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Boniface VIII., the year when the predominant Guelf party in Florence split into the two factions of Bianchi and Neri, “ Whites” and “ Blacks," he sat for two months among the chief magistrates of the Republic, in which capacity he was compelled to send his dearest friend, Guido Cavalcanti, into the banishment which proved his death-warrant. When, in November, 1301, through the machinations of Pope Boniface and the treachery of Charles of Valois, the Neri triumphed, Dante was one of their first victims. After a preliminary condemnation, dated January 27, 1302, he was sentenced (together with fifteen other Florentine citizens) to be burned to death, if he should at any time come into the power of the Commune of Florence.

Already Dante seemed to himself to have found the key to the whole political riddle of the universe in the meaning of Roman history. He had become convinced that the Roman Empire of old was divinely ordained for the civilisation of the world and the promulgation of law, and that the Empire of his own day (for he does not distinguish between the two) was a divine institution no less than the Church, with authority proceeding directly from God for the establishment of universal peace and the renovation of mankind. In a famous passage at the beginning of the second book of the De Monarchia, he tells us how the realisation that the Roman People obtained the monarchy of the world by right came to him as a complete revelation, throwing light over the whole dark forest of mediæval politics, showing him the part he had to play, the doctrine he was to teach. And (he may well have asked himself, later on), although the imperial eagle was now held in the hand of a German prince, might not the Empire again become Italian, Roman once more in deed as it still was in name?

With the “ vision splendid " of that old ideal love, albeit dimmed in one who had become a votary of the world and the flesh, and with this newly apprehended, world-embracing political faith, Dante went forth to exile, with the Republic's sentence of death upon his head. For a brief while, he made common cause with his fellow-exiles, even with the enemies of his native land, striving to win his way back to Florence by force of arms. Then, probably in 1303, disgusted with his associates, he turns from them with contempt, to make a party for himself. He begins, but leaves unfinished, two prose works : the De Vulgari Eloquentia (circa 1304), “On Vernacular Eloquence,” in which he expounds the metrical form of the Italian lyric, and attempts to establish an ideal Italian language for the expression of the national idea; the Convivio (1306-1308), or

Banquet,” in which he sets himself to bring the fruits of philosophical reasoning down to the reach of the unlearned, in the form of a commentary on his own wonderful Canzoni, a series of philosophical, didactic, and amatory odes.

Then he is dragged back into the turmoil of politics. For it seems that the Imperial Redeemer is hand, now that the new Emperor, Henry of Luxemburg, has crossed the Alps (1310), and is coming to the Eternal City that sat widowed and alone, crying day and night for her spouse. We may read in the poet's letters how his spirit exulted in Henry, as in the heavenly directed regenerator of Christendom, the new Lamb of God who was to take away the sins of the world. And at the beginning of the De Monarchia, the treatise on the great question of Church and State, Papacy and Empire, which Dante probably wrote at this time in anticipation of Henry's coming, we find that all his previous work now appeared to him as nothing, that he seemed to himself still open to the charge of the buried talent - with the mission still unachieved of “ keeping vigil for the good of the world.” But, in less than three years from his coming to Italy, the Emperor had died in disgrace and failure (1313), and Dante was still a homeless wanderer, under proscription and ban, with a new condemnation pronounced against him by the magistrates of the Republic.

The alternations of impassioned hope, bitter disillusion, temporary despair, during the Emperor's unfortunate enterprise, had wrought a complete revulsion of the poet's being. Spiritual experiences, too, had been his of the kind known only to man himself and to the higher powers to whom he holds himself responsible. It is as one who has lost the world, and gained his own soul, that Dante now turned to the completion of his Divina Commedia, to combine the charge he believed laid upon him, of “ keeping vigil for the good of the world," with the promise he had made at the end of the Vita Nuova, to say of Beatrice “ what had never been said of any woman.

Gradually, during those long, weary years of exile, wandering in poverty from city to city throughout Italy, and perchance beyond its confines, showing against his will the wounds that fortune had dealt him, the poet's own life-story had become merged into that of all humanity. As from a

new

celestial watch-tower of contemplation, he had seen the world a prey to anarchy and tyranny, abandoned to lust, pride, and avarice. He had watched the oppressors of the poor at their work; had seen the evil deeds of the kings, the priests abandoning the teaching of the Gospel to acquire wealth and temporal power, the moral corruption of high and low spreading like a black torrent over the land. And, in his cell of self-knowledge, he had traced a like process in his own heart; he had seen the fair promise of his “ life” fade away, and had found himself sunk in what he deemed a life of sin. His own conversion becomes but a symbol of that to which he would incite man in general. His return, in an agony of repentance, to the memory of Beatrice, the love of his youth, now become the type of Divine Philosophy, is symbolical of the renovation which he believes in store for the whole human race, if it will but hearken to his message.

