of Christian charity, instead of the husks and thorns which may have been necessary to guard it. If it were possible for some new and wonderful Pope to make this change, and draw a line between these two Christian epochs, like that between the Old and New Testaments, the world would feel inclined to prostrate itself again and for ever at the feet of Rome. In a catholic state of things like that, delighted should I be, for one, to be among the humblest of its communicants. How beautiful would their organs be then! how ascending to an unperplexing Heaven their incense! how unselfish their salvation! how intelligible their talk about justice and love! It would be far more easy, however, for the Church of England to do this than the Church of Rome; since the former would not feel itself hampered with pretensions to infallibility. A Church once reformed, may reform itself again and again, till it remove every blemish in the way of its perfection. And God grant this may be the lot of the Church of my native country. Its beautiful old ivied places of worship would then want no harmony of accordance with its gentle and tranquil scenery; no completeness of attraction to the reflecting and the kind.

But if Charity (and by Charity I do not mean mere toleration, or any other pretended right to permit others to have eyes like ourselves, but whatever the delightful Greek word implies of good and lovely), if this truly and only divine consummation of all Christian doctrine be not thought capable of taking a form of belief "strong" enough, apart from threats that revolt alike the heart and the understanding, Superstition must look out for some new mode of dictation altogether; for the world is outgrowing the old.

* * * * *

I cannot, in gratitude for the facilities afforded to myself, as well as for a more obvious and public reason, dismiss this Preface without congratulating men of letters on the establishment and increasing prosperity of the London Library, an institution founded for the purpose of accommodating subscribers with such books, at their own houses, as could only be consulted hitherto at the British Museum. The sole objection to the Museum is thus done away, and the literary world has a fair prospect of possessing two book-institutions instead of one, each with its distinct claims to regard, and presenting in combination all that the student can wish; for while it is highly desirable that authors should be able to have standard works at their command, when sickness or other circumstances render it impossible for them to go to the Museum, it is undoubtedly requisite that one great collection should exist in which they are sure to find the same works unremoved, in case of necessity,—not to mention curious volumes of all sorts, manuscripts, and a world of books of reference.

[Footnote 1: "It is probable that a prose translation would give a better idea of the genius and manner of this poet than any metrical one." Vol. i. p. 310.]

[Footnote 2: Discorsi sopra la Prinza Deca di Tito Livio, lib. iii. cap. i. At p. 230 of the present volume I have too hastily called St. Dominic the "founder of the Inquisition." It is generally conceded, I believe, by candid Protestant inquirers, that he was not; whatever zeal in the foundation and support of the tribunal may have been manifested by his order. But this does not acquit him of the cruelty for which he has been praised by Dante. He joined in the sanguinary persecution of the Albigenses.]

[Footnote: 3 It is entitled, "Italy, Austria, and the Pope;" and is full, not only of the eloquence of zeal, and of evidences of intellectual power, but of the most curious and instructive information.]



CONTENTS

OF

THE FIRST VOLUME.

* * * * *

DANTE.

CRITICAL NOTICE OF HIS LIFE AND GENIUS

THE ITALIAN PILGRIMS PROGRESS

I. The Journey through Hell II. Purgatory. III. Heaven

PULCI.

CRITICAL NOTICE OF HIS LIFE AND GENIUS

HUMOURS OF GIANTS

THE BATTLE OF RONCESVALLES

APPENDIX.

I. Story of Paulo and Francesca. Translation.

II. Accounts given by different writers of the circumstances relating to Paulo and Francesca; concluding with the only facts ascertained.

III. Story of Ugolino. Translation. Real Story of Ugolino, and Chaucer's feeling respecting the Poem.

IV. Picture of Florence in the time of Dante's Ancestors. Translation.

V. The Monks and the Giants

VI. Passages in the Battle of Roncesvalles.



DANTE

Critical Notice

OF

DANTE'S LIFE AND GENIUS.[1]

Dante was a very great poet, a man of the strongest passions, a claimant of unbounded powers to lead and enlighten the world; and he lived in a semi-barbarous age, as favourable to the intensity of his imagination, as it was otherwise to the rest of his pretensions. Party zeal, and the fluctuations of moral and critical opinion, have at different periods over-rated and depreciated his memory; and if, in the following attempt to form its just estimate, I have found myself compelled, in some important respects, to differ with preceding writers, and to protest in particular against his being regarded as a proper teacher on any one point, poetry excepted, and as far as all such genius and energy cannot in some degree help being, I have not been the less sensible of the wonderful nature of that genius, while acting within the circle to which it belongs. Dante was indeed so great a poet, and at the same time exhibited in his personal character such a mortifying exception to what we conceive to be the natural wisdom and temper of great poets; in other words, he was such a bigoted and exasperated man, and sullied his imagination with so much that is contradictory to good feeling, in matters divine as well as human; that I should not have thought myself justified in assisting, however humbly, to extend the influence of his writings, had I not believed a time to have arrived, when the community may profit both from the marvels of his power and the melancholy absurdity of its contradictions.

Dante Alighieri, who has always been known by his Christian rather than surname (partly owing to the Italian predilection for Christian names, and partly to the unsettled state of patronymics in his time), was the son of a lawyer of good family in Florence, and was born in that city on the 14th of May 1265 (sixty-three years before the birth of Chaucer). The stock is said to have been of Roman origin, of the race of the Frangipani; but the only certain trace of it is to Cacciaguida, a Florentine cavalier of the house of the Elisei, who died in the Crusades. Dante gives an account of him in his Paradiso.[2] Cacciaguida married a lady of the Alighieri family of the Valdipado; and, giving the name to one of his children, they subsequently retained it as a patronymic in preference to their own. It would appear, from the same poem, not only that the Alighieri were the more important house, but that some blot had darkened the scutcheon of the Elisei; perhaps their having been poor, and transplanted (as he seems to imply) from some disreputable district. Perhaps they were known to have been of ignoble origin; for, in the course of one of his most philosophical treatises, he bursts into an extraordinary ebullition of ferocity against such as adduce a knowledge of that kind as an argument against a family's acquired nobility; affirming that such brutal stuff should be answered not with words, but with the dagger.[3]

The Elisei, however, must have been of some standing; for Macchiavelli, in his History of Florence, mentions them in his list of the early Guelph and Ghibelline parties, where the side which they take is different from that of the poet's immediate progenitors.[4] The arms of the Alighieri (probably occasioned by the change in that name, for it was previously written Aldighieri) are interesting on account of their poetical and aspiring character. They are a golden wing on a field azure.[5]

It is generally supposed that the name Dante is an abbreviation of Durante; but this is not certain, though the poet had a nephew so called. Dante is the name he goes by in the gravest records, in law-proceedings, in his epitaph, in the mention of him put by himself into the mouth of a blessed spirit. Boccaccio intimates that he was christened Dante, and derives the name from the ablative case of dans (giving)—a probable etymology, especially for a Christian appellation. As an abbreviation of Durante, it would correspond in familiarity with the Ben of Ben Jonson—a diminutive that would assuredly not have been used by grave people on occasions like those mentioned, though a wit of the day gave the masons a shilling to carve "O rare Ben Jonson!" on his grave stone. On the other hand, if given at the font, the name of Ben would have acquired all the legal gravity of Benjamin. In the English Navy List, not long ago, one of our gallant admirals used to figure as "Billy Douglas."

Of the mother of Dante nothing is known except that she was his father's second wife, and that her Christian name was Bella, or perhaps surname Bello. It might, however, be conjectured, from the remarkable and only opportunity which our author has taken of alluding to her, that he derived his disdainful character rather from his mother than father.[6] The father appears to have died during the boyhood of his illustrious son.

The future poet, before he had completed his ninth year, conceived a romantic attachment to a little lady who had just entered hers, and who has attained a celebrity of which she was destined to know nothing. This was the famous Beatrice Portinari, daughter of a rich Florentine who founded more than one charitable institution. She married another man, and died in her youth; but retained the Platonical homage of her young admirer, living and dead, and became the heroine of his great poem.

