The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Ruskin in Relation to Dante, Part 1

by Julia Firth
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 881-886

READERS of Ruskin will remember his special comments on Dante in "Modern Painters," in "Munera Pulveris," and in "Fors Clavigera" (Letters xxiii. and xxiv.), and recall the references which he constantly makes to him and other great ones gone, as to invisible friends and brothers, with whom he is at one. "Only the imaginative truth is precious," he writes: "whenever we want to know what are the chief facts of any case, it is better not to go to political economists, not to mathematicians, but to the great poets; for I find they always see more of the matter than any one else." He describes, in reference to Dante and others, "The imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other," and gives instances of the mode in which the imaginative faculty, "the highest intellectual power of man," seizes its material. "All that it affirms, judges, describes, it affirms from within."

In his "Inaugural Lectures on Art," he says: "it was not until after an interval of nearly two thousand years of various error and pain, that partly as the true reward of Christian war-fare nobly sustained through centuries of trial, and partly as the visionary culmination of the faith which saw in a maiden's purity the link between God and her race, the highest and holiest strength of mortal love was reached: and together with it in the song Dante, and the painting of Bernard of Luino and his fellows , the perception and embodiment for ever of whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely whatsoever things are of good report :¾that, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, men might think on these things."

Those who have learned to love Dante through Ruskin have naturally become observant of the points of resemblance between the great Italian poet and moralist of the fourteenth century and the prose--poet and moralist of our own days. The affinity of great souls is a relationship which is not marred by any questions of comparison; the lesser is supremely happy in reverent admiration; the greater is, in this case, already amongst the immortals. All that is common to both becomes the heritage of noble thinkers who rejoice in the double beam which illuminates some of the high places of their thought. A soul imparadised, it may be, by love for a pure and beautiful being, as sweet and true, and perhaps, as severe as Dante's Beatrice, is naturally in fellowship with Dante's pure and imaginative passion; and the early fading of the flower raises his thoughts also to the "rosa sempiterna," with its "fair assemblage, stoles of snowy white."

Ruskin's love of Italy, his love of early Italian art and architecture, and his appreciation of the original, high ideal of monasticism, place him in sympathy with Dante, Giotto, and St Francis.

Even to ordinary travellers the interest of the Baptistery of Florence is enhanced by the memory of the consecration of her greatest son, and their admiration of it is quickened by his words, "il mio bel San Giovanni." They look at the Sasso di Dante, let into the wall near the Cathedral, and imagine him resting there when the Duomo had not yet risen from its foundations, and the Bargello was not yet completed; they go into the Bargello itself and see, in one of the groups of the Paradise, painted by Giotto on a partition wall, that pure and sensitive young face, which was to become in later life so furrowed and intensified in expression, so fit an index to the "animo sdegnoso," which had to confront the sorrow of banishment from all that he chiefly loved. They see also the marble monument in the Church of Santa Croce, big, empty, and futile as it is, the poet's mortal remains resting at Ravenna, whence in life he was not exiled. At Pisa, they may recall the well-known episode of Ugolino and the tower of famine; they may perhaps remember at Bologna that Dante compares the stooping Autceus to the leaning tower of Garisenda, and at Montereggione or other turreted cities, recollect "gli orribili giganti,"which he mistakes for towers in Canto XXXI, of the "Inferno." At Verona, while they find out the little ladders in the beautiful old ironwork, and again, repeatedly on the tombs, they may think of the days when Can Grandedella Scala, was the magnificent young patron of the exiled poet who found later
"How salt the savour is of others' bread,
How hard the passage to descend and climb
By others' stairs."*

In the pine forest at Ravenna, travellers may recall how Dante compared the pleasant air and "jocund lays" of the earthly Paradise to the gathering melody rolling from branch to branch "along the piny forests on the shore of Chiassi": and when they see a candle held within an alabaster tomb in the church containing Galla Placidia's sarcophagus, they may reflect that hence, perhaps, the poet took his comparison when describing a track of light in the planet Mars, the placed allotted to the soldiers of the cross.* At Padua, the virtues, as painted by Giottto, fit into the theological system of Dante, and at Assisi the frescoes by the same painter take the spectator back to the "Poverty and Francis" of the beautiful eleventh Canto of the Paradiso.

