The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7

Author: Richard William Church  | Date: A.D. 1300-1318

Dante Composes the "Divina Commedia"

A.D. 1300-1318


Out of what may be called the civil and religious storm-and-stress period through which the Middle passed into the modern age, there came a great literary foregleam of the new life upon which the world was about to enter. From Italy, where the European ferment, both in its political and its spiritual character, mainly centred, came the prophecy of the new day, in a poet’s "vision of the invisible world "—Dante’s Divina Commedia—wherein also the deeper history of the visible world of man was both embodied from the past and in a measure predetermined for the human race.

Dante’s great epic was called by him a comedy because its ending was not tragical, but "happy"; and admiration gave it the epithet "divine." It is in three parts—inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradisa (paradise). It has been made accessible to English readers in the metrical translations of Carey, Longfellow, Norton, and others, and in the excellent prose version (Inferno) of John Aitken Carlyle, brother of Thomas Carlyle.

Dante (originally Durante) Alighieri was born at Florence in May, 1265, and died at Ravenna September 14, 1321. Both the Divina Commedia and his other great work, the Vita Nuova (the new life), narrate the love—either romantic or passionate—with which he was inspired by Beatrice Portinari, whom he first saw when he was nine years old and Beatrice eight. His whole future life and work are believed to have been determined by this ideal attachment. But an equally noteworthy fact of his literary career is that his works were produced in the midst of party strifes wherein the poet himself was a prominent actor. In the bitter feuds of the Guelfs and Ghibellines he bore the sufferings of failure, persecution, and exile. But above all these trials rose his heroic spirit and the sublime voice of his poems, which became a quickening prophecy, realized in the birth of Italian and of European literature, in the whole movement of the Renaissance, and in the ever-advancing development of the modern world.

Church’s clear-sighted interpretations of the mind and life of Dante, and of the history-making Commedia, attest the importance of including the poet and his work in this record of Great Events.

The Divina Commedia is one of the landmarks of history. More than a magnificent poem, more than the beginning of a language and the opening of a national literature, more than the inspirer of art and the glory of a great people, it is one of those rare and solemn monuments of the mind’s power which measure and test what it can reach to, which rise up ineffaceably and forever as time goes on marking out its advance by grander divisions than its centuries, and adopted as epochs by the consent of all who come after. It stands with the Iliad and Shakespeare’s plays, with the writings of Aristotle and Plato, with the Novum Organon and the Principia, with Justinian’s Code, with the Parthenon and St. Peter’ s. It is the first Christian poem; and it opens European literature, as the Iliad did that of Greece and Rome. And, like the Iliad, it has never become out of date; it accompanies in undiminished freshness the literature which it began.

We approach the history of such works, in which genius seems to have pushed its achievements to a new limit. Their bursting out from nothing, and gradual evolution into substance and shape, cast on the mind a solemn influence. They come too near the fount of being to be followed up without our feeling the shadows which surround it. We cannot but fear, cannot but feel ourselves cut off from this visible and familiar world—as we enter into the cloud. And as with the processes of nature, so it is with those offsprings of man’s mind by which he has added permanently one more great feature to the world, and created a new power which is to act on mankind to the end. The mystery of the inventive and creative faculty, the subtle and incalculable combinations by which it was led to its work, and carried through it, are out of reach of investigating thought. Often the idea recurs of the precariousness of the result; by how little the world might have lost one of its ornaments—by one sharp pang, or one chance meeting, or any other among the countless accidents among which man runs his course. And then the solemn recollection supervenes that powers were formed, and life preserved, and circumstances arranged, and actions controlled, and thus it should be; and the work which man has brooded over, and at last created, is the foster-child too of that "Wisdom which reaches from end to ends strongly and sweetly disposing of all things."