It is unpleasant to reduce any portion of a romance to the events of ordinary life; but with the exception of those who merely copy from one another, there has been such a conspiracy on the part of Dante's biographers to overlook at least one disenchanting conclusion to be drawn to that effect from the poet's own writings, that the probable truth of the matter must here for the first time be stated. The case, indeed, is clear enough from his account of it. The natural tendencies of a poetical temperament (oftener evinced in a like manner than the world in general suppose) not only made the boy-poet fall in love, but, in the truly Elysian state of the heart at that innocent and adoring time of life, made him fancy he had discovered a goddess in the object of his love; and strength of purpose as well as imagination made him grow up in the fancy. He disclosed himself, as time advanced, only by his manner—received complacent recognitions in company from the young lady—offended her by seeming to devote himself to another (see the poem in the Vita Nuova, beginning "Ballata io vo")—rendered himself the sport of her and her young friends by his adoring timidity (see the 5th and 6th sonnets in the same work)—in short, constituted her a paragon of perfection, and enabled her, by so doing, to shew that she was none. He says, that finding himself unexpectedly near her one day in company, he trembled so, and underwent such change of countenance, that many of the ladies present began to laugh with her about him—"si gabbavano di me." And he adds, in verse,

"Con l'altre donne mia vista gabbate, E non pensate, donna, onde si mova Ch'io vi rassembri si figura nova, Quando riguardo la vostra beltate," &c. Son. 5.

"You laugh with the other ladies to see how I look (literally, you mock my appearance); and do not think, lady, what it is that renders me so strange a figure at sight of your beauty."

And in the sonnet that follows, he accuses her of preventing pity of him in others, by such "killing mockery" as makes him wish for death ("la pieta, che 'l vostro gabbo recinde," &c.)[7]

Now, it is to be admitted, that a young lady, if she is not very wise, may laugh at her lover with her companions, and yet return his love, after her fashion; but the fair Portinari laughs and marries another. Some less melancholy face, some more intelligible courtship, triumphed over the questionable flattery of the poet's gratuitous worship; and the idol of Dante Alighieri became the wife of Messer Simone de' Bardi. Not a word does he say on that mortifying point. It transpired from a clause in her father's will. And yet so bent are the poet's biographers on leaving a romantic doubt in one's mind, whether Beatrice may not have returned his passion, that not only do all of them (as far as I have observed) agree in taking no notice of these sonnets, but the author of the treatise entitled Dante and the Catholic Philosophy of the Thirteenth Century, "in spite" (as a critic says) "of the Beatrice, his daughter, wife of Messer Simone de' Bardi, of the paternal will," describes her as dying in "all the lustre of virginity." [8] The assumption appears to be thus gloriously stated, as a counterpart to the notoriety of its untruth. It must be acknowledged, that Dante himself gave the cue to it by more than silence; for he not only vaunts her acquaintance in the next world, but assumes that she returns his love in that region, as if no such person as her husband could have existed, or as if he himself had not been married also. This life-long pertinacity of will is illustrative of his whole career.

Meantime, though the young poet's father had died, nothing was wanting on the part of his guardians, or perhaps his mother, to furnish him with an excellent education. It was so complete, as to enable him to become master of all the knowledge of his time; and he added to this learning more than a taste for drawing and music. He speaks of himself as drawing an angel in his tablets on the first anniversary of Beatrice's death.[9] One of his instructors was Brunetto Latini, the most famous scholar then living; and he studied both at the universities of Padua and Bologna. At eighteen, perhaps sooner, he had shown such a genius for poetry as to attract the friendship of Guido Cavalcante, a young noble of a philosophical as well as poetical turn of mind, who has retained a reputation with posterity: and it was probably at the same time he became acquainted with Giotto, who drew his likeness, and with Casella, the musician, whom he greets with so much tenderness in the other world.

Nor were his duties as a citizen forgotten. The year before Beatrice's death, he was at the battle of Campaldino, which his countrymen gained against the people of Arezzo; and the year after it he was present at the taking of Caprona from the Pisans. It has been supposed that he once studied medicine with a view to it as a profession; but the conjecture probably originated in nothing more than his having entered himself of one of the city-companies (which happened to be the medical) for the purpose of qualifying himself to accept office; a condition exacted of the gentry by the then democratic tendencies of the republic. It is asserted also, by an early commentator, that he entered the Franciscan order of friars, but quitted it before he was professed; and, indeed, the circumstance is not unlikely, considering his agitated and impatient turn of mind. Perhaps he fancied that he had done with the world when it lost the wife of Simone de' Bardi.

Weddings that might have taken place but do not, are like the reigns of deceased heirs-apparent; every thing is assumable in their favour, checked only by the histories of husbands and kings. Would the great but splenetic poet have made an angel and a saint of Beatrice, had he married her? He never utters the name of the woman whom he did marry.

Gemma Donati was a kinswoman of the powerful family of that name. It seems not improbable, from some passages in his works, that she was the young lady whom he speaks of as taking pity on him on account of his passion for Beatrice;[10] and in common justice to his feelings as a man and a gentleman, it is surely to be concluded, that he felt some sort of passion for his bride, if not of a very spiritual sort; though he afterwards did not scruple to intimate that he was ashamed of it, and Beatrice is made to rebuke him in the other world for thinking of any body after herself.[11] At any rate, he probably roused what was excitable in his wife's temper, with provocations from his own; for the nature of the latter is not to be doubted, whereas there is nothing but tradition to shew for the bitterness of hers. Foscolo is of opinion that the tradition itself arose simply from a rhetorical flourish of Boccaccio's, in his Life of Dante, against the marriages of men of letters; though Boccaccio himself expressly adds, that he knows nothing to the disadvantage of the poet's wife, except that her husband, after quitting Florence, would never either come where she was, or suffer her to come to him, mother as she was by him of so many children;—a statement, it must be confessed, not a little encouraging to the tradition.[12] Be this as it may, Dante married in his twenty-sixth year; wrote an adoring account of his first love (the Vita Nuova) in his twenty-eighth; and among the six children which Gemma brought him, had a daughter whom he named Beatrice, in honour, it is understood, of the fair Portinari; which surely was either a very great compliment, or no mean trial to the temper of the mother.

We shall see presently how their domestic intercourse was interrupted, and what absolute uncertainty there is respecting it, except as far as conclusions may be drawn from his own temper and history.

Italy, in those days, was divided into the parties of Guelphs and Ghibellines; the former, the advocates of general church-ascendancy and local government; the latter, of the pretensions of the Emperor of Germany, who claimed to be the Roman Caesar, and paramount over the Pope. In Florence, the Guelphs had for a long time been so triumphant as to keep the Ghibellines in a state of banishment. Dante was born and bred a Guelph: he had twice borne arms for his country against Ghibelline neighbours; and now, at the age of thirty-five, in the ninth of his marriage, and last of his residence with his wife, he was appointed chief of the temporary administrators of affairs, called Priors;—functionaries who held office only for two months.

Unfortunately, at that moment, his party had become subdivided into the factions of the Whites and Blacks, or adherents of two different sides in a dispute that took place in Pistoia. The consequences becoming serious, the Blacks proposed to bring in, as mediator, the French Prince, Charles of Valois, then in arms for the Pope against the Emperor; but the Whites, of whom Dante was one, were hostile to the measure; and in order to prevent it, he and his brother magistrates expelled for a time the heads of both factions, to the satisfaction of neither. The Whites accused them of secretly leaning to the Ghibellines, and the Blacks of openly favouring the Whites; who being, indeed, allowed to come back before their time, on the alleged ground of the unwholesomeness of their place of exile, which was fatal to Dante's friend Cavalcante, gave a colour to the charge. Dante answered it by saying, that he had then quitted office; but he could not shew that he had lost his influence. Meantime, Charles was still urged to interfere, and Dante was sent ambassador to the Pope to obtain his disapprobation of the interference; but the Pope (Boniface the Eighth), who had probably discovered that the Whites had ceased to care for any thing but their own disputes, and who, at all events, did not like their objection to his representative, beguiled the ambassador and encouraged the French prince; the Blacks, in consequence, regained their ascendancy; and the luckless poet, during his absence, was denounced as a corrupt administrator of affairs, guilty of peculation; was severely mulcted; banished from Tuscany for two years; and subsequently, for contumaciousness, was sentenced to be burnt alive, in case he returned ever. He never did return.

