DANTE AND THE DlVlNE COMEDY. *
Once upon a time, as the story-books would say, or, to speak more historically and exactly, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and eightysix, and in the month of August, a little company of fairly intelligent people determined to put their vacation to use. The scene and the surroundings were propitious. We were upon the banks of Canandaigua Lake, the loveliest of those parallel sheets of water which so diversify the landscape of central aud western New York. From the veranda, where we assembled after breakfast, Bear Hill loomed up across the lake, like Vesuvins over the Bay of Naples. The quiet summer mornings, the shade of the great elms, and the deep blue sky, invited us to something more serious than vers de societi: Some one spoke of the Divine Comedy, and wondered if anybody had ever reud it through. It was a revelatiou, a challenge, and an admonition. Most of us had read the Inferno, but had been so ill-pleased with Dante's Hell, that we had never cared to try his Purgatory, or even his Paradise. But a new resolve wa.s taken. We would begin, and finish. Forthwith were produced the translations of Carey, Wright, aud Longfellow. Two of us knew something of Italian, and had with us the original poem. We brought to our help the English version of Dr. Carlyle and Mr. Butler, with the Italian original on the same page. Best of all, we read by way of introduction aud of comment "The Shadow of Dante," by Maria Francesca Rossetti, from which I take much of value in the composition of this Essay. An hour and a half each morning for four weeks sufficed to accomplish our task. Indeed it was no task; the pauses for discussion were numberless; its beauty grew upon us; when we finally closed our books the four weeks seemed four days, for the love we bore to the poet and the poem. I have since read the essays of James Russell Lowell aud of Dean Church — the former very learned and thoughtful, though conceived from a literary point of view; the latter strong and eloquent, the work of a moralist and a preacher. I undertake now to give the condensed result in my own mind of this bit of summer study,— not, however, without the expectation and acknowledgment that pieces of others' learning will here and there shine through my writing, as through a palimpsest. I have let my reader into the secret of its origin, if by any means I may tempt him to go and do likewise.
Danto Alighieri was born in Florence, in the year 12G5,—-so that my story takes us back more than six hundred years. The middle ages were coming to their end. The Crusades had wakened Europe from her sleep of centuries ; the classic literature had begun to attract its devotees ; the free cities
*A Lecture delivered at Vassar Colletre, February 21 and 1888, anil printed in the Chicago Standard, December, lt-87.
had established themselves; there was everywhere the stir of new political and religious life. But it was a time of strife. The Guelphs, the party of the Popes, and the Ghibellines, the party of the Emperors, were hotly contesting every point of vantage in city and country; although in Italy the Ghibellines were strong in the provincial districts, while the Guelphs were strong in the towns. To the Guelph party Dante's family belonged. He does not appear to have been of noble birth, for he afterwards held office,— and the constitution of Florence at the time forbade this to nobles. But he doe* appear to have been born to wealth; he certainly possessed the means of the highest education the age could give; he was ever in the front rank of his contemporaries, both in society and in politics. Of his youth we have handed down to us but a single incident,— fortunately, that was the most important incident of his life. It was his meeting with Beatrice.
At the age of nine years he first saw the lady of his dreams. It was at a festival at the house of her father, Folco Portinari. She was but a little damsel, no older than himself, but she was habited in crimson, and the sight of her was the awakening of his spirit. The next meeting of which we have record was nine years after, and that seems to have been a casual encounter on the street, leaving only a glance and a gentle word to be remembered. We do not know that Dante ever sought Beatrice in marriage; she was a star apart, to be looked at from afar; she married another, and she died at twenty-four; she probably never knew of the influence she exerted; and yet, from the day of that festival at her father's house, she was the ruler of Dante's soul. Sense did not mingle with his passion. Beatrice became to him the symbol of all spiritual beauty. When he reaches Paradise, he is lifted from each lower sphere of heaven to the next higher simply by gazing into the transparent depths of Beatrice's eyes. "The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts," and the resolves then formed prove often the strongest resolves of a life-time. So the loves of youth may be long, long loves. A true affection never dies, and the Psalmist never spoke more truly, than when he said: "Your heart shall live forever." That meeting at the festival was not the first time, nor the last time, that the sight of a little damsel in pink or blue has turned the head of some great man, and so has changed the face of the world.
I wish we could say that Dante was absolutely faithful to the memory of Beatrice. But history, and his own acknowledgments, are too much for us. There was a little time when, possibly to distract his mind after her death, he plunged into a skeptical philosophy and yielded to the attractions of sense. A rival, whom he calls the adversary of reason, and whom he pictures as a woman at a window, temporarily absorbed his thoughts. But the spell could not last. Let us adapt and use the lines of Tennyson:
"Faith in womankind
Beat with his blood, and trust in all things high
Came easy to him; and, though he tripped and fell.
He could not blind his soul with clay."
How noble a lesson there is in the fact that the breaking of the evil spell is coincident with a second vision of Beatrice! As there rises before his imagination the fair form of his lost love, still habited in crimson as he had seen her so long before, yet now invested with a purity and glory that belonged to heaven rather than to earth, the chains of sense aud of unbelief seem to fall away from Dante's soul. The new life begins, of which the Vita Nuova is the history. Beatrice, who has rescued him, becomes to him God's angel aud minister, the perfect combination of nature and grace, the symbol and embodiment of that heavenly wisdom which alone can free man from the anguish of doubt and the degradation of sin. Henceforth he identifies her with divine philosophy, and in token of his renewed and perpetual allegiance to his first-beloved he writes these words: "There appeared to me a marvelous vision, wherein I saw things which made me resolve to say no more of this blessed one until I could more worthily treat of her. And to come to this I study as much as I can, as she knows in truth. So that if it be the pleasure of Him by whom all things live that my life shall last somewhat longer, I hope to say of her that which has never yet been said of any woman. And may it then please Him who is the Lord of loving-kindness that my soul may go to behold the glory of its lady, that is, that blessed Beatrice who gloriously gazes upon the face of Him who is blessed forever!"
And so the Divine Comedy is Beatrice's monument. It was the labor of a life-time. It was prepared for by profound and extensive studies. What is true of every great poet was especially true of Dante — he was master of all the learning of his time. It was easier then than now, to compass all human knowledge. Thomas Aquinas had written, and from his immense Sumraa the poet had learned theology. Aristotle furnished him with his philosophy. Homer and Virgil were his masters in poetry. He was deeply read in history, both sacred and profane. Whatever of physical science had then been discovered, whatever of medicine or of law was taught in the schools, all the culture that music, painting, architecture and sculpture could give — all these were Dante's possession. But more than this, he was a man among men, a citizen, a diplomatist, a statesman. Grave yet eloquent, composed yet capable of heroic decisions, an ardent lover of his country and a soldier in her defense, he had that large knowledge of affairs and that experience of human nature which fitted him to speak to the very heart of his generation, and indeed to the human heart in all ages and everywhere. He had moreover the sublime self-confidence of genins. He entered unabashed into the company of the greatest poets, as he met them in the world of spirits; and, even in Florence, when it was proposed to send him on an embassy to Rome, he replied: "If I go, who remains? and if I remain, who goes?"
But neither study nor political life alone would have qualified him to write his great poem. It needed the heavy blows of exile, poverty aud suffering, to forge the argument of the Divine Comedy. In the year 1300, Dante was elected one of the chief-magistrates of Florence; and, perceiving that his native city could have no peace unless the leaders of its factions were banished, he used his two months of brief authority to send these leaders beyond the borders of the state. It was a patriotic and unselfish act; for among them, and in either party, were certain of his personal friends. It was abstract justice, without regard to consequences; and when the tide turned and his enemies returned to power, they gave him the same measure which he had meted out to them. In 1302 a heavy fine was imposed upon him, and when he refused to pay, his entire estate was confiscated, aud it was •decreed that, if he should be found again in Florence, he should be burned alive. Henceforth Dante became a wanderer upon the face of the earth. In 1310 he appears to have gone to Paris,—perhaps to Oxford. After his return he was offered amnesty, upon condition of paying fine and acknowledging criminality. But he scorned to enter Florence except with honor. "The means of life will not fail me," he said. "In any case I shall be able to gaze upon the sun and stars, and to meditate upon the sweetest truths of philosophy."
