Renaissance and Reformation

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The critics assign to Dante a pre-eminence over most of those we call immortal. Only two or three other poets in the whole realm of literature, ancient or modern, dispute his throne. We compare him with Homer and Shakspeare, and perhaps Goethe, alone. Civilization glories in Virgil, Milton, Tasso, Racine, Pope, and Byron,--all immortal artists; but it points to only four men concerning whose transcendent creative power there is unanimity of judgment,--prodigies of genius, to whose influence and fame we can assign no limits; stars of such surpassing brilliancy that we can only gaze and wonder,--growing brighter and brighter, too, with the progress of ages; so remarkable that no barbarism will ever obscure their brightness, so original that all imitation of them becomes impossible and absurd. So great is original genius, directed by art and consecrated to lofty sentiments.

I have assumed the difficult task of presenting one of these great lights. But I do not presume to analyze his great poem, or to point out critically its excellencies. This would be beyond my powers, even if I were an Italian. It takes a poet to reveal a poet. Nor is criticism interesting to ordinary minds, even in the hands of masters. I should make critics laugh if I were to attempt to dissect the Divine Comedy. Although, in an English dress, it is known to most people who pretend to be cultivated, yet it is not more read than the "Paradise Lost" or the "Faerie Queene," being too deep and learned for some, and understood by nobody without a tolerable acquaintance with the Middle Ages, which it interprets,--the superstitions, the loves, the hatreds, the ideas of ages which can never more return. All I can do--all that is safe for me to attempt--is to show the circumstances and conditions in which it was written, the sentiments which prompted it, its historical results, its general scope and end, and whatever makes its author stand out to us as a living man, bearing the sorrows and revelling in the joys of that high life which gave to him extraordinary moral wisdom, and made him a prophet and teacher to all generations. He was a man of sorrows, of resentments, fierce and implacable, but whose "love was as transcendent as his scorn,"--a man of vast experiences and intense convictions and superhuman earnestness, despising the world which he sought to elevate, living isolated in the midst of society, a wanderer and a sage, meditating constantly on the grandest themes, lost in ecstatic reveries, familiar with abstruse theories, versed in all the wisdom of his day and in the history of the past, a believer in God and immortality, in rewards and punishments, and perpetually soaring to comprehend the mysteries of existence, and those ennobling truths which constitute the joy and the hope of renovated and emancipated and glorified spirits in the realms of eternal bliss. All this is history, and it is history alone which I seek to teach,--the outward life of a great man, with glimpses, if I can, of those visions of beauty and truth in which his soul lived, and which visions and experiences constitute his peculiar greatness. Dante was not so close an observer of human nature as Shakspeare, nor so great a painter of human actions as Homer, nor so learned a scholar as Milton; but his soul was more serious than either,--he was deeper, more intense than they; while in pathos, in earnestness, and in fiery emphasis he has been surpassed only by Hebrew poets and prophets.

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