Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)
From ‘Heroes and Hero-Worship’

MANY volumes have been written by way of commentary on Dante and his Book; yet, on the whole, with no great result. His Biography is, as it were, irrevocably lost for us. An unimportant, wandering, sorrow-stricken man, not much note was taken of him while he lived; and the most of that has vanished, in the long space that now intervenes. It is five centuries since he ceased writing and living here. After all commentaries, the Book itself is mainly what we know of him. The Book;—and one might add that Portrait commonly attributed to Giotto, which, looking on it, you cannot help inclining to think genuine, whoever did it. To me it is a most touching face; perhaps of all faces that I know, the most so. Lonely there, painted as on vacancy, with the simple laurel wound round it; the deathless sorrow and pain, the known victory which is also deathless;—significant of the whole history of Dante! I think it is the mournfulest face that ever was painted from reality; an altogether tragic, heart-affecting face. There is in it, as foundation of it, the softness, tenderness, gentle affection as of a child; but all this is as if congealed into sharp contradiction, into abnegation, isolation, proud, hopeless pain. A soft, ethereal soul, looking-out so stern, implacable, grim-trenchant, as from imprisonment of thick-ribbed ice! Withal it is a silent pain too, a silent scornful one: the lip is curled in a kind of godlike disdain of the thing that is eating out his heart, as if it were withal a mean, insignificant thing, as if he whom it had power to torture and strangle were greater than it. The face of one wholly in protest, and lifelong, unsurrendering battle, against the world. Affection all converted into indignation: an implacable indignation; slow, equable, silent, like that of a god! The eye, too, it looks out in a kind of surprise, a kind of inquiry—Why the world was of such a sort? This is Dante: so he looks, this “voice of ten silent centuries,” and sings us “his mystic unfathomable song.”  1
  The little that we know of Dante’s life corresponds well enough with this Portrait and this Book. He was born at Florence, in the upper class of society, in the year 1265. His education was the best then going; much school-divinity, Aristotelian logic, some Latin classics,—no inconsiderable insight into certain provinces of things: and Dante, with his earnest intelligent nature, we need not doubt, learned better than most all that was learnable. He has a clear cultivated understanding, and great subtlety; this best fruit of education he had contrived to realize from these scholastics. He knows accurately and well what lies close to him; but in such a time, without printed books or free intercourse, he could not know well what was distant: the small clear light, most luminous for what is near, breaks itself into singular chiaroscuro striking on what is far off. This was Dante’s learning from the schools. In life, he had gone through the usual destinies: been twice out campaigning as a soldier for the Florentine State; been on embassy; had in his thirty-fifth year, by natural gradation of talent and service, become one of the Chief Magistrates of Florence. He had met in boyhood a certain Beatrice Portinari, a beautiful little girl of his own age and rank, and grown-up henceforth in partial sight of her, in some distant intercourse with her. All readers know his graceful affecting account of this; and then of their being parted; of her being wedded to another, and of her death soon after. She makes a great figure in Dante’s Poem; seems to have made a great figure in his life. Of all beings it might seem as if she, held apart from him, far apart at last in the dim Eternity, were the only one he had ever with his whole strength of affection loved. She died: Dante himself was wedded; but it seems not happily, far from happily. I fancy the rigorous earnest man, with his keen excitabilities, was not altogether easy to make happy.  2
  We will not complain of Dante’s miseries: had all gone right with him as he wished it, he might have been Prior, Podestà or whatsoever they call it, of Florence, well accepted among neighbors,—and the world had wanted one of the most notable words ever spoken or sung. Florence would have had another prosperous Lord Mayor; and the ten dumb centuries continued voiceless, and the ten other listening centuries (for there will be ten of them and more) had no ‘Divina Commedia’ to hear! We will complain of nothing. A nobler destiny was appointed for this Dante; and he, struggling like a man led towards death and crucifixion, could not help fulfilling it. Give him the choice of his happiness! He knew not, more than we do, what was really happy, what was really miserable.  3
