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   Chapter 8 THE MINOR WORKS

Dante: His Times and His Work By Arthur John Butler Characters: 54073

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Commedia is, for many readers perhaps, the only book distinctly identified with Dante's name. Yet it must be remembered that, as a matter of fact, it represents less than half of the total bulk of his writings; and, further, that the remainder comprises several works which, though not attaining to the pre-eminent position which all the world now recognises the great poem as occupying, are very remarkable monuments of medi?val literature.

Of the youthful work, the Vita Nuova, we have already spoken. It may be sufficient here to add that-though there is some controversy on the point-the name probably means only "Early" or "Fresh Life." The book was pretty certainly written not much after 1290, though the last chapter, in which the author's design to compose a greater work is alluded to, may have been added when the scheme of the Commedia was more developed. The Vita Nuova was not printed till 1578.

With regard to the date at which the most important of the prose works, known as the Convito, or "Banquet," was composed, considerable uncertainty exists. Villani says that the odes to which it is ostensibly a commentary were written in exile. Some critics hold that it belongs, at all events in great part, to the "pre-exilian" period of Dante's life; while others place it as late as 1310. The late Dr. Witte regarded it as the middle division of what he called "Dante's Trilogy"-the drama, that is, of the development of Dante's soul. In this view, the early love portrayed in the Vita Nuova marks an age of simple faith, undisturbed by any doubt. The Convito (so far as it was completed) records a period of philosophical speculation-not actually adverse to the truths of religion, but seeking to establish these rather on the basis of human reason than on revelation. Lastly, the Commedia shows us the soul, convinced that salvation and enlightenment are not to be found on this road, returning again to child-like submission. There is no doubt an attractive symmetry about this arrangement, but it is open to some objections, one of them being, as a French critic said, that part at least of the Convito must almost certainly have been written after the date in which Dante's conversion is represented as having taken place. Nor is it an answer to say that, the action of the Commedia being purely imaginary, we need pay no attention to dates. For one thing, Dante is extremely careful, and with more success than any one without his marvellous "visualising" power could hope for, to avoid anything like an anachronism in the Commedia. If he allows no event, which, in the history of the world, was still future in 1300, to be referred to as past, why should he have allowed this in regard to events in the history of his own spiritual development?

The truth is, that all these elaborate and symmetrical theories prove too much; and what is worse, they all spring from an ignorance, or a neglect, of the great facts of human nature. The Commedia is, of course, full of expressions of contrition for former error; of frank recognition that the writer has gone astray in the past, and hopes to keep straight in the future. But might not any man, any thoughtful man at all events, of thirty-five years old and upwards, take Dante's words with perfect sincerity, as the expression of his own deepest thoughts? Why assume that the faults of which Dante repented with tears in the presence of Beatrice, were limited to a too great reliance on human reason, or to a secret leaning to the philosophy of Averroes? Were they not moral as well as intellectual? Whether the year 1300 really marked an epoch at which anything of the nature of what is now called "conversion" took place in Dante's mind, we cannot say. It pretty certainly corresponded with a decided revulsion in his political views. It cannot have been without a pang that he found himself obliged formally to break with the Guelf party, of which he had hitherto been a faithful member, and to cast in his lot with men whom he, doubtless, like those with whom he had all his life associated, regarded as a set of turbulent, over-bearing swashbucklers, trying with the help of foreign men and money to reimpose a feudal tyranny on a prosperous and free commonwealth. For this is the aspect in which the Ghibelines must have presented themselves to a Florentine burgher of the year 1300. No doubt the doings of the Black party would have taught him that overbearing and tyrannical ways, turbulence and swagger were not the monopoly of one side, and that the freedom and peace of Florence must, in any case, soon be things of the past. All the foundations of the earth must have seemed to him to be out of course, and we can well imagine that his thought may have been driven inward, and he may thus have come to recognise how far the school which he had followed, and the path upon which he had walked-not in philosophy only, but in all matters of conduct-had led him from the ideals of his early manhood and from the way of God. Thus he would naturally refer the vision, which, of course, contains an allegorical account of all this change or "conversion," if we may call it so, to that year the events of which had given the first impulse to it.

