Dante Composes The "Divina Commedia"
Author: Church, Richard William

Dante Composes The "Divina Commedia"

1300 - 1318


Out of what may be called the civil and religious storm-and-stress period
through which the Middle passed into the modern age, there came a great
literary foregleam of the new life upon which the world was about to enter.
From Italy, where the European ferment, both in its political and its
spiritual character, mainly centred, came the prophecy of the new day, in a
poet's "vision of the invisible world" - Dante's Divina Commedia - wherein
also the deeper history of the visible world of man was both embodied from the
past and in a measure predetermined for the human race.

Dante's great epic was called by him a comedy because its ending was not
tragical, but "happy"; and admiration gave it the epithet "divine." It is in
three parts - Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (paradise).
It has been made accessible to English readers in the metrical translations of
Carey, Longfellow, Norton, and others, and in the excellent prose version
(Inferno) of John Aitken Carlyle, brother of Thomas Carlyle.

Dante (originally Durante) Alighieri was born at Florence in May, 1265,
and died at Ravenna September 14, 1321. Both the Divina Commedia and his
other great work, the Vita Nuova (the new life), narrate the love - either
romantic or passionate - with which he was inspired by Beatrice Portinari,
whom he first saw when he was nine years old and Beatrice eight. His whole
future life and work are believed to have been determined by this ideal
attachment. But an equally noteworthy fact of his literary career is that his
works were produced in the midst of party strifes wherein the poet himself was
a prominent actor. In the bitter feuds of the Guelfs and Ghibellines he bore
the sufferings of failure, persecution, and exile. But above all these trials
rose his heroic spirit and the sublime voice of his poems, which became a
quickening prophecy, realized in the birth of Italian and of European
literature, in the whole movement of the Renaissance, and in the
ever-advancing development of the modern world.

Church's clear-sighted interpretations of the mind and life of Dante, and
of the history-making Commedia, attest the importance of including the poet
and his work in this record of Great Events.

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

We approach the history of such works, in which genius seems to have
pushed its achievements to a new limit. Their bursting out from nothing, and
gradual evolution into substance and shape, cast on the mind a solemn
influence. They come too near the fount of being to be followed up without
our feeling the shadows which surround it. We cannot but fear, cannot but
feel ourselves cut off from this visible and familiar world - as we enter into
the cloud. And as with the processes of nature, so it is with those
offsprings of man's mind by which he has added permanently one more great
feature to the world, and created a new power which is to act on mankind to
the end. The mystery of the inventive and creative faculty, the subtle and
incalculable combinations by which it was led to its work, and carried through
it, are out of reach of investigating thought. Often the idea recurs of the
precariousness of the result; by how little the world might have lost one of
its ornaments - by one sharp pang, or one chance meeting, or any other among
the countless accidents among which man runs his course. And then the solemn
recollection supervenes that powers were formed, and life preserved, and
circumstances arranged, and actions controlled, and thus it should be; and the
work which man has brooded over, and at last created, is the foster-child too
of that "Wisdom which reaches from end to end, strongly and sweetly disposing
of all things."

It does not abate these feelings that we can follow in some cases and to
a certain extent the progress of a work. Indeed, the sight of the particular
accidents among which it was developed - which belong perhaps to a
heterogeneous and wildly discordant order of things, which are out of
proportion and out of harmony with it, which do not explain it; which have, as
it seems to us, no natural right to be connected with it, to bear on its
character, or contribute to its accomplishment; to which we feel, as it were,
ashamed to owe what we can least spare, yet on which its forming mind and
purpose were dependent, and with which they had to conspire - affects the
imagination even more that cases where we see nothing. We are tempted less to
musing and wonder by the Iliad, a work without a history, cut off from its
past, the sole relic and vestige of its age, unexplained in its origin and
perfection, than by the Divina Commedia, destined for the highest ends and
most universal sympathy, yet the reflection of a personal history, and issuing
seemingly from its chance incidents.

