The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Educational Value of Great Books: Dante
by W. Osborne Brigstocke
Last month in my notes on Homer, I was able to choose one particular aspect of the Iliads and the Odyssey: I endeavoured to show how the feeling of reverence was one of the dominant features of that civilisation, as it must be of every true civilisation. I might have chosen other subjects suggested by different points of view, and I might have treated them without reference to the main purpose of the poems. But with Dante such a course is impossible. One cannot read the Divine Commedy in a fragmentary way; he must, if he start at all, follow the poet "down through the world of infinite bitterness, and o'er the mountain of repentance, and afterwards through heaven from light to light."* The poet sailed a sea that had never yet been passed, and to those who would follow him without a fervent longing he gave the warning to turn back, "lest, peradventure, in losing him they might themselves be lost." And, in truth, the poem is one of the most difficult to study: "it is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force or a lesson, it is a rigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man." [Gladstone's letters.]
[* For the sake of simplicity I omit references to the passages of the Divine Commedy which I quote here and subsequently. I need only add that I have throughout made use of Longfellow's translation, and of the notes issued in George Routledge and Sons edition, which have been invaluable.]
Many will agree with this last sentiment, with the exception of the statement that it is a pleasure; to most, the first perusal of the Commedy must be absolutely devoid of that. It seems so obscure, so full of startling incongruities, so liable to shock all our ideas of fitness, that we are tempted to reject it altogether. But there are certain passages which at once catch eye and ear; so beautiful are they that they seem sufficient to compensate all the rest. One is surprised to find the poem, which lays claim to being one to which both heaven and earth have set their hand, filling the mind with a sense of the beauty of Christianity, and of the spiritual significance of earthly loveliness. When one is told that the angels in heaven are dazzling splendours, moving like "a swarm of bees that sinks in flowers one moment and the next returns to where its labour is to sweetness turned," or like "the rooks that together at the break of day bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold with dew, when some fly off without return, others come back to where they started from and others, wheeling round, still keep at home"; when the eternal happiness in heaven is compared with "a lark that sings and then is silent with content of the last sweetness that does satisfy her"; when the numberless ranks of happy souls that stand round the light of light are described as being like a hill that "mirrors itself in water at its base, as if to see its beauty when affluent most in verdure and in flowers"; when heaven's care and watchfulness are likened to a bird mid the beloved leaves—
"Quiet upon the nest of her sweet brood
And when one is told that "the soul comes from the hand of God, as a little child weeping and laughing in its childish sport, a guileless soul, which knows nothing, save that, moved by its joyful Creator, willingly it turns to that which gives it pleasure"; when, I say, such sublime poetry as this occurs in the midst of all that seems so unintelligible at first, one is bound to confess that if the poem seems strange, eccentric and obscure, in all probability it is we who are wanting and not the poet.
Lowell writes: "One is sometimes asked by young men to recommend to them a course of reading. My advice would always be to confine yourself to the supreme books in whatever literature; still better, to choose some one great author and grow thoroughly familiar with him . . . In order to understand perfectly and weigh exactly any really vital piece of literature, you will be gradually and pleasantly persuaded to studies and explorations of which you little dreamed when you began, and you will find yourselves scholars before you are aware. If I may be allowed a personal illustration, it was my own profound admiration for the Divina Commedia that lured me into what little learning I possess . . . The moment you have an object and a centre, attention, the mother of memory, is quickened, and whatever you acquire groups and arranges itself in an order which is lucid because it is everywhere in intelligent relation to an object of constant and growing interest."