It is not, however, necessary to suppose that with Dante, any more than with most men of a similar age, a conviction that he had hitherto been on the wrong track involved an entire break with former habits, at all events of mind and thought. He may very well have gone on stringing together the curious medley of learning which he had not unfitly called a "Banquet."[40] As we have said already, it looks very like the contents of a commonplace book, in which materials for other works-notably for the Commedia-were collected. Many of the views enunciated in it may well be those held by Dante long before, and subsequently changed, though he might not have taken the trouble to expunge them, even when stating a maturer opinion in a later work.

A good many of the difficulties which arise in the consideration of the dates of Dante's works, probably arise from oblivion of the fact that "publication" in our modern sense did not exist in those days. An author would no doubt give his manuscript to friends to read, as he went along; and, if they liked it, they would probably take a copy of so much as they had. Thus portions of a book would get about long before the whole was finished; and in this way the views which Dante expresses in the Convito upon the cause of the markings in the moon, the order of the angelic hierarchies, the nature of the Milky Way, and similar matters, may well have been known to many as held by him, and he may have known that this was the case. Subsequently, having changed his mind-it may be, even before 1300-he would take the opportunity of a part of the Commedia having got into circulation, to recant; and even so the original view might stand in the Convito, and appear in that work when finally produced. When we further remember that Dante left the Convito little more than begun, and consequently, no doubt, unrevised, it will be clear that very little inference can be drawn as to its date, from the fact that certain opinions expressed in it are retracted in the Commedia. It would be truer to say that it had no date. It was first printed in 1490.

The De Monarchia is a complete treatise, in fact, probably the only work besides the Commedia which we can feel sure that we have in a form which it would have retained however long Dante might have lived. Enough has been already said as to its scope; it may suffice to add that the Church has never looked upon it with favour, which was probably the reason of its not being printed till 1559, and then in Germany.

The unfinished treatise known as De Vulgari Eloquentia had the curious fortune to appear in an Italian translation (1529) some fifty years before it was printed in its original Latin. It is a most interesting little work, showing considerable acuteness of perception in regard to peculiarities of local vernacular, and a general "feeling" for linguistic matters.

How do we know that all these works are Dante's? it will be asked. Here we rest on unusually sure ground, for which once more we have to thank Villani.

In the Chapter to which we have already more than once referred, containing the notice of Dante's death, that historian gives a list of his works. "In his youth," we read-

"he made the book called The New Life of Love; and afterwards, when he was in exile, he made some twenty moral and amatory odes, very excellent; and, among others, he wrote three notable letters, one to the Government of Florence, lamenting his own exile without any fault; the second he sent to the Emperor Henry; the third to the Italian cardinals, when the vacancy occurred after the death of Pope Clement.... And he made the Comedy, wherein, in polished rhyme, and with great and subtle questions of morals, nature, and astrology, philosophy and theology ... he composed and treated in one hundred chapters, or chants, concerning the being and condition of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.... He also made the Monarchy, in which he treated of the duty of the Pope and of the Emperor. And he began a commentary on fourteen of the above-mentioned moral odes, in the vulgar tongue, which, through his death supervening, is only completed for three.... Also he made a little work which he calls De Vulgari Eloquentia, whereof he promises to make four books, but only two are extant, perhaps by reason of his speedy end; in which, in powerful and elegant style, and with fine arguments, he examines all the vernaculars of Italy."

The last two paragraphs, it should be said, do not occur in all manuscripts. But, assuming them to be genuine, it will be seen that we have here an almost contemporary notice, with one or two exceptions, of all the main works now contained in the editions of Dante. The chief exception is the curious little treatise on physical geography, called De aqua et terra, which purports to be a lecture delivered by Dante at Verona, in the last year of his life; but this is of very questionable genuineness. It was first printed, indeed, in 1508, but no manuscript of it is now known to exist.