From that day forth, Dante never beheld again his home or his wife. Her relations obtained possession of power, but no use was made of it except to keep him in exile. He had not accorded with them; and perhaps half the secret of his conjugal discomfort was owing to politics. It is the opinion of some, that the married couple were not sorry to part; others think that the wife remained behind, solely to scrape together what property she could, and bring up the children. All that is known is, that she never lived with him more.

Dante now certainly did what his enemies had accused him of wishing to do: he joined the old exiles whom he had helped to make such, the party of the Ghibellines. He alleges, that he never was really of any party but his own; a naive confession, probably true in one sense, considering his scorn of other people, his great intellectual superiority, and the large views he had for the whole Italian people. And, indeed, he soon quarrelled in private with the individuals composing his new party, however stanch he apparently remained to their cause. His former associates he had learnt to hate for their differences with him and for their self-seeking; he hated the Pope for deceiving him; he hated the Pope's French allies for being his allies, and interfering with Florence; and he had come to love the Emperor for being hated by them all, and for holding out (as he fancied) the only chance of reuniting Italy to their confusion, and making her the restorer of himself, and the mistress of the world.

With these feelings in his heart, no money in his purse, and no place in which to lay his head, except such as chance-patrons afforded him, he now began to wander over Italy, like some lonely lion of a man, "grudging in his great disdain." At one moment he was conspiring and hoping; at another, despairing and endeavouring to conciliate his beautiful Florence: now again catching hope from some new movement of the Emperor's; and then, not very handsomely threatening and re-abusing her; but always pondering and grieving, or trying to appease his thoughts with some composition, chiefly of his great work. It is conjectured, that whenever anything particularly affected him, whether with joy or sorrow, he put it, hot with the impression, into his "sacred poem." Every body who jarred against his sense of right or his prejudices he sent to the infernal regions, friend or foe: the strangest people who sided with them (but certainly no personal foe) he exalted to heaven. He encouraged, if not personally assisted, two ineffectual attempts of the Ghibellines against Florence; wrote, besides his great work, a book of mixed prose and poetry on "Love and Virtue" (the Convito, or Banquet); a Latin treatise on Monarchy (de Monarchia), recommending the "divine right" of the Emperor; another in two parts, and in the same language, on the Vernacular Tongue (de Vulgari Eloquio); and learnt to know meanwhile, as he affectingly tells us, "how hard it was to climb other people's stairs, and how salt the taste of bread is that is not our own." It is even thought not improbable, from one awful passage of his poem, that he may have "placed himself in some public way," and, "stripping his visage of all shame, and trembling in his very vitals," have stretched out his hand "for charity" [13]—an image of suffering, which, proud as he was, yet considering how great a man, is almost enough to make one's common nature stoop down for pardon at his feet; and yet he should first prostrate himself at the feet of that nature for his outrages on God and man. Several of the princes and feudal chieftains of Italy entertained the poet for a while in their houses; but genius and worldly power, unless for worldly purposes, find it difficult to accord, especially in tempers like his. There must be great wisdom and amiableness on both sides to save them from jealousy of one another's pretensions. Dante was not the man to give and take in such matters on equal terms; and hence he is at one time in a palace, and at another in a solitude. Now he is in Sienna, now in Arezzo, now in Bologna; then probably in Verona with Can Grande's elder brother; then (if we are to believe those who have tracked his steps) in Casentino; then with the Marchese Moroello Malaspina in Lunigiana; then with the great Ghibelline chieftain Faggiuola in the mountains near Urbino; then in Romagna, in Padua, in Paris (arguing with the churchmen), some say in Germany, and at Oxford; then again in Italy; in Lucca (where he is supposed to have relapsed from his fidelity to Beatrice in favour of a certain "Gentucca"); then again in Verona with the new prince, the famous Can Grande (where his sarcasms appear to have lost him a doubtful hospitality); then in a monastery in the mountains of Umbria; in Udine; in Ravenna; and there at length he put up for the rest of his life with his last and best friend, Guido Novello da Polenta, not the father, but the nephew of the hapless Francesca.

It was probably in the middle period of his exile, that in one of the moments of his greatest longing for his native country, he wrote that affecting passage in the Convito, which was evidently a direct effort at conciliation. Excusing himself for some harshness and obscurity in the style of that work, he exclaims, "Ah! would it had pleased the Dispenser of all things that this excuse had never been needed; that neither others had done me wrong, nor myself undergone penalty undeservedly—the penalty, I say, of exile and of poverty. For it pleased the citizens of the fairest and most renowned daughter of Rome—Florence—to cast me out of her most sweet bosom, where I was born, and bred, and passed half of the life of man, and in which, with her good leave, I still desire with all my heart to repose my weary spirit, and finish the days allotted me; and so I have wandered in almost every place to which our language extends, a stranger, almost a beggar, exposing against my will the wounds given me by fortune, too often unjustly imputed to the sufferer's fault. Truly I have been a vessel without sail and without rudder, driven about upon different ports and shores by the dry wind that springs out of dolorous poverty; and hence have I appeared vile in the eyes of many, who, perhaps, by some better report had conceived of me a different impression, and in whose sight not only has my person become thus debased, but an unworthy opinion created of every thing which I did, or which I had to do." [14]

How simply and strongly written! How full of the touching yet undegrading commiseration which adversity has a right to take upon itself, when accompanied with the consciousness of manly endeavour and a good motive! How could such a man condescend at other times to rage with abuse, and to delight himself in images of infernal torment!

The dates of these fluctuations of feeling towards his native city are not known; but it is supposed to have been not very long before his abode with Can Grande that he received permission to return to Florence, on conditions which he justly refused and resented in the following noble letter to a kinsman. The old spelling of the original (in the note) is retained as given by Foscolo in the article on "Dante" in the Edinburgh Review (vol. XXX. no. 60); and I have retained also, with little difference, the translation which accompanies it:

"From your letter, which I received with due respect and affection, I observe how much you have at heart my restoration to my country. I am bound to you the more gratefully, inasmuch as an exile rarely finds a friend. But after mature consideration, I must, by my answer, disappoint the wishes of some little minds; and I confide in the judgment to which your impartiality and prudence will lead you. Your nephew and mine has written to me, what indeed had been mentioned by many other friends, that, by a decree concerning the exiles, I am allowed to return to Florence, provided I pay a certain sum of money, and submit to the humiliation of asking and receiving absolution: wherein, my father, I see two propositions that are ridiculous and impertinent. I speak of the impertinence of those who mention such conditions to me; for in your letter, dictated by judgment and discretion, there is no such thing. Is such an invitation, then, to return to his country glorious to d. all. (Dante Allighieri), after suffering in exile almost fifteen years? Is it thus they would recompense innocence which all the world knows, and the labour and fatigue of unremitting study? Far from the man who is familiar with philosophy be the senseless baseness of a heart of earth, that could act like a little sciolist, and imitate the infamy of some others, by offering himself up as it were in chains: far from the man who cries aloud for justice, this compromise by his money with his persecutors. No, my father, this is not the way that shall lead me back to my country. I will return with hasty steps, if you or any other can open to me a way that shall not derogate from the fame and honour of d. (Dante); but if by no such way Florence can be entered, then Florence I shall never enter. What! shall I not everywhere enjoy the light of the sun and stars? and may I not seek and contemplate, in every corner of the earth, under the canopy of heaven, consoling and delightful truth, without first rendering myself inglorious, nay infamous, to the people and republic of Florence? Bread, I hope, will not fail me." [15]

Had Dante's pride and indignation always vented themselves in this truly exalted manner, never could the admirers of his genius have refused him their sympathy; and never, I conceive, need he either have brought his exile upon him, or closed it as he did. To that close we have now come, and it is truly melancholy and mortifying. Failure in a negotiation with the Venetians for his patron, Guido Novello, is supposed to have been the last bitter drop which made the cup of his endurance run over. He returned from Venice to Ravenna, worn out, and there died, after fifteen years' absence from his country, in the year 1231, aged fifty-seven. His life had been so agitated, that it probably would not have lasted so long, but for the solace of his poetry, and the glory which he knew it must produce him. Guido gave him a sumptuous funeral, and intended to give him a monument; but such was the state of Italy in those times, that he himself died in exile the year after. The monument, however, and one of a noble sort, was subsequently bestowed by the father of Cardinal Bembo, in 1483; and another, still nobler, as late as 1780, by Cardinal Gonzaga. His countrymen, in after years, made two solemn applications for the removal of his dust to Florence; but the just pride of the Ravennese refused them.

