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Title: Dante - Six Sermons
Author: Wicksteed, Philip H.
Language: English
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DANTE



DANTE

_SIX SERMONS_

BY

PHILIP H. WICKSTEED

M.A.

[Illustration]

LONDON
C. KEGAN PAUL & CO., 1 PATERNOSTER SQUARE
1879


(_The rights of translation and of reproduction are reserved_)



_PREFACE._


The five Sermons which form the body of this little book on Dante were
delivered in the ordinary course of my ministry at Little Portland
Street Chapel, in the autumn of 1878, and subsequently at the Free
Christian Church, Croydon, in a slightly altered form.

They are now printed, at the request of many of my hearers, almost
exactly as delivered at Croydon.

The substance of a sixth Sermon has been thrown into an Appendix.

In allowing the publication of this little volume, my only thought is
to let it take its chance with other fugitive productions of the Pulpit
that appeal to the Press as a means of widening the possible area
rather than extending the period over which the preacher's voice may
extend; and my only justification is the hope that it may here and
there reach hands to which no more adequate treatment of the subject
was likely to find its way.

The translations I have given are sometimes paraphrastic, and virtually
contain glosses or interpretations which make it necessary to warn the
reader against regarding them as in every case Dante's _ipsissima
verba_. For the most part the renderings are substantially my own; but
I have freely availed myself of numerous translations, without special
acknowledgment, whenever they supplied me with suitable phrases.

I have only to add the acknowledgment of my obligations to Fraticelli's
edition of Dante's works (whose numbering of the minor poems and the
letters I have adopted for reference), to the same writer's 'Life of
Dante,' and to Mr. Symonds' 'Introduction to the Study of Dante.'

                                                    P. H. W.

_June 1879._



_CONTENTS._

                                              PAGE

I. DANTE: AS A CITIZEN OF FLORENCE               1

II. DANTE: IN EXILE                             29

III. HELL                                       59

IV. PURGATORY                                   89

V. HEAVEN                                      119

APPENDIX                                       145



I

DANTE'S LIFE AND PRINCIPLES

_I. AS A CITIZEN OF FLORENCE_


There are probably few competent judges who would hesitate to give
Dante a place of honour in the triad of the world's greatest poets; and
amongst these three Dante occupies a position wholly his own, peerless
and unapproached in history.

For Homer and Shakespeare reflect the ages in which they lived, in all
their fullness and variety of life and motive, largely sinking their
own individuality in the intensity and breadth of their sympathies.
They are great teachers doubtless, and fail not to lash what they
regard as the growing vices or follies of the day, and to impress upon
their hearers the solemn lessons of those inevitable facts of life
which they epitomise and vivify. But their teaching is chiefly
incidental or indirect, it is largely unconscious, and is often almost
as difficult to unravel from their works as it is from the life and
nature they so faithfully reflect.

With Dante it is far otherwise. Aglow with a prophet's passionate
conviction, an apostle's undying zeal, he is guided by a philosopher's
breadth and clearness of principle, a poet's unfailing sense of beauty
and command of emotions, to a social reformer's definite and practical
aims and a mystic's peace of religious communion. And though his works
abound in dramatic touches of startling power and variety, and
delineations of character unsurpassed in delicacy, yet with all the
depth and scope of his sympathies he never for a moment loses himself
or forgets his purpose.

As a philosopher and statesman, he had analysed with keen precision the
social institutions, the political forces, and the historical
antecedents by which he found his time and country dominated; as a
moralist, a theologian, and a man, he had grasped with a firmness that
nothing could relax the essential conditions of human blessedness here
and hereafter, and with an intensity and fixity of definite
self-conscious purpose almost without parallel he threw the passionate
energy of his nature into the task of preaching the eternal truth to
his countrymen, and through them to the world, and thwarting and
crushing the powers and institutions which he regarded as hostile to
the well-being of mankind. He strove to teach his brothers that their
true bliss lay in the exercise of virtue here, and the blessed vision
of God hereafter. And as a step towards this, and an essential part of
its realisation, he strove to make Italy one in heart and tongue, to
raise her out of the sea of petty jealousies and intrigues in which she
was plunged; in a word, to erect her into a free, united country, with
a noble mother tongue. These two purposes were one; and, supported and
supplemented by a never-dying zeal for truth, a never-failing sense of
beauty, they inspired the life and works of Dante Alighieri.

It is often held and taught, that a strong and definite didactic
purpose must inevitably be fatal to the highest forms of art, must clip
the wings of poetic imagination, distort the symmetry of poetic
sympathy, and substitute hard and angular contrasts for the melting
grace of those curved lines of beauty which pass one into the other.
Had Dante never lived, I know not where we should turn for the decisive
refutation of this thought; but in Dante it is the very combination
said to be impossible that inspires and enthrals us. A perfect artist,
guided in the exercise of his art by an unflagging intensity of moral
purpose; a prophet, submitting his inspirations to the keenest
philosophical analysis, pouring them into the most finished artistic
moulds, yet bringing them into ever fresher and fuller contact with
their living source; a moralist and philosopher whose thoughts are fed
by a prophet's directness of vision and a poet's tender grace of love,
a poet's might and subtlety of imagination--Philosopher, Prophet, Poet,
supreme as each, unique as a combination of them all--such was Dante
Alighieri! And his voice will never be drowned or forgotten as long as
man is dragged downward by passion and struggles upward towards God, as
long as he that sows to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption,
and he that sows to the spirit reaps of the spirit life everlasting, as
long as the heart of man can glow responsive to a holy indignation
with wrong, or can feel the sweetness of the harmonies of peace.

It is little that I can hope to do, and yet I would fain do something,
towards opening to one here and there some glimpse into that mighty
temple, instinct with the very presence of the Eternal, raised by the
master hand, nay rather wrought out of the mighty heart of Dante; but
before we can even attempt to gather up a few fragments of the 'Divine
Comedy,' as landmarks to guide us, in our turn, through Hell and
Purgatory up to Heaven, it is needful for us to have some conception
who Dante Alighieri was, and what were his fortunes in this mortal
life.

And here I must once for all utter a warning, and thereby discharge
myself of a special duty. The Old Testament itself has not been more
ruthlessly allegorised than have Dante's works and even his very life.
The lack of trustworthy materials, in any great abundance, for an
account of the poet's outward lot, the difficulty of fixing with
certainty when he is himself relating actual events and when his
apparent narratives are merely allegorical, the obscurity,
incompleteness, and even apparent inconsistency of some of the data he
supplies, the uncertainty as to the exact time at which his different
works were composed and the precise relation in which they stand to
each other, and the doubts which have been thrown upon the authenticity
of some of the minor documents upon which the poet's biographers
generally rely, have all combined to involve almost every step of his
life in deep obscurity. Here, then, is a field upon which laborious
research, ingenious conjecture, and wild speculation can find unending
employment, and consequently every branch of the study has quite a
literature of its own.

Now into this mass of controversial and speculative writings on Dante,
I do not make the smallest pretensions to have penetrated a single
step. I am far from wishing to disparage such studies, or to put
forward in my own defence that stale and foolish plea, the refuge of
pretentious ignorance in every region of inquiry, that a mind coming
fresh to the study has the advantage over those that are already well
versed in it; but surely the students who are making the elucidation of
Dante their life work would not ask or wish, that until their endless
task is completed all those whose souls have been touched by the direct
utterance of the great poet should hold their peace until qualified to
speak by half a life of study.

With no further apology, then, for seeming to venture too rashly on the
task, we may go on to a brief sketch of Dante's life and principles.
The main lines which I shall follow are in most cases traced distinctly
enough by Dante's own hand, and to the best of my belief they represent
a fair average of the present or recent conclusions of scholars; but,
on the other hand, there have always been some who would unhesitatingly
treat as allegory much of what I shall present to you as fact, who for
instance would treat all Dante's love for Beatrice, and indeed
Beatrice's very existence, as purely allegorical; and, again, where the
allegory is admitted on all hands, there is a ceaseless shifting and
endless variety in the special interpretations adopted and rejected by
the experts.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dante, or properly Durante, Alighieri was born in Florence of an
ancient and noble family, in the year 1265. We may note that his life
falls in a period which we used to be taught to regard as an age of
intellectual stagnation and social barbarism, in which Christianity had
degenerated into a jumbled chaos of puerile and immoral superstitions!
We may note also that in the early years of his life the poet was a
contemporary of some of the noblest representatives of the
feudo-Catholic civilisation, that is to say of mediæval philosophy,
theology, and chivalry, while his manhood was joined in loving
friendship with the first supremely great mediæval artist, and before
he died one of the great precursors and heralds of the revival of
learning was growing up to manhood and another had already left his
cradle. To speak of Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, and St. Louis, as
living when Dante was born, of Giotto as his companion and friend, of
Petrarch and Boccaccio as already living when he died, is to indicate
more clearly than could be done by any more elaborate statement, the
position he occupies at the very turning point of the Middle Ages when
the forces of modern life had begun to rise, but the supremacy of
mediæval faith and discipline was as yet unbroken. Accordingly Dante,
in whom the truest spirit of his age is, as it were, 'made flesh,' may
be variously regarded as the great morning star of modern
enlightenment, freedom, and culture, or as the very type of mediæval
discipline, faith, and chivalry. To me, I confess, this latter aspect
of Dante's life is altogether predominant. To me he is the very
incarnation of Catholicism, not in its shame, but in its glory. Yet the
future is always contained in the present when rightly understood, and
just because Dante was the perfect representative of his own age, he
became the herald and the prophecy of the ages to come, not, as we
often vainly imagine them, rebelling against and escaping from the
overshadowing solemnity of the ages past, but growing out of them as
their natural and necessary result.

In the year 1265, then, Dante was born in Florence, then one of the
most powerful and flourishing, but also, alas! one of the most factious
and turbulent of the cities of Europe. He was but nine years old when
he first met that Beatrice Portinari who became thenceforth the
loadstar of his life. As to this lady we have little to say. The
details which Dante's early biographers give us add but little to our
knowledge of her, and so far as they are not drawn from the poet's own
words, are merely such graceful commonplaces of laudatory description
as any imagination of ordinary capacity would spontaneously supply for
itself. When we have said that Beatrice was a beautiful, sweet, and
virtuous girl, we have said all that we know, and all that we need care
to know, of the daughter of Folco Portinari, who lived, was married,
and died in Florence at the end of the thirteenth century. All that she
is to us more than other Florentine maidens, she is to us through that
poet who, as he wept her untimely death, hoped with no vain hope 'to
write of her, what ne'er was writ of woman.'[1]

       *       *       *       *       *

It puts no great strain on our powers of credence, to accept Dante's
own statement of the rush of almost stupefying emotions which
overwhelmed his childish heart when at the age of nine he went with his
father to Portinari's house, and was sent to play with other children,
amongst them the little Beatrice, a child of eight years old. The 'New
Life' waked within him from that moment, and its strength and purity
made him strong and pure.[2]

       *       *       *       *       *

Nine more years have passed. Dante is now eighteen. He has made rapid
progress in all the intellectual and personal accomplishments which are
held to adorn the position of a Florentine gentleman. His teachers have
in some cases already discerned the greatness of his powers, and he has
become aware, probably by essays which never saw the light, that he has
not only a poet's passions and aspirations, but a poet's power of
moulding language into oneness with his thought. He and Beatrice know
each other by sight, as neighbours or fellow-citizens, but Dante has
never heard her voice address a word to him. Yet she is still the
centre of all his thoughts. She has never ceased to be to him the
perfect ideal of growing womanhood, and to his devout and fervid
imagination, just because she is the very flower of womanly courtesy,
grace, and virtue, she is an angel upon earth. Not in the hackneyed
phrase of complimentary commonplace, not in the exaggerated cant of
would-be poetical metaphor, but in the deep verity of his inmost life,
Dante Alighieri believes that Beatrice Portinari, the maiden whose
purity keeps him pure, whose grace and beauty are as guardian angels
watching over his life, has more of heaven than of earth about her and
claims kindred with God's more perfect family.

Beatrice is now seventeen, she is walking with two companions in a
public place, she meets Dante and allows herself to utter a few words
of graceful greeting. It is the first time she has spoken to him, and
Dante's soul is thrilled and fired to its very depths. Not many hours
afterwards, the poet began the first of his sonnets that we still
possess, perhaps the first he ever wrote.[3]

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us pass over eight or nine years more. Dante, now about twenty-six,
is the very flower of chivalry and poetry. The foremost men of his own
and other cities--artists, musicians, poets, scholars, and
statesmen--are his friends. Somewhat hard of access and reserved, but
the most fascinating of companions and the faithfulest of friends to
those who have found a real place in his heart, Dante takes a rank of
acknowledged eminence amongst the poets of his day. His verses, chiefly
in praise of Beatrice, are written in a strain of tender sentiment,
that gives little sign of what is ultimately to come out of him, but
there is a nervous and concentrated power of diction, a purity and
elevation of conception in them, which may not have been obvious to his
companions as separating him from them, but which to eyes instructed by
the result is full of deepest meaning.

And what of Beatrice? She is dead. It was never given to Dante to call
her his. We know not so much as whether he even aspired to more than
that gracious salutation in which, to use his own expression, he seemed
to touch 'the very limits of beatitude.'[4]

Be this as it may, it is certain that Beatrice married a powerful
citizen of Florence several years before her death. But she was still
the guardian angel of the poet's life, she was still the very type of
womanhood to him; and there was not a word or thought of his towards
her but was full of utter courtesy and purity. And now, in the flower
of her loveliness she is cut down by death, and to Dante life has
become a wilderness.[5]

       *       *       *       *       *

Yet eight or nine years more. Dante is now in what his philosophical
system regards as the very prime of life.[6] He is thirty-five. The
date is 1300. Since we left him weeping for the death of Beatrice, the
unity of his life has been shattered and he has lost his way, but only
for a time. Now his powers and purposes are richer, stronger, more
concentrated than ever.

In his first passion of grief for Beatrice's death he had been
profoundly touched by the pity of a gentle-eyed damsel whom a far from
groundless conjecture identifies with Gemma Donati, the lady whom he
married not long afterwards. With this Gemma he lived till his
banishment, and they had a numerous family. The internal evidence of
Dante's works, and the few circumstances really known to us, give
little support to the tradition that their marriage was an unhappy one.

Dante's friends had hoped that domestic peace might console him for his
irreparable loss, but he himself had rather sought for consolation in
the study of philosophy and theology; and it befell him, he tells us,
as one who in seeking silver strikes on gold--not, haply, without
guidance from on high;--for he began to see many things as in a dream,
and deemed that Dame Philosophy must needs be supreme![7]

But neither domestic nor literary cares and duties absorbed his
energies. In late years he had begun to take an active part in the
politics of his city, and was now fast rising to his true position as
the foremost man of Florence and of Italy.

Thus, we see new interests and new powers rising in his life, but for a
time the unity of that life was gone. While Beatrice lived Dante's
whole being was centred in her, and she was to him the visible token of
God's presence upon earth, the living proof of the reality and the
beauty of things Divine, born to fill the world with faith and
gentleness. But when she was gone, when other passions and pursuits
disputed with her memory the foremost place in Dante's heart, it was as
though he had lost the secret and the meaning of life, as though he had
lost the guidance of Heaven, and was whirled helplessly in the vortex
of moral, social, and political disorder which swept over his country.
For Italian politics at this period form a veritable chaos of shifting
combinations and entanglements, of plots and counterplots, of intrigue
and treachery and vacillation, though lightened ever and again by
gleams of noblest patriotism and devotion.

Yet Dante's soul was far too strong to be permanently overwhelmed.
Gradually his philosophical reflections began to take definite shape.
He felt the wants of his own life and of his country's life. He pierced
down to the fundamental conditions of political and social welfare; and
when human philosophy had begun to restore unity and concentration to
his powers, then the sweet image of the pure maiden who had first waked
his soul to love returned glorified and transfigured to guide him into
the very presence of God. She was the symbol of Divine philosophy. She,
and she only, could restore his shattered life to unity and strength,
and the love she never gave him as a woman, she could give him as the
protecting guardian of his life, as the vehicle of God's highest
revelation.[8]

       *       *       *       *       *

With his life thus strengthened and enriched, with a firm heart and a
steady purpose, Dante Alighieri stood in the year 1300 at the helm of
the State of Florence. And here accordingly it becomes necessary for us
to dwell for a moment on some of the chief political forces with which
he had to deal.

The two great factions of the Guelfs and Ghibellines were tearing the
very heart of Italy; and without going into any detail, we must try to
point out the central ideas of each party. The Ghibellines, then,
appear to have represented an aristocratic principle of order,
constantly in danger of becoming oppressive, while the Guelfs
represented a democratic principle of progress, ever verging upon
chaotic and unbridled licence. The Ghibellines longed for a national
unity, resting on centralisation; the Guelfs aimed at a local
independence which tended to national disintegration. The Ghibellines,
regarding the German Empire as the heir and representative of the
Empire of Rome, and as the symbol of Italian unity, espoused the
Emperor's cause against the Pope, declared the temporal power
independent of the spiritual, and limited the sphere of the priests
entirely to the latter. The Guelfs found in the political action of the
Pope a counterpoise to the influence of the Emperor; the petty and
intriguing spirit of the politics of the Vatican made its ruler the
natural ally of the disintegrating Guelfs rather than the centralising
Ghibellines, and accordingly the Guelfs ardently espoused the cause of
the Pope's temporal power, and often sought in the royal house of
France a further support against Germany.

