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   Chapter 5 No.5

Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 26749

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Influence of Women in Early Literature

"Nine times now since my birth, the heaven of light had turned almost to the same point in its own gyration, when the glorious Lady of my mind-who was called Beatrice by many who knew not what to call her-first appeared before my eyes. She had already been in this life so long, that in its course the starry heaven had moved toward the region of the East one of the twelve parts of a degree; so that at about the beginning of her ninth year she appeared to me, and I near the end of my ninth year saw her. She appeared to me clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson, and she was girt and adorned in such wise as befitted her very youthful age. At that instant, I can truly say that the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with such violence that it appeared fearfully in the least pulses, and, trembling, said these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi [Behold a god stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me]. At that instant the spirit of the soul, which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions, began to marvel greatly, and, speaking especially to the spirit of the sight, said these words: Apparuit jam beatitudo vestra [Now has appeared your bliss]. At that instant the natural spirit, which dwells in that part where our nourishment is supplied, began to weep, and, weeping, said these words: Heu miser! quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps [Woe is me, wretched! Because often from this time forth shall I be hindered]."

Nowhere in all literature can be found a dearer statement of the spiritual evolution which was going on in the minds of men with respect to women, at the close of the Middle Ages, than that given in the foregoing passage from Dante's Vita Nuova-taken from Professor Norton's finished translation. The spirit of the amatory poetry of the gay troubadours of Provence had found its way into Italy, but it was its more spiritual side which was to make the greater impression upon the national literature at this early stage of its development. The mystic marriage with the Church which had consoled so many women in distress, and which had removed them from the sin and confusion of the hurly-burly world to a life of quiet joy and peace, had slowly been exerting a more general and secular influence which first bore fruit in the notions of Platonic friendship which had been discussed; then came deference and respect and a truer understanding of woman's true position. But something was wanting in this profession of love and respect which came from the singers of Provence; their words were ready and their speech was smooth, but all their knightly grace of manner could not conceal the fact that Venus was their goddess. They were sincere, doubtless, but all that they sang was so lyric, subjective, and persona! in its essence that they failed to strike the deepest chords of human feeling or display that high seriousness which is indicative of real dignity of character. Love had been the despot whose slightest caprice was law.-in obeying his commands one could do no wrong. Woman became the arbiter of man's destiny in so far as, the fervent lover, in his ardor, was glad to do her bidding. The troubadour Miravel has told us that when a man made a failure of his life, all were prone to say: "It is evident that he did not care for the ladies." There is a worldly tone in this remark which grates upon the ear-it does not ring clear and true, although the Proven?al poets had improved the manners of their time and had introduced a highbred courtesy into their dealings with women which was in itself a great step in advance. It is related that when William the Conqueror first saw Emma, his betrothed, he seized her roughly in his arms and threw her to the ground as an indication of affection; but the troubadour was wont to kneel before his lady and pray for grace and power to win her approbation. Yet, under the courtly form of manner and speech, it is too often the sensual conception of womankind which lurks in the background, and there is little evidence to show that there was any general belief in the chastening power of the love of a good woman-a power which might be of positive value in character building.

The spiritual possibilities latent in this higher conception seem, however, to have been grasped by some of the Italian poets of the early Renaissance, and here we find a devotion to women which comes not from the heart alone, but from the soul as well. Dante's "natural spirit" was but the sensual nature, and well might it cry out when the "spirit of life" began to feel the secret commotion of the "spirit of the soul": "Woe is me, wretched! Because often from this time forth shall I be hindered in my work." And so it was. With this first somewhat broad conception of the dignity of womanhood there was a new incentive to manly endeavor; and there came into the world, in the power and might of the great Florentine poet, a majesty of character which fair Provence could never have produced. Immediately before Dante's time we see glimmerings of this new sentiment in the work of Guido Cavalcanti and of Cino da Pistoja. Cavalcanti, being exiled from Florence, went on a visit to the shrine of Saint James of Compostella; and upon the way, passing through Toulouse, he was captivated by a beautiful Spanish girl, whom he has made celebrated under the name of Mandetta:

"In un boschetto trovai pastorella,

Più che la stella bella al mio parere,

Capegli avea biondetti e ricciutelli."

