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he acted on no short-sighted views of political expediency. He felt not bound to follow a faction against the dictates of his conscience. He cast off the shackles of party, and declared himself an independent man. And, although it has been his fate to be maligned while he lived, and to be misrepresented after death by those who envied his adamantine firmness, or who could not appreciate his motives, still will a late posterity reverse the sentence of interested or ignorant Biographers, and hail the man who, amid all the disasters of life, followed out the maxim he lays down for his conduct:
“ Be like a tower that never stoops its head,
Purgatorio. v. 14. From the period of his banishment, Dante wanderer, as he describes himself, from house to house, scarcely able at one time to obtain his bread, yet at another, received into the houses of the great, whether of the Guelf or Ghibelline party. After long enduring the miseries of banishment, and making vain appeals to his countrymen to be allowed to return, the intercession of his friends was acceded to, on the condition that he should pay a fine, confess the justice of his sentence, and make an apology to the state. The indignation with which he spurns the offer is exhibited in the following letter from Dante to a friend.
“ After the sufferings of exile for nearly fifteen years, can such a recall be a glorious one to Dante Alighieri? Is this the reward of an innocence universally acknowledged—of the labour and fatigues of unremitting study? Far from a man conversant with Philosophy be the senseless pusillanimity that would bespeak such baseness of heart, and induce him to offer himself up in chains, and follow others into the path of infamy. Far be it from a man demanding justice, to compromise injustice with money, and treat his persecutors as if they were his benefactors. No, my Father, this is not the way of returning to one's country. If, however, any other offer shall be made now, or at a future time, that shall not detract from the honour and reputation of Dante, that offer I will accept with no tardy steps. But if by no such way can Florence be entered, Florence I will never enter. What? can I not every where enjoy the sight of the sun and the stars ! Can I not, under every part of heaven, meditate upon the most delightful truths, without first rendering myself inglorious, nay, infamous to the people and republic of Florence? Bread, at least, will not fail me.”
The hopes he here expresses were never destined to be realized. He never again returned to his beloved Florence, or enjoyed the comforts of domestic life. Yet he rarely speaks of himself, and tender hearted as he was, never of his wife and family.* His last refuge was at Ravenna, in the palace of Guido da Polenta, a Guelf, to whom he felt so much indebted, that having been sent ambassador to Venice, by his protector, and failing in the object of his mission, he died on his return, from fatigue and disappointment, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. A.D. 1321. And at Ravenna his ashes rest, notwithstanding the tardy endeavours of “ungrateful Florence" to recover them.
The incidents of Dante's life are involved in much obscurity; nor has it been attempted to trace his wanderings during twenty years of banishment. The history of his life is in fact the history of his mind—that mind which feeding upon high and heavenly thoughts, yet anxious to promote his grand scheme of uniting Italy under one Monarch, and Christians under one Shepherd, was ever and anon descending from above to mingle his ardent and benign affections in the things of earth ;-that mind which neither relenting in its enmity to the “Wolves” that desolated his beloved country, nor abandoning the hope of returning with the laurels of a Poet to the “fair fold” where he had his birth, was bent through many a painful year on the completion of his Sacred Poem. “ Should it befal that e'er the Sacred lay,
* See note to Par, xv. 118.
To which have lent their aid both Heaven and earth,
While year by year my body pined away-
From the fair fold where I, a lamb, had birth,
Foe to the ravening wolves its peace who mar-
Poet return; and at that shrine be crown'd,
Paradiso. xxv. I. In his poem indeed must the life of Dante be read and studied. And though his other works, both in prose and verse, are sufficiently important of themselves to have raised him to a high place as a Poet and a Philosopher, still the Divina Commedia is the imperishable crown of his labours—the offering of his heart as an admirer of Nature, and a devout worshipper of God—the melodious voice, not only of a Poet but of a Prophet—the representation of Time, and the mirror of Eternity.
Let Dante but be viewed in his proper light, and we shall acknowledge him to be a true patriot, an independent Italian, a zealous Christian, a champion of liberty, and a lover of all that is beautiful, whether in the rural images of nature, or in the tenderest scenes of domestic life. Let us not only descend with him to the Inferno, but also mount with him to the Paradiso; and confess that if he could paint the horrors of Hell, he could depict with still more wondrous skill the light and glory of Heaven.
One great recommendation of Dante is, that nothing immoral or impure ever escapes him, although he was born amid the darkness of the Middle Ages. And this is most remarkable, when we compare him not only with the subsequent poets of Italy, but with our own Chaucer and Shakspeare. Amidst the vice and impurity around him, he walked the earth scarcely touched by its contamination. Pride, he admits, was his besetting sin. Nor can we wonder that a man of high birth, so infinitely in advance of his age, should conscious his superiority. That he exerted himself, however, to attain humility, is evident from the candour of his confessions, and the abasement he experiences on entering the circle where pride is punished.* To war against evil in every shape was the object of his life and of his works; and he advances with boldness to the encounter on the raging sea of wickedness,+ “secure in the consciousness of pure intent. I” And this purity of heart, this intense earnestness in the cause of truth, united to extreme simplicity and conciseness of expression, form the grand features of a Poem, which, at the same time that it places many of the doctrines of Christianity in the clearest point of view, renders them most attractive by those outpourings of feeling and devotion, and those strains of matchless harmony with which they are accompanied. Hence it may be truly said that no other human work is so replete with sacred melody, divested of all modern cant and affectation; and that the poetry of Dante is, above all other poetry, the hand-maid to Religion.
* Purg. xi. 108; xii. 9; xiii. 136, &c.
+ Inf. ii. 107. # Inf. xxviii. 15. & See especially Par. vii.
The life of Dante has been sketched in the most concise manner, without entering into discussion as to any of the religious or literary questions which are mixed up with it. Nor in an edition like the present can space be afforded to consider them as they deserve.
At a time, however, when Dante is exciting the most intense interest on the continent; when commentaries and translations are daily multiplied, and Professorships established for the explanation of his poem –when Catholic and Protestant are each striving to claim him as their own; and both are anxious to fathom the depths of the Oracle, whose voice is only now beginning to be understood—when England alone is backward in exploring Truth, as exhibited in the most truthful and the most earnest of uninspired Bards--some allusion can scarcely be avoided to the various quest ons that present themselves.
1st. To what extent Dante was a Reformer; and how it is that he continues to be claimed as a supporter by both Romanists and Protestants ?
The fact is, that the inconsistencies which appear to exist as to Dante's religious and political views, arise from his veneration for the ('atholic Church in its original purity on the one hand, and his detestation, on the other, of those abuses, by which it had been venalized and corrupted.