These broad lines, however, were constantly blurred and crossed by
personal intrigue or ambition, by family jealousies, feuds, and
rivalries, by unnatural alliances or by corruption and treachery.

Now Dante was by family tradition a Guelf. Florence too was nominally
the head quarters of Guelfism, and Dante had fought bravely in her
battles against the Ghibellines. But the more he reflected upon the
sources of the evils by which Italy was torn, the more profoundly he
came to distrust the unprincipled meddling of the greedy princes of the
house of France in Italian politics, and the more jealously did he
watch the temporal power of the Pope. Perhaps the political opinions he
afterwards held were not as yet fully consolidated, but his votes and
proposals--which we read with a strange interest in the city archives
of Florence nearly six hundred years after the ink has dried--show that
in 1300 he was at any rate on the highway to the conclusions he
ultimately reached. And we may therefore take this occasion of stating
what they were.

It appeared to Dante that Italy was sunk in moral, social, and
political chaos, for want of a firm hand to repress the turbulent
factions that rent her bosom; and that no hand except an Emperor's
could be firm enough. The Empire of Rome was to him the most imposing
and glorious spectacle offered by human history. God had guided Rome by
miracles and signs to the dominion of the world that the world might be
at peace.

And parallel with this temporal Empire founded by Julius Cæsar, was the
spiritual Empire of the Church, founded by Jesus Christ. Both alike
were established by God for the guidance of mankind: to rebel against
either was to rebel against God. Brutus and Cassius, who slew Julius
Cæsar, the embodiment of the Empire, are placed by Dante in the same
depth of Hell as Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ, the
incarnation of the Church.[9] These three had done what in them lay to
reduce the world to civil and religious chaos, for they had compassed
the death of the ideal representatives of civil and religious order.
But both powers alike laid a mighty trust upon the human agents who
administered them; and as the Empire and the Church were the sublimest
and the holiest of ideal institutions, so a tyrannical Emperor and a
corrupt or recreant Pope were amongst the foulest of sinners, to be
rebuked and resisted with every power of body and soul.

Dante could no more conceive of the spiritual life without the
authoritative guidance of the all-present, all-pervading Church, than
he could conceive of a well-ordered polity without the all-penetrating
force of law. But it appeared to him as monstrous for the Pope to seek
political influence and to use his spiritual powers for political ends
as he would have judged it for the Emperor to exercise spiritual
tyranny over the faith of Christians.[10]

There can have been little in the political life of Florence at this
time to attract one who held such views. But Dante of all men hated and
despised weak shrinking from responsibility. If there is one feature in
his stern character more awful than any other, it is his unutterable,
withering contempt for those who lived without praise or blame, those
wretches who never were alive. He saw them afterwards in the outer
circle of Hell, mingled with that caitiff herd of angels who were not
for God and yet were not for the rebels, but were only for themselves.

    Heaven drove them forth, Heaven's beauty not to stain,
    Nor would the deep Hell deign to have them there
    For any glory that the damned might gain!

No fame of them survives upon the earth, Pity and Justice hold them in
disdain, their cries of passion and of woe are ever whirled through the
starless air, and their forgotten lot appears to them so base that they
envy the very torments of the damned. 'Let us not speak of them,' says
Virgil to Dante, 'but gaze and pass them by.'[11]

So Dante shrank not from his task when called to public office, but
laid his strong hand upon the helm of Florence. During a part of this
year 1300, he filled the supreme magistracy, and at that very time the
old disputes of Guelf and Ghibelline broke out in the city afresh under
a thin disguise. We have seen that Dante's sympathies were now almost
completely Ghibelline, but as the first Prior of Florence his duty was
firmly to suppress all factious attempts to disturb the city's peace
and introduce intestine discord. It was not by party broils that Italy
would be restored to peace and harmony. He behaved with a more than
Roman fortitude, for it is easier for a father to chastise a rebellious
son than for a true friend to override the claims of friendship.
Dante's dearest friend, Guido Cavalcanti, bound to him by every tie of
sympathy and fellowship which could unite two men in common purposes
and common hopes, was one of the leaders of the party with which Dante
himself sympathised; and yet, for the good of his country and in
obedience to his magisterial duty, he tore this friend from his side
though not from his heart, and pronounced on him the sentence of
banishment, the weight of which he must even then have known so well.
It speaks to the eternal honour of Guido, as well as Dante, that this
deed appears not to have thrown so much as a shadow upon the friendship
of the two men.[12]

Had Dante's successors in office dealt with firmness and integrity
equal to his own, all might have been well; but a vacillating and
equivocal policy soon opened the door to suspicions and recriminations,
Florence ceased to steer her own course and permitted foreign
interference with her affairs, while the Pope, with intentions that may
have been good but with a policy which proved utterly disastrous,
furthered the intervention of the French Prince Charles of Valois. It
was a critical moment. An embassy to the Papal Court was essential, and
a firm hand must meanwhile hold the reins at Florence. 'If I go, who
shall stay? If I stay, who shall go?' Dante is reported to have said;
and though the saying is probably apocryphal, yet it points out happily
enough the true position of affairs. Dante was now no longer the chief
magistrate of his city, but he was in fact, though not in name, the one
man of Florence, the one man of Italy.

Finally he resolved to go to Rome. But the blindness or corruption of
the Papal Court was invincible; and while Dante was still toiling at
his hopeless task, Charles of Valois entered Florence with his troops,
soon to realise the worst suspicions of those who had opposed his
intervention. Nominally a restorer of tranquillity, he stirred up all
the worst and most lawless passions of the Florentines; and while Dante
was serving his country at Rome, the unjust and cruel sentence of
banishment was launched against him, his property was confiscated and
seized, a few months afterwards he was sentenced to be burned to death
should he ever fall into the power of the Florentines, and, not content
with all this, his enemies heaped upon his name the foulest calumnies
of embezzlement and malversation--calumnies which I suppose no creature
from that hour to this has ever for one moment believed, but which
could not fail to make the envenomed wound strike deeper into Dante's
heart.

So now he must leave 'all things most dear--this the first arrow shot
from exile's bow,' in poverty and dependence his proud spirit must
learn 'how salt a taste cleaves to a patron's bread, how hard a path to
tread a patron's stair;' and, above all, his unsullied purity and
patriotism must find itself forced into constant association or even
alliance with selfish and personal ambition, or with tyranny,
meanness, and duplicity.[13] How that great soul bore itself amid all
these miseries, what it learnt from them, where it sought and found a
refuge from them, we shall see when we take up again the broken thread
which we must drop to-day.


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 1: _Vita Nuova_, xliii.]

[Footnote 2: _Vita Nuova_, i, ii.]

[Footnote 3: _Vita Nuova_, iii.; _Inferno_, xv. 55 sqq. &c.]

[Footnote 4: _Vita Nuova_, iii.]

[Footnote 5: _Vita Nuova_, iv-xxx.]

[Footnote 6: _Convito_, iv. 23.]

[Footnote 7: _Convito_, ii. 13.]

[Footnote 8: _Vita Nuova_, xxxi-xliii.; _Convito_, ii.; _Purgatorio_,
xxx, xxxi.]

[Footnote 9: _Inferno_, xxxiv. 55-67.]

[Footnote 10: See the _De Monarchia_. Compare _Purgatorio_, xvi.
103-112; _Paradiso_, xviii. 124-136.]

[Footnote 11: _Inferno_, iii. 22-51.]

[Footnote 12: Compare _Inferno_, x. 52-72, 109-111.]

[Footnote 13: _Paradiso_, xvii. 55-63.]



II

DANTE'S LIFE AND PRINCIPLES

_II. IN EXILE_


A rapid sketch of the most decisive events and the leading motives of
the life of Dante Alighieri has brought us to the eventful period of
his Priorate in 1300 and his banishment in 1302. His unsuccessful
efforts to carry out a firm and statesmanlike policy in Florence, with
the wreck of his own fortunes consequent upon their failure, may be
regarded as the occasion if not the cause of his conceiving his
greatest work, the 'Divine Comedy.'

Nineteen years elapsed between Dante's exile and his death, and both
tradition and internal evidence indicate that the main strength of his
life was poured during the whole of this period into the channels
already laid down in its opening years. 'Forging on the anvil of
incessant toil' the several parts of his great work, and 'welding them
into imperishable symmetry,'[14] the might of his intellect and the
passion of his heart grappled for nineteen years with the task of
giving worthy utterance to his vast idea. Line by line, canto by canto,
the victory was won. Dante had shown that his mother tongue could rise
to loftier themes than Greek or Roman had ever touched, and had wrought
out the fitting garb of a poem that stands alone in the literature of
the world in the scope and sublimity of its conception.

Barely to realise what it was that Dante attempted, wakes feelings in
our hearts akin to awe. When we think of that work and of the man who,
knowing what it was, deliberately set himself to do it, an appalling
sense of the presence of overwhelming grandeur falls upon us, as when a
great wall of rocky precipice rises sheer at our side, a thousand and
yet a thousand feet towards heaven. Our heads swim as we gaze up to the
sky-line of such a precipice, the ground seems to drop from beneath our
feet, all our past and present becomes a dream, and our very hold of
life seems to slip away from us. But the next moment a great exultation
comes rushing upon our hearts, with quickened pulses and drawing
deeper breath we rise to the sublimity of the scene around us, and our
whole being is expanded and exalted by it. After holding converse with
such grandeur our lives can never be so small again. And so it is when
the meaning of Dante's Comedy breaks upon us. When we follow the poet
step by step as he beats or pours his thought into language, when we
note the firmness of his pace, the mastery with which he handles and
commands his infinite theme, the unflinching directness, the godlike
self-reliance, with which he lays bare the hearts of his fellow-men and
makes himself the mouthpiece of the Eternal, when we gaze upon his
finished work and the despair of Hell, the yearning of Purgatory, the
peace of Heaven, sweep over our hearts, we are ready to whisper in
awe-struck exultation:

    What immortal hand or eye
    Dared form thy fearful symmetry?

The allegory with which the 'Divine Comedy' opens, shadows forth the
meaning and the purpose of the whole poem. In interpreting it we may
at first give prominence to its political signification, not because
its main intention is certainly or probably political, but because we
shall thus be enabled to pass in due order from the outer to the inner
circle of the poet's beliefs and purposes.

In the year 1300, then, Dante Alighieri found that he had wandered, he
knew not how, from the true path of life, and was plunged into the
deadly forest of political, social, and moral disorder which darkened
with terrific shade the fair soil of Italy. Deep horror settled upon
the recesses of his heart during the awful night, but at last he saw
the fair light of the morning sun brightening the shoulders of a hill
that stretched above: this was the peaceful land of moral and political
order, which seemed to offer an escape from the bitterness of that
ghastly forest. Gathering heart at this sweet sight, Dante set himself
manfully to work, with the nether foot ever planted firmly on the soil,
to scale that glorious height. But full soon his toilsome path would be
disputed with him. The dire powers of Guelfism would not allow the
restoration of peace and order to Italy. His first foe was the
incurable factiousness and lightness of his own fair Florence. Like a
lithe and speckled panther it glided before him to oppose his upward
progress, and forced him once and again to turn back upon his steps
towards that dread forest he had left. But though forced back, Dante
could not lose hope. Might he not tame this wild but beauteous beast?
Yes; he might have coped with the fickle, lustful, factious, envious
but lovely Florence, had not haughty France rushed on him like a lion,
at whose voice the air must tremble, had not lean and hungry Rome,
laden with insatiable greed, skulked wolf-like in his path. It was the
wolf above all that forced him back into the sunless depths of that
forest of dismay, and dashed to the ground his hopes of gaining the
fair height. When could he, when could his Italy, rise from this chaos
and be at peace? Not till some great political Messiah should draw his
sword. With no base love of pelf or thirst for land, but fed with
wisdom, love, and virtue, he should exalt the humbled Italy and drive
away her foes. Like a noble hound, he should chase the insatiable wolf
of Roman greed from city to city back to the Hell from which it
came.[15]

Dante's hope in this political Messiah rose and fell, but never died in
his heart. Now with the gospel of Messianic peace, now with the
denunciation of Messianic judgment on his lips, he poured out his lofty
enthusiasm in those apostolic and prophetic letters, some few of which
survive amidst the wrecks of time as records of his changing moods and
his unchanging purposes.

Now one and now another of the Ghibelline leaders may have seemed to
Dante from time to time to be the hero, the Messiah, for whom he
waited. But again and yet again his hopes were crushed and blighted,
and the panther, the lion, and the wolf still cut off the approach to
that fair land.

More than once the poet's hopes must have hung upon the fortunes of the
mighty warrior Uguccione, whose prodigies of valour rivalled the fabled
deeds of the knights of story. To this man Dante was bound by ties of
closest friendship; to him he dedicated the Inferno, the first cantica
of his Comedy, and he may possibly have been that hero ''twixt the two
Feltros born'[16] to whom Dante first looked to slay the wolf of Rome.

Far higher probably, and certainly far better grounded, were the poet's
hopes when Henry VII. of Germany descended into Italy to bring order
into her troubled states. To Dante, as we have seen, the Emperor was
Emperor of Rome and not of Germany. He was Cæsar's successor, the
natural representative of Italian unity, the Divinely appointed
guardian of civil order. With what passionate yearning Dante looked
across the Alps for a deliverer, how large a part of the woes of Italy
he laid at the feet of Imperial neglect, may be gathered from many
passages in his several works; but nowhere do these thoughts find
stronger utterance than in the sixth canto of the Purgatory. The poet
sees the shades of Virgil and the troubadour Sordello join in a loving
embrace at the bare mention of the name of Mantua, where both of them
were born. 'O Italy!' he cries, 'thou slave! thou hostelry of woe! Ship
without helmsman, in the tempest rude! No queen of provinces, but
house of shame! See how that gentle soul, e'en at the sweet sound of
his country's name, was prompt to greet his fellow-citizen. Then see
thy living sons, how one with other ever is at war, and whom the
self-same wall and moat begird, gnaw at each other's lives. Search,
wretched one, along thy sea-bound coasts, then inward turn to thine own
breast, and see if any part of thee rejoice in peace. Of what avail
Justinian's curb of law, with none to stride the saddle of command,
except to shame thee more? Alas! ye priests, who should be at your
prayers, leaving to Cæsar the high seat of rule, did ye read well the
word of God to you, see ye not how the steed grows wild and fell by
long exemption from the chastening spur, since that ye placed your
hands upon the rein? O German Albert! who abandonest, wild and untamed,
the steed thou should'st bestride, may the just sentence from the stars
above fall on thy race in dire and open guise, that he who follows thee
may see and fear. For, drawn by lust of conquest otherwhere, thou and
thy sire, the garden of the empire have ye left a prey to desolation.
Come, thou insensate one, and see the Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi,
Philippeschi, for all whom the past has sadness or the future fear.
Come, come, thou cruel one, and see oppression trampling on thy
faithful ones, and heal their ills.... Come thou, and see thy Rome, who
weeps for thee, a lonely widow crying day and night, "My Cæsar,
wherefore hast thou left me thus?" Come, see how love here governs
every heart! Or if our sorrows move thee not at all, blush for thine
own fair fame.--Nay, let me say it: O Thou God Most High, Thou Who wast
crucified for us on earth, are Thy just eyes turned otherwhither now?
Or in the depth of counsel dost Thou work for some good end, clean cut
off from our ken? For all Italia's lands are full of tyrants, and every
hind--so he be factious--grows Marcellus-high.'[17]

Such was the cry for deliverance which went up from Dante's heart to
the Emperor. Picture his hopes when Henry VII. came with the blessing
of the Pope, who had had more than his fill of French influence at
last, to bring peace and order into Italy; picture the exultation with
which he learnt alike from Henry's deeds and words that he was just,
impartial, generous, and came not as a tyrant, not as a party leader,
but as a firm and upright ruler to restore prosperity and peace;
picture his indignation when the incurable factiousness and jealousies
of the Italian cities, and of Florence most of all, thwarted the
Emperor at every step; picture the bitterness of his grief when, after
struggling nigh three years in vain, Henry fell sick, and died at
Buonconvento. In Paradise the poet saw the place assigned to 'Henry's
lofty soul--his who should come to make the crooked straight, ere Italy
was ready for his hand;' but the dream of his throne on earth was
broken for ever.[18]

Henry died in 1313. This blow was followed by the fall of Uguccione
when he seemed almost on the point of realising some of Dante's dearest
hopes. The poet and the warrior alike found refuge at Verona now, with
Can Grande della Scala, to whom Dante dedicated the third cantica of
his Comedy, the Paradise.[19] Did the exile's hopes revive again at
the Court of Verona? Did the gallant and generous young soldier whose
gracious and delicate hospitality called out such warm affection from
his heart,[20] seem worthy to accomplish that great mission in which
Uguccione and Henry had failed? It is more than probable that such
thoughts found room in Dante's sorrow-laden heart. And yet we cannot
but suppose that while his certainty remained unshaken that in God's
good time the deliverer would come, yet the hopes which centred in any
single man must have had less and less assurance in them as
disappointment after disappointment came.