Let us enter in imagination into the fortunes of this son of Florence, her truest patriot and her greatest man, cast out by an unloving mother, though every stone of her streets and every foot of her soil were sacred to him as they could be to no other. He became a Ghibelline, in hope that the Emperor's coming would restore just authority and would right the wrong. Poor, and exposed to all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," he wandered from one petty Ghibelline court to another, illustrating all too well the words of his own prophecy:
"Thou shult have proof how savoreth of salt
The bread of others, and how hard a road
The KoinK down and up another's stairs."
The lines of sweetness in his youthful portrait hardened and deepened into the sad, stern countenance of his later years. The very dignity of his nature, that forbade outward complaint, threw him inward upon himself.
"Seldom he smiled, and smiled in ench a sort
As if to seorn his nature that could be moved
To smile ut anything'."
Yet morose and despairing he never did become. As the outward darkness of his lot deepened about him, a light that never was on sea or land "so much the more shone inward." As he walked up and down in Northern Italy, leaving traditions of his sojourninga connected with many a ruined castle and mountain-torrent, there were opening before his vision great truths with regard to God and his judgments ; he was gathering vast knowledge of nature and of the human heart; aye, he was mapping out heaven, earth and hell, for the generations to come. There can be no doubt that he regarded himself as a sort of prophet. From the heavenly spheres he looked down upon this earth of trial and sifting, and saw the meaning of it:
"The threshing-floor that maketh us so proud,
To me, revolving with the eternal Twins,
Wus all apparent made, from hill to harbor."
And so, revolving the Divine Comedy and bringing it into form, he passed nineteen years of sorrowful exile, until at last, far from home, at Ravenna, in the year 1321, and at the age of* fifty-seven, Dante Alighieri died.
Before speaking of the great poem in detail, it will be desirable to say something about the end which Daute had in view, and the means which he uses to attain it. The first of its hundred cantos is a sort of Introduction to the whole, and we may well avail ourselves of the hints it gives us. Its first line,
"In midway of the journey of this life," has doubtless a personal reference to the history of the writer, and fixes the date when its composition began at 1300, when Dante had just reached the age of thirty-five, having passed halfway through the three-score years and ten allotted to man. On the first day of that new year and that new century, he describes himself as wandering, half asleep, from the right path, and becoming entangled in the mazes of a dark wood. Before him rises a hill, to which he makes his way and up which he essays to climb, until he finds himself withstood and repelled in succession by three wild beasts, a swift leopard, a raging lion and a greedy wolf. These well-nigh drive him back upon the sunless plain, when suddenly he becomes aware that he is not alone. A gracious and majestic figure approaches, and offers succor and conduct:
"Follow thou me, and 1 will bo thy guide
And bring thee henco by an eternal place,
Where thou shalt hearken the despairing shrieks,
Shalt see the ancient spirits dolorous
That each one outcries for the second death.
And thou shalt then see those who are content
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
When that it be, unto the blessed race.
To whom thereafter, If thou wouldst ascend,
A soul there'll be more worthy this than I:
Thee will I leave with her, when I depart;
Seeing that Emperor who above there rules,
Because I was rebellious to his law,
Wills to his City no access by me.
In every part he sways, and there he reigns;
There is his City and the exalted seat,—
Oh, happy he whom thither he elects!"
It is Virgil who thus offers himself as Dante's conductor through Hell and Purgatory; it is Beatrice who has sent him for Dante's deliverance, and who is to be his guide through Paradise after Virgil has led him through the two lower provinces of God's empire.
Many have been the interpretations put upon the great poem. The true interpretation is that which finds in it a combination of meanings. Dante himself has told us that there are four separate; senses which he intends his story to convey. There is the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. In Psalm 114: 1, we have the words, "When Israel went out of Egypt." This, says the poet, may be taken literally, of the actual deliverance of God's ancient people; or allegorically, of the redemption of the world through Christ; or morally, of the rescue of the sinner from the bondage of his sin; or anagogieally, of the passage of both soul and body from the lower life of earth to the higher life of heaven. So, from Scripture, Dante illustrates the method of his poem. We have his own warrant for beginning with the literal meaning, and for then superadding the spiritual. Nothing can be more plain than the personal element that runs through the poem — Dante's own life and spiritual struggles furnish the basis for all the rest. We cannot be far wrong in maintaining that the beginning of the poem describes Dante's own entanglement in the thickets of sense and unbelief; his early efforts to mako his way up the mount of knowledge and virtue by strength of his own; the demonstration of his inability to cope with the htst of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — the three adversaries which like wild beasts would drag him down; the offer and the acceptance of superior aid, in order that he may know the truth and the truth may make him free ; and then his gradual growth in knowledge and holiness, as one after another the sins and infirmities of the soul are revealed and are put beneath his feet, until at last he rises to communion with God and to the society of the holy. In other words, and yet more briefly, the Divine Comedy is an autobiographical Pilgrim's Progress, written from the point of view of the Middle Ages and the Roman Church.
But this is only the beginning. Around and upon this core and foundation, is built up a wondrous symbolic structure, in which Dante has sought to express his ideas of God's relations to humanity. It has been well said that the ancient epic never rose above the individual. "Arms and the man I sing," said Virgil. Dante sings, not of himself, nor of any particular man alone, but of man in the largest sense, —'' his subject is man — as by merit or demerit, through freedom of the will, he renders himself liable to the reward or punishment of justice." Man, in this large sense, has two sides to his nature — an earthly and a heavenly, a temporal and a spiritual. In each of these relations h° needs authority. God has therefore provided upon earth two rulers, the Pope to be his vicegerent in spiritual, the Emperor to be his vicegerent in temporal, things; the former like the sun giving forth the light of God's truth directly, the latter like the moon reflecting that of the former; each has its sphere; and each, being directly responsible to God, is in a certain sense independent of the other. There is, therefore, a political sense in which the Divine Comedy must be taken; and the constant interweaving of political incident and philosophy, which has struck so many as beside the purpose of the poem, is only a sign of its larger completeness and unity.
Miss Rossetti has beautifully traced the working of this idea into the introduction of the poem. The darksome wood is the distracted and hopeless political condition of Italy. The hill of virtue and reason, that rose before the mind of Dante was the scheme of a stable and righteous commonwealth. But there was no material to build a city. The Guelph powers beset him. Factious Florence, proud Franco, avaricious Rome, are respectively the leopard, the lion, and the wolf, that set themselves against all order and all progress. Dante sinks back almost into despair of his country, when Virgil, the symbol of science and philosophy, appears for his deliverance, and brings him to a right understanding of the divine will, so far as the light of nature can go; and, when that has done its utmost, divine grace, in the person of Beatrice, discovers to him the very consummation of God's plans for the temporal good of Immunity. — Whatever we may think of the details of this interpretation, there can be no doubt that in Dante's soul there had dawned the idea of a free State, as well as that of a free Church. He was immeasurably grieved and angered at the insane jealousies and enmities that tore his country in pieces. His prose essay, De Monorchia, shows that his advocacy of Ghibelline doctrine, in the latter half of his life, was based upon the conviction that only the supremacy of the Emperor could deliver Italy from the wiles of the Papacy, and give her a strong and solid government.
Italian unity, and the independence of church and state, both found their first great advocate in Dante,— or rather, shall we say, first found germinal expression in his writings. No stronger bond than love for Dante has for centuries, in spite of all her political divisions, preserved a moral unity in Italy. And now at length even Dante's dream of political unity has worked its own realization. The pen has proved mightier than the sword, because it has led men to wield the sword, in securing and defending the unity of Italy.
