Saturday, December 26, 2015
Dante as a Poet of the Supernatural 1921
DANTE AS THE POET OF THE SUPERNATURAL, article in the Current Opinion 1921
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Six hundred years after the death of the poet Dante in Ravenna, Italy, the world resounds with his name and fame. Not Italy alone is entering on immense plans which include a new edition of Dante's works at national expense, the engraving of a portrait to be presented to every school child, and the restoration of houses and churches connected with his life. The same spirit, if on a less ambitious scale, is manifesting itself in practically all the European countries and even in Japan, while America, through its Dante Memorial Association and Italy America Society, is getting ready to celebrate the centenary. Dante has never been neglected in this country. A number of distinguished American scholars, among them Longfellow, Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton, vouch for our genuine interest in the great Florentine, and two new translations of Dante's poems by Americans have just appeared.
If the question is asked why Dante's influence is still so powerful and so widespread, several answers are possible. It is true that Dante used the Italian language with unexampled precision and purity. It is true that he was a herald of romantic love. It is also true that he voiced, in a special sense, the spirit of the Middle Ages. But the real reason for his enduring hold on the imagination of mankind would seem to lie in the fact that he was, above all, the poet of the soul and that his greatest poetry is “shot through,” as M. Lincoln Schuster puts it in the Boston Transcript, “with the spiritual flame of abiding faith.” Dante was a God-intoxicated man. Briefly, his masterpiece, the “Divine Comedy,” tells how he went astray in the forest of sin and doubt, how by the intercession of Beatrice he was granted permission to visit a world beyond the grave-to pass through the punishment of the Inferno, repent on the mountain of the Purgatory, and finally ascend to the glory of Paradise. At a time when many of the greatest writers have lost faith in God and immortality, it is interesting, if only by way of contrast, to look back to this poet of the supernatural whose aim was not to please us but to rebuke, to reprove, to exhort, to help men by teaching them what kind of life will meet with reward or with penalty in the dim hereafter.
The keynote of the “Divine Comedy,” as F. Moynihan points out in an article in the Catholic World (New York), is struck in the first can to of the “Paradiso,” which sings the glory of God:
“There is enunciated the Eternal Law by which all created things conform to the Divine Excellence, after which they are patterned, by fulfilling the conditions of their being. Love is the principle whereby God draws back to Himself all creatures that He has made— whether inanimate, sensitive, or rational—by the tendencies or inclinations He has given them to seek the end for which they were ordered and disposed." To this final end of creation nature tends of itself by virtue of the laws that govern its operations; to this tend the heavens by their orderly revolutions; to this the angels by their ministry and governance. In man alone are God's purposes set at naught by means of his free-will which may follow after 'unreal semblances of Good." This de-ordination of human love from God, its true Goal and Object, introduces a discord into the cosmos of existence, and necessitates the suffering, temporary or eternal, which is the inevitable penalty of sin.”
Taking up the story at its very start, we find Dante confronted in a dark wood by the leopard of sensuality, the lion of ambition and the wolf of cupidity. To teach him a way of avoidance and to lead him to the Delectable Mountain, Virgil, here conceived as the embodiment of Human Philosophy, is recalled from Limbo. He is summoned at the instance of Beatrice Portinari, the lady “enskyed and sainted,” whose ideal beauty and goodness had become for Dante the means of ascent to the love of God. With Virgil as his guide, our poet descends the spiral circles of Hell, noting, as he passes, the legend inscribed over the entrance: “Justice the founder of my fabric moved. . . . All hope abandon, ye who enter here!”
There are three grand divisions, it seems, of this nether world in which the vices that comprise human wrong-doing, namely, incontinence, violence and malice, are expiated by modes of punishment corresponding to their enormity. The “Inferno" depicts the hideous consequences of these vices in a series of physical images.
The penalties meted out to the wicked symbolize the character of their crimes, Thus, “the victims of lawless desire, Paolo and Francesca, are whirled round eternally in the blasts that typify their own gusty passions. The sullen are sunk in the fumes of their own distempered humor. Hypocrites go tricked out in the gilded, leaden mantles of their sanctimony. Heretics, like Farinata and Frederic II., who denied the immortality of the soul, are encased in the fiery tombs of their hopeless infidelity. Judas and his kind are pent in the icy abandonment of their cold-blooded treachery." The writer continues:
“In bold, sweeping strokes Dante paints the background of this fuliginous Under-world. His genius is the golden bough that makes us free of its secrecies. With him we journey by the sad wave of Acheron and hear the alti guai of the damned. We descry through the murky air the lurid mosques of the city of Dis, and blench at the eldritch shrieks of the fiends and the Furies who would deny entrance into their citadel. We hearken to the boiling of the river of blood as Phlegethon runs hurtling down unplumbed abysses. We scale toilfully the beetling crags that wall in the cloisters of Malebolge. We cower beneath the impending bulk of the giant, Antaeus, as he looms above us like the leaning tower of Garisenda. We tread the realms of thick-ribbed ice-the dungeon of Lucifer—where Ugolino gnaws forever the skull of Ruggieri. About us is the fetid atmosphere of sin, charged with the nameless abominations of the reprobate. The only respite from these horrors is the occasional inset of natural landscape-some pastoral of Italian uplands, some idyll of the Casentine's cool runnels, or Ulysses' sea-faring-that gratefully relieves the calenture bred by the mephitic reek of Hell.”
