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Title: Euphorion - Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the - Renaissance - Vol. II
Author: Lee, Vernon, 1856-1935
Language: English
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_Author of "Studies of the 18th Century in Italy," "Belcaro," etc._

_VOL. II._







       *       *       *       *       *



Real and Ideal--these are the handy terms, admiring or disapproving,
which criticism claps with random facility on to every imaginable
school. This artist or group of artists goes in for the real--the
upright, noble, trumpery, filthy real; that other artist or group of
artists seeks after the ideal--the ideal which may mean sublimity or
platitude. We summon every living artist to state whether he is a
realist or an idealist; we classify all dead artists as realists or
idealists; we treat the matter as if it were one of almost moral
importance. Now the fact of the case is that the question of realism and
idealism, which we calmly assume as already settled or easy to settle by
our own sense of right and wrong, is one of the tangled questions of
art-philosophy; and one, moreover, which no amount of theory, but only
historic fact, can ever set right. For, to begin with, we find realism
and idealism coming before us in different ways and with different
meaning and importance. All art which is not addressing (as decrepit art
is forced to do) faculties to which it does not spontaneously and
properly appeal--all art is decorative, ornamental, idealistic
therefore, since it consciously or unconsciously aims, not merely at
reproducing the already existing, but at producing something which shall
repay the looking at it, something which shall ornament, if not a place,
at least our lives; and such making of the ornamental, of the worth
looking at, necessarily implies selection and arrangement--that is to
say idealism. At the same time, while art aims definitely at being in
this sense decorative, art may very possibly aim more immediately at
merely reproducing, without, selection or arrangement, the actually
existing things of the world; and this in order to obtain the mere power
of representation. In short, art which is idealistic as a master will
yet be realistic as a scholar: it decorates when it achieves, it copies
when it studies. But this is only half the question. Certain whole
schools may be described as idealistic, others as realistic, in
tendency; and this, not in their study, but in their achievement. One
school will obviously be contented with forms the most unselected and
vulgar; others will go but little out of their way in search of
form-superiority; while yet others, and these we must emphatically call
idealistic, are squeamish to the last degree in the choice and
adaptation of form, anxious, to get the very best, and make the very
best of it. Yet, on thinking over it, we shall find that realistic and
idealistic schools are all, in their achievements, equally striving
after something which is not the mere reproduction of the already
existing as such--striving, in short, after decoration. The pupil of
Perugino will, indeed, wait patiently to begin his work until he can
find a model fit for a god or goddess; while the fellow-craftsman of
Rembrandt will be satisfied with the first dirty old Jew or besotten
barmaid that comes to hand. But the realistic Dutchman is not,
therefore, any the less smitten with beauty, any the less eager to be
ornamental, than the idealistic Italian: his man and woman he takes
indeed with off-hand indifference, but he places them in that of which
the Italian shall perhaps never have dreamed, in that on which he has
expended all his science, his skill, his fancy, in that which he gives
as his addition to the beautiful things of art--in atmosphere, in light,
which are to the everyday atmosphere and light what the patiently sought
for, carefully perfected god or goddess model of Raphael is to the
everyday Jew, to the everyday barmaid, of Rembrandt.

The ideal, for the man who is quite coarsely realistic in his figures,
exists in the air, light, colour; and in saying this I have, so to
speak, turned over the page too quickly, forestalled the expression of
what I can prove only later: the disconnection of such comparative
realism and idealism as this (the only kind of realism, let us remember,
which can exist in great art) with any personal bias of the artist, its
intimate dependence upon the constitution and tendency of art, upon its
preoccupations about form, or colour, or light, in a given country and
at a given moment. And now I should wish to resume the more orderly
treatment of the subject, which will lead us in time to the second half
of the question respecting realism and idealism. These considerations
have come to me in connection with the portrait art of the Renaissance;
and this very simply. For portrait is a curious bastard of art, sprung
on the one side from a desire which is not artistic, nay, if anything,
opposed to the whole nature and function of art: the desire for the mere
likeness of an individual. The union with this interloping tendency, so
foreign to the whole aristocratic temper of art, has produced portrait;
and by the position of this hybrid, or at least far from regularly bred
creature; by the amount of the real artistic quality of beauty which it
is permitted to retain by the various schools of art, we can, even as by
the treatment of similar social interlopers we can estimate the
necessities and tendencies of various states of society, judge what are
the conditions in which the various schools of art struggle for the
object of their lives, which is the beautiful.

I have said that art is realistic in its periods or moments of study;
and this is essentially the case even with the school which in many
respects was the most unmistakably decorative and idealistic in
intention: the school of Giotto. The Giottesques are more than
decorative artists, they are decorators in the most literal sense.
Painting with them is merely one of the several arts and crafts enslaved
by mediæval architecture and subservient to architectural effects. Their
art is the only one which is really and successfully architecturally
decorative; and to appreciate this we must contrast their fresco-work
with that of the fifteenth century and all subsequent times. Masaccio,
Ghirlandajo, Signorelli, turn the wall into a mere badly made frame; a
gigantic piece of cardboard would do as well, and better; the colours
melt into one another, the figures detach themselves at various degrees
of relief; those upon the ceiling and pendentives are frequently upside
down; yet these figures, which are so difficult to see, are worth seeing
only in themselves, and not in relation to their position. The masonry
is no longer covered, but carved, rendered uneven with the cavities and
protrusions of perspective. In Mantegna's frescoes the wall becomes a
slanting theatre scene, cunningly perspectived like Palladio's Teatro
Olimpico; with Correggio, wall, masonry, everything, is dissolved, the
side or cupola of a church becomes a rent in the clouds, streaming with

Not so with the Giottesque frescoes: the wall, the vault, the triumphant
masonry is always present and felt, beneath the straight, flat bands of
uniform colour; the symmetrical compartments, the pentacles, triangles,
and segments, and borders of histories, whose figures never project,
whose colours are separate as those in a mosaic. The Giottesque
frescoes, with their tiers and compartments of dark blue, their vague
figures dressed in simple ultramarines, greens, dull reds, and purples;
their geometrical borders and pearlings and dog-tooths; cover the walls,
the ribbed and arched ceilings, the pointed raftering almost like some
beautiful brown, blue, and tarnished gold leather-hangings; the figures,
outlined in dark paint, have almost the appearance of being stencilled,
or even stamped on the wall. Such is Giottesque painting: an art which
is not merely essentially decorative, but which is, moreover, what
painting and sculpture remained throughout the Gothic period,
subservient to the decorative effect of another art; an art in which all
is subordinated to architectural effect, in which form, colour, figures,
houses, the most dramatic scenes of the most awful of all dramas,
everything is turned into a kind of colossal and sublime wall-paper; and
such an art as this would lead us to expect but little realism, little
deliberate and slavish imitation of the existing. Yet wherever there is
life in this Gothic art (which has a horrible tendency, piously
unobserved by critics, to stagnate into blundering repetition of the
same thing), wherever there is progress, there is, in the details of
that grandiose, idealistic decoration, realism of the crudest kind.
Those Giottesque workers, who were not content with a kind of Gothic
Byzantinism; those who really handed over something vital to their
successors of the fifteenth century, while repeating the old
idealistical decorations; were studying with extraordinary crudeness of
realism. Everything that was not conventional ornament or type was
portrait; and portrait in which the scanty technical means of the
artist, every meagre line and thin dab of colour, every timid stroke of
brush or of pencil, went towards the merciless delineation not merely of
a body but of a soul. And the greater the artist, the more cruel the
portrait: cruellest in representation of utter spiritual baseness in the
two greatest of these idealistic decorators; Giotto, and his latest
disciple, Fra Angelico. Of this I should like to give a couple of

In Giotto's frescoes at Santa Croce--one of the most lovely pieces of
mere architectural decoration conceivable--there are around the dying
and the dead St. Francis two groups of monks, which are astoundingly
realistic. The solemn ending of the ideally beautiful life of sanctity
which was so fresh in the memory of Giotto's contemporaries, is nothing
beyond a set of portraits of the most absolutely mediocre creatures,
moral and intellectual, of creatures the most utterly incapable of
religious enthusiasm that ever made religion a livelihood. They gather
round the dying and the dead St. Francis, a noble figure, not at all
ecstatic or seraphic, but pure, strong, worn out with wise and righteous
labour, a man of thought and action, upon whose hands and feet the
stigmata of supernatural rapture are a mere absurdity. The monks are
presumably his immediate disciples, those fervent and delicate poetic
natures of whom we read in the "Fioretti di San Francesco." To represent
them Giotto has painted the likeness of the first half-dozen friars he
may have met in the streets near Santa Croce: not caricatures, nor
ideals, but portraits Giotto has attempted neither to exalt nor to
degrade them into any sort of bodily or spiritual interestingness. They
are not low nor bestial nor extremely stupid. They are in various
degrees dull, sly, routinist, prosaic, pedantic; their most noteworthy
characteristic is that they are certainly the men who are not called by
God. They are no scandal to the Church, but no honour; they are sloth,
stupidity, sensualism, and cunning not yet risen to the dignity of a
vice. They look upon the dying and the dead saint with indifference,
want of understanding, at most a gape or a bright look of stupid
miscomprehension at the stigmata: they do not even perceive that a saint
is a different being from themselves. With these frescoes of Giotto I
should wish to compare Fra Angelico's great ceremonial crucifixion in
the cloister chapel of San Marco of Florence; for it displays to an
extraordinary degree that juxtaposition of the most conventionally
idealistic, pious decorativeness with the realism straightforward,
unreflecting, and heartless to the point of becoming perfectly
grotesque. The fresco is divided into two scenes: on the one side the
crucifixion, the mystic actors of the drama, on the other the holy men
admitted to its contemplation. A sense that holy things ought to be
old-fashioned, a respect for Byzantine inanity which invariable haunted
the Giottesques in their capacity of idealistic decorators, of men who
replaced with frescoes the solemn lifeless splendours of mosaic; this
kind of artistico-religious prudery has made Angelico, who was able to
foreshorten powerfully the brawny crucified thieves, represent the
Saviour dangling from the cross bleached, boneless, and shapeless, a
thing that is not dead because it has never been alive. The holy persons
around stand rigid, vacant, against their blue nowhere of background,
with vague expanses of pink face looking neither one way nor the other;
mere modernized copies of the strange, goggle-eyed, vapid beings on the
old Italian mosaics. This is not a representation of the actual reality
of the crucifixion, like Tintoret's superb picture at S. Rocco, or
Dürer's print, or so many others, which show the hill, the people, the
hangman, the ladders and ropes and hammers and tweezers: it is a sort of
mystic repetition of it; subjective, if I may say so; existing only in
the contemplation of the saints on the opposite side, who are spectators
only in the sense that a contemplative Christian may be said to be the
mystic spectator of the Passion. The thing for the painter to represent
is fervent contemplation, ecstatic realization of the past by the force
of ardent love and belief; the condition of mind of St. Francis, St.
Catherine of Siena, Madame Guyon: it is the revelation of the great
tragedy of heaven to the soul of the mystic. Now, how does Fra Angelico
represent this? A row of saints, founders of orders, kneel one behind
the other, and by their side stand apostles and doctors of the Church;
admitting them to the sight of the super-human, with the gesture, the
bland, indifferent vacuity of the Cameriere Segreto or Monsignore who
introduces a troop of pilgrims to the Pope; they are privileged persons,
they respect, they keep up decorum, they raise their eyes and compress
their lips with ceremonious reverence; but, Lord! they have gone through
it all so often, they are so familiar with it, they don't look at it any
longer; they gaze about listlessly, they would yawn if they were not too
well bred for that. The others, meanwhile, the sainted pilgrims, the men
whose journey over the sharp stones and among the pricking brambles of
life's wilderness finds its final reward in this admission into the
presence of the Holiest, kneel one by one, with various expressions: one
with the stupid delight of a religious sightseer; his vanity is
satisfied, he will next draw a rosary from his pocket and get it blessed
by Christ Himself; he will recount it all to his friends at home.
Another is dull and gaping, a clown who has walked barefoot from
Valencia to Rome, and got imbecile by the way; yet another, prim and
dapper; the rest indifferent looking restlessly about them, at each
other, at their feet and hands, perhaps exchanging mute remarks about
the length of time they are kept waiting; those at the end of the
kneeling procession, St. Peter Martyr and St. Giovanni Gualberto
especially, have the bored, listless, devout look of the priestlets in
the train of a bishop. All these figures, the standing ones who
introduce and the kneeling ones who are being introduced, are the most
perfect types of various states of dull, commonplace, mediocre routinist
superstition; so many Camerlenghi on the one hand, so many Passionist or
Propagandists on the other: the first aristocratic, bland and bored; the
second, dull, listless, mumbling, chewing Latin Prayers which never
meant much to their minds, and now mean nothing; both perfectly
reverential and proper in behaviour, with no more possibility of
individual fervour of belief than of individual levity of disbelief: the
Church, as it exists in well-regulated decrepitude. And thus does the
last of the Giottesques, the painter of glorified Madonnas and dancing
angels, the saint, represent the saints admitted to behold the supreme
tragedy of the Redemption.

Thus much for the Giottesques. The Tuscans of the early Renaissance
developed up to the utmost, assisted by the goldsmiths and sculptors,
who taught them modelling and anatomy, that realistic element of
Giottesque painting. Its ideal decorative part had become impossible.
Painting could no longer be a decoration of architecture, and it had not
yet the means of being ornamental in itself; it was an art which did
not achieve, but merely studied. Among its exercises in anatomy,
modelling, perspective, and so forth, always laborious and frequently
abortive, its only spontaneous, satisfactory, mature production was its
portrait work, Portraits of burghers in black robes and hoods; of
square-jawed youths with red caps stuck on to their fuzzy heads, of bald
and wrinkled scholars and magnificoes; of thinly bearded artizans;
people who stand round the preaching Baptist or crucified Saviour, look
on at miracle or martyrdom, stolid, self-complacent, heedless, against
their background of towered, walled, and cypressed city--of buttressed
square and street; ugly but real, interesting, powerful among the
grotesque agglomerations of bag-of-bones nudities, bunched and taped-up
draperies and out-of-joint architecture of the early Renaissance
frescoes; at best among its picture-book and Noah's-ark prettinesses of
toy-box cypresses, vine trellises, inlaid house fronts, rabbits in the
grass, and peacocks on the roofs; for the early Renaissance, with the
one exception of Masaccio, is in reality a childish time of art, giving
us the horrors of school-hour blunders and abortions varied with the
delights of nursery wonderland: maturity, the power of achieving, the
perception of something worthy of perception, comes only with the later
generation, the one immediately preceding the age of Raphael and Michael
Angelo; with Ghirlandajo, Signorelli, Filippino, Botticelli, Perugino,
and their contemporaries.

But this period is not childish, is not immature in everything. Or,
rather, the various arts which exist together at this period are not all
in the same stage of development. While painting is in this immature
ugliness, and ideal sculpture, in works like Verrocchio's and
Donatello's David, only a cleverer, more experienced, but less
legitimate kind of painting, painting more successful in the present,
but with no possible future; the almost separate art of
portrait-sculpture arises again where it was left by Græco-Roman
masters, and, developing to yet greater perfection, gives in marble the
equivalent of what painting will be able to produce only much later:
realistic art which is decorative; beautiful works made out of ugly

The vicissitudes of Renaissance sculpture are strange: its life, its
power, depend upon death; it is an art developed in the burying vault
and cloister cemetery. During the Middle Ages sculpture had had its
reason, its vital possibility, its something to influence, nay, to keep
it alive, in architecture; but with the disappearance of Gothic building
disappears also the possibility of the sculpture which covers the
portals of Chartres and the belfry of Florence. The pseudo-classic
colonnades, entablatures, all the thin bastard Ionic and Corinthian of
Aberti and Bramante, did not require sculpture, or had their own little
supply of unfleshed ox-skulls, greengrocer's garlands, scallopings and
wave-linings, which, with a stray siren and one or two bloated emperors'
heads, amply sufficed. On the other hand, mediæval civilization and
Christian dogma did not encourage the production of naked of draped
ideal statues like those which Antiquity stuck on countless temple
fronts, and erected at every corner of square, street, or garden. The
people of the Middle Ages were too grievously ill grown, distorted,
hideous, to be otherwise than indecent in nudity; they may have had an
instinct of the kind, and, ugly as they knew themselves to be, they must
yet have found in forms like those of Verrocchio's David insufficient
beauty to give much pleasure. Besides, if the Middle Ages had left no
moral room for ideal sculpture once freed from the service of
architecture; they had still less provided it with a physical place.
Such things could not be set up in churches, and only a very moderate
number of statues could be wanted as open-air monuments in the narrow
space of a still Gothic city; and, in fact, ideal heroic statues of the
early Renaissance are fortunately not only ugly, but comparatively few
in number. There remained, therefore, for sculpture, unless contented to
dwindle down into brass and gold miniature work, no regular employment
save that connected with sepulchral monuments. During the real Middle
Ages, and in the still Gothic north, the ornamentation of a tomb
belonged to architecture: from the superb miniature minsters, pillared
and pinnacled and sculptured, cathedrals within the cathedral, to the
humbler foliated arched canopy, protecting a simple sarcophagus at the
corner of many a street in Lombardy. The sculptor's work was but the
low relief on the church flags, the timidly carved, outlined,
cross-legged knight or praying priest, flattened down on his pillow as
if ashamed even of that amount of prominence, and in a hurry to be
trodden down and obliterated into a few ghostly outlines. But to this
humiliated prostrate image, to this flat thing doomed to obliteration,
came the sculptor of the Renaissance, and bade the wafer-like simulacrum
fill up, expand, raise itself, lift itself on its elbow, arise and take
possession of the bed of state, the catafalque raised high above the
crowd, draped with brocade, carved with rich devices of leaves and
beasts of heraldry, roofed over with a daïs, which is almost a triumphal
arch, garlanded with fruits and flowers, upon which the illustrious dead
were shown to the people; but made eternal, and of eternal magnificence,
by the stone-cutter, and guarded, not for an hour by the liveried pages
or chaunting monks, but by winged genii for all eternity. Some people, I
know, call this a degradation, and say that it was the result of corrupt
pride, this refusal to have the dear or illustrious dead scraped out any
longer by the shoe-nails of every ruffian, rubbed out by the knees of
every kitchen wench; but to me it seems that it was due merely to the
fact that sculpture had lost its former employment, and that a great art
cannot (thank Heaven!) be pietistically self-humiliating. Be this as it
may, the sculpture of the Renaissance had found a new and singularly
noble line of work, the one in which it was great, unique, unsurpassed,
because untutored. It worked here without models, to suit modern
requirements, with modern spirit; it was emphatically-modern sculpture;
the only modern sculpture which can be talked of as something original,
genuine, valuable, by the side of antique sculpture. Greek Antiquity had
evaded death, and neglected the dead; a garland of mænads and fauns
among ivy leaves, a battle of amazons or centaurs; in the late
semi-Christian, platonic days, some Orphic emblem, or genius; at most,
as in the exquisite tombs of the Keramikos of Athens, a figure, a youth
on a prancing steed, like the Phidian monument of Dexileus; a maiden,
draped and bearing an urn; but neither the youth nor the maiden is the
inmate of the tomb: they are types, living types, no portraits. Nay,
even where Antiquity shows us Death or Hermes, gently leading away the
beloved; the spirit, the ghost, the dead one, is unindividual.
"Sarkophagen und Urnen bekränzte der Heide mit Leben," said Goethe; but
it was the life which was everlasting because it was typical: the life
not which had been relinquished by the one buried there, but the life
which the world danced on, forgetful, round his ashes. The Romans, on
the contrary, graver and more retentive folk than the Greeks, as well as
more domestic, less coffee-house living, appear to have inherited from
the Etruscans a desire to preserve the effigy of the dead, a desire
unknown to the Greeks. But the Etrusco-Roman monuments, where husband
and wife stare forth togaed and stolaed, half reduced to a conventional
crop-headedness, grim and stiff as if sitting unwillingly for their
portrait; or reclining on the sarcophagus-lid, neither dead, nor asleep,
nor yet alive and awake, but with a hieratic mummy stare, have little of
æsthetic or sympathetic value. The early Renaissance, then, first
bethought it of representing the real individual in the real death
slumber. And I question whether anything more fitting could be placed on
a tomb than the effigy of the dead as we saw them just before the
coffin-lid closed down; as we would give our all to see them but one
little moment longer; as they continue to exist for our fancy within the
grave; for to any but morbid feelings the beloved can never suffer
decay. Whereas a portrait of the man in life, as the throning popes in
St. Peter's, seems heartless and derisive; such monuments striking us as
conceived and ordered by their inmates while alive, like Michael
Angelo's Pope Julius, and Browning's Bishop, who was so preoccupied
about his tomb in St. Praxed's Church. The Renaissance, the late Middle
Ages, felt better than this: on the extreme pinnacle, high on the roof,
they might indeed place against the russet brick or the blue sky, amid
the hum of life and the movement of the air, the living man, like the
Scaligers, the mailed knight on his charger, lance in rest: but in the
church below, under the funereal pall, they could place only the body
such as it may have lain on the bier.

And that figure on the bier was the great work of Renaissance sculpture.
Inanimate and vulgar when in heroic figures they tried to emulate the
ancients, the sculptors of the fifteenth century have found their own
line. The modesty, the simplicity, the awful and beautiful repose of the
dead; the individual character cleared of all its conflicting meannesses
by death, simplified, idealized as it is in the memory of the
survivors--all these are things which belong to the Renaissance. As the
Greeks gave the strong, smooth life-current circulating through their
heroes; so did these men of the fifteenth century give the gentle and
harmonious ebbing after-life of death in their sepulchral monuments.
Things difficult to describe, and which must be seen and remembered.
There is the monument, now in the museum at Ravenna, by a sculptor whose
name, were it known, would surely be among the greatest, of the
condottiere, Braccioforte: the body prone in its heavy case of armour,
not yet laid out in state, but such as he may have been found in the
evening, when the battle was over, under a tree where they had carried
him to die while they themselves went back to fight; the head has fallen
back, side-ways, weighed down by the helmet, which has not even been
unbuckled, only the face, the clear-cut, austere features, visible
beneath the withdrawn vizor; the eyes have not been closed; and there
are few things more exquisite and solemn at once in all sculpture, than
the indication of those no longer seeing eyes, of that broken glance,
beneath the half-closed lids. There is Rossellino's Cardinal of Portugal
at S. Miniato a Monte: the slight body, draped in episcopal robes, lying
with delicate folded hands, in gracious decorum of youthful sanctity;
the strong delicate head, of clear feature and gentle furrow of
suffering and thought, a face of infinite purity of strength, strength
still ungnarled by action: a young priest, who in his virginal dignity
is almost a noble woman. And there is the Ilaria Guinigi of Jacopo della
Quercia (the man who had most natural affinity with the antique of all
these sculptors, as one may see from the shattered remains of the Fonte
Gaia of Siena), the lady stretched out on the rose-garlanded bed of
state in a corner of Lucca Cathedral, her feet upon her sleeping dog,
her sweet, girlish head, with wavy plaits of hair encircled by a
rose-wreathed, turban-like diadem, lying low on round cushions; the bed
gently giving way beneath the beautiful, ample-bosomed body, round which
the soft robe is chastely gathered, and across which the long-sleeved
arms are demurely folded; the most beautiful lady (whose majestic tread
through the palace rooms we can well imagine) that the art of the
fifteenth century has recorded. There is, above all, the Carlo
Marsuppini of Desiderio da Settignano, the humanist Secretary of the
Commonwealth, lying on the sarcophagus, superb with shell fretwork and
curling acanthus, in Santa Croce of Florence. For the youthful beauty
of the Cardinal of Portugal and of the Lady Ilaria are commonplace
compared with the refinement of this worn old face, with scant wavy hair
and thin, gently furrowed, but by no means ploughed-up features. The
slight figure looks as if in life it must have seemed almost
transparent; and the hands are very pathetic: noble, firm hands, subtle
of vein and wrist, crossed simply, neither in prayer nor in agony, but
in gentle weariness, over the book on his breast. That book is certainly
no prayer-book; rather a volume of Plato or Cicero: in his last moments
the noble old man has longed for a glance over the familiar pages; they
have placed the book on his breast, but it has been too late; the
drowsiness of death has overtaken him, and with his last sigh he has
gently folded his hands over the volume, with the faint, last clinging
to the things beloved in this world.

Such is that portrait sculpture of the early Renaissance, its only
sculpture, if we except the exquisite work in babies and angels just out
of the nursery of the Robbias, which is a real achievement. But how
achieved? This art is great just by the things which Antiquity did not.
And what are those things? Shall we say that it is sentiment? But all
fine art has tact, antique art most certainly; and as to pathos, why,
any quiet figure of a dead man or woman, however rudely carved, has
pathos; nay, there is pathos in the poor puling hysterical art which
makes angels draw the curtains of fine ladies' bedchambers, and fine
ladies, in hoop or limp Grecian dress, faint (the smelling bottle,
Betty!) over their lord's coffin; there is pathos, to a decently
constituted human being, wherever (despite all absurdities) we can
imagine that there lies some one whom it was bitter to see departing, to
whom it was bitter to depart. Pathos, therefore, is not the question;
and, if you choose to call it sentiment, it is in reality a sentiment
for line and curve, for stone and light. The great question is, How did
these men of the Renaissance make their dead people look beautiful? For
they were not all beautiful in life, and ugly folk do not grow beautiful
merely because they are dead. The Cardinal of Portugal, the beautiful
Ilaria herself, were you to sketch their profile and place it by the
side of no matter what ordinary antique, would greatly fall short of
what we call sculpturesque beauty; and many of the others, old humanists
and priests and lawyers, are emphatically ugly: snub or absurdly hooked
noses, retreating or deformedly overhanging foreheads, fleshy noses, and
flabby cheeks, blear eyes and sunk-in mouths; and a perfect network of
wrinkles and creases, which, hard as it is to say, have been scooped out
not merely by age, but by low mind, fretting and triumphant animalism.
Now, by what means did the sculptor--the sculptor, too unacquainted with
sculptural beauty (witness his ugly ideal statues), to be able, like the
man who turned the successors of Alexander into a race of leonine though
crazy demi-gods--to insidiously idealize these ugly and insignificant
features; by what means did he turn these dead men into things beautiful
to see? I have said that he took up art where Græco-Roman Antiquity had
left it. Remark that I say Græco-Roman, and I ought to add much more
Roman than Greek. For Greek sculpture, nurtured in the habit of perfect
form, art to whom beauty was a cheap necessity, invariably idealized
portrait, idealized it into beauty or inanity. But when Greek art had
run its course; when beauty of form had well-nigh been exhausted or
begun to pall; certain artists, presumably Greeks, but working for
Romans, began to produce portrait work of quite a new and wonderful
sort: the beautiful portraits of ugly old men, of snub little boys, work
which was clearly before its right time, and was swamped by idealized
portraits, insipid, nay, inane, from the elegant revivalist busts of
Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius down to the bonnet blocks of the lower
empire. Of this Roman portrait art, of certain heads of half-idiotic
little Cæsar brats, of sly and wrinkled old men, things which ought to
be so ugly and yet are so beautiful, we say, at least, perhaps
unformulated, we think, "How Renaissance!" And the secret of the beauty
of these few Græco-Roman busts, which is also that of Renaissance
portrait sculpture, is that the beauty is quite different in kind from
the beauty of Greek ideal sculpture, and obtained by quite different

It is, essentially, that kind of beauty which I began by saying
belonged to realistic art, to the art which is not squeamish about the
object which it represents, but is squeamish about the manner and medium
in which that indifferent object is represented; it is a kind of beauty,
therefore, more akin to that of Rembrandt and Velasquez than to that of
Michael Angelo or Raphael. It is the beauty, not of large lines and
harmonies, beauty residing in the real model's forms, beauty real,
wholesale, which would be the same if the man were not marble but flesh,
not in a given position but moving; but it is a beauty of combinations
of light and surface, a beauty of texture opposed to texture, which
would probably be unperceived in the presence of the more regal beauty
of line and colour harmonies, and which those who could obtain this
latter would employ only as much as they were conducive to such larger
beauties. And this beauty of texture opposed to texture and light
combined with surface is a very real thing; it is the great reality of
Renaissance sculpture: this beauty, resulting from the combination, for
instance, in a commonplace face, of the roughness and coarser pore of
the close shaven lips and chin with the smoothness of the waxy hanging
cheeks; the one catching the light, the other breaking it into a ribbed
and forked penumbra. The very perfection of this kind of work is
Benedetto da Maiano's bust of Pietro Mellini in the Bargello at
Florence. The elderly head is of strongly marked osseous structure, yet
fleshed with abundant and flaccid flesh, hanging in folds or creases
round the mouth and chin, yet not flobbery and floppy, but solid, though
yielding, creased, wrinkled, crevassed rather as a sandy hillside is
crevassed by the trickling waters; semi-solid, promising slight
resistance, waxy, yielding to the touch. But all the flesh has, as it
were, gravitated to the lower part of the face, conglomerated, or rather
draped itself, about the mouth, firmer for sunken teeth and shaving; and
the skin has remained alone across the head, wrinkled, yet drawn in
tight folds across the dome-shaped skull, as if, while the flesh
disappeared, the bone also had enlarged. And on the temples the flesh
has once been thick, the bone (seemingly) slight; and now the skin is
being drawn, recently, and we feel more and more every day, into a
radiation of minute creases, as if the bone and flesh were having a last
struggle. Now in this head there is little beauty of line (the man has
never been good-looking), and there is not much character in the sense
of strongly marked mental or moral personality. I do not know, nor care,
what manner of man this may have been. The individuality is one, not of
the mind but of the flesh. What interests, attaches, is not the
character or temperament, but the bone and skin, the creases and folds
of flesh. And herein also lies the beauty of the work. I do not mean its
interest or mere technical skill, I mean distinctly visible and artistic

Thus does the sculptor of the Renaissance get beauty, visible beauty,
not psychologic interest, out of a plain human being; but the beauty
(and this is the distinguishing point of what I must call realistic
decorative art) does not exist necessarily in the plain human being: he
merely affords the beginning of a pattern which the artist may be able
to carry out. A person may have in him the making of a really beautiful
bust and yet be ugly; just as the same person may afford a subject for a
splendid painting and for an execrable piece of sculpture. The wrinkles
and creases in a face like that of Benedetto da Maiano's Mellini would
probably be ugly and perhaps disgusting in the real reddish, flaccid,
discoloured flesh; while they are admirable in the solid and
supple-looking marble, in its warm and delicate bistre and yellow.
Material has an extraordinary effect upon form; colour, though not a
positive element in sculpture, has immense negative power in
accentuating or obliterating the mere line. All form becomes vague and
soft in the dairy flaccidness of modern ivory; and clear and powerful in
the dark terra cotta, which can ennoble even the fattest and flattest
faces with its wonderful faculty for making mere surface markings, mere
crowsfeet, interesting. Thus also with bronze: the polished, worked
bronze, of fine chocolate burnish and reddish reflections, mars all
beauty of line; how different the unchased, merely rough cast, greenish,
with infinite delicate greys and browns, making, for instance, the head
of an old woman like an exquisite withered, shrivelled, veined autumnal
leaf. It is moreover, as I have said, a question of combination of
surface and light, this art which makes beautiful busts of ugly men. The
ideal statue of the Greeks intended for the open air; fit to be looked
at under any light, high or low, brilliant or veiled, had indeed to be
prepared to look well under any light; but to look well under any light
means not to use any one particular relation of light as an ally; the
surface was kept modestly subordinated to the features, the features
which must needs look well at all moments and from all points of view.
But the Renaissance sculptor knew where his work would be placed; he
could calculate the effect of the light falling invariably through this
or that window; he could make a fellow-workman of that light, present
for it to draw or to obliterate what features he liked, bid it sweep
away such or such surfaces with a broad stream, cut them with a deep
shadow, caress their smooth chiselling or their rough grainings, mark as
with a nail the few large strokes of the point which gave the firmness
to the strained muscle or stretched skin. Out of this model of his, this
plain old burgess, he and his docile friend the light, could make quite
a new thing; a new pattern of bosses and cavities, of smooth sweeps and
tracked lines, of creases and folds of flesh, of pliable linen and rough
brocade of dress: something new, something which, without a single
feature being straightened or shortened, yet changed completely the
value of the whole assemblage of features; something undreamed of by
nature in moulding that ugly old merchant or humanist. With this art
which produced works like Desiderio da Settignano's Carlo Marsuppini and
Benedetto da Maiano's Pietro Mellini, is intimately connected the art of
the great medallists of the Renaissance--Pasti, Guacialotti, Niccolò
Fiorentino, and, greatest of all, Pisanello. Its excellence depends
precisely upon its independence of the ideal work of Antiquity; nay,
even upon the fact that, while the ancients, striking their coins in
chased metal dies, obtained an astonishing minuteness and clearness of
every separate little stroke and dint, and were therefore forced into an
almost more than sculptural perfection of mere line, of mere profile and
throat and elaborately composed hair, a sort of sublime abstraction of
the possible beauty of a human face, as in the coins of Syracuse and
also of Alexander; the men of the fifteenth century employed the process
of casting the bronze in a concave mould obtained by the melting away of
a medallion in wax; in wax, which taking the living impress of the
artist's finger, and recalling in its firm and yet soft texture the real
substance of the human face, insensibly led the medallist to seek, not
sharp and abstract lines, but simple, strongly moulded bosses; not ideal
beauty, but the real appearance of life. It is, moreover, a significant
fact that while the men who, half a century or so later, made fine,
characterless die-stamped medals in imitation of the antique, Caradossi
and Benvenuto for instance, were goldsmiths and sculptors, workers with
the chisel, artists seeking essentially for abstract elegance of line;
the two greatest medallists of the early Renaissance, Vittore Pisano and
Matteo di Pasti, were both of them painters; and painters of the
Northern Italian school, to whom colour and texture were all important,
and linear form a matter of indifference. And indeed, if we look at the
best work of what I may call the wax mould medallists of the fifteenth
century, even at the magnificent marble medallions of the
laurel-wreathed head of Sigismund Malatesta on the pillars of his church
at Rimini, modelled by Pasti, we shall see that these men were
preoccupied almost exclusively with the almost pictorial effect of the
flesh in its various degrees of boss and of reaction of the light; and
that the character, the beauty even, which they attained, is essentially
due to a skilful manipulation of texture, and surface, and light--one
might almost say of colour. We all know Pisanello's famous heads of the
Malatesti of Rimini: the saturnine Sigismund, the delicate dapper
Novello, the powerful yet beautiful Isotta; but there are other
Renaissance medals which illustrate my meaning even better, and connect
my feelings on the subject of this branch of art more clearly with my
feelings towards such work as Benedetto's Pietro Mellini. Foremost among
these is the perhaps somewhat imperfect and decidedly grotesque, but
astonishingly powerful, naïf and characteristic Lorenzo dei Medici by
Niccolò real grandeur of whose conception of this coarse yet imaginative
head may be profitably contrasted with the classicizing efforts after
the demi-god or successor of Alexander in Pollaiolo's famous medal of
the Pazzi conspiracy. Next to this I would place a medal by Guacialotti
of Bishop Niccolò Palmieri, with the motto, "Nudus egressus sic
redibo"--singularly appropriate to the shameless fleshliness of the
personage, with his naked fat chest and shoulders, his fat, pig-like
cheeks and greasy-looking bald head; a hideous beast, yet magnificent in
his bestiality like some huge fattened porker. These medals give us, as
does the bust of Pietro Mellini, beauty of the portrait despite ugliness
of the original. But there are two other medals, this time by Pisanello,
and, as it seems to me, perhaps his masterpieces, which show the quite
peculiar way in which this homely charm of portraiture amalgamates, so
as to form a homogeneous and most seemingly simple whole, with the
homely charm of certain kinds of pure and simple youthful types. One of
these (the reverse of which fantastically represents the four elements,
the wooded earth, the starry sky, the rippled sea, the sun, all in one
sphere) is the portrait of Don Inigo d'Avalos; the other that of Cecilia
Gonzaga. This slender beardless boy in the Spanish shovel hat and wisp
of scarf twisted round the throat; and this tall, long-necked girl, with
sloping shoulders and still half-developed bosom; are, so to speak,
brother and sister in art, in Pisanello's wonderful genius. The relief
of the two medals is extremely low, so that in certain lights the
effigies vanish almost completely, sink into the pale green surface of
the bronze; the portraits are a mere film, a sort of haze which has
arisen on the bronze and gathered into human likeness; but in this film,
this scarce perceptible relief, we are made to perceive the slender
osseous structure, the smooth, sleek, childish blond flesh and hair, the
delicate, undecided pallor of extreme youth and purity, even as we might
in some elaborate portrait by Velasquez, but with a spring-like
healthiness which Velasquez, painting his lymphatic Hapsburgs, rarely

Such is this Renaissance art of medals, this side branch of the great
realistic portraiture in stone of the Benedettos, Desiderios, and
Rossellinos; a perfect thing in itself; and one which, if we muse over
it in connection with the more important works of fifteenth century
sculpture, will perhaps lead us to think that, as the sculpture of
Antiquity, in its superb idealism, its devotion to the perfect line and
curve of beauty, achieved the highest that mere colourless art can
achieve--thanks to the very purity, sternness, and narrowness of its
sculpturesque feeling--so also, perhaps, modern sculpture, should it
ever re-arise, must be a continuation of the tendencies of the
Renaissance, must be the humbler sister of painting, must seek for the
realistic portrait and begin, perhaps, with the realistic medal.