Of the exile's family, three sons died young; the daughter went into a nunnery; and the two remaining brothers, who ultimately joined their father in his banishment, became respectable men of letters, and left families in Ravenna; where the race, though extinct in the male line, still survives through a daughter, in the noble house of Serego Alighieri. No direct descent of the other kind from poets of former times is, I believe, known to exist.

The manners and general appearance of Dante have been minutely recorded, and are in striking agreement with his character. Boccaccio and other novelists are the chief relaters; and their accounts will be received accordingly with the greater or less trust, as the reader considers them probable; but the author of the Decameron personally knew some of his friends and relations, and he intermingles his least favourable reports with expressions of undoubted reverence. The poet was of middle height, of slow and serious deportment, had a long dark visage, large piercing eyes, large jaws, an aquiline nose, a projecting under-lip, and thick curling hair—an aspect announcing determination and melancholy. There is a sketch of his countenance, in his younger days, from the immature but sweet pencil of Giotto; and it is a refreshment to look at it, though pride and discontent, I think, are discernible in its lineaments. It is idle, and no true compliment to his nature, to pretend, as his mere worshippers do, that his face owes all its subsequent gloom and exacerbation to external causes, and that he was in every respect the poor victim of events—the infant changed at nurse by the wicked. What came out of him, he must have had in him, at least in the germ; and so inconsistent was his nature altogether, or, at any rate, such an epitome of all the graver passions that are capable of co-existing, both sweet and bitter, thoughtful and outrageous, that one is sometimes tempted to think he must have had an angel for one parent, and—I shall leave his own toleration to say what—for the other.

To continue the account of his manners and inclinations: He dressed with a becoming gravity; was temperate in his diet; a great student; seldom spoke, unless spoken to, but always to the purpose; and almost all the anecdotes recorded of him, except by himself, are full of pride and sarcasm. He was so swarthy, that a woman, as he was going by a door in Verona, is said to have pointed him out to another, with a remark which made the saturnine poet smile—"That is the man who goes to hell whenever he pleases, and brings back news of the people there." On which her companion observed—"Very likely; don't you see what a curly beard he has, and what a dark face? owing, I dare say, to the heat and smoke." He was evidently a passionate lover of painting and music—is thought to have been less strict in his conduct with regard to the sex than might be supposed from his platonical aspirations—(Boccaccio says, that even a goitre did not repel him from the pretty face of a mountaineer)—could be very social when he was young, as may be gathered from the sonnet addressed to his friend Cavalcante about a party for a boat—and though his poetry was so intense and weighty, the laudable minuteness of a biographer has informed us, that his hand-writing, besides being neat and precise, was of a long and particularly thin character: "meagre" is his word.

There is a letter, said to be nearly coeval with his time, and to be written by the prior of a monastery to a celebrated Ghibelline leader, a friend of Dante's, which, though hitherto accounted apocryphal by most, has such an air of truth, and contains an image of the poet in his exile so exceedingly like what we conceive of the man, that it is difficult not to believe it genuine, especially as the handwriting has lately been discovered to be that of Boccaccio.[16] At all events, I am sure the reader will not be sorry to have the substance of it. The writer says, that he perceived one day a man coming into the monastery, whom none of its inmates knew. He asked him what he wanted; but the stranger saying nothing, and continuing to gaze on the building as though contemplating its architecture, the question was put a second time; upon which, looking round on his interrogators, he answered, "Peace!" The prior, whose curiosity was strongly excited, took the stranger apart, and discovering who he was, shewed him all the attention becoming his fame; and then Dante took a little book out of his bosom, aid observing that perhaps the prior had not seen it, expressed a wish to leave it with his new friend as a memorial. It was "a portion," he said, "of his work." The prior received the volume with respect; and politely opening it at once, and fixing his eyes on the contents, in order, it would seem, to shew the interest he took in it, appeared suddenly to check some observation which they suggested. Dante found that his reader was surprised at seeing the work written in the vulgar tongue instead of Latin. He explained, that he wished to address himself to readers of all classes; and concluded with requesting the prior to add some notes, with the spirit of which he furnished him, and then forward it (transcribed, I presume, by the monks) to their common friend, the Ghibelline chieftain—a commission, which, knowing the prior's intimacy with that personage, appears to have been the main object of his coming to the place[17].

This letter has been adduced as an evidence of Dante's poem having transpired during his lifetime: a thing which, in the teeth of Boccaccio's statement to that effect, and indeed the poet's own testimony[18], Foscolo holds to be so impossible, that he turns the evidence against the letter. He thinks, that if such bitter invectives had been circulated, a hundred daggers would have been sheathed in the bosom of the exasperating poet[19]. But I cannot help being of opinion, with some writer whom I am unable at present to call to mind (Schlegel, I think), that the strong critical reaction of modern times in favour of Dante's genius has tended to exaggerate the idea conceived of him in relation to his own. That he was of importance, and bitterly hated in his native city, was a distinction he shared with other partisans who have obtained no celebrity, though his poetry, no doubt, must have increased the bitterness; that his genius also became more and more felt out of the city, by the few individuals capable of estimating a man of letters in those semi-barbarous times, may be regarded as certain; but that busy politicians in general, war-making statesmen, and princes constantly occupied in fighting for their existence with one another, were at all alive either to his merits or his invectives, or would have regarded him as anything but a poor wandering scholar, solacing his foolish interference in the politics of this world with the old clerical threats against his enemies in another, will hardly, I think, be doubted by any one who reflects on the difference between a fame accumulated by ages, and the living poverty that is obliged to seek its bread. A writer on a monkish subject may have acquired fame with monks, and even with a few distinguished persons, and yet have been little known, and less cared for, out of the pale of that very private literary public, which was almost exclusively their own. When we read, now-a-days, of the great poet's being so politely received by Can Grande, lord of Verona, and sitting at his princely table, we are apt to fancy that nothing but his great poetry procured him the reception, and that nobody present competed with him in the eyes of his host. But, to say nothing of the different kinds of retainers that could sit at a prince's table in those days, Can, who was more ostentatious than delicate in his munificence, kept a sort of caravansera for clever exiles, whom he distributed into lodgings classified according to their pursuits;[20] and Dante only shared his bounty with the rest, till the more delicate poet could no longer endure either the buffoonery of his companions, or the amusement derived from it by the master. On one occasion, his platter is slily heaped with their bones, which provokes him to call them dogs, as having none to shew for their own. Another time, Can Grande asks him how it is that his companions give more pleasure at court than himself; to which he answers, "Because like loves like." He then leaves the court, and his disgusted superiority is no doubt regarded as a pedantic assumption.