But Dante has not been a guide only to young men; he has always, and probably ever will be, one of the leading influences, in the world of thought. English literature, for instance, owes an inestimable debt to Dante; traces of it are met with everywhere from Chaucer to Ruskin. A man like Gladstone claims that a great part of his mental provision was learnt in the school of Dante; Macaulay boasts of being thoroughly penetrated with the spirit of the poem [Macaulay's Diary.]; Italian statesmen are advised to study the Commedia in every period of crisis [Döllinger.]; it is alleged that Italian art only began to decay when artists ceased to carry Dante in their hearts (Dante en sich zu tragen). [Grimm: Leben Michelangelo] But to insist on the influence of Dante seems superfluous: for, after all, the most important thing for us is to know how he can make us feel the importance of his message, the force of his great faith, the depth of his spiritual love, the earnestness of his representation of the odiousness of sin and the beauty of holiness. And if we set to work with energy, perseverance and intensity, we cannot but discover that, like Peter of Spain, Dante still "shines here below" in his wonderful poem, and that, like the wonderful Gothic cathedrals, he is the incarnation of the thought and religion of centuries, gives in poetic form the essence of Christian philosophy, and stands as a glorious monument of the ages so falsely designated by the epithet "dark." And just as the Gothic cathedrals may be said to be "epics in stone," so is the Commedia the epic poem of Christianity, the fountain of art, poetry and thought in every Christian land. Strike but below the surface, reach but beyond the difficulties which crop up in every canto, read on and let nothing tempt you to say "this is too hard for me," and there will blaze before you the beauty of Christianity; and when once you have seen this vision of the unseen world, it will become a parcel of your mind, a gem set in your thoughts, a constant reminder of the Christian answer to the great questions:—Why? Because He calls us. How? By faith in Christ. To what end? To bring our manhood to perfection.
When we open the volume, we read that Dante had lost his way within a forest dark, and that, fearing the dangers of the gloomy spot, he was returning, rushing downward to the lowland, when Vergil met him—the poet—from long-continued silence hoarse, and bade him follow him into the realm below, where there is neither light nor hope, there to behold the nature of sin and its inevitable wages. There Dante saw the grim reality and unity of wrong: sin knowing no degrees, for it is either sin and, as such, death, or it is erring, redeemed by a turning, however weak or faint, to the great source of light. Vergil led him into the place where dwell those who by sin are separated from this life. There, in the dim, thick atmosphere, are the souls that flutter and fall like leaves in autumn time, some hither, thither, downward, upward in the infernal hurricane that ever hurtles onward those spirits who reason subjugate to appetite—are others battered for the pernicious sin of gluttony by rain or hail or snow which pour amain athwart the tenebrous air—are those who in the sweet sunlit air were sullen and bore within themselves a sluggish reek and now are sullen in the mire—are those who by violence did injury to others and now are boiling in the river of blood—are others wandering o'er a vast sand waste where fire falls in flakes on those who have done violence to God; and as the poet follows his guide over steep ridges, jagged crags, half-shattered bridges o'er-spanning abysses marvelously dark, wherein glowed fires seeming to be amid fissures, narrow valleys shut in by black precipitous cliffs and looming summits, round which there echoed far-off lamentations and the sound of a crashing whirlpool veiled by the darkness below—noises and voices struggling up from uncovered depths, which bathed themselves with tears of agony, up through a dimness lit by the spasmodic glow of flames which flickered in the city of Dis, where, on the blazing summit of a high tower, stood the infernal furies, blood-stained, clothed with serpents and green hydras, each one rending her breast with her nails—and so on past the sinners suffering various punishments: here the deformed by crime, there some half-buried or totally immersed in fire or mire or ice, midst groaning forests, pools of blood or pitch, in which the demons themselves become entangled—the horror of the scene intensified rather than relieved by the sweet story of Francesca, by the meeting with Brunetto, who, when in the world from hour to hour taught Dante how a man becomes immortal, by the loving intercourse between the author and his guide, by the appearance of the angel sent from heaven to aid them on their way.