Be this as it may, near the close of his life Dante was still able to
make Beatrice testify of him in the courts of Heaven: 'Church militant
has not a son stronger in hope than he. God knows it.'[21] Simple as
these words are, yet by him who has scanned Dante's features and
pondered on his life, they may well be numbered amongst those moving
and strengthening human utterances that ring like a trumpet through the
ages and call the soul to arms.

But were Dante's hopes all concentrated on the advent of that political
Messiah who was not to come in truth till our own day? Had it been so,
the 'Divine Comedy' would never have been born.

When Dante realised his own helplessness in the struggle against the
panther of Florence, the lion of France, and the wolf of Rome, when he
saw that to reorganise his country and remodel the social and political
conditions of life would need the strong hand and the keen sword of
some great hero raised by God, he also saw that for himself another way
was opened, an escape from that wild forest into which his feet had
strayed, an escape which it must be the task of his life to point out
to others, without which the very work of the hero for whom he looked
would be in vain.

The deadly forest represented moral as well as political confusion; the
sunlit mountain, moral as well as political order; and the beasts that
cut off the ascent, moral as well as political foes to human progress.

From this moral chaos there was deliverance for every faithful soul,
despite the lion and the wolf; and though the noble hound came not to
chase the foul beasts back to Hell, yet was Dante led from the forest
gloom even to the light of Heaven.

And how was he delivered? By Divine grace he saw Hell and Purgatory and
Heaven--so was he delivered. He saw the souls of men stripped of every
disguise, he saw their secret deeds of good or ill laid bare. He saw
Popes and Emperors, ancient heroes and modern sages, the rich, the
valiant, the noble, the fair of face, the sweet of voice; and no longer
dazzled, no longer overawed, he saw them as they were, he saw their
deeds, he saw the fruits of them. So was he delivered from the
entanglements and perplexities, from the delusions and seductions of
the world, so were his feet set upon the rock, so did he learn to sift
the true from the false, to rise above all things base, and set his
soul at peace, even when sorrow was gnawing his heart to death. He,
while yet clothed in flesh and blood, went amongst the souls of the
departed, 'heard the despairing shrieks of spirits long immersed in
woe, who wept each one the second death; saw suffering souls contented
in the flames, for each one looked to reach the realms of bliss, though
long should be the time,' and lastly he saw the souls in Heaven, and
gazed upon the very light of God.[22]

All this he saw and heard under the guidance of human and Divine
philosophy, symbolised, or rather concentrated and personified, in
Virgil and Beatrice.

Of Virgil, and the unique position assigned to him in the Middle Ages,
it is impossible here to speak at length. Almost from the first
publication of the Æneid, and down to the time when the revival of
learning reopened the treasures of Greek literature to Western Europe,
Virgil reigned in the Latin countries supreme and unchallenged over the
domain of poetry and scholarship. Within two generations of his own
lifetime, altars were raised to him, by enthusiastic disciples, as to a
deity. When Christianity spread, his supposed prediction of Christ in
one of the Eclogues endowed him with the character of a prophet; and a
magic efficacy had already been attributed to verses taken from his
works. Throughout the Middle Ages, his fame still grew as the supreme
arbiter in every field of literature, and as the repositary of more
than human knowledge, while fantastic legends clustered round his name
as the great magician and necromancer. To Dante there must also have
been a special fascination in the Imperial scope and sympathies of the
Æneid; for Virgil is pre-eminently the poet of the Roman Empire. But we
must not pause to follow out this subject here. Suffice it that Dante
felt for Virgil a reverence so deep, an admiration so boundless, and an
affection so glowing, that he became to him the very type of human
wisdom and excellence, the first agent of his rescue from the maze of
passion and error in which his life had been entangled.

But Beatrice, the loved and lost, was the symbol and the channel of a
higher wisdom, a diviner grace. She it was round whose sweet memory
gathered the noblest purposes and truest wisdom of the poet's life. If
ever he suffered the intensity of his devotion to truth and virtue for
a moment to relax; if ever, as he passed amongst luxurious courts, some
siren voice soothed his cares with a moment of unworthy forgetfulness
and ignoble ease; if ever he suffered meaner cares or projects to draw
him aside so much as in thought from his great mission, then it was
Beatrice's glorified image that recalled him in tears of bitter shame
and penitence to the path of pain, of effort, and of glory. It was her
love that had rescued him from the fatal path; Virgil was but her agent
and emissary, and his mission was complete when he had led him to her.
Human wisdom and virtue could guide him through Hell and Purgatory,
could show him the misery of sin, and the need of purifying pain and
fire, but it was only in Beatrice's presence that he could _feel_ the
utter hatefulness and shame of an unworthy life, could _feel_ the
blessedness of Heaven.[23]

Under the guidance of Virgil and Beatrice, then, Dante had seen Hell
and Purgatory and Heaven. This had snatched his soul from death, had
taught him, even in the midst of the moral and political chaos of his
age, how to live and after what to strive. Could he show others what
he himself had seen? Could he save them, as he was saved, from the
meanness, from the blindness, from the delusions of the life they led?
He could. Though it should be the toil of long and painful years, yet
in the passionate conviction of his own experience he felt the power in
him of making real to others what was so intensely real to him. But
what did this involve? The truth if wholesome was yet hard. He had dear
and honoured friends whose lives had been stained by unrepented sin,
and whose souls he had seen in Hell. Was he to cry aloud to all the
world that these loved ones were amongst the damned, instead of
tenderly hiding their infirmities? Again, he was poor and an exile, he
had lost 'all things most dear,' and was dependent for his very bread
on the grace and favour of the great; yet if he told the world what he
had seen, a storm of resentful hatred would crash upon him from every
region of Italy. How would proud dames and lords brook to be told of
their dead associates in sin and shame cursing their names from the
very depths of Hell, and looking for their speedy advent there? How
would pope and cardinal and monarch brook to be told by the powerless
exile what he had heard from souls in Heaven, in Purgatory, and in
Hell? E'en let them brook it as they might. His cry should be like the
tempest that sweeps down upon the loftiest forest trees, but leaves the
brushwood undisturbed. The mightiest in the land should hear his voice,
and henceforth none should think that loftiness of place or birth could
shield the criminal. He would tell in utter truth what he had seen. He
knew that power was in him to brand the infamous with infamy that none
could wash away, to rescue the fair memory of those the world had
wrongfully condemned, to say what none but he dare say, in verse which
none but he could forge, and bring all those who hearkened through Hell
and Purgatory into Heaven.[24]

To deliver this message was the work of his life, the end to which all
his studies were directed, from the time of his exile to that of his
death. Hence his studious labours came to have a representative and
vicarious character in his mind. He was proudly conscious that he
lived and worked for mankind, and that his toil deserved the grateful
recognition of his city and his country.

This trait of his character comes out with striking force in the noble
letter which he wrote in answer to the proffered permission to return
to his beloved Florence, but upon disgraceful conditions which he could
not accept. The offer came when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb.
Henry VII. was dead, Uguccione had lost his power. All hope of the
exile's returning in triumph seemed at an end. Then came the offer of a
pardon and recall, for which he had longed with all the passionate
intensity of his nature. And yet it was but a mockery. It was a custom
in Florence upon the Day of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of
the city, to release certain malefactors from the public gaols on their
performing set acts of contrition; and a decree was passed that all the
political exiles might return to their home on St. John's Day in 1317
if they would pay a sum of money, walk in procession, with tapers in
their hands and with other tokens of guilt and penitence, to the
church, and there offer themselves as ransomed malefactors to the
saint.

Many of the exiles accepted the terms, but Dante's proud and indignant
refusal shows us a spirit unbroken by disappointment and disaster,
scorning to purchase ease by degradation. 'Is this,' he cries to the
friend who communicated to him the conditions upon which he might
return, 'is this the glorious recall by which Dante Alighieri is
summoned back to his country after well-nigh fifteen years of exile? Is
this what innocence well known to all, is this what the heavy toil of
unbroken study, has deserved? Far be it from him who walks as her
familiar with Philosophy to stoop to the base grovelling of a soul of
clay and suffer himself thus to be treated like a vile malefactor. Far
be it from the preacher of justice, when suffering outrage, to pay the
acknowledgment of fair desert to the outrageous.

'Not by this path can I return. But let a way be found that hurts not
Dante's honour and fair fame, and I will tread it with no tardy feet.
If no such road leads back to Florence, then will I never enter
Florence more. What! can I not gaze, wherever I may be, upon the
spectacle of sun and stars? Can I not ponder on the sweetest truths in
any region under heaven, but I must first make myself base and vile
before the people of the State of Florence?'[25]

Such was the answer of Dante Alighieri to that cruel insult which makes
our cheeks glow even now with indignation. Such was the temper of the
man who had seen Hell and Purgatory and Heaven, and who shrank not from
the utterance of all that he had seen.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dante must now have been engaged in writing the Paradise. Amongst the
sufferings and burdens which were fast drawing him to the grave,
amongst the agonies of indignation, of regret, of hope, of
disappointment which still wracked his soul, the deep peace of God had
come upon him; beneath a storm of passion at which our hearts quail was
a calm of trustful self-surrender which no earthly power could disturb;
for the harmonies of Paradise swelled in the poet's heart and sought
for utterance in these last years.

But though his spirit was thus rapt to Heaven, he never lost his hold
upon the earth; never disdained to toil as best he might for the
immediate instruction or well-being of his kind. More than once his
eloquence and skill enabled him to render signal service to his
protectors in conducting delicate negotiations, and at the same time to
further that cause of Italian unity which was ever near his heart. Nor
did the progress of his great work, the Comedy, withhold him from a
varied subsidiary activity as a poet, a moralist, and a student of
language and science.

One characteristic example of this by-work must suffice. In the last
year but one of his life when he must have been meditating the last,
perhaps the sublimest, cantos of the Paradise, when he might well have
been excused if he had ceased to concern himself with any of the lower
grades of truth, he heard a certain question of physics discussed and
re-discussed, and never decided because of the specious but sophistical
arguments which were allowed to veil it in doubt. The question was
whether some portions of the sea are or are not at a higher level than
some portions of the land; and Dante, 'nursed from his boyhood in the
love of truth,' as he says, 'could not endure to leave the question
unresolved, and determined to demonstrate the facts and to refute the
arguments alleged against them.'[26] Accordingly he defended his thesis
on a Sunday in one of the churches of Verona under the presidency of
Can Grande.

This essay is a model of close reasoning and sound scientific method,
and the average nineteenth century reader, with the average contempt
for fourteenth century science, would find much to reflect upon should
he read and understand it. The vague and inconclusive style of
reasoning against which Dante contends is still rampant everywhere,
though its forms have changed; while the firm grasp of scientific
method and the incisive reasoning of Dante himself are still the
exception in spite of all our modern training in research.

Thus Dante was engaged to the last upon the whole field of human
thought. Such was the scope and power of his mind that he could embrace
at the same moment the very opposite poles of speculation; and such
was his passion for truth that, when gazing upon the very presence of
God, he could not bear to leave men in error when he could set them
right, though it were but as to the level of the land and sea.

       *       *       *       *       *

But we must hasten to a close. Let us turn from the consideration of
Dante's work to a picture of personal character drawn by his own hand.
It is his ideal of a life inspired by that 'gentleness' for which,
since the days of chivalry, we have had no precise equivalent in
language, and which is itself too rare in every age.

    The soul that this celestial grace adorns
      In secret holds it not;
      For from the first, when she the body weds,
      She shows it, until death:
      Gentle, obedient, and alive to shame,
      Is seen in her first age,
      Adding a comely beauty to the frame,
      With all accomplishments:
      In youth is temperate and resolute,
      Replete with love and praise of courtesy,
      Placing in loyalty her sole delight:
      And in declining age
      Is prudent, just, and for her bounty known;
      And joys within herself
      To listen and discourse for others' good:
      Then in the fourth remaining part of life
      To God is re-espoused,
      Contemplating the end that draws a-nigh,
      And blesseth all the seasons that are past:
      --Reflect now, how the many are deceived![27]

Cherishing such an ideal, Dante wandered from court to court of Italy,
finding here and there a heart of gold, but for the most part moving
amongst those to whom grace and purity and justice were but names. Can
we wonder that sometimes the lonely exile felt as if his own
sorrow-laden heart were the sole refuge upon earth of love and
temperance?

Three noble dames, he tells us--noble in themselves but in nought else,
for their garments were tattered, their feet unshod, their hair
dishevelled, and their faces stained with tears--came and flung
themselves at the portal of his heart, for they knew that Love was
there. Moved with deep pity, Love came forth to ask them of their
state. They were Rectitude, Temperance, and Generosity, once honoured
by the world, now driven out in want and shame, and they came there for
refuge in their woe. Then Love, with moistened eyes, bade them lift up
their heads. If they were driven begging through the world, it was for
men to weep and wail whose lives had fallen in such evil times; but not
for them, hewn from the eternal rock--it was not for them to grieve. A
race of men would surely rise at last whose hearts would turn to them
again. And hearing thus how exiles great as these were grieved and
comforted, the lonely poet thought his banishment his glory.

Yet when he looked for his sweet home and found it not, the agony that
could not break his spirit fast destroyed his flesh, and he knew that
death had laid the key upon his bosom.[28]

When this sublime and touching poem was composed we have no means of
knowing, but it can hardly have been long before the end. When that end
came, Dante can barely have completed his great life work, he can
barely have written the last lines of the 'Divine Comedy.' He had been
on an unsuccessful mission in the service of his last protector, Guido
da Polenta of Ravenna. On his return he was seized with a fatal
illness, and died at Ravenna in 1321, at the age of fifty-six.

Who can grudge him his rest? As we read the four tracts of the
'Convito,' which were to have been the first of fourteen, but must now
remain alone, as we are brought to a sudden stand at the abrupt
termination of his unfinished work on the dialects and poetry of
Italy,[29] as we ponder on the unexhausted treasures that still lay in
the soul of him who could write as Dante wrote even to the end, we can
hardly suppress a sigh to think that our loss purchased his rest so
soon. But his great work was done; he had told his vision, that men
might go with him to Hell, to Purgatory, and to Heaven, and be saved
from all things base. Then his weary head was laid down in peace, and
his exile was at an end. 'That fair fold in which, a lamb, he lay'[30]
was never opened to him again, but he went home, and the blessings of
the pure in heart and strong in love go with him.

       *       *       *       *       *

The thoughts with which we turn from the contemplation of Dante's life
and work find utterance in the lines of Michael Angelo. 'The works of
Dante were unrecognised, and his high purpose, by the ungrateful folk
whose blessing rests on all--except the just. Yet would his fate were
mine! For his drear exile, with his virtue linked, glad would I change
the fairest state on earth.'


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 14: See Symonds, p. 186.]

[Footnote 15: See _Inferno_, i. 1-111.]

[Footnote 16: _Inferno_, i. 105.]

[Footnote 17: _Purgatorio_, vi. 76-126.]

[Footnote 18: See especially Epistolæ v-vii.; _Paradiso_, xxx.
133-138.]

[Footnote 19: See Epistola xi.]

[Footnote 20: _Paradiso_, xvii. 70-93.]

[Footnote 21: _Ibid._ xxv. 52-54.]

[Footnote 22: _Inferno_, i. 112-129.]

[Footnote 23: _Inferno_, i. 121-123, ii. 52-142; _Purgatorio_, xxx.
sqq.; _Paradiso_, passim.]

[Footnote 24: _Paradiso_, xvii. 103-142.]

[Footnote 25: Epistola x.]

[Footnote 26: _Quæstio de Aqua et Terra_, § 1.]

[Footnote 27: Canzone xvi., 'Le dolci rime,' st. vii. See _Convito_,
trat. iv. Translation slightly altered from Lyell.]

[Footnote 28: Canzone xix., 'Tre donne.']

[Footnote 29: _De Vulgari Eloquio._]

[Footnote 30: _Paradiso_, xxv. 5.]



III

HELL


The first cantica of the 'Divine Comedy'--the Inferno or Hell--is the
best known of all Dante's works in prose or verse, in Latin or Italian;
and though students of Dante may sometimes regret this fact, yet no one
can be at a moment's loss to understand it.

For the attributes of heart and brain requisite for some kind of
appreciation of the Inferno are by many degrees more common than those
to which the other works of Dante appeal. It is easy to imagine a
reader who has not even begun truly to understand either the poet or
the poem nevertheless rendering a sincere tribute of admiration to the
colossal force of the Inferno, and feeling the weird spell of
fascination and horror ever tightening its grasp on him as he descends
from circle to circle of that starless realm.

There is no mystery in the inveterate tendency to regard Dante as
pre-eminently the poet of Hell. Nor is it a new phenomenon. Tradition
tells of the women who shrank aside as Dante passed them by, and said
one to another, shuddering as they spoke, 'See how his black hair
crisped in the fire as he passed through Hell!' But no tradition tells
of awe-struck passers-by who noted that the stains had been wiped from
that clear brow in Purgatory, that the gleam of that pure and dauntless
eye had been kindled in Heaven.