He stopped long nowhere, except with Guido Novello; and when that prince, whose downfal was at hand, sent him on the journey above mentioned to Venice, the senate (whom the poet had never offended) were so little aware of his being of consequence, that they declined giving him an audience. He went back, and broke his heart. Boccaccio says, that he would get into such passions with the very boys and girls in the street, who plagued him with party-words, as to throw stones at them—a thing that would be incredible, if persons acquainted with his great but ultra-sensitive nation did not know what Italians could do in all ages, from Dante's own age down to the times of Alfieri and Foscolo. It would be as difficult, from the evidence of his own works and of the exasperation he created, to doubt the extremest reports of his irascible temper, as it would be not to give implicit faith to his honesty. The charge of peculation which his enemies brought against this great poet, the world has universally scouted with an indignation that does it honour. He himself seems never to have condescended to allude to it; and a biographer would feel bound to copy his silence, had not the accusation been so atrociously recorded. But, on the other hand, who can believe that a man so capable of doing his fellow-citizens good and honour, would have experienced such excessive enmity, had he not carried to excess the provocations of his pride and scorn? His whole history goes to prove it, not omitting the confession he makes of pride as his chief sin, and the eulogies he bestows on the favourite vice of the age—revenge. His Christianity (at least as shewn in his poem) was not that of Christ, but of a furious polemic. His motives for changing his party, though probably of a mixed nature, like those of most human beings, may reasonably be supposed to have originated in something better than interest or indignation. He had most likely not agreed thoroughly with any party, and had become hopeless of seeing dispute brought to an end, except by the representative of the Caesars. The inconsistency of the personal characters of the popes with the sacred claims of the chair of St. Peter, was also calculated greatly to disgust him; but still his own infirmities of pride and vindictiveness spoiled all; and when he loaded every body else with reproach for the misfortunes of his country, he should have recollected that, had his own faults been kept in subjection to his understanding, he might possibly have been its saviour. Dante's modesty has been asserted on the ground of his humbling himself to the fame of Virgil, and at the feet of blessed spirits; but this kind of exalted humility does not repay a man's fellow-citizens for lording it over them with scorn and derision. We learn from Boccaccio, that when he was asked to go ambassador from his party to the pope, he put to them the following useless and mortifying queries—"If I go, who is to stay?—and if I stay, who is to go?" [21] Neither did his pride make him tolerant of pride in others. A neighbour applying for his intercession with a magistrate, who had summoned him for some offence, Dante, who disliked the man for riding in an overbearing manner along the streets (stretching out his legs as wide as he could, and hindering people from going by), did intercede with the magistrate, but it was in behalf of doubling the fine in consideration of the horsemanship. The neighbour, who was a man of family, was so exasperated, that Sacchetti the novelist says it was the principal cause of Dante's expatriation. This will be considered the less improbable, if, as some suppose, the delinquent obtained possession of his derider's confiscated property; but, at all events, nothing is more likely to have injured him. The bitterest animosities are generally of a personal nature; and bitter indeed must have been those which condemned a man of official dignity and of genius to such a penalty as the stake.[22]

That the Florentines of old, like other half-Christianised people, were capable of any extremity against an opponent, burning included, was proved by the fates of Savonarola and others; and that Dante himself could admire the burners is evident from his eulogies and beatification of such men as Folco and St. Dominic. The tragical as well as "fantastic tricks" which

"Man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority,"

plays with his energy and bad passions under the guise of duty, is among the most perplexing of those spectacles, which, according to a greater understanding than Dante's, "make the angels weep." (Dante, by the way, has introduced in his heaven no such angels as those; though he has plenty that scorn and denounce.) Lope de Vega, though a poet, was an officer of the Inquisition, and joined the famous Armada that was coming to thumb-screw and roast us into his views of Christian meekness. Whether the author of the story of Paulo and Francesca could have carried the Dominican theories into practice, had he been the banisher instead of the banished, is a point that may happily be doubted; but at all events he revenged himself on his enemies after their own fashion; for he answered their decree of the stake by putting them into hell.

Dante entitled the saddest poem in the world a Comedy, because it was written in a middle style; though some, by a strange confusion of ideas, think the reason must have been because it "ended happily!" that is, because, beginning with hell (to some), it terminated with "heaven" (to others). As well might they have said, that a morning's work in the Inquisition ended happily, because, while people were being racked in the dungeons, the officers were making merry in the drawing-room. For the much-injured epithet of "Divine," Dante's memory is not responsible. He entitled his poem, arrogantly enough, yet still not with that impiety of arrogance, "The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by nation but not by habits." The word "divine" was added by some transcriber; and it heaped absurdity on absurdity, too much of it, alas! being literally infernal tragedy. I am not speaking in mockery, any further than the fact itself cannot help so speaking. I respect what is to be respected in Dante; I admire in him what is admirable; would love (if his infernalities would let me) what is loveable; but this must not hinder one of the human race from protesting against what is erroneous in his fame, when it jars against every best feeling, human and divine. Mr. Cary thinks that Dante had as much right to avail himself of "the popular creed in all its extravagance" as Homer had of his gods, or Shakspeare of his fairies. But the distinction is obvious. Homer did not personally identify himself with a creed, or do his utmost to perpetuate the worst parts of it in behalf of a ferocious inquisitorial church, and to the risk of endangering the peace of millions of gentle minds.

The great poem thus misnomered is partly a system of theology, partly an abstract of the knowledge of the day, but chiefly a series of passionate and imaginative pictures, altogether forming an account of the author's times, his friends, his enemies, and himself, written to vent the spleen of his exile, and the rest of his feelings, good and bad, and to reform church and state by a spirit of resentment and obloquy, which highly needed reform itself. It has also a design strictly self-referential. The author feigns, that the beatified spirit of his mistress has obtained leave to warn and purify his soul by shewing him the state of things in the next world. She deputes the soul of his master Virgil to conduct him through hell and purgatory, and then takes him herself through the spheres of heaven, where Saint Peter catechises and confirms him, and where he is finally honoured with sights of the Virgin Mary, of Christ, and even a glimpse of the Supreme Being!

His hell, considered as a place, is, to speak geologically, a most fantastical formation. It descends from beneath Jerusalem to the centre of the earth, and is a funnel graduated in circles, each circle being a separate place of torment for a different vice or its co-ordinates, and the point of the funnel terminating with Satan stuck into ice. Purgatory is a corresponding mountain on the other side of the globe, commencing with the antipodes of Jerusalem, and divided into exterior circles of expiation, which end in a table-land forming the terrestrial paradise. From this the hero and his mistress ascend by a flight, exquisitely conceived, to the stars; where the sun and the planets of the Ptolemaic system (for the true one was unknown in Dante's time) form a series of heavens for different virtues, the whole terminating in the empyrean, or region of pure light, and the presence of the Beatific Vision.

The boundaries of old and new, strange as it may now seem to us, were so confused in those days, and books were so rare, and the Latin poets held in such invincible reverence, that Dante, in one and the same poem, speaks of the false gods of Paganism, and yet retains much of its lower mythology; nay, invokes Apollo himself at the door of paradise. There was, perhaps, some mystical and even philosophical inclusion of the past in this medley, as recognising the constant superintendence of Providence; but that Dante partook of what may be called the literary superstition of the time, even for want of better knowledge, is clear from the grave historical use he makes of poetic fables in his treatise on Monarchy, and in the very arguments which he puts into the mouths of saints and apostles. There are lingering feelings to this effect even now among the peasantry of Italy; where, the reader need not be told, Pagan customs of all sorts, including religious and most reverend ones, are existing under the sanction of other names;—heathenisms christened. A Tuscan postilion, once enumerating to me some of the native poets, concluded his list with Apollo; and a plaster-cast man over here, in London, appeared much puzzled, when conversing on the subject with a friend of mine, how to discrepate Samson from Hercules.

Dante accordingly, while, with the frightful bigotry of the schools, he puts the whole Pagan world into hell-borders (with the exception of two or three, whose salvation adds to the absurdity), mingles the hell of Virgil with that of Tertullian and St. Dominic; sets Minos at the door as judge; retains Charon in his old office of boatman over the Stygian lake; puts fabulous people with real among the damned, Dido, and Cacus, and Ephialtes, with Ezzelino and Pope Nicholas the Fifth; and associates the Centaurs and the Furies with the agents of diabolical torture. It has pleased him also to elevate Cato of Utica to the office of warder of purgatory, though the censor's poor good wife, Marcia, is detained in the regions below. By these and other far greater inconsistencies, the whole place of punishment becomes a reductio ad absurdum, as ridiculous as it is melancholy; so that one is astonished how so great a man, and especially a man who thought himself so far advanced beyond his age, and who possessed such powers of discerning the good and beautiful, could endure to let his mind live in so foul and foolish a region for any length of time, and there wreak and harden the unworthiest of his passions. Genius, nevertheless, is so commensurate with absurdity throughout the book, and there are even such sweet and balmy as well as sublime pictures in it occasionally, nay often, that not only will the poem ever be worthy of admiration, but when those increasing purifications of Christianity which our blessed reformers began, shall finally precipitate the whole dregs of the author into the mythology to which they belong, the world will derive a pleasure from it to an amount not to be conceived till the arrival of that day. Dante, meantime, with an impartiality which has been admired by those who can approve the assumption of a theological tyranny at the expense of common feeling and decency, has put friends as well as foes into hell: tutors of his childhood, kinsmen of those who treated him hospitably, even the father of his beloved friend, Guido Cavalcante—the last for not believing in a God: therein doing the worst thing possible in behalf of the belief, and totally differing both with the pious heathen Plutarch, and the great Christian philosopher Bacon, who were of opinion that a contumelious belief is worse than none, and that it is far better and more pious to believe in "no God at all," than in a God who would "eat his children as soon as they were born." And Dante makes him do worse; for the whole unbaptised infant world, Christian as well as Pagan, is in his Tartarus.

