In this paper I will give a rapid sketch of Dante Alighieri's life, and then will try to point to some of the features of a poem which must ever take its place among the supremest efforts of the human intellect, side by side with Homer's "Iliad," and Virgil's "Æneid," and Milton's "Paradise Lost," and the plays of Shakespeare; and which is not less great than any of these in its immortal and epoch-making significance.
Dante was born in 1265, in the small room of a small house in Florence, still pointed out as the Casa di Dante. His father, Aldighieri, was a lawyer, and belonged to the humbler class of burgher-nobles. The family seems to have changed its name into Alighieri, "the wing-bearers," at a later time, in accordance with the beautiful coat of arms which they adopted—a wing in an azure field. Dante was a devout, beautiful, precocious boy, and his susceptible soul caught a touch of "phantasy and flame" from the sight of Beatrice, daughter of Folco de' Portinari, whom he saw clad in crimson for a festa. From that day the fair girl, with her rosy cheeks, and golden hair, and blue eyes, became to the dreamy boy a vision of angelic beauty, an ideal of saintly purity and truth. But while he cherished this inward love he continued to study under his master, Brunetto Latini, and acquired not only all the best learning, but also all the most brilliant accomplishments of his day. He had never breathed a word of his love to Beatrice; it was of the unselfish, adoring, chivalrous type, which was content to worship in silence. Beatrice was wedded to another, and shortly afterward, in 1289, she died. So far from causing to Dante any self-reproach, he regarded his love for her as the most ennobling and purifying influence of his life—a sort of moral regeneration. Beatrice became to him the type of Theology and Heavenly truth. Nor did his love in any way interfere with the studies or activities of his life. His sonnets early gained him fame as a poet, and the lovely portrait of him—painted by Giotto, on the walls of the Bargello, at the age of twenty-four side by side with Brunetto Latini and Corso Donati, and holding in his hand a pomegranate, the mystic type of good works—shows that he was already a man of distinction, and a favorite in the upper classes of Florentine society. He began to take an active part in politics, and in 1295 was formally enrolled in the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries. On June 11, 1289, he fought as a volunteer in the battle of Campaldino. Amid these scenes of ambition and warfare he fell away for a time from his holiest aspirations. From theology he turned to purely human and materialist philosophy; from an ideal of pure love to earthlier defilements. It was perhaps with a desire to aid himself in the struggle against life's temptations that he seems to have become a member of the Tertiary Order of St. Francis of Assisi, for whom he had a passionate admiration. The Tertiaries did not abandon the secular life, but wore the cord of the order, and pledged themselves to lives of sanctity and devotion. Legend says that by his own desire he was buried in the dress of a Franciscan Tertiary. Yet there is evidence that he felt the inefficacy of any external bond. Experience taught him that the serge robe and the binding cord might only be the concealment of the hypocrite; and that they were worse than valueless without the purification of the heart. In the eighth Bolgia of the eighth circle of the "Inferno" he sees the givers of evil counsel, and among them Guido da Montefeltro, who, toward the close of his life had become a Cordelier or Franciscan Friar, hoping to make atonement for his sins. But tempted by Boniface VIII. with a promise of futile absolution, he gave him advice to take the town of Palestrina by "long promises and scant fulfilments." Trusting in the Pope's absolution, and not in the law of God, he was one of those who—
"Dying put on the weeds of Dominic,
Or in Franciscan think to pass disguised,"
and believed that St. Francis would draw him up by his cord even from the pit of hell. But when he dies, though St. Francis comes to take him, one of the Black Cherubim of hell seizes and claims him, truly urging that absolution for an intended sin is a contradiction in terms, since absolution assumes penitence. Again, among the hypocrites in the sixth Bolgia, Dante sees men approach in dazzling cloaks, of which the hoods cover their eyes and face, like those worn by the monks of Cologne; but he finds that they are crushing weights of gilded lead—splendid semblance and agonizing, destroying reality. Again, when the two poets, Dante and Virgil, came to the Abyss of Evil-pits (Malebolge), down which the crimson stream of Phlegethon leaps in "a Niagara of blood," he is on the edge of the Circle of Fraud in all its varieties, down which they are to be carried on the back of Geryon, the triple-bodied serpent-monster, who is the type of all human and demonic falsity. And how is that monster to be evoked from the depth? Dante is bidden to take off the cord which girds him—the cord with which he had endeavored in old days to bind the spotted panther of sensual temptation—and to fling it into the void profound. He does so, and the monster, type of the brutal and the human in our nature when both are false, comes swimming and circling up from below. "The outward form"—symbolized by the cord—"when associated with unreality, only attracts the worst symbol of unreality." Once more, ere he begins to climb the steep terraces of the hill of Purgatory and true repentance, he has to be girt with a far different cord, even with a humble rush, the only plant which—because it bows to the billows and the wind—will grow among the beating waves of the sea which surrounds the mountain of Purgatory. That cord of rush is the type, not of outward profession, but of humble sincerity.
