Dante and the Divine Comedy.
An Italian friend finds fault with us for not classing the great Italian poet with Homer
, in our article upon the poems of Homer
the other day. We did not mean to deny his claims to rank with them, and yet the omission was not made through inadvertence.
We were thinking of the Divine Comedy
, all the time, while we were writing the paragraph about the singular coincidence of fate between the Grecian
and the English
But we were calling attention to the loss of all knowledge with regard to the personal history of these two great men. One of them lived several centuries before the invention of writing, so far as it is possible to ascertain.
There were, of course, no written contemporary memorials of him. His personal history was the subject of tradition alone, and became, in the lapse of time, so intermingled with fables, that it is impossible to fix upon any one circumstance related with regard to him, as an undoubted truth.
The other lived, it is true, in a highly enlightened age. He did not, as somebody has said, stand up grand and solitary, like Teneriffe
, in the midst of the ocean.
He rather resembled Mont Blanc
, in the middle of the Alps
He was surrounded by great men, and he was a head and shoulders taller than them all. It cannot but strike everybody as extremely singular, that we should know no more of him, individually, than we do know.
In fact, so far as the undoubted knowledge which we have of his acts and sayings may serve to give us an idea of his character, he is as unknown to us as Homer
The names of the two men are mere symbols — symbols of the poetic gift in its highest state of perfection — as entirely symbolical as the name of Apollo
, or that of Esculapius. We thought it singular that such should be the lot common to two of the three men whom the world has agreed to call the greatest of poets, and we doubted whether their individual obscurity might not be the penalty of their pre-eminence in song.
If we doubted before, however, our doubts were removed by thinking upon their compeer, Dante
. Unlike his mighty brethren, he has left abundant traces of his personal history.
No man of his day was better known in his day, and no man of his day is better known to posterity.
He was a warrior and legislator, as well as poet.
He stood high in one of the parties whose quarrels at that time shook Florence
to its centre.
He was exiled for his adherence to an unfortunate faction.
Of course his life was public, and could not fail to be recorded, when his poem had given his name such a wonderful power of attraction.
In a contemporary--one of the first of Italian
prose writers, as he continues to be one of the best — in the inimitable Boccaio, he found a biographer, whose pride it was to record the incidents of his life with minute punctuality.
So far he differed from his great rivals.
Is his fate enviable in that respect?
We should think not. If we were a great poet, we should say, ‘"remember my works forever, read them, preserve them, hand them down to the latest posterity; but for me, individually, lay me in the grave when I am dead, throw the earth upon my coffin, and there let me lie until summoned to judgment by the last trumpet.--Let not me, and my actions, and my sayings, be the subject of prurient curiosity to the gossips of future ages.
Let no Boswell
come near me. Let me be known only by my works."’ Probably no two poets that ever lived have said so little about themselves, as Homer
. This has been considered a remarkable trait in each, and the modesty of both has been greatly praised therefore.
We see nothing remarkable and nothing deserving of praise in it. Homer
wrote dramas.--The first tells the tale of heroes who had lived a century before him, under the direct inspiration of the muse.
There was no means of dragging himself or his concerns into the narrative.
The second brings on the stage persons long since dead.
They speak only of things that happened long ago, in which they were actors.
They could not speak of the poet, because they lived long before he was born, and they do
speak as though they were living in the world of their own day.
, on the contrary, tells his own story.
His poem is a record of what he saw with his own eyes, and of the reflections which he makes thereupon.
It is like a book of travels, in which the traveller notes each particular incident as it occurs, and makes his comments as he goes.
In one respect, at least, he surpasses all other writers.
His poem is the most original book that ever was written.--Homer
, undoubtedly, made free use of the materials that had been left by older Rhapsodists.
He tells us himself that the exploits of the Greeks at the siege of Troy
had been sung before his day. Shakspeare
, not only re-wrote many old plays, but he is indebted for all his plots (or nearly all) to something that was in print before his time.
But where shall we look for the original of Dante
? In the works of Virgil, for whom he professed a slavish admiration, altogether unaccountable to us who know his vast superiority over that poet?
The descent of AÆneas into the heathen Hades
, and the sojourn of Dante
in the invisible world, bear no more resemblance to each other than Helen bears to the blessed Virgin, or Ulysses to St.
. The story of a vision which some enthusiast had before the advent of Dante
has been republished; but in it we are unable to see any traces of the Divine Comedy
.--The fact is, not only the conception is original, but the language, the scope, the metaphors, are all unlike anything it is possible to meet with anywhere else.
The poem is a map of the poet's mind.
Upon its face is expressed, in indelible traces, the impression which the incidents of his age had made upon his heart and understanding.
It is a record of the experience of a life filled with incidents of the deepest interest.
The coloring in which they appear is such as they receive in passing through a mind deeply religious, thoroughly catholic, highly meditative, profoundly melancholy, and, to the last degree, poetical.
He evidently conceived his mission to be a high one, as we may learn from Bocaccio, from whose words it seems probable that he had conceived the design before he had yet become an exile. "Looking down," says Bocaccio, "from his high place as a ruler of his city and seeing the nature of man's life, the blind wanderings of the multitude, and the sudden and unforeseen accidents to which it is exposed, there came thus into his mind the conception of the 'Divina Commedia.' "