Of the other works, Villani's notice may be regarded as clear proof that they are what they profess to be; and incidentally it may be said that his mention of them has probably been of great service. Literary morality was sufficiently lax in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and people's ideas as to the use that might legitimately be made of famous names differed considerably from those now in force. As it is, a good many compositions have passed under Dante's name, from an early date, which scarcely pretend to be genuine works of his. We can imagine what a temptation it would have been for some enterprising man of letters to complete the Convito or the De Vulgari Eloquentia, or even to add a canto or two to the Commedia, if there had been no record in existence to let the world know where the genuine ended and the spurious began.[41] Even this security, however, is not quite sufficient to set us at our ease in the case of the letters. True, we have three letters purporting to be the three which Villani mentions, as well as several others passing under Dante's name; but it is, of course, possible that the very fact of his mentioning them may have sufficed to set ingenious scribes at work to produce them. Manuscripts of them are very few, and they occur in company with other works which are undoubted exercises of fancy.

On the other hand, more than one writer of the fifteenth century professes to have seen letters of Dante's, of which no trace can now be found. That referring to the battle of Campaldino, for which Leonardo Bruni vouches, has already been mentioned; and Flavius Blondus of Forlì, a historian about contemporary with Leonardo, speaks of others as extant in his time. These, if they could now be recovered, would be of the greatest interest, since they related to the obscure period immediately following the exile of the White party. Meanwhile the genuineness of the more important letters which we possess is perhaps the most interesting question which remains to be settled in connection with Dante's works.

Besides the prose letters, two poetical epistles are still extant, and these, strange to say, the most sceptical critics have so far allowed to pass unquestioned. There is something a little pathetic about their history. Two or three years before Dante's death, a young scholar of Bologna, known from his devotion to the great Latin bard, as Joannes de Virgilio, addressed an extremely prosaic, but highly complimentary, epistle to the old poet, urging him to write something in the more dignified language of antiquity. Dante replied in an "Eclogue," wherein, under Virgilian pastoral imagery, he playfully banters his correspondent, and says that he had better finish first the work he has in hand, namely the Commedia. One more communication on either side followed, and then Dante's death brought the verse-making to a close. In his own pieces one is struck rather by the melody of the rhythm and occasional dignity of the thought, than by the classical quality of the Latinity. But they are unquestionably remarkable specimens of Latin verse for an age previous to the revival of classical study, and, we should say, far more genial and more truly Virgilian in spirit than the most polished composition of the Humanists.

It is not intended here to enter into any analysis or estimate of Dante's prose works. The former task is one which readers should perform for themselves. Nor need they find it too much for their powers. With all his obscurity of allusion, and occasionally of phrase, Dante is not really a difficult author. From his teachers, the schoolmen, he had learnt to arrange his matter with due, perhaps more than due, regard to order and symmetry; and consequently the attentive reader is seldom at a loss to know what part of the subject is, at any given place, under consideration.

Of the obscurity which results from over-elaboration of the thought, or from an attempt at originality of expression, Dante is, in his maturer works, singularly free.[42] It must be remembered, too, that very often phrases which look to us like "conceits" are merely instances of the employment of scientific and technical terms now obsolete, but then familiar to every cultivated reader.

For ?sthetic, or, as it has been unkindly called, "sign-post" criticism-that which, under the guise of directing the reader's taste, often seems intended to call attention mainly to the acuteness of the critic's own perception or his delicacy of phrase-the study of Dante would seem to be a very unpromising field. The sentimentalist and the elegant craftsman in words seem out of place in the company of this uncompromising seeker after realities, this relentless exposer of shams.

It is much better that the student should begin by understanding his author. When he has mastered the meaning, it will be time enough to begin to admire, whether it be the thought or the words, or the expression of the one through the other. For this reason we should strongly counsel beginners to read Dante himself first, and books about Dante afterwards. We would go so far as to say: at the first reading, dispense even with notes, and be content to look out the words in a dictionary. It is far better practice to find out for yourself where the difficulties lie, than to be told where to expect them. Similarly with the "beauties." These will reveal themselves a ciascun' alma presa e gentil cuore, and every reader will find them in such measure as he deserves. Then will be the time to use the commentaries to solve, so far as may be, the problems which have been discovered, and then to take up such works as Mr. Symonds's Study of Dante, Miss Rossetti's Shadow of Dante, and Dean Church's Essay. The student who, to a thorough knowledge of the poem, joins a careful perusal of these three works will find his knowledge co-ordinated, his grasp of Dante's whole system strengthened, his perception of Dante's greatness marvellously quickened. If he afterwards cares to pursue the subject further into the thickets of modern Italian and German criticism, he will find plenty of entertainment. Only let him remember that most of the minute details with which the excellent critics deal are not really of the very slightest importance.