The Divina Commedia is singular among the great works with which it
ranks, for its strong stamp of personal character and history. In general we
associate little more than the name - not the life - of a great poet with his
works; personal interest belongs more usually to greatness in its active than
its creative forms. But the whole idea and purpose of the Commedia, as well
as its filling up and coloring, are determined by Dante's peculiar history.
The loftiest, perhaps, in its aim and flight of all poems, it is also the most
individual, the writer's own life is chronicled in it, as well as the issues
and upshot of all things. It is at once the mirror to all time of the sins
and perfections of men, of the judgments and grace of God, and the record,
often the only one, of the transient names, and local factions, and obscure
ambitions, and forgotten crimes of the poet's own day; and in that awful
company to which he leads us, in the most unearthly of his scenes, we never
lose sight of himself. And when this peculiarity sends us to history, it
seems as if the poem which was to hold such a place in Christian literature
hung upon and grew out of chance events, rather than the deliberate design of
its author. History, indeed, here, as generally, is but a feeble exponent of
the course of growth in a great mind and great ideas. It shows us early a bent
and purpose - the man conscious of power and intending to use it - and then
the accidents among which he worked; but how the current of purpose threaded
its way among them, how it was thrown back, deflected, deepened by them, we
cannot learn from history.

It presents a broken and mysterious picture. A boy of quick and
enthusiastic temper grows up into youth in a dream of love. The lady of his
mystic passion dies early. He dreams of her still, not as a wonder of earth,
but as a saint in paradise, and relieves his heart in an autobiography, a
strange and perplexing work of fiction - quaint and subtle enough for a
metaphysical conceit; but, on the other hand, with far too much of genuine and
deep feeling. It is a first essay; he closes it abruptly as if dissatisfied
with his work, but with the resolution of raising at a future day a worthy
monument to the memory of her whom he has lost. It is the promise and purpose
of a great work. But a prosaic change seems to come over his half-ideal
character. The lover becomes the student - the student of the thirteenth
century - struggling painfully against difficulties, eager and hot after
knowledge, wasting eyesight and stinting sleep, subtle, inquisitive,
active-minded and sanguine, but omnivorous, overflowing with dialetical forms,
loose in premise and ostentatiously rigid in syllogism, fettered by the
refinements of half-awakened taste and the mannerisms of the Provencals.

Boethius and Cicero and the mass of mixed learning within his reach are
accepted as the consolation of his human griefs; he is filled with the passion
of universal knowledge, and the desire to communicate it. Philosophy has
become the lady of his soul - to write allegorical poems in her honor, and to
comment on them with all the apparatus of his learning in prose, his mode of
celebrating her. Further, he marries; it is said, not happily. The
antiquaries, too, have disturbed romance by discovering that Beatrice also was
married some years before her death. He appears, as time goes on, as a
burgher of Florence, the father of a family, a politician, an envoy, a
magistrate, a partisan, taking his full share in the quarrels of the day.

Beatrice reappears - shadowy, melting at times into symbol and figure -
but far too living and real, addressed with too intense and natural feeling,
to be the mere personification of anything. The lady of the philosophical
Canzoni has vanished. The student's dream has been broken, as the boy's had
been; and the earnestness of the man, enlightened by sorrow, over-leaping the
student's formalities and abstractions, reverted in sympathy to the
earnestness of the boy, and brooded once more on that saint in paradise, whose
presence and memory had once been so soothing, and who now seemed a real link
between him and that stable country "where the angels are in peace." Round her
image, the reflection of purity and truth and forbearing love, was grouped
that confused scene of trouble and effort, of failure and success, which the
poet saw round him; round her image it arranged itself in awful order - and
that image, not a metaphysical abstraction, but the living memory, freshened
by sorrow, and seen through the softening and hallowing vista of years, of
Beatrice Portinari - no figment of imagination, but God's creature and
servant. A childish love, dissipated by heavy sorrow-a boyish resolution,
made in a moment of feeling, interrupted, though it would be hazardous to say,
in Dante's case, laid aside, for apparently more manly studies, gave the idea
and suggested the form of the "sacred poem of earth and heaven."