This kind of realism, where only the model is ugly, while the portrait
is beautiful; which seeks decorative value by other means than the
intrinsic excellence of form in the object represented, this kind of
realism is quite different in sort from the realisms of immature art,
which, aiming at nothing beyond a faithful copy, is content with
producing an ugly picture of an ugly thing. Now this latter kind of
realism endured in painting some time after decorative realism such as I
have described had reached perfection in sculpture. Nor was it till
later, and when the crude scholastic realism had completely come to an
end, that there became even partially possible in painting decorative
realism analogous to what we have noticed in sculpture; while it was not
till after the close of the Italian Renaissance period that the painters
arose in Spain and the Netherlands who were able to treat their subjects
with the uncompromising decorative realism of Desiderio or Rosellino or
Benedetto da Maiano. For the purely imitative realism of the painters of
the early Renaissance was succeeded in Italy by idealism, which matured
in the great art of intrinsically beautiful linear form of Michael
Angelo and Raphael, and the great art of intrinsically beautiful colour
form of Giorgione and Titian. These two schools were bound to be, each
in its degree, idealistic. Complete power of mere representation in
tint and colour having been obtained through the realistic drudgery of
the early Renaissance, selection in the objects thus to be represented
had naturally arisen; and the study of the antique had further hastened
and directed this movement of art no longer to study but to achieve, to
be decorative once more, decorative no longer in subservience to
architecture, but as the separate and self-sufficing art of painting.
Selection, therefore, which is the only practical kind of idealism, had
begun as soon as painting was possessed of the power of representing
objects in their relations of line and colour, with that amount of light
and shadow requisite to the just appreciation of the relations of form
and the just relations of colour. Now art which stops short at this
point of representation must inevitably be, if decorative at all,
idealistically decorative; it must be squeamish respecting the objects
represented, respecting their real structure, colour, position, and
grouping. For, of the visible impressions received from an object, some
are far more intrinsic than others. Suppose we see a woman, beautiful in
the structure of her body, and beautiful in the colour of her person and
her draperies, standing under a light which is such as we should call
beautiful and interesting: of these three qualities one will be
intrinsic in the woman, the second very considerably so, the third not
at all. For, let us call that woman away and replace her immediately by
another woman chosen at random. We shall immediately perceive that we
have lost one pleasurable impression, that of beautiful bodily
structure: the woman has taken away her well-shapen body. Next we shall
perceive a notable diminution in the second pleasurable impression: the
woman has taken with her, not indeed her well-tinted garments, which we
may have bestowed on her successor, but her beautifully coloured skin
and hair, so that of the pleasing colour-impression will remain only as
much as was due to, and may have been retained with, the original
woman's clothes. But if we look for our third pleasurable impression,
our beautiful light, we shall find that unchanged, whether it fall upon
a magnificently arrayed goddess or upon a sordid slut And, conversely,
the beautiful woman, when withdrawn from that light and placed in any
other, will be equally lovely in form, even if we cast her in plaster,
and lose the colour of her skin and hair; or if we leave her not only
the beautiful tints of her flesh and hair, but her own splendidly
coloured garments, we shall still have, in whatsoever light, a
magnificent piece of colour. But if we recall the poor ugly creature who
has succeeded her from out of that fine effect of light, we shall have
nothing but a hideous form invested in hideous colour.

This rough diagram will be sufficient to explain my thought respecting
the relative degree to which the art dealing with linear form, that
dealing with colour and that dealing with light, with the medium in
which form and colour are perceived; is each respectively bound to be
idealistically or realistically decorative. Now painting was
æsthetically mature, possessed the means to achieve great beauty, at a
time when of the three modes of representation there had as yet
developed only those of linear form and colour; and the very possibility
and necessity of immediately achieving all that could be achieved by
these means delayed for a long time the development of the third mode of
representation: the representation of objects as they appear with
reference to the light through which they are seen. A beginning had
indeed been made. Certain of Correggio's effects of light, even more an
occasional manner of treating the flesh and hair, reducing both form and
colour to a kind of vague boss and vague sheen, such as they really
present in given effects of light, a something which we define roughly
as eminently modern in the painting of his clustered cherubs; all this
is certainly a beginning of the school of Velasquez. Still more so is it
the case with Andrea del Sarto, the man of genius whom critics love to
despatch as a mediocrity, because his art, which is art altogether for
the eyes, and in which he innovated more than any of his contemporaries,
does not afford any excuse for the irrelevancies of ornamental
criticism; with him the appearance of form and colour, acted upon by
light, the relative values of which flesh and draperies consist with
reference to the surrounding medium, all this becomes so evident a
preoccupation and a basis for decorative effects, as to give certain of
his works an almost startling air of being modern. But this tendency
comes to nothing: the men of the sixteenth century appear scarcely to
have perceived wherein lay the true excellence of this "Andrea senza
errori," deeming him essentially the artist of linear perfection; while
the innovations of Correggio in the way of showing the relations of
flesh tones and light ended in the mere coarse gala illuminations in
which his successors made their seraphs plunge and sprawl. There was too
much to be done, good and bad, in the way of mere linear form and mere
colour; and as art of mere linear form and colour, indifferent of all
else, did the art of the Italian Renaissance run to seed.

I said at the beginning of this paper that the degree to which any art
is strictly idealistic, can be measured by the terms which it will make
with portrait. For as portrait is due to the desire to represent a
person quite apart from that person affording material for decoration,
it is evident that only the art which can call in the assistance of
decorative materials, independent of the represented individual, can
possibly make a beautiful picture out of an ugly man; while the art
which deals only with such visible peculiarities as are inherent in the
individual, has no kind of outlet, is cornered, and can make of a
repulsive original only a repulsive picture. The analogy to this we have
already noticed in sculpture: antique sculpture, considering only the
linear bosses which existed equally in the living man and in the statue,
could not afford to represent plain people; while Renaissance sculpture,
extracting a large amount of beauty out of combinations of surface and
light, was able, as long as it could arrange such an artificial
combination, to dispense with great perfection in the model. Nay, if we
except Renaissance statuary as a kind of separate art, we may say that
this independence of the object portrayed is a kind of analytic test,
enabling us to judge at a glance, and by the degree of independence from
the model, the degree to which any art is removed from the mere line and
boss of antique sculpture. In the statue standing free in any light that
may chance to come, every form must be beautiful from every point; but
in proportion as the new elements of painting enter, in proportion as
the actual linear form and boss is marked and helped out by grouping,
colour, and light and shade, does the actual perfection of the model
become less important; until, under the reign of light as the chief
factor, it becomes altogether indifferent. In this fact lies the only
rational foundation for the notion, made popular by Hegel, that painting
is an art in which beauty is of much less account than in sculpture;
failing to understand that the sum total of beauty remained the same,
whether dependent upon the concentration of a single element or obtained
by the co-operation of several consequently less singly important

But to return to the question of portrait art. From what we have seen,
it is clear that art which requires perfection of form will be reduced
to ugliness if cramped in the obtaining of such perfection, whereas art
which can obtain beauty by other means will still have a chance when
reduced to imitate ugly object? Hence it is that while the realistically
decorative art of the seventeenth century can make actually beautiful
things of the portraits of ugly people, the idealistically decorative
art of the Renaissance produces portraits which are cruelly ugly in
proportion as the art is purely idealistic. Yet even in idealism there
are degrees: the more the art is confined to mere linear form, to the
exclusion of colour, the uglier will be the portraits. With Michael
Angelo the difficulty was simplified to impossibility: he could not
paint portrait at all; and in his sculptured portraits of the two
Medicean dukes at S. Lorenzo he evaded all attempt at likeness, making
those two men into scarcely more than two architectural monsters,
half-human cousins of the fantastic creatures who keep watch on the
belfries and gurgoyles of a Gothic cathedral. It is almost impossible to
think of Michael Angelo attempting portrait: the man's genius cannot be
constrained to it, and what ought to be mere ugliness would come out
idealized into grandiose monstrosity. Men like Titian and Tintoret are
at the other end of the scale of ideal decoration: they are bordering
upon the domain of realism. Hence they can raise into interest, by the
mere power of colour, many an insignificant type; yet even they are
incapable of dealing with absolute ugliness, with absence of fine
colour, or, if they do deal with it, there is an immediate improvement
upon the model, and the appearance of truthfulness goes. Between the
absolute incapacity for dealing with ugliness of Michael Angelo, and the
power of compromising with it of Titian and Tintoret, Raphael stands
half-way: he can call in the assistance of colour just sufficiently to
create a setting of carefully harmonized draperies and accessories,
beautiful enough to allow of his filling it up with the most cruelly
ugly likeness which any painter ever painted. Far too much has been
written about Raphael in general, but not half enough about Raphael as a
portrait-painter; for by the side of the eclectic idealist, who combined
and balanced beauty almost into insipidity, is the most terribly,
inflexibly veracious portrait-painter that ever was. Compared with those
sternly straightforward portraits of his Florentine and Roman time,
where ugliness and baseness are never attenuated by one tittle, and
alloyed nobility or amiability, as with his finer models, like the two
Donis, husband and wife, and Bibbiena, is never purified of its
troubling element; compared with them the Venetian portraits are mere
insincere, enormously idealized pieces of colour-harmony; nay, the
portraits of Velasquez are mere hints--given rapidly by a sickened
painter striving to make those scrofulous Hapsburgs no longer mere men,
but keynotes of harmonies of light--of what the people really are. For
Velasquez seems to show us the temperament, the potentiality of his
people, and to leave us, with a kind of dignified and melancholy silence
as to all further, to find out what life, what feelings and actions,
such a temperament implies. But Raphael shows us all: the temperament
and the character, the real active creature, with all the marks of his
present temper and habits, with all the indications of his immediate
actions upon him: completely without humour or bitterness, without the
smallest tendency to twist the reality into caricature or monstrosity,
nay, perhaps without much psychologic analysis to tell him the exact
meaning of what he is painting, going straight to the point, and utterly
ruthless from sheer absence of all alternative of doing otherwise than
he does. There is nothing more cruelly realistic in the world, cruel not
only to the base originals but to the feelings of the spectator, than
the harmony of villainies, of various combinations of black and hog-like
bestiality, and fox and wolf-like cunning and ferocity with wicked human
thought and self-command, which Raphael has enshrined in that splendid
harmony of scarlet silk and crimson satin, and purple velvet and dull
white brocade, as the portraits of Leo X. and his cardinals Rossi and
Dei Medici.

The idealistic painter, accustomed to rely upon the intrinsic beauty
which he has hitherto been able to select or create; accustomed also to
think of form as something quite independent of the medium through which
it is seen, scarcely conscious of the existence of light and air in his
habit of concentrating all attention upon a figure placed, as it were,
in a sort of vacuum of indifference;--this idealistic artist is left
without any resources when bid to paint an ugly man or woman. With the
realistic artist, to whom the man or woman is utterly indifferent, to
whom the medium in which they are seen is everything, the case Is just
reversed: let him arrange his light, his atmospheric effect, and he will
work into their pattern no matter what plain or repulsive wretch. To
Velasquez the flaccid yellowish fair flesh, with its grey downy shadows,
the limp pale drab hair, which is grey in the light and scarcely
perceptibly blond in the shade, all this unhealthy, bloodless, feebly
living, effete mass of humanity called Philip IV. of Spain, shivering in
moral anæmia like some dog thorough bred into nothingness, becomes
merely the foundation for a splendid harmony of pale tints. Again, the
poor little baby princess, with scarce visible features, seemingly
kneaded (but not sufficiently pinched and modelled) out of the wet ashes
of an _auto da fè_, in her black-and-white frock (how different from the
dresses painted by Raphael and Titian!), dingy and gloomy enough for an
abbess or a cameriera major, this childish personification of courtly
dreariness, certainly born on an Ash Wednesday, becomes the principal
strands for a marvellous tissue of silvery and ashy light, tinged
yellowish in the hair, bluish in the eyes and downy cheeks, pale red in
the lips and the rose in the hair; something to match which in beauty
you must think of some rarely seen veined and jaspered rainy twilight,
or opal-tinted hazy winter morning. Ugliness, nay, repulsiveness,
vanish, subdued into beauty, even as noxious gases may be subdued into
health-giving substances by some cunning chemist. The difference between
such portraits as these and the portraits by Raphael does not however
consist merely in the beauty: there is also the fact that if you take
one of Velasquez's portraits out of their frame, reconstitute the living
individual, and bid him walk forth in whatsoever light may fall upon
him, you will have something infinitely different from the portrait, and
of which your only distinct feeling will be that a fine portrait might
be made of the creature; whereas it is a matter of complete indifference
whether you see Raphael's Leo X. in the flesh or in his gilded frame.

Whatever may fairly be said respecting the relative value of idealistic
and realistic decorative art is really also connected with this latter
point. Considering that realistic art is merely obtaining beauty by
attention to other factors than those which preoccupy idealistic art,
that the one fulfils what the other neglects--taking the matter from
this point of view, it would seem as if the two kinds of arts were, so
to speak, morally equal; and that any vague sense of mysterious
superior dignity clinging to idealistic art was a mere shred of long
discarded pedantry. But it is not so. For realistic art does more than
merely bring into play powers unknown to idealistic art: it becomes, by
the possession of these powers, utterly indifferent to the intrinsic
value of the forms represented: it is so certain of making everything
lovely by its harmonies of light and atmosphere that it almost prefers
to choose inferior things for this purpose. I am thinking at present of
a picture by I forget what Dutchman in our National Gallery,
representing in separate compartments five besotten-looking creatures,
symbolical of the five senses: they are ugly, brutish, with I know not
what suggestion of detestable temperament in their bloodshot flesh and
vermilion lips, as if the whole man were saturated with his appetite.
Yet the Dutchman has found the means of making these degraded types into
something which we care to look at, and to look at on account of its
beauty; even as, in lesser degree, Rubens has always managed to make us
feel towards his flaccid, veal-complexioned, fish-eyed women, something
of what we feel towards the goddesses of the Parthenon; towards the
white-robed, long-gloved ladies, with meditative face beneath their
crimped auburn hair, of Titian.

Viewed in one way, there is a kind of nobility in the very fact that
such realistic art can make us pardon, can redeem, nay almost sanctify,
so much. But is it right thus to pardon, redeem, and sanctify; thus to
bring the inferior on to the level of the superior? Nay, is it not
rather wrong to teach us to endure so much meanness and ugliness in
creatures, on account of the nobility with which they are represented?
Is this not vitiating our feelings, blunting our desire for the better,
our repugnance for the worse?

A great and charitable art, this realistic art of the seventeenth
century, and to be respected for its very tenderness towards the scorned
and castaway things of reality; but accustoming us, perhaps too much,
like all charitable and reclaiming impulses, to certain unworthy
contacts: in strange contrast herein with that narrow but ascetic and
aristocratic art of idealism, which, isolated and impoverished though it
may be, has always the dignity of its immaculate purity, of its
unswerving judgment, of its obstinate determination to deal only with
the best. A hard task to judge between them. But be this as it may, it
is one of the singular richnesses of the Italian Renaissance that it
knew of both tendencies; that while in painting it gave the equivalent
of that rigid idealism of the Greeks which can make no compromise with
ugliness; in sculpture it possessed the equivalent of the realism of
Velasquez, which can make beauty out of ugly things, even as the chemist
can make sugar out of vitriol.

       *       *       *       *       *


"Le donne, i cavalieri, l' armi, gli amori."


Throughout the tales of Charlemagne and his warriors, overtopping by far
the crowd of paladins and knights, move two colossal mailed and vizored
figures--Roland, whom the Italians call Orlando and the Spaniards
Roldan, the son of Milon d'Angers and of Charlemagne's sister; and
Renaud or Rinaldo, the lord of Montauban, and eldest of the famous four
sons of Aymon. These are the two representative heroes, equal but
opposed, the Achilles and Odysseus, the Siegfried and Dietrich, of the
Carolingian epic; and in each is personified, by the unconscious genius
of the early Middle Ages, one of the great political movements, of the
heroic struggles, of feudalism. For there existed in feudalism two
forces, a centripetal and a centrifugal--a force which made for the
supremacy of the kingly overlordship, and a force which made for the
independence of the great vassals. Hence, in the poetry which is the
poetry of feudalism, two distinct currents of feeling, two distinct
epics---the epic of the devoted loyalty of all the heroes of France to
their wise and mighty emperor Charlemagne, triumphant even in
misfortune; and the epic of the hopeless resistance against a craven and
capricious despot Charles of the most righteous and whole-hearted among
his feudatories: the epic of Roland, and the epic of Renaud. Of the
first there remains to us, in its inflexible and iron solemnity, an
original rhymed narrative, "The Chanson de Roland," which we may read
perhaps almost in the self-same words in which it was sung by the
Normans of William in their night watch before the great battle. The
centripetal force of feudalism gained the upper hand, and the song of
the great empire, of the great deeds of loyal prowess, was consecrated
in the feudal monarchy. The case was different with the tale of
resistance and rebellion. The story of Renaud soon became a dangerous
lesson for the great barons; it fell from the hands of the nobles to
those of humbler folk; and it is preserved to us no longer in mediæval
verse, but in a prose version, doubtless of the fifteenth century, under
the name, familiar on the stalls of village fairs, of "The Quatre Fils
Aymon." But, as Renaud is the equal of Roland, so is this humble prose
tale nevertheless the equal of the great song of Roncevaux; and even
now, it would be a difficult task to decide which were the grander, the
tale of loyalty or the tale of resistance.

In each of these tales,"The Chanson de Roland" and "The Quatre Fils
Aymon," there is contained a picture of its respective hero, which sums
up, as it were, the whole noble character of the book; and which, the
picture of the dying Roland and the picture of the dying Renaud, I would
fain bring before you before speaking of the other Roland and the other
Renaud, the Orlando of Ariosto and the Rinaldo of Boiardo. The traitor
Ganelon has enabled King Marsile to overtake with all his heathenness
the rear-guard of Charlemagne between the granite walls of Roncevaux;
the Franks have been massacred, but the Saracens have been routed;
Roland has at last ceded to the prayers of Oliver and of Archbishop
Turpin; three times has he put to his mouth his oliphant and blown a
blast to call back Charlemagne to vengeance, till the blood has foamed
round his lips and his temple has burst. Oliver is dead, the archbishop
is dying, Roland himself is slowly bleeding to death. He goes down into
the defile, heaped with corpses, and seeks for the bodies of the
principal paladins, Ivon and Ivaire, the Gascon Engelier, Gérier and
Gérin, Bérenger and Otho, Anseis and Salamon, and the old Gerard of
Rousillon; and one by one drags them to where the archbishop lies dying.
And then, when to these knights Roland has at last added his own beloved
comrade Oliver, he bids the archbishop bless all the dead, before he die
himself. Then, when he has reverently crossed Turpin's beautiful
priestly hands over his breast, he goes forth to shatter his sword
Durendal against the rocks; but the good sword has cut the rock without
shivering; and the coldness of death steals, over Roland. He stretches
himself upon a hillock looking towards Spain, and prays for the
forgiveness of his sins; then, with Durendal and his ivory horn by his
side, he stretches out the glove of his right hand to God. "He has
stretched forth to God the glove of his right hand; St. Gabriel has
received it... Then his head has sunk on his arm; he has gone, with
clasped hands, to his end. God sends him one of his cherubim and St.
Michael of Peril. St. Gabriel has come with them. They carry the soul of
the Count: up to paradise."

More solitary, and solemn and sad even, is the end of the other hero, of
the great rebel Renaud of Montauban. At length, after a lifetime wasted
in fruitless, attempts to resist the iniquity of the emperor, to baffle
his power, to shame him by magnanimity into, justice, the four sons of
Aymon, who have given up their youth, their manhood, the dearest things
to their heart, respect to their father and loyalty to their sovereign,
rather than countenance the injustice of Charlemagne to their kinsman,
have at last obtained to be pardoned; to be pardoned, they, heroes, by
this, dastardly tyrant, and to quietly sink, broken-hearted into
nothingness. The eldest, Renaud, returning from his exile and the Holy
Land, finds that his wife Clarisse has pined for him and died; and
then, putting away his armour from him, and dressing in a pilgrim's
frock made of the purple serge of the dead lady's robe, he goes forth to
wander through the world; not very old in years, but broken-spirited; at
peace, but in solitude of heart. And one evening he arrives at Cologne.
We can imagine the old knight, only half aware of the sunshine of the
evening, the noise of the streets, the looks of the crowd, the great
minster rising half-finished in the midst of the town by the Rhine, the
cries and noise and chipping of the masons; unconscious of all this,
half away: with his brothers hiding in the Ardennes, living on roots and
berries, at bay before Charlemagne; or wandering ragged and famishing
through France; with King Yon brilliant at Toulouse, seeing perhaps for
the first time his bride Clarisse, or the towers of Montauban rising
under the workmen's hands; thinking perhaps of the frightful siege, when
all, all had been eaten in the fortress, and his children Aymonnet and
Yonnet, all thin and white, knelt down and begged him to slaughter his
horse Bayard that they might eat; perhaps of that journey, when he and
his brothers, all in red-furred robes with roses in their hands, rode
prisoners of King Charles across the plain of Vaucouleurs; perhaps of
when he galloped up to the gallows at Montfaucon, and cut loose his
brother Richard; or of that daring ride to Paris, where he and his horse
won the race, snatched the prize from before Charlemagne and sped off
crying out that the winner was Renaud of Montauban; or, perhaps, seeing
once more the sad, sweet face of the Lady Clarisse, when she had burned
all her precious stuffs and tires in the castle-yard, and lay dead
without him to kiss her cold mouth; of seeing once more his good horse
Bayard, when he kissed him in his stall before giving him to be killed
by Charlemagne. Thinking of all that past, seeing it all within his
mind, and seeing but little of the present; as, in the low yellow light,
he helped, for his bread, the workmen to heave the great beams, to carry
the great stones of the cathedral, to split the huge marble masses while
they stared in astonished envy; as he sat, unconscious of their
mutterings, eating his dry bread and porridge in the building docks by
the river. And then, when wearied, he had sunk to sleep in the hay-loft,
dreaming perchance that all this evil life was but a dream and the
awakening therefrom to happiness and strength; the jealous workmen came
and killed him with their base tools, and cast him into the Rhine. They
say that the huge body floated on the water, surrounded by a great halo;
and that when the men of the banks, seeing this, reverently fished it
out, they found that the noble corpse was untouched by decay, and still
surrounded by a light of glory. And thus, it seems to me, this Renaud,
this rebel baron of whose reality we know nothing, has floated
surrounded by a halo of poetry down the black flood of the Middle Ages
(in which so much has sunk); and when we look upon his face, and see
its beauty and strength and solemness, we feel, like the people of the
Rhine bank, inclined to weep, and to say of this mysterious corpse,
"Surely this is some great saint."

Of each of these heroes thus shown us by the Middle Ages, the Italian
Renaissance also, by the hand of two of her greatest poets, has given us
a picture. And first, of Roland. Of him, of Count Orlando, we are told
by Messer Lodovico Ariosto, that in consequence of his having
discovered, in a certain pleasant grotto among the ferns and maidenhair,
words graven on the rock (interrupted, doubtless, by the lover's kisses)
which revealed that the Princess Angelica of Cathay had disdained him
for Medoro, the fair-haired page of the King of the Moors; Count Orlando
went straightway out of his mind, and hanging up his armour and
stripping off his clothes, galloped about on his bare-backed horse,
slaughtering cows and sheep instead of Saracens; until it pleased God,
moved by the danger of Christendom and the prayers of Charlemagne, to
permit Astolfo to ride on the hippogriffs back up to the moon, and bring
back thence the wits of the great paladin contained in a small phial. We
all know that merry tale. What the Renaissance has to say of Renaud of
Montauban is even stranger and more fantastic. One day, says Matteo
Boiardo, in the fifteenth canto of the second part of his "Orlando
Innamorato," as Rinaldo of Montalbano, the contemner of love, was riding
in the Ardennes, he came to a clearing in the forest, where, close to
the fountain of Merlin, a wonderful sight met his eyes. On a flowery
meadow were dancing three naked damsels, and singing with them danced
also a naked youth, dark of eyes and fair of hair, the first down on his
lips, so that some might have said it was and others that it was not
there. On Rinaldo's approach they broke through their singing and
dancing, and rushed upon him, pelting him with roses and hyacinths and
violets from their baskets, and beating him with great sheaves of
lilies, which burnt like flames through the plates of his armour to the
very marrow of his bones. Then when they had dragged him, tied with
garlands, by the feet round and round the meadow; wings, eyed not with
the eyes of a peacock but with the eyes of lovely damsels, suddenly
sprouted out of their shoulders, and they flew off, leaving the poor
baron, bruised on the grass, to meditate upon the vanity of all future
resistance to love.

Such are the things which the Middle Ages and the Renaissance found to
tell us of the two great heroes of Carolingian poetry. And the
explanation of how it came to pass, that for the Roland of the song of
Roncevaux was substituted the Orlando of Ariosto, and for the Renaud of
"The Quatre Fils Aymon" the Rinaldo of Matteo Boiardo--means simply that
which I desire here to study: the metamorphoses of mediæval romance
stuffs, and, more especially, the vicissitudes of the cycle of


We are apt to think of the Middle Ages as if they were the
companion-piece to Antiquity; but no such ideal correspondence exists
between the two periods. Antiquity is all of a piece, and the Middle
Ages, on the contrary, are heterogeneous and chaotic. For Antiquity is
the steady and uniform development of civilization in one direction and
with one meaning; there are great differences between its various
epochs, but they are as the differences between the budding, the
blossoming, and the fading stages of one plant: life varies, but is one.
The Middle Ages, on the other hand, are a series of false starts, of
interruptions and of new departures; a perpetual confusion. For, if we
think over them, we shall see that these centuries called mediæval are
occupied by the effort of one people, or one generation, to put to
rights and settle down among as much as it can save of the civilization
of Antiquity. And the sudden overwhelming of this people or this
generation by another, which puts all the elaborate arrangements into
disarray, adds to the ruins of Antiquity the ruins of more recent times;
and then this destroying generation tries to put things straight, to
settle down, and is in its turn interrupted by the advent of some new
comer who begins the game afresh.

As it is with peoples, so also is it with ideas; scarcely has a scheme
of life or of philosophy or of art taken shape and consistence before,
from out of the inexhaustible chaos of mediæval thought and feeling,
there issue new necessities, new aspirations, which put into confusion
all previous ones. The Middle Ages were like some financial crisis: a
little time, a little credit, money will fructify, wealth will reappear,
the difficult moment will be tided over; and so with civilization. But
unfortunately the wealth of ideas began to accumulate in the storehouse
only just long enough to bring down a rout of creditors, people who
rifled the bank, and went home to consume or invest their money in order
to be succeeded by others. Hence, in the matter of civilization, the
Middle Ages ended in an extraordinary slow ruin, a bankruptcy like that
which overtook France before '89, and from which, as France was restored
by the bold seizure and breaking up of property of the revolution, the
world was restored by the bold breaking of feudal and spiritual
mortmain, the restoring of wasted energies to utility, of that great
double revolution, the Renaissance and the Reformation. Be this as it
may, mankind throughout the Middle Ages appears to have been in a
chronic condition of packing up and unpacking, and packing up again; one
after another a nation, a race, a philosophy, a political system came to
the front and was pushed back again into limbo: Germans and Kelts and
Latins, French civilization of the day of Abélard, Provençal
civilization of the days of the Raymonds, brilliant and evanescent
Hohenstauffen supremacy, papacy at Canossa and at Avignon, Templars
triumphant and Templars persecuted; scholasticism, mysticism, feudalism,
democracy, communism: influences all these perpetually rising up and
being trodden down, till they all rotted away in the great stagnation of
the fifteenth century; and only in one part of the world, where the
conflict was more speedily ended, where one set of tendencies early
triumphed, where stability was temporarily obtained, in Italy alone did
civilization continue to be nurtured and developed for the benefit of
all mankind. In such a state of affairs only such things could flourish
and mature as were safe from what I have called, for want of a better
expression, the perpetual unpacking and repacking, the perpetual being
on the move, of the Middle Ages; and among such things foremost was art,
the essential art of the times, architecture, which, belonging to the
small towns, to the infinite minority of the democracy, who worked and
made money and let the great changes pass over their heads, thrived
almost as something too insignificant for notice. But it was different
with literature. Cathedrals once built cannot so easily be changed; new
peoples, new ideas, must accept them. But poetry--the thing which every
nation insists upon having to suit its own taste, the thing which every
nation and every generation carries about with it hither and thither,
the thing which can be altered to suit every passing whim--poetry was,
of all the fluctuating things of the Middle Ages, perhaps the most
fluctuating. And fluctuating also because, as none of these various
nations, tendencies, aspirations, dominated sufficiently long to produce
any highly organized art, there remained no standard works, nothing
recognizedly perfect, which would be kept for its perfection and gather
round it imitations, so as to form the nucleus of any homogeneous
tradition. The Middle Ages, so full of fashions in literary matters,
possessed no classics; the minnesingers knew nothing of the stern old
Teutonic war songs; the meistersängers had forgotten the minnesingers;
the trouvères and troubadours knew nothing of "The Chanson de Roland,"
and Villon knew nothing of them; only in Italy, where the Middle Ages
came to an end and the Renaissance began with the Lombard league, was
there established a tradition of excellence, with men like Dante,
Petrarch, and Boccaccio, handed down from generation to generation; even
as, while in the north there came about the strange modification which
substituted the French of Rabelais for the French of Chrestien de
Troyes, the German of Luther for the German of Wolfram von Eschenbach,
the Italian language, from Ciullo d'Alcamo almost to Boiardo and Lorenzo
dei Medici, remained virtually identical. The result of this, which I
may call the heterogeneousness and instability of the Middle Ages was
that not merely literary forms were for ever arising and being
superseded, but literary subject matter was continually undergoing a
process of transformation. While in Antiquity the great epic and tragic
stuffs remained well-nigh unaltered, and the stories of Valerius Flaccus
and Apollonius Rhodius were merely the stories which had been current
since the days of Homer, during the course of the Middle Ages every epic
cycle, and every tale belonging thereunto, was gradually adulterated,
mingled with, swamped by, some other cycle or tale; nay, rather, every
other, cycle and every other tale, the older ones trying to save their
popularity by admixture with the more recent, till at last all mythical
significance, all historical meaning, all national character, all
psychological reality, were lost in the chaotic result. And meanwhile,
in the absence of any stable language, of any durable literary fashion,
the Middle Ages were unable to give to these epic stuffs, at any one
period of their life of metamorphose, a form sufficiently artistically
valuable to secure anything beyond momentary vogue, to secure for them
the immortality of the great Greek tales of adventure and warfare and
love. Thus it came about that the epic cycle of Charlemagne, after
supplanting in men's minds the grand sagas of the pagan North, was
itself supplanted by the Arthurian cycle; that the Frankish stories
absorbed the wholly discrepant elements of their more fortunate Keltic
rivals; that both cycles, having lost all character through fusion and
through obliteration by time, became more meaningless generation by
generation and year by year, until when the Middle Ages had come to an
end, and the great poets of the Renaissance were ready to give this old
mediæval epic stuff a definitive and durable artistic shape, there came
to the hands of Boiardo and Ariosto, of Tasso and Spenser, only a
strange, trumpery material, muddled by jongleurs and romance writers,
and reduced to mere fairy stuff, taken seriously only by Don Quixote,
and by the authors of the volumes of insane twaddle called after Amadis
of Gaul and all his kinsmen.

Such a condition of perpetual change as explains, in my belief, why the
mediæval epic subjects were wanted, can be made clear only by examples.
I shall therefore try to show the transformations which were undergone
by one or two principal mediæval epic subjects as a result of a mixture
with other epic cycles; of a gradual adaptation to a new state of
civilization; and finally of their gradual separation from all kind of
reality and real interests.