Milton has spoken of the "milder shades of Purgatory;" and truly they possess great beauties. Even in a theological point of view they are something like a bit of Christian refreshment after the horrors of the Inferno. The first emerging from the hideous gulf to the sight of the blue serenity of heaven, is painted in a manner inexpressibly charming. So is the sea-shore with the coming of the angel; the valley, with the angels in green; the repose at night on the rocks; and twenty other pictures of gentleness and love. And yet, special and great has been the escape of the Protestant world from this part of Roman Catholic belief; for Purgatory is the heaviest stone that hangs about the neck of the old and feeble in that communion. Hell is avoidable by repentance; but Purgatory, what modest conscience shall escape? Mr. Cary, in a note on a passage in which Dante recommends his readers to think on what follows this expiatory state, rather than what is suffered there,[23] looks upon the poet's injunction as an "unanswerable objection to the doctrine of purgatory," it being difficult to conceive "how the best can meet death without horror, if they believe it must be followed by immediate and intense suffering." Luckily, assent is not belief; and mankind's feelings are for the most part superior to their opinions; otherwise the world would have been in a bad way indeed, and nature not been vindicated of her children. But let us watch and be on our guard against all resuscitations of superstition.

As to our Florentine's Heaven, it is full of beauties also, though sometimes of a more questionable and pantomimical sort than is to be found in either of the other books. I shall speak of some of them presently; but the general impression of the place is, that it is no heaven at all. He says it is, and talks much of its smiles and its beatitude; but always excepting the poetry—especially the similes brought from the more heavenly earth—we realise little but a fantastical assemblage of doctors and doubtful characters, far more angry and theological than celestial; giddy raptures of monks and inquisitors dancing in circles, and saints denouncing popes and Florentines; in short, a heaven libelling itself with invectives against earth, and terminating in a great presumption. Many of the people put there, a Calvinistic Dante would have consigned to the "other place;" and some, if now living, would not be admitted into decent society. At the beginning of one of the cantos, the poet congratulates himself, with a complacent superiority, on his being in heaven and occupied with celestial matters, while his poor fellow-creatures are wandering and blundering on earth. But he had never got there! A divine—worthy of that name—of the Church of England (Dr. Whichcote), has beautifully said, that "heaven is first a temper, and then a place." According to this truly celestial topography, the implacable Florentine had not reached its outermost court. Again, his heavenly mistress, Beatrice, besides being far too didactic to sustain the womanly part of her character properly, alternates her smiles and her sarcasms in a way that jars horribly against the occasional enchantment of her aspect. She does not scruple to burst into taunts of the Florentines in the presence of Jesus himself; and the spirit of his ancestor, Cacciaguida, in the very bosom of Christian bliss, promises him revenge on his enemies! Is this the kind of zeal that is to be exempt from objection in a man who objected to all the world? or will it be thought a profaneness against such profanity, to remind the reader of the philosopher in Swift, who "while gazing on the stars, was betrayed by his lower parts into a ditch!"

The reader's time need not be wasted with the allegorical and other mystical significations given to the poem; still less on the question whether Beatrice is theology, or a young lady, or both; and least of all on the discovery of the ingenious Signor Rossetti, that Dante and all the other great old Italian writers meant nothing, either by their mistresses or their mythology, but attacks on the court of Rome. Suffice it, that besides all other possible meanings, Dante himself has told us that his poem has its obvious and literal meaning; that he means a spade by a spade, purgatory by purgatory, and truly and unaffectedly to devote his friends to the infernal regions whenever he does so. I confess I think it is a great pity that Guido Cavalcante did not live to read the poem, especially the passage about his father. The understanding of Guido, who had not the admiration for Virgil that Dante had (very likely for reasons that have been thought sound in modern times), was in all probability as good as that of his friend in many respects, and perhaps more so in one or two; and modern criticism might have been saved some of its pains of objection by the poet's contemporary.

The author did not live to publish, in any formal manner, his extraordinary poem, probably did not intend to do so, except under those circumstances of political triumph which he was always looking for; but as he shewed portions of it to his friends, it was no doubt talked of to a certain extent, and must have exasperated such of his enemies as considered him worth their hostility. No wonder they did all they could to keep him out of Florence. What would they have said of him, could they have written a counter poem? What would even his friends have said of him? for we see in what manner he has treated even those; and yet how could he possibly know, with respect either to friends or enemies, what passed between them and their consciences? or who was it that gave him his right to generate the boasted distinction between an author's feelings as a man and his assumed office as a theologian, and parade the latter at the former's expense? His own spleen, hatred, and avowed sentiments of vengeance, are manifest throughout the poem; and there is this, indeed, to be said for the moral and religious inconsistencies both of the man and his verse, that in those violent times the spirit of Christian charity, and even the sentiment of personal shame, were so little understood, that the author in one part of it is made to blush by a friend for not having avenged him; and it is said to have been thought a compliment to put a lady herself into hell, that she might be talked of, provided it was for something not odious. An admirer of this infernal kind of celebrity, even in later times, declared that he would have given a sum of money (I forget to what amount) if Dante had but done as much for one of his ancestors. It has been argued, that in all the parties concerned in these curious ethics there is a generous love of distinction, and a strong craving after life, action, and sympathy of some kind or other. Granted; there are all sorts of half-good, half-barbarous feelings in Dante's poem. Let justice be done to the good half; but do not let us take the ferocity for wisdom and piety; or pretend, in the complacency of our own freedom from superstition, to see no danger of harm to the less fortunate among our fellow-creatures in the support it receives from a man of genius. Bedlams have been filled with such horrors; thousands, nay millions of feeble minds are suffering by them or from them, at this minute, all over the world. Dante's best critic, Foscolo, has said much of the heroical nature of the age in which the poet lived; but he adds, that its mixture of knowledge and absurdity is almost inexplicable. The truth is, that like everything else which appears harsh and unaccountable in nature, it was an excess of the materials for good, working in an over-active and inexperienced manner; but knowing this, we are bound, for the sake of the good, not to retard its improvement by ignoring existing impieties, or blind ourselves to the perpetuating tendencies of the bigotries of great men. Oh! had the first indoctrinators of Christian feeling, while enlisting the "divine Plato" into the service of diviner charity, only kept the latter just enough in mind to discern the beautiful difference between the philosopher's unmalignant and improvable evil, and their own malignant and eternal one, what a world of folly and misery they might have saved us! But as the evil has happened, let us hope that even this form of it has had its uses. If Dante thought it salutary to the world to maintain a system of religious terror, the same charity which can hope that it may once have been so, has taught us how to commence a better. But did he, after all, or did he not, think it salutary? Did he think so, believing the creed himself? or did he think it from an unwilling sense of its necessity? Or, lastly, did he write only as a mythologist, and care for nothing but the exercise of his spleen and genius? If he had no other object than that, his conscientiousness would be reduced to a low pitch indeed. Foscolo is of opinion he was not only in earnest, but that he was very near taking himself for an apostle, and would have done so had his prophecies succeeded, perhaps with success to the pretension.[24] Thank heaven, his "Hell" has not embittered the mild reading-desks of the Church of England.

If King George the Third himself, with all his arbitrary notions, and willing religious acquiescence, could not endure the creed of St. Athanasius with its damnatory enjoinments of the impossible, what would have been said to the inscription over Dante's hell-gate, or the account of Ugolino eating an archbishop, in the gentle chapels of Queen Victoria? May those chapels have every beauty in them, and every air of heaven, that painting and music can bestow—divine gifts, not unworthy to be set before their Divine Bestower; but far from them be kept the foul fiends of inhumanity and superstition!