And the occasion of this startling unfolding of the poetic gift, of this
passage of a soft and dreamy boy into the keenest, boldest, sternest of poets,
the free and mighty leader of European song, was, what is not ordinarily held
to be a source of poetical inspiration - the political life. The boy had
sensibility, high aspirations, and a versatile and passionate nature; the
student added to this energy, various learning, gifts of language, and noble
ideas on the capacities and ends of man. But it was the factions of Florence
which made Dante a great poet.

The connection of these feuds with Dante's poem has given to the
Middle-Age history of Italy an interest of which it is not undeserving in
itself, full as it is of curious exhibitions of character and contrivance, but
to which politically it cannot lay claim, amid the social phenomena, so far
grander in scale and purpose and more felicitous in issue, of other western
nations. It is remarkable for keeping up an antique phase, which, in spite of
modern arrangements, it has not yet lost. It is a history of cities. In
ancient history all that is most memorable and instructive gathers round
cities; civilization and empire were concentrated within walls; and it baffled
the ancient mind to conceive how power should be possessed and wielded by
numbers larger than might be collected in a single market-place. The Roman
Empire, indeed, aimed at being one in its administration and law; and it was
not a nation nor were its provinces nations, yet everywhere but in Italy it
prepared them for becoming nations. And while everywhere else parts were
uniting and union was becoming organization - and neither geographical
remoteness nor unwieldiness of number nor local interests and differences were
untractable obstacles to that spirit of fusion which was at once the ambition
of the few and the instinct of the many; and cities, even where most powerful,
had become the centres of the attracting and joining forces, knots in the
political network - while this was going on more or less happily throughout
the rest of Europe, in Italy the ancient classic idea lingered in its
simplicity, its narrowness and jealousy, wherever there was any political
activity. The history of Southern Italy, indeed, is mainly a foreign one -
the history of modern Rome merges in that of the papacy; but Northern Italy
has a history of its own, and that is a history of separate and independent
cities - points of reciprocal and indestructible repulsion, and within,
theatres of action where the blind tendencies and traditions of classes and
parties weighed little on the freedom of individual character, and citizens
could watch and measure and study one another with the minuteness of private

Dante, like any other literary celebrity of the time, was not less from
the custom of the day than from his own purpose a public man. He took his
place among his fellow-citizens; he went out to war with them; he fought, it
is said, among the skirmishers at the great Guelf victory at Campaldino; to
qualify himself for office in the democracy, he enrolled himself in one of the
guilds of the people, and was matriculated in the "art" of the apothecaries;
he served the state as its agent abroad; he went on important missions to the
cities and courts of Italy - according to a Florentine tradition, which
enumerates fourteen distinct embassies, even to Hungary and France. In the
memorable year of jubilee, 1300, he was one of the priors of the Republic.
There is no shrinking from fellowship and cooperation and conflict with the
keen or bold men of the market-place and council hall, in that mind of
exquisite and, as drawn by itself, exaggerated sensibility. The doings and
characters of men, the workings of society, the fortunes of Italy, were
watched and thought of with as deep an interest as the courses of the stars,
and read in the real spectacle of life with as profound emotion as in the
miraculous page of Vergil; and no scholar ever read Vergil with such feeling -
no astronomer ever watched the stars with more eager inquisitiveness. The
whole man opens to the world around him; all affections and powers, soul and
sense, diligently and thoughtfully directed and trained, with free and
concurrent and equal energy, with distinct yet harmonious purposes, seek out
their respective and appropriate objects, moral, intellectual, natural,
spiritual, in that admirable scene and hard field where man is placed to labor
and love, to be exercised, proved, and judged.

The outlines of this part of Dante's history are so well known that it is
not necessary to dwell on them; and more than the outlines we know not. The
family quarrels came to a head, issued in parties, and the parties took names;
they borrowed them from two rival factions in a neighboring town, Pistoia,
whose feud was imported into Florence; and the Guelfs became divided into the
Black Guelfs, who were led by the Donati, and the White Guelfs, who sided with
Cerchi. It is still professed to be but a family feud, confined to the great
houses; but they were too powerful and Florence too small for it not to affect
the whole Republic. The middle classes and the artisans looked on, and for a
time not without satisfaction, at the strife of the great men; but it grew
evident that one party must crush the other and become dominant in Florence;
and of the two, the Cerchi and their White adherents were less formidable to
the democracy than the unscrupulous and overbearing Donati, with their
military renown and lordly tastes; proud not merely of being nobles, but Guelf
nobles; always loyal champions, once the martyrs, and now the hereditary
assertors, of the great Guelf cause. The Cerchi, with less character and less
zeal, but rich, liberal, and showy, and with more of rough kindness and vulgar
good-nature for the common people, were more popular in Guelf Florence than
the Parte Guelfa; and, of course, the Ghibellines wished them well.