As has been said above, there is ample reason for believing that the person to whom Dante refers under the name of Beatrice was a young lady of that name, daughter of one Folco Portinari, and wife to Simone de' Bardi. But suppose that irresistible evidence to the contrary could be found? Suppose that documents should come to light showing that no Beatrice Portinari ever lived-even that there was no woman, young or old, in Florence, who bore the Christian name of Beatrice between 1200 and 1300, what would it matter? Do we read Andromache's

"Hector, but thou to me art father and mother and brother, and thou my gallant husband too;"

or Helen's

"Hector, dearest to me by far of all my brothers-in-law, it is now twenty years since I left my native land, but never yet have I heard from thee an ill or insulting word,"

with any the less emotion because we do not feel sure that Hector, or Andromache, or Helen ever lived on this earth? Some would add, or Homer; but so far, happily, no "separatist" has taken Dante in hand. But again, suppose he did, and with better success than has on the whole attended those who would have us believe that half a dozen or more men contributed to the Iliad, any one book of which would entitle its author to rank among the great poets of all time? The world would prove to be richer by as many great poets as could be shown to have collaborated in the writing of the Commedia; and how should we be the poorer? The poem would still be there, with all its power to soothe, to stimulate, to throw light upon the most hidden corners of the human soul, to reveal our own motives to us. It is, of course, only human nature to feel a personal interest in the man who has taught us so much; but we must not allow this natural sentiment to make us forget that the man is only interesting because of his work. After all, when the most destructive criticism has done its worst, we know much more about Dante than we know about the still greater Shakespeare; and let us be thankful for what knowledge we have.

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[40] This may be a good point at which to say that we need not suppose because Dante employed the Canzoni as pegs upon which to hang the philosophical, astronomical, and other lucubrations of the Convito, that when originally written they were anything but exercises in the amatory style of composition usual in that age, whether inspired or not by any serious passion. He would have found no more difficulty in attaching subsequently a mystical and moral interpretation to them than divines had found in doing the same for the Canticles.

[41] In the case of the Commedia, it would seem that Dante himself took measures to guard against interpolations. As is well known, he never uses any one series of rhymes more than once in the same canto; and, from the structure of the terza rima, it is impossible to introduce any fresh matter when the canto is once completed without violating this rule. This fact alone serves to convict of forgery the unknown person who inserted eighteen lines after Hell, xxxiii. 90, in one of the Bodleian manuscripts; as to which, see Dr. Moore's Textual Criticism.

[42] It is, perhaps, worth noting that as the tendency to concetti increased in Italian literature, Dante was more and more neglected. Only three editions appeared from 1596 to 1716. Curiously enough, there are two treatises extant which just correspond with the beginning and end of this period of eclipse. One of them is called A Brief and Ingenious Discourse against the Work of Dante. It was written by Monsignor Alessandro Cariero, and published at Padua in 1582. The arguments are of the feeblest and most pedantic kind; but it marks a stage in taste. The recovery is indicated by a Defence of Dante Alighieri, a lecture given by Dr. Giuseppe Bianchini to the Florentine Academy in 1715, and published three years later.

