Dante (Oliphant)/Chapter 6
THE PROSE WORKS.
It is scarcely to be looked for that even the most supreme genius should be able to keep up in prose the lofty level raised in such verse as that of the 'Divine Comedy;' and there is good reason why the lesser productions of Dante, though dear to the student both for their own strange sake and for the minute rays of exposition which they throw upon his chief work, should be unlikely to attract popular sympathy or interest. To ourselves, we cannot deny, even the sometimes sublime strain of the "Paradiso" is impaired by the very large admixture of theology and philosophy to which the denizens of heaven give vent, in their anxiety to remove those "doubts" which so persistently assail the poet. And the three chief prose productions of Dante are all theology and philosophy, full of arguments so minute, so detailed, and so subtle, that the strain of attention required to follow them is beyond the powers of most readers. These works are the 'Convito,' the discourse 'Sul Volgare Eloquio,' and that called 'La Monarchia.' The two later of these seem to have been written for a special purpose: one, to encourage and recommend, as well as to defend and justify, the use of "the vulgar tongue" in literary works; the other, to set forth and support the doctrine of that universal monarchy which was the ideal of the Ghibelline party. The 'Convito' seems to have had a less special origin. It would seem, according to the conclusion of most commentators, to have been written at Bologna during the pause in Dante's life which succeeded his first passionate resistance to the sentence which condemned him to exile. In the sting of that condemnation he rushed into conspiracy and party strife, trying, it scarcely mattered by what means, by violence or persuasion, to get himself back into his city. After a year or two, however, of this bootless struggling, Dante seems to have grown disgusted, as it was natural such a mind as his should, with the conspiracies and complots, and to have retired from the plotters into the studious quiet of Bologna, where he lived peaceably and in a softened disposition of mind, as long as he was permitted to remain in this neighbour town, which, for its part, though in a somewhat modified way, was also subject to the faction fights and revolutions which did so much harm to Florence. This was before the 'Divine Comedy' had been effectively begun; and if we may believe that Dante had already tried the beginning of his great poem in Latin verse, and had flung it aside as unsuccessful, it will throw some light upon the state of mind in which—poor, banished, and alone—he looked around him, wistfully regarding the dim mental horizon for some touch of hope, with his genius restless within him, and longing for utterance, of which as yet it had not found the most excellent way. In the 'Convito,' which he began in this mood, he took up the old plan of the 'Vita Nuova,' which has been indicated in a previous chapter, but with no longer the inspiration of warm and exalted passion which had given that book a hold upon all hearts. He had not found his way yet into the long and solemn round of travelling by which Hell and Heaven were opened to him, and so many wonders made plain; but was in the same condition as the Psalmist when he called to earth and sky to show him "something good," and when his heart burned to see the prosperity of the wicked. In his very impatience, impotent as he seemed for all good, with the sense of failure bitter in him, not able even to begin, to his liking, the more important work which was in his mind, the mingled passion and difficulty with which he would seem to have stretched out his hand to his old tools has a great deal of pathos in it. The 'Vita Nuova,' with its artless artifices, and that strange unreality which rather enhances than detracts from its passion and fervour, must have been so satisfactory to the young poet as a mode of disclosing his heart to his friends, and to them so bewildering, yet so delightful, that (if it is permitted to speak of such a book as successful) Dante can have had no doubt of its success. And it is no unusual thing in the history of the imagination to see a first effort thus repeated in very perplexity of the restless and yet unformed genius, eager to do it knows not what, and to press on to further heights, not yet understood or fully descried.
