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always seem to remain outside their work; others make their individuality felt in every part of it ; their very
life vibrates in every verse, and we do not wonder that it has “made them lean for many years.” The virtue that has gone out of them abides in what they do. The book such a man makes is indeed, as Milton called it," the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.” Theirs is a true immortality, for it is their soul, and not their talent, that survives in their work. Dante's concise forthrightness of phrase, which to that of most other poets is as a stab 1 to a blow with a cudgel, the vigor of his thought, the beauty of his images, the refinement of his conception of spiritual things, are marvellous if we compare him with his age and its best achievement. But it is for his power of inspiring and sustaining, it is because they find in him a spur to noble aims, a secure refuge in that defeat which the present always seems, that they prize Dante who know and love him best. He is not merely a great poet, but an influence, part of the soul's resources in time of trouble. From him she learns that,“ married to the truth, she is a mistress, but otherwise a slave shut out of all lib
All great poets have their message to deliver us, from something higher than they. We venture on no unworthy comparison between him who reveals
1 To the bestiality " of certain arguments Dante says, would wish to reply, not with words, but with a knife.” (Con. oto, Tr. IV. e. 14.)
2 Convito, Tr. IV. c. 2.
to us the beauty of this world's love and the grandeur of this world's passion and him who shows that love of God is the fruit whereof all other loves are but the beautiful and fleeting blossom, that the passions are yet sublimer objects of contemplation, when, subdued by the will, they become patience in suffering and perseverance in the upward path. But we cannot help thinking that if Shakespeare be the most comprehensive intellect, so Dante is the highest spiritual nature that has expressed itself in rhythmical form. Had he merely made us feel how petty the ambitions, sorrows, and vexations of earth appear when looked down on from the heights of our own character and the seclusion of our own genius, or from the region where we commune with God, he had done much :
“I with my sight returned through one and all
The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance."1 But he has done far more; he has shown us the way by which that country far beyond the stars may be reached, may become the habitual dwellingplace and fortress of our nature, instead of being the object of its vague aspiration in moments of indolence. At the Round Table of King Arthur there was left always one seat empty for him who should accomplish the adventure of the Holy Grail. It was called the perilous seat because of the dangers he must encounter who would win it. In the company of the epic poets there was a place left for whoever should embody the Christian idea of a
1 Paradiso, XXII. 132–135; Ib., XXVII. 110.
triumphant life, outwardly all defeat, inwardly victorious, who should make us partakers of that cup of sorrow in which all are communicants with Christ. He who should do this would indeed achieve the perilous seat, for he must combine poesy with doctrine in such cunning wise that the one lose not its beauty nor the other its severity, and Dante has done it. As he takes possession of it we seem to hear the cry he himself heard when Virgil rejoined the company of great singers,
“All honor to the loftiest of poets !”
CHAUCER had been in his grave one hundred and fifty years ere England had secreted choice material enough for the making of another great poet. The nature of men living together in societies, as of the individual man, seems to have its periodic ebbs and floods, its oscillations between the ideal and the matter-of-fact, so that the doubtful boundary line of shore between them is in one generation a hard sandy actuality strewn only with such remembrances of beauty as a dead sea-moss here and there, and in the next is whelmed with those lacelike curves of ever-gaining, ever-receding foam, and that dance of joyous spray which for a moment catches and holds the sunshine.
From the two centuries between 1400 and 1600 the indefatigable Ritson in his Bibliographia Po etica has made us a catalogue of some six hundred English poets, or, more properly, verse
makers. Ninety-nine in a hundred of them are mere names, most of them no more than shadows of names, some of them mere initials. Nor can it be said of them that their works have perished because they were written in an obsolete dialect ; for it is the poem that keeps the language alive, and not the language
that buoys up the poem. The revival of letters, as it is called, was at first the revival of ancient letters, which, while it made men pedants, could do very
little towards making them poets, much less towards making them original writers. There was nothing left of the freshness, vivacity, invention, and careless faith in the present which make many of the productions of the Norman Trouvères delightful reading even now. The whole of Europe during the fifteenth century produced no book which has continued readable, or has become in any sense of the word a classic. I do not mean that that century has left us no illustrious names, that it was not enriched with some august intellects who kept alive the apostolic succession of thought and speculation, who passed along the still unextinguished torch of intelligence, the lampada vitae, to those who came after them. But a classic is properly a book which maintains itself by virtue of that happy coalescence of matter and style, that innate and exquisite sympathy between the thought that gives life and the form that consents to every mood of grace and dignity, which can be simple without being vulgar, elevated without being distant, and which is something neither ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of growing old. It is not his Latin which makes Horace cosmopolitan, nor can Béranger's French prevent his becoming so. No hedge of language however thorny, no dragon-coil of centuries, will keep men away from these true apples of the Hesperides if once they have caught sight or scent of