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Something has already been said as to the way in which the student of Dante should set to work in the way both of putting himself so far as possible at Dante's point of view with regard to earlier literature, and of availing himself of the various commentaries and treatises which subsequent writers have produced in such abundance; but it may be convenient to enter into this matter somewhat more in detail. It would obviously be too much to expect of every beginner that he should prepare himself for the study of Dante by a preliminary perusal of all the books which Dante may have read. But if he is to read with any profit, or indeed with any real enjoyment, some preliminary study is almost indispensable. Take, for instance, the historical standpoint. Some of Dante's grandest apostrophes fall flat to one who has not grasped the medi?val theory of the Roman Empire, as set forth in Mr. Bryce's well-known book or elsewhere. Much of his imagery, especially in the first Cantica, seems fantastic and arbitrary to one who is not familiar with Virgil's sixth ?neid, and does not realise that nearly every feature in the Dantesque Hell is developed, with assistance no doubt from medi?val legend, out of some hint of the Virgilian nether world. Of allusions to contemporaries it is hardly necessary to speak; and in many cases we must fall back on the commentators, who for their part have often nothing to tell us but what we have already gathered for ourselves. Cacciaguida's statement that no souls had been shown to Dante save those of people known to fame, may not be always true so far as any but the most strictly contemporary fame is concerned, but it is true in a great many cases. Few indeed there are whose names have not gained additional celebrity from Dante's mention of them; but, on the other hand, there are very few whose memory but for it would have perished altogether; and the thrill with which the reader comes across an old acquaintance, marked by the unfaltering hand for renown or infamy, as long as men shall read books on this earth, is far more satisfying than the process of looking a person up because he is some one in Dante. It is therefore at least worth while, if not essential, to know something of the minuter contemporary history, and those who can read the seventh, eighth, and ninth books of Villani's Florentine History-not yet, unfortunately, translated into English-will find their reward.

Those, again, who wish to place themselves as nearly as may be at the point from which Dante looked at ethical and metaphysical problems, will hardly be satisfied with an occasional quotation from Aristotle or Aquinas. If, as may well be the case, they cannot spare the time for systematic reading of those somewhat exacting authors, they should at least be at the trouble of acquiring such a knowledge of their systems, and of the place which they hold in the widening of men's thoughts, as may be obtained from Ueberweg or some other approved history of philosophy. So for physical science and natural history, those who have not the leisure to read Aristotle (again), or Pliny, or Brunetto's Trésor, may get from the fourth book of Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences, and from parts of Humboldt's Cosmos, some idea of the way in which Dante would regard the external world.

But one book, among all others, was undoubtedly the main instrument in the formation of Dante's mind and character. Few professed Churchmen have ever been so saturated with the language and the spirit of the Bible as this lay theologian. It was this, indeed, which seems to have specially impressed his contemporaries. "Theologus Dantes nullius dogmatis expers" is the title which the epitaph of his friend Joannes de Virgilio confers upon him in its opening line. And among all the books of the "Sacred Library," as an earlier age called it, we can see that two had a predominant place in his memory-the prophecy of Jeremiah and the Book of Psalms. In these two we may find the solution of some of his most obscure symbolism, and careful study of these will do perhaps more than anything to help the student to read with understanding. Of course those who read Latin should use the Vulgate rather than the English version, for the key to an allusion sometimes lies in a word or a phrase, the identity of which is lost in an alien language.

It is with the study of such books as these, carried as far as the student's opportunities will allow, that he will best prepare himself for that of the Commedia. The next thing will be to read it, either in a translation, or better, in the original, working rapidly through the poem, and noting difficulties which occur, but leaving them for the present. He will thus get a comprehensive view of its general structure and scope, and probably find himself enthralled by the spell; after which, to put it on the lowest ground, he will have a subject of interest to investigate which will last him his lifetime. At any rate he will pretty certainly resolve to go over the ground again, this time more deliberately. Now will come the turn of the commentators, including under this term not only the actual annotators of the text, but those who have in any way discussed, explained, or interpreted the whole poem or its parts, either from a general literary point of view, or in the attempt to clear up special points. Of these there is no lack. Probably no great writer has given occasion for so much writing on the part of lesser men. The French critic Sainte-Beuve remarked that "to read Dante was almost inevitably to want to translate him;" it certainly seems as if to read Dante made the desire to write about him almost irresistible. Many of these books the world has pretty willingly let die; but a few will be read as long as Dante is studied in England. Foremost among these is the Essay by the late Dean of St. Paul's, Dr. Church. This is printed in a volume with an excellent translation of the De Monarchia. As an introduction to Dante from every point of view, whether in connection with the history of his time or in regard to his place in literature, it remains unrivalled, and is likely to remain so until a writer on Dante arises equal to Dean Church in acuteness of historical insight, delicacy of literary taste, and a power of expression capable of translating those gifts into words. No student should fail to read it; and those who can buy a copy will not be likely to regret the outlay. Another instructive book is the late Mis