First of all, let us look at the epic cycle, which, although known to us
only in poems no older than those of the trouvères and minnesingers who
sang of Charlemagne and Arthur, is in reality far more ancient, and on
account of its antiquity and its consequent disconnection with mediæval
religious and political interests, was thrown aside even by the nations
to which it belonged, by the Scandinavians who took to writing sagas
about the wars of Charlemagne against Saracens, and by the Germans who
preferred to hear the adventures of Welsh and Briton, Launcelots and
Tristrams. I am alluding to the stories connected with the family and
life of the hero called Sigurd by the Scandinavians, and Siegfried by
the Germans. Of these we possess a Norse version called the Volsunga
Saga, magnificently done into English by Mr. William Morris; which,
although written down at the end of the twelfth century, in the very
time therefore of Chrestien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and
Gottfried von Strassburg, and subsequently to the presumed writing of
"The Chanson de Roland" and the Nibelungenlied, shows us in reality the
product of a people, the distant Scandinavians of Iceland, who were five
or six hundred years behind the French, Germans, and English of the
twelfth century. In the Volsunga Saga, neither Christianity nor
feudalism is yet dreamed of; and it is for this reason that I wish to
compare it with the Nibelungenlied, in order to show how enormously the
old epic stuff was altered by the new civilization. The whole social and
moral condition of the two versions is different. In the old
Scandinavian civilization, where the Viking is surrounded and served by
clansmen, the feeling of blood relationship is the strongest in people's
hearts; strangely and fearfully shown in the introductory tale of Signy,
who, in order to avenge her father Volsung, killed by her husband,
murders her children by the latter, and then, altered in face by magic
arts, goes forth to the woods to her brother Sigmund, that,
un-wittingly, he may beget with her the only man fit to avenge the
Volsungs. And then she sends the boy Sinfjotli to the man he has
hitherto considered merely as his uncle, bidding the latter kill him if
he prove unworthy of his incestuous birth, or train him to vengeance.
The three together murder the husband and legitimate children of Signy,
and set the palace on fire; which, being done, the queen, having
accomplished her duty to her kin, accomplishes that towards her husband,
and calmly returns to die in the burning hall. Here (and apparently
again in the case of the children of Sigurd and Brynhilt) incest becomes
a family virtue. This being the frightful preponderance of the feeling
of blood relationship, it is quite natural that the Scandinavian
Chriemhilt (called in the Volsunga Saga, Gudrun) should not resent the
murder of her husband Siegfried or Sigurd by her brothers at the
instigation of the jealous Brynhilt (who has in a manner been Sigurd's
wife before he made her over to Chriemhilt's eldest brother); and that,
so far from seeking any revenge against them, she should, when her second
husband Atli sends for her brothers in order to rob and murder them,
first vainly warn them of the plot, and then, when they have been
massacred, kill Atli and her children by him in order to avenge her
brothers. The slackening of the tribal feeling, the idea of fidelity in
love and sanctity of marriage belonging to Christianity and feudalism,
rendered such a story unintelligible to the Germans of the Othos and
Henrys. In the Nibelungenlied, the whole story of the massacre of the
brothers is changed. Chriemhilt never forgives the murder of Siegfried,
and it is not Etzel--Atli for the sake of plunder, but she herself for
the sake of revenge, who decoys her brothers and murders them; it is she
who with her own hand cuts off the head of Gunther to expiate his murder
of Siegfried. To our feelings, more akin to those of the feudal
Christians of Franconia than to those of the tribal Scandinavians of the
Edda, the second version is far more intelligible and interesting--the
story of this once gentle and loving Chriemhilt, turned by the murder of
her beloved into a fury, and plotting to avenge his death by the death
of all his kinsfolk, must be much grander and more pathetic than the
story of this strange Gudrun, who sits down patiently beneath the injury
done to her by her brothers, but savagely avenges them on her new
husband, and her own and his innocent children; to us this persistence
of tribal feeling, destroying all indignation and love, is merely
unnatural, confusing, and repulsive. But this alteration for the better
in one of the incidents of the tale is a mere fluke; and the whole main
plot of the originally central figures are completely obliterated by the
new state of civilization, and rendered merely trivial and grotesque. In
the Volsunga Saga Sigurd, overcome by enchantments, has forgotten his
wife (or mistress, a vague mythical relationship); and, with all sense
of the past obliterated, has made her over to the brother of his new
wife Gudrun; and Brynhilt kills her faithless love to dissolve the
second marriage and be reunited with him in death. In the Nibelungenlied
Siegfried, although the flower of knighthood, conquers by foul play the
Amazon Brunhilt to reward Gunther for the hand of his sister; nay, in a
comic and loathsome scene he forces her into the embraces of the craven
Gunther; and then he gets killed by Brunhilt's machinations; when, after
most unqueenly bickerings, the proud Amazon is brutally told by
Siegfried's wife of the dirty trick which has given her to Gunther.
After this, it is impossible to realize, when Siegfried is murdered and
all our sympathies called on to his side, the utterly out-of-character,
blackguardly behaviour which has brought the hero to his death.
Similarly the conception of the character and position of Brynhilt is
entirely disfigured and rendered inane in the Nibelungenlied: of that
superb demi-goddess of the Scandinavians, burnt on the pyre with her
falcons and dogs and horses and slaves, by the side of the demi-god
Sigurd, whom she has loved and killed, lest the door of Valhalla,
swinging after him, should shut her out from his presence; of her there
remains in the German mediæval poem only a virago (more like the
giantesses of the Amadis romances) enraged at having been defeated and
grotesquely and grossly pummelled into wedlock by a man not her husband,
and then slanged like a fishwife by her envious sister-in-law.

The old, consistent, grandly tragic tale of the mysterious incests and
revenges of a race of demi-gods has lost its sense, its point in the
attempt to arrange it to suit Christian and feudal ideas. The really
fine portions of the Nibelungenlied are exactly those which have no real
connection with the original story, gratuitous additions by mediæval
poets. The delicately indicated falling in love of Siegfried and
Chriemhilt, the struggles of Markgraf Rüdger between obedience to his
feudal superior and fidelity towards his friends and guests; and, above
all, the canto of the death of Siegfried. This last is different,
intensely different, from the rugged and dreary monotony of the rest;
this most poetical, almost Spenserian or Ariostesque realization of the
scene; this beautiful picture (though worked with the needle of the
arras-worker rather than with pencil or brush) of the wood, the hunt,
the solitary fountain in the Odenwald, where, with his spear leaned
against the lime-tree, Siegfried was struck down into the clover and
flowers, and writhed with Hagen's steel through his back. This canto is
certainly interpolated by some first-rate poet, at least a Gottfried or
a Walther, to whom that passage of the savage old droning song of death
had suggested a piece of new art; it is like the fragments of
exquisitely chiselled leafage and figures which you sometimes find
encrusted--by whom? wherefore?--quite isolated in the midst of the rough
and lichen-stained stones of some rude Lombard church. All the rest of
the Nibelungenlied gives an impression of effeteness; there is no
definiteness of idea such as that of the Volsunga Saga; the battles are
mere vague slaughter, no action, no realized movement, or (excepting
Rüdger) no realized motive of conduct. Shape and colour would seem to
have been obliterated by repetition and alteration. Yet even these
alterations could not make the tale of Siegfried survive among the
Germans of the Middle Ages; nay, the more the alterations the less the
interest; the want of consistency and colour due to rearrangement merely
accelerated the throwing aside of a subject which, dating from pagan and
tribal times, had become repugnant to the new generations. All the
mutilations in the world could not make the old Scandinavian tales of
betrayed trust, of revenge and triumphant bloodshed, at all sympathetic
to men whose religious and social ideals were those of forgiveness and
fidelity; even stripped of its incestuous mysteries and of its fearful
tribal love, the tale of Sigurd and Brynhilt, reduced to the tale of
Chriemhilt's revenge, was unpalatable: no more attempts were made at
re-writing it, and the poems of Walther, of Gottfried, of Wolfram, of
Ulrich, and of Tannhäuser, full as they are of references to stories of
the Carolingian and Arthurian cycles, nay, to Antique and Oriental
tales, contain no allusion to the personages of the Nibelungenlied. The
old epic of the Gothic races had been pushed aside by the triumphant
epic of the obscure and conquered Kelts.

There are few phenomena in the history of ideas and forms more singular
than that of the sudden conquest of the poetry of dominant or distant
nations by the poetic subjects of a comparatively small race, sheared of
all political importance, restricted to a trifling territory, and
well-nigh deprived of their language; and of this there can be found no
more striking example than the sudden ousting of the Carolingian epic by
the cycle of Arthur.

The Kelts of Britain and Ireland possessed an epic cycle of their own,
which came to notice only when they were dispossessed of their last
strongholds by Saxons and Normans, and which immediately spread with
astounding rapidity all over Europe. The vanquished race became
fashionable; themselves, their art and their poetry, began to be sought
for as a precious and war-enhanced loot. The heroic tales of the Kelts
were transcribed in Welsh, and translated into Latin, by order of the
Norman and Angevine kings, glad, it would seem, to oppose the Old Briton
to the Saxon element. The Keltic songs were carried all over France by
Breton bards, to whose music and rhymes, with only a general idea of the
subjects, the neo-Latin-speaking Franks listened with the sort of stolid
satisfaction with which English or Germans of a hundred years ago
listened to Italians singing Metastasio's verses. But soon the songs and
tales were translated; and French poets imitated in their language,
northern and southern, the graceful metres of the Keltic lays, and
altered and arranged their subjects. So that, in a very short time,
France, and through it Germany, was inundated with Keltic stories. This
triumph of the vanquished race was not without reason. The Kelts, early
civilized by Rome and Christianity, had a set of stories and a set of
heroes extremely in accordance with mediæval ideas, and requiring but
very little alteration. The considerable age of their civilization had
long obliterated all traces of pagan and tribal feeling in their tales.
Their heroes, originally, like those of all other people, divinities
intimately connected with natural phenomena, had long lost all cosmic
characteristics, long ceased to be gods, and, manipulated by the fancy
of a race whose greatness was quite a thing of the past, had become a
sort of golden age ideals--the men of a distant period of glory, which
was adorned with every kind of perfection, till it became as unreal as
fairyland. Fairyland, in good sooth, was this country of the Keltic
tales; and there is a sort of symbolical significance in the fact of its
lawgiver Merlin, and its emperor Arthur, being both of them not dead,
like Sigurd, like Dietrich, like Charlemagne and Roland, but lying in
enchanted sleep. Long inaction and the day-dreaming of idleness had
refined and idealized the heroes of this Keltic race--a race of
brilliant fancy and almost southern mobility, and softened for a long
time by contact with Roman colonists and Christian priests. They were
not the brutal combatants of an active fighting age, like the heroes of
the Edda and of the Carolingian cycles; nor had they any particular
military work to do, belonging as they did to a people huddled away into
inactivity. Their sole occupation was to extend abroad that ideal
happiness which reigned in the ideal court of Arthur; to go forth on the
loose and see what ill-conditioned folk there might yet be who required
being subdued or taught manners in the happy kingdom, which the poor
insignificant Kelts connected with some princelet of theirs who
centuries before may have momentarily repelled the pagan Saxons. Hence
in the Keltic stories, such as they exist in the versions previous to
the conquest by the Norman kings, and previous also to any
communications with other peoples, the distinct beginning of what was
later to be called knight-errantry; of heroes, creations of an inactive
nation, having no special military duties, going forth to do what good
they may at random, unforced by any necessity, and following a mere
æsthetico-romantic plan of perfecting themselves by deeds of valour to
become more worthy of their God, their King, and their Lady: religion,
loyalty, and love, all three of them mere æsthetic abstractions,
becoming the goal of an essentially æsthetic, unpractical system of
self-improvement, such as was utterly incompatible with any real and
serious business in life. Idle poetic fancies of an inert people, the
Knights of the Round Table have no mission save that of being
poetically perfect. Such was the spirit of Keltic poetry; and, as it
happened, this spirit satisfied the imaginative wants of mediæval
society just at the moment when political events diffused in other
countries the knowledge of the Arthurian legends. The old Teutonic tales
of Sigurd, Gudrun, and Dietrich, had long ceased to appeal, in their
mutilated and obliterated condition, to a society to whom tribal feeling
and pagan heroism were odious, and whose religion distinctly reproved
revenge. These semi-mythological tales had been replaced by another
cycle: the purely realistic epic, which had arisen during the struggles
between the Christian west against the pagan north-east and the
Mohammedan south, and which, originating in the short battle-songs
narrating the exploits of the predecessors and help-mates of
Charlemagne, had constituted itself into large narratives of which the
"Song of Roland" represents artistic culmination. These narratives of
mere military exploits, of the battles of a strong feudal aristocracy
animated by feudal loyalty and half-religious, half-patriotic fury
against invading heathenness, had perfectly satisfied the men of the
earliest Middle Ages, of the times when feudalism was being established
and the church being reformed; when the strong military princelets of
the North were embarking with their barons to conquer new kingdoms in
England and in Italy and Greece; when the whole of feudal Europe hurled
itself against Asia in the first Crusades. But the condition of things
soon altered: the feudal hierarchy was broken up into a number of
semi-independent little kingdoms or principalities, struggling, with the
assistance of industrial and mercantile classes, to become absolute
monarchies; princes who had been mere generals became stay-at-home
diplomatists, studious of taxation and intrigue, surrounded no longer by
armed vassals, but by an essentially urban court, in constant
communication with the money-making burghers. Religion, also, instead of
being a matter of fighting with infidel invaders, turned to fantastic
sectarianism and emotional mysticism. With the sense of futility, of
disappointment, attendant on the later Crusades, came also a habit of
roaming in strange countries, of isolated adventure in search of wealth
or information, a love of the distant, the half-understood, the
equivocal; perhaps even a hankering after a mysterious compromise
between the religion of Europe and the religions of the East, such as
appears to have existed among the Templars and other Franks settled in

There was, throughout feudal society, a sort of enervated languor, a
morbid longing for something new, now that the old had ceased to be
possible or had proved futile; after the great excitement of the
Crusades it was impossible to be either sedately idle or quietly active,
even as it is with all of us during the days of weariness and
restlessness after some long journey. To such a society the strongly
realistic Carolingian epic had ceased to appeal: the tales of the Welsh
and Breton bards, repeated by trouvère and jongleur, troubadour and
minnesinger, came as a revelation. The fatigued, disappointed, morbid,
imaginative society of the later Crusades recognized in this fairyland
epic of a long refined, long idle, nay, effete race, the realization of
their own ideal: of activity unhampered by aim or organization, of
sentiment and emotion and action quite useless and unnecessary, purely
subservient to imaginative gratification. These Arthurs, Launcelots,
Tristrams, Kays, and Gawains, fantastic phantoms, were also far more
artistically malleable than the iron Rolands, Olivers, and Renauds of
earlier days; that unknown kingdom of Britain could much more easily be
made the impossible ideal, in longing for which squeamish and lazy minds
might refuse all coarser reality. Moreover, those who listened to the
tales of chivalry were different from those who had listened to the
Carolingian stories; and, therefore, required something different. They
were courtiers, and one half of them were women. Now the Carolingian
tales, originally battle-songs, sung in camps and castles to mere
soldiers, had at first possessed no female characters at all; and when
gradually they were introduced, it was in the coarsest barrack or
tap-room style. The Keltic tales, on the contrary, whether from national
tradition, or rather from longer familiarity with Christian culture and
greater idleness of life, naturally made women and women's love the
goal of a great many adventures which an effete nation could no longer
ascribe to patriotic movements. But this was not all. The religious
feeling of the day was extremely inclined to mysticism, in which
æsthetic, erotic, and all kinds of morbid and ill-defined tendencies
were united, which was more than anything else tinged with a
semi-Asiatic quietism, a longing for the passive ecstasy of Nirvâna.
This religious side of mediæval life was also gratified by the Arthurian
romances. Oddly enough, there existed an old Welsh or Breton tale about
the boy Peredur, who from a complete simpleton became the prince of
chivalry, and his many adventures connected with a certain mysterious
blood-dripping lance, and a still more mysterious basin or _grail_ (an
allusion to which is said by M. de la Villemarqué to be contained in the
originally Keltic name of Percival), which possessed magic properties
akin to those of the purse of Fortunatus, or the pipkin in the story of
"Little pot, boil!" The story, whose original mythical meaning had been
lost in the several centuries of Christianity, was very decayed and
obscure; and the fact of the blood on the lance being that of a murdered
kinsman of Peredur, and of the basin containing the head of the same
person cut off by Gloucester witches, was evidently insufficient to
account for all the mystery with which these objects were surrounded.
The French poets of the Middle Ages, strongly imbued with Oriental
legends brought back by the Crusaders, saw at a glance the meaning of
the whole story: the lance was the lance with which Longinus had pierced
the Saviour's side; the Grail was the cup which had received His blood,
nay, it was the cup of the Last Supper. A tale about the preservation of
these precious relics by Joseph of Arimathæa, was immediately connected
therewith; a theory was set up (doubtless with the aid of quite
unchristian, Oriental legends) of a kind of kingdom of the keepers of
the Grail, of a vague half-material, half-spiritual state of bliss
connected with the service of the Grail, which fed its knights (and here
the Templars and their semi-oriental mysteries, for which they were
later so frightfully misused, certainly come into play) with food which
is at once of the body and of the soul. Thus the Keltic Peredur, bent
upon massacring the Gloucester witches to avenge his uncle, was turned
into a saintly knight, seeking throughout a more and more perfect life
for the kingdom of the Grail: the Perceval of Chrestien de Troyes, the
Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach, whom later romance writers (wishing
to connect everything more closely with Arthur's court) replaced by the
Sir Galahad of the "Morte d'Arthur," while the guest of the Grail became
a sort of general mission of several knights, a sort of spiritual
crusade to whose successful champions Percival, Bors, and Galahad, the
Middle Ages did not hesitate to add the arch-adulterer Launcelot.

Thus did the Arthurian tales answer the requirements of the languid,
dreamy, courtly, lady-serving and religiously mystic sons and grandsons
of those earlier Crusaders whose aspirations had been expressed by the
rough and solemn heroes of Carolingian tales. The Carolingian tales were
thrown aside, or were kept by the noble mediæval poets only on condition
of their original meaning being completely defaced by wholesale
admixture of the manners and adventures belonging to the Arthurian
cycles. The paladins were forced to disport themselves in the same
fairyland as the Knights of the Round Table; and many mediæval poems the
heroes of which, like Ogier of Denmark and Huon of Bordeaux, already
existed in the Carolingian tales, are in reality, with their romantic
loves, their useless adventures, their Morgana's castles and Oberon's
horns, offshoots of the Keltic stories, which were as rich in every kind
of supernatural (being, in fact, pagan myths turned into fairy tales) as
the genuine Carolingian subjects, whose origin was entirely historical,
were completely devoid of such things. Arthur and his ladies and
knights: Guenevere, Elaine, Enid, Yseult, Launcelot, Geraint, Kay,
Gawain, Tristram, and Percival-Galahad, were the real heroes and
heroines of the courtly nobles and the courtly poets of this second
phase of mediæval life. The Teuton Charlemagne, Roland and Oliver were
as completely forgotten of the poets who met in that memorable combat of
the Wartburg, as were the Teuton Sigurd and Dietrich. And if the
Carolingian cycle survived, however much altered, I think it must have
been thanks to the burghers and artizans of the Netherlands and of
Provence, to whom the bluff, matter-of-fact heroism, the simple, gross,
but not illegitimate amours of Carolingian heroes, were more
satisfactory than any mystic quest of the Grail, any refined adultery of
Guenevere or Yseult.

But the inevitable fate of all mediæval epics awaited this triumphant
Arthurian cycle: the fate of being obliterated by passing from one
nation and civilization to another, long before the existence of any
poetic art adequate to its treatment. Of this I will take as an example
one of the mediæval poems which has the greatest reputation the
masterpiece (according to most critics, with whom I find it difficult,
in the presence of a poet like Gottfried von Strassburg, to agree) of
probably the most really poetical and earnest school of poetry which the
pre-Dantesque Middle Ages possessed--the "Parzifal" of Wolfram von

The paramount impression (I cannot say the strongest, for strong
impressions are incompatible with such work as this) left by the
masterpiece of Wolfram von Eschenbach, is that of the most astonishing
vagueness, fluidity, haziness, vaporousness. In reading it one looks
back to that rudely hewn and extremely obliterated Nibelungenlied, as to
something quite astonishingly clear, detailed and strongly marked as to
something distinctly artistic. Indeed by the side of "Parzifal"
everything seems artistic; Hartmann von Aue reads like Chaucer,
"Aucassin et Nicolette" is as living as "Cymbeline," "Chevy Chase" seems
as good as the battles of Homer. It is not a narrative, but a vague
mooning; a knight illiterate, not merely like his fellow minnesingers,
in the way of reading and writing, but in the sense of complete absence
of all habit of literary form; extremely noble and pure of mind, chaste,
gentle, with a funny, puzzled sense of humour, reminding one distantly
of Jean Paul in his drowsy moments; a hanger-on of courts, but perfectly
simple-hearted and childlike; very poor and easily pleased: such is, for
good and for bad, Herr Wolfram von Eschenbach, the only real personality
in his poem. And he narrates, in a mooning, digressive, good-natured,
drowsy tone, with only a rare awaking of interest, a story which he has
heard from some one else, and that some one else from a series of other
some one elses (Chrestien de Troyes, a legendary Provençal Chiot or
Guyot, perhaps even the original Welsh bard); all muddled, monotonous,
and droning; events and persons ill-defined, without any sense of the
relative importance of anything, without clear perception of what it is
all about, or at least without the power of keeping the matter straight
before the reader. A story, in point of fact, which is no story at all,
but a mere series of rambling adventures (adventures which are scarcely
adventures, having no point or plot) of various people with not much
connection and no individuality--Gachmuret, Parzifal, Gawain,
Loherangrein, Anfortas, Feirefis--pale ghosts of beings, moving in a
country of Kennaqwhere, Aquitaine, Anjou, Brittany, Wales, Spain, and
heaven knows what wondrous Oriental places; a misty country with woods
and towns and castles which are infinitely far apart and yet quite near
each other; which seem to sail about like cloud castles round the only
solid place in the book, Plimizöl, where Arthur's court, with round
table constantly spread, is for ever established. A no place, nowhere;
yet full of details; minute inventories of the splendid furniture of
castles (castles where? how reached?); infinitely inferior in this
matter even to the Nibelungenlied, where you are made to feel so vividly
(one of the few modern and therefore clear things therein) the long,
dreary road from Worms to Bechlarn, and thence to Etzelburg, though of
none of them is there anything beyond a name. For the Nibelungen story
had been localized in what to narrator and audience was a reality, the
country in which themselves lived, where themselves might seek out the
abbey in which Siegfried was buried, the well in the Odenwald near which
he was stabbed; where they knew from merchant and pilgrim the road taken
by the Nibelungs from Santen to Worms, by the Burgundians from Worms to
Hungary. But here in "Parzifal" we are in a mere vague world of
anywhere, the world of Keltic and Oriental romance become mere cloudland
to the Thuringian knight. And similarly have the heroes of other
nations, the Arthurs, Gawains, Gachmurets, of Wales and Anjou, become
mere vague names; they have become liquified, lost all shape and local
habitation. They are mere names, these ladies and knights of Herr
Wolfram, names with fair pink and white faces, names magnificently
draped in bejewelled Oriental stuffs and embossed armour; they have no
home, no work, nothing to do. This is the most remarkable characteristic
of "Parzifal," and what makes it so typical of the process of growing
inane through overmuch alteration, which prevented the mediæval epics
ever turning into an Iliad or an Odyssey; this that it is essentially
idle and all about nothing. The feudal relations strongly marked in the
German Nibelungenlied have melted away like the distinctions of race:
every knight is independent, not a vassal nor a captain, a Volker or
Hagen, or Roland or Renaud followed by his men; but an isolated
individual, without even a squire, wandering about alone through this
hazy land of nowhere. Knight-errantry, in the time of the great Guelph
and Ghibelline struggles, every bit as ideal as that of Spenser or
Cervantes; and with the difference that Sir Calidore and Sir Artegal
have an appointed task, some Blatant Beast or other nuisance to
overcome; and that Don Quixote has the general rescuing of all the
oppressed Princesse Micomiconas, and the destruction of all windmills,
and the capturing of all helmets of Mambrino, and the establishing all
over the world of the worship of Dulcinea. But these knights of Wolfram
von Eschenbach have no more this mission than they have the
politico-military missions, missions of a Rüdger or a Roland. They are
all riding about at random, without any particular pagans, necromancers,
or dragons to pursue. The very service of the Holy Grail, which is the
main interest of the poem, consists in nothing apparently except living
virtuously at the Castle of Montselväsche, and virtuously eating and
drinking the victuals provided miraculously. To be admitted to this
service, no initiation, no mission, nothing preliminary seems required.
Parzifal himself merely wanders about vaguely, without doing any
specified thing. The fact is that in this poem all has become purely
ideal; ideal to the point of utter vacuity: there is no connection with
any human business. Of all the heroes and heroines we hear that they are
perfectly chaste, truthful, upright; and they are never put into any
situation to test these qualities: they are never placed in the way of
temptation, never made to fight with evil, or to decide between it and
good. The very religion of the Holy Grail consists in doing nothing: not
a word about relieving the poor or oppressed, of tending the sick, of
delivering the Holy Sepulchre, of defending that great injured One,
Christ. To be Grail Knight or even Grail King means to be exactly the
same as before. Where in this vague dreamland of passive purity and
heroism, of untempted chastity and untried honour, where are the earthly
trials of Tristram, of Guenevere, of Rüdger, of Renaud? Where the moral
struggles of the Middle Ages? Where is Godfrey, or Francis, or Dominick?
Nowhere. All has disappeared, melted away; Christianity and Paganism
themselves have melted away or into each other, as in the easy meeting
of the Pagan Feirefis and the Christian Parzifal, and in the double
marriage of Gachmuret with the Indian Belakane and the Welsh Herzeloid;
there remains only a kind of Buddhistic Nirvâna of vague passive
perfection, but without any renunciation; and in a world devoid of evil
and full of excellent brocade and armour and eatables, and lovely
maidens who dress and undress you, and chastely kiss you on the mouth; a
world without desire, aspiration, or combat, vacantly happy and
virtuous. A world purely ideal, divorced from all reality, unsubstantial
like the kingdom of Gloriana, but, unlike Spenser's, quite unshadowed by
any puritan sadness, by any sense of evil, untroubled by allegorical
vices; cheerful, serene, filled with flowers and song of birds, but as
unreal as the illuminated arabesques of a missal. In truth, perhaps more
to be compared with an eighteenth century pastoral, an ideal created
almost in opposition to reality; a dream of passiveness and liberty (as
of light leaves blown about) as the ideal of the fiercely troubled,
struggling, tightly fettered feudal world. The ideal, perhaps, of only
one moment, scarcely of a whole civilization; or rather (how express my
feeling?) an accidental combination of an instant, as of spectre vapour
arisen from the mixture of Kelt and Teuton, of Frank and Moslem. Is it
Christian, Pagan, Mohammedan? None of all these. A simple-looking
vaporous chaos of incongruous, but not conflicting, elements: a poem of
virtue without object, of knighthood without work, of religion without
belief; in this like its central interest, the Grail: a mystery, a cup,
a stone; a thing which heals, feeds, speaks; animate or inanimate? Stone
of the Caaba or chalice of the Sacrament? Merely a mysterious holy of
holies and good of goods, which does everything and nothings means
nothing and requires nothing--is nothing.


Thus was obliterated, in all its national and traditional meaning, the
heroic cycle of Arthur; and by the same process of slow adaptation to
new intellectual requirements which had completely wiped out of men's
memory the heroic tales of Siegfried, which had entirely altered the
originally realistic character of the epic of Charlemagne. But unreal
and ideal as had become the tales of the Round Table, and disconnected
with any national tradition, the time came when even these were not
sufficiently independent of reality to satisfy the capricious
imagination of the later Middle Ages. At the end of the fourteenth
century was written, most probably in Portuguese by Vasco de Lobeira,
the tale of "Amadis de Gaula," which was followed by some forty or fifty
similar books telling the adventures of all the brothers, nephews,
sons, grandsons sons, and great-grandsons, an infinite succession, of
the original Amadis; which, translated into all languages and presently
multiplied by the press, seem to have usurped the place of the Arthurian
stories in feudal countries until well-nigh the middle of the sixteenth
century; and which were succeeded by no more stories of heroes, but by
the realistic comic novels of the type of "Lazarillo de Tormes," and the
buffoon philosophic extravaganzas of "Gargantua." Further indeed it was
impossible to go than did mediæval idealism in the Amadises. Compared
with them the most fairy-tale-like Arthurian stories are perfect
historical documents. There remains no longer any connection whatsoever
with reality, historical or geographical: the whole world seems to have
been expeditiously emptied of all its contents, to make room for
kingdoms of Gaul, of Rome, of the Firm Island, of Sobradisa, etc., which
are less like the Land West of the Moon and East of the Sun than they
are like Sancho Panza's island. All real mankind, past, present, and
future, has similarly been swept away and replaced by a miraculous race
of Amadises, Lisvarts, Galaors, Gradasilias, Orianas, Pintiquinestras,
Fradalons, and so forth, who flit across our vision, in company with the
indispensable necromancers, fairies, dwarfs, giants, and duennas, like
some huge ballet: things without character, passions, pathos; knights
who are never wounded or killed, princesses who always end with
marrying the right man, enchanters whose heads are always chopped off,
foundlings who are always reinstated in their kingdom, inane paper
puppets bespangled with impossible sentiment, tinsel and rags which are
driven about like chaff by the wind-puffs of romance. The advent of the
Amadises is the coming of the Kingdom of Nonsense, the sign that the
last days of chivalric romance have come; a little more, and the
Licentiate Alonzo Perez will take his seat in Don Quixote's library, and
Nicholas the Barber light his faggots in the yard.

But, as if in compensation of the usurpation of which they had been the
victims, the Carolingian tales, pushed out of the way by the Arthurian
cycle, were not destined to perish. Thrown aside with contempt by the
upper classes, engrossed with the Round Table and the Holy Grail, the
tales of Charlemagne and his paladins, largely adulterated with
Arthurian elements, were apparently cherished by a lower class of
society: burgesses, artizans, and such-like, for whom that Arthurian
world was far too etherial and too delicately immoral; and to this
circumstance is due the fact that the humiliated Carolingian tales
eventually received an artistic embodiment which was not given to the
Arthurian stories. While troubadours and minnesingers were busy with the
court of Arthur, and grave Latinists like Rusticiano of Pisa wrote of
Launcelot and Guenevere; the Carolingian epics seem to have been mainly
sung about by illiterate jongleurs, and to have busied the pens of
prose hackwriters for the benefit of townsfolk. The free towns of the
Netherlands and of Germany appear to have been full of this
unfashionable literature: the Carolingian cycle had become democratic.
And, inasmuch as it was literature no longer for knights and courtiers,
but for artizans and shopkeepers, it went, of course, to the
pre-eminently democratic country of the Middle Ages--Italy. This was at
a time when Italian was not yet a recognized language, and when the men
and women who talked in Tuscan, Lombard, or Venetian dialects, wrote in
Latin and in French; and while Francesca and Paolo read the story of
Launcelot most probably in good mediæval _langue d'oil_, as befitted
people of high birth; the jongleurs, who collected crowds so large as to
bar the streets and require the interference of the Bolognese
magistrates, sang of Roland and Oliver in a sort of _lingua Franca_ of
French Lombard. French jongleurs singing in impossible French-Italian;
Italian jongleurs singing in impossible French; Paduan penny-a-liners
writing Carolingian cyclical novels in French, not of Paris, assuredly,
but of Padua--a comical and most hideous jabber of hybrid
languages--this was how the Carolingian stories became popular in Italy.
Meanwhile, the day came when the romantic Arthurian tales had to
dislodge in Italy before the invasion of the classic epic. Troy, Rome,
and Thebes had replaced Tintagil and Cærleon in the interest of the
cultured classes long before the beginning of the fifteenth century;
when Poggio, in the very midst of the classic revival, still told of the
comically engrossed audience which surrounded the vagabonds singing of
Orlando and Rinaldo. The effete Arthurian cycle, superseded in Spain and
France by the Amadis romances, was speedily forgotten in Italy; but the
Carolingian stories remained; and when Italian poetry arose once more
after the long interregnum between Petrarch and Lorenzo dei Medici, and
looked about for subjects, it laid its hand upon them. But when, in the
second half of the fifteenth century, those old tales of Charlemagne
received, after so many centuries of alterations and ephemeral
embodiments, that artistic form which the Middle Ages had been unable to
give them, the stories themselves, and the way in which they were
regarded, were totally different from what they had been in the time of
Theroulde, or of the anonymous author of "The Quatre Fils Aymon;" the
Renaissance, with its keen artistic sense, made out of the Carolingian
tales real works of art, but works of art which were playthings. To
begin with, the Carolingian stories had been saturated with Arthurian
colour: they had been furnished with all the knight-rrantry, all the
gallantry, all the enchantments, the fairies, giants, and necromancers
of the Keltic legends; and, moreover, they had lost, by infinite
repetition, all the political realism and meaning so striking in "The
Chanson de Roland" and "The Quatre Fils Aymon;" a confusion and
unreality further increased by the fact that the Italians had no
original connection with those tales, that to them real men and plans
were no better than imaginary ones, and that the minstrels who sang in
the market-place, and the laborious prose-writers who compiled such
collections as that called of the "Reali di Francia," were equally free
in their alterations and adaptations, creating unknown relationships,
inventing new adventures, suppressing essential historical points, with
no object save amusing their audience or readers with new stories about
familiar heroes. Such was the condition of the stories themselves. The
attitude of the public towards them was, by the middle of the fifteenth
century, one of complete incredulity and frivolous amusement; the
paladins were as unreal as the heroes of any granny's fairy tale. The
people wanted to hear of wonderful battles and adventures, of
enchantments and love-makings; but they wanted also to laugh; and,
sceptical, practical, democratic, the artizans and shopkeepers of
Florence--to whom, paying, as they did, expensive mercenaries who stole
poultry and never got wounded on any account, all chivalry or real
military honour was the veriest nursery rubbish--such people as crowded
round the _cantastoria_ of _mercato vecchio_, must indeed have found
much to amuse them in these tales of so different an age.