  In Dante’s Priorship, the Guelf-Ghibelline, Bianchi-Neri, or some other confused disturbances rose to such a height, that Dante, whose party had seemed the stronger, was with his friends cast unexpectedly forth into banishment; doomed thenceforth to a life of woe and wandering. His property was all confiscated and more; he had the fiercest feeling that it was entirely unjust, nefarious in the sight of God and man. He tried what was in him to get reinstated; tried even by warlike surprisal, with arms in his hand: but it would not do; bad only had become worse. There is a record, I believe, still extant in the Florence Archives, dooming this Dante, wheresoever caught, to be burnt alive. Burnt alive; so it stands, they say: a very curious civic document. Another curious document, some considerable number of years later, is a Letter of Dante’s to the Florentine Magistrates, written in answer to a milder proposal of theirs, that he should return on condition of apologizing and paying a fine. He answers, with fixed stern pride:—“If I cannot return without calling myself guilty, I will never return (nunquam revertar).”  4
  For Dante there was now no home in this world. He wandered from patron to patron, from place to place; proving, in his own bitter words, “How hard is the path (Come è duro calle).” The wretched are not cheerful company. Dante, poor and banished, with his proud earnest nature, with his moody humors, was not a man to conciliate men. Petrarch reports of him that being at Can della Scala’s court, and blamed one day for his gloom and taciturnity, he answered in no courtier-like way. Della Scala stood among his courtiers, with mimes and buffoons (nebulones ac histriones) making him heartily merry; when turning to Dante, he said:—“Is it not strange, now, that this poor fool should make himself so entertaining; while you, a wise man, sit there day after day, and have nothing to amuse us with at all?” Dante answered bitterly:—“No, not strange; your Highness is to recollect the Proverb, ‘Like to Like;’”—given the amuser, the amusee must also be given! Such a man, with his proud silent ways, with his sarcasms and sorrows, was not made to succeed at court. By degrees, it came to be evident to him that he had no longer any resting-place, or hope of benefit, in this earth. The earthly world had cast him forth, to wander, wander; no living heart to love him now; for his sore miseries there was no solace here.  5
  The deeper naturally would the Eternal World impress itself on him; that awful reality over which, after all, this Time-world, with its Florences and banishments, only flutters as an unreal shadow. Florence thou shalt never see: but Hell and Purgatory and Heaven thou shalt surely see! What is Florence, Can della Scala, and the World and Life altogether? ETERNITY: thither, of a truth, not elsewhither, art thou and all things bound! The great soul of Dante, homeless on earth, made its home more and more in that awful other world. Naturally his thoughts brooded on that, as on the one fact important for him. Bodied or bodiless, it is the one fact important for all men:—but to Dante, in that age, it was bodied in fixed certainty of scientific shape; he no more doubted of that Malebolge Pool, that it all lay there with its gloomy circles, with its alti guai, and that he himself should see it, than we doubt that we should see Constantinople if we went thither. Dante’s heart, long filled with this, brooding over it in speechless thought and awe, bursts forth at length into “mystic unfathomable song”; and this his ‘Divine Comedy,’ the most remarkable of all modern Books, is the result.  6
  It must have been a great solacement to Dante, and was, as we can see, a proud thought for him at times, that he, here in exile, could do this work; that no Florence, nor no man or men, could hinder him from doing it, or even much help him in doing it. He knew too, partly, that it was great; the greatest a man could do. “If thou follow thy star, Se tu segui tua stella,”—so could the Hero, in his forsakenness, in his extreme need, still say to himself: “Follow thou thy star, thou shalt not fail of a glorious haven!” The labor of writing, we find, and indeed could know otherwise, was great and painful for him; he says, “This Book, which has made me lean for many years.” Ah yes, it was won, all of it, with pain and sore toil,—not in sport, but in grim earnest. His Book, as indeed most good Books are, has been written, in many senses, with his heart’s blood. It is his whole history, this Book. He died after finishing it; not yet very old, at the age of fifty-six;—broken-hearted rather, as is said. He lies buried in his death-city Ravenna: Hic claudor Dantes patriis extorris ab oris. The Florentines begged back his body, in a century after; the Ravenna people would not give it. “Here am I, Dante, laid, shut-out from my native shores.”  7
  I said, Dante’s Poem was a Song: it is Tieck who calls it “a mystic unfathomable Song”; and such is literally the character of it. Coleridge remarks very pertinently somewhere, that wherever you find a sentence musically worded, of true rhythm and melody in the words, there is something deep and good in the meaning too. For body and soul, word and idea, go strangely together here as everywhere. Song: we said before, it was the Heroic of Speech! All old Poems, Homer’s and the rest, are authentically Songs. I would say, in strictness, that all right Poems are; that whatsoever is not sung is properly no Poem, but a piece of Prose cramped into jingling lines,—to the great injury of the grammar, to the great grief of the reader, for most part! What we want to get at is the thought the man had, if he had any; why should he twist it into jingle, if he could speak it out plainly? It is only when the heart of him is rapt into true passion of melody, and the very tones of