These are but a few of the associations of place and art which Ruskin has had to quicken his intuitive understanding of Dante; he has been no passing traveller, he has spent months at a time in the study of art and history in various Italian cities; he tells us that he "lived beside" Giotto's Campanile at Florence "many a day," and looked out upon it from his "windows by sunlight and moonlight." And again and again he has returned to scenes so dear to him, with a mind "more deeply satisfied and more divinely athirst."

He has given the name of Preterita to his autobiography, and we find Dante using the word in Canto XXIII, of the Paradiso, when Beatrice, after he has witnessed the triumph of Christ,

[ * "Paridiso XVII," Carey's translation.
* Paridiso XV.]

says to him, "Thou hast seen things that empower thee to sustain my smile." "I was as one" (he says), "when a forgotten dream

"Doth come across him, and he strives in vain
To shape it to his fantasy again.
Whereas that gracious boon was proffer'd me,
Which never may be cancel'd from the book
Wherein the past is written."
[Che mai non si stirgue
Del libro che'l preterito rassegna,
Par. xxiii 54.]

We shall see what food there is in the Divina Commedia for a heart passionately loving justice, vehemently insisting on gladness and scornfully repelling all that is base.

Ruskin writes in "Modern Painters," of the definiteness of pictorial art in mediaeval landscape; he remarks also that Dante makes his Inferno definite, his imaginative faculty being greater than that of Milton, who makes it vague. In the Purgatory there is more light and air, but no more liberty. In the Paradise, though there is perfect freedom and infinity of space, though for trenches we have planets and for cornices constellations, yet there is more cadence, procession and order among the redeemed souls than any others; they fly so as to describe letters and sentences in the air, and rest in circles like rainbows, or determinate figures, as of a cross and an eagle; in which certain of the more glorified natures are so arranged as to form the eye of the bird, while those most highly blessed are arranged with their white crowds in leaflets so as to form the image of a white rose in the midst of heaven.

Those "more glorified natures" were those who had been eminent upon earth for the administration of justice; and the reward of the worthy use of riches is shown by Dante in the fifth and sixth orbs of the Paradise. The avaricious and prodigal, whose souls are lost, are placed in the fourth circle of the Inferno, the largest in all hell; the two bands of misers and spendthrifts impel heavy weights before them, and clash together from opposite directions. Of users none are redeemed; they made their money inactively, they sit on the sand, but are equally without rest; "sharp and fiery hail" beats down upon "the torrid soul." "Dante'es Plutus is specially and definitely the spirit of contention and competition or evil commerce; because this kind of commerce `makes all men strangers'; his speech is therefore unintelligible, and no single soul of all those ruined by him has recognisable features."

The avaricious and prodigal, whose souls are capable of purification, are described in the nineteenth Canto of the Purgatorio: "The redeemable sins of avarice and prodigality are, in Dante's sight, those which are without deliberate or calculated operation. The lust or lavishness of riches can be purged, so long as there has been no servile consistency of dispute and competition for them. The sin is spoken of as that of degradation by the love of earth; it is purified by deeper humiliation, the souls crawl on their bellies, their chant is, `my soul cleaveth unto the dust.' But the spirits thus condemned are all recognisable, and even the worst examples of the thirst for gold. are of men swept by the passion of avarice into violent crime, but not sold to its steady work." "The souls whose love of wealth is pardonable, have been first deceived into pursuit of it by a dream of its higher uses, or by ambition."

Ruskin, in "Munera Pulveris," where this commentary occurs, regards the rocks of Scylla and Charybdis as indicating two practical ways of life: " The monsters that haunt them are quite distinct from the rocks themselves, which, having many other subordinate significations, are in the main Labour and Idleness, or getting and spending, each with its attendant monster or betraying demon."

