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the general attention. But their audience is sure, of the number of those judicious whose judgment, whether for praise or censure, outweighs a whole theatre of others. It is chosen of those
" amanti di pregio, Che sanno con prudenza Amor seguire.” We put Mr. Norton's name first, because we esteem his book before the others. Yet they are of signal excellence, and worthy to stand with the best. Mr. Rossetti's is a simple translation, without comment. It is faithful, and betokens an artist and poet-mind in its author, accordant with the great poet's whose work he renders. Still, we would rather place Mr. Norton's book in the hands of one unable to read the original. For the portions translated are just those which are of most importance, while the place of the parts left out is more than supplied, to a complete understanding of this singular work, by the running explanation and comment, and the appended notes. Mr. Martin, like Mr. Rossetti, translates the whole, but gives, besides, a full Introduction, and many notes. The same ease, felicity, and faithfulness which mark his Horace mark this version, and his Preface and notes prove that he has gone beneath the letter, and entered into the spirit in which Dante wrote. Mr. Norton's treatment, however, is in closer sympathy with the poet's passion and its varying moods. The shifting phases of that vital experience, the motive of so much that he was and did afterward, are noted with a more delicate sense of their intellectual and spiritual bearing. There is a charm of style, besides, which reflects the matchless refinement of the style of the Vita Nuova itself. And, throughout, the work shows a delicacy of comprehension kindred with the “ white, celestial thought” which it illustrates.
When this Essay appeared, originally, in the “ Atlantic Monthly” of 1859, we thought it memorable as being of far more than the transient worth of a common magazine article. We ran, perhaps, the risk of over-admiration, because it happened to have a special and uncommon interest for us. But we found it highly prized by skilled judgments, seldom fault, which we always put before our own. Aside, then, from any personal liking, or fitness of the Essay to our thought and
study, we were sure it would have its place as a real contribution to the literature of a subject on which so much has been written that is foolish, strained, and unworthy. We took occasion in this Review * to quote Mr. Ruskin's praise of it, and to express the hope that it might one day be put into a shape better suiting its worth, than the scattered numbers of a magazine. The elegant book now before us answers that hope, and, with its valuable additions to the original papers, more than bears out that praise.
When Mr. Ruskin speaks of it as “tender and just,” he touches, with that felicity of judgment and of phrase which belongs to him, the precise point of the excellence of it. It would not be so just, if it were a whit less tender. It would not be tender as it is, if it were any the less just. For the essence of justice lies in completeness of comprehension ; and to understand fully comes only by the penetrative sympathy which is substantial tenderness. Of all books, the Vita Nuova suffers most from the rude handling of a cold and conceited treatment. The delicate Psyche of it will not bear the marring, destructive touch of coarse and ungentle fingers on her wings.
Mr. Ruskin's epithets exactly describe this Essay of his friend. It is tender by a refined apprehension which reaches the inmost of Dante's early mind and experience. It is tender by hearty — and the word is significant — appreciation of what the poet thought and felt and was in his time of young passion, — in those years when he was dreaming the dreams, lifted in the transports, perplexed in the struggles, abased by the sorrows, of that affection which was at length to turn to peace, and be sanctified by the one last grief into the quietness of a spiritual, ideal love. It is just with the conscientiousness of insight, with the integrity of that imaginative sympathy which alone makes men or books wholly just. Being so tender and so just, it is not to exaggerate its worth to call it the last word on the “ New Life” of Dante. It does not claim the distinction, and those wedded to some far-fetched theory may not allow it. For ourselves, it is the ottimo comento, the best
* Vide Christian Examiner for January, 1861.
elucidation of that fateful time of the poet's life, and of that intellectual and spiritual experience so prophetic of his great, work.