The 'Convito'—banquet, symposium, feast of imagination and reason, spread before the world and his countrymen—was, according to the poet's scheme, to consist of fourteen poems of love and virtue, to be accompanied by the bread of his exposition, thereby furnishing a full meal to the persons invited. All men, he says, according to the Philosopher (that is to say, according to Aristotle, the "master of all who know," the supreme teacher of philosophy, to Dante's mind and age), naturally desire knowledge, but are prevented, by various impediments of mind, body, and circumstances, from acquiring it. But he adds, with the fine and lofty generosity of a man consciously dwelling in another atmosphere from those around him: "As every man is naturally the friend of every man, and every friend grieves over the defects of him whom he loves, so those who are fed at the high table of knowledge are not without pity for those who eat grass with the lower animals. And since pity is the mother of bounty, those who know, give always liberally of their riches to the real poor, and are thus living fountains to satisfy the natural thirst above described. I therefore, who do not sit at that blessed table, yet, fled from the pasture of the vulgar, place myself at the feet of those who sit there, and gather up what falls from them—I, knowing the miserable life of those whom I have left behind me, and moved by the sweetness of that which, little by little, I gather up, have pitifully reserved something, a little portion of which has been already communicated to them, and which I have made them greatly desire." How his exposition resembles the bread which is served at every feast; and how this bread must be cleansed from every stain before it is offered to the guests; and how his use of the vulgar tongue instead of the Latin is like offering oaten instead of wheaten bread; yet how this oaten bread—this common mother tongue—has some homely advantage over the more dignified language, to be afterwards expounded and set forth in a work on the vulgar tongue which he intends to write,—are the subjects of the first book or Trattato of the 'Convito.' A portion of the feast itself is then presented to the reader in the shape of the first poem, the same which Carlo Martello quoted in "Paradise"—
"You whose great minds move the third heaven on high,
Listen to that which breathes within my heart,
And seems so new, that nothing can be said
By me but this: That sphere which 'tis your part
To move, oh noble creatures of the sky,
To this condition has my spirit led,
Then when in speech 't should be interpreted
You chief to listen to my words, pray I."
The subject of the poem thus begun is the curious episode of nascent love recounted in the end of the 'Vita Nuova,' where, the reader will remember, a certain gentle lady, gazing at him with pitying eyes from her window, almost beguiled Dante out of recollection of Beatrice and everything else—which second love, with all the inconstancy of thought and levity of heart which it seemed to evidence, was finally combated and overcome in the poet's mind by a sudden vivid realisation of his lost lady, and all the circumstances of his love for her. He appeals to the Spirits which move the third heaven—that is, the star of Venus—the high controllers and inspiring influences of love, who have led him into the state in which he is, to hear him now; but so interwoven with allegory is the tale, that the reader, less intelligent perhaps than these Angels of Venus, may well be bewildered between the real lady of the window and the mystical lady Philosophy, who also beguiled his sorrows and consoled his heart after the death of his first love. It is not for want of explaining, however, that this bewilderment exists; for the second book, consisting of sixteen chapters, is given up to a minute and careful examination of the poem, very similar in character—though much more extended and minute—to the explanations attached to the sonnets in the 'Vita Nuova,' and entering with still more subtle analysis into every line and every possible question that could arise. The beginning, which we have quoted, gives occasion for a full statement of the astronomical system, afterwards so largely gone into in the "Paradise," of which it is locally the foundation—which is very interesting to those students who have leisure and love sufficient to lead them to compare the earlier with the later work, and to perceive how the first idea thus shadowed forth in the 'Convito' attained its full development in the description of Heaven, written many years later. Except this scholarly interest, however, it cannot be said to be otherwise attractive, though there are many beautiful passages, of which we may take the following as a fine example. The poet has been led to the question of immortality by his own account of his lady in heaven:—