The Divina Commedia was finished at Ravenna, shortly before Dante's death, which took place on September 14, 1321. The concluding cantos of the Purgatorio and the whole of the Paradiso, in particular, bear the imprint of those last years of Dante's life, when, secure in the friend. ship of Can Grande della Scala, the warrior lord of Verona, and under the protection of Guido Novello da Polenta, the pacific ruler of Ravenna, with friends and disciples gather. ing round him, the poet found a not uncongenial refuge in that ancient Romagnole city, amidst the monuments of Cæsars and the records in mosaic of primitive Christianity, where the church walls testified the glory of Justinian, and the music of the Pine Forest sounded in his ears.

The vision of the world beyond the grave was no new thing in mediæval literature; but it had never before been made the basis of a work of universal appeal and universal significance. Dante's true precursors are not the obscure dreamers of dreams : Tundal, Alberic of Monte Cassino, the Monk of Eynsham, and the like; who described imaginary journeys through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

His inspiration on this side was purely Virgilian, and derived from the sixth book of the Æneid. Rather is he the poetic heir of Augustine's confession and spiritual reading of history; of Boëthius' philosophical passion and attempted reconciliation of man's freedom with God's foreknowledge; of Bernard's reforming zeal and contemplative fervour; of Richard of St. Victor in his mystical mounting upward of the human soul to union with the Divine; of Thomas Aquinas, in his adopting the wisdom of Aristotle to give organic form to the truths of revelation. Only, as a poet, Dante transcends all these things; while, at the same time, he brings them down from the possession of the few, to be the common heritage of all who listen to his song.

The Divina Commedia is thus far more than a mere vision of the spirit world, however perfectly realised. In it Dante has condensed all the wisdom and devotion of his age, and summed up all the finest spirit of the ages that have gone before his own. He is the soul of mediæval Catholicism, painting his picture of the material universe in the form of an allegorical vision of the supernatural world. He is a man with a mission; fiercely, terribly in earnest, to reform the corruption of the Church, to give new life to the State, to heal the wounds of his country. The object of his poem is professedly to remove men from their state of misery, and to lead them to the state of felicity. “ Not by the grace of riches, but by the grace of God,” he writes to the Italian Cardinals, I am what I am, and the zeal of His House hath eaten me up.” A famous passage, at the opening of the third book of his De Monarchia, strikes the key-note of all his work. Taking confidence from the words of Daniel : “He shut the mouths of the lions, and they have not hurt me; for justice was found in me in His sight”; he declares that, since Truth appeals to him from her immutable, throne, and the Philosopher bids him sacrifice friendship for her sake : “ Putting on the breast-plate of faith, according to the admonition of Paul, in the heat of that coal which one of the Seraphims took from the celestial altar and laid upon the lips of Isaiah, I will enter upon the present contest, and by the arm of Him who delivered us from the powers of darkness in His blood, I will cast the wicked and the liar out of the lists in the sight of all the world."

For his poetical purpose, Dante goes back to the year of the papal jubilee, 1300, the year in which he had sat for two months in the chief magistracy of the Florentine Republic. He is in the position of a man who is now, at the end of his life, relating to the world a vision which was vouchsafed to him, nearly twenty years before, for seven days, beginning at sunrise on Good Friday, which, in 1300, fell upon April 8. Hence, everything that happened to him, or to his fellowmen, after April, 1300, is spoken of as future, by way of prophecy, beginning with the account, in the sixth canto

of the Inferno, of the faction fight between the Bianchi and Neri in Florence on the May Day of that year.

Coming to himself in the dark forest of political anarchy and alienation from God, the forest into which he has, as it were in slumber, strayed, Dante, representative of the human race, is guided by Virgil (who stands for Human Philosophy and natural reason), through Hell and Purgatory, to the state of temporal felicity figured in the Earthly Paradise. There, in the state of innocence regained by the purgatorial pains, a further revelation is given him of the past, present, and future of the Church and the Empire; thence he is guided by Beatrice herself, the type of the Divine Philosophy that includes the sacred science of Theology (of which the ultimate end is the contemplation of primal truth in man's celestial native land), through the nine moving spheres, into the spaceless, timeless Empyrean Heaven of Heavens. There Beatrice resumes her throne in the white and gold Rose of Paradise, and Bernard, type of the loving contemplation in which the eternal life of the soul consists, commends the poet to the Blessed Virgin, through whose intercession he obtains a foretaste of the Beatific Vision of the Divine Essence,

But this is merely the framework, within which the society of thirteenth-century Italy is pictured. And, out of the Italy of his day, the poet grasps but the essentials of human nature-for man is avowedly the subject of the Divina Commedia. While, taken literally, the theme is the state of souls after death, the subject in the allegorical sense (Dante tells us in the letter dedicating the Paradiso to Can Grande) is “ man as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his will, he becomes liable to the justice that rewards or punishes."

Understood as Dante would have it, the Inferno is one of the most appalling things in literature. No doubt, the poet held some belief as to the torments of the damned in another life, more or less similar to what he has here depicted. But, at the same time, there is an allegorical significance throughout. Dante's Hell is the wickedness and corruption of the life that he saw around him, revealed in its proper aspect. “We still have judgment here!” That word of Shakespeare's is not without bearing upon Dante's conception of tragedy. In the Inferno, the poet may naturally seem more concerned with what he believes concerning the judgment hereafter; but, at the same time,

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