It is true that in his work Cavalcanti shows many of the stilted mannerisms which were common to the troubadours; but such expressions as "to her, every virtue bows," and "the mind of man cannot soar so high, nor is it sufficiently purified by divine grace to understand and appreciate all her perfections," point the way toward a greater sincerity. His chief work was a long Canzone sopra l'Amore, which was so deep and philosophic that seven weighty commentaries in both Latin and Italian have as yet failed to sound all its depths. In the story of the early love of Cino da Pistoja for Ricciarda dei Selvaggi there is a genuine and homely charm which makes us feel that here indeed true love had found a place. Ricciarda-or Selvaggia, as Cino calls her-was the daughter of a noble family of Pistoja, her father having been gonfaniere and leader of the Bianchi faction, and it appears that she also was famed for her poetic gifts. For a time she and Cino kept their love a secret from the world, but their poems to each other at this time show it to have been upon a high plane. Finally, the parents of Ricciarda were banished from Pistoja by the Neri, and in their flight they took refuge in a small fortress perched near the summit of the Apennines, where they were joined by Cino, who had determined to share their fortunes. There the spring turned into summer, and the summer into autumn, and the days sped happily-days which were later called the happiest of the poet's whole life. The two young people roamed the hills together, or took their share in the household duties, and the whole picture seems to breathe forth an air of reality and truth which far removes it from that atmosphere of comic-opera love and passion which seemed to fill the Midi. When the winter came, the hardship of this mountain life commenced; the winds grew too keen, and the young girl soon began to show the effects of the want and misery to which she was exposed. Finally, the end came; and there Cino and the parents, grieving, laid her to her rest, in a sheltered valley. The pathos of this story needs no word of explanation, and Cino's grief is best shown by an act of his later years. Long afterward, when he was loaded with fame and honors, it happened that, being sent upon an embassy, he had occasion to cross the mountains near the spot where Selvaggia had been buried. Sending his suite around by another path, he went alone to her tomb and tarried for a time in prayer and sorrow. Later, in verse, he commemorates this visit, closing with the words:

"...pur chiamando, Selvaggia!

L'alpe passai, con voce di dolore."

[Then calling aloud in accents of despair, Selvaggia! I passed the mountain tops.] Cino's loved one is distinguished in the history of Italian literature as the bel numer'una-"fair number one"-in that list of the famous women of the century where the names of Beatrice and Laura are to be found.

With Dante, the spiritual nature of his love for Beatrice assumed an almost mystical and religious character, betraying the marked influence of medi?val philosophy and theology; and here it was-for the first time in modern literature-that woman as a symbol of goodness and light found herself raised upon a pedestal and glorified in the eyes of the world. Many a pink and rosy Venus had been evoked before, many a pale-faced nun had received the veneration of the multitude for her saintly life, but here we have neither Venus nor saint; for Beatrice is the type of the good woman in the world, human in her instincts and holy in her acts. The air of mysticism with which Dante has enveloped his love for the daughter of the Portinari family does not in any way detract from our interest in his point of view, for the principal fact for the modern world is that he had such thoughts about women. Legouvé has said that spiritual love was always mingled with a respect for women, and that sensual admiration was rarely without secret scorn and hatred; and it is his further opinion that spiritual love was naturally allied to sentiments of austere patriotism in illustrious men, while those who celebrated the joys of sensual passion were indifferent to the cause of country and sometimes traitor to it. Dante and Petrarch, the two chaste poets, as they are sometimes called, were the most ardent patriots in all Italy. Midst the tortures of the Inferno or the joys of the Paradiso, the image of the stricken fatherland is ever with Dante, and more than once does he cry out against her cruel oppressors. With Petrarch, as it has well been said, his love for the Latin language was but the form of his love for his people, as in his great hope for the future the glory of the past was to return. Boccaccio was the most illustrious of those in literature who represented the sensual conception of woman; and whatever his literary virtues may have been, no one has ever called attention to his patriotic fervor or to his dignity of character. Laura and Beatrice, though not of royal birth, have been made immortal by their poet lovers; Boccaccio loved the daughter of a king, but he has described her with such scant respect that what little renown she may have derived from her liaison with him is all to her discredit.