s Rossetti's Shadow of Dante. It treats the poem rather in its religious than in its historical or philosophical aspect; and it is of especial value as an aid to understanding the often very perplexing symbolism. Long extracts are given from the versions by Mr. W. M. Rossetti (for the Inferno) and Mr. Longfellow (for the other parts); and these are linked together by a connecting summary. Mr. Symonds's Introduction to the Study of Dante is also useful, especially from the literary point of view, but it is occasionally inaccurate. Of actual translations none is better than Cary's, and this has most valuable notes.

These are some of the books from which a student, who did not feel equal to a preliminary study of Italian, might get information about Dante. It is to be hoped that there are not many who will stop here. When the genius of a poet is so closely involved as it is in Dante's case with the genius of the language, it cannot be too strongly impressed upon the student's mind that he ought to be read in his own words. Italian is the easiest to learn of all European languages, and the one in which the preliminary labour of learning grammatical rules is least required. Its grammar is very straightforward; its construction, in the best writers, is seldom involved; its words will in most cases be intelligible to people who know any Latin or French. The prepositions and their uses offer almost the only stumbling-block which cannot be surmounted by the aid of a pocket-dictionary; and even here the difficulty is more likely to be apparent in writing Italian. In reading, the context will usually be a guide to the meaning when the words are known.

The first thing will be to get a text. There are several modern texts published in Italy; but none of them are very correct. Giuliani's is an attractive little book; but the Abate was a somewhat reckless emendator, and some of his readings are very untrustworthy. The little pocket edition published by Barbèra contains Fraticelli's text, which suffers rather from lack of correction. Messrs. Longmans publish one based on Witte, but embodying the results of later inquiry. A complete text of Dante's entire works has lately been issued by the Clarendon Press, for the accuracy of which the name of its editor, Dr. Moore, is a sufficient guarantee. The "student's" editions with notes are those of Bianchi and Fraticelli, both in Italian. The latter is for some reason more popular in England, but the notes seem to me decidedly less helpful than those of Bianchi based on Costa's. Better than either is the Vocabolario Dantesco of Blanc. The original work was written in German, and no doubt is to be obtained in that language. It is really a very useful commentary, and has the additional advantage that it forms a pretty copious Concordance, and enables the student to compare the various uses of a word.

The student may now be supposed to be ready to set to work. How is he to proceed? This is a question very difficult to answer. Probably no two grown-up people will attack a new author, or a new language, in quite the same way. The present writer began Dante with very little knowledge of Italian; but knowing French and Latin pretty well. Being in Florence one day, he went to a bookstall and bought for one lira a secondhand copy of a little text published in 1811; and began to puzzle out bits here and there with the help of a small dictionary. In the following winter he went through the whole poem in Bianchi's edition with a friend, aided by various of the older commentaries. Then he took to reading the poem by a canto or two at a time, in bed, without notes or dictionary, and went through it two or three times in this way, at last beginning to feel that he would like to know something about it. Probably a course of this kind, spread in a rather desultory fashion over several years, would hardly suit every student. Nevertheless it has in its general features some merits. In the first place, the only way to learn is to find for yourself where the difficulties are; and this can be done most effectually by beginning with the minimum of help. With notes, there is always the temptation to look at the note first and the text afterwards: a process sure to result in slipshod and inaccurate knowledge. Take a canto at a time, and read it through. Go over the ground again with a commentary and perhaps a translation. Before long the difficulties arising merely from the language will be pretty well mastered, and progress will be more rapid. Above all, avoid in the first instance anything of the nature of ?sthetic criticism. Be content to treat the poem, if it be not profane to say so, as a "grind." Translate into the plainest English, so only that you take pains to render every word. It is a very good exercise to keep to the same English word for the same Italian word. This will not be quite always possible; but on the whole it is wonderful how many words in Italian (or any other language) have passed through the same change of signification as some one of their English equivalents. (Thus "sorry" in English means both "sad" and "contemptible." You will find that Italian "tristo" bears both senses equally well.) Try to "explain Dante by Dante," that is, look out for peculiar phrases and constructions which may occur more than once, and get at their meaning by comparison of contexts. One great advantage possessed by the student of Dante is that his author is practically the first in the language in point of time; and though later Italian poets used Dante freely as a quarry, they did not do it intelligently. It may safely be said that, with the occasional exception of Petrarch, no subsequent Italian poet threw the least light on the interpretation of a single word in Dante. Indeed our own Chaucer seems to have understood and appreciated Dante far better than did Dante's countryman Ariosto. It is thus possible to read Dante without a very wide acquaintance with Italian literature in general.