And into such crowds there penetrated to listen and watch (even as the
Magnificent Lorenzo had elbowed among the carnival ragamuffins of
Florence, and had slid in among the holiday-making peasants of Poggio a
Caiano) a learned man, a poet, an intimate of the Medicis, of Politian,
Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola, Messer Luigi Pulci, the same who had
written the semi-allegorical, semi-realistic poem about Lorenzo dei
Medici's gala tournament. There was a taste in the house of the Medici,
together with those for platonic philosophy, classical erudition,
religious hymns, and Hebrew kabbala, for a certain kind of realism, for
the language and mode of thinking of the lower classes, as a reaction
from Petrarchesque conventionality. As the Magnificent Lorenzo had had
the fancy to string together in more artistic shape the quaint and
graceful love poems, hyperbolical, realistic, tender, and abusive, of
the Tuscan peasantry; so also Messer Luigi Pulci appears to have been
smitten with the notion of trying his hand at a chivalric poem like
those to which he and his friends had listened among the butchers and
pork-shops, the fishmongers and frying booths of the market, and giving
an impression, in its ideas and language, of the people to whom such
strains were sung. But Luigi Pulci was vastly less gifted as a poet than
Lorenzo dei Medici; Florentine prentices are less æsthetically pleasing
than Tuscan peasants, and the "Morgante Maggiore" is a piece of work of
a sort utterly inferior to the "Nencia da Barberino." Still the
"Morgante Maggiore" remains, and will remain, as a very remarkable
production of grotesque art. Just as Lorenzo dei Medici was certainly
not without a deliberate purpose of selecting the quaintness and
gracefulness of peasant life; even so, and perhaps more, Luigi Pulci
must have had a deliberate intention of producing a ludicrous effect; in
both cases the deliberate attempt is very little perceptible, in the
"Nencia da Barberino" from the genius of Lorenzo, in the "Morgante
Maggiore" from the stolidity of Pulci. The "Morgante," of which parts
were probably written as a mere sample to amuse a supper party, became
interesting to Pulci, in the mere matter of inventing and stringing
together new incidents; and despite its ludicrous passages, it must have
been more seriously written by him, and more seriously listened to by
his friends, than would a similar production now-a-days. For the men of
the Renaissance, no matter how philosophized and cultured, retained the
pleasure in mere incident, which we moderns seem to have given over to
children and savages; and Lorenzo, Ficino, and Politian probably
listened to the adventures of Luigi Pulci's paladins and giants with
much the same interest, and only a little more conscious sense of
grotesqueness, with which the crowd in the market listened to Cristofano
dell' Altissimo and similar story-tellers. The "Morgante Maggiore,"
therefore, is neither really comic nor really serious. It is not a piece
of realistic grotesqueness like "Gargantua" or "Pantagruel," any more
than it is a serious ideal work like "Amadis de Gaula:" the proportion
of deliberately sought effects is small; the great bulk, serious or
comic, seems to have come quite at random. It is not a caricatured
reproduction of the poems of chivalry sung in the market, for they were
probably serious, stately, and bald, with at most an occasional joke; it
is the reproduction of the joint impression received from the absurd,
harum-scarum, unpractical world of chivalry of the poet, and the real
world of prose, of good-humoured buffoonish coarseness with which the
itinerant poet was surrounded. The paladins are no Don Quixotes, the
princesses no Dulcineas, the battles are real battles; but the language
is that of Florentine wool-workers, housewives, cheese-sellers, and
ragamuffins, crammed with the slang of the market-place, its heavy jokes
and perpetual sententious aphorism. Moreover the prominence given to
food and eating is unrivalled except by Rabelais: the poet must have
lounged with delight through the narrow mediæval lanes, crowded with
booths and barrows, sniffing with rapture the mingled scents of cheese,
pork, fish, spices, and a hundred strange concomitant market smells. And
the market, that classic _mercato vecchio_ (alas, finally condemned and
destroyed by modern sanitary prudishness, and which only those who have
seen can conceive in its full barbarous, nay, barbaric Pantagruelian
splendour of food, blood, and stenches) of Florence, is what we think of
throughout the poem. And, when Messer Luigi comes to narrate, with real
gravity and after the due invocation of the Virgin, the Trinity, and
the saints, the tremendous disaster of Roncevaux, he uses such words and
such similes, that above the neighing of horses and the clash of
hurtling armour and the yells of the combatants we suddenly hear the
nasal sing-song of Florentine tripe-vendors and pumpkin-pod-sellers, the
chaffer and oaths and laughter of the gluttonous crowd pouring through
the lanes of Calimala and Pellicceria; nay (horrible and grotesque
miracle), there seems to rise out of the confused darkness of the
battle-filled valley, there seems to disengage itself (as out of a mist)
from the chaos of heaped bodies, and the flash of steel among the
whirlwinds of dust, a vision, more and more distinct and familiar, of
the crowded square with its black rough-hewn, smoke-stained houses,
ornamented with Robbia-ware angels and lilies or painted madonnas; of
its black butchers dens, outside which hang the ghastly disembowelled
sheep with blood-stained fleeces, the huge red-veined hearts and livers;
of the piles of cabbage and cauli-flowers, the rows of tin ware and
copper saucepans, the heaps of maccaroni and pastes, of spices and
drugs; the garlands of onions and red peppers and piles of apples; the
fetid sliminess of the fish tressels; the rough pavement oozy and black,
slippery with cabbage-stalks, puddled with bullock's blood, strewn with
plucked feathers--all under the bright blue sky, with Giotto's
dove-coloured belfry soaring high above; a vision, finally, of one of
those deep dens, with walls, all covered with majolica plates and
dishes and flashing brass-embossed trenchers, in the dark depths of
which crackles perennially a ruddy fire, while a huge spit revolves,
offering to the flames now one now the other side of scores of legs of
mutton, rounds of beef, and larded chickens, trickling with the butter
unceasingly ladled by the white-dressed cooks. Roncisvalle, Charlemagne,
the paladins, paganism, Christendom--what of them? "I believe in capon,
roast or boiled, and sometimes done in butter; in mead and in must; and
I believe in the pasty and the pastykins, mother and children; but above
all things I believe in good wine "--as Margutte snuffles out in his
catechism; and as to Saracens and paladins, past, present, and future, a
fig for them!

But meanwhile, for all that Florentine burgesses, artizans, and
humorists may think, there is in this Italy of the Renaissance something
besides Florence; there is a school of poetry, disconnected with the
realisms of Lorenzo and Pulci, with the Ovidian Petrarchisms of
Politian. There is Ferrara. Lying, as they do, between the Northern
Apennine slopes of Modena and the Euganean hills, the dominions of the
House of Este appear at first sight merely as part and parcel of
Lombardy, and we should expect from them nothing very different from
that which we expect from Milan or Bologna or Padua. But the truth is
different; all round Ferrara, indeed, stretches the fertile flatness of
Lombard cornfields, and they produce, as infallibly as they produce
their sacks of grain and tuns of wine and heaps of silk cocoon, the
intellectual and social equivalents of such things in Renaissance Italy:
industry, wealth, comfort, scepticism, art. But on either side, into the
defiles of the Euganean hills to the north, into the widening torrent
valleys of the Modenese Apennines to the south, the Marquisate of Este
stretches up into feudalism, into chivalry, into the imaginative kingdom
of the Middle Ages. Mediævalism, feudalism, chivalry, indeed, of a very
modified sort; and as different from that of France and Germany as
differ from the poverty-stricken plains and forests and and moors of the
north these Italian mountain slopes, along which the vines crawl in long
trellises, and the chestnuts rise in endlessly superposed tiers of
terraces, cultivated by a peasant who is not the serf, but the equal
sharer in profits with the master of the soil. And on one of those
fertile hill-sides, looking down upon a narrow valley all a green-blue
shimmer with corn and vine-bearing elms, was born, in the year 1434,
Matteo Maria Boiardo, in the village which gave him the title, one of
the highest in the Estensian dominions, of Count of Scandiano. Here, in
the Apennines, Scandiano is a fortified village, also a castle,
doubtless half turned into a Renaissance villa, but mediæval and feudal
nevertheless; but the name of Scandiano belongs also, I know not for
what reason, to a certain little red-brick palace on the outskirts of
Ferrara, beautifully painted with half-allegorical, half-realistic
pageant frescoes by Cosimo Tura, and enclosing a sweet tangled
orchard-garden; to all of which, being the place to which Duke Borso and
Duke Ercole were wont to retire for amusement, the Ferrarese have given
the further name of Schifanoia, which means, "fly from cares." This
little coincidence of Scandiano the feudal castle in the Apennines, and
Scandiano the little pleasure palace at Ferrara, seems to give, by
accidental allegory, a fair idea of the double nature of Matteo Boiardo,
of the Ferrarese court to which he belonged, and of the school of poetry
(including the more notable but less original work of Ariosto) which the
genius of the man and the character of the court succeeded together in

To understand Boiardo we must compare him with Ariosto; and to
understand Ariosto we must compare him with Boiardo; both belong to the
same school, and are men of very similar genius, and where the one
leaves off the other begins. But first, in order to understand the
character of this poetry which, in the main, is identical in Boiardo and
in his more successful but less fascinating pupil Ariosto, let us
understand Ferrara. It was, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries, a chivalric town of Ariostesque chivalry: feudalism turned
courtly and elegant, and moreover, very liberal and comfortable by
preponderance of democratic and industrial habits; a military court, of
brave mercenary captains full of dash and adventure, not mere brigands
and marauders having studied strategy, like the little Umbrian
chieftains; a court orderly, elegant, and brilliant: a prince not risen
from behind a counter like Medicis and Petruccis, nor out of blood like
Baglionis and Sforzas, but of a noble old house whose beginnings are
lost in the mist of real chivalry and real paladinism; a duke with a
pretence of feudal honour and decorum, at whose court men were all brave
and ladies all chaste--with the little licenses of baseness and
gallantry admitted by Renaissance chivalry. A bright, brilliant court at
the close of the fifteenth century; and more stable than the only one
which might have rivalled it, the Feltrian court of Urbino, too small
and lost among the Umbrian bandits. A bright, brilliant town, also, this
Ferrara: not mercantile like Florence, not mere barracks like Perugia; a
capital, essentially, in its rich green plain by the widened Po, with
its broad handsome streets (so different from the mediæval exchanges of
Bologna, and the feudal alleys of Perugia), its well-built houses, so
safe and modern, needing neither _bravi_ nor iron window bars, protected
(except against some stray murder by one of the Estensi themselves), by
the duke's well-organized police; houses with well-trimmed gardens, like
so many Paris hôtels; and with the grand russet brick castle, military
with its moat and towers, urban with its belvederes and balconies, in
the middle, well placed to sweep away with its guns (the wonderful guns
of the duke's own making) any riot, tidily, cleanly, without a nasty
heap of bodies and slop of blood as in the narrow streets of other
towns Imagine this bright capital, placed, moreover, in the richest
centre of Lombardy, with glitter of chivalry from the Euganean hills and
Apennines (castellated with Este, Monselice, Canossa, and Boiardo's own
Scandiano); with gorgeous rarities of commerce from Venice and Milan--a
central, unique spot. It is the natural home of the chivalrous poets of
the Renaissance, Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso; as Florence is of the
Politians and Pulcis (Hellenism and back-shopery); and Venice of the
literature of lust, jests, cynicism, and adventure, Aretine, Beolco,
Calmo, and Poliphilo-Colonna. In that garden, where the white
butterflies crowd among the fruit trees bowed down to the tall grass of
the palace of Schifanoia--a garden neither grand nor classic, but
elegiac and charming--we can imagine Boiardo or Ariosto reading their
poems to just such a goodly company as Giraldi Cinthio (a Ferrarese, and
fond of romance, too) describes in the prologue of his "Ecatomiti:"
gentle and sprightful ladies, with the splendid brocaded robes, and the
gold-filleted golden hair of Dosso Dossi's wonderful Alcina Circe;
graceful youths like the princely St. John of Benvenuto Garofalo;
jesters like Dosso's at Modena; brilliant captains like his St. George
and St. Michael; and a little crowd of pages with doublets and sleeves
laced with gold tags, of sedate magistrates in fur robes and scarlet
caps, of white-dressed maids with instruments of music and embroidery
frames and hand looms, like those which Cosimo Tura painted for Duke
Borso on the walls of this same Schifanoia palace. Such is the audience;
now for the poems.

The stuff of Boiardo and Ariosto is the same: that old mediæval stuff of
the Carolingian poems, coloured, scented with Arthurian chivalry and
wonder. The knight-errantry of the Keltic tales is cleverly blended with
the pseudo-historical military organization of the Carolingian cycle.
Paladins and Saracens are ingeniously manoeuvred about, now scattered in
little groups of twos and threes, to encounter adventures in the style
of Sir Launcelot or Amadis; now gathered into a compact army to crash
upon each other as at Roncevaux; or else wildly flung up by the poet to
alight in fairyland, to find themselves in the caverns of Jamschid, in
the isles where Oberon's mother kept Cæsar, and Morgana kept Ogier, in
the boats, entering subterranean channels, of Sindbad and Huon of
Bordeaux; a constant alternation of individual adventure and wholesale
organized campaigns, conceived and carried out with admirable ingenuity.
So much for the deeds of arms. The deeds of love are also compounded of
Carolingian and Arthurian, but flavoured with special Renaissance
feeling. There is a great deal of rapid love-making between too gallant
knights and too impressionable ladies; licentious amours which we
moderns lay at the door of Boiardo and Ariosto, not knowing that the
licentiousness of the Olivers and Ogiers and Guerins and Huons of
mediæval poetry, of the sentimental Amadises, Galaors, and Lisvarts of
the fourteenth century, whom the Renaissance has toned down in Rogers
and Rinaldos and Ricciardettos, is by many degrees worse. A moral
improvement also (for all the immorality of the Renaissance) in the
eschewing of the never-failing adultery of the Arthurian romances, and
the appropriation to legitimately faithful love of the poetical devotion
which Tristram and Launcelot bear to other men's wives. To this are
added, and more by Ariosto than by Boiardo, two essentially Italian
elements: something of the nobility of passion of the Platonic
sonneteers; and a good dose of the ironical, scurrilous, moralizing
immoral anecdote gossiping of Boccaccio and Sacchetti. Such is the
stuff. The conception, though rarely comic, and sometimes _bond fide_
serious, is never earnest. All this is a purely artistic world, a world
of decorative arabesque incident, intended to please, scarcely ever to
move, or to move, at most, like some Decameronian tale of Isabella and
the Basil Plant, or Constance and Martuccio. On the other hand, there is
none of the grotesque irreverence of Pulci. Boiardo and Ariosto are not
in earnest; they are well aware that their heroes and heroines are mere
modern men and women tricked out in pretty chivalric trappings, driven
wildly about from Paris to Cathay, and from Spain to the Orkneys--on
Tony Lumpkin's principle of driving his mother round and round the
garden plot till she thought herself on a heath six miles off--without
ever really changing place. But they do not, like Pulci, make fun of
their characters. They write chivalry romances not for Florentine
pork-butchers and wool-carders, but for gallant ladies and gentlemen, to
whom, with duels, tournaments, serenades, and fine speeches, chivalry is
an admired name, though no longer a respected reality.

The heroes of Boiardo and of Ariosto are always bold and gallant and
glittering, the spirit of romance is in them; a giant Sancho Panza like
Morgante, redolent of sausage and cheese, would never be admitted into
the society of a Ferrarese Orlando. The art of Boiardo and of Ariosto is
eminently pageant art, in which sentiment and heroism are but as one
element among many; there is no pretence at reality (although there is a
good deal of incidental realism), and no thought of the interest in
subject and persons which goes with reality. It is a masquerade, and one
whose men and women must, I think, be imagined in a kind of artistic
fancy costume: a mixture of the Renaissance dress and of the antique, as
we see it in the prints of contemporary pageants, and in Venetian and
Ferrarese pictures; that Circe of Dosso's, in the Borghese gallery of
Rome, seated in her stately wine-lees and gold half-heraldically and
half-cabalistically patterned brocade, before the rose-bushes of the
little mysterious wood, is the very ideal of the Falerinas and Alcinas,
of the enchantresses of Boiardo and Ariosto. Pageant people, these of
the Ferrarese poets; they only play at being in forests and deserts, as
children play at being on volcanoes or in Green-land by the nursery
fire. It is a kind of dressing up, a masquerading of the fancy; not
disguising in order to deceive, but rather laying hold of any pretty or
brilliant impressive garb that comes to hand, and putting that on in
conjunction with many odds and ends, as an artist's guests might do with
the silks and velvets and Oriental properties of a studio. These knights
and ladies, for ever tearing about from Scotland to India, never, in
point of fact, get any further than the Apennine slopes where Boiardo
was born, where Ariosto governed the Garfagnana. They ride for ever
(while supposed to be in the Ardennes or in Egypt) across the velvet
moss turf, all patterned with minute starry clovers and the fallen white
ropy chestnut blossom, amidst the bracken beneath the slender chestnut
trees, the pale blue sky looking in between their spreading branches; at
most they lose their way in the intricacies of some seaside pineta,
where the feet slip on the fallen needles, and the sun slants along the
vistas of serried, red, scaly trunks, among the juniper and gorse and
dry grass and flowers growing in the sea sand. Into the vast mediæval
forests of Germany and France, Boiardo and Ariosto's fancy never

Such is the school: a school represented in its typical character only
by Boiardo and Ariosto, but to which belong, nevertheless, with whatever
differences, Tasso, Spenser, Camoens, all the poets of Renaissance
romance. Now of the two leaders thereof. Here I feel that I can speak
only personally; tell only of my own personal impressions and
preferences. Comparing together Boiardo and Ariosto, I am, of course,
aware of the infinite advantages of the latter. Ariosto is a man of far
more varied genius; he is an artist, while Boiardo is an amateur; he is
learned in arranging and ornamenting; he knows how to alternate various
styles, how to begin and how to end. Moreover, he is a scholarly person
of a more scholarly time: he is familiar with the classics, and, what is
more important, he is familiar with the language in which he is writing.
He writes exquisitely harmonious, supple, and brilliant Tuscan verse,
with an infinite richness of diction; while poor Boiardo jogs along in a
language which is not the Lombard dialect in which he speaks, and which
is very uncouth and awkward, as is every pure language for a provincial;
indeed, so much so, that the pedantic Tuscans require Berni to make
Tuscan, elegant, to _ingentilire_, with infinite loss to quaintness and
charm, the "Orlando Innamorato" of poor Ferrarese Boiardo. Moreover,
Ariosto has many qualities unknown to Boiardo; wit, malice, stateliness,
decided eloquence and power of simile and apostrophe; he is a symphony
for full orchestra, and Boiardo a mere melody played on a single fiddle,
which good authorities (and no one dare contest with Italians when they
condemn anything not Tuscan as jargon) pronounce to be no Cremona. All
these advantages Ariosto certainly has; and I do not quarrel with those
who prefer him for them. But many of them distinctly take away from my
pleasure. I confess that I am bored by the beautifully written moral and
allegorical preludes of Ariosto's cantos; I would willingly give all his
aphorism and all his mythology to get quickly to the story. Also, I
resent his admirable rhetorical flourishes about his patrons, his
Ercoles, Ippolitos, and Isabellas they ring false, dreadfully false and
studied; and Boiardo's quickly despatched friendly greeting of his
friends, his courteous knights and gentle ladies, pleases me much
better. Moreover, the all-pervading consciousness of the existence of
Homer, Virgil, nay, Statius and Lucan, every trumpery antique
epic-monger, annoys me, giving an uncomfortable doubt as to whether
Ariosto did not try to make all this nonsense serious, and this romance
into an epic; all this occasional Virgilian stateliness, alternated with
a kind of polished Decameronian gossipy cynicism, diverts my attention,
turns paladins and princesses too much into tutor-educated gentlemen,
into Bandello and Cinthio-reading ladies of the sixteenth century. The
picture painted by Ariosto is finer, but you see too much of the
painter; he and his patrons take up nearly the whole foreground, and
they have affected, idealized faces and would-be dignified and
senatorial poses. For these and many other reasons, I personally prefer
Boiardo; and perhaps the best reason for my preference is the
irrational one that he gives me more pleasure. My preferences, my
impressions, I have said, are in this matter, much less critical than
personal. Hence I can speak of Boiardo only as he affects me.

When first I read Boiardo, I was conscious of a curious phenomenon in
myself. I must confess to reading books usually in a very ardent or
rather weary manner, either way in a hurry to finish them. As it
happened, when I borrowed Boiardo, I had a great many other things on
hand which required my time and attention; yet I could not make up my
mind to return the book until I had finished it, though my intention had
been merely to satisfy my curiosity by a dip into it. I went on, without
that eager desire to know what follows which one has in a novel;
drowsily with absolute reluctance to leave off, like the reluctance to
rise from the grass beneath the trees with only butterflies and shadows
to watch, or the reluctance to put aside some fairy book of Walter
Crane's. It was like strolling in some quaint, ill-trimmed, old garden,
finding fresh flowers, fresh bits of lichened walls, fresh fragments of
broken earthenware ornaments; or, rather, more like a morning in the
Cathedral Library at Siena, the place where the gorgeous choir books are
kept, itself illuminated like missal pages by Pinturicchio: amused,
delighted, not moved nor fascinated; finding every moment something new,
some charming piece of gilding, some sweet plumed head, some quaint
little tree or town; making a journey of lazy discovery in a sort of
world of Prince Charmings, the real realm of the "Färy Queen," quite
different in enchantment from the country of Spenser's Gloriana, with
its pale allegoric ladies and knights, half-human, half-metaphysical,
and its make-believe allegorical ogres and giants. This is the real
Fairyland, this of Boiardo: no mere outskirts of Ferrara, with real,
playfully cynical Ferrarese men and women tricked out as paladins and
Amazons, and making fun of their disguise, as in Ariosto; no wonderland
of Tasso, with enchanted gardens copied out of Bolognese pictures and
miraculous forests learned from theatre mechanicians, wonders imitated
by a great poet from the cardboard and firework wonders of Bianca
Cappello's wedding feasts. This is the real fairyland, the wonderland of
mediæval romance and of Persian and Arabian tales, no longer solemn or
awful, but brilliant, sunny, only half believed in; the fairyland of the
Renaissance, superficially artistic, with its lightest, brightest
fancies, and its charming realities; its cloistered and painted courts
with plashing fountains, its tapestried and inlaid rooms, its towered
and belvedered villas, its quaint clipped gardens full of strange
Oriental plants and beasts; and all this transported into a country of
wonders, where are the gardens of the Hesperides, the fountain of
Merlin, the tomb of Narcissus, the castle of Morgan-le-Fay; every quaint
and beautiful fancy, antique and mediæval, mixed up together, as in some
Renaissance picture of Botticelli or Rosselli or Filippino, where
knights in armour descend from Pegasus before Roman temples, where
swarthy white-turbaned Turks, with oddly bunched-up trousers and
jewelled caftans, and half-naked, oak-crowned youths, like genii
descended, pensive and wondering, from some antique sarcophagus, and
dapper princelets and stalwart knights, and citizens and monks, all
crowd round the altar of some wonder-working Macone or Apolline or
Trevigante; some comic, dreadful, apish figure, mummed up in
half-antique, half-oriental garb. Or else we are led into some dainty,
pale-tinted panel of Botticelli, where the maidens dance in white
clinging clothes, strewing flowers on to the flower-freaked turf; or
into some of Poliphilo's vignettes, where the gentle ladies, seated with
lute and viol under vine-trellises, welcome the young gallant, or poet,
or knight.

Such is the world of Boiardo. Spenser has once or twice peeped in,
painted it, and given us exquisite little pictures, as that of
Malecasta's castle, all hung with mythological tapestries, that of the
enchanted chamber of Britomart, and those of Sir Calidore meeting the
Graces and of Hellenore dancing with the Satyrs; but Spenser has done it
rarely, trembling to return to his dreary allegories. Equal to these
single pictures by Spenser, Boiardo has only one or two, but he keeps us
permanently in the world where such pictures are painted. Boiardo is not
a great artist like Spenser: but he is a wizard, which is better. He
leads us, unceasingly, through the little dreamy laurelwoods, where we
meet crisp-haired damsels tied to pine-trees, or terrible dragons, or
enchanted wells, through whose translucent green waters we see brocaded
rooms full of fair ladies; he ferries us ever and anon across shallow
streams, to the castles where _gentil donzelle_ wave their kerchiefs
from the pillared belvedere; he slips us unseen into the camps and
council-rooms of the splendidly trapped Saracens, like so many figures
out of Filippino's frescoes; he conducts us across the bridges where
giants stand warders, to the mysterious carved tombs whence issue green
and crested snakes, who, kissed by a paladin, turn into lovely
enchantresses; he takes us beneath the beds of rivers and through the
bowels of the earth where kings and knights turned into statues of gold,
sit round tables covered with jewels, illumined by carbuncles more
wonderful than that of Jamschid; or through the mazes of fairy gardens,
where every ear of corn, cut off, turns into a wild beast, and every
fallen leaf into a bird, where hydras watch in the waters and lamias
rear themselves in the grass, where Orlando must fill his helmet with
roses lest he hear the voice of the sirens; where all the wonders of
Antiquity--the snake-women, the Circes, the sirens, the hydras and fauns
live, strangely changed into something infinitely quaint and graceful,
still half-antique, yet already half-Arabian or Keltic, in the midst of
the fairyland of Merlin and of Oberon--live, move, transform themselves
afresh; where the golden-haired damsels and the stripling knights,
delicate like Pinturicchio's Prince Charmings, gallop for ever on their
enchanted coursers, within enchanted armour, invincible, invulnerable,
under a sky always blue, and through an unceasing spring, ever onwards
to new adventures. Adventures which the noble, gentle Castellan of
Scandiano, poet and knight and humorist, philanthropical philosopher
almost from sheer goodness of heart, yet a little crazy, and capable of
setting all the church bells ringing in honour of the invention of the
name of Rodomonte relates not to some dully ungrateful Alfonso or
Ippolito, but to his own guests, his own brilliant knights and ladies,
with ever and anon an effort to make them feel, through his verse, some
of those joyous spring-tide feelings which bubble up in himself; as when
he remembers how, "Once did I wander on a May morning in a fair
flower-adorned field on a hillside overlooking the sea, which was all
tremulous with light; and there, among the roses of a green thorn-brake,
a damsel was singing of love; singing so sweetly that the sweetness
still touches my heart; touches my heart, and makes me think of the
great delight it was to listen;" and how he would fain repeat that song,
and indeed an echo of its sweetness runs through his verse. Meanwhile,
stanza pours out after stanza, adventure grows out of adventure, each
more wonderful, more gorgeous than its predecessor. To which listen the
ladies, with their white, girdled dresses and crimped golden locks; the
youths, with their soft beardless faces framed in combed-out hair, with
their daggers on their hips and their plumed hats between their fingers;
and the serious bearded men, in silken robes; drawing nearer the poet,
letting go lute or violin or music-book as they listen on the villa
terrace or in some darkened room, where the sunset sky turns green-blue
behind the pillared window, and the roses hang over the trellise of the
cloister. And as they did four hundred years ago, so do we now, rejoice.
The great stalwart naked forms of Greece no longer leap and wrestle or
carry their well-poised baskets of washed linen before us; the mailed
and vizored knights of the Nibelungen no longer clash their armour to
the sound of Volker's red fiddle-bow; the glorified souls of Dante no
longer move in mystic mazes of light before the eyes of our fancy. All
that is gone. But here is the fairyland of the Renaissance. And thus
Matteo Boiardo, Count of Scandiano, goes on, adding adventure to
adventure, stanza to stanza, in his castle villa, or his palace at
Ferrara. But suddenly he stops and his bright fiddle and lute music jars
and ends: "While I am singing, O Redeeming God, I see all Italy set on
fire by these Gauls, coming to ravage I know not what fresh place."

And thus, with the earlier and more hopeful Renaissance of the fifteenth
century, Matteo Boiardo broke off with his "Orlando Innamorato." The
perfect light-heartedness, the delight in play of a gentle, serious,
eminently kindly nature, which gives half the charm to Boiardo's work,
seems to have become impossible after the ruin of Italian liberty and
prosperity the frightful showing up of Italy's moral and social and
political insignificance at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Lombardy especially became a permanent battle-field, and its towns mere
garrison places of French, German, Spanish, and Swiss barbarians, whose
presence meant slaughter and pillage and every foulest outrage; and
then, between the horrors of the unresisted invasions and the unresisted
exactions, came plague and famine, and industry and commerce gradually
died out. A few princes, subsidised and guarded by French or
Imperialists, kept up an appearance of cheerfulness, but the courts even
grew more gloomy as the people grew more miserable. There is more
joking, more resonant laughter in Ariosto than in Boiardo, but there is
very much less serenity and cheerfulness; ever and anon a sort of
bitterness, a dreary moralizing tendency, a still more dreary fit of
prophesying future good in which he has no belief, comes over Ariosto.
Berni, who rewrote the "Orlando Innamorato" in choice Tuscan, and who
underlined every faintly marked jest of Boiardo's, with evident
preoccupation of the ludicrous effects of the "Morgante Maggiore"--Berni
even could not keep up his spirits; into the middle of Boiardo's serene
fairyland adventures he inserted a description of the sack of Rome which
is simply harrowing. All real cheerfulness departed from the people, to
be replaced only by pleasure in the debaucheries of the buffoonish
obscenity of Aretino, Bandello, and so forth, to which the men of the
dying Italy of the Renaissance listened as the roysterers of the plague
of Florence, with the mortal sickness almost upon them, may have
listened to the filthy songs which they trolled out in their
drunkenness. Or at best, the poor starved, bruised, battered, humiliated
nation may have tried to be cheerful on the principle of its harlequin
playwright Beolco, who, more honest than the Ariostos and Bibbienas, and
Aretines, came forward on his stage of planks at Padua, and after
describing the ruin and wretchedness of the country, the sense of
dreariness and desolation, which made young folk careless of marriage,
and the very nightingales (he thought) careless of song, recommended his
audience, since they could not even cry thoroughly and to feel any the
better for it, to laugh, if they still were able. Boiardo was forgotten;
his spirit was unsuited to the depression, gloomy brutality, gloomy
sentimentality, which grew every day as Italy settled down after its
Renaissance-Shrovetide in the cinders and fasting of the long Lent of
Spanish and Jesuit rule.

Still the style of Boiardo was not yet exhausted; the peculiar kind of
fairy epic, the peculiar combination of chivalric and classic elements
of which the "Orlando Innamorato" and the "Orlando Furioso," had been
the great examples, still fascinated poets and public. The Renaissance,
or what remained of it, was now no longer confined to Italy; it had
spread, paler, more diluted, shallower, over the rest of Europe. To
follow the filiation of schools, to understand the intellectual
relationships of individuals, of the latter half of the sixteenth
century, it becomes necessary to move from one country to another. And
thus the two brother poets of the family of Boiardo, its two last and
much saddened representatives, came to write in very different languages
and under very different circumstances. These two are Tasso and our own
Spenser. They are both poets of the school of the "Orlando Innamorato,"
both poets of a reaction, of a kind of purified Renaissance: the one of
the late Italian Renaissance emasculated by the Council of Trent and by
Spain; the other of the English Renaissance, in its youth truly, but, in
the individual case of Spenser, timidly drawn aside from the excesses of
buoyant life around. In the days of the semi-atheist dramatists, all
flesh and blood and democracy, Spenser steeps himself in Christianity
and chivalry, even as Tasso does, following on the fleshly levity and
scepticism of Boiardo, Berni, and Ariosto. There is in both poets a
paleness, a certain diaphanous weakness, an absence of strong tint or
fibre or perfume; in Tasso the pallor of autumn, in Spenser the paleness
of spring: autumn left sad and leafless by the too voluptuous heat and
fruitfulness of summer; spring still pale and pinched by winter, with
timid nipped grass and unripe stiff buds and catkins, which never
suggest the tangle of bush, grasses, and magnificent flowers and fruits,
sweet, splendid, or poisonous, which the sun will make out of them. The
Renaissance, in the past for Tasso, in the proximate and very visible
future for Spenser, has frightened both; the cynicism and bestiality of
men like Machiavelli and Aretino; the godless, muscular lustiness of
Marlowe, Greene, and Peele, seen in a glimpse by Tasso and Spenser, have
given a shock to their sensitive nature, have made them turn away and
hide themselves from a second sight of it. They both take refuge in a
land of fiction, of romance, from the realities into which they dread to
splash; a world unsubstantial, diaphanous, faint-hued, almost
passionless, which they make out of beauty and heroism and purity, which
they alembicize and refine, but into which there never enters any vital
element, anything to give it flesh and bone and pulsing life: it is a
mere soap bubble. And beautiful as is this world of their own making, it
is too negative even for them; they move in it only in imagination,
calm, serene, vacant, almost sad. There is in it, and in themselves, a
something wanting; and the remembrance of that unholy-life of reality
which jostled and splashed their delicate souls, comes back and haunts
them with its evil thought. There is no laugh--what is worse, no smile
--in these men. Incipient puritanism, not yet the terrible brawny
reality of Bunyan, but a vague, grey spectre, haunts Spenser; and the
puritanism of Don Quixote, the vague, melancholy, fantastic reverting
from the evil world of to-day to an impossible world of chivalry, is
troubling the sight of Tasso. He cannot go crazy like Don Quixote, and
instead he grows melancholy; he cannot believe in his own ideals; he
cannot give them life, any more than can Spenser give life to his
allegoric knights and ladies, because the life would have to be fetched
by Tasso out of the flesh of Ariosto, and by Spenser out of the blood of
Marlowe; and both Tasso and Spenser shrink at the thought of what might
with it be inoculated or transfused; and they rest satisfied with
phantoms. The phantoms of Spenser are more shadowy much more utterly
devoid of human character; they are almost metaphysical abstractions,
and they do not therefore sadden us: they are too unlike living things
to seem very lifeless. But the phantoms of Tasso, he would fain make
realities; he works at every detail of character, history, or geography,
which may make his people real; they are not, as with Spenser, elves and
wizards flitting about in a nameless fairyland, characterless and
passionless; they are historical creatures, captains and soldiers in a
country mapped out by the geographer; but they are phantoms all the more
melancholy, these beautiful and heroic Clorindas and Erminias and
Tancreds and Godfreys--why? because the real world around Tasso is
peopled with Brachianos and Corombonas, and Annabellas and Giovannis,
creatures for Webster and Ford; and because this world of chivalry is,
in his Italy, as false as the world of Amadis and Esplandian in Toboso
and Barcelona for poor Don Quixote. Melancholy therefore, and dreamy,
both Tasso and Spenser, with nothing they can fully love in reality,
because they see it tainted with reality and evil; without the cheerful
falling back upon everyday life of Ariosto and Shakespeare, and with a
strange fancy for fairyland, for the distant, for the Happy Islands, the
St. Brandan's Isles, the country of the fountain of youth, the country
of which vague reports have come back with the ships of Raleigh and
Ponce de Leon. Tasso and Spenser are happiest, in their calm, melancholy
way, when they can let themselves go in day-dreams, and talk of things
in which they do not believe, of diamond shields which stun monsters of
ointments which cure all ills of body and of soul of enchanted groves
whose trees sound with voices, and lutes, of boats in which, steered by
fairies, we can glide across the scarcely rippled summer sea, and
watching the ruins of the past, time and reality left behind, set sail
for some strange land of bliss. And there is in the very sensuousness
and love of beauty-of these men a vagueness and melancholy, a constant:
sense of the fleeting and of the eternal, as in that passage, translated
from the languidly sweet Italian perfection of Tasso into the timid,
almost scentless, English of Spenser--"Cosi trapassa al trapassar d'un

     So passeth, in the passing of a day,

     Of mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flowre

     No more doth florish after first decay,
     That earst was sought to deck both bed and bowre
     Of many a lady, and many a Paramowre.
     Gather therefore the Rose whilest yet is prime,
     For soone comes age that will her pride deflowre;
     Gather the Rose of love whitest yet is time,
     Whitest loving thou mayest loved be withe equall crime.

A sense of evanescence, of dreamlikeness, quite different from the
thoughtless enjoyment of Boiardo, from the bold and manly facing of the
future, the solemn, strong sense of life and death as of waking
realities, of the Elizabethan dramatists, even of weaklings like
Massinger and Beaumont. In Tasso and in Spenser there is no such
joyousness, no such solemnity; only a dreamy watching, a regret which is
scarcely a regret, at the evanescence of pale beauty and pale life, of
joys feebly felt and evils meekly borne.