him, according to Coleridge’s remark, become musical by the greatness, depth, and music of his thoughts, that we can give him right to rhyme and sing; that we call him a Poet, and listen to him as the Heroic of Speakers,—whose speech is Song. Pretenders to this are many; and to an earnest reader, I doubt, it is for most part a very melancholy, not to say an insupportable business, that of reading rhyme! Rhyme that had no inward necessity to be rhymed:—it ought to have told us plainly, without any jingle, what it was aiming at. I would advise all men who can speak their thought, not to sing it; to understand that, in a serious time, among serious men, there is no vocation in them for singing it. Precisely as we love the true song, and are charmed by it as by something divine, so shall we hate the false song, and account it a mere wooden noise, a thing hollow, superfluous, altogether an insincere and offensive thing.  8
  I give Dante my highest praise when I say of his ‘Divine Comedy’ that it is, in all senses, genuinely a Song. In the very sound of it there is a canto fermo; it proceeds as by a chant. The language, his simple terza rima, doubtless helped him in this. One reads along naturally with a sort of lilt. But I add, that it could not be otherwise; for the essence and material of the work are themselves rhythmic. Its depth, and rapt passion and sincerity, makes it musical;—go deep enough, there is music everywhere. A true inward symmetry, what one calls an architectural harmony, reigns in it, proportionates it all: architectural; which also partakes of the character of music. The three kingdoms, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, look-out on one another like compartments of a great edifice; a great supernatural world-cathedral, piled-up there, stern, solemn, awful; Dante’s World of Souls! It is, at bottom, the sincerest of all Poems; sincerity, here too, we find to be the measure of worth. It came deep out of the author’s heart of hearts; and it goes deep, and through long generations, into ours. The people of Verona, when they saw him on the streets, used to say, “Eccovi l’ nom ch’ è stato all’ Inferno” (See, there is the man that was in Hell). Ah yes, he had been in Hell;—in Hell enough, in long severe sorrow and struggle; as the like of him is pretty sure to have been. Commedias that come-out divine are not accomplished otherwise. Thought, true labor of any kind, highest virtue itself, is it not the daughter of Pain? Born as out of the black whirlwind;—true effort, in fact, as of a captive struggling to free himself: that is Thought. In all ways we are “to become perfect through suffering.”—But as I say, no work known to me is so elaborated as this of Dante’s. It has all been as if molten, in the hottest furnace of his soul. It had made him “lean” for many years. Not the general whole only; every compartment of it is worked out, with intense earnestness, into truth, into clear visuality. Each answers to the other; each fits in its place, like a marble stone accurately hewn and polished. It is the soul of Dante, and in this the soul of the Middle Ages, rendered forever rhythmically visible there. No light task; a right intense one: but a task which is done.  9
  Perhaps one would say, intensity, with the much that depends on it, is the prevailing character of Dante’s genius. Dante does not come before us as a large catholic mind; rather as a narrow, and even sectarian mind: it is partly the fruit of his age and position, but partly too of his own nature. His greatness has, in all senses, concentred itself into fiery emphasis and depth. He is world-great not because he is world-wide, but because he is world-deep. Through all objects he pierces as it were down into the heart of Being. I know nothing so intense as Dante. Consider, for example, to begin with the outermost development of his intensity, consider how he paints. He has a great power of vision; seizes the very type of a thing; presents that and nothing more. You remember that first view he gets of the Hall of Dite: red pinnacle, red-hot cone of iron glowing through the dim immensity of gloom;—so vivid, so distinct, visible at once and forever! It is as an emblem of the whole genius of Dante. There is a brevity, an abrupt precision in him: Tacitus is not briefer, more condensed; and then in Dante it seems a natural condensation, spontaneous to the man. One smiting word; and then there is silence, nothing more said. His silence is more eloquent than words. It is strange with what a sharp decisive grace he snatches the true likeness of a matter: cuts into the matter as with a pen of fire. Plutus, the blustering giant, collapses at Virgil’s rebuke; it is “as the sails sink, the mast being suddenly broken.” Or that poor Brunetto Latini, with the cotto aspetto, “face baked,” parched brown and lean; and the “fiery snow” that falls on them there, a “fiery snow without wind,” slow, deliberate, never-ending! Or the lids of those Tombs; square sarcophaguses, in that silent dim-burning Hall, each with its Soul in torment; the lids laid open there; they are to be shut at the Day of Judgment, through Eternity. And how Farinata rises; and how Cavalcante falls—at hearing of his Son, and the past tense “fue”! The very movements in Dante have something brief; swift, decisive, almost military. It is of the inmost essence of his genius, this sort of painting. The fiery, swift Italian nature of the man, so silent, passionate, with its quick abrupt movements, its silent “pale rages,” speaks itself in these things.  10