So far, as to the temporal or political aim of Dante's poem — the settlement of the true principles upon which civil society should be built. This, however, is not its chief aim. The spiritual side of man is more important than this. The poet would set forth the nature of man as a subject of God, free to obey or to disobey, and bound to answer to his own conscience and to Him who made him. And here we must remember that, with all Dante's reverence for God's spiritual vicegerent upon earth, he never fails to distinguish between the office and him who held it — between the Papacy and the individual Popes. He held loyally to Roman Catholic doctrine — indeed, there was none other in his day to hold to — but held to it in no slavish way. He abhorred the temporal power of the Papacy; he regarded it as usurpation of the prerogatives of the State, treachery to the spiritual calling of the Vicar of God, and cause of all the divisions and miseries of Italy. He has denounced the pride and venality of many a Pope, and he has put some of them, heels upward, in hell. We cannot think him lacking in courage, when we hear him calling the rulers of the church "Antichrist:"
"Your avarice overwhelms the world in woe.
To you St. John referred, O shepherds vile!
When She, who sits on many waters, had
Been seen with kings her person to defile;
(The same, who with s'-ven heads arose on earth.
And bore ten horns, to prove thut power was ber's,
Long as her husband had delight in worth).
Your gods ye make of silver and of gold;
And wherein differ from idolaters,
Save that their trod is one, yours manifold?
Ah Constantino! what evils caused to flow.
Not thy conversion, but those fair domains
Thou on the first rich Father didst bestow!"
In Dante's expositions of Scripture he has given us independent judgments; widely read as he was in sacred and patristic learning, we find him ever applying the Bible to matters of common life ; as we unconsciously get something of our theology from Milton, many an educated Italian only quotes Dante when he thinks he is quoting the Bible. The whole range and compass of man's spiritual being is the subject of Dante's treatment. He intended nothing less than to set forth the whale process and philosophy of man's fall «nd man's restoration. Not simply the outward means for the cure of souls, but the great array of spiritual agencies that work for the punishment of the lost and the recovery of the penitent, constitute the subject of his story.
Let us put ourselves again, then, with the poet, in the dreary wood. The poet is only the image of humanity, straying away from God and miserably perishing in its sin. There is left only the voice of conscience to urge it up the steep hill-side of knowledge and virtue, and this upward impulse is more than counteracted by the arts and devices of the great adversary. Humauity needs all the help that can come from both earth and heaven. God sends human teachers, and these show men the nature and the consequences of their sins and the means of purification from them. Virgil is the representative of the highest earthly wisdom. He can lead us to a terrestial paradise; but, if we would pass beyond, we must have a higher guide. Beatrice is divine science, the teaching of the Spirit, God's highest gift to men. He who yields to the lower teaching shall have the higher. Dante's taking Virgil for his guide is the symbol of the whole race of man putting itself under Qod's elementary tuition, that it may learn the truth that will deliver it from hell and lift it to heaven.
So the poem which has autobiography for its centre, embraces not only the doctrine of the State, but widens out until it takes in universal humanity and the true relations of that humanity to God. The Divine Comedy is an attempt to put all theology and all philosophy into poetical form, that man may have before his eyes an interpretation of the universe of things, a concrete representation of eternal truth, a justification of the ways of God to men. It is the loftiest conception ever framed by any earthly poet, and the execution is worthy of the theme. The Divine Comedy was the first Christian poem; it seems to us also to be the greatest.
So much for Dante's aim; let us consider now the means he used to attain it,—I mean his scheme of the universe, and the external vehicle by which he communicated his thought ; or, first, his cosmology, and secondly, his verse. We must remember that Dante lived before Kepler; his system was not the Coperuican, but the Ptolemaic. To understand his poem without knowing this, is as impossible as it would be for a school-boy to learn geography without a map. Ptolemy did not hold to a flat, but to a spherical earth; yet he did hold that the earth was the centre of all, and that sun, moon and stars all revolved around it. There were two hemispheres — an eastern hemisphere of land, and a western hemisphere of water. In the centre of the hemisphere of land is the city of Jerusalem, directly over the hollow pit of Hell; in the centre of the hemisphere of water is the islandmount of Purgatory, up whose steep sides all penitents must climb to heaven. Neither Hell nor Purgatory were created where they now are; their present existence and location are results of Satan's fall. When the rebel angel was cast out from heaven, his immense mass and weight crushed through earth's surface to the very centre of the planet; gravity prevented him from going further, and held him there fast bound. The very substance of the globe fled from him in horror, as he came hurtling down, and with these results: first, the great pit of hell was excavated, at the bottom of which Satan lies; secondly, the waters of the eastern hemisphere were transferred to the western, so that the eastern hemisphere is now laid bare; thirdly, the portion of earth's substance displaced to form Hell, sines it must go somewhere, was thrust up under the ancient Eden, and so the terrestrial Paradise was made the summit of the purgatorial mountain in the midst of the waste of western waters. Ulysses is the only mortal who has seen that mount, and there it was that he met his fate. Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" is only a reminiscence of Dante. The mount of Purgatory is therefore "exactly at the antipodes of Jerusalem, and its bulk is precisely equal and opposite to the cavity of Hell."
Hell and Purgatory belong to this planet. Earth alone is the abode of sin, and the place of penance. But as we leave earth and go upward we find nine several heavens, one above the other, each a hollow revolving sphere, enclosing and enclosed. These are at once solid and transparent; in them the planets are fixed, to give light by day and night. First comes the heaven of the moon; beyond this the heaven of Mercury; then the heaven of Venus; fourthly, the heaven of the Sun, which Dante, after the fashion of his time, regarded as a planet revolving round the earth; fifthly, the heaven of Mars; sixthly, the heaven of Jupiter; seventhly, the heaven of Saturn; eightly, the heaven of the Fixed Stars; ninthly, the starless, crystalline heaven or Primum Mobile, which moves most rapidly of all, and by so moving communicates movement to all the rest. Beyond all these nine heavens is a teuth, the motionless Empyrean of God aud bis saints. There the elect spirits of all time, arranged in rauks like the rising seats of an amphitheatre, surround a lake of light formed by the reflection of the divine glory from the convex upper surface of the Primum Mobile. It is the Rose of the Blessed, whose petals expanding on every side are made up of countless intelligences, all bright with the purity and the love of the highest heaven.
Such is Dante's scheme of the universe. Let us ask now about his verse. He called his work "The Comedy;" the title "Divine" was given to it by admirers belonging to the next generation. He tells us that the designation "Comedy " was given to it because, though beginning in gloom and sorrow, it has a happy ending; it takes the reader through Hell and Purgatory, but it brings him to Paradise. The average reader, we fear, does not give to Dante's work the benefit of the poet's own explanation. He reads only the "Inferno," and insists on judging the whole by this single part. Here the grotesque and the revolting so fasten his attention that he declines to proceed further. He does not penetrate to the deep philosophy of Dante's treatment; does not see that Danto's aim is to portray the folly and the monstrosity of sin; does not appreciate the poet's aim of making all this a contrast and a foil to the sweetness of penitence and the joy of the redeemed. But he who has the grace and the patience to read the Purgatory, and the Paradise as well, will find that Dante was right in not calling his poem "The Divine Tragedy." Dante is no pessimist. To Ins mind "all things work together for good;" and so his poem, which was meaut to be an interpretation of the universe and a philosophy of history, rightly calls itself a "Comedy," for it describes the uplifting of humanity from sin to holiness, and from eternal sorrow to eternal joy.
But there was still another reason for the cheerful title. The work is written, not in the stately aud sonorous Latin with its classic elegance and coldness, but in the humble Italian of common speech, the newly emerging product of a new civilization, the language of the shop and of the home, rather than the language of the schools. And yet it is too much to say that this language existed before Dante wrote. Dante was rather its creator; for the Italian language, with all its sweetness and purity and beauty, the language of love, of poetry, of philosophy, sprang complete from Dante's brain. There is something almost awe-inspiring in the sudden appearance of such a work as his, as new in its literary vehicle as it was in conception and in theme. It did more to fix the language of Italy than the French Academy ever did to fix the French, or the English Bible to fix the English, tongue. Six hundred years ago a language was spoken in France which no common Frenchman can understand to-day ; six hundred years ago a language was spoken in England which no common Englishman can understand to-day. But Dante's Italian is the Italian of modern speech. It is well worth while to learn a little Italian, for even a little will enable one to appreciate to some degree the sweet severity of Dante's verse; the marvelous compression which never wastes a word; the fascination of the terza rima, or triple rhyme, whose endless reiterations seem like the recurrent melody, at one time of funeral, and at another time of marriage, bells.