Both the contemporary historians of Florence lead us to think that they
might have been the governors and guides of the Republic - if they had chosen,
and had known how; and both, though condemning the two parties equally, seem
to have thought that this would have been the best result for the state. But
the accounts of both, though they are very different writers, agree in their
scorn of the leaders of the White Guelfs. They were upstarts, purse-proud,
vain, and coarse-minded; and they dared to aspire to an ambition which they
were too dull and too cowardly to pursue, when the game was in their hands.
They wished to rule; but when they might, they were afraid. The commons were
on their side, the moderate men, the party of law, the lovers of republican
government, and for the most part the magistrates; but they shrank from their
fortune, "more from cowardice than from goodness, because they exceedingly
feared their adversaries." Boniface VIII had no prepossessions in Florence,
except for energy and an open hand; the side which was most popular he would
have accepted and backed. But he said, "Io non voglio perdere gli uomini per
le jemminelle." ^1 If the Black party furnished types for the grosser or
fiercer forms of wickedness in the poet's hell, the White party surely were
the originals of that picture of stupid and cowardly selfishness, in the
miserable crowd who moan and are buffeted in the vestibule of the Pit, mingled
with the angels who dared neither to rebel nor be faithful, but "were for
themselves"; and whoever it may be who is singled out in the setta dei
cattivi, for deeper and special scorn - he,

"Che fece per vilta il gran rifinto," ^2

the idea was derived from the Cerchi in Florence.

[Footnote 1: "I am not going to lose the men for the old women."]

[Footnote 2: "The coward who the great refusal made."]

Of his subsequent life, history tells us little more than the general
character. He acted for a time in concert with the expelled party, when the
attempted to force their way back to Florence; he gave them up at last in
scorn and despair; but he never returned to Florence. And he found no new
home for the rest of his days. Nineteen years, from his exile to his death he
was a wanderer. The character is stamped on his writings. History,
tradition, documents, all scanty or dim, do but disclose him to us at
different points, appearing here and there, we are not told how or why. One
old record, discovered by antiquarian industry, shows him in a village church
near Florence, planning with the Cerchi and the White party an attack on the
Black Guelfs. In another, he appears in the Val di Magra, making peace
between its small potentates; in another, as the inhabitant of a certain
street in Padua. The traditions of some remote spots about Italy still
connect his name with a ruined tower, a mountain glen, a cell in a convent. In
the recollections of the following generation, his solemn and melancholy form
mingled reluctantly, and for a while, in the brilliant court of the Scaligers;
and scared the women, as a visitant of the other world, as he passed by their
doors in the streets of Verona. Rumor brings him to the West - with
probability to Paris, more doubtfully to Oxford. But little that is certain
can be made out about the places where he was honored and admired, and, it may
be, not always a welcome guest, till we find him sheltered, cherished, and
then laid at last to rest, by the lords of Ravenna. There he still rests, in
a small, solitary chapel, built, not by a Florentine, but a Venetian.
Florence, "that mother of little love," asked for his bones, but rightly asked
in vain. His place of repose is better in those remote and forsaken streets
"by the shore of the Adrian Sea," hard by the last relics of the Roman Empire
- the mausoleum of the children of Theodosius, and the mosaics of Justinian -
than among the assembled dead of St. Croce, or amid the magnificence of Santa
Maria del Fiore.