The machinery of the Inferno, then, is moderately familiar to almost
all. Dante, lost in the darksome forest, scared from the sunlit heights
by the wild beasts that guard the mountain side, meets the shade of
Virgil, sent to rescue him by Beatrice, and suffered by Omnipotence to
leave for a time his abode in the limbo of the unbaptised, on this
mission of redeeming love. Virgil guides Dante through the open gate of
Hell, down through circle after circle of contracting span and
increasing misery and sin, down to the central depth where the
arch-rebel Satan champs in his triple jaws the arch-traitors against
Church and State, Judas Iscariot, and Brutus and Cassius.[31]

Through all these circles Dante passes under Virgil's guidance. He sees
and minutely describes the varying tortures apportioned to the varying
guilt of the damned, and converses with the souls of many illustrious
dead in torment.

And is this the poem that has enthralled and still enthrals so many a
heart? Are we to look for the strengthening, purifying, and uplifting
of our lives, are we to look for the very soul of poetry in an almost
unbroken series of descriptions, unequalled in their terrible
vividness, of ghastly tortures, interspersed with tales of shame, of
guilt, of misery? Even so. And we shall not look in vain.

But let us listen first to Dante's own account of the subject-matter of
his poem. Five words of his are better than a volume of the
commentators. 'The subject of the whole work, literally accepted,' he
says, 'is the state of souls after death.... But if the work is taken
allegorically the subject is MAN, as rendering himself liable, by good
or ill desert in the exercise of his free will, to rewarding or
punishing justice.'[32]

According to Dante, then, the real subject of the Inferno is 'Man, as
rendered liable, by ill desert in the exercise of his free will, to
punishing justice.' Surely a subject fraught with unutterable sadness,
compassed by impenetrable mystery, but one which in the hands of a
prophet may well be made to yield the bread of life; a subject fitly
introduced by those few pregnant words, 'The day was going, and the
dusky air gave respite to the animals that are on earth from all their
toils; and I alone girt me in solitude to bear the strain both of the
journey and the piteous sight, which memory that errs not shall
retrace.'[33]

       *       *       *       *       *

Now if this be the true subject of the poem, it follows that all those
physical horrors of which it seems almost to consist must be strictly
subordinate to something else, must be part of the machinery or means
by which the end of the poet is reached, but in no way the end itself.

If the subject of the poem is a moral one, then the descriptions of
physical torment and horror must never even for a moment overbalance or
overwhelm the true 'motive' of the work, must never even for a moment
so crush or deaden the feelings as to render them incapable of moral
impressions, must never in a single instance leave a prevailingly
physical impression upon the mind.

And it is just herein that the transcendent power of the Inferno is
displayed. Horrors which rise and ever rise in intensity till they
culminate in some of the ghastliest scenes ever conceived by mortal
brain are from first to last held under absolute control, are forced to
support and intensify moral conceptions which in less mighty hands they
would have numbed and deadened.

Oh, the pity of this sin, the unutterable, indelible pity of it! Its
wail can never be stilled in our hearts while thought and memory
remain. The misery of some forms of sin, the foul shame of others, the
vileness, the hatefulness, the hideous deformity of others yet--this,
and not horror at the punishment of sin, is what Dante stamps and
brands upon our hearts as we descend with him towards the central
depths, stamps and brands upon our hearts till the pity, the loathing,
the horror can endure no more;--then in the very depth of Hell, at the
core of the Universe, with one mighty strain that leaves us well-nigh
spent, we turn upon that central point, and, leaving Hell beneath our
feet, ascend by the narrow path at the antipodes.

With the horror and the burden of the starless land far off, we lift up
our eyes again to see the stars, and our souls are ready for the
purifying sufferings of Purgatory.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sometimes the tortures of the damned are a mere physical translation,
so to speak, of their crimes. Thus the ruthless disseminators of strife
and dissension who have torn asunder those who belonged one to another,
those who had no proper existence apart from one another, are in their
turn hewn and cleft by the avenging sword; and ever as their bodies
reunite and their wounds are healed, the fierce blow falls again.
Amongst them Dante sees the great troubadour Bertram de Born, who
fostered the rebellion of the sons of our own king Henry II. In that
he made father and son each other's enemy, his head is severed from his
trunk, his brain from its own root.[34]

In other cases a transparent metaphor or allegory dictates the form of
punishment; as when the hypocrites crawl in utter weariness under the
crushing weight of leaden garments, shaped like monkish cloaks and
cowls, and all covered with shining gold outside.[35] Or when the
flatterers and sycophants wallow in filth which fitly symbolises their
foul life on earth.[36]

It is probable that some special significance and appropriateness might
be traced in almost all the forms of punishment in Dante's Hell, though
it is not always obvious. But one thing at least is obvious: the
uniform congruousness of the impression which the physical and moral
factors of each description combine to produce. In fact, the Inferno is
an account of 'man, as deserving ill by the exercise of his free will,'
in which all the external surroundings are brought into precise accord
with the central conception. The tortures are only the background; and
as in the picture of a great artist, whether we can trace any special
significance and appropriateness in the background or not, we always
feel that it supports the true subject of the picture and never
overpowers it, so it is here. Man as misusing his free will. This is
the real subject of the Inferno. All else is accessory and subordinate.

But if this be so, we should expect to find an endless variety and
gradation, alike of guilt and punishment, as we pass through the
circles of Hell. And so we do. At one moment indignation and reproof
are all swallowed up in pity, and the suffering of the exiled soul only
serves to quicken an infinite compassion in our hearts, a compassion
not so much for the punishment of sin as for sin itself with its woeful
loss and waste of the blessings and the holiness of life. At another
moment we are brought face to face with a wretch whose tortures only
serve to throw his vileness into sharper relief; and when we think of
him and of his deeds, of him and of his victims, we can understand
those awful words of Virgil's when Dante weeps, 'Art thou too like the
other fools? The death of pity is true pity here.'[37] Infinite pity
would indeed embrace the most abandoned, but it is only weak and
misdirected pity that wakes or slumbers at the dictate of mere
suffering.

And as there is infinite variety of guilt and woe, so is there infinite
variety of character in Dante's Hell. Though the poet condemns with
sternest impartiality all who have died in unrepented sin, yet he
recognises and honours the moral distinctions amongst them. What a
difference, for instance, between the wild blaspheming robber Vanni
Fucci,[38] and the defiant Capaneus,[39] a prototype of Milton's Satan,
the one incited by the bestial rage of reckless self-abandonment, the
other by the proud self-reliance of a spirit that eternity cannot
break--alike in their defiance of the Almighty, but how widely severed
in the sources whence it springs.

Look again where Jason strides. The wrongs he did Medea and Hypsipyle
have condemned him to the fierce lash under which his base companions
shriek and fly; but he, still kingly in his mien, without a tear or cry
bears his eternal pain.[40]

See Farinata, the great Florentine--in his ever burning tomb he stands
erect and proud, 'as holding Hell in great disdain;' tortured less by
the flames than by the thought that the faction he opposed is now
triumphant in his city; proud, even in Hell, to remember how once he
stood alone between his country and destruction.[41]

See again where Pietro delle Vigne, in the ghastly forest of suicides,
longs with a passionate longing that his fidelity at that time when he
'held both the keys of the great Frederick's heart' should be
vindicated upon earth from the unjust calumnies that drove him to
self-slaughter.[42]

And see where statesmen and soldiers of Florence, themselves condemned
for foul and unrepented sin, still love the city in which they lived,
still long to hear some good of her. As the flakes of fire fall 'like
snow upon a windless day' on their defenceless bodies, see with what
dismay they gaze into one another's eyes when Dante brings ill news to
them of Florence.[43]

In a word, the souls in Hell are what they were on earth, no better and
no worse. This is the key-note to the comprehension of the poem. No
change has taken place; none are made rebels to God's will, and none
are brought into submission to it, by their punishment; but all are as
they were. Even amongst the vilest there is only the rejection of a
thin disguise, no real increase of shamelessness. Many souls desire to
escape notice and to conceal their crimes, just as they would have done
on earth; many condemn their evil deeds and are ashamed of them, just
as they would have been on earth; but there is no change of character,
no infusion of a new spirit either for good or ill; with all their
variety and complexity of character, the unrepentant sinners wake in
Hell as they would wake on earth our mingled pity and horror, our
mingled loathing and admiration. Man as misusing his free will, in all
the scope and variety of the infinite theme, is the subject of the
poem.

And this brings us to another consideration: the eternity of Dante's
Hell. Those who know no other line of Dante, know the last verse of the
inscription upon the gate of Hell: 'All hope relinquish, ye that enter
here.' The whole inscription is as follows: 'Through me the way lies to
the doleful city; through me the way lies to eternal pain; through me
the way lies 'mongst the people lost. 'Twas justice moved my Lofty
Maker; Divine Power made me, Wisdom Supreme and Primal Love. Before me
were no things created, save things eternal; and I, too, last eternal.
All hope relinquish, ye that enter here.'[44]

The gates of Hell reared by the Primal Love! If we believe in the
eternity of sin and evil, the eternity of suffering and punishment
follows of necessity. To be able to acquiesce in the one, but to shrink
from the thought of the other, is sheer weakness. The eternity and
hopelessness of Dante's Hell are the necessary corollaries of the
impenitence of his sinners. To his mind wisdom and love cannot exist
without justice, and justice demands that eternal ill-desert shall reap
eternal woe.

But how could one who so well knew what an eternal Hell of sin and
suffering meant, believe it to be founded on eternal love? Why did not
Dante's heart in the very strength of that eternal love rebel against
the hideous belief in eternal sin and punishment? I cannot answer the
question I have asked. Dante believed in the Church, believed in the
theology she taught, and could not have been what he was had he not
done so. Had he rejected any of the cardinal beliefs of the
Christianity of his age and rebelled against the Church, he might have
been the herald of future reformations, but he could never have been
the index and interpreter to remotest generations of that mediæval
Catholic religion of which his poem is the very soul.

Meanwhile note this, that if ever man realised the awful mystery and
contradiction involved in the conception of a good God condemning the
virtuous heathen to eternal exile, that man was Dante. If ever heart
of man was weighed down beneath the load of pity for the damned, that
heart was Dante's. The virtuous heathen he places in the first round of
Hell; here 'no plaint is to be heard except of sighs, which make the
eternal air to tremble;' here, with no other torture than the death of
hope without the death of longing, they live in neither joy nor sorrow,
eternal exiles from the realms of bliss.[45]

Dante, as we shall see hereafter, longed with a passionate thirsty
longing to know how the Divine justice could thus condemn the innocent.
But his thirst was never slaked. It was and remained an utter mystery
to him; and there are few passages of deeper pathos than those in which
he remembers that his beloved and honoured guide and master, even
Virgil, the very type of human wisdom and excellence, was himself
amongst these outcasts.[46]

Again and again, as we pass with Dante through the circles of Hell, we
feel that his yearning pity for the lost, racking his very soul and
flinging him senseless to the ground for misery, shows an awakening
spirit which could not long exist in human hearts without teaching them
that God's redeeming pity is greater and more patient than their own.
So, too, when Francesca and Paolo, touched by Dante's pitying sympathy,
exclaim, 'Oh, thou gracious being, if we were dear to God, how would we
pray for thee!'[47] who can help feeling that Dante was not far from
the thought that all souls are dear to God?

Meanwhile, how strong that faith which could lift up all this weight of
mystery and woe, and still believe in the Highest Wisdom and the Primal
Love! Only the man who knew the holiness of human life to the full as
well as he knew its infamy, only the man who had seen Purgatory and
Heaven, and who had actually felt the love of God, could know that with
all its mystery and misery the universe was made not only by the Divine
Power, but by the Supreme Wisdom and the Primal Love, could weave this
Trinity of Power, Wisdom, Love, into the Unity of the all-sustaining
God, who made both Heaven and Hell.

And we still have to face the same insoluble mystery. The darker shade
is indeed lifted from the picture upon which we gaze; we have no
eternal Hell, no eternity of sin, to reckon with; but to us too comes
the question, 'Can the world with all its sin and misery be built
indeed upon the Primal Love?' And our answer too must be the answer not
of knowledge but of faith. Only by making ourselves God's fellow
workers till we _feel_ that the Divine Power and the Primal Love are
one, can we gain a faith that will sustain the mystery it cannot solve.
Alas! how often our weaker faith fails in its lighter task, how often
do we speak of sin and misery as though they were discoveries of
yesterday that had brought new trials to our faith, unknown before; how
often do we feel it hard to say even of earth what Dante in the might
of his unshaken faith could say of Hell itself--that it is made by
Power, Wisdom, Love!

       *       *       *       *       *

But perhaps we have dwelt too long already on this topic, and in any
case we must now hasten on. Dante's Hell, as we have seen, represents
sinful and impenitent humanity with all its fitting surroundings and
accessories, cut off from everything that can distract the attention,
confuse the moral impression, or alleviate its appalling strength. And
as the magic power of his words, with the absolute sincerity and
clearness of his own conceptions, forces us to realise the details of
his vision as if we had trodden every step of the way with him, this
result follows amongst others: that we realise, with a vividness that
can never again grow dim, an existence without any one of those sweet
surroundings and embellishments of human life which seem the fit
support and reflection of purity and love.

We have been in a land where none of the fair sounds or sights of
nature have access, no flowers, no stars, no light, and if there are
streams and hills there they are hideously transformed into instruments
and emblems not of beauty but of horror. We are made to realise all
this, and to feel that it is absolutely and eternally fitting as the
abode of sin and of impenitence. And when once this association has
been stamped upon our minds, the beauty and the sweetness of the world
in which we live gain a new meaning for us. They become the standing
protest of all that is round us against every selfish, every sinful
thought or deed; the standing appeal to us to bring our souls into
sweet harmony with their surroundings, since God in His mercy brings
not their surroundings into ghastly harmony with them.

When we have been with the poor wretch, deep down in Hell, who gasps in
his burning fever for 'the rivulets that from the green slopes of
Casentino drop down into the Arno, freshening the soft, cool channels,
where they glide,'[48] and have realised that in that land there are
not and ought not to be the cooling streams and verdant slopes of
earth; we can never again enjoy the sweetness and the peace of nature
without our hearts being consciously or unconsciously purified, without
every evil thing in our lives feeling the rebuke.

When we have known what it is to be in a starless land, and have felt
how strange and incongruous the fair sights of Heaven would be, have
felt that they would have no place or meaning there, have felt that
cheerless gloom alone befits the souls enveloped there, then when we
leave the dreary realms, and once more gaze upon the heavens by night
and day, they are more to us than they have ever been before, they are
indeed what Dante so often calls them, using the language of the
falconers, the _lure_ by which God summons back our wayward souls from
vain and mean pursuits.

Look, again, upon this fearful picture. Dante and Virgil come to a
black and muddy lake in which the passionate tear and smite one another
in bestial rage; and all over its surface are bubbles rising up. They
come from the cries of the morose and sullen ones 'who are fixed in the
slime at the bottom of the lake. They cry: "Gloomy we were in the sweet
air that the sun gladdens, bearing in our hearts the smoke of
sullenness; now we are gloomy here in the black slime"--such is the
strain that gurgles in their throats, but cannot find full
utterance.'[49] Who that has seen those bubbles rise upon the lake can
ever suffer himself again to cherish sullenness within his heart
without feeling at the very instant the rebuke of the 'sweet air that
the sun gladdens,' and thinking of that gurgling strain of misery?

       *       *       *       *       *

Another of the lessons taught by the Inferno is, that no plea, however
moving, can avail the sinner, or take away the sinfulness of sin, that
no position can place him above punishment, that no authority can
shield him from it.

The guilty love of Francesca and Paolo, so strong, so deathless in that
it was love, has sunk them to Hell instead of raising them to Heaven in
that it was guilty. Stronger to make them one than Hell to sever them,
it is powerless to redeem the sin to which it has allied itself, and
its tenderness has but swelled the eternal anguish of those whom it
still joins together, because it has suffered the sanctuary of life,
which love is set to guard, to be polluted and betrayed. Sung in those
strains of deathless tenderness and pity where 'tears seem to drop from
the very words,' the story of this guilty love reveals the fatalest of
all mischoice, and tells us that no passion, however wild in its
intensity, however innocent in its beginnings, however unpremeditated
in its lawless outburst, however overmastering in its pleas, however
loyal to itself in time and in eternity, may dare to raise itself above
the laws of God and man, or claim immunity from its wretched
consequences for those who are its slaves. How infinite the pity and
the waste, how irreparable the loss, when the love that might have been
an ornament to Heaven, adds to the unmeasured guilt and anguish of Hell
a wail of more piercing sorrow than rings through all its lower depths!

