Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
The First Stages of Dante’s Genius, Exhibited in the “Vita Nuova”
By Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908)
[The New Life of Dante Alighieri. Translated. 1867.]

THERE is yet another tendency of the times, to which Dante, in his later works, has given the fullest and most characteristic expression, and which exhibits itself curiously in the Vita Nuova. Corresponding with the new ardor for the arts, and in sympathy with it, was a newly awakened and generally diffused ardor for learning, especially for the various branches of philosophy. Science was leaving the cloister, in which she had sat in dumb solitude, and coming out into the world. But the limits and divisions of knowledge were not firmly marked out. The relations of learning to truth were not clearly understood. The minds of men were quickened by a new sense of freedom, and stimulated by ardor of imagination. New worlds of undiscovered knowledge loomed vaguely along the horizon. Fancy invaded the domain of philosophy; and the poets disguised the subtleties of metaphysics under the garb of verses of love. To be a proper poet was not only to be a writer of verses, but to be a master of learning. Boccaccio describes Guido Cavalcanti as “one of the best logicians in the world, and as a most excellent natural philosopher.” but says nothing of his poetry.
  Dante, more than any other man of his time, exhibited in himself the general zeal for knowledge. His genius had two distinct and yet often intermingling parts—the poetic and the scientific. No learning came amiss to him. He was born a student, as he was born a poet, and had he never written a single poem, he would still have been famous as the most profound scholar of his times. Far as he surpassed his contemporaries in poetry, he was no less their superior in the depth and the extent of his knowledge. And this double nature of his genius is plainly shown in many parts of “The New Life.” A youthful incapacity to draw clearly the line between the part of the student and the part of the poet is manifest in it. The display of his acquisitions is curiously mingled with the narrative of his emotions. This is not to be charged against him as pedantry. His love of learning partook of the nature of passion; his judgment was not yet able, if indeed it ever became able, to establish the division between the abstractions of the intellect and the affections of the heart. And more than this, his early claim of honor as a poet was to be justified by his possession and exhibition of the fruits of study.  2
  Moreover, the mind of Dante was of a quality which led him to unite learning with poetry in a manner peculiar to himself. He was essentially a mystic. The dark and hidden side of things was not less present to his imagination than the visible and plain. The range of human capacity in the comprehension of the spiritual world was not then marked by as numerous boundary-stones of failure as now define the way. Impossibilities were sought for with the same confident hope as realities. The alchemists and the astrologers believed in the attainment of results as tangible and real as the gains which travellers brought back from the marvellous and still unachieved East. The mystical properties of numbers, the influence of the stars, the powers of cordials and elixirs, the virtues of precious stones, were received as established facts, and opened long vistas of discovery before the student’s eyes. A ring of mystery surrounded the familiar world, and outside the known lands of the earth lay a region unknown except to the fancy, from which strange gales blew and strange clouds floated up. Curiosity and inquiry were stimulated and made earnest by wonder. Wild, imaginative speculations formed the basis of serious and patient studies. Dante, partaking to the full in the eager spirit of the times, sharing all the ardor of the pursuit of knowledge, and with a spiritual insight which led him into regions of mystery where no others ventured, naturally associated the knowledge which opened the way for him with the poetic imagination which cast light upon it. To him science was but another name for poetry.  3
  Much learning has been expended in the attempt to show that the doctrine of Love, which is displayed in “The New Life,” is derived, more or less directly, from the philosophy of Plato. It has been supposed that this little autobiographic story, full of the most intimate personal revelations, and glowing with a sincere passion, was deliberately written in accordance with a preconceived theory. A certain Platonic form of expression, often covering ideas very far removed from those of Plato, was common to the earlier, colder, and less truthful poets. Some strains of such Platonism, derived from the poems of his predecessors, are perhaps to be found in this first book of Dante’s. But there is nothing to show that he had intentionally adopted the teachings of the ancient philosopher. It may well, indeed, be doubted if, at the time of its composition, he had read any of Plato’s works. Such Platonism as exists in “The New Life” was of that unconscious kind which is shared by every youth of thoughtful nature and sensitive temperament, who makes of his beloved a type and image of divine beauty, and who through the loveliness of the creature is led up to the perfection of the Creator.  4
  The essential qualities of the Vita Nuova, those which afford direct illustration of Dante’s character, as distinguished from such as may be called youthful, or merely literary, or biographical, correspond in striking measure with those of the Divina Commedia. The earthly Beatrice is exalted to the heavenly in the later poems; but the entire purity and intensity of feeling with which she is reverently regarded in the Divina Commedia are scarcely less characteristic of the earlier work. The imagination which makes the unseen seen, and the unreal real, belongs alike to the one and to the other. The Vita Nuova is chiefly occupied with a series of visions; the Divina Commedia is one long vision. The sympathy with the spirit and impulses of the time, which in the first reveals the youthful impressibility of the poet, in the last discloses itself in maturer forms, in more personal expressions. In the Vita Nuova it is a sympathy mastering the natural spirit; in the Divina Commedia the sympathy is controlled by the force of established character. The change is that from him who follows to him who commands. It is the privilege of men of genius, not only to give more than others to the world, but also to receive more from it. Sympathy, in its full comprehensiveness, is the proof of the strongest individuality. By as much as Dante or Shakespeare learnt of and entered into the hearts of men, by so much was his own nature strengthened and made peculiarly his own. “The New Life” shows the first stages of that genius, the first proofs of that comprehensive sympathy, which at length find their full manifestation in the “Divine Comedy.” It is like the first blade of spring grass, rich with the promise of the golden harvest.  5

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