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“ Io mi son un, che quando
Ch' ei detta dentro, vo significando.” In these verses he tells all the story of himself. They are the epitome of his mind and life. Before this avowal, exponent as it is of all that he wrote and was, what paltry prating it seems, the common talk about Dante's coldness, and unloving, sullen temper. When will sentimentalists learn that the central fires decline to boil their tea-kettles? He loved what was lovable utterly, and, by consequence, its hateful opposite was hated by him utterly. Where things were deserving, he gave them their desert. And where men were anthropical, never was philanthropy more quick, generous, and full than his. What he does and was and is, is a confessio amantis. But however general you find this confession, and revealing, in the light of his life and works, a feeling, a principle broad, deep, and embracing many things of earth and heaven, the beginning, motive, and symbol of it you will find to be his love of Beatrice. From the beginning of the “ New Life” to the end of the “ Divine Comedy,” his course of life is but the course of love, and the course of his love follows the course which nature, fate, and death take, the course which his own faith and imagination also take with her. We present now some of the landmarks of this threefold course in one, as they may be met along the two books.
In the “New Life," the little maid, as he first saw her, in the early May of his ninth year and of his love, dressed in goodly crimson, girdled and adorned as best suited her very tender age, grows, in nine years, to be his lady of the salutation. This wonderful lady, dressed in pure white, the destroyer of all evil and queen of all good, passes into the lady of his dreams. In one, he sees her in Love's arms, covered only with a blood-colored cloth, and feeding in dread upon his burning heart; in another, as in death, her head covered by certain ladies with a white veil, and of so humble an aspect as though she had said, “I have attained to look on the beginning of peace"; and again, as an exceedingly white cloud, borne heavenward by angels singing together gloriously, and the words of their song, Osanna in excelsis. She becomes
the lady of his waking thoughts, and as she goes along, crowned and clothed with humility, it is a great joy to him to see how folk run to look at her, and to hear it said by many,“ This is not a woman, but one of the beautiful angels of heaven.” She becomes the lady-wife of Simone dei Bardi, and, a little while after, the spouse of Death ; not driven away, her lover says, by winter's frost or summer's heat, but through a perfect gentleness instead.
“For from the lamp of her meek lowlihead Such an exceeding glory went up hence,
That it woke wonder in the Eternal Sire,
Until a sweet desire
So that he bade her to himself aspire ;
Neither for the honorable death of his passion when she becomes another man's wife, nor for her death, does his love die out. It is as intense and devoted as ever, while it is ennobled and purified. It suffers a change into something richer than the boy's fondness, and stranger than the young man's transport. But the old worship remains, and he looks toward her with his wonted enthusiasm and devotion. His love grows spiritual, like the object of it. But to him the ideal was the real; and the loftier the ideal, the more intense the reality. What was true to his imagination and his faith was as vivid and more vital than the visible and actual. His love, therefore, alters not when it alteration finds, nor bends with the remover to remove. It is not time's fool, to alter with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom. Yes, and further. Shakespeare's noble sonnet does not quite reach the nobleness of Dante's love. He bears it out beyond that fatal edge and verge of darkness. Though she dies to his desire and hope the day she enters her husband's house, and shortly lies dead to all in the grave, she is still the glorious lady of his mind, as really as when he saw her walking after Primavera or sitting where words were heard about the Queen of Glory. He follows her, if with a new, ideal aspiration, still with the actual old-time faith. In the last sonnet his pilgrim
thought mounts to heaven, and sees his lady so bright there, that, like the sun to the eyes, she is hid from his intellect by excess of light. And the book ends with a prayer that it may please Him who is the Lord of Grace, that, after he shall have spoken of her as never yet was spoken of any woman, his soul may go to behold the glory of its lady, the blessed Beatrice, who in glory looks upon the face of Him, qui est per omnia sæcula benedictus !