Nor could any height of place claim exemption from the moral law. Dante
was a Catholic, and his reverence for the Papal Chair was deep. But
against the faithless Popes he cherished a fiery indignation
proportioned to his high estimate of the sacred office they abused. In
one of the most fearful passages of the Inferno he describes, in terms
that gain a terrible significance from one of the forms of criminal
execution practised in his day, how he stood by a round hole in one of
the circles of Hell, in which Pope Nicholas III. was thrust head
foremost--stood like the confessor hearing the assassin's final words,
and heard the guilty story of Pope Nicholas.[50]

It is characteristic of Dante that he tells us here, as if quite
incidentally, that these holes were about the size of the baptising
stands or fonts in the Church of San Giovanni, 'one of which,' says he,
'I broke not many years ago to save one who was drowning in it. Let
this suffice to disabuse all men.' Evidently he had been taxed with
sacrilege for saving the life of the drowning child at the expense of
the sacred vessel, and it can hardly be an accident that he recalls
this circumstance in the Hell of the sacrilegious Popes and Churchmen.
These men, who had despised their sacred trust and turned it to basest
trafficking, were the representatives of that hard system of soulless
officialism that would pollute the holiest functions of the Church,
while reverencing with superstitious scruple their outward symbols and
instruments.

And if the Papal office could not rescue the sinner that held it,
neither could the Papal authority shield the sins of others. It is said
that Catholics have not the keeping of their own consciences. Dante at
least thought they had. In the Hell of fraudulent counsellors, wrapped
in a sheet of eternal flame one comes to him and cries, 'Grudge not to
stay and speak with me a while. Behold, I grudge it not, although I
burn.' It is Guido da Montefeltro, whose fame in council and in war had
gone forth to the ends of the earth. All wiles and covert ways he knew,
and there had ever been more of the fox than of the lion in him. But
when he saw himself arriving at that age when every man should lower
sails and gather in his ropes, then did he repent of all that once had
pleased him, and girding him with the cord of St. Francis he became a
monk. Alas! his penitence would have availed him well but for the
Prince of the new Pharisees, Pope Boniface VIII., who was waging war
with Christians that should have been his friends, hard by the Lateran.
'He demanded counsel of me,' continues Guido, 'but I kept silence, for
his words seemed drunken. Then he said to me, "Let not thy heart
misdoubt: henceforth do I absolve thee, but do thou teach me so to act
that I may cast Prenestina to the ground. Heaven I can shut and open,
as thou knowest." ... Then the weighty arguments impelled me to think
silence worse than speech; and so I said, "Father, since thou dost
cleanse me from that guilt wherein I now must fall, long promise and
performance short will make thee triumph in thy lofty seat." Then when
I died St. Francis came for me, but one of the black cherubim said to
him: "Do me no wrong, nor take thou him away. He must come down amongst
my menials, e'en for the fraudulent advice he gave, since when I have
kept close upon his hair. He who repents not cannot be absolved, nor
can one will the same thing he repents, the contradiction not
permitting it." Ah wretched me! how did I shudder then, for he laid
hold of me, and with the cry, "Haply thou knew'st not I was a
logician?" bore me to judgment.'[51]

Who can fail to recognise the utter truth of Dante's teaching here?
What can stand between a man's own conscience and his duty? Though the
very symbol and mouthpiece of the collective wisdom and piety of
Christendom should hold the shield of authority before the culprit, yet
it cannot ward off the judgment for one single deed done in violation
of personal moral conviction. When once we have realised the meaning of
this awful passage, how can we ever urge again as an excuse for
unfaithfulness to our own consciences, that the assurance of those we
loved and reverenced overcame our scruples? Here as everywhere Dante
strips sin of every specious and distracting circumstance, and shows it
to us where it ought to be--in Hell.

Contrast with the scene we have just looked upon the companion picture
from the Purgatory; where Buonconte di Montefeltro tells how he fled on
foot from the battle-field of Campaldino, his throat pierced with a
mortal wound ensanguining the earth. Where Archiano falls into the Arno
there darkness came upon him, and he fell crossing his arms upon his
breast and calling on the name of Mary with his last breath. 'Then,' he
continues, 'God's angel came and took me, and Hell's angel shrieked, "O
thou of Heaven, wherefore dost thou rob me? Thou bear'st with thee the
eternal part of him, all for one wretched tear which saves it from me.
But with the other part of him I'll deal in other fashion."' Upon which
the infuriated demon swells the torrent with rain, sweeps the
warrior's body from the bank, dashes away the hateful cross into which
its arms are folded, and in impotent rage rolls it along the river bed
and buries it in slime so that men never see it more; but the soul is
meanwhile saved.[52]

       *       *       *       *       *

Here we must pause. I have made no attempt to give a systematic account
of the Inferno, still less to select the finest passages from it. I
have only tried to interpret some of the leading thoughts which run
through it, some of the deep lessons which it can hardly fail to teach
the reader.

Like all great works, the Inferno should be studied both in detail and
as a whole in order to be rightly understood; and when we understand
it, even partially, when we have been with Dante down through all the
circles to that central lake of ice in which all humanity seems frozen
out of the base traitors who showed no humanity on earth, when we have
faced the icy breath of the eternal air winnowed by Satan's wings, and
have been numbed to every thought and feeling except one--one which
has been burned and frozen into our hearts through all those rounds of
shame and woe--the thought of the pity, the misery, the hatefulness of
sin; then, but then only, we shall be ready to understand the
Purgatory, shall know something of what the last lines of the Inferno
meant to Dante: 'We mounted up, he first and second I, until through a
round opening I saw some of those beauteous things that Heaven bears;
and thence we issued forth again to see the stars.'[53]


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 31: Compare pp. 21-23.]

[Footnote 32: Epistola xi. § 8.]

[Footnote 33: _Inferno_, ii. 1-6.]

[Footnote 34: _Inferno_, xxviii.]

[Footnote 35: _Ibid._ xxiii. 58 sqq.]

[Footnote 36: _Ibid._ xviii. 103-136.]

[Footnote 37: _Inferno_, xx. 27, 28: 'Qui vive la pietà quand' è ben
morta.' The double force of pietà, 'pi[e]ty,' is lost in the
translation.]

[Footnote 38: _Ibid._ xxiv. 112-xxv. 9 &c.]

[Footnote 39: _Ibid._ xiv. 43-66.]

[Footnote 40: _Inferno_, xviii. 82-96.]

[Footnote 41: _Ibid._ x. 22-93.]

[Footnote 42: _Ibid._ xiii. 55-78.]

[Footnote 43: _Inferno_, xvi. 64-85.]

[Footnote 44: _Inferno_, iii. 1-9.]

[Footnote 45: _Inferno_, iv. 23-45, 84.]

[Footnote 46: Compare e.g. _Purgatorio_, iii. 34-45, xxii. 67-73.]

[Footnote 47: _Inferno_, v. 88, 91, 92.]

[Footnote 48: _Inferno_, xxx. 64-67.]

[Footnote 49: _Inferno_, vii. 117-126.]

[Footnote 50: _Inferno_, xix.]

[Footnote 51: _Inferno_, xxvii.]

[Footnote 52: _Purgatorio_, v. 85-129.]

[Footnote 53: _Inferno_, xxxiv. 136-139.]



IV

PURGATORY


'Leaving behind her that so cruel sea, the bark of poesy now spreads
her sails to speed o'er happier waters; and I sing of that mid kingdom
where the soul of man is freed from stain, till worthy to ascend to
Heaven.'[54] Such are the opening words of Dante's Purgatory, and they
drop like balm upon our seared and wounded hearts when we have escaped
from the dread abode of eternal ill-desert.

'Man, atoning for the misuse of his free will,' may be regarded as the
subject of this poem. And it brings it in a sense nearer to us than
either the Hell or the Paradise. Perhaps it ought not to surprise us
that the Purgatory has not by any means taken such a hold of the
general imagination as the Hell, and that its machinery and incidents
are therefore far less widely known; for the power of the Purgatory
does not overwhelm us like that of the Inferno whether we understand or
no. There are passages indeed in the poem which take the reader by
storm and force themselves upon his memory, but as a whole it must be
felt in its deeper spiritual meaning to be felt at all. Its gentleness
is ultimately as strong as the relentless might of the Hell, but it
works more slowly and takes time to sink into our hearts and diffuse
its influence there. Nor again need we be surprised that the inner
circle of Dante students often concentrate their fullest attention and
admiration upon the Paradise, for it is the Paradise in which the poet
is most absolutely unique and unapproached, and in it his admirers
rightly find the supreme expression of his spirit.

And yet there is much in the Purgatory that seems to render it
peculiarly fitted to support our spiritual life and help us in our
daily conflict, much which we might reasonably have expected would give
its images and allegories a permanent place in the devout heart of
Christendom; for, as already hinted, it is nearer to us in our
struggles and imperfections, in our aspirations and our conscious
unworthiness, nearer to us in our love of purity and our knowledge that
our own hearts are stained with sin, in our desire for the fullness of
God's light, and our knowledge that we are not yet worthy or ready to
receive it; it is nearer to us in its piercing appeals, driven home to
the moral experience of every day and hour, nearer to us in its mingled
longing and resignation, in its mingled consolations and sufferings,
nearer to us in its deep unrest of unattained but unrelinquished
ideals, than either the Hell in its ghastly harmony of impenitence and
suffering, or the Paradise in its ineffable fruition.

Moreover, the allegorical appropriateness of the various punishments is
far more obvious and simple, and the spiritual significance of the
whole machinery clearer and more direct, in the Purgatory than in the
Hell. In a word, the Purgatory is more obviously though not more truly,
more directly though not more profoundly, moral and spiritual in its
purport than the Hell.

Dante addresses some of the sufferers on the fifth circle of Purgatory
as 'chosen ones of God whose pains are soothed by justice and by
hope.'[55] And in truth the spirits in Purgatory are already utterly
separated from their sins in heart and purpose, are already chosen ones
of God. They are deeply sensible of the justice of their punishment,
and they are fed by the certain hope that at last, when purifying pain
has done its work, their past sins will no longer separate them from
God, they will not only be parted in sympathy and emotion from their
own sinful past, but will be so cut off from it as no longer to feel it
as their own, no longer to recognise it as a part of themselves, no
longer to be weighed down by it. Then they will rise away from it into
God's presence. 'Repenting and forgiving,' says one of them, 'we passed
from life, at peace with God, who pierces our hearts with longing to
see Him.'[56]

The souls in Purgatory, then, are already transformed by the thirst for
the living water, already filled with the longing to see God, already
at one with Him in will, already gladdened by the hope of entering into
full communion with Him. But they do not wish to go into His presence
yet. The sense of shame and the sense of justice forbid it. They feel
that the unexpiated stains of former sin still cleave to them, making
them unfit for Heaven, and they love the purifying torments which are
burning those stains away. In the topmost circle of Purgatory, amongst
the fierce flames from which Dante would have hurled himself into
molten glass for coolness, he sees souls whose cheeks flush at the
memory of their sin with a shame that adds a burning to the burning
flame; whilst others, clustering at the edge that they may speak with
him, yet take good heed to keep within the flame, lest for one moment
they should have respite from the fierce pain which is purging away
their sins and drawing them nearer to their desire.[57]

Sweet hymns of praise and supplication are the fitting solace of this
purifying pain; and as Dante passes through the first of the narrow
ascents that lead from circle to circle of Purgatory, he may well
contrast this place of torment with the one that he has left, may well
exclaim, 'Ah me! how diverse are these straits from those of Hell!'[58]

Penitence, humility, and peace--though not the highest or the fullest
peace--are the key-notes of the Purgatory.

       *       *       *       *       *

When Dante issued from the deadly shades of Hell, his cheeks all
stained with tears, his eyes and heart heavy with woe, his whole frame
spent with weariness and agony, the sweet blue heavens stretched above
him, and his eyes, that for so long had gazed on nought but horror,
rested in their peaceful depths; Venus, the morning star, brightened
the east, and the Southern Cross poured its splendour over the heavens;
daybreak was at hand, and the poets were at the foot of the mount of
Purgatory.

The sea rippled against the mountain, and reeds, the emblems of
humility, ever yielding to the wave that swept them, clustered round
the shore. Dante and Virgil went down to the margin, and there the
living poet bathed away the stains and tears of Hell.

Ere long the waves were skimmed by a light bark, a radiant angel
standing in the prow, bearing the souls of the redeemed, who must yet
be purified, singing the psalm, 'When Israel came out of Egypt.'
Amongst the shades thus borne to the mount of purification was Dante's
friend Casella, the singer and musician. How often had his voice lulled
all Dante's cares to sleep, and 'quieted all his desires,' and now it
seemed as though he were come to bring his troubled heart to peace, to
rest him in his utter weariness of body and of soul.

So, at his entreaty, Casella raised his voice, and all the shades
gathered entranced around him as he sang a noble canzone composed by
Dante himself in years gone by.[59] The sweet sound never ceased to
echo in the poet's memory--not even the ineffable harmonies of Paradise
drowned those first strains of peace that soothed him after his awful
toil.

But Purgatory is no place of rest, and Casella's song was rudely
interrupted by the guardian of the place, who cried aloud, 'How now, ye
sluggard souls! What negligence and what delay is here? Speed to the
mountain! Rid you of the crust that lets not God be manifest to you!'
To purge away our sins is not to rest; and no longing for repose must
tempt us to delay even for a moment.[60]

Dante draws no flattering picture of the ease of self-purification;
Hell itself hardly gives us such a sense of utter weariness as the
first ascent of the mount of Purgatory. Virgil is on in front, and
Dante cries out, altogether spent, 'Oh, my sweet father, turn thou and
behold how I am left alone unless thou stay;' but Virgil still urges
him on, and after a time comforts him with the assurance that though
the mountain is so hard to scale at first, yet the higher a man climbs
the easier the ascent becomes, till at last it is so sweet and easy to
him that he rises without effort as a boat drops down the stream: then
he may know that the end of his long journey has come, that the weight
of sin is cast off, that his soul obeys its own pure nature, and rises
unencumbered to its God.[61]

The lower portion of the mountain forms a kind of ante-Purgatory,
where the souls in weary exile wait for admission to the purifying pain
for which they long. Here those who have delayed their penitence till
the end of life atone for their wilful alienation by an equal term of
forced delay ere they may enter the blessed suffering of Purgatory.
Here those who have lived in contumacy against the Church expiate their
offences by a thirty-fold exile in the ante-Purgatory; but as we saw in
Hell that Papal absolution will not shield the sinful soul, so we find
in Purgatory that the Papal malediction, the thunders of
excommunication itself, cannot permanently part the repentant soul from
the forgiving God.[62]

When this first exile is at an end, and the lower mountain scaled, the
gate of the true Purgatory is reached. Three steps lead up to it, 'the
first of marble white, so polished and so smooth that in it man beholds
him as he is.' This represents that transparent simplicity and
sincerity of purpose that, throwing off all self-delusion, sees itself
as it is, and is the first step towards true penitence. 'The second
step, darker than purpled black, of rough and calcined stone, all rent
through length and breadth,' represents the contrite heart of true
affliction for past sin. 'The third and crowning mass methought was
porphyry, and flamed like the red blood fresh spouting from the vein.'
This is the glowing love which crowns the work of penitence, and gives
the earnest of a new and purer life. Above these steps an angel stands
to whom Peter gave the keys--the silver key of knowledge and the golden
key of authority--bidding him open to the penitent, and err rather
towards freedom than towards over-sternness.[63]

Within the gate of Purgatory rise the seven terraces where sin is
purged. On the three lower ledges man atones for that perverse and
ill-directed love which seeks another's ill--for love of some sort is
the one sole motive of all action, good or bad.[64] In the lowest
circle the pride that rejoices in its own superiority, and therefore in
the inferiority of others, is purged and expiated. 'As to support a
ceiling or a roof,' says Dante, 'one sees a figure bracket-wise with
knees bent up against it bosom, till the imaged strain begets real
misery in him who sees, so I beheld these shades when close I scanned
them. True it is that less or greater burdens cramped each one or less
or more, yet he whose mien had most of patience, wailing seemed to say,
"I can no more!"'[65]

In the second circle the blind sin of envy is expiated. Here the
eyelids of the envious are ruthlessly pierced and closed by the stitch
of an iron wire, and through the horrid suture gush forth tears of
penitence that bathe the sinner's cheeks. 'Here shall my eyes be
closed,' says Dante, half in shame at seeing those who saw him not,
'here shall my eyes be closed, though open now--but not for long. Far
more I dread the pain of those below; for even now methinks I bend
beneath the load.'[66]

In the third circle the passionate wend their way through a blinding,
stinging smoke, darker than Hell; but all are one in heart, and join
in sweet accord of strain and measure singing the 'Agnus Dei.'

In these three lower circles is expiated the perverse love that, in
pride, in envy, or in passion, seeks another's ill.

Round the fourth or central ledge hurry in ceaseless flight the
laggards whose feeble love of God, though not perverse, was yet
inadequate.

Then on the succeeding circles are punished those whose sin was
excessive and ill-regulated love of earthly things.

There in the fifth round the avaricious and the prodigal, who bent
their thoughts alike to the gross things of earth and lost all power of
good, lie with their faces in the dust and their backs turned to
heaven, pinioned and helpless.

In the sixth circle the gluttonous in lean and ghastly hunger gaze from
hollow eyes 'like rings without the gems,' upon the fruit they may not
taste.[67]

And lastly, in the seventh circle the sin of inchastity is purged, in
flames as fierce as its own reckless passion.

