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Dante: His Times and His Work By Arthur John Butler Characters: 17413

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The person who sets to work to write about Dante at the present day has two great difficulties to reckon with: the quantity which has already been written on the subject, and the quantity which remains to be written. The first involves the reading of an enormous mass of literature in several languages, and very various in quality; but for the comfort of the young student, it may at once, and once for all, be stated that he can pretty safely ignore everything written between 1400 and 1800. The subject of commentaries, biographies, and other helps, or would-be helps, will be treated of later on. Here we need only say that the Renaissance practically stifled anything like an intelligent study of Dante for those four centuries; and it was not until a new critical spirit began to apply to it the methods which had hitherto been reserved for the Greek and Latin classics, that the study got any chance of development. How enormously it has developed during the present century needs not to be said. It may suffice to point out that the British Museum Catalogue shows editions of the Commedia at the rate of one for every year since 1800, and other works on Dante in probably five times that proportion.

Now, it has been said of the Commedia, and the remark is equally true of Dante's other works, that it is like the Bible in this respect: every man finds in it what he himself brings to it. The poet finds poetry, the philosopher philosophy; the scientific man science as it was known in 1300; the politician politics; heretics have even found heresy. Nor is this very surprising when we consider what were the author's surroundings. Naturally, no doubt, a man of study and contemplation, his lot was cast in the midst of a stirring, even a turbulent, society, where it was hardly possible for any individual to escape his share of the public burdens. Ablebodied men could not be spared when, as was usually the case, fighting was toward; all men of mental capacity were needed in council or in administration. And, after all, the area to be administered, the ground to be fought over, were so small, that the man of letters might do his duty by the community and yet have plenty of time to spare for his studies. He might handle his pike at Caprona or Campaldino one day, and be at home among his books the next. Then, again, the society was a cultivated and quick-witted one, with many interests. Arts and letters were in high esteem, and eminence in them as sure a road to fame as warlike prowess or political distinction. From all this it is clear that the Florentine of the thirteenth century had points of contact with life on every side; every gate of knowledge lay open to him, and he could explore, if he pleased, every one of its paths. They have now been carried further, and a lifetime is too short for one man to investigate thoroughly more than one or two; but in those days it was still possible for a man of keen intelligence, added to the almost incredible diligence, as it appears to us, of the Middle Ages, to make himself acquainted with all the best that had been done and said in the world.

This it is which forms at once the fascination and the difficulty of Dante's great work. Of course, if we content ourselves with reading it merely for its "beauties," for the ?sthetic enjoyment of an image here and an allusion there, for the trenchant expression of some thought or feeling at the roots of human nature, there will be no need of any harder study than is involved in going through it with a translation. Indeed, it will hardly be worth while to go to the original at all. The pleasure, one might almost say the physical pleasure, derived from sonorous juxtaposition of words, such as we obtain from Milton or from Shelley, is scarcely to be genuinely felt in the case of a foreign language; and the beauties of matter, as distinguished from those of form, are faithfully enough rendered by Cary or Longfellow.

It may, however, be safely assumed that few intelligent students will rest content with this amount of study. They will find at every turn allusions calling for explanation, philosophical doctrines to be traced to their sources, judgements on contemporary persons and events to be verified. On every page they will meet with problems the solution of which has not yet been attempted, or attempted only in the most perfunctory way. For generation after generation readers have gone on accepting received interpretations which only tell them what their own wits could divine without any other assistance than the text itself gives. No commentator seems yet to have realised that, in order to understand Dante thoroughly, he must put himself on Dante's level so far as regards a knowledge of all the available literature. The more obvious quarries from which Dante obtained the materials for his mighty structure-the Bible, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Aristotle-have no doubt been pretty thoroughly examined, and many obscurities which the comments of Landino and others only left more obscure have thus been cleared up; but a great deal remains to be done. Look where one may in the literature which was open to Dante, one finds evidence of his universal reading. We take up such a book as Otto of Freising's Annals (to which, with his Acts of Frederick I., we shall have to refer again), and find the good bishop moralising thus on the mutability of human affairs, with especial reference to the break-up of the Empire in the middle of the ninth century:-

"Does not worldly honour seem to turn round and round after the fashion of one stricken with fever? For such place their hope of rest in a change of posture, and so, when they are in pain, throw themselves from side to side, turning over continually."[1]

It is hard not to suppose that Dante had this passage in his mind when he wrote that bitter apostrophe to his own city with which the sixth canto of the Purgatory ends:-

"E se ben ti ricorda, e vedi lume,

Vedrai te somigliante a quella inferma,

Che non può trovar posa in su le piume,

Ma con dar volta suo dolore scherma."