There is scarcely a more striking example of this fitness of phrase than in the solemn music which records the inscription over the gate of Hell:
"Per me si va nella citta dolente:
Per me si va nell' eterno dolore:
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto Fattore:
Fceemi la divina Potentate,
La aomraa Saplenza e 11 prlmo Amore.
Dinanzi a me non fur cose create,
Si non cterne, ed eterno duro;
Laseiate ogni speranza, vol eh' entrate."
Let us now compare the Italian with the English, and mark how the liquid and intense quality of the original well-nigh disappears in the translation:
"Through me ye enter the abode of woe:
Through me to endless sorrow are ye brought:
Through me amid the souls accurst ye go.
Justice did first my lofty Maker move;
By Power almighty was my fabric wrought,
By highest Wisdom and by primal Love.
Ere I was formed, no things created were,
Save those eternal — I eternal last:
All hope abandon — ye who enter here!"
The gate is "closed to none, being reft of all its fastenings since the day when the Conqueror of Death, fresh from the cross, forced through it his resistless passage." So Dante, following Virgil as his guide, pursues the deep and savage pathway and enters the Inferno. Let us enter with him. Hell, as we have seen, is a pit within the earth, a hollow, inverted cone, growing narrower as it descends; in which, as space contracts, torment is intensified. The outermost borders of the pit constitute an Ante-Hell, rather than hell itself. It is the abode of the Neutrals, those who are not good enough for Heaven, and who have not character enough for Hell. Here are confined the angels who at the first great rebellion in the spiritworld stood neither for God nor for his enemies, but only for themselves. Here are confined a large part of the human race, even as the circuit of this uppermost region of the Inferno is the widest. These feeble and cowardly souls, stung by flies and wasps, the image of a reproving conscience, chase a hurrying standard, while worms in the dust beneath their feet absorb their blood and tears. So Dante punishes those who only ignored God, but did not have force enough to rebel against him. He crosses the River Acheron, the joyless river, with Charon for his ferryman, who grimly drives the reluctant souls out of his boat with the blows of his oar. So they reach Hell proper, a pit of nine circles, each furnishing a landing-place, on one side of which is the wall of solid earth, on the other the abyss.
The first circle of the Inferno proper is called Limbo — the home of infants who died unbaptized, and of non-believers who had no knowledge of a Saviour. Hero once dwelt the saints of Old Testament times; but when Christ descended into the underworld after his resurrection, he rescued them and led them forth in trinmph. Here still, and forever, dwell the heathen sages whose ignorance was invincible. There is no outward infliction. Their pain is the pain of loss, of unsatisfied yearning. Within a castle of seven-fold walls and gates they lead their shadowy life, neither sad nor glad, grave and subdued in aspect, conversing still with regard to the problems of existence, knowing nothing of the present, but only of the past and future. It is the highest point of attainment for unbelievers. Here Virgil points out "the luminous habitation of the poets." Homer and Horace receive Dante into their company, and show him Socrates, Plato, and other master-spirits of antiquity. When they leave him, he re-enters the domain of darkness; passes before Minos, the infernal Judge; and now at length descends into the Hell of positive sin and of real punishment.
It will be worth our while here to pause a moment, and consider the three great divisions under which Dante classifies the sins punished in the eight circles which we have still to visit. There are, to his mind, three great types and gradations of sin. They are Incontinence, Bestiality, and Malice. But neither incontinence nor bestiality are precisely what these words would seem to indicate. Incontinence includes all sin of mere emotion and desire, of affection and feeling. Lasciviousness, gluttony, avarice and anger all belong to this category. They are sins of impulsive passion, exaggerations of principles of our nature which are themselves innocent, but which are indulged in manner or measure opposed to the will of God. It is significant that all these sins are punished in darkness, as befits the nature of them, committed as they have been with mind beclouded by passion. And the respective punishments are punishments in kind. Carnal sinners are swept along by a violent hurricane, as if to intimate that they who have sown the wind must reap the whirlwind. Gluttons lie prostrate on the ground, beneath a pelting storm of rain, snow and hail; while Cerberus, a sort of personified belly, devours them. The avaricious and the prodigal crawl in two bands in opposite directions, pushing before them great weights, which clash together as they meet, the one band howling to the other: "Why did ye keep ?" and the other howling in return: "Why did ye give away?" The wrathful and gloomy are immersed naked in a lake of mud, and in this lake they strike and tear each other. There is an impressive lesson here,—anger and melancholy are punished together. Too much indignation and too little indignation are equally sins. The wrathful and the wrathless both transgress God's law. "Be ye angry, and sin not," says the Scripture. "Ye that love the Lord, hate evil." Not to be angry at unrighteousness, smoothly and indolently to condone wrong-doing, this to Dante is sin against God, and they who commit it are imbedded in the dregs of the Stygian pool.
We have been dealing with sins of feeling. How solemn a truth does the poet teach us when he makes sins of the thoughts to follow these! For this is what he means by Bestiality, the next great class of transgressions. The bestial man is the man who is besotted in mind, and who gives himself over to infidelity or to heresy; who either says with the fool: "There is no God," or says with the errorist: "God is different from what he has revealed himself to be." Here, in the flaming city of Dis, where the walla are of iron and the darkness is mingled with fire, the arch-heretics are confined in red-hot tombs; as if to show the living death of the soul that cuts itself loose from faith in God and his revelation. Notice that this sin of bestialism or unbelief follows, and grows out of, the sin of wrong desire. The heart first departs from God, and then the intellect follows in its train. It is only an anticipation of Goethe's dictum: "As are the inclinations, so are the opinions." When man gives loose rein to evil affections, the eyes of his understanding are darkened. But there is something worse even than sin of the feelings and of the intellect: it is sin of consciously evil will; aud so the third great class of iniquities in Dante's hell is that of Malice, in its ever-deepening forms, now of Violence, then of Fraud, and finally of Treachery. The sin of unbelief cannot maintain itself against the accusations of conscience except by becoming the sin of positive hatred and opposition to God. First the heart, then the intellect, and lastly the will, sets itself against Him who made it.
Malice is punished after its kind also. The Violent, such as tyrants, murderers and marauders, are sunk in a boiling river of blood, and as often as they emerge are shot at by the Centaurs. Such the fate of those who commit violence against others,— they have their fill of blood. Suicides, or those who are guilty of violence against themselves, are turned into trees, whose living branches are plucked away by harpies, only to grow again. Blasphemers, or those who have done violence to God, are exposed to a slow shower of fire, upon a plain of burning sand. Below the circle where Violence is punished, at a vast depth indeed beneath, Fraud in its ten subdivisions has its place of doom. Here are seducers and flatterers, the first scourged by demons, the second immersed in filth. Simoniacs, who have purchased high places in the church with money, are fixed in circular holes, like purses, with their heads down, their legs only appearing, and the soles of their feet burnt with flames. Sorcerers or diviners, as they endeavored to pry into the future, have their heads twisted round so that they have to walk backward now. Barterers and peculators are plunged into a lake of boiling pitch. Hypocrites wear cloaks and hoods which are gilt outside, but are lined within with lead, whose heavy weight they try with groans to carry. Thieves are persecuted with a swarm of serpents. Evil counsellors are tormented in wrappings of flame that fit them as a garment. Slanderers and schismatics have their limbs miserably mangled. Alchemists and forgers are visited with an itching leprosy.