It were as reasonable to wrest from its plain meaning the prophecy of the “ Paradise Lost” in Milton's tract on Prelacy, as, with dull allegory and theorizing, to pervert the simple intention of the Vita Nuova, closed with this aspiration of such clear prophecy, whose plainly-stated purpose is answered so exactly in the Divina Commedia. The conceit of critics, illustrating their own wit, and not the book, or the prejudice of interpreters, dazzled with a brand-new theory or purblind from dusty research, were alone equal to such perversion. Well said Voltaire : “Dante has his commentators, which is, perhaps, another reason for his not being understood.” Whatever darkness they throw upon it, the argument of this, his first book, is yet all to one point, the reality and lastingness of his love for Beatrice. Through the quickening joy of love, and its sanctifying sorrow, he is born into the new life of conscious genius, religious faith, spiritual insight. That noble and pathetic close sounds the key-note, and the great Poem answers again and again, duly returning to the note, so strong, so dulcet, so tender, of true love. For that is the just law of music, to come back to the key ; of the music of voices and instruments and of melodious verse, – of the deeper music, too, which must be in the poet before it can sound in his song, and without which he is a versifier merely, - the music which the poet is rather than makes, for he is fashioned tunable to what is rhythmic and most orderly in nature, and set by God to respond to the divine harmonies in the universal life.
After the “ New Life,” the “Hell” takes up the testimony, which is borne on in the “ Purgatory," and closed up in the “ Paradise.” The only passage in the “Hell ” where Beatrice appears is that where she comes to Virgil. Here, she sends
him to her friend, -"my friend, not Fortune's,” — being herself sent by Love, she says, who also prompts her speech. And she tells him further, that it was on behalf of one who loved her that Lucy came to her, where she was sitting with the ancient Rachel, and asked her help, - for “him who loved her so that for her sake he left the vulgar crowd.” Thus for love's sake, his love's and hers, she came on this errand, swifter than men seek their good, or flee their hurt. And to her bidding she adds the final emphasis and entreaty of her tears: “she turned away her bright eyes weeping, by which she made me hasten more to come.”
In the “ Purgatory” is the one passage which, of all the poem, bears with most weight of evidence on this point of the intimate connection of the “ New Life” with the “ Divine Comedy,” and of the substantialness of the poet's love. It is that in Canto XXX., where they meet. If other proof were wanting, this were enough.
There is nothing that we know in poetry more pathetic than the recurrence, throughout this striking scene, of the old feeling and the recollection of the former time. Again and again the bitter-sweet past comes in, like a soft and serious music from far off, or, as in Mozart's “Don Juan," from one scene and act to another is caught the solemn undertone of grave and stately chords which sounded in the overture. It is the ten years' thirst after her which had in it so eager coveting that no sense wakes in him save sight only. It is her holy smile which still draws him to her with its net, as of old. It is to those familiar eyes that the Virtues lead him, to those “emeralds " whence, erewhile, Love had so shot at him. The ancient flame still burns, - veteris vestigia flammæ,and the old heavenly influence thrills him now as in boyhood. He beholds her very former self, though surpassed, and, loverlike, he remembers that just so she had surpassed on earth all other ladies. And it is Beatrice, earth-born woman, who meets him, as well as heaven-sent guide. She wears the same serenity which of old denied him her salute. She is exigent, takes him to task for his forgetfulness and desertion of her “for a slight girl," and mingles the jealous reproaches of human mistress with the high rebukes of celestial monitress. VOL. LXXIII. 5TH S. VOL. XI. NO. III.
It is not possible here to allegorize her away into a metaphor, or comment her off into a conjecture, myth, nonentity.
There are single verses, also, strikingly emphatic for this view. They give peculiar support to the argument, because in them the poet's love shows by the way, by chance, as it were, and spontaneously, without the purpose betokened in the circumstance of a set scene. Thus, in Canto XXVII., when they come close to the fire through which they must pass to the last ascent, and Dante holds back, Virgil, to make him bold, has only to speak the name of Beatrice. Then
"as at Thisbe's name the eye
The name that springs forever in my breast.” Why, “ this is the very ecstasy of love." Here speaks the lover, though he be, besides, theologian, philosopher, statesman, artist, and whatever else belongs to this many-sided
He chooses the charming fable which is the one lovestory of the classic time, the names of which stand proverbially for true lovers, as Pylades and Orestes stand for true friends. He appropriates the one capital touch of nature and of poetic beauty in it, and it is the expression of the tenderness of a passion which cannot die.
“ Ad nomen Thisbes oculos jam morte gravatos
Pyramus erexit, visaque recondidit illa." The similitude of his own state he draws from the signal type, among the old fables, of love enduring to the end and conquering fate. Where is allegory to be traced in this verse, so full of gracious memories and regretful affection:
"il nome Che nelle mente sempre mi rampolla ” ? The sentiment of it is one and the same with his confession of “ that blessed Beatrice, who lives in heaven with the angels, and on earth within my breast”; a confession which, be it observed, is found in the beginning of that Convito, from which the bulk of the argument, as far, at least, as it is sup