"But as the immortality of the soul is here implied, I will make a digression upon that subject; since discoursing of that, I may most fitly terminate all that has been said concerning that living and blessed Beatrice, of whom I intend to talk no more in this book. And to begin, I say that among all brutalities, that of him who believes that after this life there is no other, is the most stupid, vile, and dangerous; for if we turn to the writings of philosophers or of other wise authors, all agree in this, that some portion of us lasts perpetually. And this Aristotle appears especially to intend in his treatise 'On the Soul;' as also all the Stoics; and Tully particularly in his book 'On Old Age;' this seems to say every poet who has spoken according to the faith of the Gentiles; this is expressed in every law—Jewish, Saracenic, and Tartaric, and by all other nations that live according to any kind of reason; so that if all were deceived, there would follow an impossibility, which even to put into words is horrible. It is certain that human nature is the most perfect of every created thing here below—and none deny this; Aristotle, indeed, asserts it in his work upon 'Animals,' where he says that man is the perfection of all the animals. While, therefore, many who live are entirely mortal, like the brute creation, and are, while they live, without any hope of another life, it follows that, if our hope were vain, greater would be our defects than those of any other animal; for many there are who have given this life for that; from which it would follow that the most perfect of living things—that is, man—would be the most imperfect, which is impossible; and that the part of him which is his greatest perfection—that is, his reason—would be the cause of his greatest imperfection: all of which is too strange to say. And further, it would follow that nature against herself had placed this hope in the human mind, since, as has been said, many rush to death in the body in order to live in the other life; and this, too, is impossible. Again, we have a continuous proof of our immortality in the divination of our dreams, which could not be if some part of us was not immortal; if we think closely, it is clear that the revealer must be immortal, whether in the body or out of the body: and that which is moved or informed by an immediate instructor ought to bear some proportion to the instructor; but between the mortal and the immortal there is no proportion. Again, we are made certain of this truth by the most true doctrine of Christ, which is the way, the truth, and the light: the way, because by it we go without impediment to the happiness of that immortality; the truth, because it permits no error; the light, because it illuminates us in the darkness of our earthly ignorance. This doctrine, I say, makes us sure above all other reasonings; since He has given it who sees and measures our immortality, which we cannot perfectly see while our mortal is mixed with the immortal; but we see it perfectly by faith; and by reason we see it darkly in consequence of the mixture of our mortality. And this should be the most potent argument of all, that in us these two exist; and I thus believe, and affirm, and am certain that I shall pass after this life to a better—where lives that glorious lady whom my soul loved."
A book in which such passages as this occur—even though its reasoning may be antiquated in form and imperfect in argument—cannot fail to reward the studious reader; but it is not likely to lay a strong hold upon the general mind—and that the poet himself felt this, seems apparent from the fact that instead of the fourteen poems promised by Dante at the beginning, the work breaks off when only three of these poems, each with the same elaborate commentary, have been set before us. The second, the reader may remember, was sung by Casella to Dante, in the fresh morning landscape and soft sunshine, when the two met on the shore at the foot of the Purgatorial hill; a song so sweet that it beguiled even the delivered souls, and made them forget their own high errand, and that they were on the road to heaven. "Love which in my mind discourses of my lady" is still the subject; but the often-lauded perfections of that blessed Beatrice, of which the poet has already told us he will speak no more, are here presented to us with a difference, the allegorical thrusting itself in advance of the real, as never in the most dazzling mists of the 'Vita Nuova' it had done before—so that we are never sure how much is Beatrice, and how much that "divine philosophy," which was to Dante never "harsh and crabbed," but "musical as is Apollo's lute." The third poem departs altogether from the elevated and inspiring, even if fanciful, connection with Beatrice, and brings us completely into the region of ethics. Leaving "the sweet rhymes of love," which have been his previous occupation, the poet here discusses the ignoble theory that wealth is the chief foundation of nobility, and gives it an indignant denial. We are disposed to hope that this diversion of his genius from the themes most adapted for poetical treatment opened Dante's eyes to the over-strained and fictitious character of the work altogether; but perhaps it was only the wave of evil fortune which pursued him, that here rushed in, sweeping away the poet and his book together into the renewed wanderings and struggles of life, into the 'Divine Comedy' and its greater yet more simple strain. Even at his obscurest, however, the glow and fervour of intense genius shine through, whenever the subtilities of scholastic reasoning will permit; and the 'Convito,' though but a dim lantern, still shows by intervals how vivid was the living light within it. There is a certain pathos, too, in its failure, and we look on with a silence of awe at the gropings of the great singer, not yet sure of himself or his powers; after the instrument which was to pour forth so noble a flood of song. There seems no reason to doubt that the 'Convito' was the second of his works chronologically, and was written in the very beginning of the fourteenth century.