With Tasso and Spenser comes to a close the school of Boiardo, the small
number of real artists who finally gave an enduring and beautiful shape
to that strangely mixed and altered material of romantic epic left
behind by the Middle Ages; comes to an end at least till our own day of
appreciative and deliberate imitation and selection and rearrangement of
the artistic forms of the past. Until the revival (after much study and
criticism) by our own poets of Arthur and Gudrun and the Fortunate
Isles, the world had had enough of mediæval romance. Chivalry had
avowedly ended in chamberlainry; the devotion to women in the official
routine of the _cicisbeo_; the last romance to which the late
Renaissance had clung, which made it sympathize with Huon, Ogier,
Orlando, and Rinaldo, which had made it take delight still in the
fairyland of Oberon, of Fallerina, of Alcina, of Armida, of Acrasia, the
romance of the new world, had also turned into prose, prose of
blood-stained filth. The humanistic and rationalistic men of the
Renaissance had doubtless early begun to turn up their noses in dainty
dilettantism or scientific contempt, at what were later to be called by
Montaigne, "Ces Lancelots du Lac, ces Amadis, ces Huons et tels fatras
di livres à quoy l'enfance s'amuse;" and by Ben Jonson:

                              Public nothings,
     Abortives of the fabulous dark cloister,
     Sent out to poison courts, and infect manners--

the public at large was more constant, and still retained a love for
mediæval romance. But more than humanities, more than scientific
scepticism and religious puritanism, did the slow dispelling of the
illusion of Eldorado and the Fortunate Isles. Mankind set sail for
America in brilliant and knightly gear, believing in fountains of youth
and St. Brandan's Isles, with Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser still in its
pockets. It returns from America either as the tattered fever-stricken
ruffian, or as the vulgar, fat upstart of Spanish comedy, returns
without honour or shame, holding money (and next to money, negroes) of
greater account than any insignia of paladinship or the Round Table; it
is brutal, vulgar, cynical; at best very sad, and it gets written for
its delectation the comic-tragic novels of rapscallions, panders,
prostitutes, and card-sharpers, which from "Lazarillo de Tormes" to "Gil
Blas," and from "Gil Blas" to "Tom Jones," finally replace the romances
of the Launcelots, Galahads, Rinaldos, and Orlandos.

Thus did the mediæval romantic-epic stuffs suffer alteration,
adulteration, and loss of character, throughout the long period of the
Middle Ages, without ever receiving an artistic shape, such as should
make all men preserve and cherish them for the only thing which makes
men preserve and cherish such things--that never to be wasted quality,
beauty. The Middle Ages were powerless to endow therewith their own
subjects; so the subjects had to wait, altering more and more with every
passing day, till the coming of the Renaissance. And by that time these
subjects had ceased to have any serious meaning whatever; the Roland of
the song of Roncevaux had become the crazy Orlando of Ariosto; the
Renaud of "The Quatre Fils Aymon," had become the Rinaldo, thrashed with
sheaves of lilies by Cupid, of Matteo Boiardo. The Renaissance took up
the old epic-romantic materials and made out of them works of art; but
works of art which, as I said before, were playthings gets written for
its delectation the comic-tragic novels of rapscallions, panders,
prostitutes, and card-sharpers, which, from "Lazarillo de Tormes" to
"Gil Bias," and from "Gil Bias" to "Tom Jones," finally replace the
romances of the Launcelots, Galahads, Rinaldos, and Orlandos.

       *       *       *       *       *


On laying down the "Vita Nuova" our soul is at first filled and
resounding with the love of Beatrice. Whatever habits or capacities of
noble loving may lurk within ourselves, have been awakened by the solemn
music of this book, and have sung in unison with Dante's love till we
have ceased to hear the voice of his passion and have heard only the
voice of our own. When the excitement has diminished, when we have grown
able to separate from our own feelings the feelings of the man dead
these five centuries and a half, and to realize the strangeness, the
obsoleteness of this love which for a moment had seemed our love; then a
new phase of impressions has set in, and the "Vita Nuova" inspires us
with mere passionate awe: awe before this passion which we feel to be no
longer our own, but far above and distant from us, as in some rarer
stratum of atmosphere; awe before this woman who creates it, or rather
who is its creation. Even as Dante fancied that the people of Florence
did when the bodily presence of this lady came across their path, so do
we cast down our glance as the image of Beatrice passes across our mind.
Nay, the glory of her, felt so really while reading the few, meagre
words in the book, is stored away in our heart, and clothes with a faint
aureole the lady--if ever in our life we chance to meet her--in whom,
though Dante tells us nothing of stature, features, eyes or hair, we
seem to recognize a likeness to her on whose passage "ogni lingua divien
tremando muta, e gli occhi non ardiscon di guardare." Passion like this,
to paraphrase a line of Rossetti's, is genius; and it arouses in such as
look upon it the peculiar sense of wonder and love, of awe-stricken
raising up of him who contemplates, which accompanies the contemplation
of genius.

But it may be that one day we feel, instead of this, wonder indeed, but
wonder mingled with doubt. This ideal love, which craves for no union
with its object; which seeks merely to see, nay, which is satisfied with
mere thinking on the beloved one, will strike us with the cold and
barren glitter of the miraculous. This Beatrice, as we gaze on her, will
prove to be no reality of flesh and blood like ourselves; she is a form
modelled in the semblance of that real, living woman who died six
centuries ago, but the substance of which is the white fire of Dante's
love. And the thought will arise that this purely intellectual love of a
scarce-noticed youth for a scarce-known woman is a thing which does not
belong to life, neither sweetening nor ennobling any of its real
relations; that it is, in its dazzling purity and whiteness, in fact a
mere strange and sterile death light, such as could not and should not,
in this world of ours, exist twice over. And, lest we should ever be
tempted to think of this ideal love for Beatrice as of a wonderful and
beautiful, but scarcely natural or useful phenomenon, I would wish to
study the story of its origin and its influence. I would wish to show
that had it not burned thus strangely concentrated and pure, the poets
of succeeding ages could not have taken from that white flame of love
which Dante set alight upon the grave of Beatrice, the spark of ideal
passion which has, in the noblest of our literature, made the desire of
man for woman and of woman for man burn clear towards heaven, leaving
behind the noisome ashes and soul-enervating vapours of earthly lust.


The centuries have made us; forcing us into new practices, teaching us
new habits, creating for us new capacities and wants; adding, ever and
anon, to the soul organism of mankind features which at first were but
accidental peculiarities, which became little by little qualities
deliberately sought for and at lengths inborn and hereditary
characteristics. And thus, in, what we call the Middle Ages, there was
invented by the stress of circumstances, elaborated by half-conscious
effort and bequeathed as an unalienable habit, a new manner of loving.

The women of classical Antiquity appear to us in poetry and imaginative
literature as one of two things: the wife or the mistress. The wife,
Penelope, Andromache, Alkestis, nay, even the charming young bride in
Xenophon's "Oeconomics," is, while excluded from many concerns,
distinctly reverenced and loved in her own household capacity; but the
reverence is of the sort which the man feels for his parents and his
household gods, and the affection is calm and gently rebuking like that
for his children. The mistress, on the other hand, is the object of
passion which is often very vehement, but which is always either simply
fleshly or merely fancifully æsthetic or both, and which entirely
precludes any save a degrading influence upon the sensual and suspicious
lover. Even Tibullus, in love matters one of the most modern among the
ancients, and capable of painting many charming and delicate little
domestic idyls even in connection with a mere bought mistress, is
perpetually accusing his Delia of selling herself to a higher bidder,
and sighing at the high probability of her abandoning him for the
Illyrian prætor or some other rich amateur of pretty women. The
barbarous North--whose songs have come down to us either, like the
Volsunga Saga translated by Mr. Morris, in an original pagan version, or
else, as the Nibelungenlied, recast during the early Middle Ages--the
North tells us nothing of the venal paramour, but knows nothing also
beyond the wedded wife; more independent and mighty perhaps than her
counterpart of classical Antiquity, but although often bought, like
Brynhilt or Gudrun, at the expense of tremendous adventures, cherished
scarcely more passionately than the wives of Odysseus and Hector. Thus,
before the Middle Ages, there existed as a rule only a holy, but
indifferent and utterly unlyrical, love for the women, the equals of
their husbands, wooed usually of the family and solemnly given in
marriage without much consultation of their wishes; and a highly
passionate and singing, but completely profligate and debasing, desire
for mercenary though cultivated creatures like the Delias and Cynthlas
of Tibullus and Propertius, or highborn women, descended, like Catullus'
Lesbia, in brazen dishonour to their level, women towards whom there
could not possibly exist on the part of their lovers any sense of
equality, much less of inferiority. To these two kinds of love, chaste
but cold, and passionate but unchaste, the Middle Ages added, or rather
opposed, a new manner of loving, which, although a mere passing
phenomenon, has left the clearest traces throughout our whole mode of
feeling and writing.

To describe mediæval love is a difficult matter, and to describe it
except in negations is next to impossibility. I conceive it to consist
in a certain sentimental, romantic, idealistic attitude towards women,
not by any means incompatible however with the grossest animalism; an
attitude presupposing a complete moral, æsthetical, and social
superiority on the part of the whole sex, inspiring the very highest
respect and admiration independently of the individual's qualities; and
reaching the point of actual worship, varying from the adoration of a
queen by a courtier to the adoration of a shrine by a pilgrim, in the
case of the one particular lady who happens to be the beloved; an
attitude in the relations of the sexes which results in love becoming an
indispensable part of a noble life, and the devoted attachment to one
individual woman, a necessary requisite of a gentlemanly training.

Mediæval love is not merely a passion, a desire, an affection, a habit;
it is a perfect occupation. It absorbs, or is supposed to absorb, the
Individual; it permeates his life like a religion. It is not one of the
interests of life, or, rather, one of life's phases; it is the whole of
life, all other interests and actions either sinking into an unsingable
region below it, or merely embroidering a variegated pattern upon its
golden background. Mediæval love, therefore, never obtains its object,
however much it may obtain the woman; for the object of mediæval love,
as of mediæval religious mysticism, is not one particular act or series
of acts, but is its own exercise, of which the various incidents of the
drama between man and woman are merely so many results. It has not its
definite stages, like the love of the men of classical Antiquity or the
heroic time of the North: its stages of seeking, obtaining, cherishing,
guarding; it is always at the same point, always in the same condition
of half-religious, half-courtier-like adoration, whether it be
triumphantly successful or sighingly despairing. The man and the
woman--or rather, I should say, the knight and the lady, for mediæval
love is an aristocratic privilege, and the love of lower folk is not a
theme for song--the knight and the lady, therefore, seem always, however
knit together by habit, nay, by inextricable meshes of guilt, somehow at
the same distance from one another. Once they have seen and loved each
other, their passion burns on always evenly, burns on (at least
theoretically) to all eternity. It seems almost as if the woman were a
mere shrine, a mysterious receptacle of the ineffable, a grail cup, a
consecrated wafer, but not the ineffable itself. For there is always in
mediæval love, however fleshly the incidents which it produces, a
certain Platonic element; that is to say, a craving for, a pursuit of,
something which is an abstraction; an abstraction impossible to define
in its constant shifting and shimmering, and which seems at one moment a
social standard, a religious ideal, or both, and which merges for ever
in the dazzling, vague sheen of the Eternal Feminine. Hence, one of the
most distinctive features of mediæval love, an extraordinary sameness of
intonation, making it difficult to distinguish between the _bonâ fide_
passion for which a man risks life and honour, and the mere
conventional gallantry of the knight who sticks a lady's glove on his
helmet as a compliment to her rank; nay, between the impure adoration of
an adulterous lamia like Yseult, and the mystical adoration of a
glorified Mother of God; for both are women, both are ladies, and
therefore the greatest poet of the early Middle Ages, Gottfried von
Strassburg, sings them both with the same religious respect, and the
same hysterical rapture. This mediæval love is furthermore a
deliberately expected, sought-for, and received necessity in a man's
life; it is not an accident, much less an incidental occurrence to be
lightly taken or possibly avoided: it is absolutely indispensable to
man's social training, to his moral and æsthetical self-improvement; it
is part and parcel of manhood and knighthood. Hence, where it does not
arise of itself (and where a man is full of the notion of such love, it
is rare that it does not come but too soon) it has to be sought for.
Ulrich von Liechtenstein, in his curious autobiography written late in
the twelfth century, relates how ever since his childhood he had been
aware of the necessity of the loyal love service of a lady for the
accomplishment of knightly duties; and how, as soon as he was old enough
to love, he looked around him for a lady whom he might serve; a
proceeding renewed in more prosaic days and with a curious pedantic
smack, by Lorenzo dei Medici; and then again, perhaps for the last time,
by the Knight of La Mancha, in that memorable discussion which ended in
the enthronement as his heart's queen of the unrivalled Dulcinea of
Toboso. _Frowendienst,_ "lady's service," is the name given by Ulrich
von Liechtenstein, a mediæval Quixote, outshining by far the mad
Provençals Rudel and Vidal, to the memoirs very delightfully done into
modern German by Ludwig Tieck; and "lady's service" is the highest
occupation of knightly leisure, the subject of the immense bulk of
mediæval poetry. "Lady's service" in deeds of arms and song, in constant
praise and defence of the beloved, in heroic enterprise and madcap
mummery, in submission and terror to the wondrous creature whom the
humble servant, the lover, never calls by her sacred name, speaking of
her in words unknown to Antiquity, _dompna, dame, frowe, madonna_--words
of which the original sense has almost been forgotten, although there
cleave to them even now ideas higher than those associated with the
_puella_ of the ancients, the _wib_ of the heroic days--lady,
mistress--the titles of the Mother of God, who is, after all, only the
mystical Soul's Paramour of the mediæval world. "Lady's service"--the
almost technical word, expressing the position, half-serf-like,
half-religious, the bonds of complete humility and never-ending
faithfulness, the hopes of reward, the patience under displeasure, the
pride in the livery of servitude, the utter absorption of the life of
one individual in the life of another; which constitute in Provence, in
France, in Germany, in England, in Italy, in the fabulous kingdoms of
Arthur and Charlemagne, the strange new thing which I have named
Mediæval Love.

Has such a thing really existed? Are not these mediæval poets leagued
together in a huge conspiracy to deceive us? Is it possible that strong
men have wept and fainted at a mere woman's name, like the Count of
Nevers in "Flamenca," or that their mind has swooned away in months of
reverie like that of Parzifal in Eschenbach's poem; that worldly wise
and witty men have shipped off and died on sea for love of an unseen
woman like Jaufre Rudel; or dressed in wolf's hide and lurked and fled
before the huntsmen-like Peire Vidal; or mangled their face and cut off
their finger, and, clothing themselves in rags more frightful than
Nessus' robe, mixed in the untouchable band of lepers like Ulrich von
Liechtenstein? Is it possible to believe that the insane enterprises of
the Amadises, Lisvarts and Felixmartes of late mediæval romance, that
the behaviour of Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena, ever had any serious
models in reality? Nay, more difficult still to believe--because the
whole madness of individuals is more credible than the half-madness of
the whole world--is it possible to believe that, as the poems of
innumerable trouvères and troubadours, minnesingers and Italian poets,
as the legion of mediæval romances of the cycles of Charlemagne, Arthur,
and Amadis would have it, that during so long a period of time society
could have been enthralled by this hysterical, visionary, artificial,
incredible religion of mediæval love? It is at once too grotesque and
too beautiful, too high and too low, to be credible; and our first
impulse, on closing the catechisms and breviaries, the legendaries and
hymn-books of this strange new creed, is to protest that the love poems
must be allegories, the love romances solar myths, the Courts of Love
historical bungles; that all this mediæval world of love is a figment, a
misinterpretation, a falsehood.

But if we seek more than a mere casual impression; if, instead of
feeling sceptical over one or two fragments of evidence, we attempt to
collect the largest possible number of facts together; if we read not
one mediæval love story, but twenty--not half a dozen mediæval love
poems, but several scores; if we really investigate into the origin of
the apparent myth, the case speedily alters. Little by little this which
had been inconceivable becomes not merely intelligible, but inevitable;
the myth becomes an historical phenomenon of the most obvious and
necessary sort. Mediæval love, which had seemed to us a poetic fiction,
is turned into a reality; and a reality, alas, which is prosaic. Let us
look at it.

Mediæval love is first revealed in the sudden and almost simultaneous
burst of song which, like the twitter and trill so dear to trouvères,
troubadours, and minnesingers, fills the woods that yesterday were
silent and dead, and greeted the earliest sunshine, the earliest faint
green after the long winter numbness of the dark ages, after the
boisterous gales of the earliest Crusade. The French and Provençals
sang first, the Germans later, the Sicilians last; but although we may
say after deliberate analysis, such or such a form, or such or such a
story, was known in this country before it appeared in that one, such
imitation or suggestion was so rapid that with regard to the French, the
Provençals, and the Germans at least, the impression is simultaneous;
only the Sicilians beginning distinctly later, forerunners of the new
love lyric, wholly different from that of trouvères, troubadours, and
minnesingers, of the Italians of the latter thirteenth century. And this
simultaneous revelation of mediæval love takes place in the last quarter
of the twelfth century, when Northern France had already consolidated
into a powerful monarchy, and Paris, after the teachings of Abélard, was
recognized as the intellectual metropolis of Europe; when south of the
Loire the brilliant Angevine kings held the overlordship of the cultured
Raymonds of Toulouse and of the reviving Latin municipalities of
Provence \ when Germany was welded as a compact feudal mass by the most
powerful of the Stauffens; and the papacy had been built up by Gregory
and Alexander into a political wall against which Frederick and Henry
vainly battered; when the Italian commonwealths grew slowly but surely,
as yet still far from guessing that the day would come when their
democracy should produce a new civilization to supersede this triumphant
mediæval civilization of the early Capetiens, the Angevines, and the
Hohenstauffens. Europe was setting forth once more for the East; but no
longer as the ignorant and enthusiastic hordes of Peter the Hermit: Asia
was the great field for adventure, the great teacher of new luxuries, at
once the Eldorado and the grand tour of all the brilliant and
inquisitive and unscrupulous chivalry of the day. And, while into the
West were insidiously entering habits and modes of thought of the East;
throughout Germany and Provence, and throughout the still obscure free
burghs of Italy, was spreading the first indication of that emotional
mysticism which, twenty or thirty years later, was to burst out in the
frenzy of spiritual love of St. Francis and his followers. The moment is
one of the most remarkable in all history: the premature promise in the
twelfth century of that intellectual revival which was delayed
throughout Northern Europe until the sixteenth. It is the moment when
society settled down, after the anarchy of eight hundred years, on its
feudal basis; a basis fallaciously solid, and in whose presence no one
might guess that the true and definitive Renaissance would arise out of
the democratic civilization of Italy.

Such is the moment when we first hear the almost universal song of
mediæval love. This song comes from the triumphantly reorganized portion
of society, not from the part which is slowly working its way to
reorganization; not from the timidly encroaching burghers, but from the
nobles. The reign of town poetry, of fabliaux and meistersang, comes
later; the poets of the early Middle Ages, trouvères, troubadours, and
minnesingers are, with barely one or two exceptions, all knights. And
their song comes from the castle. Now, in order to understand mediæval
love, we must reflect for a moment upon this feudal castle, and upon the
kind of life which the love poets of the late twelfth and early
thirteenth century--whether lords like Bertram de Born, and Guillaume de
Poitiers, among the troubadours; the Vidame de Chartres, Meurisses de
Craon, and the Duke of Brabant among the trouvères of Northern France;
like Ulrich von Liechtenstein among the minnesingers; or retainers and
hangers-on like Bernard de Ventadour and Armand de Mareulh, like
Chrestiens de Troyes, Gaisses Brulez, or Quienes de Béthune, like
Walther, Wolfram, and Tannhäuser--great or small, good or bad, saw
before them and mixed with in that castle. The castle of a great
feudatory of the early Middle Ages, whether north or south of the Loire,
in Austria or in Franconia, is like a miniature copy of some garrison
town in barbarous countries: there is an enormous numerical
preponderance of men over women; for only the chiefs in command, the
overlord, and perhaps one or two of his principal kinsmen or adjutants,
are permitted the luxury of a wife; the rest of the gentlemen are
subalterns, younger sons without means, youths sent to learn their
military duty and the ways of the world: a whole pack of men without
wives, without homes, and usually without fortune. High above all this
deferential male crowd, moves the lady of the castle: highborn, proud,
having brought her husband a dower of fiefs often equal to his own, and
of vassals devoted to her race. About her she has no equals; her
daughters, scarcely out of the nurse's hands, are given away in
marriage; and her companions, if companions they may be called, are the
waiting ladies, poor gentlewomen situated between the maid of honour and
the ladies' maid, like that Brangwaine whom Yseult sacrifices to her
intrigue with Tristram, or those damsels whom Flamenca gives over to the
squires of her lover Guillems; at best, the wife of one of her husband's
subalterns, or some sister or aunt or widow kept by charity. Round this
lady--the stately, proud lady perpetually described by mediæval
poets--flutters the swarm of young men, all day long, in her path:
serving her at meals, guarding her apartments, nay, as pages, admitted
even into her most secret chamber; meeting her for ever in the
narrowness of that castle life, where every unnecessary woman is a
burden usurping the place of a soldier, and, if possible, replaced by a
man. Servants, lacqueys, and enjoying the privileges of ubiquity of
lacqueys, yet, at the same time, men of good birth and high breeding,
good at the sword and at the lute; bound to amuse this highborn woman,
fading away in the monotony of feudal life, with few books to read or
unable to read them, and far above all the household concerns which
devolve on the butler, the cellarer, the steward, the gentleman,
honourably employed as a servant. To them, to these young men, with few
or no young women of their own age to associate, and absolutely no
unmarried girls who could be a desirable match, the lady of the castle
speedily becomes a goddess, the impersonation at once of that feudal
superiority before which they bow, of that social perfection which they
are commanded to seek, and of that womankind of which the castle affords
so few examples. To please her, this lazy, bored, highbred woman, with
all the squeamishness and caprice of high birth and laziness about her,
becomes their ideal; to be favourably noticed, their highest glory; to
be loved, these wretched mortals, by this divinity--that thought must
often pass through their brain and terrify them with its delicious
audacity; oh no, such a thing is not possible. But it is. The lady at
first, perhaps most often, singles out as a pastime some young knight,
some squire, some page; and, in a half-queenly, half-motherly way,
corrects, rebukes his deficiencies, undertakes to teach him his duty as
a servant. The romance of the "Petit Jehan de Saintre," written in the
fifteenth century, but telling, with a delicacy of cynicism worthy of
Balzac, what must have been the old, old story of the whole feudal
Middle Ages, shows the manner in which, while feeling that he is being
trained to knightly courtesy and honour, the young man in the service of
a great feudal lady is gradually taught dissimulation, lying, intrigue;
is initiated by the woman who looms above him like a saint into all the
foulness of adultery. Adultery; a very ugly word, which must strike
almost like a handful of mud in the face whosoever has approached this
subject of mediæval love in admiration of its strange delicacy and
enthusiasm. Yet it is a word which must be spoken, for in it is the
explanation of the whole origin and character of this passion which
burst into song in the early Middle Ages. This almost religious love,
this love which conceives no higher honour than the service of the
beloved, no higher virtue than eternal fidelity--this love is the love
for another man's wife. Between unmarried young men and young women,
kept carefully apart by the system which gives away a girl without her
consent and only to a rich suitor, there is no possibility of love in
these early feudal courts; the amours, however licentious, between
kings' daughters and brave knights, of the Carolingian tales, belong to
a different rank of society, to the prose romances made up in the
fourteenth century for the burgesses of cities; the intrigues, ending in
marriage, of the princes and princesses of the cycle of Amadis, belong
to a different period, to the fifteenth century, and to courts where
feudal society scarcely exists; the squires, the young knights who hang
about a great baronial establishment of the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries, have still to make their fortune, and do not dream of
marriage. The husband, on the other hand, the great lord or successful
knightly adventurer, married late in life, and married from the
necessity, for ever pressing upon the feudal proprietor, of adding on
new fiefs and new immunities, of increasing his importance and
independence in proportion to the hourly increasing strength and claims
of the overlord, the king, who casts covetous eyes upon him--the husband
has not married for love; he has had his love affairs with the wives of
other men in his day, or may still have them; this lady is a mere feudal
necessity, she is required to give him a dower and give him an heir,
that is all. If the husband does not love, how much less can the wife;
married, as she is, scarce knowing what marriage is, to a man much older
than herself, whom most probably she has never seen, to whom she is a
mere investment. Nay, there is not even the after-marriage love of the
ancients: this wife is not the housekeeper, the woman who works that the
man's house may be rich and decorous; not even the nurse of his
children, for the children are speedily given over to the squires and
duennas; she is the woman of another family who has come into his, the
stranger who must be respected (as that most typical mediæval wife,
Eleanor of Guienne, was respected by her husbands) on account of her
fiefs, her vassals, her kinsfolk; but who cannot be loved. Can there be
love between man and wife? There cannot be love between man and wife.
This is no answer of mine, fantastically deduced from mediæval poetry.
It is the answer solemnly made to the solemnly asked question by the
Court of Love held by the Countess of Champagne in 1174, and registered
by Master Andrew the King of France's chaplain: "Dicimus enim et
stabilito tenore firmamus amorem non posse inter duos jugales suas
extendere vires." And the reason alleged for this judgment brings us
back to the whole conception of mediæval love as a respectful service
humbly waiting for a reward: "For," pursues the decision published by
André le Chapelain, "whereas lovers grant to each other favours freely
and from no legal necessity, married people have the duty of obeying
each other's wishes and of refusing nothing to one another." "No love is
possible between man and wife," repeat the Courts of Love which,
consisting of all the highborn ladies of the province and presided by
some mighty queen or princess, represent the social opinions of the day.
"But this lady," says a knight (Miles) before the love tribunal of Queen
Eleanor, "promised to me that if ever she should lose the love of her
lover, she would take me in his place. She has wedded the man who was
her lover, and I have come to claim fulfilment of her promise." The
court discusses for awhile. "We cannot," answers Queen Eleanor, "go
against the Countess of Champagne's decision that love cannot exist
between man and wife. We therefore desire this lady to fulfil her
promise and give you her love." Again, there come to the Court of Love
of the Viscountess of Narbonne a knight and a lady, who desire to know
whether, having been once married, but since divorced, a love engagement
between them would be honourable. The viscountess decides that "Love
between those who have been married together, but who have since been
divorced from one another, is not to be deemed reprehensible; nay, that
it is to be considered as honourable." And these Courts of Love, be it
remarked, were frequently held on occasion of the marriage of great
personages; as, for instance, of that between Louis VII. and Eleanor of
Poitiers in 1137. The poetry of the early Middle Ages follows implicitly
the decisions of these tribunals, which reveal a state of society to
which the nearest modern approach is that of Italy in the eighteenth
century, when, as Goldoni and Parini show us, as Stendhal (whose "De
l'Amour" may be taken as the modern "Breviari d'Amor") expounds, there
was no impropriety possible as long as a lady was beloved by any one
except her own husband. No love, therefore, between unmarried people
(the cyclical romances, as before stated, and the Amadises, belong to
another time of social condition, and the only real exception to my rule
of which I can think is the lovely French tale of "Aucassin et
Nicolette"); and no love between man and wife. But love there must be;
and love there consequently is; love for the married woman from the man
who is not her husband. The feudal lady, married without being consulted
and without having had a chance of knowing what love is, yet lives to
know love; lives to be taught it by one of these many bachelors bound to
flutter about her in military service or social duty; lives to teach it
herself. And she is too powerful in her fiefs and kinsmen, too powerful
in the public opinion which approves and supports her, to be hampered by
her husband. The husband, indeed, has grown up in the same habits, has
known, before marrying, the customs sanctioned by the Courts of Love; he
has been the knight of some other man's wife in his day, what right has
he to object? As in the days of Italian _cecisbei_, the early mediæval
lover might say with Goldoni's Don Alfonso or Don Roberto, "I _serve_
your wife--such or such another serves mine, what harm can there be in
it?" ("Io servo vostra moglie, Don Eugenio favorisce la mia; che male c'
e?" I am quoting from memory.) And as a fact, we hear little of
jealousy; the amusement of En Barral when Peire Vidal came in and kissed
his sleeping wife; and the indignation of all Provence for the murder of
Guillems de Cabestanh (buried in the same tomb with the lady who had
been made to eat of his heart)--showing from opposite sides how the
society accustomed to Courts of Love looked upon the duties of husbands.

Such was the social life in those feudal courts whence first arises the
song of mediæval love, and that this is the case is proved by the whole
huge body of early mediæval poetry. We must not judge, as I have said,
either by poems of much earlier date, like the Nibelungen and the
Carolingian _chansons de geste_, which merely received a new form in the
early Middle Ages; still less from the prose romances of Mélusine,
Milles et Amys, Palemon and Arcite, and a host of others which were
elaborated only later and under the influence of the quite unfeudal
habits of the great cities; and least of all from that strange late
southern cycle of the Amadises, from which, odd as it seems, many of our
notions of chivalric love have, through our ancestors, through the
satirists or burlesque poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
been inherited. We must look at the tales which, as we are constantly
being told by trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers, were the
fashionable reading of the feudal classes of the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries: the tales best known to us in the colourless respectability
of the collection made in the reign of Edward IV. by Sir Thomas Malory,
and called by him the "Morte d'Arthur"--of the ladies and knights of
Arthur's court; of the quest of the Grail by spotless knights who were
bastards and fathers of bastards; of the intrigues of Tristram of
Lyoness and Queen Yseult; of Launcelot and Guenevere; the tales which
Francesca and Paolo read together. We must look, above all, at the lyric
poetry of France, Provence, Germany, and Sicily in the early Middle

     Vos qui très bien ameis i petit mentendeis
     Por l'amor de Ihesu les pucelles ameis.
     Nos trouvons en escris de sainte auctoriteis
     Ke pucelle est la fleur de loyaulment ameir.

This strange entreaty to love the maidens for the sake of Christ's love,
this protest of a nameless northern French poet (Wackernagel,
Altfranzösische Lieder and Leiche IX.) against the adulterous passion of
his contemporaries, comes to us, pathetically enough, solitary, faint,
unnoticed in the vast chorus, boundless like the spring song of birds or
the sound of the waves, of poets singing the love of other men's wives.
But, it may be objected--how can we tell that these love songs, so
carefully avoiding all mention of names, are not addressed to the
desired bride, to the legitimate wife of the poet? For several reasons;
and mainly, for the crushing evidence of an undefinable something which
tells us that they are not. The other reasons are easily stated. We know
that feudal habits would never have allowed to unmarried women (and
women were married when scarcely out of their childhood) the
opportunities for the relations which obviously exist between the poet
and his lady; and that, if by some accident a young knight might fall in
love with a girl, he would address not her but her parents, since the
Middle Ages, who were indifferent to adultery, were, like the southern
nations among whom the married woman is not expected to be virtuous,
extreme sticklers for the purity of their unmarried womankind. Further,
we have no instance of an unmarried woman being ever addressed during
the early Middle Ages, in those terms of social respect--_madame,
domna, frowe, madonna_--which essentially belong to the mistress of a
household; nor do these stately names fit in with any theory which would
make us believe that the lady addressed by the poet is the jealously
guarded daughter of the house with whom he is plotting a secret
marriage, or an elopement to end off in marriage. This is not the way
that Romeo speaks to Juliet, nor even that the princesses in the
cyclical romances and in the Amadises are wooed by their bridegrooms.
This is not the language of a lover who is broaching his love, and who
hopes, however timidly, to consummate it before all the world by
marriage. It is obviously the language of a man either towards a woman
who is taking a pleasure in keeping him dangling without favours which
she has implicitly or explicitly promised; or towards a woman who is
momentarily withholding favours which her lover has habitually enjoyed.
And in a large proportion of cases the poems of trouvères, troubadours,
and minnesingers are the expression of fortunate love, the fond
recollection or eager expectation of meetings with the beloved. All this
can evidently not be connected with the wooing, however stealthy,
however Romeo-and-Juliet-like of a bride; still less can it be explained
in reference to love within wedlock. A man does not, however loving,
worship his wife as his social superior; he does not address her in
titles of stiff respect; he does not sigh and weep and supplicate for
love which is his due, and remind his wife that she owes it him in
return for loyal, humble, discreet service. Above all, a man (except in
some absurd comedy perhaps, where the husband, in an age of _cicisbeos_,
is in love with his own wife and dares not admit it before the society
which holds "that there can be no love between married folk ")--a
husband, I repeat, does not beg for, arrange, look forward to, and
recall with triumph or sadness, secret meetings with his own wife. Now
the secret meeting is, in nearly every aristocratic poet of the early
poetry, the inevitable result of the humble praises and humble requests
for kindness; it is, most obviously, _the_ reward for which the poet is
always importuning. Mediæval love poetry, compared with the love poetry
of Antiquity and the love poetry of the revival of letters, is, in its
lyric form, decidedly chaste; but it is perfectly explicit; and, for all
its metaphysical tendencies and its absence of clearly painted pictures,
the furthest possible removed from being Platonic. One of the most
important, characteristic, and artistically charming categories of
mediæval love lyrics is that comprising the Provençal _serena_ and
_alba,_ with their counterparts in the _langue d'oil_, and the so-called
_Wachtlieder_ of the minnesingers; and this category of love poetry may
be defined as the drama, in four acts, of illicit love. The faithful
lover has received from his lady an answer to his love, the place and
hour are appointed; all the day of which the evening is to bring him
this honour, he goes heavy hearted and sighing: "Day, much do you grow
for my grief, and the evening, the evening and the long hope kills me."
Thus far the _serena_, the evening song, of Guiraut Riquier. A lovely
anonymous _alba,_ whose refrain, "Oi deus, oi deus; de l' alba, tan tost
ve!" is familiar to every smatterer of Provençal, shows us the lady and
her knight in an orchard beneath the hawthorn, giving and taking the
last kisses while the birds sing and the sky whitens with dawn. "The
lady is gracious and pleasant, and many look upon her for her beauty,
and her heart Is all in loving loyally; alas, alas, the dawn! how soon
it: comes!--" "Oi deus, oi deus; de l'alba, tan tost ve!" The real _alba_
is the same as the German _Wachtlieder,_ the song of the squire or
friend posted at the garden gate or outside the castle wall, warning the
lovers to separate. "Fair comrade (Bel Companho), I call to you singing.
'Sleep no more, for I hear the birds announcing the day in the trees,
and I fear that the jealous one may find you;' and in a moment it will
be day, 'Bel Companho, come to the window and look at the signs in the
sky! you will know me a faithful messenger; if you do it not, it will be
to your harm" and in a moment it will be dawn (et ades sera l' alba)...
Bel Companho, since I left you I have not slept nor raised myself from
my knees; for I have prayed to God the Son of Saint Mary, that he should
send me: back my faithful comrade, and in a moment it will be dawn In
this _alba_ of Guiraut de Borneulh, the lover comes at last to the
window, and cries to his watching comrade that he is too happy to care
either for the dawn or for the jealous one. The German _Wachtlieder_ are
even more explicit. "He must away at once and without delay," sings the
watchman in a poem of Wolfram, the austere singer of Parzifal and the
Grail Quest; "let him go, sweet lady; let him away from thy love so that
he keep his honour and life. He trusted himself to me that I should
bring him safely hence; it is day ..." "Sing what thou wilt, watchman,"
answers the lady, "but leave him here." In a far superior, but also far
less chaste poem of Heinrich von Morungen, the lady, alone and
melancholy, wakes up remembering the sad white light of morning, the sad
cry of the watchman, which separated her from her knight. Still more
frankly, and in a poem which is one of the few real masterpieces of
Minnesang, the lady in Walther von der Vogelweide's "Under der linden an
der Heide" narrates a meeting in the wood. "What passed between us shall
never be known by any! never by any, save him and me--yes, and by the
little nightingale that sang _Tandaradei_! The little bird will surely
be discreet."