Then, again, beginners need not be at too much pains to follow out the often very elaborate symbolism. On a first reading take the story as it stands. Let the dark wood and the three beasts, and the hill illuminated by the rising sun, remain what they profess to be, until you see the broad outlines of the poem. There are quite enough passages of purely human interest to occupy you at first. Francesca, Farinata, the Counts of Montefeltro, father and son, Ugolino, the assembled princes awaiting their time to enter Purgatory, the great panegyrics of St. Francis and St. Dominic, these and the like are the "purple patches" on which the beginner's attention should be fixed.

The student who has gone through the poem on these lines will by the end of it be ripe for a more thorough reading and a fuller commentary. Among modern commentaries the fullest is that of Dr. Scartazzini. He is a guide whose judgement is perhaps not always quite equal to his erudition; but his Commentary (in four volumes, including the Prolegomeni) is almost indispensable to the advanced student. He has also published an abridgement in one volume. Those who read German should make acquaintance with the translation and notes of the late King John of Saxony, who wrote under the name of Philalethes, as well as with those of Dr. Witte. Both these deal fully with historical matters, "Philalethes" also going very fully into the theology. In the present writer's edition some attempt is made to clear up obscure points of allegory, and to show the extent of Dante's debt to Greek philosophy. Attention is also called to questions of grammar and philology, which have been somewhat neglected by the Italian and German commentators.