The story of Dante and Beatrice is now an old one, but ever fresh with the rare charm which it possesses even after the lapse of these many years. The New Life, Dante's earliest work, which is devoted to a description of his first meeting with Beatrice and his subsequent all-powerful love for her, has been regarded sceptically by some critics, who are inclined to see in it but an allegory, and there are others who go so far as to say that Beatrice never existed. What uncertainty can there be regarding her life, when Cino da Pistoja wrote his most celebrated poem, a canzone to Dante, consoling him for her loss? The following stanza from Rossetti's matchless version is proof enough for all who care to read:

"Why now do pangs of torment clutch thy heart,

Which with thy love should make thee overjoyed,

As him whose intellect has passed the skies?

Behold, the spirits of thy life depart

Daily to Heaven with her, they so are buoyed

With thy desire, and Love so bids them rise.

O God I and thou, a man whom God made wise,

To nurse a charge of care, and love the same!

I tell thee, in His name,

From sin of sighing grief to hold thy breath,

Nor let thy heart to death,

Nor harbour death's resemblance in thine eyes.

God hath her with Himself eternally,

Yet she inhabits every hour with thee."

Beatrice certainly lived; and no matter in what veil of mysticism the poet may choose to envelop her in his later writings, and in spite of the imagery of his phrases, even in the New Life, she never fails to appear to us as a real woman. We know that Dante first saw her on Mayday, in the year 1274, when neither had reached the age of ten, and the thrill he felt at this first vision has been described in his own words on the first page of this chapter. From that time forth it seems that, boy as he was, he was continually haunted by this apparition, which had at once assumed such domination over him. Often he went seeking her, and all that he saw of her was so noble and praiseworthy that he is moved to apply to her the words of Homer: "She seems not the daughter of mortal man, but of God." And he further says: "Though her image, which stayed constantly with me, gave assurance to Love to hold lordship over me, yet it was of such noble virtue that it never suffered Love to rule me without the faithful counsel of the reason in those matters in which it was useful to hear such counsel." So began his pure and high ideal

of love, which is most remarkable in that it stands in striking contrast, not only to the usual amatory declarations of the time to be found in literature, but also to the very life and temper of the day and generation in which he was so soon to play a conspicuous part. It was a day of almost unbridled passions and lack of self-restraint, and none before had thought to couple reason with the thought of love. For nine years his boyish dreams were filled with this maiden, Beatrice, and not once in all that time did he have word with her. Finally, he says: "On the last of these days, it happened that this most admirable lady appeared before me, clad in shining white, between two ladies older than herself; and as she passed along, she turned her eyes toward that spot where I stood in all timidity, and then, through her great courtesy, which now has its reward in the eternal world, she saluted me with such virtue that I knew all the depth of bliss." But never did Dante come to know her well, though she was ever in his thoughts, and though he must have watched for her presence in the street. Once she went upon a journey, and he was sore distraught until she came back into his existence; once he was taken to a company of young people, where he was so affected by sudden and unexpected sight of her that he grew pale and trembled, and showed such signs of mortal illness that his friend grew much alarmed and led him quickly away. The cause of his confusion was not apparent to all the company; but the ladies mocked him, to his great dismay, and even Beatrice was tempted to a smile, not understanding all, yet feeling some annoyance that she should be the occasion for such strange demeanor on his part. Later, when her father dies, Dante grieves for her, waits at the corner to pick up fragments of conversation from those who have just come from consoling her, and, in truth, makes such a spectacle of himself, that these ladies passing say: "Why should he feel such grief, when he has not seen her?" He constantly feels the moral force of her influence, and recounts in the following lines-from the Norton translation-her noble influence on others:

"...for when she goes her way

Love casts a blight upon all caitiff hearts,

So that their every thought doth freeze and perish.

And who can bear to stay on her to look,

Will noble thing become or else will die.

And when one finds that he may worthy be

To look on her, he doth his virtue prove."

Before we are through with Dante's little book, we seem to feel that Beatrice must have lived, that she was flesh and blood as we are, and that she really graced the fair city on the Arno in her time, as the poet would have us believe. She is pictured in company with other ladies, upon the street, in social gatherings at the homes of her friends, in church at her devotions, in tears and laughter, and ever is she pictured with such love and tenderness that she will remain, as Professor Norton says, "the loveliest and the most womanly woman of the Middle Ages-at once absolutely real and truly ideal."