The songs of light love for another's wife of troubadour, trouvère, and
minnesinger, seem to have been squeezed together, so that all their
sweet and acrid perfume is, so to speak, sublimated, in the recently
discovered early Provençal narrative poem called "Flamenca." Like the
"Tristram" of Gottfried von Strassburg, like all these light mediæval
love _lyrics,_ of which I have been speaking, the rhymed story of
"Flamenca," a pale and simple, but perfect petalled daisy, has come up
in a sort of moral and intellectual dell in the winter of the Middle
Ages--a dell such as you meet in hollows of even the most wind-swept
southern hills, where, while all round the earth is frozen and the short
grass nibbled away by the frost, may be found even at Christmas a bright
sheen of budding wheat beneath the olives on the slope, a yellow haze of
sun upon the grass in which the little aromatic shoots of fennel and
mint and marigold pattern with greenness the sere brown, the
frost-burnt; where the very leafless fruit trees have a spring-like rosy
tinge against the blue sky, and the tufted little osiers flame a joyous
orange against the greenness of the hill.

Such spots there are--and many--in the winter of the Middle Ages; though
it is not in them, but where the rain beats, and the snow and the wind
tugs, that grow, struggling with bitterness, the great things of the
day: the philosophy of Abélard, the love of man of St. Francis, the
patriotism of the Lombard communes; nor that lie dormant, fertilized in
the cold earth, the great things of art and thought, the great things to
come. But in them arise the delicate winter flowers which we prize:
tender, pale things, without much life, things either come too soon or
stayed too late, among which is "Flamenca;" one of those roses, nipped
and wrinkled, but stained a brighter red by the frost, which we pluck in
December or in March; beautiful, bright, scentless roses, which, scarce
in bud, already fall to pieces in our hand. "Flamenca" is simply the
narrative of the loves of the beautiful wife of the bearish and jealous
Count Archambautz, and of Guillems de Nevers, a brilliant young knight
who hears of the lady's sore captivity, is enamoured before he sees her,
dresses up as the priest's clerk, and speaks one word with her while
presenting the mass book to be kissed, every holiday; and finally
deceives the vigilance of the husband by means of a subterranean
corridor, which he gets built between his inn and the bath-room of the
lady at the famous waters of Bourbon-les-Bains. In this world of
"Flamenca," which is in truth the same world as that of the "Romaunt of
the Rose," the "Morte d'Arthur," and of the love poets of early France
and Germany, conjugal morality and responsibility simply do not exist.
It seems an unreal pleasure-garden, with a shadowy guardian--impalpable
to us gross moderns--called Honour, but where, as it seems, Love only
reigns. Love, not the mystic and melancholy god of the "Vita Nuova," but
a foppish young deity, sentimental at once and sensual, of fashionable
feudal life: the god of people with no apparent duties towards others,
unconscious of any restraints save those of this vague thing called
honour; whose highest mission for the knight, as put in our English
"Romaunt of the Rose" is to--

         Set thy might and alle thy witte
     Wymmen and ladies for to plese,
     And to do thyng that may hem ese;

while, for the lady, it is expressed with perfect simplicity of
shamelessness by Flamenca herself to her damsels, teaching them that the
woman must yield to the pleasure of her lover. Now love, when young,
when, so to speak, but just born and able to feed (as a newborn child on
milk, without hungering for more solid food) on looks and words and
sighs; love thus young, is a fair-seeming godhead, and the devotion to
him a pretty and delicate piece of æstheticism. And such it is here in
"Flamenca," where there certainly exists neither God nor Christ, both
complete absentees, whose priest becomes a courteous lover's valet,
whose church the place for amorous rendezvous, whose sacrifice of mass
and prayer becomes a means of amorous correspondence: Cupid, in the
shape of his slave Guillems de Nevers--become _patarin_(zealot) for
love--peeping with shaven golden head from behind the missal, touching
the lady's hand and whispering with the words of spiritual peace the
declaration of love, the appointment for meeting. God and Christ, I
repeat, are absentees. Where they are I know not; perhaps over the Rhine
with the Lollards in their weavers' dens, or over the Alps in the cell
of St. Francis; not here, certainly, or if here, themselves become the
mere slaves of love. But this King Love, as long as a mere infant, is a
sweet and gracious divinity, surrounded by somewhat of the freshness and
hawthorn sweetness of spring which seem to accompany his favourite
Guillems. Guillems de Nevers, "who could still grow," this brilliant
knight and troubadour, in his white silken and crimson and purple
garments and soundless shoes embroidered with flowers, this prince of
tournaments and _tensos_, who hearing the sorrows of the beautiful
Flamenca, loves her unseen, sits sighing in sight of her prison bower,
and faints like a hero of the Arabian Nights at her name, and has
visions of her as St. Francis has of Christ; this younger and brighter
Sir Launcelot, is an ideal little figure, whom you might mistake for
Love himself as described in the "Romaunt of the Rose;" Love's avatar or
incarnation, on whose appearance the year blooms into spring, the fruit
trees blossom, the birds sing, the girls dance at eve round the
maypoles; behind whom, while reading this poem, we seem to see the corn
shine green beneath the olives, the white-blossomed branches slant
across the blue sky. For is he not the very incarnation of chivalry, of
beauty, and of love? So much for this King Love while but quite young.
Unfortunately he is speedily weaned of his baby food of mere blushing
glances and sighed-out names; and then his aspect, his kingdom's aspect,
the aspect of his votaries, undergoes a change. The profane but charming
game of the loving clerk and the missal is exchanged for the more
coarse hide-and-seek of hidden causeways and tightened bolts, with
jealous husbands guarding the useless door; Guillems becomes but an
ordinary Don Juan or Lovelace, Flamenca but a sorry, sneaking
adulteress, and the gracious damsels mere common sluts, curtseying at
the loan (during the interview of nobler folk) of the gallant's squires.
For the scent of May, of fresh leaves and fallen blossoms, we get the
nauseous vapours of the bath-room; and, alas, King Love has lost his
aureole and his wings and turned keeper of the hot springs, sought out
by the gouty and lepers, of Bourbon-les-Bains; and in closing this book,
so delightfully begun, we sicken at the whiff of hot and fetid moral air
as we should sicken in passing over the outlet of the polluted hot

"But where is the use of telling us all this?" the reader will ask;
"every one knows that illicit passion existed and exists, and has its
chroniclers, its singers in prose and in verse. But what has all this
poetry of common adultery to do with a book like the 'Vita Nuova,' with
that strange new thing, that lifelong worship of a woman, which you call
mediæval love?" This much: that out of this illicit love, and out of it,
gross as it looks, alone arises the possibility of the "Vita Nuova;"
arises the possibility of the romantic and semi-religious love of the
Middle Ages. Or, rather, let us say that this mere loose love of the
_albas_ and _Wachtlieder_ and "Flamenca," is the substratum, nay, is the
very flesh and blood, of the spiritual passion to which, in later days,
we owe the book of Beatrice.

It is a harsh thing to say, but one which all sociology teaches us, that
as there exists no sensual relation which cannot produce for its
ennoblement a certain amount of passion, so also does there exist no
passion (and Phædrus is there to prove it) so vile and loathsome as to
be unable to weave about itself a glamour of ideal sentiment. The poets
of the Middle Ages strove after the criminal possession of another man's
wife. This, however veiled with fine and delicate poetic expressions, is
the thing for which they wait and sigh and implore; this is the reward,
the supremely honouring and almost sanctifying reward which the lady
cannot refuse to the knight who has faithfully and humbly served her.
The whole bulk of the love lyrics of the early Middle Ages are there to
prove it; and if the allusions in them are not sufficiently clear, those
who would be enlightened may study the discussions of the allegorical
persons even in the English (and later) version of Guillaume de Lorris'
"Roman de la Rose;" and turn to what, were it in _langue d'oc_, we
should call a _tenso_ of Guillaume li Viniers among Mätzner's
"Altfranzösische Lieder-dichter." The catastrophe of Ulrich von
Liechtenstein's "Frowendienst," where the lady, the "virtuous," the
"pure," as he is pleased to call her, after making him cut off his
finger, dress in leper's clothes, chop off part of his upper lip, and go
through the most marvellous Quixotic antics dressed in satin and pearls
and false hair as Queen Venus, and jousting in this costume with every
knight between Venice and Styria, all for her honour and glory; pulls
the gallant in a basket up to her window, and then lets him drop down
into the moat which is no better than a sewer; this grotesque and
tragically resented end of Ulrich's first _love service_ speaks volumes
on the point. The stones in Nostradamus' "Lives of the Troubadours," the
incidents in Gottfried's "Tristan und Isolde," nay, the adventures even
in our expunged English "Morte d'Arthur," relating to the birth of Sir
Galahad, are as explicit as anything in Brantôme or the Queen of
Navarre; the most delicate love songs of Provence and Germany are
cobwebs spun round Decameronian situations. And all this is permitted,
admitted, sanctioned by feudal society even as the _cecisbeos_ of the
noble Italian ladies were sanctioned by the society of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. In the mediæval castle, where, as we have
seen, the lady, separated from her own sex, is surrounded by a swarm of
young men without a chance of marriage, and bound to make themselves
agreeable to the wife of a military superior; the woman soon ceases to
be the exclusive property of her husband, and the husband speedily
discovers that the majority, hence public ridicule, are against any
attempt at monopolizing her. Thus adultery becomes, as we have seen,
accepted as an institution under the name of _service_; and, like all
other social institutions, developes a morality of its own--a morality
within immorality, of faithfulness within infidelity. The lady must be
true to her knight, and the knight must be true to his lady: the Courts
of Love solemnly banish from society any woman who is known to have more
than one lover. Faithfulness is the first and most essential virtue of
mediæval love; a virtue unknown to the erotic poets of Antiquity, and
which modern times have inherited from the Middle Ages as a requisite,
even (as the reproaches of poets of the Alfred de Musset school teach
us) in the most completely illicit love. Tristram and Launcelot, the two
paragons of knighthood, are inviolably constant to their mistress: the
husband may and must be deceived, but not the wife who helps to deceive
him. Yseult of Brittany and Elaine, the mother of Galahad, do not
succeed in breaking the vows made to Yseult the Fair and to Queen
Guenevere. The beautiful lady in the hawthorn _alba_ "a son cor en amar
lejalmens." But this loyal loving is for the knight who is warned to
depart, certainly not for the husband, the _gilos_, in whose despite
("Bels dous amios, baizem nos eu e vos--Aval els pratzon chantols
auzellos--_Tot O fassam en despeit del gilos_") they are meeting. The
ladies of the minnesingers are "pure," "good," "faithful" (and each and
all are pure, good, and faithful, as long as they do not resist) from
the point of view of the lover, not of the husband, if indeed a husband
be permitted to have any point of view at all. And as fidelity is the
essential virtue in these adulterous connections, so infidelity is the
greatest crime that a woman (and even a man) can commit, the greatest
misfortune which fate can send to an unhappy knight. That he leaves a
faithful mistress behind him is the one hope of the knight who, taking
the cross, departs to meet the scimitars of Saladin's followers, the
fevers, the plagues, the many miserable deaths of the unknown East. "If
any lady be unfaithful," says Quienes de Béthune, "she will have to be
unfaithful with some base wretch."

     Et les dames ki castement vivront
     Se loiauté font a ceus qui iront;
     Et seles font par mal conseil folaje,
     A lasques gens et mauvais le feront,
     Car tout li bon iront en cest voiage.

"I have taken the cross on account of my sins," sings Albrecht von
Johansdorf, one of the most earnest of the minnesingers; "now let God
help, till my return, the woman who has great sorrow on my account, in
order that I may find her possessed of her honour; let Him grant me this
prayer. But if she change her life (_i.e_., take to bad courses), then
may God forbid my ever returning." The lady is bound (the Courts of Love
decide this point of honour) to reward her faithful lover. "A knight,"
says a lady, in an anonymous German song published by Bartsch, "has
served me according to my will. Before too much time elapse, I must
reward him; nay, if all the world were to object, he must have his way
with me" ("und waerez al der Werlte leit, so muoz sîn wille an mir
ergän"). But, on the other hand, the favoured knight is bound to protect
his lady's good fame.

     Se jai mamie en tel point mis,
     Que tout motroit (m'octroit) sans esformer,
     Tant doi je miex sonnor gaiter--

thus one of the interlocutors in a French _jeu-parti_, published by
Mätzner; a rule which, if we may judge from the behaviour of Tristram
and Launcelot, and from the last remnants of mediæval love lore in
modern French novels, means simply that the more completely a man has
induced a woman to deceive her husband, the more stoutly is he bound to
deny, with lies, rows, and blows, that she has ever done anything of the
sort. Here, then, we find established, as a very fundamental necessity
of this socially recognized adultery, a reciprocity of fidelity between
lover and mistress which Antiquity never dreamed of even between husband
and wife (Agamemnon has a perfect right to Briseis or Chryseis, but
Clytæmnestra has no right to Aegisthus); and which indeed could scarcely
arise as a moral obligation except where the woman was not bound to love
the man (which the wife is) and where her behaviour towards him depended
wholly upon her pleasure, that is to say, upon her satisfaction with his
behaviour towards her. This, which seems to us so obvious, and of which
every day furnishes us an example in the relations of the modern suitor
and his hoped-for wife, could not, at a time when women were married by
family arrangement, arise except as a result of illegitimate love.
Horrible as it seems, the more we examine into this subject of mediæval
love, the more shall we see that our whole code of Grandisonian chivalry
between lovers who intend marriage is derived from the practice of the
Launcelots and Gueneveres, not from that of the married people (we may
remember the manner in which Gunther woos his wife Brunhilt in the
Nibelungenlied) of former ages; nay, the more we shall have to recognize
that the very feeling which constitutes the virtuous love of modern
poets is derived from the illegitimate loves of the Middle Ages.

Let us examine what are the habits of feeling and thinking which grow
out of this reciprocal fidelity due to the absence of all one-sided
legal pressure in this illegitimate, but socially legitimated, love of
the early Middle Ages; which are added on to it by the very necessities
of illicit connection. The lover, having no right to the favours of his
mistress, is obliged, in order to win and to keep them, to please her by
humility, fidelity, and such knightly qualities as are the ideal plumage
of a man: he must bring home to her, by showing the world her colours
victorious in serious warfare, in the scarcely less dangerous play of
tournaments, and by making her beauty and virtues more illustrious in
his song than are those of other women in the songs of their lovers--he
must bring home to her that she has a more worthy servant than her
rivals; he must determine her to select him and to adhere to her
selection. Now mediæval husbands select their wives, instead of being
selected; and once the woman and the dowry are in their hands, trouble
themselves but little whether they are approved of or not. On the other
hand, the mistress appears to her lover invested with imaginative, ideal
advantages such as cannot surround her in the eyes of her husband: she
is, in nearly every case, his superior in station and the desired of
many beholders; she is bound to him by no tie which may grow prosaic and
wearisome; she appears to him in no domestic capacity, can never descend
to be the female drudge; her possession is prevented from growing stale,
her personality from becoming commonplace, by the difficulty, rareness,
mystery, adventure, danger, which even in the days of Courts of Love
attach to illicit amours; above all, being for this man neither the
housewife nor the mother, she remains essentially and continually the
mistress, the beloved. Similarly the relations between the knight and
the lady, untroubled by domestic worries, pecuniary difficulties, and
squabbles about children, remain, exist merely as love relations,
relations of people whose highest and sole desire is to please one
another. Moreover, and this is an important consideration, the lady, who
is a mere inexperienced, immature girl when she first meets her husband,
is a mature woman, with character and passions developed by the
independence of conjugal and social life. When she meets her lover,
whatever power or dignity of character she may possess is ripe; whatever
intensity of aspiration and passion may be latent is ready to come
forth; for the first time there is equality in love. Equality? Ah, no.
This woman who is the wife of his feudal superior, this woman surrounded
by all the state of feudal sovereignty, this woman who, however young,
has already known so much of life, this woman whose love is a free, gift
of grace to the obscure, trembling vassal who has a right not even to be
noticed; this lady of mediæval love must always remain immeasurably
above her lover. And, in the long day-dreams while watching her, as he
thinks unseen, while singing of her, as he thinks unheard, there cluster
round her figure, mistily seen in his fancy, those vague and-mystic
splendours which surround the new sovereign of the Middle Ages, the
Queen of Heaven; there mingles in the half-terrified raptures of the
first kind glance, the first encouraging word, the ineffable passion
stored up in the Christian's heart for the immortal beings who, in the
days of Bernard and Francis, descend cloud-like on earth and fill the
cells of the saints with unendurable glory.

And thus, out of the baseness of habitual adultery, arises incense-like,
in the early mediæval poetry, a new kind of love--subtler, more
imaginative, more passionate, a love of the fancy and the heart, a love
stimulating to the perfection of the individual as is any religion;
nay, a religion, and one appealing more completely to the complete man,
flesh and soul, than even the mystical beliefs of the Middle Ages. And
as, in the fantastic song of Ritter Tannhäuser, whose liege lady, so
legend tells, was Dame Venus herself, the lady bids the knight go forth
and fetch her green water which has washed the setting sun, salamanders
snatched from the flame, the stars out of heaven; so would it seem as if
this new power in the world, this poetically worshipped woman, had sent
forth mankind to seek wonderful new virtues, never before seen on earth.
Nay, rather, as the snowflakes became green leaves, the frost blossoms
red and blue flowers, the winter wind a spring-scented breeze, when
Bernard de Ventadorn was greeted by his mistress; so also does it seem
as if, at the first greeting of the world by this new love, the mediæval
winter had turned to summer, and there had budded forth and flowered a
new ideal of manly virtue, a new ideal of womanly grace.

But evil is evil, and evil is its fruit. Out of circumstances hitherto
unknown, circumstances come about for the first time owing to the
necessities of illegitimate passion, have arisen certain new and nobler
characters of sexual love, certain new and beautiful conceptions of
manly and womanly nature. The circumstances to which these are owed are
pure in themselves, they are circumstances which in more modern times
have characterized the perfectly legitimate passion of lovers held
asunder by no social law, but by mere accidental barriers--from Romeo
and Juliet to the Master of Ravenswood and Lucy Ashton; and pure so far
have been the spiritual results. But these circumstances were due, in
the early Middle Ages, to the fact of adultery; and to the new ideal of
love has clung, even in its purity, in its superior nobility, an element
of corruption as unknown to gross and corrupt Antiquity as was the
delicacy and nobility of mediæval love. The most poetical and pathetic
of all mediæval love stories, the very incarnation of all that is most
lyric at once and most tragic in the new kind of passion, is the story,
told and retold by a score of poets and prose writers, of the loves of
Yseult of Ireland and of Sir Tristram who, as the knight was bringing
the princess to his uncle and her affianced, King Mark of Cornwall drank
together by a fatal mistake a philter which made all such as partook of
it in common inseparable lovers even unto death. Every one knows the
result r: how Yseult came to her husband already the paramour of
Tristram; how Brangwaine, her damsel, feeling that this unhallowed
passion was due to her having left-within reach the potion intended for
the King and Queen of Cornwall, devoted herself, at the price of her
maidenhood, to connive in the amours of the lovers whom she had made;
how King Mark was deceived, and doubted, and was deceived again; how
Tristram fled to Brittany, but how, despite his seeming marriage with
another and equally lovely Yseult, he remained faithful to the Queen of
Cornwall. One version tells that Mark slew his nephew while he sat
harping to Queen Yseult; another that Tristram died of grief because his
scorned though wedded wife told him that the white-sailed ship, bearing
his mistress to meet him, bore the black sail which meant that she was
not on board; but all versions, I think, agree in ending with the fact,
that the briar-rose growing on the tomb of the one, slowly trailed its
flowers and thorns along till it had reached also the grave of the
other, and knit together, as love had knit together with its sweet
blossoms and sharp spines, the two fated lovers. The Middle Ages were
enthralled by this tale; but they were also, occasionally, a little
shocked by it. Poets and prose writers tampered every now and then with
incidents and characters, seeking to make it appear that, owing to the
substitution of the waiting-maid, and the neglect of the wedded princess
of Brittany, Yseult had never belonged to any man save Tristram, nor
Tristram to any woman save Yseult; or that King Mark had sent his nephew
to woo the Irish queen's daughter merely in hopes of his perishing in
the attempt, and that his whole subsequent conduct was due to a mere
unnatural hatred of a better knight than himself; touching up here and
there with a view to justifying and excusing to some degree the long
series of deceits which constituted the whole story. Thus the more timid
and less gifted. But when, in the very first years (1210) of the
thirteenth century, the greatest mediæval poet that preceded Dante, the
greatest German poet that preceded Goethe, Meister Gottfried von
Strassburg, took in hand the old threadbare story of "Tristan und
Isolde," he despised all alterations of this sort, and accepted the
original tale in its complete crudeness.

For, consciously or unconsciously, Gottfried had conceived this story as
a thing wholly unknown in his time, and no longer subject to any of
those necessities of constant rearrangement which tormented mediæval
poets: he had conceived it not as a tale, but as a novel. Gottfried
himself was probably but little aware of what he was doing; the poem
that he was writing probably fell for him into the very same category as
the poems of other men; but to us, with our experience of so many
different forms of narrative, it must be evident that "Tristan und
Isolde" is a new departure, inasmuch as it is not the story of deeds and
the people who did them, like the true epic from Homer to the
Nibelungen; nor the story of people and the adventures which happened to
them, like all romance poetry from "Palemon and Arcite," to the "Orlando
Furioso;" but, on the contrary, the story of the psychological
relations, the gradual metamorphosis of soul by soul, between two
persons. The long introductory story of Tristram's youth must not
mislead us, nor all the minute narrations of the killing of dragons and
the drinking of love philters: Gottfried, we must remember, was
certainly no deliberate innovator, and these thing's are the mere
inevitable externalities of mediæval poetry, preserved with dull slavish
care by the re-writer of a well-known tale, but enclosing in reality
something essentially and startlingly modern: the history of a passion
and of the spiritual changes which it brings about in those who are its

To meet again this purely psychological interest we must skip the whole
rest of the Middle Ages, nay, skip even the great period of dramatic
literature, not stopping till we come to the end of the seventeenth and
beginning of the eighteenth century, to the "Princesse de Clèves," to
"Clarissa Harlowe," nay, really, to "The Nouvelle Heloise." For even in
Shakespeare there is always interest and importance in the action and
reaction of subsidiary characters, in the event, in the accidental;
there is intrigue, chance, misunderstanding, fate--active agencies of
which Othello and Hamlet, King Lear and Romeo, are helpless victims;
there is, even in this psychological English drama of the Elizabethans,
fate in the shape of Iago, in the shape of the Ghost, in the shape of
the brothers of Webster's duchess; fate in the shape of a ring, a
letter, a drug, but fate always. And in this "Tristan und Isolde" of
Gottfried von Strassburg is there not fate also in the love potion
intended for King Mark, and given by the mistake of Brangwaine to Mark's
bride and his nephew? To this objection, which will naturally occur to
any reader who is not acquainted with the poem of Gottfried, I simply
answer, there is not. The love potion there is, but it does not play the
same part as do, for instance, the drugs of Friar Laurence and his
intercepted letter. Suppose the friar's narcotic to have been less
enduring in its action, or his message to have reached in safety, why
then Juliet would have been awake instead of asleep, or Romeo would not
have supposed her to be dead, and instead of the suicide of the two
lovers, we should have had the successful carying off of Juliet by
Romeo. Not so with Gottfried. The philter is there, and a great deal is
talked about it; but it is merely one of the old, threadbare trappings
of the original story, which he has been too lazy to suppress; it is
merely, for the reader, the allegorical signal for an outburst of
passion which all our subsequent knowledge of Tristram and Yseult shows
us to be absolutely inevitable. In Gottfried's poem, the drinking of the
potion signifies merely that all the rambling, mediæval prelude, not to
be distinguished from the stories of "Morte d'Arthur," and of half the
romances of the Middle Ages, has come to a close and may be forgotten;
and that the real work of the great poet, the real, matchless tragedy of
the four actors--Tristram, Yseult, Mark, and Brangwaine--has begun.

Yet if we seek again to account to ourselves for this astonishing
impression of modernness which we receive from Gottfried's poem, we
recognize that it is due to something far more important than the mere
precocious psychological interest; nay, rather, that this psychological
interest is itself dependent upon the fact which makes "Tristan und
Isolde," so modern to our feelings. This fact is simply that the poem of
Gottfried is the earliest, and yet perhaps almost the completest,
example of a literary anomaly which Antiquity, for all its abominations,
did not know: the glorification of fidelity in adultery, the
glorification of excellence within the compass of guilt. Older times
--more distant from our own in spirit, though not necessarily in
years--have presented us with many themes of guilt: the guilt which
exists according to our own moral standard, but not according to that of
the narrator, as the magnificently tragic Icelandic incest story of
Sigmund and Signy; the guilt which has come about no one well knows how,
an unfortunate circumstance leaving the sinner virtually stainless, in
his or her own eyes and the eyes of others, like the Homeric Helen; the
heroic guilt, where the very heroism seems due to the self-sacrifice of
the sinner's innocence, of Judith; the struggling, remorseful guilt,
hopelessly overcome by fate and nature, of Phædra; the dull and dogged
guilt, making the sinner scarce more than a mere physical
stumbling-block for others, of the murderer Hagen in the Nibelungenlied;
and, finally, the perverse guilt, delighting in the consciousness of
itself, of demons like Richard and Iago, of libidinous furies like the
heroines of Tourneur and Marston. The guilt theme of "Tristan und
Isolde" falls into none of these special categories. This theme,
unguessed even by Shakespeare, is that of the virtuous behaviour towards
one another of two individuals united in sinning against every one else.
Gottfried von Strassburg narrates with the greatest detail how Tristram
leads to the unsuspecting king the unblushing, unremorseful woman
polluted by his own embraces; how Yseult substitutes on the wedding
night her spotless damsel Brangwaine for her own sullied self; then,
terrified lest the poor victim of her dishonour should ever reveal it,
attempts to have her barbarously murdered, and, finally, seeing that
nothing can shake the heroic creature's faith, admits her once more to
be the remorseful go-between in her amours. He narrates how Tristram
dresses as a pilgrim and carries the queen from a ship to the shore, in
order that Yseult may call on Christ to bear witness by a miracle that
she is innocent of adultery, never having been touched save by that
pilgrim and her own husband; and how, when the followers of King Mark
have surrounded the grotto in the wood, Tristram places the drawn sword
between himself and the sleeping queen, as a symbol of their chastity
which the king is too honest to suspect. He draws, with a psychological
power truly extraordinary in the beginning of the thirteenth century,
the two other figures in this love drama: King Mark, cheated,
dishonoured, oscillating between horrible doubt, ignominious suspicion
and more ignominious credulity, his love for his wife, his trust in his
nephew, his incapacity for conceiving ill-faith and fraud, the very
gentleness and generosity of his nature, made the pander of guilt in
which he cannot believe; and, on the other side, Brangwaine, the
melancholy, mute victim of her fidelity to Yseult, the weak, heroic
soul, rewarded only with cruel ingratitude, and condemned to screen and
help the sin which she loathes and for which she assumes the awful
responsibility. All this does Gottfried do, yet without ever seeming to
perceive the baseness and wickedness of this tissue of lies,
equivocations, and perjuries in which his lovers hide their passion;
without ever seeming to guess at the pathos and nobility of the man and
the woman who are the mere trumpery obstacles or trumpery aids to their
amours. He heaps upon Tristram and Yseult the most extravagant praises:
he is the flower of all knighthood, and she, the kindest, gentlest,
purest, and noblest of women; he insists upon the wickedness of the
world which is for ever waging war upon their passion, and holds up to
execration all those who seek to spy out their secret. Gottfried is most
genuinely overcome by the ideal beauty of this inextinguishable
devotion, by the sublimity of this love which holds the whole world as
dross; the crimes of the lovers are for him the mere culminating point
of their moral grandeur, which has ceased to know any guilt save
absence of love, any virtue save loving. And so serene is the old
minnesinger's persuasion, that it obscures the judgment and troubles the
heart even of his reader; and we are tempted to ask ourselves, on laying
down the book, whether indeed this could have been sinful, this love of
Tristram and Yseult which triumphed over everything in the world, and
could be quenched only by death. That circle of hell where all those who
had sinfully loved were whirled incessantly in the perse, dark, stormy
air, appeared in the eyes even of Dante as a place less of punishment
than of glory; and, especially since the Middle Ages, all mankind looks
upon that particular hell-pit with admiration rather than with loathing.
And herein consists, more even than in any deceptions practised upon
King Mark or any ingratitude manifested towards Brangwaine, the
sinfulness of Tristram and Yseult: sinfulness which is not finite like
the individual lives which it offends, but infinite and immortal as the
heart and the judgment which it perverts. For such a tale, and so told,
as the tale of Gottfried von Strassburg, makes us sympathize with this
fidelity and devotion of a man and woman who care for nothing in the
world save for each other, who are dragged and glued together by the
desire and habit of mutual pleasure; it makes us admire their readiness
to die rather than be parted, when their whole life is concentrated in
their reciprocal sin, when their miserable natures enjoy, care for,
know, only this miserable love. It makes us wink with leniency at the
dishonour, the baseness, the cruelty, to which all this easy virtue is
due. And such sympathy, such admiration, such leniency, for howsoever
short a time they may remain in our soul, leave it, if they ever leave
it completely and utterly less strong, less clean than it was before. We
have all of us a lazy tendency to approve of the virtue which costs no
trouble; to contemplate in ourselves or others, with a spurious moral
satisfaction, the development of this or that virtuous quality in souls
which are deteriorating in undoubted criminal self-indulgence. We have
all of us, at the bottom of our hearts, a fellow feeling for all human
affection; and the sinfulness of sinners like Tristram and Yseult lies
largely in the fact that they pervert this legitimate and holy sympathy
into a dangerous leniency for any strong and consistent love, into a
morbid admiration for any irresistible mutual passion, making us forget
that love has in itself no moral value, and that while self-indulgence
may often be innocent, only self-abnegation can ever be holy.

The great mediæval German poem of Tristram and Yseult remained for
centuries a unique phenomenon; only John Ford perhaps, that grander and
darker twin spirit of Gottfried von Strassburg, reviving, even among the
morbidly psychological and crime-fascinated followers of Shakespeare,
that new theme of evil--the heroism of unlawful love. But Gottfried had
merely manipulated with precocious analytical power a mode of feeling
and thinking which was universal in the feudal Middle Ages; the great
epic of adultery was forgotten, but the sympathetic and admiring
interest in illegitimate passion remained; and was transmitted, wherever
the Renaissance or the Reformation did not break through such
transmission of mediæval habits, as an almost inborn instinct from
father to son, from mother to daughter. And we may doubt whether the
important class of men and women who write and read the novels of
illicit love, could ever have existed, had not the psychological artists
of modern times, from Rousseau to George Sand, and from Stendhal to
Octave Feuillet, found ready prepared for them in the countries not
re-tempered by Protestantism, an assoiation of romance, heroism, and
ideality with mere adulterous passion, which was unknown to the
corruption of Antiquity and to the lawlessness of the Dark Ages, and
which remained as a fatal alloy to that legacy of mere spiritual love
which was left to the world by the love poets of early feudalism.


The love of the troubadours and minnesingers, of the Arthurian tales,
which show that love in narrative form, was, as we have seen, polluted
by the selfishness, the deceitfulness, the many unclean necessities of
adulterous passion. Elevated and exquisite though it was, it could not
really purify the relations of man and woman, since it was impure. Nay,
we see that through its influence the grave and simple married love of
the earlier tales of chivalry, the love of Siegfried for Chriemhilt, of
Roland for his bride Belle Aude, of Renaud for his wife Clarisse, is
gradually replaced in later fiction by the irregular love-makings of
Huon of Bordeaux, Ogier the Dane, and Artus of Brittany; until we come
at last to the extraordinary series of the Amadis romances, where every
hero without exception is the bastard of virtuous parents, who
subsequently marry and discover their foundling: a state of things
which, even in the corrupt Renaissance, Boiardo and Ariosto found it
necessary to reform in their romantic poems. With idealizing refinement,
the chivalric love of the French, Provençal, and German poets brings
also a kind of demoralization which, from one point of view, makes the
spotless songs of Bernard de Ventadour and Armaud de Mareulh, of Ulrich
von Liechtenstein and Frauenlob, less pure than the licentious poems
addressed by the Greeks and Romans to women who, at least, were not the
wives of other men.

Shall all this idealizing refinement, this almost religious fervour,
this new poetic element of chivalric love remain useless; or serve only
to subtly pollute while pretending to purify the great singing passion?
Not so. But to prevent such waste of what in itself is pure and
precious, is the mission of another country, of another civilization; of
a wholly different cycle of poets who, receiving the new element of
mediæval love after it has passed through and been sifted by a number
of hands, shall cleanse and recreate it in the fire of intellectual and
almost abstract passion, producing that wonderful essence of love which,
as the juices squeezed by alchemists out of jewels purified the body
from all its ills, shall purify away all the diseases of the human soul.