Emerging from the infernal regions, Dante enters on the via purgativa of Salvation. There are seven terraces that girdle the conical Mound of Purgatory, and on them penitent souls are purified from the remains of the seven . . deadly sins – Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Luxury. The modes of purification are Contrition, Confession and Satisfaction. The “Purgatorio,” in Mr. Moynihan's view, is the most winningly human part of the “Divine Comedy.” It abounds, he says, in exquisite artistic sketches-cameos imaged from the classics and Holy Writ; vignets of land and sea, wood and river; delicate nocturnes of Italian hamlets.
“Many an engaging portrait is limned in its pages—the knightly troubador, Sordello; the intriguing sluggard, Belacqua; the modest person of Nella; the lovely, wailing figure of La Pia. The poem is instinct with the spirit of aspiration, of loving-kindness, of angelic visitings, of Divine clemency. That the Goodness of God has wide arms of mercy is vouched for by the salvation of King Manfred and Buonconte (by virtue of 'una lagrimetta') at the last; by the redemption of the Emperor Trajan because of his good deed; by the conversion of the poet, Statius, through his reading of Virgil. Nowhere else is the state of suffering souls so vividly realized, nor the Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints so well authenticated as in their constant pleas for intercession of the faithful.”
As Dante, in the company of Beatrice, speeds from the lowest to the highest of the heavens, he traverses the via illuminativa of divine knowledge. The mystical vision, culminating in union with God, thus becomes the substance of the “Paradiso." It is, as Mr. Moynihan describes it, “a new Apocalypse wherein through the medium of light, motion, music, he seeks to shadow forth the glories of the supernal world.” The spirits of the blessed assume sensible form, and expound the mysteries of Predestination, of the Godhead, of the Redemption.
The last stage of Dante's pilgrimage is reached beyond the Heaven of Saturn. Here monastic spirits meditate and here he is examined in the theological virtues by the Apostles Peter, James and John.
“Then, after viewing the Primum Mobile circling in movements of seraphic love of God, Dante, under the auspices of the great mystic, St. Bernard, enters the via unitiva of the Empyrean. There he beholds the sainted hosts of the heavenly court (among them his patronesses, Lucia and Beatrice), queened over by Mary, Mother of God, in the semblance of the great White Rose of Paradise. By virtue of St. Bernard's superb canticle of intercession to the Blessed Virgin, Dante obtains the grace of the Beatific Vision. With eyes euphrasied by the lumen gloriae, he gazes on the Divine Exemplar in Whom is resumed the essence of all created things. He contemplates the Triune God, and apprehends mysteries which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to conceive. Then his vision ends, consummated in the blessedness of ‘the Love that moves the Sun and all the stars.'"
Dante's poem is interpreted by this Roman Catholic writer as the drama of a soul that came through much tribulation from the human to the divine, from time to eternity. It is the product, he says, of a finely tempered nature, “impressionable in every guise," through the alembic of whose genius things earthly are sublimated into their heavenly values, and Christian truth is distilled from pagan lore. It records the discipline by which the youthful troubador was lessoned into Christian stoicism and mysticism.
"For Dante is at once poet and philosopher, Scholastic and mystic, Aristotelian in mind and Platonist at heart. He has the Scholastic acumen and the mystic insight to sift the material that nature and life present to the senses, and to disengage its spiritual content. He has the faculty of moral vision that pierces through the show of things, and lays bare the soul of men and cities. He has the Stoic gravitas, and the fine impatience of the worldly concerns men waste their lives upon:
The heavens are calling you and wheel around you, Displaying to you their eternal beauties, and still your eye is looking on the ground; Whence He, Who all discerns, chastises you."
The “Divine Comedy" of Dante has been called the swan-song of Scholasticism. It exemplifies rather, Mr. Moynihan assures us, the power of the wing, the flight of the eagle. “Those who today enter into its secret places can feel upon them the impulsion of its spirit, and can still hear beating through the clear, cold air ‘the mighty pulse of the eagle's wings as he soars with steady eyes against the Sun.'”
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