At her death, Dante is disconsolate for a time, and then devotes himself to study with renewed vigor; and he closes his story of her with the promise that he will write of her what has never yet been written of any woman. This anticipates, perhaps, the Divine Comedy, which was yet to be written, wherein Beatrice was his guide through Paradise and where he accords her a place higher than that of the angels. It may mar the somewhat idyllic simplicity of this story to add that Dante was married some years later to Gemma Donati, the daughter of a distinguished Florentine family, but such was the case. Little is known of her, however, as Dante never speaks of her; and while there is no reason to suppose that their union was not a happy one, it is safe to conclude that it gave him no such spiritual uplift as he had felt from his youthful passion.

The extent of Dante's greatness is to be measured not only by his wide learning-for he was the greatest scholar of his time-but also by his noble seriousness, which enabled him to penetrate through that which was light and frivolous to that which was of deep import to humanity. His was not the task of amusing the idle populace with what he wrote-he had a high duty, which was to make men think on the realities of life and of their own short-comings. People whispered, as he passed along: "See his dark face and melancholy look! Hell has he seen and Purgatory, and Paradise as well! The mysteries of life are his, but he has paid the cost." And many went back to their pleasures, but some were impressed with his expression. Whence came his seriousness, whence came his penetrating glance and sober mien? Why did he move almost alone in all that heedless throng, intent upon the eternal truth? Because from early youth he had nourished in his heart a pure love which had chastened him and given him an understanding of those deeper things of the spirit, which was denied to most men of his time. Doubtless Dante would have been Dante, with or without the influence of Beatrice, but through her he received that broad humanity which makes him the symbol of the highest thought of his time.

Whatever the story of Petrarch and his Laura may lack in dignity when compared with that of Dante and Beatrice, it certainly does not lack in grace or interest. While Dante early took an interest in the political affairs which distracted Florence, and was of a stern and somewhat forbidding character, mingling study with action, Petrarch, humanist and scholar as he was, represents also the more polite accomplishments of his time, as he was a most polished courtier and somewhat vain of his fair person. Dante's whole exterior was characteristic of his mind. If accounts be true, his eyes were large and black, his nose was aquiline, his complexion dark, and in all his movements he was slow and deliberate. Petrarch, on the contrary, was more quick and animated; he had bright blue eyes, a fair skin, and a merry laugh; and he himself it is who tells us how cautiously he used to turn the corner of a street lest the wind should disarrange the elaborate curls of his beautiful hair. Though record is made of this side of his character, it must not be assumed that his mind was a frivolous one, for he may be considered-as Professor Robinson says-as "the cosmopolitan representative of the first great forward movement" in Western civilization and deserves to rank-as Carducci claims-with Erasmus and Voltaire, each in his time the intellectual leader of Europe.

With regard to Laura, Petrarch has left the following lines, which were inscribed upon the fly-leaf of a favorite copy of Virgil, wherein it was his habit to keep a record of all those things which most concerned him: "Laura, who was so distinguished by her own virtues and so widely celebrated by my poetry, first appeared before my eyes in my early manhood, in the year of our Lord 1327, upon the sixth day of April, at the first hour, in the Church of Santa Clara at Avignon; in the same city, in the same month of April, on the same sixth day, at the same first hour, in the year 1348, that light was taken from our day, while I, by chance, happened to be at Verona, ignorant, alas! of my fate. The sad news came to me at Parma, in a letter from my friend Ludovico, on the morning of the nineteenth of May of the same year. Her chaste and beautiful form was laid in the Church of the Franciscans, the evening of the day she died. I am persuaded that her soul returned, as Seneca says of Scipio Africanus, to the heaven whence it came. I have experienced a certain satisfaction in writing this bitter record of a cruel event, especially in this place, where I may see it often, for so may I be led to reflect that life can afford me no further joys; and the most serious of my temptations being removed, I may be counselled by the frequent perusal of these lines and by the thought of my departing years, that now the time has come to flee from Babylon. This, with God's help, will be easy when I frankly and manfully consider the needless troubles of the past with its empty hopes and unexpected issue."