It does not abate these feelings that we can follow in some cases and to a certain extent the progress of a work. Indeed, the sight of the particular accidents among which it was developed—which belong perhaps to a heterogeneous and wildly discordant order of things, which are out of proportion and out of harmony with it, which do not explain it; which have, as it seems to us, no natural right to be connected with it, to bear on its character, or contribute to its accomplishment; to which we feel, as it were, ashamed to owe what we can least spare, yet on which its forming mind and purpose were dependent, and with which they had to conspire—affects the imagination even more than cases where we see nothing. We are tempted less to musing and wonder by the Iliad, a work without a history, cut off from its past, the sole relic and vestige of its age, unexplained in its origin and perfection, than by the Divina Commedia, destined for the highest ends and most universal sympathy, yet the reflection of a personal history, and issuing seemingly from its chance incidents.

The Divina Commedia is singular among the great works with which it ranks, for its strong stamp of personal character and history. In general we associate little more than the name—not the life—of a great poet with his works; personal interest belongs more usually to greatness in its active than its creative forms. But the whole idea and purpose of the Commedia, as well as its filling up and coloring, are determined by Dante’s peculiar history. The loftiest, perhaps, in its aim and flight of all poems, it is also the most individual; the writer’s own life is chronicled in it, as well as the issues and upshot of all things. It is at once the mirror to all time of the sins and perfections of men, of the judgments and grace of God, and the record, often the only one, of the transient names, and local factions, and obscure ambitions, and forgotten crimes of the poet’s own day; and in that awful company to which he leads us, in the most unearthly of his scenes, we never lose sight of himself. And when this peculiarity sends us to history, it seems as if the poem which was to hold such a place in Christian literature hung upon and grew out of chance events, rather than the deliberate design of its author. History, indeed, here, as generally, is but a feeble exponent of the course of growth in a greatmind and great ideas. It shows us early a bent and purpose—the man conscious of power and intending to use it—and then the accidents among which he worked; but how the current of purpose threaded its way among them, how it was thrown back, deflected, deepened by them, we cannot learn from history.

It presents a broken and mysterious picture. A boy of quick and enthusiastic temper grows up into youth in a dream of love. The lady of his mystic passion dies early. He dreams of her still, not as a wonder of earth, but as a saint in paradise, and relieves his heart in an autobiography, a strange and perplexing work of fiction—quaint and subtle enough for a metaphysical conceit; but, on the other hand, with far too much of genuine and deep feeling. It is a first essay; he closes it abruptly as if dissatisfied with his work, but with the resolution of raising at a future day a worthy monument to the memory of her whom he has lost. It is the promise and purpose of a great work. But a prosaic change seems to come over his half-ideal character. The lover becomes the student—the student of the thirteenth century—struggling painfully against difficulties, eager and hot after knowledge, wasting eyesight and stinting sleep, subtle, inquisitive, active-minded and sanguine, but omnivorous, overflowing with dialectical forms, loose in premise and ostentatiously rigid in syllogism, lettered by the refinements of half-awakened taste and the mannerisms of the Provenals.

Boethius and Cicero and the mass of mixed learning within his reach are accepted as the consolation of his human griefs; he is filled with the passion of universal knowledge, and the desire to communicate it. Philosophy has become the lady of his soul—to write allegorical poems in her honor, and to comment on them with all the apparatus of his learning in prose, his mode of celebrating her. Further, he marries; it is said, not happily. The antiquaries, too, have disturbed romance by discovering that Beatrice also was married some years before her death. He appears, as time goes on, as a burgher of Florence, the father of a family, a politician, an envoy, a magistrate, a partisan, taking his full share in the quarrels of the day.

Beatrice reappears—shadowy, melting at times into symboland figure—but far too living and real, addressed with to intense and natural feeling, to be the mere personification of anything. The lady of the philosophical Canzoni has vanished. The student’s dream has been broken, as the boy’s had been; and the earnestness of the man, enlightened by sorrow, overleaping the student’s formalities and abstractions, reverted in sympathy to the earnestness of the boy, and brooded once more on that saint in paradise, whose presence and memory had once been so soothing, and who now seemed a real link between him and that stable country "where the angels are in peace." Round her image, the reflection of purity and truth and for-bearing love, was grouped that confused scene of trouble and effort, of failure and success, which the poet saw round him; round her image it arranged itself in awful order—and that image, not a metaphysical abstraction, but the living memory freshened by sorrow, and seen through the softening and hallowing vista of years, of Beatrice Portinari—no figment of imagination, but God’s creature and servant. A childish love, dissipated by heavy sorrow—a boyish resolution, made in a moment of feeling, interrupted, though it would be hazardous to say, in Dante’s case, laid aside, for apparently more manly studies, gave the idea and suggested the form of the "sacred poem of earth and heaven."

And the occasion of this startling unfolding of the poetic gift, of this passage of a soft and dreamy boy into the keenest, boldest, sternest of poets, the free and mighty leader of European song, was, what is not ordinarily held to be a source of poetical inspiration—the political life. The boy had sensibility, high aspirations, and a versatile and passionate nature; the student added to this energy, various learning, gifts of language, and noble ideas on the capacities and ends of man. But it was the factions of Florence which made Dante a great poet.

The connection of these feuds with Dante’s poem has given to the Middle-Age history of Italy an interest of which it is not undeserving in itself, full as it is of curious exhibitions of character and contrivance, but to which politically it cannot lay claim, amid the social phenomena, so far grander in scale and purpose and more felicitous in issue, of other western nations.It is remarkable for keeping up an antique phase, which, in spite of modern arrangements, it has not yet lost. It is a history of cities. In ancient history all that is most memorable and instructive gathers round cities; civilization and empire were concentrated within walls; and it baffled the ancient mind to conceive how power should be possessed and wielded by numbers larger than might be collected in a single market-place. The Roman Empire, indeed, aimed at being one in its administration and law; and it was not a nation nor were its provinces nations, yet everywhere but in Italy it prepared them for becoming nations. And while everywhere else parts were uniting and union was becoming organization—and neither geographical remoteness nor unwieldiness of number nor local interests and differences were untractable obstacles to that spirit of fusion which was at once the ambition of the few and the instinct of the many; and cities, even where most powerful, had become the centres of the attracting and joining forces, knots in the political network—while this was going on more or less happily throughout the rest of Europe, in Italy the ancient classic idea lingered in its simplicity, its narrowness and jealousy, wherever there was any political activity. The history of Southern Italy, indeed, is mainly a foreign one—the history of modern Rome merges in that of the papacy; but Northern Italy has a history of its own, and that is a history of separate and independent cities—points of reciprocal and indestructible repulsion, and within, theatres of action where the blind tendencies and traditions of classes and parties weighed little on the freedom of individual character, and citizens could watch and measure and study one another with the minuteness of private life.

Dante, like any other literary celebrity of the time, was not less from the custom of the day than from his own purpose a public man. He took his place among his fellow-citizens; he went out to war with them; he fought, it is said, among the skirmishers at the great Guelf victory at Campaldino; to qualify himself for office in the democracy, he enrolled himself in one of the guilds of the people, and was matriculated in the "art" of the apothecaries; he served the state as its agent abroad; he went on important missions to the cities and courts of Italy—according to a Florentine tradition, which enumerates fourteen distinct embassies, even to Hungary and France. In the memorable year of jubilee, 1300, he was one of the priors of the Republic. There is no shrinking from fellowship and coöperation and conflict with the keen or bold men of the market-place and council hall, in that mind of exquisite and, as drawn by itself, exaggerated sensibility. The doings and characters of men, the workings of society, the fortunes of Italy, were watched and thought of with as deep an interest as the courses of the stars, and read in the real spectacle of life with as profound emotion as in the miraculous page of Vergil; and no scholar ever read Vergil with such feeling—no astronomer ever watched the stars with more eager inquisitiveness. The whole man opens to the world around him; all affections and powers, soul and sense, diligently and thoughtfully directed and trained, with free and concurrent and equal energy, with distinct yet harmonious purposes, seek out their respective and appropriate objects, moral, intellectual, natural, spiritual, in that admirable scene and hard field where man is placed to labor and love, to be exercised, proved, and judged.

The outlines of this part of Dante’s history are so well known that it is not necessary to dwell on them; and more than the outlines we know not. The family quarrels came to a head, issued in parties, and the parties took names; they borrowed them from two rival factions in a neighboring town, Pistoia, whose feud was imported into Florence; and the Guelfs became divided into the Black Guelfs, who were led by the Donati, and the White Guelfs, who sided with Cerchi. It is still professed to be but a family feud, confined to the great houses; but they were too powerful and Florence too small for it not to affect the whole Republic. The middle classes and the artisans looked on, and for a time not without satisfaction, at the strife of the great men; but it grew evident that one party must crush the other and become dominant in Florence; and of the two, the Cerchi and their White adherents were less formidable to the democracy than the unscrupulous and overbearing Donati, with their military renown and lordly tastes; proud not merely of being nobles, but Guelf nobles; always loyal champions, once the martyrs, and now the hereditary assertors, of the great Guelfcause. The Cerchi, with less character and less zeal, but rich, liberal, and showy, and with more of rough kindness and vulgar good-nature for the common people, were more popular in Guelf Florence than the Parte Guelfa; and, of course, the Ghibellines wished them well.

Both the contemporary historians of Florence lead us to think that they might have been the governors and guides of the Republic—if they had chosen, and had known how; and both, though condemning the two parties equally, seem to have thought that this would have been the best result for the state. But the accounts of both, though they are very different writers, agree in their scorn of the leaders of the White Guelfs. They were upstarts, purse-proud, vain, and coarse-minded; and they dared to aspire to an ambition which they were too dull and too cowardly to pursue, when the game was in their hands. They wished to rule; but when they might, they were afraid. The commons were on their side, the moderate men, the party of law, the lovers of republican government, and for the most part the magistrates; but they shrank from their fortune, "more from cowardice than from goodness, because they exceedingly feared their adversaries." Boniface VIII had no prepossessions in Florence, except for energy and an open hand; the side which was most popular he would have accepted and backed. But he said, "Io non voglio perdere gli uomini per le femminelle."1 If the Black party furnished types for the grosser or fiercer forms of wickedness in the poet’s hell, the White party surely were the originals of that picture of stupid and cowardly selfishness, in the miserable crowd who moan and are buffered in the vestibule of the Pit, mingled with the angels who dared neither to rebel nor be faithful, but "were for themselves"; and whoever it may be who is singled out in the setta dei cattivi, for deeper and special scorn—he,

" Che fece per vilta il gran rifinto,"2

the idea was derived from the Cerchi in Florence. Of his subsequent life, history tells us little more than thegeneral character. He acted for a time in concert with the expelled party, when they attempted to force their way back to Florence; he gave them up at last in scorn and despair; but he never returned to Florence. And he found no new home for the rest of his days. Nineteen years, from his exile to his death, he was a wanderer. The character is stamped on his writings. History, tradition, documents, all scanty or dim, do but disclose him to us at different points, appearing here and there, we are not told how or why. One old record, discovered by antiquarian industry, shows him in a village church near Florence, planning with the Cerchi and the White party an attack on the Black Guelfs. In another, he appears in the Val di Magra, making peace between its small potentates; in another, as the inhabitant of a certain street in Padua. The traditions of some remote spots about Italy still connect his name with a ruined tower, a mountain glen, a cell in a convent. In the recollections of the following generation, his solemn and melancholy form mingled reluctantly, and for a while, in the brilliant court of the Scaligers; and scared the women, as a visitant of the other world, as he passed by their doors in the streets of Verona. Rumor brings him to the West—with probability to Paris, more doubtfully to Oxford. But little that is certain can be made out about the places where he was honored and admired, and, it may be, not always a welcome guest, till we find him sheltered, cherished, and then laid at last to rest, by the lords of Ravenna. There he still rests, in a small, solitary chapel, built, not by a Florentine, but a Venetian. Florence, "that mother of little love," asked for his bones, but rightly asked in vain. His place of repose is better in those remote and forsaken streets "by the shore of the Adrian Sea," hard by the last relics of the Roman Empire—the mausoleum of the children of Theodosius, and the mosaics of Justinian—than among the assembled dead of St. Croce, or amid the magnificence of Santa Maria del Fiore.

The Commedia, at the first glance, shows the traces of its author’s life. It is the work of a wanderer. The very form in which it is cast is that of a journey, difficult, toilsome, perilous, and full of change. It is more than a working out of that touching phraseology of the Middle Ages in which "the way"was the technical theological expression for this mortal llfe; and "viator" meant man in his state of trial, as "comprehensor" meant man made perfect, having attained to his heavenly country. It is more than merely this. The writer’s mind is full of the recollections and definite images of his various journeys. The permanent scenery of the inferno and purgatorio, very variously and distinctly marked, is that of travel. The descent down the sides of the Pit, and the ascent of the Sacred Mountain, show one familiar with such scenes—one who had climbed painfully in perilous passes, and grown dizzy on the brink of narrow ledges over sea or torrent. It is scenery from the gorges of the Alps and Apennines, or the terraces and precipices of the Riviera. Local reminiscences abound. The severed rocks of the Adige Valley—the waterfall of St. Benedetto; the crags of Pietrapana and St. Leo, which overlook the plains of Lucca and Ravenna; the "fair river" that flows among the poplars between Chiaveri and Sestri; the marble quarries of Carrara; the "rough and desert ways between Lerici and Turbia," and whose towery cliffs, going sheer into the deep sea at Noli, which travellers on the Corniche road some thirty years ago may yet remember with fear. Mountain experience furnished that picture of the traveller caught in an Alpine mist and gradually climbing above it; seeing the vapors grow thin, and the sun’s orb appear faintly through them; and issuing at last into sunshine on the mountain top, while the light of sunset was lost already on the shores below:

"Ai raggi, morti gia’ bassi lidi,"3

or that image of the cold dull shadow over the torrent, beneath the Alpine fir:

"Un’ ombra smorta
Qual sotto foglie verdi e rami nigri
Sovra suoi freddi rivi, l’Alpe porta;"4

or of the large snowflakes falling without wind among the mountains:

"d’un cader lento
Piovean di fuoco dilatate falde
Come di neve in Alpe senza vento."5

Of these years, then, of disappointment and exile the Divina Commedia was the labor and fruit. A story in Boccaccio’s life of Dante, told with some detail, implies, indeed, that it was begun, and some progress made in it, while Dante was yet in Florence—begun in Latin, and he quotes three lines of it—continued afterward in Italian. This is not impossible; indeed, the germ and presage of it may be traced in the Vita Nuova. The idealized saint is there, in all the grace of her pure and noble humbleness, the guide and safeguard of the poet’s soul. She is already in glory with Mary the Queen of Angels. She already beholds the face of the Ever-blessed. And the envoye of the Vita Nuova is the promise of the Commedia. "After this sonnet" (in which he describes how beyond the widest sphere of heaven his love had beheld a lady receiving honor and dazzling by her glory the unaccustomed spirit)—" After this sonnet there appeared to me a marvellous vision, in which I saw things which made me resolve not to speak more of this blessed one until such time as I should be able to indite more worthily of her. And to attain to this, I study to the utmost of my power, as she truly knows. So that it shall be the pleasure of Him, by whom all things live, that my life continue for some years, I hope to say of her that which never hath been said of any woman. And afterward, may it please him, who is the Lord of kindness, that my soul may go to behold the glory of her lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously gazes on the countenance of Him, "qui est per omnia secula benedictus." It would be wantonly violating probability and the unity of a great life to suppose that this purpose, though transformed, was ever forgotten or laid aside. The poet knew not, indeed, what he was promising, what he was pledging himself to—through what years of toil and anguish he would have to seek the light and the power he had asked; in what form his high venture should be realized.

But the Commedia is the work of no light resolve, and we need not be surprised at finding the resolve and the purpose at the outset of the poet’s life. We may freely accept the key supplied by the words of the Vita Nuova. The spell of boyhood is never broken, through the ups and downs of life. His course of thought advances, alters, deepens, but is continuous. From youth to age, from the first glimpse to the perfect work, the same idea abides with him, "even from the flower till the grape was ripe." It may assume various changes—an image of beauty, a figure of philosophy, a voice from the other world, a type of heavenly wisdom and joy—but still it holds, in self-imposed and willing thraldom, that creative and versatile and tenacious spirit. It was the dream and hope of too deep and strong a mind to fade and come to naught—to be other than the seed of the achievement and crown of life. But with all faith in the star and the freedom of genius, we may doubt whether the prosperous citizen would have done that which was done by the man without a home. Beatrice’s glory might have been sung in grand though barbarous Latin to the literati of the fourteenth century; or a poem of new beauty might have fixed the language and opened the literature of modern Italy; but it could hardly have been the Commedia. That belongs, in its date and its greatness, to the time when sorrow had become the poet’s daily portion and the condition of his life.

But such greatness had to endure its price and its counterpoise. Dante was alone—except in his visionary world, solitary and companionless. The blind Greek had his throng of listeners; the blind Englishman his home and the voices of his daughters; Shakespeare had his free associates of the stage; Goethe, his correspondents, a court, and all Germany to applaud. Not so Dante. The friends of his youth are already in the region of spirits, and meet him there—Casella, Forese; Guido Cavalcanti will soon be with them. In this upper world he thinks and writes as a friendless man—to whom all that he had held dearest was either lost or imbittered; he thinks and writes for himself.

So comprehensive in interest is the Commedia. Any attempt to explain it, by narrowing that interest to politics, philosophy, the moral life, or theology itself, must prove inadequate. Theology strikes the keynote; but history, natural and metaphysical science, poetry, and art, each in their turn join in the harmony, independent, yet ministering to the whole. If from the poem itself we could be for a single moment in doubt of the reality and dominant place of religion in it, the plain-spoken prose of the Convito would show how he placed "the Divine Science, full of all peace, and allowing no strife of opinions and sophisms, for the excellent certainty of its subject, which is God," is single perfection above all other sciences, "which are, as Solomon speaks, but queens or concubines or maidens; but she is the ’Dove,’ and the ’perfect one’—’Dove,’ because without stain of strife; ’perfect,’ because perfectly she makes us behold the truth, in which our soul stills itself and is at rest." But the same passage shows likewise how he viewed all human knowledge and human interests, as holding their due place in the hierarchy of wisdom, and among the steps of man’s perfection. No account of the Commedia will prove sufficient which does not keep in view, first of all, the high moral purpose and deep spirit of faith with which it was written, and then the wide liberty of materials and means which the poet allowed himself in working out his design.

Doubtless his writings have a political aspect. The "great Ghibelline poet" is one of Dante’s received synonymes; of his strong political opinions, and the importance he attached to them, there can be no doubt. And he meant his poem to be the vehicle of them, and the record to all ages of the folly and selfishness with which he saw men governed. That he should take the deepest interest in the goings-on of his time is part of his greatness; to suppose that he stopped at them, or that he subordinated to political objects or feelings all the other elements of his poem, is to shrink up that greatness into very narrow limits. Yet this has been done by men of mark and ability, by Italians, by men who read the Commedia in their own mother tongue. It has been maintained as a satisfactory account of it—maintained with great labor and pertinacious ingenuity—that Dante meant nothing more by his poem than the conflicts and ideal triumphs of a political party. The hundred cantos of that vision of the universe are but a manifesto of the Ghibelline propaganda, designed, under the veil of historic images andscenes, to insinuate what it was dangerous to announce; and Beatrice, in all her glory and sweetness, is but a specimen of the jargon and slang of Ghibelline freemasonry. When Italians write thus, they degrade the greatest name of their country to a depth of laborious imbecility, to which the trifling of schoolmen and academicians is as nothing. It is to solve the enigma of Dante’s works by imagining for him a character in which it is hard to say which predominates, the pedant, mountebank, or infidel. After that we may read Voltaire’s sneers with patience, and even enter with gravity on the examination of Father Hardouin’s historic doubts. The fanaticism of an outraged liberalism, produced by centuries of injustice and despotism, is but a poor excuse for such perverse blindness.

Dante was not a Ghibelline, though he longed for the interposition of an imperial power. Historically he did not belong to the Ghibelline party. It is true that he forsook the Guelfs, with whom he had been brought up, and that the White Guelfs, with whom he was expelled from Florence, were at length merged and lost in the Ghibelline party; and he acted with them for a time. But no words can be stronger than those in which he disjoins himself from that "evil and foolish company," and claims his independence—

" A te fia bello
Averti fatto parte per te stesso."6

Dante, by the Divina Commedia, was the restorer of seriousness in literature. He was so by the magnitude and pretensions of his work, and by the earnestness of its spirit. He first broke through the prescription which had confined great works to the Latin, and the faithless prejudices which, in the language of society, could see powers fitted for no higher task than that of expressing, in curiously diversified forms, its most ordinary feelings. But he did much more. Literature was going astray in its tone, while growing in importance; the Commedia checked it. The Provenal and Italian poetry was, with the exception of some pieces of political satire, almost exclusively amatory, in the most fantastic and affected fashion. In expression, ithad not even the merit of being natural; in purpose, it was trifling; in the spirit which it encouraged, it was something worse. Doubtless it brought a degree of refinement with it, but it was refinement purchased at a high price, by intellectual distortion and moral insensibility. But this was not all. The brilliant age of Frederick II, for such it was, was deeply mined by religious unbelief. However strange this charge first sounds against the thirteenth century, no one can look at all closely into its history, at least in Italy, without seeing that the idea of infidelity—not heresy, but infidelity—was quite a familiar one; and that, side by side with the theology of Aquinas and Bonaventura, there was working among those who influenced fashion and opinion, among the great men, and the men to whom learning was a profession, a spirit of scepticism and irreligion almost monstrous for its time, which found its countenance in Frederick’s refined and enlightened court. The genius of the great doctors might have kept in safety the Latin schools, but not the free and home thoughts which found utterance in the language of the people, if the solemn beauty of the Italian Commedia had not seized on all minds. It would have been an evil thing for Italian, perhaps for European, literature if the siren tales of the Decameron had not been the first to occupy the ears with the charms of a new language.

Dante’s all-surveying, all-embracing mind was worthy to open the grand procession of modern poets. He had chosen his subject in a region remote from popular thought—too awful for it, too abstruse. He had accepted frankly the dogmatic limits of the Church, and thrown himself with even enthusiastic faith into her reasonings, at once so bold and so undoubting—her spirit of certainty, and her deep contemplations on the unseen and infinite. And in literature, he had taken as guides and models, above all criticism and all appeal, the classical writers. But with his mind full of the deep and intricate questions of metaphysics and theology, and his poetical taste always owing allegiance to Vergil, Ovid, and Statius—keen and subtle as a schoolman—as much an idolater of old heathen art and grandeur as the men of the Renaissance—his eye is yet as open to the delicacies of character, to the variety of external nature, to the wonders of the physical world—hisinterest in them as diversified and fresh, his impressions as sharp and distinct, his rendering of them as free and true and forcible, as little weakened or confused by imitation or by conventional words, his language as elastic and as completely under his command, his choice of poetic materials as unrestricted and original, as if he had been born in days which claim as their own such freedom and such keen discriminative sense of what is real in feeling and image—as if he had never felt the attractions of a crabbed problem of scholastic logic, or bowed before the mellow grace of the Latins. It may be said, indeed, that the time was not yet come when the classics could be really understood and appreciated; and this is true, perhaps fortunate. But admiring them with a kind of devotion, and showing not seldom that he had caught their spirit, he never attempts to copy them. His poetry in form and material is all his own. He asserted the poet’s claim to borrow from all science, and from every phase of nature, the associations and images which he wants; and he showed that those images and associations did not lose their poetry by being expressed with the most literal reality.

1" I am not going to lose the men for the old women."

2" The coward who the great refusal made."

3" The beams on the low shores now lost and dead."

4"A death-like shade— Like that beneath black boughs and foliage green O’er the cold stream in Alpine glens display’d."

5"O’er all the sandy desert falling slow, Were shower’d dilated flakes of fire, like snow On Alpine summits, when the wind is low."

6"So will a greater fame redound to thee,
To have formed a party by thyself alone."


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Chicago: Richard William Church, "Dante Composes the Divina Commedia," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 2–16. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: Church, Richard William. "Dante Composes the "Divina Commedia"." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 2–16. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Church, RW, 'Dante Composes the "Divina Commedia"' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 7. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.2–16. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from