A strict and all-pervading justice is the foundation of Ruskin's teaching. In ruling, in buying, in spending, the first condition to be considered is what is due to those who are governed, to those who sell, to those who produce. The demands of equity are to be discovered and complied with at whatever cost; `the market may have its martyrdoms as well as the pulpit, and trade its heroisms as well as war."

The political economy of "Unto the last" is now no longer attacked, its high truths are perceived and accepted, and men and women who follow its teaching give diligence more and more to doing justly in all relations of life.

It is worthy of remark that Ruskin always takes into account the affections of men, and never deals with them as, or wishes them to become mere machines. Thus: "I have said balances of justice---meaning, in the term justice to include affection---such affection as one man owes to another. All right relations between master and operative, and all their best interests ultimately depend on these." When he writes on Dante in the "Stones of Venice" (vol. ii .p .39), he says: "all the sins of Christians are, in the seventeenth Canto [of the Purgatorio], traced to the deficiency or aberration of affection." In a passage of "Modern Painters," the same principle is applied to art: "The only true test of good or bad is ultimately strength of affection. For it does not matter with what wise purposes, or on what wise principle the thing is drawn, if it be not drawn for love of it, it will never be right; and if it be drawn for love of it, it will never be wrong---love's misrepresentation being truer than the most mathematical presentation."

(to be continued)

Ruskin in Relation to Dante.
By Julia Firth.
Parents Review Vol IV 1893/4 pages 1-7


Dante usually looked upon forests and woods as savage and terrible, but in his ideal landscape, ["Modern Painters," iii. 219.] that of the terrestrial paradise, "we find ourselves entering a forest, and even a thick forest"; his first aim being to show evidence of the perfect liberty of the purified and noble human being, and "of the purity and sinlessness of the new nature converting pathless ways into happy ones. So that all those fences and formalisms which were needed for him in imperfection, are removed in the paradise."

It was into this wood that Dante entered; his path

  "Was bounded by a rill which to the left,
  With little rippling waters bent the grass,
  That issued from its brink."

His wondering eyes pass onward to survey

  "The tender May-bloom, flushed through many a hue,
    In prodigal variety."

He saw the lady all alone on the opposite side of the little stream of Lethe, singing and "culling flower from flower"; Ruskin explains her pure gladness as her delight in the works of God, and shows how the symbolic character of this lady, the Countess Matilda, was that of the glorified active powers of man; she was Dante's guide in the terrestrial paradise, as Beatrice, the type of the contemplative powers of man, became his guide in the Paradise. The vision of Rachel and Leah had represented "the active life which has only the service of man for its end." Leah decorated herself with flowers, Rachel contemplated herself. But in heaven's vestibule the delight was in God's work; as in heaven itself, Beatrice, after looking down for a moment, turns again "towards the eternal fountain."

Ruskin again and again defines true art (in similar words, much goodness and happiness also) as "the expression of man's delight in God's work. Wisdom (he says) measures all worthiness by pure felicity." [Eagle's Nest" 21.]

In this connection one is reminded of a beautiful passage in "Lorna Doone":
  "By the side of the stream she was coming to me, even among the primroses, as if she loved them all, and every flower looked the brighter as her eyes were on them. I could not see what her face was, my heart so awoke and trembled, only that her hair was flowing from a wreath of white violets, and the grace of her coming was like the appearance of the first wind-flower. The pale gleam over the western cliffs threw a shadow of light behind her as if the sun were lingering. . . . . The tremulous thrill of her song was hanging on her open lips, and she glanced around as if the birds were accustomed to make answer." Then, after she had seen the youth: "She had kept her eyes upon me, large eyes of a softness, a brightness, and a dignity which made me feel as if I must for ever love and yet for ever know myself unworthy. Unless themselves should fill with love, which is the spring of all things."

Perhaps many readers have in this lovely scene (ch. Xvi.) felt themselves in the atmosphere of Dante's terrestrial paradise; the stream, the flowers, the singing, the delight, all are there. Love's purifying power reveals Nature to the girl; she is made glad by the works of God; the boy is purified and ennobled by his love for her. Surely this is a glorified form of "the old, old story," a bit of pure gold without alloy.