It is certainly impossible to get at a thorough knowledge of the opinions of Dante even in theology; and his morals, if judged according to the received standard, are not seldom puzzling. He rarely thinks as the popes do; sometimes not as the Church does: he is lax, for instance, on the subject of absolution by the priest at death.[25] All you can be sure of is, the predominance of his will, the most wonderful poetry, and the notions he entertained of the degrees of vice and virtue. Towards the errors of love he is inclined to be so lenient (some think because he had indulged in them himself), that it is pretty clear he would not have put Paulo and Francesca into hell, if their story had not been too recent, and their death too sudden, to allow him to assume their repentance in the teeth of the evidence required. He avails himself of orthodox license to put "the harlot Rahab" into heaven ("cette bonne fille de Jericho," as Ginguene calls her); nay, he puts her into the planet Venus, as if to compliment her on her profession; and one of her companions there is a fair Ghibelline, sister of the tyrant Ezzelino, a lady famous for her gallantries, of whom the poet good-naturedly says, that she "was overcome by her star"—to wit, the said planet Venus; and yet he makes her the organ of the most unfeminine triumphs over the Guelphs. But both these ladies, it is to be understood, repented—for they had time for repentance; their good fortune saved them. Poor murdered Francesca had no time to repent; therefore her mischance was her damnation! Such are the compliments theology pays to the Creator. In fact, nothing is really punished in Dante's Catholic hell but impenitence, deliberate or accidental. No delay of repentance, however dangerous, hinders the most hard-hearted villain from reaching his heaven. The best man goes to hell for ever, if he does not think he has sinned as Dante thinks; the worst is beatified, if he agrees with him: the only thing which every body is sure of, is some dreadful duration of agony in purgatory—the great horror of Catholic death beds. Protestantism may well hug itself on having escaped it. O Luther! vast was the good you did us. O gentle Church of England! let nothing persuade you that it is better to preach frightful and foolish ideas of God from your pulpits, than loving-kindness to all men, and peace above all things.

If Dante had erred only on the side of indulgence, humanity could easily have forgiven him—for the excesses of charity are the extensions of hope; but, unfortunately, where he is sweet-natured once, he is bitter a hundred times. This is the impression he makes on universalists of all creeds and parties; that is to say, on men who having run the whole round of sympathy with their fellow-creatures, become the only final judges of sovereign pretension. It is very well for individuals to make a god of Dante for some encouragement of their own position or pretension; but a god for the world at large he never was, or can be; and I doubt if an impression to this effect was not always, from the very dawn of our literature, the one entertained of him by the genius of our native country, which could never long endure any kind of unwarrantable dictation. Chaucer evidently thought him a man who would spare no unnecessary probe to the feelings (see the close of his version of Ugolino). Spenser says not a word of him, though he copied Tasso, and eulogised Ariosto. Shakspeare would assuredly have put him into the list of those presumptuous lookers into eternity who "take upon themselves to know" (Cymbeline, act v. sc. 4). Milton, in his sonnet to Henry Lawes, calls him "that sad Florentine"—a lamenting epithet, by which we do not designate a man whom we desire to resemble. The historian of English poetry, admirably applying to him a passage out of Milton, says that "Hell grows darker at his frown." [26]

Walter Scott could not read him, at least not with pleasure. He tells Miss Seward that the "plan" of the poem appeared to him "unhappy; the personal malignity and strange mode of revenge presumptuous and uninteresting." [27] Uninteresting, I think, it is impossible to consider it. The known world is there, and the unknown pretends to be there; and both are surely interesting to most people.

Landor, in his delightful book the Pentameron—a book full of the profoundest as well as sweetest humanity—makes Petrarch follow up Boccaccio's eulogies of the episode of Paulo and Francesca with ebullitions of surprise and horror:

"Petrarca. Perfection of poetry! The greater is my wonder at discovering nothing else of the same order or cast in this whole section of the poem. He who fainted at the recital of Francesca,

'And he who fell as a dead body falls'

would exterminate all the inhabitants of every town in Italy! What execrations against Florence, Pistoia, Pisa, Siena, Genoa! what hatred against the whole human race! what exultation and merriment at eternal and immitigable sufferings! Seeing this, I cannot but consider the Inferno as the most immoral and impious book that ever was written. Yet, hopeless that our country shall ever see again such poetry, and certain that without it our future poets would be more feebly urged forward to excellence, I would have dissuaded Dante from cancelling it, if this had been his intention." [28]

Most happily is the distinction here intimated between the undesirableness of Dante's book in a moral and religious point of view, and the greater desirableness of it, nevertheless, as a pattern of poetry; for absurdity, however potent, wears itself out in the end, and leaves what is good and beautiful to vindicate even so foul an origin.

Again, Petrarch says, "What an object of sadness and of consternation, he who rises up from hell like a giant refreshed!

"Boccaccio. Strange perversion! A pillar of smoke by day and of fire by night, to guide no one. Paradise had fewer wants for him to satisfy than hell had, all which he fed to repletion; but let us rather look to his poetry than his temper."

See also what is said in that admirable book further on (p. 50), respecting the most impious and absurd passage in all Dante's poem, the assumption about Divine Love in the inscription over hell-gate—one of those monstrosities of conception which none ever had the effrontery to pretend to vindicate, except theologians who profess to be superior to the priests of Moloch, and who yet defy every feeling of decency and humanity for the purpose of explaining their own worldly, frightened, or hard-hearted submission to the mistakes of the most wretched understandings. Ugo Foscolo, an excellent critic where his own temper and violence did not interfere, sees nothing but jealousy in Petrarch's dislike of Dante, and nothing but Jesuitism in similar feelings entertained by such men as Tiraboschi. But all gentle and considerate hearts must dislike the rage and bigotry in Dante, even were it true (as the Dantesque Foscolo thinks) that Italy will never be regenerated till one-half of it is baptised in the blood of the other![29] Such men, with all their acuteness, are incapable of seeing what can be effected by nobler and serener times, and the progress of civilisation. They fancy, no doubt, that they are vindicating the energies of Nature herself, and the inevitable necessity of "doing evil that good may come." But Dante in so doing violated the Scripture he professed to revere; and men must not assume to themselves that final knowledge of results, which is the only warrant of the privilege, and the possession of which is to be arrogated by no earthly wisdom. One calm discovery of science may do away with all the boasted eternal necessities of the angry and the self-idolatrous. The passions that may be necessary to savages are not bound to remain so to civilised men, any more than the eating of man's flesh or the worship of Jugghernaut. When we think of the wonderful things lately done by science for the intercourse of the world, and the beautiful and tranquil books of philosophy written by men of equal energy and benevolence, and opening the peacefulest hopes for mankind, and views of creation to which Dante's universe was a nutshell,—such a vision as that of his poem (in a theological point of view) seems no better than the dream of an hypochondriacal savage, and his nutshell a rottenness to be spit out of the mouth.

Heaven send that the great poet's want of charity has not made myself presumptuous and uncharitable! But it is in the name of society I speak; and words, at all events, now-a-days are not the terrible, stake-preceding things they were in his. Readers in general, however—even those of the literary world—have little conception of the extent to which Dante carries either his cruelty or his abuse. The former (of which I shall give some examples presently) shews appalling habits of personal resentment; the latter is outrageous to a pitch of the ludicrous—positively screaming. I will give some specimens of it out of Foscolo himself, who collects them for a different purpose; though, with all his idolatry of Dante, he was far from being insensible to his mistakes.