  For though this of painting is one of the outermost developments of a man, it comes like all else from the essential faculty of him; it is physiognomical of the whole man. Find a man whose words paint you a likeness, you have found a man worth something; mark his manner of doing it, as very characteristic of him. In the first place, he could not have discerned the object at all, or seen the vital type of it, unless he had, what we may call, sympathized with it,—had sympathy in him to bestow on objects. He must have been sincere about it too; sincere and sympathetic: a man without worth cannot give you the likeness of any object; he dwells in vague outwardness, fallacy and trivial hearsay, about all objects. And indeed may we not say that intellect altogether expresses itself in this power of discerning what an object is? Whatsoever of faculty a man’s mind may have will come out here. Is it even of business, a matter to be done? The gifted man is he who sees the essential point, and leaves all the rest aside as surplusage: it is his faculty too, the man of business’s faculty, that he discern the true likeness, not the false superficial one, of the thing he has got to work in. And how much of morality is in the kind of insight we get of anything; “the eye seeing in all things what it brought with it the faculty of seeing”! To the mean eye all things are trivial, as certainly as to the jaundiced they are yellow. Raphael, the Painters tell us, is the best of all Portrait-painters withal. No most gifted eye can exhaust the significance of any object. In the commonest human face there lies more than Raphael will take away with him.  11
  Dante’s painting is not graphic only, brief, true, and of a vividness as of fire in dark night; taken on the wider scale, it is every way noble, and the outcome of a great soul. Francesca and her Lover, what qualities in that! A thing woven as out of rainbows, on a ground of eternal black. A small flute-voice of infinite wail speaks there, into our very heart of hearts. A touch of womanhood in it too: della bella persona, che mi fu tolta; and how, even in the Pit of woe, it is a solace that he will never part from her! Saddest tragedy in these alti guai. And the racking winds, in that aer bruno, whirl them away again, to wail forever!—Strange to think: Dante was the friend of this poor Francesca’s father; Francesca herself may have sat upon the Poet’s knee, as a bright innocent little child. Infinite pity, yet also infinite rigor of law: it is so Nature is made; it is so Dante discerned that she was made. What a paltry notion is that of his ‘Divine Comedy’s’ being a poor splenetic impotent terrestrial libel; putting those into Hell whom he could not be avenged upon on earth! I suppose if ever pity, tender as a mother’s, was in the heart of any man, it was in Dante’s. But a man who does not know rigor cannot pity either. His very pity will be cowardly, egoistic,—sentimentality, or little better. I know not in the world an affection equal to that of Dante. It is a tenderness, a trembling, longing, pitying love: like the wail of Æolian harps, soft, soft; like a child’s young heart;—and then that stern, sore-saddened heart! These longings of his towards his Beatrice; their meeting together in the ‘Paradiso’; his gazing in her pure transfigured eyes, hers that had been purified by death so long, separated from him so far:—one likens it to the song of angels; it is among the purest utterances of affection, perhaps the very purest, that ever came out of a human soul.  12
  For the intense Dante is intense in all things; he has got into the essence of all. His intellectual insight as painter, on occasion too as reasoner, is but the result of all other sorts of intensity. Morally great, above all, we must call him; it is the beginning of all. His scorn, his grief are as transcendent as his love;—as indeed, what are they but the inverse or converse of his love? “A Dio spiacenti ed a’ nemici sui, Hateful to God and to the enemies of God:” lofty scorn, unappeasable silent reprobation and aversion; “Non ragionam di lor, We will not speak of them, look only and pass.” Or think of this: “They have not the hope to die, Non han speranza di morte.” One day, it had risen sternly benign on the scathed heart of Dante, that he, wretched, never-resting, worn as he was, would full surely die; “that Destiny itself could not doom him not to die.” Such words are in this man. For rigor, earnestness, and depth, he is not to be paralleled in the modern world; to seek his parallel we must go into the Hebrew Bible, and live with the antique Prophets there.  13