Dante, in his characteristic way, does not pause to explain any of these symbols to us. He leaves them to our own thought, but they all point to the one great lesson that God needs not the service of externalism, but the preparation of the heart.
In 1292, probably at the wish of his friends, Dante married Gemma Donati. She bore him seven children in seven years, and there is nothing to show that she was not a true and faithful wife to him, though it is quite probable, from his absolute silence respecting her, that the deepest grounds of sympathy hardly existed between them.
About the time of his marriage he plunged more earnestly into politics, and became one of the Priori of Florence. He felt himself that a change for the worse had passed over his life. It was no longer so pure, so simple, so devout as it once had been. In the year 1300, the year of the Great Jubilee which had been preached by Pope Boniface VIII., he was in the mid-path of life, and was lost, as he allegorically describes it at the beginning of the "Inferno," in a wild and savage wood. He was hindered from ascending the sunny hill of heavenly aims by the speckled panther of sensuality, the gaunt, gray wolf of avaricious selfishness, and the fierce lion of wrath and ambitious pride. But he was restored to hope and effort by a vision of Beatrice, which seems to have come to him before his Easter communion, and fixed in his mind the purpose of writing about Beatrice—in her ideal aspect of Divine Truth—"what never was writ of woman."
As a statesman, Dante, like most of the Florentines, was at this time a Guelph, and an adherent of the papal party, though in later years he became, by mature conviction, a Ghibelline, and placed his hopes for Italy in the intervention of the emperor. The disputes between the Guelphs and Ghibellines were complicated by the party factions of Neri and Bianchi, and by the influence of Dante the leaders of both factions were banished from the city, and among them his dearest friend, Guido Cavalcanti. At this time Pope Boniface encouraged Charles of Valois to enter Florence with an army. Dante resisted the proposal, and was sent as an ambassador to Rome. During his absence a decree of banishment was passed upon him. The Neri faction triumphed. The house of Dante was sacked and burned. He never saw Florence more.
The news of his sentence reached him in Siena, in April, 1302, and from that time began the last sad phases of his life, the long, slow agony of his exile and bitter disappointment. Disillusioned, separated from his wife, his children, the city of his love, he wandered from city to city, disgusted with the baseness alike of Guelphs and Ghibellines, feeling how salt is the bread of exile, and how hard it is to climb another's stairs. "Alas," he says, "I have gone about like a mendicant, showing against my will the wounds with which fortune hath smitten me. I have indeed been a vessel without sail and without rudder, carried to divers shores by the dry wind that springs from poverty." In 1316 he did indeed receive from ungrateful Florence an offer of return, but on the unworthy conditions that he should pay a fine and publicly acknowledge his criminality. He scorned such recompense of his innocence after having suffered exile for well-nigh three lustres. "If," he wrote, "by no honorable way can entrance be found into Florence, there will I never enter. What? Can I not from every corner of the earth behold the sun and the stars? Can I not under every climate of heaven meditate the sweetest truths, except I first make myself a man of ignominy in the face of Florence?"
Looking merely at outward success, men would have called the life of Dante a failure and his career a blighted career. But his misery was the condition of his immortal greatness. He endured for many a year the insults of the foolish and the company of the base, and on earth he did not find the peace for which his heart so sorely yearned. He died in 1321, at the age of fifty-six, of a broken heart, and lies, not at the Florence which he loved, but at Ravenna, near the now blighted pine woods, on the bleak Adrian shore. But if he lost himself he found himself. He achieved his true greatness, not among the bloody squabbles of political intrigue, but in the achievement of his great works, and above all of that "Divine Comedy," which was "the imperishable monument of his love of Beatrice, now identified with Divine Philosophy—his final gift to humanity and offering to God."
On the consummate greatness of that poem as the one full and perfect voice of many silent centuries I only touch, for it would require a volume to elucidate its many-sided significance. It is not one thing, but many things. In one aspect it is an autobiography as faithful as those of St. Augustine or of Rousseau, though transcendently purer and greater. It is a vision, like the "Pilgrim's Progress" of John Bunyan, but written with incomparably wider knowledge and keener insight. It is a soul's history, like Goethe's "Faust," but attaining to a far loftier level of faith and thoughtfulness and moral elevation. It is a divine poem, like Milton's "Paradise Lost," dealing, as Milton does, with God and Satan, and heaven and hell, but of wider range and intenser utterance. With the plays of Shakespeare, in their oceanic and myriad-minded variety, it can hardly be compared, because it originated under conditions so widely different, and was developed in an environment so strangely dissimilar. It is, moreover, one poem, while they form a multitude of dramas. But few would hesitate to admit that in reading Dante we are face to face with a soul, if less gifted yet less earthly than that of Shakespeare; a soul which "was like a star and dwelt apart"—
"Soul awful, if this world has ever held
An awful soul."