"The people of Sienna," according to this national and Christian poet, were "a parcel of cox-combs; those of Arezzo, dogs; and of Casentino, hogs. Lucca made a trade of perjury. Pistoia was a den of beasts, and ought to be reduced to ashes; and the river Arno should overflow and drown every soul in Pisa. Almost all the women in Florence walked half-naked in public, and were abandoned in private. Every brother, husband, son, and father, in Bologna, set their women to sale. In all Lombardy were not to be found three men who were not rascals; and in Genoa and Romagna people went about pretending to be men, but in reality were bodies inhabited by devils, their souls having gone to the 'lowest pit of hell' to join the betrayers of their friends and kinsmen." [30]

So much for his beloved countrymen. As for foreigners, particularly kings, "Edward the First of England, and Robert of Scotland, were a couple of grasping fools; the Emperor Albert was an usurper; Alphonso the Second, of Spain, a debauchee; the King of Bohemia a coward; Frederick of Arragon a coward and miser; the Kings of Portugal and Norway forgers; the King of Naples a man whose virtues were expressed by a unit, and his vices by a million; and the King of France, the descendant of a Paris butcher, and of progenitors who poisoned St. Thomas Aquinas, their descendants conquering with the arms of Judas rather than of soldiers, and selling the flesh of their daughters to old men, in order to extricate themselves from a danger." [31]

When we add to these invectives, damnations of friends as well as foes, of companions, lawyers, men of letters, princes, philosophers, popes, pagans, innocent people as well as guilty, fools and wise, capable and incapable, men, women, and children,—it is really no better than a kind of diabolical sublimation of Lord Thurlow's anathemas in the Rolliad, which begins with

"Damnation seize ye all;"

and ends with

"Damn them beyond what mortal tongue can tell, Confound, sink, plunge them all to deepest blackest hell." [32]

In the gross, indeed, this is ridiculous enough.

No burlesque can beat it. But in the particular, one is astonished and saddened at the cruelties in which the poet allows his imagination to riot horrors generally described with too intense a verisimilitude not to excite our admiration, with too astounding a perseverance not to amaze our humanity, and sometimes with an amount of positive joy and delight that makes us ready to shut the book with disgust and indignation. Thus, in a circle in hell, where traitors are stuck up to their chins in ice (canto xxxii.), the visitor, in walking about, happens to give one of their faces a kick; the sufferer weeps, and then curses him—with such infernal truth does the writer combine the malignant with the pathetic! Dante replies to the curse by asking the man his name. He is refused it. He then seizes the miserable wretch by the hair, in order to force him to the disclosure; and Virgil is represented as commending the barbarity![33] But he does worse. To barbarity he adds treachery of his own. He tells another poor wretch, whose face is iced up with his tears, as if he had worn a crystal vizor, that if he will disclose his name and offence, he will relieve his eyes awhile, that he may weep. The man does so; and the ferocious poet then refuses to perform his promise, adding mockery to falsehood, and observing that ill manners are the only courtesy proper to wards such a fellow![34] It has been conjectured, that Macchiavelli apparently encouraged the enormities of the princes of his time, with a design to expose them to indignation. It might have been thought of Dante, if he had not taken a part in the cruelty, that he detailed the horrors of his hell out of a wish to disgust the world with its frightful notions of God. This is certainly the effect of the worst part of his descriptions in an age like the present. Black burning gulfs, full of outcries and blasphemy, feet red-hot with fire, men eternally eating their fellow-creatures, frozen wretches malignantly dashing their iced heads against one another, other adversaries mutually exchanging shapes by force of an attraction at once irresistible and loathing, and spitting with hate and disgust when it is done—Enough, enough, for God's sake! Take the disgust out of one's senses, O flower of true Christian wisdom and charity, now beginning to fill the air with fragrance!

But it will be said that Dante did all this out of his hate of cruelty itself, and of treachery itself. Partly no doubt he did; and entirely he thought he did. But see how the notions of such retribution react upon the judge, and produce in him the bad passions he punishes. It is true the punishments are imaginary. Were a human being actually to see such things, he must be dehumanised or he would cry out against them with horror and detestation. But the poem draws them as truths; the writer's creed threatened them; he himself contributed to maintain the belief; and however we may suppose such a belief to have had its use in giving alarm to ruffian passions and barbarously ignorant times, an age arrives when a beneficent Providence permits itself to be better understood, and dissipates the superfluous horror.

Many, indeed, of the absurdities of Dante's poem are too obvious now-a-days to need remark. Even the composition of the poem, egotistically said to be faultless by such critics as Alfieri, who thought they resembled him, partakes, as every body's style does, of the faults as well as good qualities of the man. It is nervous, concise, full almost as it can hold, picturesque, mighty, primeval; but it is often obscure, often harsh, and forced in its constructions, defective in melody, and wilful and superfluous in the rhyme. Sometimes, also, the writer is inconsistent in circumstance (probably from not having corrected the poem); and he is not above being filthy. Even in the episode of Paulo and Francesca, which has so often been pronounced faultless, and which is unquestionably one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the world, some of these faults are observable, particularly in the obscurity of the passage about tolta forma, the cessation of the incessant tempest, and the non-adjuration of the two lovers in the manner that Virgil prescribes.

But truly it is said, that when Dante is great, nobody surpasses him. I doubt if anybody equals him, as to the constant intensity and incessant variety of his pictures; and whatever he paints, he throws, as it were, upon its own powers; as though an artist should draw figures that started into life, and proceeded to action for themselves, frightening their creator. Every motion, word, and look of these creatures becomes full of sensibility and suggestions. The invisible is at the back of the visible; darkness becomes palpable; silence describes a character, nay, forms the most striking part of a story; a word acts as a flash of lightning, which displays some gloomy neighbourhood, where a tower is standing, with dreadful faces at the window; or where, at your feet, full of eternal voices, one abyss is beheld dropping out of another in the lurid light of torment. In the present volume a story will be found which tells a long tragedy in half-a-dozen lines. Dante has the minute probabilities of a Defoe in the midst of the loftiest and most generalising poetry; and this feeling of matter-of-fact is impressed by fictions the most improbable, nay, the most ridiculous and revolting. You laugh at the absurdity; you are shocked at the detestable cruelty; yet, for the moment, the thing almost seems as if it must be true. You feel as you do in a dream, and after it;—you wake and laugh, but the absurdity seemed true at the time; and while you laugh you shudder.

Enough of this crueller part of his genius has been exhibited; but it is seldom you can have the genius without sadness. In the circle of hell, soothsayers walk along weeping, with their faces turned the wrong way, so that their tears fall between their shoulders. The picture is still more dreadful. Warton thinks it ridiculous. But I cannot help feeling with the poet, that it is dreadfully pathetic. It is the last mortifying insult to human pretension. Warton, who has a grudge against Dante natural to a man of happier piety, thinks him ridiculous also in describing the monster Geryon lying upon the edge of one of the gulfs of hell "like a beaver" (canto xvii.). He is of opinion that the writer only does it to shew his knowledge of natural history. But surely the idea of so strange and awful a creature (a huge mild-faced man ending in a dragon's body) lying familiarly on the edge of the gulf, as a beaver does by the water, combines the supernatural with the familiar in a very impressive manner. It is this combination of extremes which is the life and soul of the whole poem; you have this world in the next; the same persons, passions, remembrances, intensified by superhuman despairs or beatitudes; the speechless entrancements of bliss, the purgatorial trials of hope and patience; the supports of hate and anger (such as they are) in hell itself; nay, of loving despairs, and a self-pity made unboundedly pathetic by endless suffering. Hence there it no love-story so affecting as that of Paulo and Francesca thus told and perpetuated in another world; no father's misery so enforced upon us as Ugolino's, who, for hundreds of years, has not grown tired of the revenge to which it wrought him. Dante even puts this weight and continuity of feeling into passages of mere transient emotion or illustration, unconnected with the next world; as in the famous instance of the verses about evening, and many others which the reader will meet with in this volume. Indeed, if pathos and the most impressive simplicity, and graceful beauty of all kinds, and abundant grandeur, can pay (as the reader, I believe, will think it does even in a prose abstract), for the pangs of moral discord and absurdity inflicted by the perusal of Dante's poem, it may challenge competition with any in point of interest. His Heaven, it is true, though containing both sublime and lovely passages, is not so good as his Earth. The more unearthly he tried to make it, the less heavenly it became. When he is content with earth in heaven itself,-when he literalises a metaphor, and with exquisite felicity finds himself arrived there in consequence of fixing his eyes on the eyes of Beatrice, then he is most celestial. But his endeavours to express degrees of beatitude and holiness by varieties of flame and light,—of dancing lights, revolving lights, lights of smiles, of stars, of starry crosses, of didactic letters and sentences, of animal figures made up of stars full of blessed souls, with saints forming an eagle's beak and David in its eye!—such superhuman attempts become for the most part tricks of theatrical machinery, on which we gaze with little curiosity and no respect.

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse