« AnteriorContinuar »
nacular. Of course, if we do as Rajna does, if we set down an analysis of the Vision and forget for the moment all possible alternatives — the jEncid, the Tesoretto, &c.—the similarity is very striking, and almost drives us to think that Danti was at least on bowing terms with the dream of Tundale. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the Middle Age was simply saturated with the thought of a future state—that in describing Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, Dante was dealing with a theme the most widely popular he could possibly have lighted on.
Writing on the Divine Comedy before Dante,1
Labitte reminds us that Dante visited France, and he
points out that the churches and cathedrals
A caniitm. .11 j
of that country teem with sculptures and paintings, some of them old enough to have caught the eye of the great poet himself. The remains of a wall-painting in the crypt of the Auxerre cathedral show the triumph of Christ exactly as Dante has depicted it in the Purgatorio. The Mystic Rose might have come from the church of Chartres, while the gates of manifold churches, including that of Our Lady of Paris, were brimful of suggestions for a writer proposing to treat the penalties of Hell. It is needless to discuss whether Dante actually availed himself of such hints, but the fact that they were available should put us on our guard against too ready an acceptance of any particular theory concerning special obligations.
I shall not pursue the subject further more than to point out that these borrowings, real or imaginary, do not affect in any true sense the question of Dante's originality. The charge of plagiarism is one with which mediocrity or absolute total insignificance revenges itself on genius. As your groundling conceives the matter, almost all literature is plagiarism. Julius Casor is stolen, and no acknowledgment neither, from Plutarch. Chaucer and Boccaccio are worse "rievers" than any Hielandman; and Tennyson, in a modified way, is hardly better. It is the same with music. Mendelssohn and Gounod have seized on other men's themes, therefore let their names be clean put out. Meanwhile the great reputations, like so many impregnable Gibraltars, remain unimpaired; and the stickler for literary morality is left to ruminate Moliere's delicious retort, "Je prends mon bien ou je le trouve."
1 Revue des Deux Mandrs, iv. Serie, 1842.
Signor Alessandro D'Ancona has some excellent remarks on this topic,1 the burden of them being that Dante brought order out of chaos and thus established an indefeasible right to what before had belonged to anybody or nobody. Yes; that is it. The old monks possessed the same materials, and they had tried to create out of the formless mass an intellectual world. But they lacked something—something essential; the power that could mould and shape, that could dominate and inspire, that could make dry bones live. In a word, they lacked originality.
The great characteristic of Dante's genius is its plasticity. It converted what was rough and unhewn
1 See I Precursors di Jhinte (Florence, 1874).
into perfect symmetry, and rendered it clear, definite, intelligible. It sounds an odd assertion,
A tiew creation. ... , . . ,,
but this result was due, in no small measure, to his partiality, or—we may say—his superstitious regard, for the number three and its multiples, of which there are already traces in the Vila Nuova. The schoolmen had divided the world to come into two main partitions—Heaven and Hell. The whole of Hell was situate underground, and comprised Hell proper, the abode of lost angels and spirits of the damned; Purgatory, the sojourn of penitent sinners; the Limbo of unbaptised infants; and the Limbo of the Fathers, known also as "Abraham's Bosom," and inhabited by just men dead before Christ's coming. Heaven consisted of the visible sky or firmament; the Spiritual Heaven, the home of saints and blessed angels; and the Intellectual Heaven, scene of the Beatific Vision. Dante changes all that. Hell, to be sure, he places underground, where it stretches from the surface of the earth to the centre. But Purgatory is a mountain at the antipodes, a distinct place altogether. Signors Vaccheri and Bertacchi deny this, identifying the Hill of Difficulty at the outset of the poem with the Mount of Purgatory, and making the avenues of the two spheres of punishment contiguous.1 The suggestion, however, does not appear very plausible. If Dante really began his itinerary at a point in the opposite hemisphere, it is strangely unlike him not to record the circumstance fully and plainly. He would certainly, I think, have written some prefatory lines explaining and defending his presence at the ends of the earth. But this he has not done. Finally, Dante's Heaven is an adaptation to spiritual purposes of the Ptolemaic system. The earth is the centre of nine heavens, those of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, the Fixed Stars, the "Primum Mobile," and, enveloping all, the motionless Empyrean, which seems to have been without sun or star save God Himself.
1 La Visione di Dante AUighieri consideratu nello njjuzio c net tempo. Turin, 1881.
The three topographical divisions naturally suggested the three divisions of the poem. The two opening cantos, reckoned for convenience
Symbolism. C ?, , *
part of the Inferno, are in a way common to all three cantiche. I leave out of account the idea that the Mount Delectable is the Mount of Purgatory as too improbable, but the conjunction of Virgil and Beatrice is significant. They are to be Dante's guides, Virgil through Hell and Purgatory, and Beatrice through Paradise. This early mention of Beatrice is of importance as showing that Dante had returned to the spirit and temper of the Vita Nuova. But the Beatrice of the Vita Nuova is not absolutely the Beatrice of the Commedia. She figures in the later and greater work as a gracious personality, and, literally, as an angel; but the influence of the Convivio, of that middle period of reflection, continues to be felt, and Dante is no longer satisfied with Beatrice as a fair and virtuous lady. Without forfeiting any of her natural charms she has become to him an emblem, but the emblem of what he now deems the most precious thing in the world—Theology. And so we come to that thorniest of topics, Dante's symbolism.
Allegory is everywhere in the Commedia. It is, if I may return to an old metaphor, the nervous system Danuand of the poeni. But just as the nervous Tmnysm. SyStem nas certain ganglia, certain centres, so also in the Commedia are certain passages, the comprehension of which is vital to the understanding of the whole. The opening cantos of the Inferno and the concluding cantos of the Purgatorio are of this order. In the latter case the symbolism is so elaborate that I cannot attempt to deal with it here. In the general exordium, on the other hand, the mechanism is comparatively simple, and may therefore well serve as a pattern. The poet feigns that midway in the journey of life he found himself in a dark forest, and this wild forest lay in a valley. The place was very horrible, insomuch that Dante can scarce bear the remembrance of it. As little can he state how he entered it, for he was oppressed with sleep at the time. This is Dante's way of describing human birth. Let us not forget those key-lines:—
"Forth from the hand of Him who fondles it
Or, as Tennyson puts it, vocatively:—
"0 dear Spirit half lost