To pass on to mental gloom, it is remarkable that Dante places the sighing multitude, the idly melancholy, in the fifth circle of Inferno; the wrathful are a miry tribe in the mud of the Stygian lake; the gloomy cause the bubbles on its surface by their sighs:
  "Fixed in the slime they say: 'Sad once were we
  In the sweet air made gladsome by the sun
  [Nell' ner dolce che dal sol s'allegra],
  Carrying a foul and lazy mist within;
  Now in these murky settlings are we sad.'
  Such dolorous strains they gurgle in their throats,
  But word distinct can utter none."

Ruskin's insistence on a gladness cannot escape the attention of any careful reader of his books; he exhorts working men to educate themselves and their children so as to make them capable of honesty and capable of delight, and to rescue themselves from iniquity and agony; he urges girls to try always not to mortify but to vivify themselves; he declares that men help each other by their joy, not by their sorrow; he deplores that "half the world will not see the terrible and sad truths which the universe is full of, but surrounds itself with little clouds of sulky and unnecessary fog for its own special breathing."

Dante's protest against gloom of heart and unnecessary sadness is connected with his keen and sensitive love of sunshine. With this protest we may also connect his symbolic colour system, which was that of the Middle Ages, colour being "associated with life in the human body, with light in the sky, with purity and hardness in the earth--death, night, and pollution of all kinds being colourless. Love is so red that in the midst of the fire she could hardly have been seen."

  "Tanta rossa, cha a pena fora dentro al foco nota."

"He is of all poets the most subtle in his sense of every kind of effect of light," writes Ruskin, who thus refers to his own sympathetic feeling; "I am not a poet, nor in any articulate manner could I the least explain to you what a deep element of life for me is in the sight merely of pure sunshine on a bank of living grass." Wordsworth attributes to childhood the gladdest

perception of "splendour in the grass"; but poets have an eternal childhood, the grass never loses its splendour or the flower its glory for them; true seers see more instead of less as they advance in life; an imaginative perception, which is well-nigh impossible in childhood, supersedes its glad exultation, and, unless in failing strength, the man feels more deeply and truly than the boy.

Elsewhere Ruskin dwells on the opposing of heavenly light to earth darkness in art, and says: "Make the sky calm and luminous, and raise against it dark trees, mountains, or towers, or any other substantial and terrestrial thing in bold outline, and the mind accepts the assertion of this great and solemn truth with thankfulness." And again: "With the earlier and mightier painters of Italy, the practice is commonly to leave their distance of pure and open sky of such simplicity that it in nowise shall interfere with . . . . the interest of the figures, and of such purity that, especially towards the horizon, it shall be in the highest degree expressive of the infinite space of heaven."

We see therefore in Dante and Ruskin the same keen sympathy with the brighter aspects of Nature; sunshine is dear to both, both are sensitive to it; they are at one in their healthy protest against needless gloom, and, like Spenser's knight, they do battle with Sansjoy. This persistent recognition of the gladness which is inseparable from the goodness of rightly directed human effort in a beautiful setting of well-ordered civic or country life is, however, quite consistent with deep melancholy and a bitter consciousness of personal loss and suffering. The most mightily passioned souls are, of course, the most capable of both joy and sorrow; no mean cowardice is theirs, no "great refusal" spares them blame or responsibility. Ruskin writes in 1875: "Though in my own fortune unprosperous, and in my own thoughts and labour failing, I find more and more every day that I have helped many persons unknown to me; that others in spite of my failures begin to understand me, and are ready to follow; and that a certain power is indeed already in my hands, woven widely into the threads of many human lives; which power, if I now laid down, that line (which I have always kept the murmur of in my ears, for warning, since first I read it thirty years ago),

  'Che fece per viltate 'l gran refiuto,'

would be finally and fatally true of me." And he adds in a note--"Inferno iii, 60: I fear that few modern readers of Dante understand the dreadful meaning of this hellish outer district or suburb, full of the refuse or worthless scum of humanity--such numbers that 'non havercei creduto che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta'--who are stung to bloody torture by insects, and whose blood and tears together--the best that human souls can give--are sucked up on the hell-ground by worms."