Last of all comes the well of the primeval giants, the mythical demigods who rose against Jove in arms. They are representatives of the last and deepest intensity of sin, the Malice that becomes Ingratitude, and that betrays kindred and friends, king and country, and finally its very God and Saviour. Treachery is in Dante's scheme the utmost malignity of sin, its most conrplete and dreadful expression. The lowest pit is called the Judecca, because it holds Judas, who betrayed his Lord. And here Judas is tormented by Satan, to whom for thirty pieces of silver he sold himself. We have reached Hell's lowest point. Let us gaze at Satan there. He is a creature of monstrous size,— Dante gives us the means of estimating very accurately his dimensions. The primeval giants are each seventy feet tell; Satan is twelve times as great — eight hundred and forty feet therefore in height. At the very centre of the earth he site, forever flapping his vast and bat-like wings in effort to escape, while these very movements chill the air and turn everything about him to frost and ice. He tries to escape, but every effort only freezes him more solidly into his place of imprisonment. He has three heads and three faces — red, white and black —, to correspond with the three divisions of the human race which he has succeeded in leading to perdition; in each one of his three mouths he is craunching and devouring a traitor, and of the three traitors Judas is chief. The centre of Hell is not fire but ice — fit type of the hardness and the coldness of the heart that is "past feeling." The sin of sense has become the sin of malice, and malice has deepened into treachery and positive hatred to God. Feeling led the way into transgression, but the intellect followed, and then the will gave in its conscious adhesion to wrong, until there came the spurning of the very mercy that would save, and the sin against the Holy Ghost that hath never forgiveness, either in this world or in that which is to come.
Before we leave the Inferno, it is important to note three things. The first is, that the grotesqueness and monstrosity of Dante's punishments are intended to teach a moral lesson — this namely, that sin is something essentially vile and contemptible. The " Divine Comedy " gives a very different picture of Satan, for example, from that with which wo have become familiar in the " Paradise Lost." Milton's Satan is "the archangel ruined," but the emphasis seems often to lie upon the "archangel" rather than upon the " ruin "; Satan has been called, indeed, "the hero of the Paradise Lost." But Dante is resolved that no illusive glamour shall surround the great enemy. He will picture him in all his native cruelty and hatred and malignity, a creature loathsome and loathed. Milton, it is true, has passages in which the adversary confesses to an inward torment. Those three words: "Myself am hell," contain the very essence of the doctrine of future punishment. But as we see Satan striding over the burning marl, asserting himself in rebellious pride, daring the Almighty to crush him with his thunderbolts, we are forced to admire the unconquerable will that had rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. And in all this, Milton is false to Scripture. Though Dante goes beyond the Bible in his grotesque physical images, he expresses more of the spirit of the Bible than does Milton. Sin and sinners, he holds in derision. Even in the story of Fraucesca da Rimini we do not Iosh sight of the serpent that lies beneath the flowers; guilty love has in it moral corruption and eternal despair. All Dante's demons are hateful; no man through him shall be seduced into calling darkness light, or evil good. He declares that, just as surely as the righteous shall rise to everlasting life, the wicked shall rise to shame and everlasting contempt.
A second lesson which Dante teaches us is, that sin is the self-perversion of the will. If there is any thought fundamental to his system it is the thought of freedom. Man is not a waif swept irresistibly downward on the current; he is a being endowed with power to resist, and therefore guilty if he yields. Sin is not misfortune, or disease, or natural necessity; it is wilfulness, and crime, and self-destniction. The "Divine Comedy" is, beyond all other poems, the poem of Conscience; and this it could not be, if it did not recognize man as a free agent, the responsible cause of his own evil acts and his own evil state. And Dante is a lover of God and of holiness. He puts himself on God's side, in the great moral controversy of the ages. He explains suffering by guilt; he sees the whole race under the load of just penalty; hell is to him only the sign of God's estimate of sin. Is there anything that our age needs more than this strengthening of conscience, this assertion of the claims of righteousness, this declaration that "the soul that sinneth, it shall die?" Would that our soft and easy-going time, soothed almost to sleep as it is by the tempter's voice, "Thou shalt not surely die," and inclined to compound with almighty Justice for indulgence in all sorts of pleasurable wickedness,— would that our age might listen to the awful voices of self-accusation and despair that sound out from Dante's Hell to proclaim the voluntariness and the damnableness of sin!
Still another lesson from the Inferno is, that penalty is not in its essence external to the sinner. Here I know I shall contradict the impressions of many of my readers. "Dante not a believer in material and physical punishment?" Ah, I did not say that. I said that to Dante the material and the physical were not the essence of punishment. I most earnestly believe that, with all the material imagery of Dante's Hell, he never meant us to take one of these physical punishments merely in its literal sense. He believed indeed in a body, and believed that God would destroy both soul and body in hell; doubtless he expected that sins of the flesh would be punished in the flesh. But his view of sin as having its source and centre in the soul forbade him to put upon the mere body the main stress of penalty. People have made the same mistake about Jonathan Edwards. Because he speaks of the sinner as shriveling like a worm in the fire of God's judgments, some have supposed that he regarded hell as consisting mainly of such physical torments. But this is a misinterpretation of Edwards. As he did not fancy heaven to consist in streets of gold or pearly gates, but rather in the holiness and communion with Christ of which these are symbols, so he did not regard hell as consisting in fire and brimstone, but rather in the unholiness and separation from God of which fire aud brimstone were symbols. He used the material imagery, because he thought that this best answered to the methods of Scripture. He probably went beyond the simplicity of the Scripture statements, and did not sufficiently explain the spiritual meaning of the symbols he used; but I am persuaded that he neither understood them literally himself, nor meant them to be so understood by others. What is true of Edwards is true of Dante. In how many ways does he show that sin is essentially a condition of soul, an alienation of the heart from God, an inner conflict and agony! It is shown by the fact that living men are represented as already in hell; as eternal life is already present in the souls of the good, so eternal death is already in the souls of the evil. It is shown by the fact that the sinner is made to punish himself; the wicked is holden in the cords of his own sins; sin is its own detecter and judge and tormentor. Dante's doctrine is ever this :' '' The responsible agent, man, does to himself whatever he does, and his deeds return to the doer." The material symbols are nothing more than symbols .— symbols of the corruption and death which is involved in sin itself — symbols of the fact that sin tends to permanence; that sin at last is stamped upon the soul as its eternal form; that the free will becomes at last enslaved to evil; that the sinner, apart from divine grace, tends ever downward in an ever-increasing intensity of selfish will and an ever-increasing intensity of punishment.
It is pleasant to emerge from the Inferno, even though we have learned from it so many lessons. Dante emerges under guidance of Virgil. Having passed the centre of the earth in his descent, he takes his upward way to the opposite side of the globe from that at which he entered. But the force of gravity is against him now. Facilis descensus Averno; and we may add: Difficilis ascensus coelo. By what road does he ascend? Ah, there is a channel worn through the solid earth by the stream that flows downward from the mount of Purgatory. That stream is made up of the tears of the penitents who make reparation on the mount, and whose guilt and depravity, as fast as it is purged away, flows downward to Satan from whom it came, and with whom it now abides forever. As our toil-worn pilgrim emerges from the bowels of the earth and plants his feet upon the mount of purification, the day begins to break, and the sorrow of his soul gives place to joy. He sees an angel-piloted bark approaching the island-mount, a bark which brings to Purgatory, from the banks of the Tiber, all souls which have died at peace with the Church, and who only need to be freed from the remains of sin to be fitted for heaven. Here we need to remember that in Roman Catholic doctrine, Purgatory is only a temporary abiding-place. Purgation may last for hundreds of years, but it cannot last forever. All who enter Hell go there to stay. None ever stay in Purgatory. And yet none wish to depart,— they desire only to be cleansed. They bear willingly, yes, even gladly, the chastisements of God, which are meant for their correction in righteousness. The reeds with which the shores of that island are fringed, yielding ever as they do to the swaying of the waves, are thv symbol of the will of the mountain's habitants, bending ever to the slightest movement of the will of God. On this mount they bemoan their sins. It is a sweet and holy dwelling-place, irradiated by the Southern Cross, a constellation unseen in our cold northern climes; the grassy slopes are kept green by the tears of the penitents; angels visit the mount to encourage them, admonish them, guide them upward, in their toilsome striving ; hymns and prayers to God are continually ascending from its terraces, as from altarstairs; its summit is the Terrestrial Paradise, from which by a short step the soul, with the temporary shade-body which it wears till the resurrection, can rise from earth to heaven.