While the troubadours and minnesingers had been singing at the courts of
Angevine kings and Hohenstauffen emperors, of counts of Toulouse and
dukes of Austria; a new civilization, a new political and social system,
had gradually been developing in the free burghs of Italy; a new life
entirely the reverse of the life of feudal countries. The Italian cities
were communities of manufacturers and merchants, into which only
gradually, and at the sacrifice of every aristocratic privilege and
habit, a certain number of originally foreign feudatories were gradually
absorbed. Each community consisted of a number of mercantile families,
equal before the law, and illustrious or obscure according to their
talents or riches, whose members, instead of being scattered over a wide
area like the members of the feudal nobility, were most often gathered
together under one roof--sons, brothers, nephews, daughters, sisters and
daughters-in-law, forming a hierarchy attending to the business of
factory or counting-house under the orders of the father of the family,
and to the economy of the house-under the superintendence of the mother;
a manner of living at once business-like and patriarchal, expounded
pounded by the interlocutors in Alberti's "Governo della Famiglia," and
which lasted until the dissolution of the commonwealths and almost to
our own times. Such habits imply a social organization, an intercourse
between men and women, and a code of domestic morality the exact
opposite to those of feudal countries. Here, in the Italian cities,
there are no young men bound to loiter, far from their homes, round the
wife of a military superior, to whom her rank and her isolation from all
neighbours give idleness and solitude. The young men are all of them in
business, usually with their own kinsfolk; not in their employer's
house, but in his office; they have no opportunity of seeing a woman
from dawn till sunset. The women, on their side, are mainly employed at
home: the whole domestic arrangement depends upon them, and keeps their
hands constantly full; working, and working in the company of their
female relatives and friends. Men and women are free comparatively
little, and then they are free all together in the same places; hence no
opportunities for _tête-à-tête_. Early Italian poetry is fond of showing
us the young poet reading his verses or explaining his passion to those
gentle, compassionate women learned in love, of whom we meet a troop,
beautiful, vague, half-arch, half-melancholy faces, consoling Dante in
the "Vita Nuova," and reminding Guido Cavalcanti of his lady far off at
Toulouse. But such women almost invariably form a group; they cannot be
approached singly. Such a state of society inevitably produces a high
and strict morality. In these early Italian cities a case of in'
fidelity is punished ruthlessly; the lover banished or killed; the wife
for ever lost to the world, perhaps condemned to solitude and a
lingering death in the fever tracts, like Pia dei Tolomei. A complacent
deceived husband is even more ridiculous (the deceived husband is
notoriously the chief laughing stock of all mediæval free towns) than is
a jealous husband among the authorized and recognized _cicisbeos_ of a
feudal court. Indeed the respect for marriage vows inevitable in this
busy democratic mediæval life is so strong, that long after the
commonwealths have turned into despotisms, and every social tie has been
dissolved in the Renaissance, the wives and daughters of men stained
with every libidinous vice, nay, of the very despots themselves
--Tiberiuses and Neros on a smaller scale--remain spotless in the midst
of evil; and authorized adultery begins in Italy only under the Spanish
rule in the late sixteenth century.

Such were the manners and morals of the Italian commonwealths when,
about the middle of the thirteenth century, the men of Tuscany, now free
and prosperous, suddenly awoke to the consciousness that they had a soul
which desired song, and a language which was spontaneously singing. It
was the moment when painting was beginning to claim for the figures of
real men and women the walls and vaulted spaces whence had hitherto
glowered, with vacant faces and huge ghostlike eyes, mosaic figures,
from their shimmering golden ground; the moment when the Pisan artists
had sculptured solemnly draped madonnas and kings not quite unworthy of
the carved sarcophagi which stood around them; the moment when, merging
together old Byzantine traditions and Northern examples, the architects
of Florence, Siena, and Orvieto conceived a style which made cathedrals
into marvellous and huge reliquaries of marble, jasper, alabaster, and
mosaics. The mediæval flowering time had come late, very late, in Italy;
but the atmosphere was only the warmer, the soil the richer, and Italy
put forth a succession of exquisite and superb immortal flowers of art
when the artistic sap of other countries had begun to be exhausted. But
the Italians, the Tuscans, audacious in the other arts, were diffident
of themselves with regard to poetry. Architecture, painting, sculpture,
had been the undisputed field for plebeian craftsmen, belonging
exclusively to the free burghs and disdained by the feudal castles; but
poetry was essentially the aristocratic, the feudal art, cultivated by
knights and cultivated for kings and barons. It was probably an unspoken
sense of this fact which caused the early Tuscan poets to misgive their
own powers and to turn wistfully and shyly towards the poets of Provence
and of Sicily. There, beyond the seas, under the last lords of Toulouse
and the brilliant mongrel Hohenstauffen princes, were courts, knights,
and ladies; there was the tradition of this courtly art of poetry; and
there only could the sons of Florentine or Sienese merchants,
clodhoppers in gallantry and song, hope to learn the correct style of
thing. Hence the history of the Italian lyric before Dante is the
history of a series of transformations which connect a style of poetry
absolutely feudal and feudally immoral, with the hitherto unheard-of
platonic love subtleties of the "Vita Nuova." And it is curious, in
looking over the collections of early Italian lyrists, to note the
alteration in tone as Sicily and the feudal courts are left further and
further behind. Ciullo d' Alcamo, flourishing about 1190, is the only
Italian-writing poet absolutely contemporaneous with the earlier and
better trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers; and he is also the only
one who resembles them very closely. His famous _tenso_, beginning "Rosa
fresca aulentissima" (a tolerably faithful translation heads the
beautiful collection of the late Mr. D.G. Rossetti), is indeed more
explicitly gross and immoral than the majority of Provençal and German
love-songs: loose as are many of the _albas, serenas, wachtlieder_, and
even many of the less special forms of German and Provençal poetry, I am
acquainted with none of them which comes up to this singular dialogue,
in which a man, refusing to marry a woman, little by little wins her
over to his wishes and makes her brazenly invite him to her dishonour.
Between Ciullo d' Alcamo and his successors there is some gap of time,
and a corresponding want of gradation. Yet the Sicilian poets of the
courts of Hohenstauffen and Anjou, recognizable by their name or the
name of their town, Inghilfredi, Manfredi, Ranieri and Ruggierone da
Palermo, Tommaso and Matteo da Messina, Guglielmotto d' Otranto, Rinaldo
d'Aquino, Peir delle Vigne, either maintain altogether unchanged the
tone of the troubadours, or only gradually, as in the remarkable case of
the Notary of Lentino, approximate to the platonic poets of Tuscany. The
songs of the archetype of Sicilian singers, the Emperor Frederick II.,
are completely Provençal in feeling as in form, though infinitely
inferior in execution. With him it is always the pleasure which he hopes
from his lady, or the pleasure which he has had--"Quando ambidue stavamo
in allegranza alla dolce fera;" "Pregovi donna mia--Per vostra
cortesia--E pregovi che sia--Quello che lo core disia." Again: "Sospiro
e sto in rancura--Ch' io son si disioso--E pauroso--Mi fate penare--Ma
tanto m' assicura--Lo suo viso amoroso--E lo gioioso--Riso e lo
sguardare--E lo parlare--Di questa criatura--Che per paura--Mi fate
penare--E di morare--Tant' è fina e pura--Tanto è saggia e cortese--Non
credo che pensasse--Nè distornasse--Di ciò he m' impromise." It is, this
earliest Italian poetry, like the more refined poetry of troubadours and
minnesingers, eminently an importuning of highborn but loosely living
women. From Sicily and Apulia poetry goes first, as might be expected
(and as probably sculpture went) to the seaport Pisa, thence to the
neighbouring Lucca, considerably before reaching Florence. And as it
becomes more Italian and urban, it becomes also, under the strict
vigilance of burgher husbands, considerably more platonic. In Bologna,
the city of jurists, it acquires (the remark is not mine merely, but
belongs also to Carducci) the very strong flavour of legal quibbling
which distinguishes the otherwise charming Guido Guinicelli; and once in
Florence, among the most subtle of all subtle Tuscans, it becomes at
once what it remained even for Dante, saturated with metaphysics: the
woman is no longer paramount, she is subordinated to Love himself; to
that personified abstraction Amor, the serious and melancholy son of
pagan philosophy and Christian mysticism. The Tuscans had imported from
Provence and Sicily the new element of mediæval love, of life devotion,
soul absorption in loving; if they would sing, they must sing of this;
any other kind of love, at a time when Italy still read and relished her
would-be Provençals, Lanfranc Cicala and Sordel of Mantua, would have
been unfashionable and unendurable. But in these Italian commonwealths,
as we have seen, poets are forced, nilly-willy, to be platonic; an
importuning poem found in her work-basket may send a Tuscan lady into a
convent, or, like Pia, into the Maremma; an _alba_ or a _serena_
interrupted by a wool-weaver of Calimara or a silk spinner of Lucca, may
mean that the imprudent poet be found weltering in blood under some
archway the next morning. The chivalric sentimentality of feudalism must
be restrained; and little by little, under the pressure of such very
different social habits, it grows into a veritable platonic passion.
Poets must sing, and in order that they sing, they must adore; so men
actually begin to seek out, and adore and make themselves happy and
wretched about women from whom they can hope only social distinctions;
and this purely æsthetic passion goes on by the side nay, rather on the
top, of their humdrum, conjugal life or loosest libertinage. Petrarch's
bastards were born during the reign of Madonna Laura; and that they
should have been, was no more a slight or infidelity to her than to the
other Madonna, the one in heaven. Laura had a right to only ideal
sentiments ideal relations; the poet was at liberty to carry more
material preferences elsewhere.

But could such love as this exist, could it be genuine? To my mind,
indubitably. For there is, in all our perceptions and desires of
physical and moral beauty, an element of passion which is akin to love;
and there is, in all love that is not mere lust, a perception of, a
craving for, beauty, real or imaginary which is identical with our
merely æsthetic perceptions and cravings; hence the possibility, once
the wish for such a passion present, of a kind of love which is mainly
æsthetic, which views the beloved as gratifying merely to the wish for
physical or spiritual loveliness, and concentrates upon one exquisite
reality all dreams of ideal perfection. Moreover there comes, to all
nobler natures, a love dawning: a brightening and delicate flushing of
the soul before the actual appearance of the beloved one above the
horizon, which is as beautiful and fascinating in its very clearness,
pallor, and coldness, as the unearthly purity of the pale amber and
green and ashy rose which streaks the heavens before sunrise. The love
of the early Tuscan poets (for we must count Guinicelli, in virtue of
his language, as a Tuscan) had been restrained, by social necessities
first, then by habit and deliberate æsthetic choice, within the limits
of this dawning state; and in this state, it had fed itself off mere
spiritual food, and acquired the strange intensity of mere intellectual
passions. We give excessive weight, in our days, to spontaneity in all
things, apt to think that only the accidental, the unsought, can be
vital; but it is true in many things, and truest in all matters of the
imagination and the heart, that the desire to experience any sentiment
will powerfully conduce to its production, and even give it a strength
due to the long incubation of the wish. Thus the ideal love of the
Tuscan poets was probably none the weaker, but rather the stronger, for
the desire which they felt to sing such passion; nay, rather to hear it
singing in themselves. The love of man and wife, of bride and
bridegroom, was still of the domain of prose; adulterous love forbidden;
and the tradition of, the fervent wish for, the romantic passion of the
troubadours consumed them as a strong artistic craving. Platonic love
was possible, doubly possible in souls tense with poetic wants; it
became a reality through the strength of the wish for it.

Nor was this all. In all imaginative passions, intellectual motives are
so much fuel; and in this case the necessity of logically explaining the
bodiless passion for a platonic lady, of understanding why they felt in
a manner so hitherto unknown to gross mankind, tended greatly to
increase the love of these Tuscans, and to bring it in its chastity to
the pitch of fervour of more fleshly passions, by mingling with the
æsthetic emotions already in their souls the mystical theorizings of
transcendental metaphysics, and the half-human, half-supernatural
ecstasy of mediæval religion. For we must remember that Italy was a
country not merely of manufacturers and bankers, but of philosophers
also and of saints.

Among the Italians of the thirteenth century the revival of antique
literature was already in full swing; while in France, Germany, and
Provence there had been, in lyric poetry at least, no trace of classic
lore. Whereas the trouvères and troubadours had possessed but the light
intellectual luggage of a military aristocracy; and the minnesingers
had, for the most part, been absolutely ignorant of reading and writing
(Wolfram says so of himself, and Ulrich von Liechtenstein relates how he
carried about his lady's letter for days unread until the return of his
secretary); the poets of Italy, from Brunetto Latini to Petrarch, were
eminently scholars; men to whom, however much they might be politicians
and ringleaders, like Cavalcanti, Donati, and Dante, whatever existed of
antique learning was thoroughly well known. Such men were familiar with
whatever yet survived of the transcendental theories of Plato and
Plotinus; and they seized at once upon the mythic metaphysics of an
antenatal condition, of typical ideas, of the divine essence of beauty,
on all the mystic discussions on love and on the soul, as a
philosophical explanation of their seemingly inexplicable passion for an
unapproachable woman. The lady upon whom the poetic fervour, the
mediæval love, inherited from Provence and France, was now expended, and
whom social reasons placed quite beyond the reach of anything save the
poet's soul and words, was evidently beloved for the sake of that much
of the divine essence contained in her nature; she was loved for purely
spiritual reasons, loved as a visible and living embodiment of virtue
and beauty, as a human piece of the godhead. So far, therefore, from
such an attachment being absurd, as absurd it would have seemed to
troubadours and minnesingers, who never served a lady save for what they
called a reward; it became, in the eyes of these platonizing Italians,
the triumph of the well-bred soul; and as such, soon after, a necessary
complement to dignities, talents, and wealth, the very highest
occupation of a liberal mind. Thus did their smattering of platonic and
neo-platonic philosophy supply the Tuscan poets with a logical reality
for this otherwise unreal passion.

But there was something more. In this democratic and philosophizing
Italy, there was not the gulf which separated the chivalric poets, men
of the sword and not of books, from the great world of religious
mysticism; for, though the minnesingers especially were extremely devout
and sang many a strange love-song to the Virgin; they knew, they could
know, nothing of the contemplative religion of Eckhardt and his
disciples--humble and transcendental spirits, whose words were treasured
by the sedentary, dreamy townsfolk of the Rhine, but would have conveyed
no meaning even to the poet of the Grail epic, with its battles and
feasts, its booted and spurred slapdash morality, Wolfram von
Eschenbach. In the great manufacturing cities of Italy, such religious
mysticism spread as it could never spread in feudal courts; it became
familiar, both in the mere passionate sermons and songs of the wandering
friars, and in the subtle dialectics of the divines; above all, it
became familiar to the poets. Now the essence of this contemplative
theology of the Middle Ages, which triumphantly held its own against the
cut-and-dry argumentation of scholastic rationalism, was love. Love
which assuredly meant different things to different minds; a passionate
benevolence towards man and beast to godlike simpletons like Francis of
Assisi; a mere creative and impassive activity of the divinity to
deep-seeing (so deep as to see only their own strange passionate eyes
and lips reflected in the dark well of knowledge) and almost pantheistic
thinkers like Master Eckhardt; but love nevertheless, love. "Amor,
amore, ardo d' amore," St. Francis had sung in a wild rhapsody, a sort
of mystic dance, a kind of furious _malagueña_ of divine love; and that
he who would wish to know God, let him love--"Qui vult habere notitiam
Dei, amet," had been written by Hugo of St. Victor, one of the subtlest
of all the mystics. "Amor oculus est," said Master Eckhardt; love,
love--was not love then the highest of all human faculties, and must not
the act of loving, of perceiving God's essence in some creature which
had virtue, the soul's beauty, and beauty, the body's virtue, be the
noblest business of a noble life? Thus argued the poets; and their
argument, half-passionate, half-scholastic, mixing Phædrus and
Bonaventura, the Schools of Alexandria and the Courts of Love of
Provence, resulted in adding all the fervid reality of philosophical and
religious aspiration to their clear and cold phantom of disembodied love
of woman.

Little by little therefore, together with the carnal desires of
Provençals and Sicilians, the Tuscan poets put behind them those little
coquetries of style and manner, complications of metre and rhythm
learned and fantastic as a woman's plaited and braided hair; those
metaphors and similes, like bright flowers or shining golden ribbons
dropped from the lady's bosom and head and eagerly snatched by the
lover, which we still find, curiously transformed and scented with the
rosemary and thyme of country lanes, in the peasant poetry of modern
Tuscany. Little by little does the love poetry of the Italians reject
such ornaments; and cloth itself in that pale garment, pale and stately
in heavy folds like a nun's or friar's weeds, but pure and radiant and
solemn as the garment of some painted angel, which we have all learned
to know from the "Vita Nuova."

To describe this poetry of the immediate precursors and contemporaries
of Dante is to the last degree difficult: it can be described only by
symbols, and symbols can but mislead us. Dante Rossetti himself, after
translating with exquisite beauty the finest poems of this school,
showed how he had read into them his own spirit, when he drew the
beautiful design for the frontispiece of his collection. These two
lovers--the youth kneeling in his cloth of silver robe, lifting his long
throbbing neck towards the beloved; the lady stooping down towards him,
raising him up and kissing him; the mingled cloud of waving hair, the
four tight-clasped hands, the four tightly glued lips, the profile
hidden by the profile, the passion and the pathos, the eager, wistful
faces, nay, the very splendour of brocade robes and jewels, the very
sweetness of blooming rose spaliers; all this is suitable to illustrate
this group of sonnets or that of the "House of Life;" but it is false,
false in efflorescence and luxuriance of passion, splendour and colour
of accessory, to the poetry of these early Tuscans. Imaginative their
poetry certainly is, and passionate; indeed the very concentration of
imaginative passion; but imagination and passion unlike those of all
other poets; perhaps because more rigorously reduced to their elements:
imagination purely of the heart, passion purely of the intellect,
neither of the senses: love in its most essential condition, but, just
because an essence, purged of earthly alloys, rarefied, sublimated into
a cultus or a philosophy.

These poems might nearly all have been written by one man, were it
possible for one man to vary from absolute platitude to something like
genius, so homogeneous is their tone: everywhere do we meet the same
simplicity of diction struggling with the same complication and subtlety
of thought, the same abstract speculation strangely mingled with most
individual and personal pathos. The mode of thinking and feeling, the
conception of all the large characteristics of love, and of all its
small incidents are, in this _cycle_ of poets, constantly the same; and
they are the same in the "Vita Nuova;" Dante having, it would seem,
invented and felt nothing unknown to his immediate predecessors and
contemporaries, but merely concentrated their thoughts and feelings by
the greater intenseness of his genius. This platonic love of Dante's
days is, as I have said, a passion sublimated into a philosophy and a
cultus. The philosophy of love engages much of these poets' attention;
all have treated of it, but Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's elder brother in
poetry, is love's chief theologian. He explains, as Eckhardt or
Bonaventura might explain the mysteries of God's being and will, the
nature and operation of love. "Love, which enamours us of excellence,
arises out of pure virtue of the soul, and equals us to God," he tells
us; and subtly developes his theme. This being the case, nothing can be
more mistaken than to suppose, as do those of little sense, that Love is
blind, and goes blindly about ("Da sentir poco, e da credenza vana--Si
move il dir di cotal grossa gente--Ch' amor fa cieco andar per lo suo
regno"). Love is omniscient, since love is born of the knowledge and
recognition of excellence. Such love as this is the only true source of
happiness, since it alone raises man to the level of the divinity.
Cavalcanti has in him not merely the subtlety but the scornfulness of a
great divine. His wrath against all those who worship or defend a
different god of Love knows no bounds. "I know not what to say of him
who adores the goddess born of Saturn and sea-foam. His love is fire: it
seems sweet, but its result is bitter and evil. He may indeed call
himself happy; but in such delights he mingles himself with much
baseness." Such is this god of Love, who, when he descended into Dante's
heart, caused the spirit of life to tremble terribly in his secret
chamber, and trembling to cry, "Lo, here is a god stronger than myself,
who coming will rule over me. Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens
dominabitur mihi!"

The god, this chaste and formidable archangel Amor, is the true subject
of these poets' adoration; the woman into whom he descends by a mystic
miracle of beauty and of virtue becomes henceforward invested with
somewhat of his awful radiance. She is a gentle, gracious lady; a
lovable and loving woman, in describing whose grey-green eyes and colour
as of snow tinted with pomegranate, the older Tuscans would fain linger,
comparing her to the new-budded rose, to the morning star, to the golden
summer air, to the purity of snowflakes falling silently in a serene
sky; but the sense of the divinity residing within her becomes too
strong. From her eyes dart spirits who strike awe into the heart; from
her lips come words which make men sigh; on her passage the poet casts
down his eyes; notions, all these, with which we are familiar from the
"Vita Nuova;" but which belong to Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, nay, even to
Guinicelli, quite as much as to Dante. The poet bids his verse go forth
to her, but softly; and stand before her with bended head, as before the
Mother of God. She is a miracle herself, a thing sent from heaven, a
spirit, as Dante says in that most beautiful of all his sonnets, the
summing up of all that the poets of his circle had said of their
lady--"Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare."

"She passes along the street so beautiful and gracious," says
Guinicelli, "that she humbles pride in all whom she greets, and makes
him of our faith if he does not yet believe. And no base man can come
into her presence. And I will tell you another virtue of her: no man can
think ought of evil as long as he looks upon her." "The noble mind which
I feel, on account of this youthful lady who has appeared, makes me
despise baseness and vileness," says Lapo Gianni. The women who surround
her are glorified in her glory, glorified in their womanhood and
companionship with her. "The ladies around you," says Cavalcanti, "are
dear to me for the sake of your love; and I pray them as they are
courteous, that they should do you all honour." She is, indeed, scarcely
a woman, and something more than a saint: an avatar, an incarnation of
that Amor who is born of virtue and beauty, and raises men's minds to
heaven; and when Cavalcanti speaks of his lady's portrait behind the
blazing tapers of Orsanmichele, it seems but natural that she should be
on an altar, in the Madonna's place. The idea of a mysterious
incarnation of love in the lady, or of a mystic relationship between her
and love, returns to these poets. Lapo Gianni tells us first that she is
Amor's sister, then speaks of her as Amor's bride; nay, in this love
theology of the thirteenth century, arises the same kind of confusion as
in the mystic disputes of the nature of the Godhead. A Sienese poet, Ugo
da Massa, goes so far as to say, "Amor and I are all one thing; and we
have one will and one heart; and if I were not, Amor were not; mind you,
do not think I am saying these things from subtlety ('e non pensate ch'
io 'l dica per arte'); for certainly it is true that I am love, and he
who should slay me would slay love."

Together with the knowledge of public life and of scholastic theories,
together with the love of occult and cabalistic science, and the craft
of Provençal poetry, Dante received from his Florence of the thirteenth
century the knowledge of this new, this exotic and esoteric intellectual
love. And, as it is the mission of genius to gather into an undying
whole, to model into a perfect form, the thoughts and feelings and
perceptions of the less highly endowed men who surround it, so Dante
moulded out of the love passion and love philosophy of his day the "Vita
Nuova." Whether the story narrated in this book is fact; whether a real
woman whom he called Beatrice ever existed; some of those praiseworthy
persons, who prowl in the charnel-house of the past, and put its poor
fleshless bones into the acids and sublimates of their laboratory, have
gravely doubted. But such doubts cannot affect us. For if the story of
the "Vita Nuova" be a romance, and if Beatrice be a mere romance
heroine, the real meaning and value of the book does not change in our
eyes; since, to concoct such a tale, Dante must have had a number of
real experiences which are fully the tale's equivalent; and to conceive
and create such a figure as Beatrice, and such a passion as she inspires
her poet, he must have felt as a poignant reality the desire for such a
lady, the capacity for such a love. A tale merely of the soul, and of
the soul's movements and actions, this "Vita Nuova;" so why should it
matter if that which could never exist save in the spirit, should have
been but the spirit's creation? It is, in its very intensity, a vision
of love; what if it be a vision merely conceived and never realized?
Hence the futility of all those who wish to destroy our faith and
pleasure by saying "all this never took place." Fools, can you tell what
did or did not take place in a poet's mind? Be this as it may, the "Vita
Nuova," thank heaven, exists; and, thank heaven, exists as a reality to
our feelings. The longed-for ideal, the perfection whose love, said
Cavalcanti, raises us up to God, has seemed to gather itself into a
human shape; and a real being has been surrounded by the halo of
perfection emanated from the poet's own soul. The vague visions of glory
have suddenly taken body in this woman, seen rarely, at a distance; the
woman whom, as a child, the poet, himself a child, had already looked at
with the strange, ideal fascination which we sometimes experience in our
childhood. People are apt to smile at this opening of the "Vita Nuova;"
to put aside this narrative of childish love together with the pathetic
little pedantries of learned poetry and Kabbala, of the long gloses to
each poem, and the elaborate calculations of the recurrence and
combination of the number nine (and that curious little bit of
encyclopædic display about the Syrian month _Tismin_) as so much pretty
local colouring or obsolete silliness. But there is nothing at which to
laugh in such childish fascinations; the wonderful, the perfect, is more
open to us as children than it is afterwards: a word, a picture, a
snatch of music will have for us an ineffable, mysterious meaning; and
how much more so some human being, often some other, more brilliant
child from whose immediate contact we are severed by some circumstance,
perhaps by our own consciousness of inferiority, which makes that other
appear strangely distant, above us, moving in a world of glory which we
scarcely hope to approach; a child sometimes, or sometimes some grown
person, beautiful, brilliant, who sings or talks or looks at us, the
child, with ways which we do not understand, like some fairy or goddess.
No indeed, there is nothing to laugh at in this, in this first
blossoming of that love for higher and more beautiful things, which in
most of us is trodden down, left to wither, by our maturer selves;
nothing to make us laugh; nay, rather to make us sigh that later on we
see too well, see others too much on their real level, scrutinize too
much; too much, alas, for what at best is but an imperfect creature. And
in this state of fascination does the child Dante see the child
Beatrice, as a strange, glorious little vision from a childish sphere
quite above him; treasuring up that vision, till with his growth it
expands and grows more beautiful and noble, but none the less
fascinating and full of awfulness. When, therefore, the grave young
poet, full of the yearning for Paradise (but Paradise vaguer, sweeter,
less metaphysic and theological than the Paradise of his manhood); as
yet but a gracious, learned youth, his terrible moral muscle still
undeveloped by struggle, the noble and delicate dreamer of Giotto's
fresco, with the long, thin, almost womanish face, marked only by dreamy
eyes and lips, wandering through this young Florence of the Middle
Ages--when, I say, he meets after long years, the noble and gentle
woman, serious and cheerful and candid; and is told that she is that
same child who was the queen and goddess of his childish fancies; then
the vague glory with which his soul is filled expands and enwraps the
beloved figure, so familiar and yet so new. And the blood retreats from
his veins, and he trembles; and a vague god within him, half allegory,
half reality, cries out to him that a new life for him has begun.
Beatrice has become the ideal; Beatrice, the real woman, has ceased to
exist; the Beatrice of his imagination only remains, a piece of his own
soul embodied in a gracious and beautiful reality, which he follows,
seeks, but never tries to approach. Of the real woman he asks nothing;
no word throughout the "Vita Nuova" of entreaty or complaint, no shadow
of desire, not a syllable of those reproaches of cruelty which Petrarch
is for ever showering upon Laura. He desires nothing of Beatrice, and
Beatrice cannot act wrongly; she is perfection, and perfection makes him
who contemplates humble at once and proud, glorifying his spirit. Once,
indeed, he would wish that she might listen to him; he has reason to
think that he has fallen in her esteem, has seemed base and uncourteous
in her eyes, and he would explain. But he does not wish to address her;
it never occurs to him that she can ever feel in any way towards him; it
is enough that he feels towards her. Let her go by and smile and
graciously salute her friends: the sight of her grave and pure
regalness, nay, rather divinity, of womanhood, suffices for his joy;
nay, later the consciousness comes upon him that it is sufficient to
know of her existence and of his love even without seeing her. And, as
must be the case in such ideal passion, where the action is wholly in
the mind of the lover, he is at first ashamed, afraid; he feels a terror
lest his love, if known to her, should excite her scorn; a horror lest
it be misunderstood and befouled by the jests of those around him, even
of those same gentle women to whom he afterwards addresses his praise of
Beatrice. He is afraid of exposing to the air of reality this ideal
flower of passion. But the moment comes when he can hide it no longer;
and, behold, the passion flower of his soul opens out more gloriously in
the sunlight of the world. He is proud of his passion, of his worship;
he feels the dignity and glory of being the priest of such a love. The
women all round, the beautiful, courteous women, of whom, only just
now, he was so dreadfully afraid, become his friends and confidants;
they are quite astonished (half in love, perhaps, with the young poet)
at this strange way of loving; they sympathize, admire, are in love with
his love for Beatrice. And to them he speaks of her rather than to men,
for the womanhood which they share with his lady consecrates them in his
eyes; and they, without jealousy towards this ideal woman, though
perhaps not without longing for this ideal love, listen as they might
listen to some new and unaccountably sweet music, touched and honoured,
and feeling towards Dante as towards some beautiful, half-mad thing. He
talks of her, sings of her, and is happy; the strangest thing in this
intensely real narrative of real love is this complete satisfaction of
the passion in its own existence, this complete absence of all desire or
hope. But this happiness is interrupted by the sudden, terrible thought
that one day all this must cease; the horrible, logical necessity coming
straight home to him, that one day she must die--"Di necessità conviene
che la gentilissima Beatrice alcuna volta si muoia." There is nothing
truer, more intensely pathetic, in all literature, than this frightful
pang of evil, not real, but first imagined; this frightful nightmare
vision of the end coming when reality is still happy. Have we not all of
us at one time felt the horrible shudder of that sudden perception that
happiness must end; that the beloved, the living, must die; that this
thing the present, which we clasp tight with our arms, which throbs
against our breast, will in but few moments be gone, vanished, leaving
us to grasp mere phantom recollections? Compared with this the blow of
the actual death of Beatrice is gentle. And then, the truthfulness of
his narration how, with yearning, empty heart, hungering after those
poor lost realities of happiness, after that occasional glimpse of his
lady, that rare catching of her voice, that blessed consciousness of her
existence, he little by little lets himself be consoled, cradled to
sleep like a child which has sobbed itself out, in the sympathy, the
vague love, of another--the Donna della Finestra--with whom he speaks of
Beatrice; and the sudden, terrified, starting up and shaking off of any
such base consolation, the wrath at any such mental infidelity to the
dead one, the indignant impatience with his own weakness, with his
baseness in not understanding that it is enough that Beatrice has lived
and that he has loved her, in not feeling that the glory and joy of the
ineffaceable past is sufficient for all present and future. A revolution
in himself which gradually merges in that grave final resolve, that
sudden seeing how Beatrice can be glorified by him, that solemn, quiet,
brief determination not to say any more of her as yet; not till he can
show her transfigured in Paradise. "After this sonnet there appeared
unto me a marvellous vision, in which I beheld things that made me
propose unto myself to speak no more of this blessed one, until the
time when I might more worthily treat of her. And that this may come to
pass, I strive with all my endeavour, even as she truly knows it. Thus,
if it should please Him, through whom all things do live, that my life
continue for several more years, I hope to say of her such things as
have never been said of any lady. And then may it please Him, who is the
lord of all courtesy, that my soul shall go forth to see the glory of
its lady, that is to say, of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously looks
up into the face of Him, _qui est per omnia sæcula benedictus_"

Thus ends the "Vita Nuova;" a book, to find any equivalent for whose
reality and completeness of passion, though it is passion for a woman
whom the poet scarcely knows and of whom he desires nothing, we must go
back to the merest fleshly love of Antiquity, of Sappho or Catullus; for
modern times are too hesitating and weak. So at least it seems; but in
fact, if we only think over the matter, we shall find that in no earthly
love can we find this reality and completeness: it is possible only in
love like Dante's. For there can be no unreality in it: it is a reality
of the imagination, and leaves, with all its mysticism and idealism, no
room for falsehood. Any other kind of love may be set aside, silenced,
by the activity of the mind; this love of Dante's constitutes that very
activity. And, after reading that last page which I have above
transcribed, as those closing Latin words echo through our mind like the
benediction from an altar, we feel as if we were rising from our knees
in some secret chapel, bright with tapers and dim with incense; among a
crowd kneeling like ourselves; yet solitary, conscious of only the glory
we have seen and tasted, of that love _qui est per omnia scecula


But is it right that we should feel thus? Is it right that love,
containing within itself the potentialities of so many things so sadly
needed in this cold real world, as patience, tenderness, devotion, and
loving-kindness--is it right that love should thus be carried away out
of ordinary life and enclosed, a sacred thing for contemplation, in the
shrine or chapel of an imaginary Beatrice? And, on the other hand, is it
right that into the holy places of our soul, the places where we should
come face to face with the unattainable ideal of our own conduct that we
may strive after something nobler than mere present pleasure and
profit--is it right that into such holy places, destined but for an
abstract perfection, there should be placed a mere half-unknown, vaguely
seen woman? In short, is not this "Vita Nuova" a mere false ideal, one
of those works of art which, because they are beautiful, get worshipped
as holy?

This question is a grave one, and worthy to make us pause. The world is
full of instances of the fatal waste of feelings misapplied: of human
affections, human sympathy and compassion, so terribly necessary to
man, wasted in various religious systems, upon Christ and God: of
religious aspirations, contemplation, worship, and absorption, necessary
to the improvement of the soul, wasted in various artistic or poetic
crazes upon mere pleasant works, or pleasant fancies, of man;
wastefulness of emotions, wastefulness of time, which constitute
two-thirds of mankind's history and explain the vast amount of evil in
past and present. The present question therefore becomes, is not this
"Vita Nuova" merely another instance of this lamentable carrying off of
precious feelings in channels where they result no longer in
fertilization, but in corruption? The Middle Ages, especially, in its
religion, its philosophy, nay, in that very love of which I am writing,
are one succession of such acts of wastefulness. This question has come
to me many a time, and has left me in much doubt and trouble. But on
reflection I am prepared to answer that such doubts as these may safely
be cast behind us, and that we may trust that instinct which, whenever
we lay down the "Vita Nuova," tells us that to have felt and loved this
book is one of those spiritual gains in our life which, come what may,
can never be lost entirely.

The "Vita Nuova" represents the most exceptional of exceptional moral
and intellectual conditions. Dante's love for Beatrice is, in great
measure, to be regarded as an extraordinary and exquisite work of art,
produced not by the volition of man, but by the accidental combination
of circumstances. It is no more suited to ordinary life than would a
golden and ivory goddess of Phidias be suited to be the wife of a mortal
man. But it may not therefore be useless; nay, it may be of the highest
utility. It may serve that high utilitarian mission of all art, to
correct the real by the ideal, to mould the thing as it is in the
semblance of the thing as it should be. Herein, let it be remembered,
consists the value, the necessity of the abstract and the ideal. In the
long history of evolution we have now reached the stage where selection
is no longer in the mere hands of unconscious nature, but of conscious
or half-conscious man; who makes himself, or is made by mankind,
according to not merely physical necessities, but to the intellectual
necessity of realizing the ideal, of pursuing the object, of imitating
the model, before him. No man will ever find the living counterpart of
that chryselephantine goddess of the Greeks; ivory and gold, nay,
marble, fashioned by an artist, are one thing; flesh is another, and
flesh fashioned by mere blind accident. But the man who should have
beheld that Phidian goddess, who should have felt her full perfection,
would not have been as easily satisfied as any other with a mere
commonplace living woman; he would have sought--and seeking, would have
had more likelihood of finding--the woman of flesh and blood who nearest
approached to that ivory and gold perfection. The case is similar with
the "Vita Nuova." No earthly affection, no natural love of man for
woman, of an entire human being, body and soul, for another entire human
being, can ever be the counterpart of this passion for Beatrice, the
passion of a mere mind for a mere mental ideal. But if the old
lust-fattened evil of the world is to diminish rather than to increase,
why then every love of man for woman and of woman for man should tend,
to the utmost possibility, to resemble that love of the "Vita Nuova."
For mankind has gradually separated from brute kind merely by the
development of those possibilities of intellectual and moral passion
which the animal has not got; an animal man will never cease to be, but
a man he can daily more and more become, until from the obscene
goat-legged and goat-faced creature which we commonly see, he has turned
into something like certain antique fauns: a beautiful creature, not
noticeably a beast, a beast in only the smallest portion of his nature.
In order that this may come to pass--and its coming to pass means, let
us remember, the enormous increase of happiness and diminution of misery
upon earth--it is necessary that day by day and year by year there
should enter into man's feelings, emotions, and habits, into his whole
life, a greater proportion of that which is his own, and is not shared
by the animal; that his actions, preferences, the great bulk of his
conscious existence, should be busied with things of the soul, truth,
good, and beauty, and not with things of the body. Hence the love of
such a gradually improving and humanizing man for a gradually improving
and humanizing woman, should become, as much as is possible, a
connection of the higher and more human, rather than of the lower and
more bestial, portions of their nature; it should tend, in its
reciprocal stimulation, to make the man more a man, the woman more a
woman, to make both less of the mere male and female animals that they
were. In brief, love should increase, instead, like that which oftenest
profanes love's name, of diminishing, the power of aspiration, of
self-direction, of self-restraint, which may exist within us. Now to
tend to this is to tend towards the love of the "Vita Nuova;" to tend
towards the love of the "Vita Nuova" is to tend towards this. Say what
you will of the irresistible force of original constitution, it remains
certain, and all history is there as witness, that mankind--that is to
say, the only mankind in whom lies the initiative of good, mankind which
can judge and select--possesses the faculty of feeling and acting in
accordance with its standard of feeling and action; the faculty in great
measure of becoming that which it thinks desirable to become. Now to
have perceived the even imaginary existence of such a passion as that of
Dante for Beatrice, must be, for all who can perceive it, the first step
towards attempting to bring into reality a something of that passion:
the real passion conceived while the remembrance of that ideal passion
be still in the mind will bear to it a certain resemblance, even as,
according to the ancients, the children born of mothers whose rooms
contained some image of Apollo or Adonis would have in them a reflex,
however faint, of that beauty in whose presence they came into
existence. In short, it seems to me, that as the "Vita Nuova" embodies
the utmost ideal of absolutely spiritual love, and as to spiritualize
love must long remain one of the chief moral necessities of the world,
there exists in this book a moral force, a moral value, a power in its
unearthly passion and purity, which, as much as anything more
deliberately unselfish, more self-consciously ethical, we must
acknowledge and honour as holy.

