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for the enjoyment of connubial felicity, and deemed, but erroneously, that he would find it in a union with Mary Powell.
The wide-spread fame of Dante for his Beatrice is chiefly founded on his enigmatic piece named the Vita Nuova, which is regarded as a genuine and ingenuous narrative of his early blown and early blighted affection. Let us then cast a glance at this narrative, first premising that all we really know of the domestic history of Dante is, that he was married, and, we believe, at an early age, to a Florentine lady, named Gemma Donati, by whom he had several children, but on what terms or in what manner they lived is quite unknown.
The poet tells us that one day, toward the close of his ninth year, in what place he does not say, he chanced to behold “the
, glorious lady of his mind, who was called Beatrice by those who did not know how to call her.” She was then just entering her ninth year, and was habited in a sanguine or crimson dress. Three spirits within him then spoke Latin, and Love took entire possession of his soul. He used thenceforth to go constantly and endeavour to catch a sight of this angel. At the end of his eighteenth year it befell that he saw her in the street, dressed in white, and accompanied by two ladies older than herself, and she gave him a virtuous salute, the first time he ever heard the sound of her voice; and this, he observes, was at the ninth hour of the day precisely. He retired forthwith to his chamber, where he thought himself to sleep, in which he had a marvellous vision. A cloud of the colour of fire appeared in the chamber, in which he discerned a Lord of awful aspect, but who seemed quite joyful. He held in his arms a naked person, asleep and covered with a sanguine cloth, whom the slumbering poet recognized for the lady who had saluted him the day before, and in his hand something burning, which he said was the sleeper's heart. He then awoke the lady, and made her, though rather unwillingly, eat the burning heart. Soon after, his joy was converted to weeping, and with the lady in his arms he ascended to heaven. Dante awoke
. then in great affliction, and setting himself to think, he found that it was the fourth hour, i. e. the first of the nine last hours
of the night, that the vision had appeared to him. As at this time he was skilled in poetry, he composed a sonnet narrating his vision, which he sent to the principal poets of the time, and in which he saluted all the Fedeli d'Amore, and besought them to interpret his vision. They complied with his request; and the answers of three are extant, namely Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoja, and Dante da Majana.
Here we may offer a remark. What can be more improbable than the whole of the preceding narrative? Is it at all likely that a lad of eighteen would venture to write to a man of the rank, the age, and the learning of Guido Cavalcanti, to consult him on his dream ? and that he would reply with all seriousness? But among these renowned poets and lovers is Cino da Pistoja, who was born in 1270; and if, as is the general belief, Dante was born in 1265, Cino could only have been thirteen years of age when he was thus celebrated. Making every allowance for southern precocity, this is hardly credible.
Some time after this event, the father of Beatrice died; and not long after, that angel herself departed, to the grief of her lover. This took place, he informs us, on the first hour of the ninth day of the month," in that year of our indiction, that is, of the years of our Lord, in which the perfect number was completed nine times in that century in which she was placed in the world;" i.e. in 1281, nine being what, as the square of three, etc., was regarded as the perfect number. He tells us that this number was friendly to her, to show that all the nine movable heavens had conspired to generate her, and that she was herself by similitude the number nine, the root of which is nothing else but the adorable Trinity. The whole city was widowed and despoiled of all dignity, as it were, by her departure, on which occasion Dante wrote a Latin letter to the Princes of the Earth, commencing with the Quomodo sedet sola civitas ! of the prophet Jeremiah.
Beatrice, as we see, died in 1281, and as the poet was born in 1265, he could not be more than sixteen at the time; yet he has just told us that he was eighteen when she first saluted him. This the advocates for the reality of his love en
deavour to evade, by asserting without any, and contrary to all, evidence, that ten is the perfect number. But again, the letter of which he speaks, and which is still extant, was written in 1314, and addressed to the Italian cardinals,-to whom the Pope had given the title of Principes Terre,—to induce them to try to bring the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon, whither it had lately been removed.
Boccaccio, in his curious and enigmatic Life of Dante, tells us that Beatrice was the daughter of Folco Portinari, one of the principal citizens of Florence; and by his will, dated January 15, 1287, still extant, Folco leaves a legacy to his daughter Beatrice, the wife of Simon de' Bardi; so that it appears that all this excess of passion was for the wife of another man, and we have a pendent to the tale of Petrarca and Laura. As we have seen, Dante was probably himself married at the time; and our firm belief is, that he never had any passion for Beatrice Portinari, either single or married, and that the Beatrice of his poetry, like the Mandetta or Giovanna of Guido Cavalcanti, the Selvaggia of Cino da Pistoja, the Laura of Petrarca, the Fiammetta of Boccaccio, and so many other ladies, generally first met in Passion Week, and who all died before their lovers, was a pure Donna di Mente, a personification of the poet's mind and its leading idea, the longed-for reform in Church and State.
Having thus viewed the two poets as lovers, we should now consider them as statesmen. But we do not think that this term applies accurately to Milton. He was never engaged actively in politics; he merely wrote some political treatises, and his only business as Secretary of the Council seems to have been to put into good Latin matters of which a draught was probably given him in English. With Dante all was dif- · ferent. Even from the scanty notices we possess of his life, we may learn that he was an ardent partisan in politics; he had borne arms for and against his native city, had had a share in her government, had been condemned by her, innocent and unheard, to exile and confiscation of his property, and had been on embassies to various courts and states.
We have only to look at the portraits of the two poets, the one by Giotto, the other by Faithom, to see the difference of their characters. Of the former, Mr. Macaulay observes, with his usual felicity, "No person can look on the features, noble even to ruggedness, the dark furrows of the cheek, the haggard and woful stare of the eye, the sullen and contemptuous curve of the lip, and doubt that they belong to a man too proud and too sensitive to be happy.” In the portrait of Milton, taken when he was six years older than the age at which Dante died, we discern seriousness, rendered probably more severe by his want of vision, but the calmness and dignity resulting from inward peace of mind, as of one whose thoughts were habitually nigh sphered in heaven. Nothing therefore can be more unlike than the aspects of these two illustrious poets. The same difference we discern in their poetic characters. In vigour they are alike; in perception of beauty, whether in the moral or the natural world, we cannot pronounce either to be inferior; yet perhaps the Terrestrial Paradise is richer and more varied in natural charms in the Paradise Lost than in the Purgatorio. In sublimity we give the palm to the English, in tenderness and pathos to the Tuscan, poet; we do not think that Dante could have written the two first books of Paradise Lost, we feel almost certain that Milton could not have narrated the sad tale of Francesca da Rimini, or the horrid fate of Count Ugolino, as they are narrated in the Inferno. As strong feeling of one kind is usually united with strong feelings of other kinds, so in Dante there is an intensity and bitterness of satire of which the calmer nature and more pious spirit of Milton was incapable. In vividness of representation and graphic power we must award the prize to Dante. His life was one of wandering, he had traversed the plain, the vale and the mountain, he had probably dwelt in the cot as well as the palace, and hence his similies and descriptions, being actual transcripts from nature, present the objects themselves to our senses. Milton, as we have already observed, saw life and nature chiefly through the medium of books, and hence we rarely meet in him with that accuracy of observation which distinguishes Dante. We would liken Milton to Raphael and those artists who, taking their sketches from nature, give reins to imagination and produce pieces beyond what actual nature presents; while Dante may be in general compared with those who are called Preraphaelites, who copy nature faithfully and accurately, but rarely venture to go beyond her. In fact, he usually presents to us as a simile, the very object that he has copied. Milton also was quite devoid of, and Dante possessed in the highest degree, that power by which Swift makes us almost believe in the existence of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, when by seriousness of tone and manner, minuteness and circumstantiality of narrative, and apparent anxiety for accuracy, the writer would fain persuade us of the actual truth of what he is telling us.* In learning, Milton, of course, as born at a later period, and after the invention of printing, had the superiority. We also think that he may have possessed more dramatic power and talent than the Italian poet, whose country has never signalized itself in the higher departments of the drama.
We come now to the poems, and here also we fail to recognize much similarity. In Paradise Lost, the poet, as we have seen, related what he regarded as real events, and even his descriptions of places beyond this visible diurnal sphere' had in his conception a certain degree of reality. The Commedia, on the contrary,—the true reason of its bearing that title is probably all its personages being masked,—is confessedly allegoric, with a secret meaning in every line and almost in every word. How then can we compare them ? Milton's Heaven and Hell are real material places lying out in the vast regions of space; the Inferno and Paradiso of Dante, though real too, but in a different sense, are, as will appear, on this earth, and even in Italy. In structure and design the poems also are quite unlike. We may compare Paradise Lost to a magnificent temple of the Doric order, rich in material, simple in design, intended to last for ages, inspiring each successive generation with sentiments of piety and veneration ;
* This did not escape Mr. Macaulay.