By Professor Charles Hall Grandgent

DANTE ALIGHIERI (1265–1321) is rightly called the supreme exponent of the Middle Ages. In no other writer, ancient or modern, do we find the spirit of a great period so completely reflected as the mediæval soul is mirrored in him. It was the epoch of mighty builders and mighty theologians, of religious exaltation, of sturdy, militant faith—the age that produced the grand cathedrals and the "Summa Theologiæ," the age of the Crusades, of St. Bernard and St. Dominic, the age of St. Francis. So essentially is Dante a poet of God that the epithet "Divine" has by universal consent been attached to the work which he called a "Comedy"; and so manifest is his architectural genius that his poem inevitably suggests comparison with a huge Gothic church. The troops of figures that live eternally in his pages, representing all types of contemporary man from burgher to Pope, diversify without obscuring the symmetrical outlines of his plan—a plan sufficiently vast to embrace nearly all that was of much importance in profane and sacred science.


The "Commedia,"[1] with its three books and its hundred cantos, relates the whole progress of a soul from sin, through remorse, meditation, and discipline, to the state of purity that enables it to see God. Lost in wickedness, the poet suddenly comes to his senses and tries to escape from it, but in vain. Reason, moved by grace, thereupon leads him step by step to a full understanding of evil, in all its ugliness and folly; and he at last turns his back upon it. His next duty is to cleanse his soul by penance, until its innocence is gradually restored. Then Revelation descends to meet him, and lifts him heavenward, higher and higher, even to the presence of his Maker. All this is set forth allegorically in the form of a journey, under the guidance of Virgil and then of Beatrice, through the underground kingdom of Hell, up the lonely mountain of Purgatory to the Garden of Eden, and thence through the revolving spheres to Paradise.


To us the universe of the Middle Ages seems small. The whole duration of earthly life, from Creation to Judgment Day, is limited to some 7,000 or 8,000 years. Our globe, a solid, motionless ball, surrounded by air and by fire, is the center of the material world. About it turn the nine successive skies, transparent, shell-like, hollow spheres, bearing the sun, the moon, the planets, and the fixed stars, which together constitute the force called Nature. Outside this round universe of matter is the Paradise of pure spirit, the limitless abode of God, the angels, and the blest. The angels, ministers of the Lord, direct the movements of the celestial bodies, thus shaping existence here below and the characters of men. Of the earth's surface much more than half is covered by water; but on one side, with Jerusalem in the middle, is the clover-shaped continent of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Christian world is ruled by two great powers, one spiritual, one temporal, both ordained by God: Papacy and Empire, founded by Christ and by Cæsar. Unrighteous ambition has brought them into conflict with each other.

Of ancient history, and of all the wealth of classic literature and art, but little was known, and that little was translated into terms of the present; for the historical sense was quite undeveloped, and so was the idea of progress, so dear to us moderns. To the mediæval mind, Solomon, Alexander, Cæsar, Charlemagne were very much alike. The most noteworthy survivors among the authors of pagan Rome were Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, Cicero and Livy; to these should be added the Christians, Boethius and St. Augustine, and the scholars and theologians who followed. Greek was lost; but Aristotle, in Latin garb, began in the thirteenth century to dominate European thought, and Platonism had been potent in shaping St. Augustine's doctrine some 800 years before.


Most of the learning of his age Dante possessed—the science of Albertus Magnus, the philosophy of Aristotle, the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, the fragment of Latin literature that time had spared. We find abundant evidence of it, not only in the "Divina Commedia," but also in the unfinished "Convivio," or "Banquet," an encyclopædic work in the shape of a commentary on some of the author's poems.

He wrote Latin with fluency and vigor: besides his letters and a couple of eclogues, he composed a treatise, "De Monarchia," on the relation of state to church, and began a discussion of verse forms and the use of the Italian language in poetry, called "De Vulgari Eloquentia"; there is ascribed to him also a lecture, the "Quaestio de Aqua et Terra," debating a curious problem of physical geography. But while his facts, ideas, and interests were those of his day, certain traits differentiate him from his fellows: with Petrarch he shares intensity of feeling and strong personality; with Chaucer and Boccaccio clearness of vision and the gift of vivid dramatic characterization; with none, his artistic reaction to the wilder aspects of nature, his stupendous imagination, his conciseness, his power of suggestion.In language, too, he stands quite apart from his predecessors and contemporaries. Such picturesqueness, such wealth of vocabulary,had never been conceived since classic antiquity. Before him, in fact, clerical Latin had been the regular medium of serious discourse. His use of the vernacular for the elucidation of philosophy and religion was a daring innovation, which he defends in the "Convivio." Especially in his own country was the modern tongue despised, and the literary output in Italian, before the fourteenth century, was correspondingly meager.


Northern France had long since witnessed a glorious development of narrative poetry, of warlike epic and courtly romance—songs of kings and feudal lords, adventures of knights (particularly those of the Round Table[2]) in distant lands and times. Out of liturgical service had grown the drama. Symbolism, long familiar in the interpretation of ancient poetry and of holy writ, had made its way into creative art, and had produced the "Romance of the Rose," that wonder of the thirteenth century. Satire, which in this poem is combined with the allegorical theme of the quest of love, had found separate expression in the versified episodes called "fabliaux," and in the tales of Reynard the Fox. Much of this literature had been carried to Italy, as to other countries of Europe. No less renowned than the North French epic,[3] and hardly less influential abroad, was the great school of amatory lyric poetry that had sprung up in southern France—a poetry of restricted scope but of exquisite artistry, which in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was sung and imitated at many an Italian court. Not until the time of Frederick II, however, do we find similar verse composed in an Italian tongue. About this great emperor clustered a band of clever, artificial love poets known as the Sicilian School. In Tuscany the vernacular was used for lyric purposes by a group of uninspired but ingenious rhymesters, for the most part close followers of Provençal models. At Bologna, too, the famous university town, the new art began to be cultivated in the middle of the thirteenth century. Here lived Guido Guinizelli, whom Dante calls his master, the first poet to formulate definitely that theory of love which was to govern the "sweet new style."


According to this doctrine, love is an attribute of the "gentle" heart alone. There it slumbers until aroused to activity by a worthy object. The woman who awakens this "gentle" love must be a symbol of the angelic nature, or "heavenly intelligence"; and devotion to her is worship. In the generation after Guinizelli his teaching was extended by a circle of gifted writers, who introduced the poetic fashion into Florence, a busy commercial town, already perhaps the most prosperous of the bustling, ambitious, jealous, quarrelsome little commonwealths of Italy. Members of this literary company were Dante's "first friend," Guido Cavalcanti, and Dante himself. We find, to be sure, a less novel conception of love in some of our poet's works: in his sweet verses on a certain young lady who pitied him in his bereavement, in his occasional complimentary sonnets and ballads, in his wildly passionate and beautiful songs concerning a youthful person whom he calls "Pietra." In his canzonito Lady Philosophy we have excellent examples of the amatory form put to an allegorical use. For a more literal expression of the new thought we must look to the compositions inspired by his ideal lady, Beatrice—and, among them, to the maturer ones. Some years after the death of his beloved, Dante selected from his previous verse a series of poems illustrating the phases of his inner life under Beatrice's influence, and surrounded them with a dainty prose explanation. This is the "Vita Nuova," or "New Life."

  1. See Harvard Classics, xx, and General Index, under Dante, in vol. 1.
  2. See Dr. Maynadier's lecture on "Malory" in the course on Prose Fiction.
  3. Cf. "The Song of Roland" in H. C., xlix, 95ff.