I would urge all who are unacquainted with Dante to read, or rather to study, him at once. They could study no more ennobling teacher. If they are unfamiliar with Italian, they may read the faithful prose version of the "Inferno" by John Carlyle, of the "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso," by A. J. Butler, or the translations by Cary in blank verse, and the Dean of Wells in terza rima. If they desire to begin with some general introduction, they may read the fine essays by Dean Church and Mr. Lowell (in "Among my Books") and the excellent "Shadow of Dante," by Maria Rosetti. To such books, or to those of Mrs. Oliphant and others, I must refer the reader for all details respecting the structure of the poem which he called the "Divine Comedy." The name "Comedy" must not mislead any one. The poem is far too stately, intense, and terrible for humor of any kind. It was only called "Commedia" partly because it ends happily, and partly because it is written in a simple style and in the vernacular Italian, not, as was then the almost universal custom for serious works, in Latin. The name "Divina" is meant to indicate its solemnity and sacredness.
Many are unable to apprehend the greatness of the "Divine Comedy." Voltaire called the "Inferno" revolting, the "Purgatorio" dull, and the "Paradiso" unreadable. The reason is because they are not rightly attuned for the acceptance of the great truths which the poem teaches, and because they look at it from a wholly mistaken standpoint. If anyone supposes that the "Inferno," for instance, is meant for a burning torture-chamber of endless torments and horrible vivisection, he entirely misses the central meaning of the poem as Dante himself explained it. For he said that it was not so much meant to foreshadow the state of souls after death—although on that subject he accepted, without attempting wholly to shake them off, the horrors which, in theory, formed part of mediæval Catholicism—but rather "man as rendering himself liable by the exercise of free-will to the rewards and punishments of justice." The hell of Dante is the hell of self; the hell of a soul which has not God in all its thoughts; the hell of final impenitence, of sin cursed by the exclusive possession of sin. It is a hell which exists no less in this world than in the next; just as his purgatory reflects the mingled joy and anguish of true repentance, and his heaven is the eternal peace of God, which men can possess here and now, and which the world can neither give nor take away. In other words, hell is not an obscure and material slaughter-house, but the Gehenna of evil deliberately chosen; and heaven is not a pagoda of jewels, but the presence and the light of God. Hence the "Divine Comedy" belongs to all time and to all place. While it supremely sums up the particular form assumed by the religion of the Middle Ages, it contains the eternal elements of all true religion in the life history of a soul, redeemed from sin and error, from lust and wrath and greed, and restored to the right path by the reason and the grace which enable it to see the things that are, and to see them as they are. The "Inferno," as has been said elsewhere, is the history of a soul descending through lower and lower stages of self-will till it sinks at last into those icy depths of Cocytus, wherein the soul is utterly emptied of God, and utterly filled with the loathly emptiness of self; the "Purgatory" is the history of the soul as it is gradually purged from sin and self, by effort and penitence and hope; the "Paradise" is the soul entirely filled with the fulness of God.
The moral truths in which the great poem abounds are numberless and of infinite interest. On these I cannot dwell, for to him who penetrates to the inner meaning of the allegory they are found on every page. But I may point out one or two supreme lessons which run throughout the teaching.
One is the lesson that like makes like—the lesson of modification by environment. We know how in Norfolk Island the convicts often degenerated almost into fiends because they associated with natures which had made themselves fiend-like, and were cut off from gentle, wholesome, and inspiring influences.
So it is in Dante's "Inferno." His evil men and seducers wax ever worse and worse because they have none around them save souls lost like their own. There is no brightening touch in the "Inferno." The name of Christ is never mentioned in its polluted air. The only angel who appears in it is not one of the radiant Sympathies, with fair golden heads and dazzling faces and wings and robes of tender green, of the "Purgatory," not one of the living topazes or golden splendors of the "Paradise"; but is stern, disdainful, silent, waving from before his face all contact with the filthy gloom. His Lucifer is no flickering, gentlemanly, philosophic man of the world like Goethe's Mephistopheles, nor like Milton's Fallen Cherub, whose
"Form had not yet lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined, or excess
Of glory obscured;"
but is a three-headed monster of loathly ugliness, with faces yellow with envy, crimson with rage, and black with ignorance; not haughty, splendid, defiant, but foul and loathly as sin itself.