There is an Ante-Purgatory, just as there was an Ante-Hell. This AntePurgatory is under the wardenship of Cato of Utica, that model of ancient self-control. Here at the base of the mountain are detained those who deferred repentance during their former life; they are compelled to wait, outside of St. Peter's gate, a hundred years for every year of that former delay,—that is, are compelled to wait unless their stay is shortened by the pious prayers of friends whom they have left behind, one moment of whose intense intercessions has power to deliver from years of purgatorial sorrow. Voltaire said rightly that in Purgatory the church had found what Archimedes vainly longed for, a Jtos ari> upon which he might plant his lever to move the world. The souls in the place of preliminary trial chant the Miserere and the Compline Hymn, and so get help against the adversary. At St. Peter's gate, Purgatory proper first begins. They approach it by a threefold stair, symbolic of the confession, contrition and satisfaction which the church requires. An angel with flaming sword keeps the door, charged to err by admitting, rather than to err by excluding, those who seek admission there ; and yet there is a safeguard — he who after entering should look back, would again find himself without. Upon the brow of each one so admitted the angel with his sword of flame marks seven times the letter P,— which means Peceatum, Peccavi, and indicates that there are seven capital sins which must be successively purged away. There are seven terraces, each devoted to the purgation of one of these sins of Pride, Envy, Auger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Lasciviousness; and when the purgation of any one of these is complete, the corresponding mark of shame vanishes from the brow. So the process goes on until the forehead is pure, as at man's first creation; and, as the soul leaps up in freedom and regains once more its lost estate of innocency, the whole mount of Purgatory shakes for joy.
In the Inferno, sin grows in intensity as the circles narrow and we go downward. In Purgatory the rule is just the opposite ; the greatest sins are first purged away, and the mountain narrows as we ascend. Progress upward is at the first slow and difficult, and the heights are great. But each sin removed gives new freedom ; the distances grow smaller and the ascent more rapid; for "to him that hath shall be given," and when the sins that so easily beset are all laid aside, tho soul "mounts up with wings as eagles;" nothing now is left to separate between it and God. There is another relation between the structure of the Purgatory and that of the Hell,—sins in both are classified under three general divisions. In the Purgatory, however, the classification is that of the mediaeval theologians, into Love Distorted, Love Defective and Love Excessive. Under love distorted, pride, envy and auger are ranged — each being regarded as loving evil to one's neighbor. Love defective is represented only by sloth — this loves too little the highest good. Love excessive has three divisions: avarice, or the excessive love of money; gluttony, or the excessive love of food; lasciviousness, or the excessive love of sensual pleasure. The seven terraces around the mountain are but eighteen feet in width, for " narrow is the way that leads to life." On the one side of each is the precipice; on the other is the rocky wall, up which there is but one long and steep ascent, by stairs, to the terrace next above.
Let us delay for one moment to glance at the chastisements of the Mount of Penitence. In the first circle Pride, the primal sin, and root of all other sins, is made to suffer. The proud are bowed to the earth by heavy weights of stone placed upon their backs; and, as they move onward in long procession, their eyes lifted up no longer, they look sideways at wonderfully sculptured representations of humility upon the rocky wall, or downwards at wonderfully sculptured representations of pride upon the pavement beneath their feet; while spirit-voices chant the Lord's Prayer and " Blessed are the poor in spirit." In the second terrace the Envious are punished, by having the eyes that looked askance on others sewed up with iron thread, while mantled in prickly hair-cloth they are compelled to sit shoulder to shoulder, leaning upon one another and recognizing their mutual obligation and dependence. The eyes that have transgressed are not permitted now to see, and so instruction is communicated to them by spirit-voices that record the various historical instances of love or of envy. "Blessed are the merciful," and "Rejoice, O victor!" are the salutations that signalize release. The third circle is devoted to the chastisement of Anger. This, too, is punished, in kind, by a dense fog — symbolic of the passion which blinds the eyes of the wrathful. The fog is bitter as smoke and black as night, and it is only in ecstatic vision that the angry souls are reminded of noble examples of forbearance, and of the murderous fruits of the opposite vice. The souls here suffering pray to the Lamb of God for mercy, and the beatitude that celebrates the completion of their purging is, '' Blessed are the peacemakers."
But we must hasten up the Mount. The Slothful are punished in the fourth terrace by being forced against their nature to run races with each other ; while they exercise the virtue opposite to their own failing by shouting out to each other shameful illustrations of luke-warmness and inspiring instances of diligence. Avarice, in the circle next above, is bound hand and foot; and, as it has refused to look upward to higher good, so it is now made to grovel on the earth. "My soul cleaveth unto the dust," is the cry of the penitent; and "Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst alter righteousness" is the sign of their victory over this their besetting sin. Then comes the circle of the Gluttonous, tormented by the tree of Tantalus, a tree that entices by its wealth of fragrant finits, but that widens upward instead of downward, and evermore withholds the means of gratification from the famished soul. Haggard and emaciated, the gluttonous crowd about it, casting eager eyes upon its precious burden, but only to elicit from its branches urgent admonitions to temperance. In the seventh and last circle Lasciviousness is expiated by long lines of penitents who pass through a fierce flame proceeding from the rocky wall beside them. Dante and Virgil both enter into this flame. Only here, and in the third terrace where anger is punished, does Dante himself suffer with the penitents. Of two sins only, he seems to himself to need purging. And the penal fire does its work. His soul is purified from its last remaining sin. He is now master of himself, and, as a crowned and mitred sovereign, with the lost image of God restored, he enters the Terrestrial Paradise, the Eden from which man was expelled for his sin. Virgil now can no longer be his guide, and Beatrice comes to take Virgil's place, after Dante had drunk of the waters of Lethe, which extinguish the memory of the past, and of the waters of Eunoe, which bring back the memory of the good.
Amid the living verdure and the fragrant flowers, the pleasant zephyrs and the singing birds, we would gladly linger. There are two remarks, however, which I must make with regard to Dante's Purgatory, before I leave it. And the first is that, like the Hell, Dante does not regard it as a place, so much as it is a process. Doubtless he believed in the place, and sought to give an imaginative picture of it. But much more he believed in the thing — the necessity of purification. "Without holiness no man can see the Lord ;" "put to death the deeds of the flesh ;" "cleanse yourselves, therefore, from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit,"—these are the essential truths which were in Dante's mind. The Christian doctrine of sauctification is put into verse in Dante's poem, and so far, both Protestant and Romanist may find in it a source of great religious incitement and pn >rit. Indeed, the Pnrgatory comes nearer to our common life than either the Hell or the Paradise. The former is too far beneath us, and the latter is too far above. But every man can recognize resemblance to himself in the penitents of Purgatory,— that is, if he have even a spark of the hatred of sin and longing for holiness which God's regenerating Spirit has inspired. The tender and humble confessions of the sufferers, their submission to the divine chastisements, their eager appropriation of all helps to their restoration which are bestowed by the word or the Spirit of God, are full of subduing beauty. Nowhere in literature, outside of the Bible, have we so nobly portrayed "the blessedness of him whose transgression is forgiven, and whose sin is covered."