A man who writes thus is not of the number of those "che mai non fur vivi," but rather like George Herbert's "honest man":

  "He that doth still, and strongly, good pursuer;
  To God, his neighbor, and himself most true.
  *   *   *   *
    Whom others' faults do not defeat;
  But though men fail him, yet his part doth play."

Dante's power of invective in such passages as the one beginning: "Ahi serva Italia!"
  "Ah, slavish Italy! Thou inn of grief;
  Vessel without a pilot in loud storm";

and again:

  "Christians like these the Ethiop shall condemn"'


  "What may the Persians say unto your kings
  When they shall see that volume in the which
  All their dispraise is written, spread to view?"

And his fine irony in his address to Florence:

  "Make thyself glad, for thou has reason now,
  Thou wealthy! thou at peace! thou wisdom-fraught;"

in "Christians and proud!" has surely its counterpart in passages in Ruskin's works, too long to quote here, in which he denounces with scathing reproach that foolish national pride which, in the face of misguided multitudes, commercial dishonesty, and pitiless luxury, rejoices in a so-called unparalleled prosperity.

Dante writes of the Emperor, "who might have healed the wounds whereof fair Italy hath died"; of the tears and mourning caused to Florence by the pride and excess engendered by "an upstart multitude and sudden gains," he looks back regretfully to earlier times, to

  "The ladies and the knights, the toils and ease
  That witch'd us into love and courtesy,
  Where now such malice reigns in recreant hearts";

to the days when Florence

  "Was chaste and sober, and abode in peace;
  She had no armlets and no head-tires then,
  No purified dames, no zone that caught the eye
  More than the person did."

When his ancestor, Cacciaguida,

  "Saw Bellincion Berti walk abroad
  In leather girdle and a clasp of bone,
  And, with no artful colouring on her cheeks,
  His lady leave the glass;"

when the good dames handled the spindle, and the flax, and told "old tales of Troy and Fesole and Rome"; and Ruskin loves to conserve and to restore all that is beautiful and seemly in the manners of an earlier day, finding more that is congenial to his taste in calm and graceful simplicity than in the haste and luxury of modern life.

We have now seen that there is in Ruskin the same moral rectitude, the same keen sense of justice, the same sensitive delight in Nature and life, the same protest against gloom, the same scorn of what is base, the same love of simplicity of manners, which are some of the special characteristics of Dante.

We do not find in the grave Tuscan any of the playfulness of the Teuton. We have irony, naivete, noble grotesqueness, sarcasm; the groveling are to grovel still, thieves are changed into serpents, forgers are covered with leprosy, peculators are boiled in pitch, the false prophets who pretended to see too far before them have to look backwards evermore. But of what we understand by humour, surely there is no trace in Dante.

We find in Dante a noble pride and a supreme humility. He knows he has acquired honour for his "beauteous style"; he writes of the "salutation kind" of the four great poets who made him of their tribe; yet he exclaims:

       "O glorious stars!
  O light, impregnate with exceeding virtue!
  To whom whate'er of genius lifteth me
  Above the vulgar, grateful I refer."

In this connection, the following passage of "Modern Painters" [Vol. iii. 266.] is full of interest:

"I believe the first test of a truly great man is humility. I do no mean by humility, doubt of his own power, or hesitation in speaking his opinions, but a right understanding of the relation between what he can do or say, and the rest of the world's sayings and doings. All great men not only know their business, but usually know that they know it; and are not only right in their main opinions, but they usually know that they are right in them; only they do not think much of themselves on that account. Arnolfo knows he can build a good dome at Florence; Albert Durer writes calmly to one who had found fault with his work, 'It cannot be better done'; Sir Isaac Newton knows that he has worked out a problem or two that would have puzzled anybody else: only they do not expect their fellow-men, therefore, to fall down and worship them; they have a curious under-sense of powerlessness, feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them; that they could not do or be anything else than God made them."