What is the meaning of this awful sight? And why does Dante keep us so long gazing on nothing by "visible darkness," on sin and suffering in every conceivable form? Why does he summon all the force and resource of his poetic genius to make real to us the horrors of such an infernal place? Only for one reason, I imagine—to convince us of the reality and odious nature of sin. Just as when a cat kills a pet canary, it is shown the dead bird and punished in view of it, so does Dante take us into hell and say, "there is sin; you and I sin; that is what you and I must necessarily come to if we persist in sinning. I saw it all; perhaps you have never seen it before, but now it must be visible to you."
Of course, no one in England now thinks quite as Dante did with regard to the reality of a definite place of punishment—a material hell below. But the belief in a very real punishment for all sin must always exist in one form or another. Nowadays hell is said to be in the world and not below it. The essential point, of course, is not where it is, but that it is; it is a thing that cannot pass, because it is the natural consequence of sin. However unwilling modern sentimentality may be to subscribe to the doctrine of eternal punishment, which is labeled "monstrous," many men have a half-stifled conviction that, however strange and inexplicable may be the fact that we can voluntarily quench for ever the life within us, we cannot be more just than God, and that, whether or not some have been created to perish, there is a voice which speaks within giving assent to the teaching that the "wages of sin is death."
When Dante had finished writing the Inferno, he wandered through Italy, to be inspired by the calm and beauty after that terrifying darkness. "And he passed through the diocese of Luni, moved either by the religion of the place or by some other feeling. And seeing him, a friar questioned him of his wishings and his seekings there. He moved not, but stood silently contemplating the columns and arches of the cloisters. And again the friar asked him what he wished and whom he sought. Then slowly turning his head and looking at the friars, he answered, 'Peace!' Thence kindling more and more the wish to know him, and also who he might be, the friar led him aside somewhat, and having spoken a few words with him, he knew him; for although he had never seen him till that hour, Dante's fame had long since reached him. And when Dante saw that he hung upon his countenance and listened to him with strange affection, he drew from his bosom a book, did gently open it, and offered it to him, saying, "Sir Friar, here is a portion of my work, which peradventure thou hast not seen. This remembrance I leave with thee. Forget me not.'" [* Letter of Frate Ilario]
And throughout the Purgatorio there is this lovely atmosphere of peace and beauty. There is the far-off trembling of the sea at dawn when in the cloudless aspect of the pure air is upgathered the sweet colour of the oriental sapphire, and the lovely planet "that to love incites, making the orient to laugh," fields and valleys full of flowers, emerald, gold and silver, scarlet and pearl white, the sweetness of a thousand odours making a fragrance mingled and unknown, a place where falleth neither rain nor hail nor snow, where clouds do not appear, where music steals and voices sing in such wise that speech cannot express it. There all the officers are angels—one like a bright light along the sea swiftly coming with white wings pointing up to heaven, fanning the air, so radiant that near by the eye could not endure him; two others armed with flaming swords and wearing garments green as budding leaflets, trailing and fluttering in the wind of their verdant wings; another like sunbeam leaping from off the water or a mirror—these and much else compose that beautiful land where sinning souls have turned to God and yearn for punishment as much as once they loved to sin. The Canto describing the triumph of the Church is one of the most marvellous portions of this poem; the combination of colour, song and fragrance, the majestic movement of the train, and the sublime spirit of the allegory, together form a song which we can never tire of. There is another scene, too, on which I like to dwell, the night spent on the rock-stair path:—
"Straight forward through the rock the path ascended
This vision of Rachel and Leah—the flowers and meadows dreamed of in this rocky mountain path—the sunlight of a day past still lingering in the mind and mingling with thoughts that are half prophetic—all this forms one of the most perfect dreams I have ever read or even dreamt of, for, alas, our dreams are as poor as we! It is all so beautiful that I despair of giving even the faintest idea of it: and yet, what are all these charms of colour, form and scent compared with the artistic and spiritual conception, with, for instance, the exquisite metaphors and thoughts that adorn every page:
"'Twas now the hour that turneth back desire
is the rich chord Dante strikes instead of the single note. And who cannot forget the way in which the whole mountain trembles when a soul feels itself pure, so that it soars aloft; or the breezes and birds and trees of the terrestrial paradise?