The Commedia, at the first glance, shows the traces of its author's life.
It is the work of a wanderer. The very form in which it is cast is that of a
journey, difficult, toilsome, perilous, and full of change. It is more than a
working out of that touching phraseology of the Middle Ages in which "the way"
was the technical theological expression for this mortal life; and "viator"
meant man in his state of trial, as "comprehensor" meant man made perfect,
having attained to his heavenly country. It is more than merely this. The
writer's mind is full of the recollections and definite images of his various
journeys. The permanent scenery of the inferno and purgatorio, very variously
and distinctly marked, is that of travel. The descent down the sides of the
Pit, and the ascent of the Sacred Mountain, show one familiar with such scenes
- one who had climbed painfully in perilous passes, and grown dizzy on the
brink of narrow ledges over sea or torrent. It is scenery from the gorges of
the Alps and Apennines, or the terraces and precipices of the Riviera. Local
reminiscences abound. The severed rocks of the Adige Valley - the waterfall
of St. Benedetto; the crags of Pietra-pana and St. Leo, which overlook the
plains of Lucca and Ravenna; the "fair river" that flows among the poplars
between Chiaveri and Sestri; the marble quarries of Carrara; the "rough and
desert ways between Lerici and Turbia," and whose towery cliffs, going sheer
into the deep sea at Noli, which travellers on the Corniche road some thirty
years ago may yet remember with fear. Mountain experience furnished that
picture of the traveller caught in an Alpine mist and gradually climbing above
it; seeing the vapors grow thin, and the sun's orb appear faintly through
them; and issuing at last into sunshine on the mountain top, while the light
of sunset was lost already on the shores below:

"Ai raggi, morti gia' bassi lidi," ^1

or that imageof the cold dull shadow over the torrent, beneath the Alphine

"Un' ombra smorta
Qual sotto foglie verdi e rami nigri
Sovra suoi freddi rivi, l'Alpe porta;" ^2

or of the large snowflakes falling without wind among the mountains:

"d'un cader lento
Piovean di fuoco dilatate falde
Come di neve in Alpe senza vento." ^1

[Footnote 1: "The beams on the low shores now lost and dead."]

[Footnote 2: "A death-like shade -
Like that beneath black boughs and foliage green
O'er the cold stream in Alpine glens display'd."]

[Footnote 1: "O'er all the sandy desert falling slow,
Were shower'd dilated flakes of fire, like snow
On Alpine summits, when the wind is low."]

Of these years, then, of disappointment and exile the Divina Commedia was
the labor and fruit. A story in Boccaccio's life of Dante, told with some
detail, implies, indeed, that it was begun, and some progress made in it,
while Dante was yet in Florence - begun in Latin, and he quotes three lines of
it - continued afterward in Italian. This is not impossible; indeed, the germ
and presage of it may be traced in the Vita Nuova. The idealized saint is
there, in all the grace of her pure and noble humbleness, the guide and
safeguard of the poet's soul. She is already in glory with Mary the Queen of
Angels. She already beholds the face of the Ever-blessed. And the envoye of
the Vita Nuova is the promise of the Commedia. "After this sonnet" (in which
he describes how beyond the widest sphere of heaven his love had beheld a lady
receiving honor and dazzling by her glory the unaccustomed spirit) - "After
this sonnet there appeared to me a marvellous vision, in which I saw things
which made me resolve not to speak more of this blessed one until such time as
I should be able to indite more worthily of her. And to attain to this, I
study to the utmost of my power, as she truly knows. So that it shall be the
pleasure of Him, by whom all things live, that my life continue for some
years, I hope to say of her that which never hath been said of any woman. And
afterward, may it please him, who is the Lord of kindness, that my soul may go
to behold the glory of her lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice, who
gloriously gazes on the countenance of Him, qui est per omnia secula
benedictus." It would be wantonly violating probability and the unity of a
great life to suppose that this purpose, though transformed, was ever
forgotten or laid aside. The poet knew not, indeed, what he was promising,
what he was pledging himself to - through what years of toil and anguish he
would have to seek the light and the power he had asked; in what form his high
venture should be realized.