  I do not agree with much modern criticism, in greatly preferring the Inferno to the two other parts of the ‘Divina Commedia.’ Such preference belongs, I imagine, to our general Byronism of taste, and is like to be a transient feeling. The ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso,’—especially the former, one would almost say, is even more excellent than it. It is a noble thing, that Purgatorio, “Mountain of Purification”; an emblem of the noblest conception of that age. If Sin is so fatal, and Hell is and must be so rigorous, awful, yet in Repentance too is man purified; Repentance is the grand Christian act. It is beautiful how Dante works it out. The tremolar dell’ onde, that “trembling” of the ocean-waves, under the first pure gleam of morning, dawning afar on the wandering Two, is as the type of an altered mood. Hope has now dawned; never-dying Hope, if in company still with heavy sorrow. The obscure sojourn of dæmons and reprobates is underfoot; a soft breathing of penitence mounts higher and higher, to the Throne of Mercy itself. “Pray for me,” the denizens of that Mount of Pain all say to him. “Tell my Giovanna to pray for me, my daughter Giovanna; I think her mother loves me no more!” They toil painfully up by that winding steep, “bent-down like corbels of a building,” some of them,—crushed together so “for the sin of pride”; yet nevertheless in years, in ages and æons, they shall have reached the top, which is Heaven’s gate, and by Mercy shall have been admitted in. The joy too of all, when one has prevailed; the whole Mountain shakes with joy, and a psalm of praise rises when one soul has perfected repentance and got its sin and misery left behind! I call all this a noble embodiment of a true, noble thought.  14
  But indeed the Three compartments mutually support one another, are indispensable to one another. The ‘Paradiso,’ a kind of inarticulate music to me, is the redeeming side of the ‘Inferno’; the ‘Inferno’ without it were untrue. All three make-up the true Unseen World, as figured in the Christianity of the Middle Ages; a thing forever memorable, forever true in the essence of it, to all men. It was perhaps delineated in no human soul with such depth of veracity as in this of Dante’s; a man sent to sing it, to keep it long memorable. Very notable with what brief simplicity he passes out of the every-day reality, into the Invisible one; and in the second or third stanza, we find ourselves in the World of Spirits; and dwell there, as among things palpable, indubitable! To Dante they were so; the real world, as it is called, and its facts, was but the threshold to an infinitely higher Fact of a World. At bottom, the one was as preternatural as the other. Has not each man a soul? He will not only be a spirit, but is one. To the earnest Dante it is all one visible Fact; he believes it, sees it; is the Poet of it in virtue of that. Sincerity, I say again, is the saving merit, now as always.  15
  Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, are a symbol withal, an emblematic representation of his Belief about this Universe:—some Critic in a future age, like some Scandinavian ones the other day, who has ceased altogether to think as Dante did, may find this, too, all an “Allegory,” perhaps an idle Allegory! It is a sublime embodiment, or sublimest, of the soul of Christianity. It expresses, as in huge world-wide architectural emblems, how the Christian Dante felt Good and Evil to be the two polar elements of this Creation, on which it all turns; that these two differ not by preferability of one to the other, but by incompatibility, absolute and infinite; that the one is excellent and high as light and Heaven, the other hideous, black as Gehenna and the Pit of Hell! Everlasting Justice, yet with Penitence, with everlasting Pity,—all Christianism, as Dante and the Middle Ages had it, is emblemed here. Emblemed: and yet, as I urged the other day, with what entire truth of purpose; how unconscious of any embleming! Hell, Purgatory, Paradise: these things were not fashioned as emblems: was there in our Modern European Mind, any thought at all of their being emblems? Were they not indubitable awful facts, the whole heart of man taking them for practically true, all Nature everywhere confirming them? So is it always in these things. Men do not believe an Allegory. The future Critic, whatever his new thought may be, who considers this of Dante to have been all got up as an Allegory, will commit one sore mistake!—Paganism we recognize as a veracious expression of the earnest awe-struck feeling of man towards the Universe; veracious, true once, and still not without worth for us. But mark here the difference of Paganism and Christianism; one great difference. Paganism emblemed chiefly the Operations of Nature; the destinies, efforts, combinations, vicissitudes of things and men in this world; Christianism emblemed the Law of Human Duty, the Moral Law of Man. One was for the sensuous nature; a rude helpless utterance of the first Thought of men,—the chief recognized Virtue, Courage, Superiority to Fear. The other was not for the sensuous nature, but for the moral. What a progress is here, if in that one respect only!  16
  And so in this Dante, as we said, had ten silent centuries, in a very strange way, found a voice. The ‘Divina Commedia’ is of Dante’s writing; yet in truth it belongs to ten Christian centuries, only the finishing of it is Dante’s. So always. The craftsman there, the smith with that metal of his, with these tools, with these cunning methods,—how little of all he does is properly his work! All past inventive men work there with him;—as indeed with all of us, in all things. Dante is the spokesman of the Middle Ages; the Thought they lived by stands here, in everlasting music.  17

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