Through all of these circles to which its life on earth has rendered
it liable, the soul must pass, in pain but not in misery; at perfect
peace with God, loving the pain that makes it fit to rise into His
presence, longing for that more perfect union, but not desiring it as
yet because still knowing itself unworthy.

At last the moment comes when this shrinking from God's presence, this
clinging to the pain of Purgatory, has its end. The desire to rise up
surprises the repentant soul, and that desire is itself the proof that
the punishment is over, that the soul is ripe for Heaven. Then, as it
ascends, the whole mountain shakes from base to summit with the mighty
cry of 'Gloria in excelsis!' raised by every soul in Purgatory as the
ransomed and emancipated spirit seeks its home.[68]

Through all these circles Dante is led by Virgil, and here as in Hell
he meets and converses with spirits of the departed. He displays the
same unrivalled power and the same relentless use of it, the same
passionate indignation, the same yearning pity, which take the soul
captive in the earlier poem. In the description of Corso Donati's
charger dragging his mangled body towards the gorge of Hell in ever
fiercer flight; in the indignant protest against the factious spirit of
Italy and the passionate appeal to the Empire; in the description of
the impotent rage of the fiend who is cheated by 'one wretched tear' of
the soul of Buonconte; in the scathing denunciations of the cities of
the Arno;[69] in these and in many another passage the poet of the
Purgatory shows that he is still the poet of the Hell; but it is rather
to the richness of the new thoughts and feelings than to the unabated
vigour and passion of the old ones, that we naturally direct our
attention in speaking of the Purgatory. And these we have by no means
exhausted.

When Dante first entered the gate of Purgatory he heard 'voices mingled
with sweet strains' chanting the Te Deum, and they raised in his heart
such images as when we hear voices singing to the organ and 'partly
catch and partly miss the words.'[70] And this sweet music, only to
find its fullest and distinctest utterance in the Paradise, pervades
almost the whole of the Purgatory, filling it with a reposeful longing
that prepares for the fruition it does not give.

There is a tender and touching simplicity in the records of their
earthly lives which the gentle souls in Purgatory give to our poet.
Take as an example, the story of Pope Adrian V., whom Dante finds
amongst the avaricious: 'A month and little more I felt the weight with
which the Papal mantle presses on his shoulders who would keep it from
the mire. All other burdens seem like feathers to it. Ah me! but late
was my conversion; yet when I became Rome's Shepherd then I saw the
hollow cozenage of life; for my heart found no repose in that high
dignity, and yonder life on earth gave it no room to aim yet higher;
wherefore the love of this life rose within me. Till then was I a
wretched soul severed from God, enslaved to avarice, for which, thou
seest, I now bear the pain.'[71]

Most touching too are the entreaties of the souls in Purgatory for the
prayers of those on earth, or their confession that they have already
been lifted up by them. 'Tell my Giovanna to cry for me where the
innocent are heard,' says Nino to Dante;[72] and when the poet meets
his friend Forese, who had been dead but five years, in the highest
circle but one of Purgatory, whereas he would have expected him still
to be in exile at the mountain's base, he asks him to explain the
reason why he is there, and Forese answers, 'It is my Nella's broken
sobs that have brought me so soon to drink the sweet wormwood of
torment. Her devout prayers and sighs have drawn me from the place of
lingering, and freed me from the lower circles. My little widow, whom I
greatly loved, is all the dearer and more pleasing to God because her
goodness stands alone amid surrounding vice.'[73]

Surely it is a deep and holy truth, under whatever varying forms
succeeding ages may embody it, that the faithful love of a pure soul
does more than any other earthly power to hasten the passage of the
penitent through Purgatory. When under the load of self-reproach and
shame that weighs down our souls, we dare not look up to Heaven, dare
not look into our own hearts, dare not meet God, then the faithful
love of a pure soul can raise us up and teach us not to despair of
ourselves, can lift us on the wings of its prayer, can waft us on the
breath of its sobs, swiftly through the purifying anguish into the
blissful presence of God.

       *       *       *       *       *

A feature of special beauty in the Purgatory is formed by the
allegorical or typical sculptures on the wall and floor of some of the
terraces, by the voices of warning or encouragement that sweep round
the mountain, and by the visions that from time to time visit the poet
himself. Let one of these visions suffice. Dante is about to enter the
circles in which the inordinate love of earthly things, with all vain
and vicious indulgence, is punished. 'In dream there came to me,' he
says, 'a woman with a stuttering tongue, and with distorted eyes, all
twisted on her feet, maimed in her hands, and sallow in her hue. I
gazed at her, and as the sun comforts the chilled limbs by the night
oppressed, so did my look give ease unto her speech, and straightway
righted her in every limb, and with love's colours touched her haggard
face. And when her speech was liberated thus, she sang so sweetly it
were dire pain to wrest attention from her. "I," she sang, "am that
sweet siren who lead astray the sailors in mid sea, so full am I of
sweetness to the ear. 'Twas I that drew Ulysses from his way with
longing for my song; and he on whom the custom of my voice has grown,
full rarely leaves me, so do I content him."' In the end this false
siren is exposed in all her foulness, and Dante turns from her in
loathing.[74]

Throughout Purgatory Dante is still led and instructed by Virgil. I
think there is nothing in the whole Comedy so pathetic as the passages
in which the fate of Virgil, to be cut off for ever from the light of
God, is contrasted with the hope of the souls in Purgatory. The
sweetness and beauty of Virgil's character as conceived by Dante grow
steadily upon us throughout this poem, until they make the
contemplation of his fate and the patient sadness with which he speaks
of it more heartrending than anything that we have heard or seen in
Hell. After this we hardly need to hear from Dante the direct
expression he subsequently gives of his passionate thirst to know the
meaning of so mysterious a decree as that which barred Heaven against
the unbaptised.

In Purgatory, Virgil and Dante meet the emancipated soul of the Roman
poet Statius, freed at last after many centuries of purifying pain, and
ready now to ascend to Heaven. Virgil asks him how he became a
Christian, and Statius refers him to his own words in one of the
Eclogues, regarded in those days as containing a prophecy of Christ.
'Thou,' says Statius, 'didst first guide me to Parnassus to drink in
its grottoes, and afterwards thou first didst light me unto God. When
thou didst sing, "The season is renewed, justice returns, and the first
age of man, and a new progeny descends from Heaven," thou wast as one
who, marching through the darkness of the night, carries the light
behind him, aiding not himself, but teaching those who follow him the
way. Through thee was I a poet, and through thee a Christian.' Not a
shade of envy, not a thought of resentment or rebellion, passes over
Virgil's heart as he hears that while saving others he could not save
himself.[75]

But now, without dwelling further on the episodes of the poem, we must
hasten to consider the most beautiful and profoundest of its closing
scenes.

Under Virgil's guidance Dante had traversed all the successive circles
of the mount of Purgatory. He stood at its summit, in the earthly
Paradise, the Garden of Eden which Eve had lost. There amid fairest
sights and sounds he was to meet the glorified Beatrice, and she was to
be his guide in Heaven as Virgil had been his guide in Hell and
Purgatory.

In any degree to understand what follows we must try to realise the
intimate blending of lofty abstract conceptions and passionate personal
emotions and reminiscences in Dante's thoughts of Beatrice.

This sweet and gentle type of womanhood, round whose earthly life the
genius and devotion of Dante have twined a wreath of the tenderest
poetry, the most romantic love, that ever rose from heart of man, had
been to him in life and death the vehicle and messenger of God's
highest grace. Round her memory clustered all the noblest purposes and
purest motives of his life, and in her spirit seemed to be reflected
the divinest truth, the loftiest wisdom, that the human soul could
comprehend. And so, making her objectively and in the scheme of the
universe what she had really been and was to him subjectively, he came
to regard her as the symbol of Divine philosophy as Virgil was the
symbol of human virtue and wisdom.

Touched by the glow of an ideal love, Dante had reached a deeper
knowledge, a fuller grace, than the wisdom of this world could teach or
gain. The doctors of the Church, the sweet singers, the mighty heroes,
the profound philosophers, who had instructed and supported him, had
none of them touched his life so deeply, had none of them led him so
far into the secret place of truth, had none of them brought him so
near to God, as that sweet child, that lovely maid, that pure woman,
who had given him his first and noblest ideal.

Now to Dante and to his age it was far from unnatural to erect concrete
human beings into abstract types or personifications. Leah and Rachel
are the active and the contemplative life respectively. Virgil, we have
seen, is human philosophy. Cato of Utica represents the triumph over
the carnal nature and the passions. And it is not only the Old
Testament and classical antiquity that furnish these types. The
celebrated Countess Matilda, who lived only about two centuries before
Dante himself, becomes in his poem, according to the generally received
interpretation, one of the attributes of God personified. And so
Beatrice became the personification of that heavenly wisdom, that true
knowledge of God, of which she had been the vehicle to Dante.

But to the poet and to the age in which he lived, it was impossible to
separate this heavenly wisdom in its simple, spiritual essence, from
the form which its exposition had received at the hands of the great
teachers of the Church. To them true spiritual wisdom, personal
experience and knowledge of God, were inseparable from _theology_. The
two united in the conception of Divine philosophy. Thus by a strange
but intelligible gradation Dante blended in his conception of Beatrice
two elements which seem to us the very extreme of incompatibility. She
is in the first place the personification of scholastic theology, with
all its subtle intricacy of pedantic method; she is in the second place
the maiden to whom Dante sang his songs of love in Florence, and whose
early death he wept disconsolate. And in the closing scenes of the
Purgatory these two conceptions are more intimately blended, perhaps,
than anywhere else in Dante's writings.

After wandering, as it were, in the forest of a bewildered life, the
poet is led through Hell and Purgatory until he stands face to face at
last with his own purest and loftiest ideal; and the fierceness of his
own self-accusation when thus confronted with Beatrice he expresses
under the form of reproaches which he lays upon _her_ lips, but which
we must retranslate into the reproachful utterances of his own tortured
heart, if we are to retain our gentle thoughts of Beatrice.

We need not dwell even for a moment on the gorgeous pageantry with
which Dante introduces and surrounds Beatrice. Suffice it to say that
she comes in a mystic car, which represents the Church, surrounded by
saints and angels.

No sooner does Dante see her, although closely veiled, than the might
of the old passion sweeps upon him, and like a child that flees in
terror to its mother, so does he turn to Virgil with the cry: 'Not one
drop of blood but trembles in my veins! I recognise the tokens of the
ancient flame.' But Virgil is gone. Dante has no refuge from his own
offended and reproachful ideal. As he bursts into lamentations at the
loss of Virgil's companionship, Beatrice sternly calls him back:
'Dante! weep not that Virgil has gone from thee. Thou hast a deeper
wound for which to weep.'

As one who speaks, but holds back words more burning than he utters, so
she stood. A clear stream flowed between her and Dante, and as she
began to renew her reproaches he cast down his eyes in shame upon the
water;--but there he saw himself! The angels sang a plaintive psalm,
and Dante knew that they were pleading for him more clearly than if
they had used directer words. Then the agony of shame and penitence
that Beatrice's reproof had frozen in his bosom, as when the icy north
wind freezes the snow amid the forests of the Apennine, was melted by
the angels' plea for him as snow by the breezes of the south, and
burst from him in a convulsion of sobs and tears.

How was it possible that he should have gone so far astray, have been
so false to the promise and the purpose of his early life, have abused
his own natural gifts and the superadded grace of heaven? How was it
possible that he should have let all the richness of his life run wild?
That after Beatrice had for a time sustained him and led him in the
true path with her sweet eyes, he should have turned away from her in
Heaven whom he had so loved on earth? How could he have followed the
false semblances of good that never hold their word? His visions and
his dreams of the ideal he was deserting had not sufficed, and so deep
had he sunk that nothing short of visiting the region of the damned
could save him from perdition. Why had he deserted his first purposes?
What obstacle had baffled or appalled him? What new charm had those
lower things of earth obtained to draw him to them? 'The false
enticements of the present things,' he sobbed, 'had led his feet aside,
soon as her countenance was hid.' But should not the decay of that
fair form have been itself the means of weaning him from things of
earth, that he might ne'er again be cheated by their beauty or drawn
aside by them from the pursuit of heavenly wisdom and of heavenly love?
When the fairest of all earthly things was mouldering in the dust,
should he not have freed himself from the entanglements of the less
beauteous things remaining?

To all these reproaches, urged by Beatrice, Dante had no reply. With
eyes rooted to the ground, filled with unutterable shame, like a child
repentant and confessing, longing to throw himself at his mother's
feet, but afraid to meet her glance while her lips still utter the
reproof, so Dante stood. From time to time a few broken words, which
needed the eye more than the ear to interpret them, dropped from his
lips like shafts from a bow that breaks with excess of strain as the
arrow is delivered.

At last Beatrice commanded him to look up. The wind uproots the oak
tree with less resistance than Dante felt ere he could turn his
downcast face to hers; but when he saw her, transcending her former
self more than her former self transcended others, his agony of
self-reproach and penitence was more than he could bear, and he fell
senseless to the ground.[76]

When he awoke he was already plunged in the waters of Lethe, which with
the companion stream of Eunoë would wash from his memory the shame and
misery of past unfaithfulness, would enable him, no longer crushed by
self-reproach, to ascend with the divine wisdom and purity of his own
ideal into the higher realms.

And here the Purgatory ends, the Paradise begins.


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 54: _Purgatorio_, i. 1-6.]

[Footnote 55: _Purgatorio_, xix. 76, 77.]

[Footnote 56: _Ibid._ v. 55-57.]

[Footnote 57: _Purgatorio_, xxvi. 13-15, 81; xxvii. 49-51.]

[Footnote 58: _Purgatorio_, xii. 112, 113.]

[Footnote 59: Canzone xv. 'Amor, che nella mente.' See also _Convito_,
trat. iii.]

[Footnote 60: _Purgatorio_, i. ii.]

[Footnote 61: _Ibid._ iv. 37-95.]

[Footnote 62: _Purgatorio_, iii. 112-145, iv. 127-135.]

[Footnote 63: _Purgatorio_, ix. 76-129.]

[Footnote 64: For the general scheme of Purgatory, see _Purgatorio_,
xvii. 91-139.]

[Footnote 65: _Purgatorio_, x. 130-139.]

[Footnote 66: _Ibid._ xiii. 73, 74, 133-138.]

[Footnote 67: _Purgatorio_, xxiii. 31.]

[Footnote 68: _Purgatorio_, xx. 124-151, xxi. 34-78.]

[Footnote 69: _Purgatorio_, v. 85-129, vi. 76-151, xiv. 16-72, xxiv.
82-87.]

[Footnote 70: _Ibid._ ix. 139-145.]

[Footnote 71: _Purgatorio_, xix. 103-114.]

[Footnote 72: _Purgatorio_, viii. 71, 72.]

[Footnote 73: _Ibid._ xxiii. 85-93.]

[Footnote 74: _Purgatorio_, xix. 7-33.]

[Footnote 75: _Purgatorio_, xxii. 55-73.]

[Footnote 76: _Purgatorio_, xxx. 22--xxxi. 90.]



V

HEAVEN


When Dante wrote the Paradise, he well knew that he was engaged in the
supreme effort of his life, to which all else had led up. He well knew
that he was engaged in no pastime, but with intensest concentration of
matured power was delivering such a message from God to man as few
indeed had ever been privileged or burdened to receive. He well knew
that the words in which through long years of toil he had distilled the
sweetness and the might of his vision were immortal, that to latest
ages they would bear strength and purity of life, would teach the keen
eye of the spirit to gaze into the uncreated light, and would flood the
soul with a joy deeper than all unrest or sorrow, with a glory that no
gloom could ever dispel. He knew moreover that this his last and
greatest poem would speak to a few only in any generation, though
speaking to those few with a voice of transforming power and grace.

'Oh, ye,' he cries almost at the beginning of the Paradise, 'who,
desirous to hear, have followed in slight bark behind my keel, which
sings upon its course, now turn you back and make for your own shores,
trust not the open wave lest, losing me, ye should be left bewildered.
As yet all untracked is the wave I sail. Minerva breathes, Apollo leads
me on, and the nine Muses point me to the pole. Ye other few, who
timely have lift up your heads for bread of angels fed by which man
liveth but can never surfeit know, well may ye launch upon the ocean
deep, keeping my furrow as ye cut your way through waters that return
and equal lie.'[77]

In these last words, comparing the track he leaves to the watery furrow
that at once subsides, Dante seems to indicate that he was well aware
how easily the soul might drop out of his verses, how the things he had
to say were essentially unutterable, so that his words could at best be
only a suggestion of his meaning dependent for their effect upon the
subtlest spiritual influences and adjustments, as well as upon the
receptive sympathy of those to whom they were addressed. And if there
are so many that fail to catch the spirit and feel the heavenly harmony
of the music when it is Dante's own hand that touches the strings, how
hopeless seems the task of transferring even its echo, by translated
extracts, or descriptions, from which the soul has fled.