This first remark about Purgatory has had to do with that which Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have in common. My second remark has to do with the differences between them. There are two respects in which Protestants must regard Dante's representations as painfully erroneous. On the one hand he errs, as the Roman Catholic Church has erred, in extending the period of purification beyond the confines of death. The literal interpretation is better. Purgatory is only on this earth, and in this life. "After death," there is, not purification, but "judgment." For multitudes, the Romanist doctrine is a doctrine of second probation. Men are content here with being at peace with the Church, while they are not yet at peace with God. The real controversy between themselves and their Judge is adjourned to the future world. Pnrgatory, with all its sufferings, becomes the basis of false hopes; distant suffering is chosen rather than immediate renunciation of sin; a fatal trust is put, in what the sinner can do by way of reparation, rather than in what Christ has done by way of atonement. And this leads me to notice another error intimately connected with that which I have just mentioned, and which Protestants must ever most strenuously oppose. I refer now to Dante's error in making the process of purification a penal one. If there be any truth of Scripture more vital and precious than another it is that of the completeness of Christ's sacrifice. Our sins, and all of them, were "laid on him ;" he "has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us ;" "there is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Jesus Christ." God chastises his children; but it is in love, and it is for their good. There is no anger and there is no penalty, since "Jesus paid it all, all the debt we owe, and nothing either great or small remains for us to do." The notion that the sufferings and calamities of the present life are of the nature of punishment, is contrary to the whole doctrine of the New Testament, and constitutes "a bridge to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatorial fires." Neither in this world, nor in the world to come, can any mortal add, by penance of his own, to the efficacy of that sacrifice of Christ which was offered once for all. Dante was not in advance of his age, nor was he yet possessed of the spirit of the Lutheran Reformation. Justification by faith alone had not yet dawned upon him as God's only way of salvation. The "mass" to him was still a repetition of Christ's death, and the pains of Purgatory, voluntarily endured by the penitent, were still needed to supplement what Christ had done upon the cross.
So at last we come to Dante's Paradise, a creation in some respects loftier and more wonderful than either the Hell or the Purgatory, yet, for the very reason that it is so lofty and wonderful, less attractive than either of these to the ordinary mind. Still, as we read the poet's sublime meditations upon the greatest truths of religion and philosophy, we are impressed with the selfsufficiency of his genins. Never, even in its highest soaring, does the wing of his imagination seem to flag. Or, if ever earthly pictures seem to fail and earthly words are incapable of expressing the "exceeding and eternal weight of glory," piety and worship furnish what art cannot supply, and the glowing heart of the poet shows itself most manifestly lost in adoration and in joy. Heaven, we must remember, is to Dante's mind the state of the perfected will; or, rather, the state of the will that has been freed at length from earthly and sensual desires. But while perfection in the sense of sinlessness belongs to all the inhabitants of the blessed realm, perfection in the sense of capacity is ever enlarging. AH are as full as they can hold of the love and purity of God, yet one can hold more than another. To use the mediaeval illustration: "A king may clothe all his children equally with cloth of gold, yet the amount of the cloth apportioned to each may vary according to their size." In-heaveu, too, as well as in the lower realms, each soul goes to his own place.
Outward surroundings are simply the fit accompaniments and evidences of character. As the soul laden with sin experiences a downward, so the soul possessed of purity experiences an upward, gravitation; and each one can say with King Richard in Shakespeare's play: "Mount, mount, my soul, — thy seat is up on high!" As we press upward then from one heavenly sphere to another, we are to remember that we are not among the race of sinners any longer,—we are rather among those whose varying native gifts, and whose varying degrees of faithfulness in the exercise of these gifts, constitute an ever-varying receptivity for the life and love of God.
Beatrice, the symbol of heavenly wisdom, is now Dante's guide. As he gazes upon her face, the light of the terrestial paradise is lost in another light. "Suddenly day seemed added unto day, as if Omnipotence had lit up the sky with another sun." The poet is lifted up from earth to heaven. And yet it is the lowest heaven which first he visits — the heaven of the moon, with its waxing and waning, the proper home of those whose wills on earth were imperfect through instability. Here are nuns, who, being constrained to marry, did not return to their vows when they had opportunity. This sphere is revolved by the Angels. The next sphere is that of Mercury, and Archangels have it in charge, turning it in due order around the earth and the sphere of the moon which it encloses. In this sphere of Mercury abide those whose wills were on earth imperfect through love of fame — men of great activity and eloquence, who lived on the whole for God, yet at the same time had some regard to the praise of men. Then comes the sphere of Venus, revolved by the Principalities, and fitly made the home of those whose wills on earth were imperfect through excess of human love, even though that love was in itself lawful. Here Dante is led to
admire the Art that turns to good
8uch passion, and the Wisdom manifold
Whence earthly love by heavenly is subdued."
Thence he is lifted to the Sun, the fourth heaven, revolved by the Powers.
Here in this chief light of the material universe, I am happy to observe
that he places the abode of doctors of divinity and philosophy, probably because they have themselves been sources of light to the Church. The sphere of Mars, to which the poet next ascends, is revolved by the Virtues. Here he sees the forms of distinguished warriors, confessors, and martyrs for the faith, not drawn up in the order of an earthly army but ranged together in the shape of a cross. Then comes the sphere of Jupiter, of which the Dominations have coutrol. Here rulers eminent for justice are disposed in the shape of an eagle; and wonderful to tell, the Eagle, collective representation of earth's noblest kings and potentates, itself finds a voice, and speaks to Dante of the greater things of the divine kingdom. In the plauet Saturn, or seventh heaven, revolved by the Thrones, are found contemplative spirits, or those who have furnished the most illustrious examples of the monastic life. The cold sphere of Saturn is peculiarly adapted to the monks and hermits who have resigned the warmth of the fireside and the fervors of civic life, in order to give themselves to prayer and to the study of heavenly truth. The heaven of the fixed stars comes next, for Dante knew of no planet beyond Saturn. Here the Cherubim move the sphere, and the apostles and saints of the Old and of the New Testaments have their dwelling. And here, before he is permitted to ascend higher, Dante passes an examination on the subject of Faith, Hope and Love, — St. Peter, St. James and St. John successively conducting it. When he has shown himself expert in these prerequisites to heavenly bliss, the poet is carried up to the ninth, or highest heaven, revolved by the Seraphim. This sphere is called the Primum Mobile, because its motion is most rapid, and is the cause of motion to all the spheres which it encloses. This highest heaven is starless and crystalline; and here "the nine orders of the celestial hierarchy circle in fiery rings around the Light which no man can approach unto, manifested as an Atomic Point."
Dante has reached the summit of being, and is permitted to gaze upon its uncreated Source. A stream of light proceeds from God himself. In that light the multitude of saints and angels find their blessedness.
"And us n cliff looks down upon the bed
Of some clear stream, to see how richly crowned
With flowers and foliage is its lofty head,
So all from earth who hither e'er returned.
Seated on more than thousand thrones around,
Within the Eternal Li^ht themselves discerned."
It is the " Rose of the Blessed" — the great company of the redeemed^
circling, like the petals of a rose, rank beyond rank, around the mystical
lake of light which reflects that "Light which no man hath seen or can
see." The saints of all ages are here, from Adam to St. Paul, and from the
Virgin Mary to Beatrice. All the praises which Dante has hitherto lavished
upon the lady of his love fail now, he says, to give any adequate conception
of her loveliness, as with him she ascends to the highest heaven. But his
love is now no merely earthly love,— he has learned the lesson that " our
loves in higher love endure." Love for God draws him nearer to Beatrice,
and conversely, love for Beatrice draws him nearer to God. His eyes, and
all eyes, are supremely set on the Highest of all — the trinne God,—into
partnership with whom our humanity has been taken, in the person of the
Son, and whose Trinity in Unity is now unfolded to the adoring contemplation of his creatures. At the intercession of St. Bernard, Dante is enabled with purified sight to gaze directly upon the Supreme Jehovah, aud is moved to pray that grace may be given him Bo to utter what he sees, that generations to come may catch some glimpse of the sublime vision:
"O Sovereign Light! who dost exalt thee high
Above all thoughts that mortal may conceive,
Recall thy semblance to my mental eye.
And let my tongue record the wondrous story,
That I to nations yet unborn may leave
One spark at least of thy surpassing glory 1"
But the light transcends all powers of description. Only one thing is made plain — and that the greatest thing of all — in God, Light and Love are one:
"The glorious vision here my powers o'ercame ;—
But now my will and wish were swayed by Love—
(As turns a wheel on every side the same)
Love —at whose word the sun and planets move."