It is hardly too much to say that one cannot turn over a couple of pages of any book which Dante may conceivably have read without coming on some passage which one feels certain he had read, or at the very least containing some information which one feels certain he possessed. A real "Dante's library"[2] would comprise pretty well every book in Latin, Italian, French, or Proven?al, "published," if we may use the term, up to the year 1300. Of course a good many Latin books were (may one say fortunately?) in temporary retirement at that time; but even of these, whether, as has been suggested, through volumes, now lost, of "Elegant Extracts," or by whatever other means, more was evidently known than is always realised.

We must, however, beware of treating Dante merely as a repertory of curious lore or museum of literary bric-à-brac-a danger almost as great as that of looking at him from a purely ?sthetic point of view. He had no doubt read more widely than any man of his age, and he is one of the half-dozen greatest poets of all time. But his claim on our attention rests on even a wider basis than these two qualities would afford. He represents as it were the re-opening of the lips of the human race: "While I was musing, the fire kindled, and at last I spake with my tongue." The old classical literature had said its last word when Claudian died; and though men continued to compose, often with ability and intelligence, the histories and chronicles which practically formed the only non-theological writings of the so-called "Dark Ages," letters in the full sense of the term lay dormant for centuries. Not till the twelfth century was far advanced did any signs of a re-awakening appear. Then, to use a phrase of Dante's, the dead poetry arose, and a burst of song came almost simultaneously from all Western Europe. To this period belong the Minnesingers of Germany, the Troubadours of Provence, the unknown authors of the lovely romance-poetical in feeling, though cast chiefly in a prose form-Aucassin et Nicolete, and of several not less lovely English ballads and lyrics. Even the heavy rhymed chronicles begin to be replaced by romances in which the true poetic fire breaks out, such as the Nibelungen Lied (in its definitive form) and the Chronicle of the Cid.

In the new poetry two features strike us at once. The sentiment of love between man and woman, which with the ancients and even with early Christian writers scarcely ever rises beyond the level of a sensual passion,[3] becomes transfigured into a profound emotion touching the deepest roots of a man's nat

ure, and acting as an incentive to noble conduct; and, closely connected with this, the influence of external nature upon the observer begins for the first time to be recognised and to form a subject for poetical treatment.[4] Horace has several charming descriptions of the sights and sounds of spring; but they suggest to him merely that life is short, or that he is thirsty, and in either case he cannot do better than have another drink in company with a friend. So with Homer and Virgil. External nature and its beauty are often touched off in two or three lines which, once read, are never forgotten; but it is always as ornament to a picture, not auxiliary to the expression of a mood. You may search classical literature in vain for such passages as Walther von der Vogelweide's:-

"D? der sumer komen was

Und die bluomen durch daz gras

Wünnecl?che ensprungen,

Aldā die vogele sungen,

Dar kom ich gegangen

An einer anger langen,

Da ein l?ter brunne entspranc;

Vor dem walde was sī ganc,

Da diu nahtegale sanc;"[5]

or the unknown Frenchman's:-

"Ce fu el tans d'esté, el mois de mai, que li jor sont caut, lonc, et cler, et les nuits coies et series. Nicolete jut une nuit en son lit, et vit la lune cler par une fenestre, et si oi le lorseilnol center en garding, se li sovint d'Aucassin sen ami qu'ele tant aimoit;"[6]

or the equally unknown Englishman's:-

"Bytuene Mershe and Averil,

When spray biginneth to springe,

The lutel foul hath hire wyl

On hyre lud to synge;

Ich libbe in love-longinge

For semlokest of alle thinge,

He may me blisse bringe,

Icham in hire baundoun."[7]

But it is hardly necessary to multiply instances. By the middle of the thirteenth century the spring, and the nightingales, and the flowering meadows had become a commonplace of amatory and emotional poetry.

So far, however, poetry was exclusively lyrical. The average standard of versifying was higher, perhaps, than it has ever been before or since. Every man of education seems to have been able to turn a sonnet or ode. Men of religion, like St. Francis or Brother Jacopone of Todi; statesmen, like Frederick II. and his confidant, Peter de Vineis; professional or official persons, like Jacopo the notary of Lentino, or Guido dalle Colonne the judge of Messina; fighting men, like several of the Troubadours; political intriguers, like Bertrand del Born-all have left verses which, for beauty of thought and melody of rhythm, have seldom been matched. But the great poem was yet to come, which was to give to the age a voice worthy of its brilliant performance. It is not only in literature that it displays renewed vitality. Turn where we will, in every department of human energy it must have been brilliant beyond any that the world has ever seen. It stood between two worlds, but we cannot say of them that they were

"One dead,

The other powerless to be born."