There is indeed much that is beautiful, much that is profound, in the
Paradise which is capable of easy reproduction, but the divine aroma of
the whole could only be translated or transferred by another Dante.
Petal after petal of the rose of Paradise may be described or copied,
but the heavenly perfume that they breathed is gone.

'His glory that moves all things,' so Dante begins the Paradise,
'pierces the universe; and is here more, here less resplendent. In that
Heaven which of His light has most, was I. There I saw things which he
who thence descends has not the knowledge or power to retell. For as it
draws anigh to its desire, our intellect pierces so deep that memory
cannot follow in its track. But of that sacred empire so much as I had
power in my mind to store, shall now be matter of my poesy.'[78]

And again, almost at the close he sings, 'As is he who dreams, and when
the dream is broke still feels the emotion stamped upon his heart
though all he saw is fled beyond recall, e'en such am I; for, all the
vision gone well-nigh without a trace, yet does the sweetness that was
born of it still drop within my heart.'[79]

If so much as an echo of that echo, if so much as a dream of that
dream, falls upon our ears and sinks into our hearts, then we are
amongst those few for whom Dante wrote his last and his divinest poem.

       *       *       *       *       *

Through the successive heavens of Paradise Dante is conducted by
Beatrice; and here again the intimate blending in the divine guide of
two distinct almost contradictory conceptions forms one of the great
obstacles towards giving an intelligible account of the poem. This
obstacle can only disappear when patient study guided by receptive
sympathy has led us truly into the poet's thought.

In the Paradise, however, the allegorical and abstract element in the
conception of Beatrice is generally the ruling one. She is the
impersonation of Divine Philosophy, under whose guidance the spiritual
discernment is so quickened and the moral perceptions so purified, that
the intellect can thread its way through subtlest intricacies of
casuistry and theology, and where the intellect fails the eye of faith
still sees.

Even in this allegorical character Beatrice is a veritable personality,
as are Lucia, the Divine Grace, and the other attributes or agents of
the Deity, who appear in the Comedy as personal beings with personal
affections and feelings, though at the same time representing abstract
ideas. Thus Beatrice, as Divine Philosophy impersonated, is at once an
abstraction and a personality. 'The eyes of Philosophy,' says Dante
elsewhere, 'are her demonstrations, the smile of Philosophy her
persuasions.'[80] And this mystic significance must never be lost sight
of when we read of Beatrice's eyes kindling with an ever brighter glow
and her smile beaming through them with a diviner sweetness as she
ascends through heaven after heaven ever nearer to the presence of God.
The demonstrations of Divine Philosophy become more piercing, more
joyous, more triumphant, her persuasions more soul-subduing and
entrancing, as the spirit draws nearer to its source.

But though we shall never understand the Paradise unless we perceive
the allegorical significance and appropriateness not only of the
general conception of Beatrice, but also of many details in Dante's
descriptions of her, yet we should be equally far from the truth if we
imagined her a mere allegory. She is a glorified and as it were divine
_personality_, and watches over and guides her pupil with the
tenderness and love of a gentle and patient mother. The poet constantly
likens himself to a wayward, a delirious, or a frightened child, as he
flies for refuge to his blessed guide's maternal care.[81]

Again, they are in the eighth heaven, and Beatrice knows that a
glorious manifestation of saints and angels is soon to be vouchsafed
to Dante. Listen to his description of her as she stands waiting:
'E'en as a bird amongst the leaves she loves, brooding upon the nest of
her sweet young throughout the night wherein all things are hid,
foreruns the time to see their loved aspect and find them food, wherein
her heavy toil is sweet to her, there on the open spray, waiting with
yearning longing for the sun, fixedly gazing till the morn shall rise;
so did she stand erect, her eyes intent on the meridian. And seeing her
suspended in such longing I became as one who yearns for what he knows
not, and who rests in hope.'[82]

       *       *       *       *       *

Under Beatrice's guidance, then, Dante ascends through the nine heavens
into the empyrean heights of Paradise. Here in reality are the souls of
all the blessed, rejoicing in the immediate presence and light of
God,[83] and here Dante sees them in the glorified forms which they
will wear after the resurrection. But in order to bring home to his
human understanding the varied grades of merit and beatitude in
Paradise, he meets or appears to meet the souls of the departed in the
successive heavens through which he passes, sweeping with the spheres
in wider and ever wider arc, as he rises towards the eternal rest by
which all other things are moved.

It is in these successive heavens that Dante converses with the souls
of the blessed. In the lower spheres they appear to him in a kind of
faint bodily form like the reflections cast by glass unsilvered; but in
the higher spheres they are like gems of glowing light, like stars that
blaze into sight or fade away in the depths of the sky; and these
living topaz and ruby lights, like the morning stars that sing together
in Job, break into strains of ineffable praise and joy as they glow
upon their way in rhythmic measure both of voice and movement.

Thus in the fourth Heaven, the Heaven of the Sun, Dante meets the souls
of the great doctors of the Church. Thomas Aquinas is there, and
Albertus Magnus and the Venerable Bede and many more. A circle of these
glorious lights is shining round Dante and Beatrice as Aquinas tells
the poet who they were on earth. 'Then like the horologue, that summons
us, what hour the spouse of God rises to sing her matins to her
spouse, to win his love, wherein each part urges and draws its fellow,
making a tinkling sound of so sweet note that the well-ordered spirit
swells with love: so did I see the glorious wheel revolve, and render
voice to voice in melody and sweetness such as ne'er could noted be
save where joy stretches to eternity.

'Oh, senseless care of mortals! Ah, how false the thoughts that urge
thee in thy downward flight! One was pursuing law, and medicine one,
another hunting after priesthood, and a fourth would rule by force or
fraud; one toiled in robbery, and one in civil business, and a third
was moiling in the pleasures of the flesh all surfeit-weary, and a
fourth surrendered him to sloth. And I the while, released from all
these things, thus gloriously with Beatrice was received in
Heaven.'[84]

When Beatrice fixes her eyes--remember their allegorical significance
as the demonstrations of Divine philosophy--upon the light of God, and
Dante gazes upon them, then quick as thought and without sense of
motion, the two arise into a higher heaven, like the arrow that finds
its mark while yet the bow-string trembles; and Dante knows by the
kindling beauty that glows in his guardian's eyes that they are nearer
to the presence of God and are sweeping Heaven in a wider arc.

The spirits in the higher heavens see God with clearer vision, and
therefore love Him with more burning love, and rejoice with a fuller
joy in His presence than those in the lower spheres. Yet these too rest
in perfect peace and oneness with God's will.

In the Heaven of the Moon, for instance, the lowest of all, Dante meets
Piccarda. She was the sister of Forese, whom we saw in the highest
circle but one of Purgatory, raised so far by his widowed Nella's
prayers. When Dante recognises her amongst her companions, in her
transfigured beauty, he says, '"But tell me, ye whose blessedness is
here, do ye desire a more lofty place, to see more and to be more loved
by God?" She with those other shades first gently smiled, then answered
me so joyous that she seemed to glow with love's first flame, "Brother,
the power of love so lulls our will, it makes us long for nought but
what we have, and feel no other thirst. If we should wish to be exalted
more, our wish would be discordant with His will who here assigned us;
and that may not be within these spheres, as thou thyself mayst see,
knowing that here we needs must dwell in love, and thinking what love
is. Nay, 'tis inherent in this blessedness to hold ourselves within the
will Divine, whereby our wills are one. That we should be thus rank by
rank throughout this realm ordained, rejoices all the realm e'en as its
King, who draws our wills in His. And His decree is our peace. It is
that sea to which all things are moved which it creates and all that
nature forges." Then was it clear to me how every where in Heaven is
Paradise, e'en though the grace distil not in one mode from that Chief
Good.'[85]

So again in the second heaven, the Heaven of Mercury, the soul of
Justinian tells the poet how that sphere is assigned to them whose
lofty aims on earth were in some measure fed by love of fame and glory
rather than inspired by the true love of God. Hence they are in this
lower sphere. Yet part of their very joy consists in measuring the
exact accord between the merits and the blessedness of the beatified.
'As diverse voices make sweet melody,' he continues, 'so do the diverse
ranks of our life render sweet harmony amidst these spheres.'[86]

Indeed, one of the marvels of this marvellous poem is the extreme
variety of character and even of incident which we find in Heaven as
well as in Hell and Purgatory. In each of the three poems there is one
key-note to which we are ever brought back, but in each there is
infinite variety and delicacy of individual delineation too. The saints
are no more uniform and characterless in their blessedness than are the
unrepentant sinners in their tortures or the repentant in their
contented pain.

Nor must we suppose that the Paradise is an unbroken succession of
descriptions of heavenly bliss. Here too, as in Hell and Purgatory, the
things of earth are from time to time discussed by Dante and the
spirits that he meets. Here too the glow of a lofty indignation flushes
the very spheres of Heaven. Thus Peter cries against Pope Boniface
VIII: 'He who usurps upon the earth my place, _my place_, MY PLACE,
which in the presence of the Son of God is vacant now, has made the
city of my sepulture a sink of blood and filth, at which the rebel
Satan, who erst fell from Heaven, rejoices down in Hell.' And at this
the whole Heaven glows with red, and Beatrice's cheek flushes as at a
tale of shame.[87]

Dante is still the same. The sluggish self-indulgence of the monks, the
reckless and selfish ambition of the factious nobles and rulers, the
venal infamy of the Court of Rome, cannot be banished from his mind
even by the beatific visions of Heaven. Nay, the very contrast gives a
depth of indignant sadness to the denunciations of the Paradise which
makes them almost more terrible than those of Hell itself.

Interwoven too with the descriptions of the bliss of Heaven, is the
discussion of so wide a range of moral and theological topics that the
Paradise has been described as having 'summed up, as it were, and
embodied for perpetuity ... the quintessence, the living substance, the
ultimate conclusions of the scholastic theology;'[88] and it may well
be true that to master the last cantica of the 'Divine Comedy' is to
pierce more deeply into the heart of mediæval religion and theology
than any of the schoolmen and doctors of the Church can take us. At the
touch of Dante's staff, the flintiest rock of metaphysical dogma yields
the water of life, and in his mouth the subtlest discussion of
casuistry becomes a lamp to our feet.

And beyond all this, such is the marvellous concentration of Dante's
poetry, there is room in the Paradise for long digressions,
biographical, antiquarian, and personal; whilst all these parts,
apparently so heterogeneous, are welded into perfect symmetry in this
one poem.

       *       *       *       *       *

Amongst the most important of the episodes is the account of ancient
Florence given to Dante by his ancestor Cacciaguida, who also predicts
the poet's exile and wanderings, and in a strain of lofty enthusiasm
urges him to pour out all the heart of his vision and brave the hatred
and the persecution that it will surely bring upon him.

This Cacciaguida was a Crusader who fell in the Holy Land, and Dante
meets him in the burning planet of Mars, amongst the mighty warriors of
the Lord whose souls blaze there in a ruddy glow of glory. There is
Joshua, there Judas Maccabæus, and Charlemagne and Orlando and Godfrey
and many more.

A red cross glows athwart the planet's orb, and from it beams in mystic
guise the Christ; but how, the poet cannot say, for words and images
are wanting to portray it. Yet he who takes his cross and follows
Christ, will one day forgive the tongue that failed to tell what he
shall see when to him also Christ shall flash through that glowing dawn
of light.

Here the souls, like rubies that glow redder from the red-glowing cross
as stars shine forth out of the Milky Way, pass and repass from horn to
horn, from base to summit, and burst into a brighter radiance as they
join and cross, while strains of lofty and victorious praise, unknown
to mortal ears, gather upon the cross as though it were a harp of many
strings, touched by the hand of God, and take captive the entranced,
adoring soul.

There Cacciaguida hailed his descendant Dante, and long they conversed
of the past, the present, and the future. Alas for our poor pride of
birth! What wonder if men glory in it here? For even there in Heaven,
where no base appetite distorts the will and judgment, even there did
Dante glow with pride to call this man his ancestor.

At last their converse ended; Cacciaguida's soul again was sweeping the
unseen strings of that heavenly harp, and Dante turned again to look
for guidance from his guardian. Beatrice's eyes were fixed above; and
quick as the blush passes from a fair cheek, so quick the ruddy glow of
Mars was gone, and the white light of Jupiter shone clear and calm in
the sixth heaven--the Heaven of the Just.

What a storm of passions and emotions swept through Dante's soul when
he learnt where he was! 'O chivalry of Heaven!' he exclaimed in agony,
'pray for those who are led all astray on earth by foul example.' When
would the Righteous One again be wroth, and purge His temple of the
traffickers--His temple walled by miracles and martyrdoms? How long
should the Pope be suffered to degrade his holy office by making the
penalties of Church discipline the tools of selfish politics--how long
should his devotion to St. John the Baptist, whose head was stamped
upon the coins of Florence, make him neglect the fisherman and Paul?

Such were the first thoughts that rose in Dante's mind in the Heaven of
the Just; but they soon gave way to others. Here surely, here if
anywhere, God's justice must be manifest. Reflected in all Heaven, here
must it shine without a veil. The spirits of the just could surely
solve his torturing doubt. How long had his soul hungered and found no
food on earth, and now how eagerly did he await the answer to his
doubt! They knew his doubt, he need not tell it them; oh, let them
solve it!

Yes, they knew what he would say: 'A man is born upon the bank of
Indus, and there there is none to speak of Christ, or read or write of
him. All this man's desires and acts are good, and without sin, as far
as human eye can see, in deed or word. He dies unbaptised, without the
faith. Where is that justice which condemns him? Where is his fault in
not believing?' Yes, they knew his doubt, but could not solve it. Their
answer is essentially the same as Paul's: 'Nay, but, O man, who art
thou that repliest against God?'

The Word of God, say the spirits of the just, could not be so expressed
in all the universe but what it still remained in infinite excess. Nay,
Lucifer, the highest of created beings, could not at once see all the
light of God, and fell through his impatience. How then could a poor
mortal hope to scan the ways of God? His ken was lost in His deep
justice as the eye is lost in the ocean. We can see the shallow bottom
of the shore, but we cannot see the bottom of the deep, which none the
less is there. So God's unfathomable justice is too deep, too just, for
us to comprehend. The Primal Will, all goodness in itself, moves not
aside from justice and from good. Never indeed did man ascend to heaven
who believed not in Christ, yet are there many who cry, Lord, Lord,
and in the day of judgment shall be far more remote from Christ than
many a one that knew him not.[89]

With this answer Dante must be content. He must return from Heaven with
this thirst unslaked, this long hunger still unsatisfied. Ay, and with
this answer must we too rest content. And yet not with this answer, for
we do not ask this question. That awful load of doubt under which Dante
bent is lifted from our souls, and for us there is no eternal Hell,
there are no virtuous but rejected Heathen. Yet to us too the ocean of
God's justice is too deep to pierce. And when we ask why every
blessing, every chance of good, is taken from one child, while another
is bathed from infancy in the light of love, and is taught sooner than
it can walk to choose the good and to reject the evil, what answer can
we have but Dante's? Rest in faith. You know God's justice, for you
feel it with you in your heart when you are fighting for the cause of
justice; you know God's justice, for you feel it in your heart like an
avenging angel when you sin; you know God's justice--but you do not
know it all.

       *       *       *       *       *

There in the Heaven of the Just was David; now he knew how precious
were his songs, since his reward was such. There too was Trajan, who by
experience of the bliss of Heaven and pain of Hell knew how dear the
cost of not obeying Christ. There were Constantine, and William of
Sicily, and Ripheus, that just man of Troy. 'What things are these?'
was the cry that dropped by its own weight from Dante's lips. The
heathens Trajan and Ripheus here! No, not heathens. Ripheus had so
given himself to justice when on earth, that God in His grace revealed
to him the coming Christ, and he believed. Faith, Hope, and Charity
were his baptism more than a thousand years ere baptism was known. And
for Trajan, Gregory had wrestled in prayer for him, had taken the
Kingdom of Heaven by storm with his warm love and living hope; and
since no man repents in Hell, God at the prayer of Gregory had recalled
the imperial soul back for a moment to its mouldering clay. There it
believed in Christ, and once more dying, entered on his joy.[90]

Thus did Dante wrestle with his faith, and in the passion of his love
of virtue and thirst for justice seek to escape the problem which he
could not solve.

       *       *       *       *       *

But we must hasten to the close. Dante and Beatrice have passed through
all the heavens. The poet's sight is gradually strengthened and
prepared for the supreme vision. He has already seen a kind of symbol
of the Uncreated, surrounded by the angelic ministers. It was in the
ninth heaven, the Heaven of the Primum Mobile, that he saw a single
point of intensest light surrounded by iris rings, upon which point,
said Beatrice, all Heaven and all nature hung.[91]

But now they have passed beyond all nine revolving heavens into the
region of 'pure light, light intellectual full of love, love of the
truth all full of joy, joy that transcends all sweetness.'[92] And here
the poet sees that for which all else had been mere preparation.

But I will not strive to reproduce his imagery, with the mighty river
of light inexhaustible, with the mystic flowers of heavenly perfume,
with the sparks like rubies set in gold ever passing between the
flowers and the river. Of this river Dante drank, and then the true
forms of what had hitherto been shadowed forth in emblems only, rose
before his eyes. Rank upon rank the petals of the mystic rose of
Paradise stretched far away around and above him. There were the
blessed souls of the holy ones, bathed in the light of God that
streamed upon them from above, while the angels ever passed between it
and them ministering peace and love.