As the love of him who has read and felt the "Vita Nuova" cannot but
strive towards a purer nature, so also the love of which poets sang
became also nobler as the influence of the strange Tuscan school of
platonic lyrists spread throughout literature, bringing to men the
knowledge of a kind of love born of that idealizing and worshipping
passion of the Middle Ages; but of mediæval love chastened by the
manners of stern democracy and passed through the sieve of Christian
mysticism and pagan philosophy. Of this influence of the "Vita
Nuova"--for the "Vita Nuova" had concentrated in itself all the
intensest characteristics of Dante's immediate predecessors and
contemporaries, causing them to become useless and forgotten--of this
influence of the "Vita Nuova," there is perhaps no more striking example
than that of the poet who, constituted by nature to be the mere
continuator of the romantically gallant tradition of the troubadours,
became, and hence his importance and glory, the mediator between Dante
and the centuries which followed him; the man who gave to mankind,
incapable as yet of appreciating or enduring the spiritual essence of
the "Vita Nuova," that self-same essence of intellectual love in an
immortal dilution. I speak, of course, of Petrarch. His passion is
neither ideal nor strong. The man is in love, or has been in love,
existing on a borderland of loving and not loving, with the beautiful
woman. His elegant, refined, half-knightly, half-scholarly, and
altogether courtly mind is delighted with her; with her curly yellow
hair, her good red and white beauty (we are never even told that Dante's
Beatrice is beautiful, yet how much lovelier is she not than this Laura,
descended from all the golden-haired bright-eyed ladies of the
troubadours!), with her manner, her amiability, her purity and dignity
in this ecclesiastical Babylon called Avignon. He maintains a
semi-artificial love; frequenting her house, writing sonnet after
sonnet, rhetorical exercises, studies from the antique and the
Provençal, for the most part; he, who was born to be a mere troubadour
like Ventadour or Folquet, becomes, through the influence of Dante, the
type of the poet Abate, of the poetic _cavaliere servente_; a good, weak
man with aspirations, who, failing to get the better of Laura's virtue,
doubtless consoles himself elsewhere, but returns to an habitual
contemplation of it. He is, being constitutionally a troubadour, an
Italian priest turned partly Provençal, vexed at her not becoming his
mistress; then (having made up his mind, which was but little set upon
her), quite pleased at her refusal: it turns her into a kind of
Beatrice, and him, poor man, heaven help him! into a kind of Dante--a
Dante for the use of the world at large. He goes on visiting Laura, and
writing to her a sonnet regularly so many times a week, and the best,
carefully selected, we feel distinctly persuaded, at regular intervals.
It is a determined cultus, a sort of half-real affectation, something
equivalent to lighting a lamp before a very well-painted and very
conspicuous shrine. All his humanities, all his Provençal lore go into
these poems--written for whom? For her? Decidedly; for she has no reason
not to read the effusions of this amiable, weak priestlet; she feels
nothing for him. For her; but doubtless also to be handed round in
society; a new sonnet or canzone by that charming and learned man, the
Abate Petrarch. There is considerable emptiness in all this: he praises
Laura's chastity, then grows impatient, then praises her again; adores
her, calls her cruel, his goddess, his joy, his torment; he does not
really want her, but in the vacuity of his feeling, thinks he does;
calls her alternately the flat, abusive, and eulogistic names which mean
nothing. He plays loud and soft with this absence of desire; he fiddle
faddles in descriptions of her, not passionate or burning, but
delicately undressed: he sees her (but with chaste eyes) in her bath;
he envies her veil, &c.; he neither violently intellectually embraces,
nor humbly bows down in imagination before her; he trifles gracefully,
modestly, half-familiarly, with her finger tips, with the locks of her
hair, and so forth. Fancy Dante abusing Beatrice; fancy Dante talking of
Beatrice in her bath; the mere idea of his indignation and shame makes
one shameful and indignant at the thought. But this perfect Laura is no
Beatrice, or only a half-and-half sham one. She is no ideal figure,
merely a figure idealized; this is no imaginative passion, merely an
unreal one. Compare, for instance, the suggestion of Laura's possible
death with the suggestion of the possible death of Beatrice. Petrarch
does not love sufficiently to guess what such a loss would be. Then
Laura does die. Here Petrarch rises. The severing of the dear old
habits, the absence of the sweet reality, the terrible sense that all is
over, Death, the great poetizer and giver of love philters, all this
makes him love Laura as he never loved her before. The poor weak
creature, who cannot, like a troubadour, go seek a new mistress when the
old one fails him, feels dreadfully alone, the world dreadfully dreary
around him; he sits down and cries, and his crying is genuine, making
the tears come also into our eyes. And Laura, as she becomes a more
distant ideal, becomes nobler, though noble with only a faint earthly
graciousness not comparable to the glory of the living Beatrice. And,
as he goes on, growing older and weaker and more desolate, the thought
of a glorified Laura (as all are glorified, even in the eyes of the
weakest, by death) begins to haunt him as Dante was haunted by the
thought of Beatrice alive. Yet, even at this very time, come doubts of
the lawfulness of having thus adored (or thought he had adored) a mortal
woman; he does not know whether all this may not have been vanity and
folly; he tries to turn his thoughts away from Laura and up to God.
Perhaps he may be called on to account for having given too much of his
life to a mere earthly love. Then, again, Laura reappears beautified in
his memory, and is again tremblingly half-conjured away. He is weak, and
sad, and helpless, and alone; and his heart is empty; he knows not what
to think nor how to feel; he sobs, and we cry with him. Nowhere could
there be found a stranger contrast than this nostalgic craving after the
dead Laura, vacillating and troubled by fear of sin and doubt of
unworthiness of object, with that solemn ending of the "Vita Nuova,"
where the name of Beatrice is pronounced for the last time before it be
glorified in Paradise, where Dante devotes his life to becoming worthy
of saying "such words as have never been said of any lady." The ideal
woman is one and unchangeable in glory, and unchangeable is the passion
of her lover; but of this sweet dead Laura, whose purity and beauty and
cruelty he had sung, without a tremor of self-unworthiness all her
life, of her the poor weak Petrarch begins to doubt, of her and her
worthiness of all this love; and when? when she is dead and himself is

Such a man is Petrarch; and yet, by the irresistible purifying and
elevating power of the "Vita Nuova,'" this man came to write not other
_albas_ and _serenas,_ not other love-songs to be added to the
love-songs of Provence, but those sonnets and canzoni which for four
centuries taught the world, too coarse as yet to receive Dante's passion
at first hand, a nobler and more spiritual love. After Petrarch a
gradual change takes place in the poetic conception of love: except in
learned revivalisms or in loose buffooneries, the mere fleshly love of
Antiquity disappears out of literature; and equally so, though by a
slower process of gradual transformation, vanishes also the adoring, but
undisguisedly adulterous love of the troubadours and minnesingers. Into
the love Instincts of mankind have been mingled, however much diluted,
some drops of the more spiritual passion of Dante. The _puella_ of
Antiquity, the noble dame of feudal days, is succeeded in Latin
countries, in Italy, and France, and Spain, and Portugal, by the
_gloriosa donna_ imitated from. Petrarch, and imitated by Petrarch from
Dante; a long-line of shadowy figures, veiled in the veil of Madonna
Laura, ladies beloved of Lorenzo and Michael Angelo, of Ariosto, and
Tasso, and Camoens, and Cervantes, passes through the world; nay, even
the sprightly-mistress of Ronsard, half-bred pagan and troubadour has
airs of dignity and mystery which make us almost think that in this
dainty coquettish French body, of Marie or Helene or Cassandrette, there
really may be an immortal soul. But with the Renaissance--that movement
half of mediæval democratic progress, and half of antique revivalism,
and to which in reality belongs not merely Petrarch, but Dante, and
every one of the Tuscan poets, Guinicelli, Lapo Gianni, Cavalcanti, who
broke with the feudal poetry of Provence and Sicily--with the
Renaissance, or rather with its long-drawn-out end, comes the close, for
the moment, of the really creative activity of the Latin peoples in the
domain of poetry. All the things for two centuries which Italy and
France and Spain and Portugal (which we must remember for the sake of
Camoens) continue to produce, are but developments of parts left
untouched; or refinements of extreme detail, as in the case,
particularly, of the French poets of the sixteenth century; but poetry
receives from these races nothing new or vital, no fresh ideal or
fruitful marriage of ideals. And here begins, uniting in itself all the
scattered and long-dormant powers of Northern poetry, the great and
unexpected action of England. It had slept through the singing period of
the Middle Ages, and was awakened, not by Germany or Provence, but by
Italy: Boccaccio and Petrarch spoke, and, as through dreams, England in
Chaucer's voice, made answer. Again, when the Renaissance had drawn to a
close, far on in the sixteenth century, English poetry was reawakened;
and again by Italy. This time it was completely wakened, and arose and
slept no more. And one of the great and fruitful things achieved by
English poetry in this its final awakening was to give to the world the
new, the modern, perhaps the definitive, the final ideal of love.
England drank a deep draught--how deep we see from Sidney's and
Spenser's sonnets--of Petrarch; and in this pleasant dilution, tasted
and felt the burning essence of the "Vita Nuova;" for though Dante
remained as the poet, the poet of heaven and hell, this happy
half-and-half Petrarch had for full two centuries completely driven into
oblivion the young Dante who had loved Beatrice. For England, for this
magnificent and marvellous outburst of all the manifold poetic energy
stored up and quintupled during that long period of inertness, there
could however be no foreign imported ideal of love; there was no
possibility of a new series of spectral Lauras, shadows projected by a
shadow. Already, long ago, at the first call of Petrarch, Chaucer, by
the side of the merely mediæval love types--of brutish lust and doglike
devotion--of the Wife of Bath and of Griseldis, had rough-sketched a
kind of modern love, the love which is to become that of Romeo and
Hamlet, in his story of Palemon and Arcite. Among the poetic material
which existed in England at the close of the sixteenth century was the
old, long-neglected, domestic love, quiet, undemonstrative, essentially
unsinging, of the early Northern (as indeed also of the Greek and
Hindoo) epics; a domestic love which, in a social condition more closely
resembling our own than any other, even than that of the Italian
democracies, which had preceded it; among a people who permitted a woman
to choose her own husband, and forbade a man wooing another man's wife,
had already, in ballads and folk poetry, begun a faint-twitter of song.
To this love of the man and the woman who hope to marry, strong and
tender, but still (as Coleridge remarked of several of the lesser
Elizabethan playwrights) most outspokenly carnal, was united by the pure
spirit of Spenser, by the unerring genius of Shakespeare, that vivifying
drop of burning, spiritual love taken from out of the "Vita Nuova,"
which had floated, like some sovereign essential oil, on the top of
Petrarch's rose-water. Henceforward the world possesses a new kind of
love: the love of Romeo, of Hamlet, of Bassanio, of Viola, and of
Juliet; the love of the love poems of Shelley, of Tennyson, of Browning
and Browning's wife. A love whose blindness, exaggeration of passion,
all that might have made it foolish and impracticable, leads no longer
to folly and sin, but to an intenser activity of mankind's imagination
of the good and beautiful, to a momentary realization in our fancy of
all our vague dreams of perfection; a love which, though it may cool
down imperceptibly and pale in its intenseness, like the sunrise fires
into a serene sky, has left some glory round the head of the wife, some
glory in the heart of the husband, has been, however fleeting, a vision
of beauty which has made beauty more real. And all this owing to the
creation, the storing up, the purification by the Platonic poets of
Tuscany, of that strange and seemingly so artificial and unreal thing,
mediæval love; the very forms and themes of whose poetry, the _serena_
and the _alba_, which had been indignantly put aside by the early
Italian lyrists, being unconsciously revived, and purified and
consecrated in the two loveliest love poems of Elizabethan poetry: the
_serena_, the evening song of impatient expectation in Spenser's
Epithalamium; the _alba_, the dawn song of hurried parting, in the
balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet."

Let us recapitulate. The feudal Middle Ages gave to mankind a more
refined and spiritual love, a love all chivalry, fidelity, and
adoration, but a love steeped in the poison of adultery; and to save the
pure and noble portions of this mediæval love became the mission of the
Tuscan poets of that strange school of Platonic love which in its very
loveliness may sometimes seem so unnatural and sterile. For, by reducing
this mediæval love to a mere intellectual passion, seeking in woman
merely a self-made embodiment of cravings after perfection, they
cleansed away that deep stain of adultery; they quadrupled the intensity
of the ideal element; they distilled the very essential spirit of poetic
passion, of which but a few drops, even as diluted by Petrarch,
precipitated, when mingled with the earthly passion of future poets, to
the bottom, no longer to be seen or tasted, all baser ingredients.

And, while the poems of minnesingers and troubadours have ceased to
appeal to us, and remain merely for their charm of verse and of graceful
conceit; the poetry written by the Italians of the thirteenth century
for women, whose love was but an imaginative fervour, remains
concentrated in the "Vita Nuova;" and will remain for all time the
sovereign purifier to which the world must have recourse whenever that
precipitate of baser instincts, which thickened like slime the love
poetry of Antiquity, shall rise again and sully the purity of the love
poetry of to-day.


More than a year has elapsed since the moment when, fancying that this
series of studies must be well-nigh complete, I attempted to explain in
an introductory chapter what the nature of this book of mine is, or
would fain be. I had hoped that each of these studies would complete its
companions; and that, without need for explicit explanation, my whole
idea would have become more plain to others than it was at that time
even to myself. But instead, it has become obvious that the more
carefully I had sought to reduce each question to unity, the more that
question-subdivided and connected itself with other questions; and that,
with the solution of each separate problem, had arisen a new set of
problems which infinitely complicated the main lessons to be deduced
from a study of that many-sided civilization to which, remembering the
brilliant and mysterious offspring of Faustus and Helena, I have given
the name of Euphorion. Hence, as it seems, the necessity for a few
further words of explanation.

In those introductory pages written some fifteen months ago, I tried to
bring home to the reader a sense which has haunted me throughout the
writing of this volume; namely, that instead of having deliberately made
up my mind to study the Renaissance, as one makes up one's mind to visit
Greece or Egypt or the Holy Land; I have, on the contrary, quite
accidentally and unconsciously, found myself wandering about in spirit
among the monuments of this particular historic region, even as I might
wander about in the streets of Siena where I wrote last year, of
Florence whence I write at present; wandering about among these things,
and little by little feeling a particular interest in one, then in
another, according as each happened to catch my fancy or to recall some
already known thing. Now these, which for want of a better word I have
just called monuments, and just now, less clearly, but also less
foolishly, merely _things_--these things were in reality not merely
individual and really existing buildings, books, pictures, or statues,
individual and really registered men, women, and events; they were the
mental conceptions which I had extracted out of these realities; the
intellectual types made up (as the mediæval symbols of justice are made
up of the visible paraphernalia, robe, scales and sword, for judging and
weighing and punishing) of the impressions left on the mind by all
those buildings, or books, or pictures, or statues, or men, women, and
events. They were not the iniquities of this particular despot nor the
scandalous sayings of that particular humanist, but the general moral
chaos of the Italian fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; not the poem of
Pulci, of Boiardo, of Ariosto in especial, but a vast imaginary poem
made up of them all; not the mediæval saints of Angelico and the pagan
demi-gods of Michael Angelo, but the two tremendous abstractions: the
spirit of Mediævalism in art, and the spirit of Antiquity; the interest
in the distressed soul, and the interest in the flourishing body. And,
as my thoughts have gone back to Antiquity and onwards to our own times,
their starting-point has nevertheless been the Tuscan art of the
fifteenth century, their nucleus some notes on busts by Benedetto da
Maiano and portraits by Raphael.

My _dramatis persona_ have been modes of feeling and forms of art. I
have tried to explain the life and character, not of any man or woman,
but of the moral scepticism of Italy, of the tragic spirit of our
Elizabethan dramatists; I have tried to write the biography of the
romance poetry of the Middle Ages, of the realism of the great portrait
painters and sculptors of the Renaissance. But these, my _dramatis
persona,_ are, let me repeat it, abstractions: they exist only in my
mind and in the minds of those who think like myself. Hence, like all
abstractions, they represent the essence of a question, but not its
completeness, its many-sidedness as we may see it in reality. Hence it
is that I have frequently passed over exceptions to the rule which I was
stating, because the explanation of these exceptions would have involved
the formulating of a number of apparently irrelevant propositions; so
that any one who please may accuse me of inexactness; and, to give an
instance, cover the margins of my essay on Mediæval Love with a whole
list of virtuous love stories of the Middle Ages; or else ferret out of
Raynouard and Von der Hagen a dozen pages of mediæval poems in praise of
rustic life. These objections will be perfectly correct, and (so far as
my knowledge permitted me) I might have puzzled the reader with them
myself; but it remains none the less certain that, in the main, mediæval
love was not virtuous, and mediæval peasantry not admired by poets; and
none the less certain, I think, also, that in describing the
characteristics and origin of an abstract thing, such as mediæval love,
or mediæval feeling towards the country and country folk, it was my
business to state the rule and let alone the exceptions.

There is another matter which gives me far greater concern. In creating
and dealing with an abstraction, one is frequently forced, if I may use
the expression, to cut a subject in two, to bring one of its sides into
full light and leave the other in darkness; nay, to speak harshly of one
side of an art or of a man without being able to speak admiringly of
another side.

This one-sidedness, this apparent injustice of judgment, has in some
cases been remedied by the fact that I have treated in one study those
things which I was forced to omit in another study; as, in two separate
essays, I have pointed out first the extreme inferiority of Renaissance
sculpture to the sculpture of Antiquity with regard to absolute beauty
of form; and then the immeasurable superiority of Renaissance over
antique sculpture in the matter of that beauty and interest dependent
upon mere arrangement and handling, wherein lies the beauty-creating
power of realistic schools. But most often I have shown one side, not
merely of an artist or an art, but of my own feeling, without showing
the other; and in one case this inevitable one-sidedness has weighed
upon me almost like personal guilt, and has almost made me postpone the
publication of this book to the Greek Kalends, in hopes of being able to
explain and to atone. I am alluding to Fra Angelico. I spoke of him in a
study of the progress of mere beautiful form, the naked human form
moreover, in the art of the Renaissance; I looked at his work with my
mind full of the unapproachable superiority of antique form; I judged
and condemned the artist with reference to that superb movement towards
nature and form and bodily beauty which was the universal movement of
the fifteenth century; I lost patience with this saint because he would
not turn pagan; I pushed aside, because he did not seek for a classic
Olympus, his exquisite dreams of a mediæval Paradise. I had taken part,
as its chronicler, with the art which seeks mere plastic perfection, the
art to which Angelico said, "Retro me Sathana." It was my intention to
close even this volume with a study of the poetical conception of early
Renaissance painting, of that strange kind of painting in which a thing
but imperfect in itself, a mere symbol of lovely ideas, brings home to
our mind, with a rush of associations, a sense of beauty and wonder
greater perhaps than any which we receive from the sober reality of
perfect form. Again, there are the German masters--the great engravers,
Kranach, Altdorfer, Aldegrever, especially; of whom, for their absolute
pleasure in ugly women, for their filthy delight in horrors, I have said
an immense amount of ill; and of whom, for their wonderful intuition of
dramatic situation, their instinct of the poetry of common things, and
their magnificently imaginative rendering of landscape, I hope some day
to say an equal amount of good.

I have spoken of the lesson which may be derived from studies even as
humble as these studies of mine; since, in my opinion, we cannot treat
history as a mere art--though history alone can gives us now-a-days
tragedy which has ceased to exist on our stage, and wonder which has
ceased to exist in our poetry--we cannot seek in it mere selfish
enjoyment of imagination and emotion, without doing our soul the great
injury of cheating it of some of those great indignations, some of
those great lessons which make it stronger and more supple in the
practical affairs of life. Each of these studies of mine brings its own
lesson, artistic or ethical, important or unimportant; its lesson of
seeking certainty in our moral opinions, beauty in all and whatever our
forms of art, spirituality in our love. But besides these I seem to
perceive another deduction, an historical fact with a practical
application; to see it as the result not merely perhaps of the studies
of which this book is the fruit, but of those further studies, of the
subtler sides of Mediæval and Renaissance life and art which at present
occupy my mind and may some day add another series of essays to this: a
lesson still vague to myself, but which, satisfactorily or
unsatisfactorily, I shall nevertheless attempt to explain; if indeed it
requires to be brought home to the reader.

Of the few forms of feeling and imagination which I have treated--things
so different from one another as the feeling for nature and the
chivalric poem, as modern art, with its idealism and realism, and modern
love--of these forms, emotional and artistic, which Antiquity did not
know, or knew but little, the reader may have observed that I have
almost invariably traced the origin deep into that fruitful cosmopolitan
chaos, due to the mingling of all that was still unused of the remains
of Antiquity with all that was untouched of the intellectual and moral
riches of the barbarous nations, to which we give the name of Middle
Ages; and that I have, as invariably, followed the development of these
precious forms, and their definitive efflorescence and fruit-bearing,
into that particular country where certain mediæval conditions had
ceased to exist, namely Italy. In other words, it has seemed to me that
the things which I have studied were originally produced during the
Middle Ages, and consequently in the mediæval countries, France,
Germany, Provence; but did not attain maturity except in that portion of
the Middle Ages which is mediæval no longer, but already more than half
modern, the Renaissance, which began in Italy not with the establishment
of despotisms and the coming of Greek humanists, but with the
independence of the free towns and with the revival of Roman tradition.

Why so? Because, it appears to me, after watching the lines of my
thought converging to this point, because, with a few exceptions, the
Middle Ages were rich in great beginnings (indeed a good half of all
that makes up our present civilization seems to issue from them): but
they were poor in complete achievements; full of the seeds of modern
institutions, arts, thoughts, and feelings, they yet show us but rarely
the complete growth of any one of them: a fruitful Nile flood, but which
must cease to drown and to wash away, which must subside before the
germs that it has brought can shoot forth and mature. The sense of this
comes home to me most powerfully whenever I think of mediæval poetry and
mediæval painting.

The songs of the troubadours and minnesingers, what are they to our
feelings? They are pleasant, even occasionally beautiful, but they are
empty, lamentably empty, charming arrangements of words; poetry which
fills our mind or touches our heart comes only with the Tuscan lyrists
of the thirteenth century. The same applies to mediæval narrative-verse:
it is, with one or two exceptions or half exceptions, such as "The
Chanson de Roland" and Gottfried's "Tristan und Isolde," decidedly
wearisome; a thing to study, but scarcely a thing to delight in. I do
not mean to say that the old legends of Wales and Scandinavia,
subsequently embodied by the French and German poets of the Middle Ages,
are without imaginative or emotional interest; nothing can be further
from my thoughts. The Nibelung story possesses, both in the Norse and in
the Middle High German version, a tragic fascination; and a quaint
fairy-tale interest, every now and then rising to the charm of a
Decameronian _novella_, is possessed by many of the Keltic tales,
whether briefly told in the Mabinogion or lengthily detailed by
Chrestien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach. But all this is the
interest of the mere story, and you would enjoy it almost as much if
that story were related not by a poet but by a peasant; it is the
fascination of the mere theme, with the added fascination of our own
unconscious filling up and colouring of details. And the poem itself,
whence we extract this theme, remains, for the most part, uninteresting.
The figures are vague, almost shapeless and colourless; they have no
well-understood mental and moral anatomy, so that when they speak and
act the writer seems to have no clear conception of the motives or
tempers which make them do so; even as in a child's pictures, the horses
gallop, the men run, the houses stand, but without any indication of the
muscles which move the horse, of the muscles which hold up the man, of
the solid ground upon which is built, nay rather, into which is planted,
the house. Hatred of Hagen, devotion of Rüdger, passionate piety of
Parzival--all these are things of which we do not particularly see the
how or why; we do not follow the reasons, in event or character, which
make these men sacrifice themselves or others, weep, storm, and so
forth; nay, even when these reasons are clear from the circumstances, we
are not shown the action of the mechanism, we do not see how Brunhilt is
wroth, how Chriemhilt is revengeful, how Herzeloid is devoted to
Parzival. There is, in the vast majority of this mediæval poetry, no
clear conception of the construction and functions of people's
character, and hence no conception either of those actions and reactions
of various moral organs which, after all, are at the bottom of the
events related. Herein lies the difference between the forms of the
Middle Ages and those of Antiquity; for how perfectly felt, understood,
is not every feeling and every action of the Homeric heroes, how
perfectly indicated! We can see the manner and reason of the conflict of
Achilles and Agamemnon, of the behaviour of the returned Odysseus, as
clearly as we see the manner and reason of the movements of the fighting
Centaurs and Lapithæ, or the Amazons; nay, even the minute mood of
comparatively unimportant figures, as Helen, Brisei's, and Nausicaa, is
indicated in its moral anatomy and attitude as distinctly as is the
manner in which the maidens of the Parthenon frieze slowly restrain
their steps, the boys curb their steeds, or the old men balance their
oil jars. Nothing of this in mediæval literature, except perhaps in
"Flamenca" and "Tristan," where the motive of action, mere imaginative
desire, is all-permeating and explains everything. These people clearly
had no interest, no perception, connected with character: a valorous
woman, a chivalrous knight, an insolent steward, a jealous husband, a
faithful retainer; things recognized only in outline, made to speak and
act only according to a fixed tradition, without knowledge of the
internal mechanism of motive; these sufficed. Hence it is that mediæval
poetry is always like mediæval painting (for painting continued to be
mediæval with Giotto's pupils long after poetry had ceased to be
mediæval with Dante and his school), where the Virgin sits and holds the
child without body wherewith to sit or arms wherewith to hold; where
angels flutter forward and kneel in conventional greeting, with
obviously no bended knees beneath their robes, nay, with knees, waist,
armpits, all anywhere; where men ride upon horses without flat to their
back; where processions of the blessed come forth, guided by fiddling
seraphs, vague, faint faces, sweet or grand, heads which might wave like
pieces of cut-out paper upon their necks, arms and legs here and there,
not clearly belonging to any one; creatures marching, soaring, flying,
singing, fiddling, without a bone or a muscle wherewith to do it all.
And meanwhile, in this mediæval poetry, as in this mediæval painting,
there are yards and yards of elaborate preciousness: all the embossed
velvets, all the white-and-gold-shot brocades, all the silks and satins,
and jewel-embroidered stuffs of the universe cast stiffly about these
phantom men and women, these phantom horses and horsemen. It is not
until we turn to Italy, and to the Northern man, Chaucer, entirely under
Italian influence, that we obtain an approach to the antique clearness
of perception and comprehension; that we obtain not only in Dante
something akin to the muscularities of Signorelli and Michael Angelo;
but in Boccaccio and Chaucer, in Cavalca and Petrarch, the equivalent of
the well-understood movement, the well-indicated situation of the
simple, realistic or poetic, sketches of Filippino and Botticelli.

This, you will say, is a mere impression; it is no explanation, still
less such an explanation as may afford a lesson. Not so. This strange
inconclusiveness in all mediæval things, till the moment comes when they
cease to be mediæval; this richness in germs and poverty in mature
fruit, cannot be without its reason. And this reason, to my mind, lies
in one word, the most terrible word of any, since it means suffering and
hopelessness; a word which has haunted my mind ever since I have looked
into mediæval things: the word Wastefulness. Wastefulness; the frightful
characteristic of times at once so rich and so poor, the explanation of
the long starvation and sickness that mankind, that all mankind's
concerns--art, poetry, science, life--endured while the very things
which would have fed and revived and nurtured, existed close at hand,
and in profusion. Wastefulness, in this great period of confusion, of
the most precious things that we possess: time, thought, and feeling
refused to the realities of the world, and lavished on the figments of
the imagination. Why this vagueness, this imperfection in all mediæval
representations of life? Because even as men's eyes were withdrawn, by
the temporal institutions of those days, from the sight of the fields
and meadows which were left to the blind and dumb thing called serf; so
also the thoughts of mankind, its sympathy and intentions, were
withdrawn from the mere earthly souls, the mere earthly wrongs and woes
of men by the great self-organized institution of mediæval religion.
Pity of the body of Christ held in bondage by the Infidel; love of God;
study of the unknowable things of Heaven: such are the noblest
employments of the mediæval soul; how much of pity, of love, may remain
for man; how much of study for the knowable? To Wastefulness like
this--to misapplication of mind ending almost in palsy--must we ascribe,
I think, the strange sterility of such mediæval art as deals not merely
with pattern, but with the reality of man's body and soul. And we might
be thankful, if, during our wanderings among mediæval things, we had
seen the starving of only art and artistic instincts; but the soul of
man has lain starving also; starving for the knowledge which was sought
only of Divine things, starving for the love which was given only to

The explanation, therefore, and its lesson, may thus be summed up in the
one word Wastefulness. And the fruitfulness of the Renaissance, all that
it has given to us of art, of thought, of feeling (for the "Vita Nuova"
is its fruit), is due, as it seems to me, to the fact that the
Renaissance is simply the condition of civilization when, thanks to the
civil liberty and the spiritual liberty inherited from Rome and
inherited from Greece, man's energies of thought and feeling were
withdrawn from the unknowable to the knowable, from Heaven to Earth; and
were devoted to the developing of those marvellous new things which
Antiquity had not known, and which had lain neglected and wasted during
the Middle Ages.

FLORENCE, _January_,1884.


I have seen the pictures and statues and towns which I have described,
and I have read the books of which I attempt to give an impression; but
here my original research, if such it may be called, comes to an end. I
have trusted only to myself for my impressions; but I have taken from
others everything that may be called historical fact, as distinguished
from the history of this or that form of thought or of art which I have
tried to elaborate. My references are therefore only to standard
historical works, and to such editions of poets and prose writers as
have come into my hands. How much I am endebted to the genius of
Michelet; nay, rather, how much I am, however unimportant, the thing
made by him, every one will see and judge. With regard to positive
information I must express my great obligations to the works of Jacob
Burckhardt, of Prof. Villari, and of Mr. J.A. Symonds in everything that
concerns the political history and social condition of the Renaissance.
Mr. Symonds' name I have placed last, although this is by no means the
order of importance in which the three writers appear in my mind,
because vanity compels me to state that I have deprived myself of the
pleasure and profit of reading his volumes on Italian literature, from a
fear that finding myself doubtless forestalled by him in various
appreciations, I might deprive my essays of what I feel to be their
principal merit, namely, the spontaneity and wholeness of personal
impression. With regard to philological lore, I may refer, among a
number of other works, to M. Gaston Paris' work on the Cycle of
Charlemagne, M. de la Villemarqué's companion volume on Keltic romances,
and Professor Rajna's "Fonti dell' Ariosto." My knowledge of
troubadours, trouvères, and minnesingers is obtained mainly from the
great collections of Raynouard, Wackernagel, Mätzner, Bartsch, and Von
der Hagen, and from Bartsch's and Simrock's editions and versions of
Gottfried von Strassburg, Hartmann von Aue, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.
"Flamenca" I have read in Professor Paul Meyer's beautiful edition, text
and translation; "Aucassin et Nicolette," in an edition published, if I
remember rightly, by Janet; and also in a very happy translation
contained in Delvau's huge collection of "Romans de Chevalerie," which
contains, unfortunately sometimes garbled, as many of the prose stories
of the Carolingian and Amadis cycle as I, at all events, could endure to
read. For the early Italian poets, excepting Carducci's "Cino da
Pistoia," my references are the same as those in Rossetti's "Dante and
his Cycle," especially the "Rime Antiche" and the "Poeti del Primo
Secolo." Professor d'Ancona's pleasant volume has greatly helped me in
the history of the transformation of the courtly poetry of the early
Middle Ages into the folk poetry of Tuscany. I owe a good deal also,
with regard to this same essay "The Outdoor Poetry," to Roskoff's famous
"Geschichte des Teufels," and to Signor Novati's recently published
"Carmina Medii _Ævi_." The Italian _novellieri,_ Bandello, Cinthio, and
their set, I have used in the Florentine editions of 1820 or 1825;
Masuccio edited by De Sanctis. For the essay on the Italian Renaissance
on the Elizabethan Stage, I have had recourse, chiefly, to the fifteenth
century chronicles in the "Archivio Storico Italiano," and to Dyce's
Webster, Hartley Coleridge's Massinger and Ford, Churton Collins' Cyril
Tourneur, and J.O. Halliwell's Marston.

The essays on art have naturally profited by the now inevitable Crowe
and Cavalcaselle; but in this part of my work, while I have relied very
little on books, I have received more than the equivalent of the
information to be obtained from any writers in the suggestions and
explanations of my friend Mr. T. Nelson MacLean, who has made it
possible for a mere creature of pens and ink to follow the differences
of _technique_ of the sculptors and medallists of the fifteenth century;
a word of thanks also, for various such suggestions as can come only
from a painter, to my old friend Mr. John S. Sargent, of Paris.

I must conclude these acknowledgments by thanking the Editors of the
_Contemporary, British Quarterly_, and _National Reviews_, and of the
_Cornhill Magazine_, for permission to republish such of the essays or
fragments of essays as have already appeared in those periodicals.


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