The old monarchy was dying, had indeed, as Dante regretfully perceived, died before he was born, and the trumpet-call of the De Monarchia, wherewith he sought to revive it, was addressed to a generation which had other ideals of government; but it had set in a blaze of splendour, and its last wielder, Frederick II., was, not unfitly, known as the Wonder of the World. The medi?val Papacy, though about to undergo a loss of prestige which it never retrieved, outlived its rival, and had seldom been a greater force in the political world than it was in the hands of the ambitious and capable Boniface VIII. The scholastic philosophy, which had directed the minds of men for many generations, was soon to make way for other forms of reasoning and other modes of thought; but its greatest exponent, St. Thomas Aquinas, was Dante's contemporary for nine years. These examples will serve to show that the old systems were capable to the very last of producing and influencing great men.

Meantime the new order was showing no lack of power to be born. Two of our countrymen, Roger Bacon and, somewhat later, William of Ockham, sowed, each in his own way, the seeds which were to bear fruit in the science and speculation of far distant ages. In the arts, architecture reached its highest pitch of splendour; and painting was at the outset of the course which was to culminate, more than two hundred years later, in Titian and Raffaelle. But in no field did the energy of the thirteenth century manifest itself as in that of politics. With the collapse of the Empire came the first birth of the "nationalities" of modern Europe. The process indeed went on at very different rates. The representative constitution of England, the centralised government of France were by the end of the century fairly started on the lines which they have followed ever since. But England had never owned allegiance to the Emperor, while France had pretty well forgotten whence it had got the name which had replaced that of Gaul. In the countries where the Empire had till recently been an ever-present power, Germany and Italy, the work of consolidation went on far less rapidly; indeed, it has been reserved for our own age to see it completed. With Germany we have here nothing directly to do; but it is all-important to the right understanding of Dante's position that we should glance briefly at the political state of Italy and especially of Tuscany during the latter half of the thirteenth century. By good fortune we have very copious information on this matter. A contemporary and neighbour of Dante's, by name John Villani, happened to be at Rome during the great Jubilee of 1300. The sight of the imperial city and all its ancient glories set him meditating on its history, written, as he says (in a collocation of names which looks odd to us, but was usual enough then), "by Virgil, by Sallust and Lucan, by Titus Livius, Valerius, and Paulus Orosius," and moved him, as an unworthy disciple, to do for his native city what they had done for Rome. The result was the most genial and generally delightful work of history that has been written since Herodotus. Villani, who lived till 1348, when the plague carried him off, seems to have been a man of an equable disposition and sober judgement. Like Dante and all the Florentines of that day, he belonged to the Guelf party; and, unlike his great fellow-citizen, he adhered to it throughout, though by no means approving all the actions of its leaders. After the fashion of the time, he begins his chronicle with the Tower of Babel; touches on Dardanus, Priam, and the Trojan war; records the origin of the Tuscan cities; and so by easy stages comes down towards the age in which he lived. The earlier portions, of course, are more entertaining and suggestive than trustworthy in detail; but as he approaches a time for which he had access to living memory, and still more when he records the events of which he was himself a witness, he is our best authority.


[1] Otho Fris., Annales, v. 36.

[2] A useful list, with some account of the authors cited by Dante, is given by Mr. J. S. Black, in a volume entitled Dante; Illustrations and Notes, privately printed by Messrs. T. & A. Constable, at Edinburgh, 1890. He does not, however, include (save in one or two cases, and those rather doubtful) authors of whom Dante's knowledge rests on inference only.

[3] I do not forget Ulysses and Penelope, Hector and Andromache, or Ovid's Hero?des; but the love of husband and wife is another matter altogether. The only instance in classical literature that I can recall of what may be termed the modern view of the subject is that of H?mon and Antigone. See, on this subject, and in connection with these paragraphs generally, Symonds, Introduction to the Study of Dante, ch. viii.

[4] This must be taken as referring only to European literature. Such a passage as Canticles ii. 10-14 shows that Oriental poets felt the sentiment from very early times. Is it possible that contact with the East evoked it in Europeans?

[5] "When the summer was come, and the flowers sprang joyously up through the grass, right there the birds were singing; thither came I, on my way over a long meadow where a clear well gushed forth; its course was by the wood where the nightingale sang."

[6] "It was summer time, the month of May, when the days are warm, and long, and clear, and the nights still and serene. Nicolete lay one night on her bed, and saw the moon shine clear through a window, yea, and heard the nightingale sing in the garden, so she minded her of Aucassin, her lover, whom she loved so well" (Lang's translation).

[7] Lud = song; semlokest = seemliest; he = she; in hire baundoun = at her command.

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