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FIRST ISSUE OF THIS EDITION
MEDIÆVAL literature may be said to begin with the l'ulgate of St. Jerome (405) and the City of God of St. Augustine (426). li ends with the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (1265-1274) and the Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri (1300-1321).
All the noblest thought and work of the ages that passed between the fall of the Roman Empire and the closing year of the thirteenth century, when Dante figures himself in allegorical fashion as having passed in ecstatic vision through the world beyond the grave, finds supreme artistic expression in his great poem. The intellectual subtleties of the schoolmen, the spiritual soarings of the mystics, the chivalrous worship of women that had been the gift of the troubadours of Provence to the sons of men, the philosophical devotion that the new poets of central Italy had reared upon it, the political dreams and theories of papal and imperial statesmen, builders of vast aerial fabrics of universal Roman Church and universal Roman Empire, have all shared in the making of it. Dante gives them fresh life; handling them with poetic passion, he endues them with unity of a new kind; these things, fused in his glowing imagination, become the harmonious accessories to his picture of man, his nature, his duties, his life, his destiny.
Dante was born at Florence in 1265. probably in the latter part of May, some eight months before the victory of Charles of Anjou over King Manfred at Benevento extin. guished the power of the Empire in Italy and placed a French dynasty on
the throne of Naples. His father, Alighiero di Bellincione Alighieri, came of an ancient but decadent and impoverished family, too unimportant to be officially ranked among the grandi, or magnates, who were excluded from the administration by the democratic rulers of the Republic. His mother, Monna Bella, died soon after his birth. In 1283, at the age of eighteen, he wrote the first of his poems that has been preserved to us : a sonnet in which he demands an explanation of a dream from all the faithful of Love"; and, in consequence, found himself recognised as a poet by the chief Italian poet then living, Guido di Cavalcante Cavalcanti, who became the first of all his friends. Study and manly exercise filled up the next few years of Dante's life. He served in the Florentine cavalry, fighting valiantly on horseback in the front rank,” at the battle of Campaldino on June 11, 1289, when the Aretines and other Tuscan Ghibellines were defeated by the forces of the Guelf league, of which Florence was the head. In June, 1290, Beatrice, the woman of the poet's romantic love and poetical homage, died; and, within the next few years, probably between 1292 and 1294, Dante gathered together the lyrics that he had written in her honour and connected them with a prose narrative, thus composing the Vita Nuova, the book of his “ New Life,” which he dedicated to Guido Cavalcanti, my friend to whom I am writing
The Vita Nuova, in its exquisite mingling of poetry and prose, shows us how, at the very outset, Dante learned to make of the love of woman a pathway from earth to Heaven. It sets forth a creed of love, as ideal as human nature can well sustain. The lover finds all his beatitude in the words that praise his lady, the splendour of whose soul has reached even to the throne of God. All evil thoughts perish when she passes by; she ennobles all upon whom she looks; she is the mirror of the Divine Beauty, “a thing come from Heaven to earth to make manifest a miracle." “ He seeth perfectly all salvation who seeth my lady.” When she passes out of the world : “ the delight of her beauty, departing itself from our view, became great spiritual loveliness, that spreads through Heaven a light of love that salutes the Angels, and makes even their high and noble intellects wonder.” The pilgrim spirit, passing in ecstatic contemplation through the spheres, guided up by the new intelligence that love has infused, is overwhelmed by the sight of her glory in Paradise, where she “ gloriously gazeth upon the countenance of Him who is blessed for ever and ever."
In the years that immediately followed the death of Beatrice, Dante fell into what he afterwards came to regard as a morally unworthy life. He became involved, too, in the politics of his native city, was called to play a prominent part therein, in the turbulent time that passed from 1295 to 1301; and bore himself manfully, but (as a fragment preserved from one of his lost letters admits) with some lack of prudence. In 1300, the year of the jubilee of Pope