But the Commedia is the work of no light resolve, and we need not be
surprised at finding the resolve and the purpose at the outset of the poet's
life. We may freely accept the key supplied by the words of the Vita Nuova.
The spell of boyhood is never broken, through the ups and downs of life. His
course of thought advances, alters, deepens, but is continuous. From youth to
age, from the first glimpse to the perfect work, the same idea abides with
him, "even from the flower till the grape was ripe." It may assume various
changes - an image of beauty, a figure of philosophy, a voice from the other
world, a type of heavenly wisdom and joy - but still it holds, in self-imposed
and willing thraldom, that creative and versatile and tenacious spirit. It
was the dream and hope of too deep and strong a mind to fade and come to
naught - to be other than the seed of the achievement and crown of life. But
with all faith in the star and the freedom of genius, we may doubt whether the
prosperous citizen would have done that which was done by the man without a
home. Beatrice's glory might have been sung in grand though barbarous Latin
to the literati of the fourteenth century; or a poem of new beauty might have
fixed the language and opened the literature of modern Italy; but it could
hardly have been the Commedia. That belongs, in its date and its greatness,
to the time when sorrow had become the poet's daily portion and the condition
of his life.

But such greatness had to endure its price and its counterpoise. Dante
was alone - except in his visionary world, solitary and companionless. The
blind Greek had his throng of listeners; the blind Englishman his home and the
voices of his daughters; Shakespeare had his free associates of the stage;
Goethe, his correspondents, a court, and all Germany to applaud. Not so
Dante. The friends of his youth are already in the region of spirits, and
meet him there - Casella, Forese; Guido Cavalcanti will soon be with them. In
this upper world he thinks and writes as a friendless man - to whom all that
he had held dearest was either lost or imbittered; he thinks and writes for

So comprehensive in interest is the Commedia. Any attempt to explain it,
by narrowing that interest to politics, philosophy, the moral life, or
theology itself, must prove inadequate. Theology strikes the keynote; but
history, natural and metaphysical science, poetry, and art, each in their turn
join in the harmony, independent, yet ministering to the whole. If from the
poem itself we could be for a single moment in doubt of the reality and
dominant place of religion in it, the plain-spoken prose of the Convito would
show how he placed "the Divine Science, full of all peace, and allowing no
strife of opinions and sophisms, for the excellent certainty of its subject,
which is God," is single perfection above all other sciences, "which are, as
Solomon speaks, but queens or concubines or maidens; but she is the 'Dove,'
and the 'perfect one' - 'Dove,' because without stain of strife; 'perfect,'
because perfectly she makes us behold the truth, in which our soul stills
itself and is at rest." But the same passage shows likewise how he viewed all
human knowledge and human interests, as holding their due place in the
hierarchy of wisdom, and among the steps of man's perfection. No account of
the Commedia will prove sufficient which does not keep in view, first of all,
the high moral purpose and deep spirit of faith with which it was written, and
then the wide liberty of materials and means which the poet allowed himself in
working out his design.

Doubtless his writings have a political aspect. The "great Ghibelline
poet" is one of Dante's received synonymes; of his strong political opinions,
and the importance he attached to them, there can be no doubt. And he meant
his poem to be the vehicle of them, and the record to all ages of the folly
and selfishness with which he saw men governed. That he should take the
deepest interest in the goings-on of his time is part of his greatness; to
suppose that he stopped at them, or that he subordinated to political objects
or feelings all the other elements of his poem, is to shrink up that greatness
into very narrow limits. Yet this has been done by men of mark and ability,
by Italians, by men who read the Commedia in their own mother tongue. It has
been maintained as a satisfactory account of it - maintained with great labor
and pertinacious ingenuity - that Dante meant nothing more by his poem than
the conflicts and ideal triumphs of a political party. The hundred cantos of
that vision of the universe are but a manifesto of the Ghibelline propaganda,
designed, under the veil of historic images and scenes, to insinuate what it
was dangerous to announce; and Beatrice, in all her glory and sweetness, is
but a specimen of the jargon and slang of Ghibelline freemasonry. When
Italians write thus, they degrade the greatest name of their country to a
depth of laborious imbecility, to which the trifling of schoolmen and
academicians is as nothing. It is to solve the enigma of Dante's works by
imagining for him a character in which it is hard to say which predominates,
the pedant, mountebank, or infidel. After that we may read Voltaire's sneers
with patience, and even enter with gravity on the examination of Father
Hardouin's historic doubts. The fanaticism of an outraged liberalism,
produced by centuries of injustice and despotism, is but a poor excuse for
such perverse blindness.