The Babylon to which Petrarch refers was Avignon, then the home of the popes, which he declares was a place filled with everything fearful that had ever existed or been conceived by a disordered mind-a veritable hell on earth. But here he had stayed this quarter of a century, a captive to the charms of his fair Laura. According to the generally accepted story, she was of high birth, as her father-Audibert de Noves-was a noble of Avignon, who died in her infancy, leaving her a dowry of one thousand gold crowns, which would amount to almost ten thousand pounds sterling to-day, and which was a splendid marriage portion for that time. In 1325, two years before her meeting with Petrarch, she was married to Hugh de Sade, when she was but eighteen; and while her husband was a man of rank and of an age suited to her own, it does not appear that he was favored in mind or in body, or that there was any special affinity between them. In the marriage contract it was stipulated that her mother and brother were to pay the dower left by the father and also to bestow upon the bride two gowns for state ceremonies, one of them to be green, embroidered with violets, and the other of crimson, with a trimming of feathers. Petrarch frequently alludes to these gowns, and in the portraits of Laura which have been preserved she is attired in either one or the other of them. Her personal beauty has been described in greatest detail by the poet, and it is doubtful if the features of any other woman and her general characteristics of mind and body were ever subjected to such minute analysis as is exemplified in the present instance. Hands and feet, hair, eyes, ears, nose, and throat-all are depicted in most glowing and appreciative fashion; and, from the superlative degree of the adjectives, she must indeed have been fair to look upon and possessed of a great compelling charm. But from her lovely mouth-la bella bocca angelica, as he calls it-there never came a weak or yielding word in answer to his passionate entreaties. For this was no mystical love, no such spiritual affection as was felt by Dante, but the love of an active man of the world whose feelings had been deeply troubled. In spite of his pleadings, she remained unshaken; and although she felt honored by the affection of this man, and was entirely susceptible to the compliment of his poetry, and in spite of the current notions of duty and fidelity, which were far from exacting, she had a better self which triumphed. The profligate Madame du Deffand, who occupies so conspicuous a place in the annals of the French court in the days of its greatest corruption, has little sympathy with a situation of this kind, and is led to exclaim: Le fade personnage que votre Pétrarque! que sa Laure était sotte et précieuse! But Petrarch himself thought otherwise, for he has written thereupon: "A woman taught me the duty of a man! To persuade me to keep the path of virtue, her conduct was at once an example and a reproach."

Without following it in all its various incidents, it will suffice to say that this love of Petrarch for Laura, which lasted for so many years, exerted a powerful influence upon the poet and had much to do in shaping the character which was to win for him in later times the praise which Pierre de Nolhac has bestowed upon him in calling him the first modern man. Petrarch considered unworthy, it is true, the poems and sonnets which he consecrated to the charms of Laura, and he even regretted that his fame should rest upon them, when, in his own estimation, his ponderous works in Latin were of much more consequence. But, incidental to his passion for Laura, he was led to discuss within himself the two conceptions of love which were current at that time,-the medi?val and monkish conception, based upon a sensual idea which regarded women as the root of all evil and the source of all sin, and the modern or secular idea, which is spiritual and may become holy. In an imaginary conversation with Saint Augustine which Petrarch wrote to furnish a vehicle for the discussion of these matters, the poet exclaims that it is the soul-the inborn and celestial goodness-that he loves, and that he owes all to her who has preserved him from sin and urged him on to a full development of his powers. The ultimate result of all this thought and all this reflection upon the nature of the affections developed the humanity of the man, excited broad interests within his breast, gave him a wide sympathy, and entitled him to rank as the first great humanist.

Dante, with his vague and almost mystical adoration of Beatrice, which was at times a passion almost subjective, is still in the shadow of the Middle Ages, their gloom is still upon him, and he can see but dimly into the centuries which are still to come; but his face is glorified by his vision of the spiritual possibilities of good and noble womanhood. Petrarch, in the brief interval which has passed, has come out into the light of a modern world; and there, in the midst of baffled desire, he is brought face to face with the great thought that though love be human it has power divine.

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