To Mr. Norton, as to the more distinguished among the modern European scholars of Dante, the Vita Nuova is the proem to the Divina Commedia. “ It contains," he says, " the first hint of the great poem itself, and furnishes for it a special, interior, imaginative introduction, without the knowledge of which it is not thoroughly to be understood.” This is, beyond doubt, the true view. It commends itself at once to the simple, unperverted judgment. It is borne out by both the books, when they are not strained beyond their plain meaning, and not wrested from their pure poetic intent, to shore up a conceited and prosaic theory. If only they had been allowed to throw light on each other, what might have not been spared of the vanity and dulness of the commentators ! But, from the Bible down, the critical folk have been ready with their notions, and have made the inspired text of good books a peg on which to hang their fancies. Never was book more overlaid with the stuff of comment for comment's sake than the “ Divine Comedy." And the “ New Life” has not escaped the fantastic tricks which theorizing likes to play. Dante wears his heart of fire on his sleeve, and the daws have pecked at it to the top of their bent. The fancifulness of commentators has been illustrated more than the book. Who has not heard good, dull people read a poem with tone and accent as if they had said in beginning, “This is verse; let us not, however, be taken in by the vanity of rhythm and musical flow, but turn it to good, set prose”? To read some of the comments on the Vita Nuova is to listen again to those good, dull people. It is a simple, charming, and most pathetic confession of true love, of joys and sorrows which true love brought with it, and of the inward change which true love worked. It was the change of consciousness, of intellect, affection, will, spirit, -- as if a new element entered into the nature, which every real experience, according to the measure of its vitality, works in every man, according to the measure of his sincerity. In a soul sincere like Dante's, working, as it did, through an experience which to the reality
of the actual had the profounder reality of the ideal added, the change was complete, from old life to new life, the regeneration of his mind, the new birth of his imagination, the palingenesis of his spirit. Yet this record of an aspiration mingled of the passionate affection of the lover, so loving that change and fate and death cannot kill his love, and of the prophetic insight of the poet, thrilling with an access of the faculty divine, and feeling the strong wings of his imagination fledged now and rustling for a flight uņattempted yet in prose or rhyme, has been treated as if love and poesy had nothing to do with it. The bright central figure of it has been fancied away into an allegory, a show, a nothing or anything save the inistress of the poet's heart and the glorious lady of his mind. But if Homer and Shakespeare can be juggled out of existence by the potential might, could, would, or should of conjecture, why may not Beatrice be reduced to a phantasm? Against conjecture, however, stand the two books, the great poem and its proper introduction, each throwing light on the other. And in that light, to every simple-minded reader, unbewildered by the extravagances of miscalled elucidation, the lady of the “New Life” appears one and the same with the lady of the “ Divine Comedy," - appears in both books, as we hope to show by evidence drawn from them, the lady-love of Dante, beloved, with lifelong affection, after the high, imaginative fashion of his love. Girl, maid, matron of Florence, glorious dame and blessed saint of the City of God, she is always one and the same, - mistress of his heart and guide of his soul.
As earthly mistress, Beatrice is not less a celestial vision to her lover. She is far above him, as by a heavenly privilege, and differs from all, as by supernal gifts. When she greets him with her salute, she condescends from the remote station of her beauty and gentlehood, with a meek and stooping charity. Likewise, as heavenly vision, she is still his beloved. As she was in the streets and houses of Florence, so is she at the summit of Purgatory and along the circles of Paradise, when his realizing imagination brings her back to him, or, rather, carries him to her. There is a change, to be sure, in both. He wears the homesick, exile look. He is outworn with climbing the stranger's stairs, and meagre with the saltness of the bread of other men. His sacred Poem, to which heaven and earth had set hands, has made him pale and lean. Wandering over nearly all the Italian land, and begging his life, bit by bit, he is disfigured with the wounds of fortune. He shows like a vessel without sail or rudder, driven by that hot blast, the breath of grievous poverty, to diverse ports, estuaries, and shores. He has been down to hell, and come back, as the women in Verona saw him, scarred and singed; far otherwise, truly, than as Giotto painted him on the wall of the Bargello, with the clear-cut features and fresh look of early manhood, and pomegranates of peace in his hand. She wears the sacred brightness of those blessed with the beatific vision. Her maiden loveliness is transfigured to this ideal beauty. There is a change in him by years and labors; in her, by his high imaginings and poesy. But the old love is still substantial to him. He has not moved from the fixed station of his heart. There is the upholding of his inmost life, and he rests in it to the end.
Dante's genius follows strictly in the way of his love. Other poets have written because a woman was fair and lovable. But they do not submit their poetic faculty with so exact and constant obedience to the leading of love. Petrarch, thought to be the very poet of love, does not. In one of his letters he writes of "those vulgar songs done in my youth, of which I am ashamed to-day, and do repent; which are yet, it seems, most grateful to those touched with the same disease." He finds love to have been a disease, and his love-songs something to be repented. Then, neither love nor song could have been quite genuine or pure. Love of the white and deathless sort begets no self-reproach and tempts no disdainful looking back. Many poets, indeed, both of the old time and the new, have written about it and from its inspiration. The songs and sonnets of true love would fill a book. Petrarch would contribute to it out of his finer mood, and Michel Angelo, Shakespeare, Spenser, Shelley, and many more. But the love and verse of none are so at one, in perfect constancy and integrity, as Dante's. Heart and song in no poet move together in such unvarying harmony and to such fine issues.
There is a parallelism, or rather coincidence, between his life-time, life-work, and life-love.