Thence we are led into the realm of peace and gladness, where souls dwell in that sea of light to which all things created move. There all is joy: a joyful Creator loves the brightness that finds pleasure in His will; there all is absorbed in God, growing brighter with happiness just as on earth we smile for pleasure; so resplendent is the glory there that the most effulgent mortal power would seem a leaflet that the thunder crushes and where the melody is so soft and perfect that earth's most soul-enthralling music is like hoarse thunder in comparison. To reach that place, even in conception, we must take wings and fly. Dante has "set before us," and we must feed ourselves: even "if his utterance be offensive at the first taste, a vital nutriment 'twill leave thereafter when it is digested."
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Nothing can be more striking—I will even say revolting—than the horrible physical nature of the suffering in Dante's hell. There is something rather diabolic in the fertile imagination which invented such a rich variety of tortures. But few can fail to notice that the bodily pain is really subordinate to the agony of the wages of sin. Most of the poor ghosts seem to be less occupied with the punishments than with the cause of their plight; if I may use the expression, they seem so hardened to their particular kind of scourge that their thoughts are wholly turned towards the past; having no hope, they do not care to look into the hopeless future. It is, perhaps, the most vivid illustration ever given to the text, "The wages of sin is death." And of course no one can fail to realise that the punishments, far from being arbitrary, are strictly logical symbols of the effect of sin.
"Justice of God, ah! Who heaps up so many
What more astonishing, for instance, than the logic of the whirlwind which hurtles souls like those of Paolo and Francesca in any direction? And it makes one almost shudder to recall the terrible words of Minos:
"Peradventure thou didst not think that I was a logician!"
As to the mental aspect of the poem, little need be said, for it is known to be one of the most erudite and obstruse and, at the same time, most artistic poems ever written. A man who understands every historical, mythological and topographical allusion in the Commedia may claim to be fairly well informed. But it is not mere heaping together of a mass of facts that constitutes a valuable mental exercise. Dante, it must be remembered, has virtually given us in poetic form the philosophy, the theology, the mysticism, the dialectics, and the politics of the great medieval thinkers and "angelic" doctors. But at the same time he was original in that he combined these various elements and produced an harmonious whole. At the time, little or nothing was known of anything not connected with Greek, Latin, or Christian civilisation. Dante's solution of the mystery of being is a tribute to the power of Christianity, all the more wonderful and amazing for having accomplished what it did without the aid or influence of other and older civilisations. It represents to us the supreme and unassisted effort of Christian literature outside the Scriptures.
Dante had a most ideal conception of the power of will, and his whole moral teaching is based upon it. He tells us that "will is never quenched unless it will," and that, like fire, it operates in spite of obstacles. "Will absolutely consenteth not to evil," from which the inevitable deduction is that when will yields, it seconds the opposing force—evil. But he does not ignore the fact that will absolute is a thing seldom, if ever, met with in the world, and he comforts us with assurance that we have opportunity given to us for repentance, if, "having power to sin, we turn to God." If not, we must separate from this life, that is, we forfeit the invaluable faculty of hope—and that means death. He tells us that "the aim of the whole and of the individual parts of the Commedia is to redeem those who live in this world from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss." And if will power is to be the foundation of the moral life, love is to be the essence of the spiritual. "Virtue through the body shines," and this shining is the same as the brightness of the beings in heaven, whose splendour becomes more intense when the pleasure of doing good increases. The object of existence is to gain our life and to advance—and that "every part to every part should shine," until finally that Love, which governs the heavens, lifts us with its light up to the stars towards which the poet's eyes have incessantly been turned, up to the realm beyond, where all is light and love, and where the chief and only pleasure is oneness with the will of God. And then we reach a glory so intense "that brightest seraphim approach not, but with both wings veil their eyes."
"O grace abundant, by which I presumed
W. Osborne Brigstocke
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008
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