The second of Dante's prose works—indeed the first which comes to us without any admixture of verse—is the discourse upon the vulgar tongue, 'De Vulgare Eloquio,' already referred to. It is written in Latin, no doubt with the intention of reaching and convincing the educated public, upon whom it was most necessary to impress the excellence and use of the common tongue: as well as for the simple reason that Latin was the natural language of thought, the 'Vita Nuova' being little more than a daring youthful rebellion against rule, justified by an exceptional subject, and the 'Convito' a sequel to the 'Vita Nuova.' The arguments with which it begins have already been to some degree anticipated in the 'Convito,' which indeed contains the germ of much that is afterwards worked out in detail. We shall not attempt to enter into these arguments. The entire work of Dante is the most convincing of all arguments as to the majesty and nobleness of the language which he did so much to establish, and which has, ever since the 'Divine Comedy' appeared in it, been recognised as one of the greatest, and perhaps absolutely the most melodious and beautiful, of European languages. It is unnecessary to say that the work discusses this question with the minutest elaboration of dialectical skill, proving its many uses, its homely dignity, its ready adaptation to human need. Beginning with the fact that man alone has the privilege of this gift of speech, and that the first speech used was Hebrew, he travels by that stronghold of confusion and darkness the Tower of Babel, downwards to the formation of the three languages of Oc, Oil, and Si, and through the dialects of Italy, to the necessity for a single supreme standard of Italian, in which all lofty subjects might be worthily discussed; adding thereafter a learned disquisition on metres and measures, and all the technical framework of poetry. We give the following brief extract from the chapter which discusses the language used in Eden, from which the reader will perceive what tender glimpses of the man Dante, and of his sorrows and affections, may be seen through the meshes of the argument even in a work so special and devoted to an individual purpose as this:—
"Since there are some so dishonest in reason as to believe their own country the most delicious which is to be found under the sun, to these persons also it appears lawful to prefer their own vulgar language, that is, their mother tongue, to all others, and consequently they believe that to have been the language of Adam. But we, who have the world for our country as fishes have the sea, although we drank the waters of Arno before we had teeth, and have so much loved Florence that for love of her we suffer unjust exile—we nevertheless lean the shoulders of our judgment rather upon reason than upon sense; and although, for our pleasure, or that which secures us most tranquillity of enjoyment, there is in the earth no place more sweet than Florence, yet, turning to the books of poets and other writers, in which the world is described both universally and particularly, and discussing among ourselves the various situations and places in the world and their customs, between the two poles and the circle of the equator, we clearly understand and believe that there are many regions and many cities more noble and delightful than Tuscany and Florence, where we were born and of which we are citizens; and that many nations and people use a more pleasant and more useful language than the Italians. Returning, then, to the question, I say that a certain form of speech was created by God, together with the first soul, . . . and according to this form spoke Adam, and all his descendants, until the building of the Tower of Babel, which is interpreted the tower of confusion; this form of speech has been inherited by the sons of Eber, who were from him called Hebrews, to whom alone it remained after the confusion of tongues, so that our Redeemer, who was destined to be born of them, might use, according to the laws of his humanity, the language of grace and not that of confusion."