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A few words on the mythological and classical allusions in the Commedia may be useful to those who are not familiar with Greek and Latin literature. The subject is a very wide one, and Dante's treatment of heathen mythology is very curious. It is especially noticeable in the Purgatory, where every sin and its contrary virtue are illustrated by a pair of examples from Scripture history on the one hand, and Greek or Roman history or legend (for both seem alike to him) on the other. Sloth, for instance, is exemplified by the Israelites who "thought scorn" of the promised land, and the slothful followers of ?neas, who hung back from the conquest of Italy; while Mary going into the hill country with haste, and C?sar dashing into Spain are the chosen models of prompt response to the call of duty. So, again, at the very outset of the poem, we find St. Paul and ?neas quoted as the two instances of living men who have been permitted to see the future world; and Dante professes his own unworthiness to be put on a level with them, apparently without a hint that he holds the ?neid any lower as an authority than the Epistle to the Corinthians. In a practically pagan humanist of the days of Leo X. this would hardly surprise us; but it is, at first sight, not a little astonishing in the case of a poet to whom the Christian Church and Christian revelation were vital truths. It is, however, clear that to the medi?val mind the Bible, though no doubt the highest authority, was in matters of morality, and to some extent even of theology, only "first among its peers." Aquinas quotes Aristotle, the Scriptures, and the Fathers almost indiscriminately in support of his positions. Dante, approaching the subject from a political as well as a moral point, takes for his guide and philosopher the poet Virgil, who, as the Middle Ages deemed, had both foretold the glories of the Church, and sung of the first origin of the Empire. It must never be forgotten that, to Dante, Church and Empire were merely two aspects of one Divine institution. Brutus and Cassius are hardly less guilty than Judas; and that simply from the official point of view, for there is no attempt to sanctify, much less to deify, C?sar as an individual. None the less is the work that he did holy, and this holiness communicates itself, as readers of the De Monarchia will remember, to the whole of the long course of workings by which Divine Providence prepared the way for it. The finger of God is no less plainly to be seen in the victory of ?neas over Turnus or of the Romans over the Samnites than in the passage of the Israelites across the Red Sea, or the repulse of the Assyrians. Roman history is no less sacred than Hebrew. This being so, we shall not be surprised to find that a certain authority attaches to the literature of either one of the chosen peoples. Did they conflict, doubtless the poet, as an orthodox Catholic, would admit that Virgil must give way to Isaiah; but he would in all probability decline to allow that they could conflict, at all events within the region common to them both. No doubt, just as C?sar and Peter have, besides their common domain, functions peculiar to each, wherein C?sar may not interfere with Peter, or as Aristotle may err when he trespasses on ground that the Church has made her province (for I interpret Purg. xxv. 63 as an allusion to Aristotle), so might Virgil or Lucan become a teacher of false doctrine if he ventured to teach theology. (Statius, who does teach theology, as in the passage just referred to, is, it must be remembered, a Christian.) But Virgil at all events holds scrupulously aloof from any over-stepping of his functions; and within his own limits his authority is infallible. Why, then, should we not accept his account of the infernal regions as trustworthy? He tells us that Charon is the ferryman who carries the souls across to the nether world; Minos the judge who sentences them; Pluto (whom we confuse perhaps a little with Plutus) a great personage in those regions. Furies sit over the inner gate; Gorgons and Harpies play their parts. Holy Scripture has nothing to say against these conceptions; so there is nothing to prevent our accepting Virgil's account, and expanding it into medi?val precision and symmetry. Thus we have all the official hierarchy of hell ready provided. As has already been observed, it is not until Dante reaches a point very far down that anything like what we may call the Christian devil appears.[43] Throughout the upper circles the work, whether of tormenting or merely of guarding, is performed exclusively by beings taken from classic mythology. If we except the Giants, who seem to occupy a kind of intermediate position between prisoner and gaoler, Geryon is the last of these whom we meet; and him Dante has practically transformed into a being of his own invention: for there is little in common between the personage slain by Hercules and the strange monster with the face of a just man and the tail of a venomous scorpion. As might perhaps be expected when there was plenty of material to hand in Tuscany, less use is made of the persons of classical mythology in finding subjects for punishment. Among the virtuous heathen several find their place; but it may be doubted whether Electra or Orpheus were to Dante any less historical than Plato or Seneca. Semiramis, Dido, Achilles, again, would all be recorded in the histories of Orosius and others whom Dante read, with dates and possibly portraits. Capaneus, one of the "Seven against Thebes," is more nearly mythological; but as the utterer of the earliest profession of reasoned atheism[44] he could hardly be omitted as the typical blasphemer. The most curious example of all is the Thais whom we find among the flatterers. She does not attain even to the dignity of a myth, being only a character in a play of Terence, and borrowed by Dante from Cicero; probably the strangest instance on record of the "realization" of a dramatic personage.

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[43] See p. 102.

[44] "Primus in orbe Deos fecit timor" (Statius, Thebaid, iii. 661).

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Transcriber's Note:

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Variations in spelling, hyphenation and use of accents have been retained as appears in the original publication.

Changes to the original publication have been made as follows:

Page ?11 Bytuene Mershe and Averil, changed to

"Bytuene Mershe and Averil,

Page 112 to positive cruelty, changed to

to positive cruelty.

Page 113 becomes almost suppliant changed to

becomes almost suppliant.

Page 128 eighth pit o changed to

eighth pit of

Page 128 evening is drawng changed to

evening is drawing

Page 133 In the circle o changed to

In the circle of

Page 149 Sun, Mars, Jupiter changed to

Sun, Mars, Jupiter,

Page 150 by other matter, changed to

by other matter.

Page 166 Note that capidigia changed to

Note that cupidigia

Page 178 It is a mos changed to

It is a most

Page 178 peculiarities of locat changed to

peculiarities of local

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