Dante was not a Ghibelline, though he longed for the interposition of an
imperial power. Historically he did not belong to the Ghibelline party. It
is true that he forsook the Guelfs, with whom he had been brought up, and that
the White Guelfs, with whom he was expelled from Florence, were at length
merged and lost in the Ghibelline party; and he acted with them for a time.
But no words can be stronger than those in which he disjoins himself from that
"evil and foolish company," and claims his independence -

"A te fia bello
Averti fatto parte per te stesso." ^1

[Footnote 1: "So will a greater fame redound to thee,
To have formed a party by thyself alone."]

Dante, by the Divina Commedia, was the restorer of seriousness in
literature. He was so by the magnitude and pretensions of his work, and by
the earnestness of its spirit. He first broke through the prescription which
had confined great works to the Latin, and the faithless prejudices which, in
the language of society, could see powers fitted for no higher task than that
of expressing, in curiously diversified forms, its most ordinary feelings. But
he did much more. Literature was going astray in its tone, while growing in
importance; the Commedia checked it. The Provencal and Italian poetry was,
with the exception of some pieces of political satire, almost exclusively
amatory, in the most fantastic and affected fashion. In expression, it had
not even the merit of being natural; in purpose, it was trifling; in the
spirit which it encouraged, it was something worse. Doubtless it brought a
degree of refinement with it, but it was refinement purchased at a high price,
by intellectual distortion and moral insensibility. But this was not all.
The brilliant age of Frederick II, for such it was, was deeply mined by
religious unbelief. However strange this charge first sounds against the
thirteenth century, no one can look at all closely into its history, at least
in Italy, without seeing that the idea of infidelity - not heresy, but
infidelity - was quite a familiar one; and that, side by side with the
theology of Aquinas and Bonaventura, there was working among those who
influenced fashion and opinion, among the great men, and the men to whom
learning was a profession, a spirit of scepticism and irreligion almost
monstrous for its time, which found its countenance in Frederick's refined and
enlightened court. The genius of the great doctors might have kept in safety
the Latin schools, but not the free and home thoughts which found utterance in
the language of the people, if the solemn beauty of the Italian Commedia had
not seized on all minds. It would have been an evil thing for Italian,
perhaps for European, literature if the siren tales of the Decameron had not
been the first to occupy the ears with the charms of a new language.

Dante's all-surveying, all-embracing mind was worthy to open the grand
procession of modern poets. He had chosen his subject in a region remote from
popular thought - too-awful for it, too abstruse. He had accepted frankly the
dogmatic limits of the Church, and thrown himself with even enthusiastic faith
into her reasonings, at once so bold and so undoubting - her spirit of
certainty, and her deep contemplations on the unseen and infinite. And in
literature, he had taken as guides and models, above all criticism and all
appeal, the classical writers. But with his mind full of the deep and
intricate questions of metaphysics and theology, and his poetical taste always
owing allegiance to Vergil, Ovid, and Statius - keen and subtle as a schoolman
- as much an idolater of old heathen art and grandeur as the men of the
Renaissance - his eye is yet as open to the delicacies of character, to the
variety of external nature, to the wonders of the physical world - his
interest in them as diversified and fresh, his impressions as sharp and
distinct, his rendering of them as free and true and forcible, as little
weakened or confused by imitation or by conventional words, his language as
elastic and as completely under his command, his choice of poetic materials as
unrestricted and original, as if he had been born in days which claim as their
own such freedom and such keen discriminative sense of what is real in feeling
and image - as if he had never felt the attractions of a crabbed problem of
scholastic logic, or bowed before the mellow grace of the Latins. It may be
said, indeed, that the time was not yet come when the classics could be really
understood and appreciated; and this is true, perhaps fortunate. But admiring
them with a kind of devotion, and showing not seldom that he had caught their
spirit, he never attempts to copy them. His poetry in form and material is
all his own. He asserted the poet's claim to borrow from all science, and from
every phase of nature, the associations and images which he wants; and he
showed that those images and associations did not lose their poetry by being
expressed with the most literal reality.

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