There high up, far, far beyond the reach of mortal eye, had it been on
earth, sat Beatrice, who had left the poet's side. But in Heaven, with
no destroying medium to intervene, distance is no let to perfect sight.
He spoke to her. He poured out his gratitude to her, for it was she who
had made him a free man from a slave, she who had made him sane, she
who had left her footprints in Hell for him, when she went to summon
Virgil to his aid. Oh, that his life hereafter might be worthy of the
grace and power that had so worked for him! Then from her distant
place in Heaven, Beatrice looked at him and smiled, then turned her
eyes upon the Uncreated Light.[93]

St. Bernard was at Dante's side, and prayed that the seer's vision
might be strengthened to look on God. Then Dante turned his eyes to the
light above. The unutterable glory of that light dazzled not his
intent, love-guided gaze. Nay, rather did it draw it to itself and
every moment strengthen it with keener sight and feed it with intenser
love.

Deeper and deeper into that Divine Light the seer saw. Had he turned
his eyes aside, then indeed he knew the piercing glory would have
blinded them; but that could never be, for he who gazes on that light
feels all desire centred there--in it are all things else. So for a
time with kindling gaze the poet looked into the light of God,
unchanging, yet to the strengthening sight revealing ever more.
Mysteries that no human tongue can tell, no human mind conceive, were
flashed upon him in the supreme moment, and then all was over--'The
power of the lofty vision failed.'

       *       *       *       *       *

Dante does not tell us where he found himself when the vision broke. He
only tells us this: that as a wheel moves equally in all its parts, so
his desire and will were, without strain or jar, revolved henceforth by
that same Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.[94]

This was the end of all that Dante had thought and felt and lived
through--a will that rolled in perfect oneness with the will of God.
This was the end to which he would bring his readers, this was the
purpose of his sacred poem, this was the meaning of his life.[95]


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 77: _Paradiso_, ii. 1-15.]

[Footnote 78: _Paradiso_, i. 1-12.]

[Footnote 79: _Ibid._ xxxiii. 58-63.]

[Footnote 80: _Convito_, III. xv.]

[Footnote 81: _Purgatorio_, xxx. 79-81, xxxi. 64-67; _Paradiso_, i.
100-102, xxii. 1 sqq.]

[Footnote 82: _Paradiso_, xxiii. 1-15.]

[Footnote 83: _Ibid._ iv. 28-48.]

[Footnote 84: _Paradiso_, x. 139--xi. 12.]

[Footnote 85: _Paradiso_, iii. 64-90.]

[Footnote 86: _Paradiso_, vi. 112-126.]

[Footnote 87: _Paradiso_, xxvii, 22-34.]

[Footnote 88: Milman.]

[Footnote 89: _Paradiso_, xiv. 85--xix. 148.]

[Footnote 90: _Paradiso_, xx.]

[Footnote 91: _Ibid._ xxviii. 41, 42.]

[Footnote 92: _Ibid._ xxx. 40-42.]

[Footnote 93: _Paradiso_, xxxi. 52-93.]

[Footnote 94: _Paradiso_, xxxiii. 143-145.]

[Footnote 95: Compare Symonds, p. 183.]



APPENDIX

AN ATTEMPT TO STATE THE CENTRAL
THOUGHT OF THE COMEDY



APPENDIX.


Dante's poem--the true reflection of his mind--is a compact and rounded
_whole_ in which all the parts are mutually interdependent. Its
digressions are never excrescences, its episodes are never detached
from its main purpose, its form is never arbitrary and accidental, but
is always the systematic and deliberate expression of its substance.
Moreover it is profoundly mediæval and Catholic in conception and
spirit. The scholastic theology and science of the Middle Ages and the
spiritual institutions of the Catholic Church were no trammels to
Dante's thought and aspiration. Under them and amidst them he moved
with a perfect sense of freedom, in them he found the embodiment of his
loftiest conceptions. Against their abuses his impetuous spirit poured
out its lava-stream of burning indignation, but his very passion
against those who laid impure hands upon the sacred things of God is
the measure of his reverence for their sanctity.

If the Catholic poet of the fourteenth century speaks with a voice that
can reach the ears and stir the hearts of the Protestant and heretic
of the nineteenth, it is not so much because he rose above the special
forms and conditions of the faith of his own age as because he went
below them and touched the eternal rock upon which they rested. Not by
neglecting or making light of the dogmas and institutions of his day,
but by piercing to their very heart and revealing their deepest
foundations, did he become a poet for all time.

The distinction, then, which we are about to draw between the permanent
realities of Dante's religion and the passing forms, the temporary
conditions of belief, under which it was manifested, is a distinction
which did not exist for him. His faith was a garment woven without
seam, or, to use his own metaphor, a coin so true in weight and metal,
so bright and round, that there was no 'perhaps' to him in its
impression.[96]

This unwavering certainty alike in principle and in detail, this
unfaltering loyalty to the beliefs of his day alike in form and
substance, is one of the secrets of Dante's strength.

But, again, such compactness and cohesion of belief could not have been
attained except by the strict subordination of every article of
concrete faith to the great central conceptions of religion, rising out
of the very nature and constitution of the devout human soul. And
therefore, paradox as it may seem, the very intensity with which Dante
embraced beliefs that we have definitely and utterly rejected, is the
pledge that we shall find in his teaching the essence of our own
religion; and we may turn to the Comedy with the certainty that we
shall not only discover here and there passages which will wake an echo
in our bosoms, but shall also find at the very heart of it some guiding
thought that will be to us as it was to him absolutely true.

Now Dante himself, as we have seen, tells us what is the subject of his
Comedy. Literally it is 'The state of souls after death,' and
allegorically 'Man, as rendering himself liable to rewarding or
punishing justice, by good or ill desert in the exercise of his free
will.' The ideal requirements of Divine Justice, then, form the central
subject of this poem, the one theme to which, amidst infinite diversity
of application, the poet remains ever true; and these requirements he
works out in detail and enforces with all the might, the penetration,
the sweetness of his song, under the conditions of mediæval belief as
to the future life.

But these conditions of belief are utterly foreign to our own
conceptions. I say nothing of the rejection of the virtuous heathen,
because Dante himself could really find no room for it in his own
system of conceptions. It lay in his mind as a belief accepted from
tradition, but never really assimilated by faith. Apart from this,
however, we find ourselves severed from Dante by his fundamental dogma
that the hour of death ends all possibility of repentance or
amendment. With him there is no repentance in Hell, no progress in
Heaven; and it is therefore only in Purgatory that we find anything at
all fundamentally analogous to the modern conception of a progressive
approximation to ideal perfection and oneness with God throughout the
cycles of a future life. And even here the transition of Purgatory is
but temporal, nor is there any fundamental or progressive change of
heart in its circles, for unless the heart be changed before death it
cannot change at all.

In its literal acceptation, then, dealing with 'the state of souls
after death,' the 'Divine Comedy' has little to teach us, except
indirectly.

But allegorically it deals with 'man,' first as impenitently sinful;
second, as penitent; last, as purified and holy. It shows us the
requirements of Divine Justice with regard to these three states; and
whether we regard them as permanent or transitory, as severed by sharp
lines one from the other or as melting imperceptibly into each other,
as existing on earth or beyond the grave, in any case Dante teaches us
what sentence justice must pronounce on impenitence, on penitence, and
on sanctity. Nay, independently of any belief in future retribution at
all, independently of any belief in what our actions will receive,
Dante burns or flashes into our souls the indelible conviction of what
they deserve.

Now to Dante's mind, as to most others, the conceptions of _justice_
and _desert_ implied the conception of _free will_. And accordingly we
find the reality of the choice exercised by man, and attended by such
eternal issues, maintained with intense conviction throughout the poem.
The free will is the supreme gift of God, and that by which the
creature most closely partakes of the nature of the Creator. The free
gift of God's love must be seized by an act of man's free will, in
opposition to the temptations and difficulties that interpose
themselves. There is justice as well as love in Heaven; justice as well
as mercy in Purgatory. The award of God rests upon the free choice of
man, and registers his merit or demerit. It is true, and Dante fully
recognises it, that one man has a harder task than another. The
original constitution and the special circumstances of one man make the
struggle far harder for him than for another; but God never suffers the
hostile influence of the stars to be so strong that the human will may
not resist it. Diversity of character and constitution is the necessary
condition of social life, and we can see why God did not make us all
alike; but when we seek to pierce yet deeper into the mystery of His
government, and ask why this man is selected for this task, why another
is burdened with this toil, why one finds the path of virtue plain for
his feet to tread, while one finds it beset with obstacles before which
his heart stands still--when we ask these questions we trench close
upon one of those doubts which Dante brought back unsolved from
Heaven. Not the seraph whose sight pierces deepest into the light of
God could have told him this, so utterly is it veiled from all created
sight.[97]

But amidst all these perplexities one supreme fact stands out to
Dante's mind: that, placed as we are on earth amidst the mysterious
possibilities of good and evil, we are endowed with a genuine power of
self-directed choice between them. The fullness of God's grace is
freely offered to us all, the life eternal of obedience, of
self-surrender, of love, tending ever to the fuller and yet fuller
harmony of united will and purpose, of mutually blessed and blessing
offices of affection, of growing joy in all the supporting and
surrounding creation, of growing repose in the might and love of God.

But if we shut our eyes against the light of God's countenance and turn
our backs upon His love, if we rebel against the limitations of mutual
self-sacrifice to one another and common obedience to God, then an
alternative is also offered us in the fierce and weltering chaos of
wild passions and disordered desires, recognising no law and evoking no
harmony, striking at the root of all common purpose and cut off from
all helpful love.

Our inmost hearts recognise the reality of this choice, and the justice
and necessity of the award that gives us what we have chosen. That the
hard, bitter, self-seeking, impure, mutinous, and treacherous heart
should drive away love and peace and joy is the natural, the necessary
result of the inmost nature and constitution of things, and our hearts
accept it. That self-discipline, gentleness, self-surrender, devotion,
generosity, self-denying love, should gather round them light and
sweetness, should infuse a fullness of joy into every personal and
domestic relation, should give a glory to every material surrounding,
and should gain an ever closer access to God, is no artificial
arrangement which might with propriety be reversed, it is a part of the
eternal and necessary constitution of the universe, and we feel that it
ought so to be.

There is no joy or blessedness without harmony, there is no harmony
without the concurrence of independent forces, there is no such
concurrence without self-discipline and self-surrender.

But these natural consequences of our moral action are here on earth
constantly interfered with and qualified, constantly baulked of their
full and legitimate effect. Here we do not get our deserts. The actions
of others affect us almost as much as our own, and artificially
interpose themselves to screen us from the results of what we are and
do ourselves. Hence we constantly fail to perceive the true nature of
our choice. Its consequences fall on others; we partially at least
evade the Divine Justice, and forget or know not what we are doing, and
what are the demands of justice with regard to us.

Now Dante, in his three poems, with an incisive keenness of vision and
a relentless firmness of touch, that stand alone, strips our life and
our principles of action of all these distracting and confusing
surroundings, isolates them from all qualifying and artificial
palliatives, and shows us what our choice is and where it leads to.

In Hell we see the natural and righteous results of sin, recognise the
direct consequences, the fitting surroundings of a sinful life, and
understand what the sinful choice in its inmost nature is. As surely as
our consciences accuse us of the sins that are here punished, so surely
do we feel with a start of self-accusing horror, 'This is what I am
trying to make the world. This is where we should be lodged if I
received what I have given. This is what justice demands that I should
have. This is what I deserve. It is what I have chosen.'

The tortures of Hell are not artificial inflictions, they are simply
the reflection and application of the sinner's own ways and principles.
He has made his choice, and he is given that which he has chosen. He
has found at last a world in which his principles of action are not
checked and qualified at every turn by those of others, in which he is
not screened from any of the consequences of his deeds, in which his
own life and action has consolidated, so to speak, about him, and has
made his surroundings correspond with his heart.

In the Hell, Dante shows us the nature and the deserts of impenitent
sin; and though we may well shrink from the ghastly conception of an
eternal state of impenitence and hatred, yet surely there is nothing
from which we ought to shrink in the conception of impenitent sin as
long as it lasts, whether in us or in others, concentrating its results
upon itself, making its own place and therefore receiving its deserts.

When we turn from Hell to Purgatory, we turn from unrepentant and
therefore constantly cherished, renewed, and reiterated sin, to
repentant sin, already banished from the heart. What does justice
demand with regard to such sin? Will it have it washed out? Will it, in
virtue of the sinner's penitence, interpose between him and the
wretched results and consequences of his deeds? Who that has ever
sinned and repented will accept for a moment such a thought? The
repentant sinner does not _wish_ to escape the consequences and results
of his sin. His evil deeds or passions must bring and ought to bring a
long trail of wretched suffering for himself. This suffering is not
corrective, it is expiatory. His heart is already corrected, it is
already turned in shame and penitence to God; but if he had no
punishment, if his evil deed brought no suffering upon himself, he
would feel that the Divine Justice had been outraged. He shrinks from
the thought with a hurt sense of moral unfitness. He wishes to suffer,
he would not escape into the peace of Heaven if he might.

Never did Dante pierce more deeply into the truth of things, never did
he bring home the _justice_ of punishment more closely to the heart,
than when he told how the souls in Purgatory do not wish to rise to
Heaven till they have worked out the consequences of their sins. The
sin long since repented and renounced still haunts us with its shame
and its remorse, still holds us from the fullness of the joy of God's
love, still smites us with a keener pain the closer we press into the
forgiving Father's presence; and we would have it so. The deepest
longing of our heart, which is now set right, is for full, untroubled
communion with God, yet it is just when nearest to Him that we feel the
wretched penalty of our sin most keenly and that we least desire to
escape it.

But if the sinful disposition be gone, then the source of our suffering
is dried up with it, and the sense of oneness with God, of harmony and
trust, gradually overpowers the self-reproach, until from the state of
penitence and suffering the soul rises to holiness and peace.

It is in giving us glimpses of this final state that Dante wields his
most transforming power over our lives. He shows us what God offers us,
what it is that we have hitherto refused, what it is that we may still
aspire to, that here or hereafter we may hope to reach. Sin-stained and
sorrow-laden as we are, it is only on wings as strong as his that we
can be raised even for a moment into that Divine blessedness in which
sin has been so purged by suffering, so dried up by the sinner's love
of God, so blotted out by God's love of him, that it has vanished as a
dream, and the soul can say, 'Here we repent not.'[98] How mighty the
spirit that can raise us even for a moment from the desolate weariness
of Hell, and the long suffering of Purgatory, to the joy and peace of
Heaven!

And here too there is justice. Here too the deserts of the soul are the
gauge of its condition. For, as we have seen, in the very blessedness
of Heaven there are grades, and the soul which has once been stained
with sin or tainted with selfish and worldly passion, can never be as
though it had been always pure. Yet the torturing sense of unworthiness
is gone, the unrest of a past that thwarts the present is no more; the
souls have cast off the burden of their sin, and are at perfect peace
with God and with themselves.

Sin, repentance, holiness, confronted with the Eternal Justice--what
they are and what they deserve--such is the subject of Dante
Alighieri's Comedy.

Have five and a half centuries of progress outgrown the poem, or are
Dante's still the mightiest and most living words in which man has ever
painted in detail the true deserts of sin, of penitence, of sanctity?
The growing mind of man has burst the shell of Dante's mediæval creed.
Is his portrayal of the true conditions of blessedness as antiquated as
his philosophy, his religion as strange to modern thought as his
theology? Or has he still a power, wielded by no other poet, of taking
us into the very presence of God and tuning our hearts to the harmonies
of Heaven? Those who have been with him on his mystic journey, and have
heard and seen, can answer these questions with a declaration as clear
and ringing as the poet's own confession of faith in the courts of
Heaven. If those who have but caught some feeble echoes of his song can
partly guess what the true answer is, then those echoes have not been
waked in vain.


LONDON: PRINTED BY SPOTTISWOODE AND CO., NEW-STREET SQUARE AND
PARLIAMENT STREET


FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 96: _Paradiso_, xxiv. 86, 87.]

[Footnote 97: Compare _Purgatorio_, xvi. 67-84; _Paradiso_, iv. 73-114,
v. 13 sqq., viii. 115-129, xxi. 76-102, xxxii. 49-75.]

[Footnote 98: _Paradiso_, ix. 103.]



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Transcriber's Notes


Bold text is shown within =equal signs=.

Text in italics is shown within _underscores_.

Three asterisks represent an asterism.

Five asterisks represent a thought break.

Corrected unbalanced quotation marks.

Made minor punctuation changes for consistency.

Page 14 of Publications, under HOLROYD: Removed macron marks above
both a's in Kalam. (Tas-hil ul Kalam; or, Hindustani made Easy.)

Page 19 of Publications, under MACNAUGHT: Spaced out the oe ligature.
(Coena Domini: An Essay on the Lord's Supper,)





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