So ends the Divine Comedy. The translation of Wright, which I have generally used because it best represents the rhythm aud rhyme of the original, is in these last lines in one respect defective,— it does not put at the end the word with which Dante meant his poem to close. That word is the "stars." With this word he ends the Inferno:
"Emerging, we once more beheld the stars." With this word he ends the Purgatorio:
"And with a will endued to mount the stars." With this word he ends also the Paradiso:
"The Love that moves the sun and the other stars." We can now see how narrow and unintelligent that criticism is which represents Dante's poetry as savage aud grotesque, and regards the poet as capable only of rough effects. The truth is that Dante is of all poets the most sensitive to the changeful aspects of nature; every hour of the day or the night has to him its peculiar beauty; no poet ever read in the book of nature more spiritual lessons ; no poet ever expressed those lessons in more varied and melodious phrase. When the boys of the street saw him go by, they said: "There goes the man that was in Hell!"—and there was in his countenance a solemn gravity which gave verisimilitude to the popular report. But Dante did not revel in horrors, as some imagine. It was his instinct of righteousness, and not a morbid disposition to gloat over suffering, that furnished the animus of his dark descriptions of the torments of the lost. He had an enthusiasm for justice,— but then he had also a soul tremulously sensitive to the least of earth's sorrows, aud to all those benignant agencies by which God would remedy them. Dante was thorough-going. He saw the depth of man's need; he saw the grandeur of the heavenly discipline. He did not waste his fervors on sin or sinners; he reserved those for struggling purity, and for God's plan of rescue and restoration. Dante is the most ethical of poets,— he measures all things by the standard of the Sanctuary. But all beauty that is real or lasting — all moral beauty, in short — wakes in Dante's soul responsive emotions, and finds a calm and sweet expression in his verse.
Take for example the poet's ruling conception of heaven. It is that of light— light qualified by love. No language upon earth has such a marvelous wealth of terms expressive of the varying shades and aspects of light as has the Italian. And the most of these it owes to Dante. He not only pressed into service every word his native Italian furnished, but he revived scores of words which slept in the Latin classics; and, when these would not suffice, he coined yet others from the mint of his own brain. This was no fanaticism of sensuous delight; it was the struggle of a great nature to express moral truth through the poor vehicle of human speech. There rang forever in his ears that sounding and sublime sentence: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." In the Paradise, when all other earthly images fail him to describe the state of the redeemed, he represents their blessedness under the figure of ever-new intensities and splendors of the light. The saints are "light in the Lord" ; they have "awaked, and risen from the dead, and Christ has given them light." So the "light" is the light of truth, of purity, of holiness — the opposite to that "darkness," which is error and impurity and sin. As God himself is light, and dwells in the light which is unapproachable, so each successive rise in the scale of being is a rise from one degree of light to another,— not a merely physical and passive elevation either, since it is the mind and heart and will into which and through which "the true light now shineth." No Mohammedan Paradise is here, but only the Paradise which consists in holiness and in likeness to God. The poet who could thus resist the sensuous and externalizing influences of the Church of his day must not only have drunk deep of a nobler than Pierian spring — even the well of Holy Scripture — but must have been specially guided and enlightened by the Holy Spirit of God.
In another respect Dante's Paradise is worthy of the highest praise. It represents nearness to God and service to God's creatures as contemporaneous. Rank in God's creation is determined by the clearness of the soul's vision of God — here the mystical and contemplative element in religion has its rights accorded to it. But the ascetic exaggerations of this truth, which had so infected the life of the church, Dante is almost wholly a stranger to. He writes from the point of view, not of the monk, but of the common Christian. Exceedingly few of the so-called saints of the Roman Catholic calendar does he deign to notice; the more healthful Scriptural examples of chastity anil faith and endurance are strewn thickly over his pages. And then, most remarkable of all, he has made the nine heavens, with all their higher and lower spheres, only the working-places of the redeemed; while their working-places are below, their dwelling-places are on high, in the mystical White Rose which is above all time and space, around the mystical lake of light, where there is no need of sun or moon, because God and the Lamb are the light of it. All the saints dwell in the light of God's immediate presence, and according to their capacity are made to reflect that light. But just in proportion to the light which they are able to receive, just in proportion to their nearness to God and the clearness of their vision of him, is the service they are permitted to render others. At the same time that they worship above, they have an existence and perform a service in the universe of time and space. The highest of them can help God's creatures in the heaven of the fixed stars; the lowest of them can help those who are just beginning their course in the heaven of the moon. It is not worth our while to stop here and smile at Dante, until we ponder those words of our Lord from which the poet, it may be, derived the suggestion of his thought: "See that ye despise not one of these little ones, for in heaven their angels do alway behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." What is this but to say: Heaven and earth are not mutually exclusive. Angels — and if angels, why not redeemed men ? — by so much as they are near to God, by so much do they busy themselves in service to God's creatures. Heaven is no refuge of idleness; no hands hang down, and no lips are dumb. "His servants shall serve him." Knowledge of God and service to men are contemporaneous and interdependent. The nearer we get to God, the larger shall be our sphere of loving activity; the more shall we resemble him, who, though he was the very son of God and in the very bosom of the Father, yet was among us "as one that serveth."
So holiness is joined to love, and holiness and love together constitute Dante's heaven. It is beautiful to see how, in the Paradise, all heaven rejoices over the new joy of each victorious and ascending spirit, and how increasing nearness to God brings its inhabitants ever nearer to each other. Even the ministrants in the upper temple get new understanding of the wonders of God's grace, and take on a new brightness of holy love, as they see Dante enter heaven. It was with such thoughts as these that the exile soothed the long years of his poverty and disappointment. Who can wonder that to him the spiritual world became at last more real than the material world that was open to his senses! It is sometimes made matter of complaint against him that his representations were so matter of fact; that his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven was so real a journey; that its incidents were so like the incidents of actual experience. Ah, this is the wonder and the poetry of it! Imagination and piety created a new world. Just so did John Bunyan, in Bedford jail, turn from the earthly to the heavenly, from the seen to the unseen, from the temporal to the eternal. He not only saw Christian making his way from the City of Destruction to the Heavenly City, but he was Christian. So Dante's vividness of description is not mere literary art; it is a deeper process than that,— it is a living through the things which he described, so that he could say: Quorum magnaque pars fui.
It is this intense realism which gives the Divine Comedy its chief power. It is the utterance of the greatest man of his time, and one of the greatest men of all times. It is his conscientious and God-fearing attempt to express the truth of God as his generation apprehended it, and so to express it that it might influence all after ages to turn from error and iniquity to truth and righteousness. Thomas Carlyle has called Dante "the mouth-piece of the middle ages." The German Tieck declares that in him "ten silent centuries found a voice." This seems high praise, but Dante deserves higher praise than this. He is the mouth-piece, not only of the middle ages, but of all ages. Not twelve centuries, but all the centuries, find a voice in him. He illustrates truths that are true, not only then, but now and always — truths of sin and purgation and recovery to righteousness, truths for the expression of which God spread the floor of the universe with its mosaic of constellations, and caused the curtain of night and chaos to rise at the creation. "The corruption of the will, the purification of the will, the perfection of the will"— these are Dante's themes; and, as they are the greatest themes of all, so they are themes the most deeply affecting and the most permanently inspiring. Like Mary's breaking of the alabaster box, this offering of Dante to Beatrice, wherever the gospel goes, will be spoken of for a memorial of her. But it will be a memorial of something higher still, even of that higher love which spoke through the love of Beatrice, the love of the Trinne God to a humanity that was sunk and lost in its sin. For this reason the poem of Dante will never die. Dante's universe has changed. In the midst of the Western hemisphere modern discovery has found, not the Mount of Purgatory, but a vast new continent. Our earth is no longer the centre of the solar system,— it is a satellite of the sun instead. But the great truths of being — these remain just what they were in Dante's time; and the Divine Comedy will be immortal, because it is the grandest utterance yet given by man to these universal and fundamental principles in the nature of man and the nature of God.