The treatise called "La Monarchia" is also written in Latin, hut the period and motive of its composition are disputed—some commentators holding it to he an early work of youth, showing how Dante's mind had taken up the Ghibelline doctrine of a universal monarchy while still in Florence, as there is no allusion in it to his exile; and by others to date from the short reign of Henry of Luxembourg, when the hopes of all the exiled Italians were excited by the advent of a new emperor, bent upon fulfilling those duties of universal supervision and rectification which were to be the special work of the universal monarch. We need not enter into this question, upon which we do not feel capable of pronouncing any opinion; nor, indeed, is it possible to give, in the limited space that remains to us, any clear idea of the intricate and subtle argument—more difficult in its object, and more involved in its reasoning, than either of the previous treatises we have described—with which this question is treated. That monarchy, in this universal sense, is necessary to the wellbeing of the world; that it is the Roman nation alone which has the privilege of giving such an imperial suzerain to Christendom; and that this supreme power is from God only, without any intermediate agency between,—are the principles which, with all the force of reasoning he possesses, Dante sets himself to establish. This piece of special pleading may be supposed to have been of more importance than either of the others, from the fact that it was an active question of the time, though apparently so far-fetched and unreal: and involved battle and murder, and all the penalties of defeat, which are worse than failure in argument. Dante had been born in the Guelf party, which held such views in abhorrence, and in it had been bred, at least until he reached the days of the 'Vita Nuova,' and began to interest himself in the larger, manly issues of politics and government; therefore his promulgation of the Ghibelline creed and distinctive doctrine was in itself a remarkable fact. And even now he was a moderate Ghibelline, going to no excess; so that we may be sure that the pretensions of the universal monarch, whom he preaches, were stated without exaggeration. The outline of the absolute ruler, whose despotism is held in check by the moral perfections with which it is necessary he should be endowed, but by no other restraint—and who is made capable of universal sway by, to state it in homely words, the impossibility of bettering himself, the fact that he has reached the very height of mortal ambition, beyond all reach of cupidity, or even the wish of acquisition,—is in itself a bewildering picture. We quote as an example of the argument one of the few passages which can be detached. He has been arguing that the sway of this great monarch, whose supremacy is such that nothing remains for him to acquire or even hope for, is the sole means of procuring general peace:—
"To all the above arguments a memorable example bears witness. This is the condition of mortal affairs which the Son of God waited for in order to assume flesh for the salvation of man. For when we survey in our minds the ages and dispositions of men, from the transgression of our first forefathers, which was the beginning of all our errors, we shall not find a time when the world was at peace and quiet, save under Caesar Augustus, who was the monarch in a state of perfect monarchy. But that the human race was then happy in the quiet of universal peace, all the historians and illustrious poets testify; . . . and Paul calls that most happy state the fulness of days. Certainly the age and its circumstances were so arranged that no mystery of our happiness should be wanting to the world. But in what fashion the world has been moved from that time to this, so that the seamless vesture has been torn by the nails of avarice, we have read, and God grant that we could be beyond reach of seeing. O human race! how many tempests, what ruin and wrong, art thou constrained to endure, while thou makest of thyself a beast with many heads!"
These three works, remarkable in their way, and full of matter interesting to the student, are separated in the distinctest manner, and placed by their very nature on an entirely different level from that occupied by the great poem of Dante. The 'Divine Comedy' is for all time: it is crammed full of the minutest local allusions, and crowded with names and incidents which have ceased, except as mentioned there, to interest any living creature; but nevertheless it is as living, as powerful, as comprehensible, as when it was written—a record of human existence, passion, sorrow, pity, and love, which no destruction now could tear out of the memory of men—a portion of our universal inheritance. Could Italy, with all its glories, be swept away, as the middle ages have passed away, with all their struggles and splendour, Dante would remain as great as ever, notwithstanding that he is Italian and medieval in every feature of his genius; and so long as human nature remains the thing it is, steadily triumphant in character and emotion over all the preaching of developments, no antiquity will make the great poet old. But the 'Convito' and the 'Monarchia' are archaeological relics, affecting remains of a chaos of knowledge and opinion, no longer, except by painful effort, comprehensible to our minds. For this reason we have not attempted to give more than the briefest account of these productions. They were for their day, and that day is past; but tho journey through Hell and Heaven, and that intermediate world that lies between, through guilt and penitence and blessedness, to the presence of God, with its stem firmness of justice and unspeakable meltings of pity, and all the men and women in it, who are as living as we are, is for all time.
The collection of poems called the 'Canzoniere' contains some sonnets and songs not included in any of the works we have discussed,—some beautiful, some merely quaint and curious; but there is no feature in them that demands special notice. Some of them, according to the stories of the time, lofty and refined as they are, were sung about the streets of Florence, by the carters and blacksmiths, in the very hearing of the poet; which wonderful popular appreciation of those finest ethereal voices goes far to make us believe in the stately dream-city of the 'Vita Nuova,' where, when Beatrice lived there, and the young Dante who loved her, angels, and muses, and every lovely imagination seem to have trod the antique pavement, and, with a dazzling of celestial smiles and sunshine, irradiated all the ancient place.
END OF DANTE.
PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS.