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in our own nature (the lower thing assuming the qualities of the higher), not by any process of reason, but by the very fire of the divine love.
Then there smote my mind A flash of lightning wherein came its wish.” 1 Perhaps it seems little to say that Dante was the first great poet who ever made a poem wholly out of himself, but, rightly looked at, it implies a wonderful self-reliance and originality in his genius. His is the first keel that ever ventured into the silent sea of human consciousness to find a new world of poetry.
“L'acqua ch' io prendo giammai non si corse.”' 2 He discovered that not only the story of some heroic person, but that of any man might be epical; that the way to heaven was not outside the world, but through it. Living at a time when the end of the world was still looked for as imminent, he believed that the second coming of the Lord was to take place on no more conspicuous stage than the soul of
1 Dante seems to allude directly to this article of the Catholic faith when he says, on entering the Celestial Paradise, “to signify transhumanizing by words could not be done,” and questions whether he was there in the renewed spirit only or in the flesh also:“If I was merely what of me thou newly
Createdst, Love, who governest the heavens,
(Paradiso, I. 73-75.) 2 Paradiso, II. 7. Lucretius makes the same boast :
“ Avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante
Trita solo." 8 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 15.
man; that his kingdom would be established in the surrendered will. A poem, the precious distillation of such a character and such a life as his through all those sorrowing but undespondent years, must have a meaning in it which few men have meaning enough in themselves wholly to pentrate. That its allegorical form belongs to a past fashion, with which the modern mind has little sympathy, we should no more think of denying than of whitewashing a fresco of Giotto. But we may take it as we may nature, which is also full of double meanings, either as picture or as parable, either for the simple delight of its beauty or as a shadow of the spiritual world. We may take it as we may history, either for its picturesqueness or its moral, either for the variety of its figures, or as a witness to that perpetual presence of God in his creation of which Dante was so profoundly sensible. He had seen and suffered much, but it is only to the man who is himself of value that experience is valuable. He had not looked on man and nature as most of us do, with less interest than into the columns of our daily newspaper. He saw in them the latest authentic news of the God who made them, for he carried everywhere that vision washed clear with tears which detects the meaning under the mask, and, beneath the casual and transitory, the eternal keeping its sleepless watch. The secret of Dante's power is not far to seek. Whoever can express himself with the full force of unconscious sincerity will be found to have uttered something ideal and universai. Dante intended a didactic poem, but
the most picturesque of poets could not escape his genius, and his sermon sings and glows and charms in a manner that surprises more at the fiftieth reading than the first, such variety of freshness is in imagination.
There are no doubt in the Divina Commedia (regarded merely as poetry) sandy spaces enough both of physics and metaphysics, but with every deduction Dante remains the first of descriptive as well as moral poets. His verse is as various as the feel ing it conveys; now it has the terseness and edge of steel, and now palpitates with iridescent softness like the breast of a dove. In vividness he is without a rival. He drags back by its tangled locks the unwilling head of some petty traitor of an Italian provincial town, lets the fire glare on the sullen face for a moment, and it sears itself into the memory forever. He shows us an angel glowing with that love of God which makes him a star even amid the glory of heaven, and the holy shape keeps lifelong watch in our fantasy, constant as a sentinel. He has the skill of conveying impressions indirectly. In the gloom of hell his bodily presence is revealed by his stirring something, on the mount of expiation by casting a shadow. Would he have us feel the brightness of an angel? He makes him whiten afar through the smoke like a dawn, or, walking straight toward the setting sun, he finds his eyes suddenly unable to withstand a greater splendor against which his hand is unavailing to shield
1 Purgatorio, XVI. 142. Here is Milton's “ Far of his coming shone."
him. Even its reflected light, then, is brighter than the direct ray of the sun. And how much more keenly do we feel the parched lips of Master Adam for those rivulets of the Casentino which run down into the Arno, “making their channels cool and soft”! His comparisons are as fresh, as simple, and as directly from nature as those of Homer.2 Sometimes they show a more subtle observation, as where he compares the stooping of Antæus over him to the leaning tower of Garisenda, to which the clouds, flying in an opposite direction to its inclination, give away their motion.3 His suggestions of individuality, too, from attitude or speech, as in Farinata, Sordello, or Pia," give in a hint what is worth acres of so-called characterpainting. In straightforward pathos, the single and sufficient thrust of phrase, he has no competitor. He is too sternly touched to be effusive and tearful :
“Io non piangeva, si dentro impietrai.”5 His is always the true coin of speech,
1 Purgatorio, XV. 7, et seq.
2 See, for example, Inferno, XVII. 127-132; Ib. XXIV. 7-12; Purgatorio, II. 124–129; Ib., III. 79-84; Ib., XXVII. 76-81 ; Paradiso, XIX. 91-93 ; Ib. XXI. 34-39; Ib. XXIII. 1-9. 8 Inferno, XXXI. 136-138.
“ And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
(Coleridge, Dejection, an Ode.) See also the comparison of the dimness of the faces seen around him in Paradise to a pearl on a white forehead.” (Paradiso, III. 14.)
Inferno, X. 35–41 ; Purgatorio, VI. 61-66 ; Ib., X. 133. 5 For example, Cavalcanti's Corne dicesti egli ebbe ? (Inferno, X. 67, 68.) Anselmuccio's Tu guardi si, padre, che hai ? (Inferno, XXXIII. 51.)
“Si lucida e si tonda Che nel suo conio nulla ci s' inforsa," and never the highly ornamented promise to pay, token of insolvency.
No doubt it is primarily by his poetic qualities that a poet must be judged, for it is by these, if by anything, that he is to maintain his place in literature. And he must be judged by them absolutely, with reference, that is, to the highest standard, and not relatively to the fashions and opportunities of the age in which he lived. Yet these considerations must fairly enter into our decision of another side of the question, and one that has much to do with the true quality of the man, with his character as distinguished from his talent, and therefore with how much he will influence men as well as delight them. We may reckon up pretty exactly a man's advantages and defects as an artist; these he has in common with others, and they are to be measured by a recognized standard ; but there is something in his genius that is incalculable. It would be hard to define the causes of the difference of impression made upon us respectively by two such men as Æschylus and Euripides, but we feel profoundly that the latter, though in some respects a better dramatist, was an infinitely lighter weight. Æschylus stirs something in us far deeper than the sources of mere pleasurable excitement. The man behind the verse is far greater than the verse itself, and the impulse he gives to what is deepest and most sacred in us, though we cannot always explain it, is none the less real and lasting. Some men