Dante's Great Poem
W HILE Marco Polo was living his curious life in the Chinese Court of the Great Khan, there was growing up in Florence a man who was to become famous for all time. This Italian, Dante, was to be the spokesman of the Middle Ages: he was to be the voice of the last ten silent centuries—a very landmark of history.
Of his life itself there is but little worthy of record. He first makes his appearance at the age of nine—a shy, sensitive boy with large dark dreamy eyes and a curly head full of the strangest fancies.
One day at a children's party in Florence, Dante met the little Beatrice, simply enough dressed in a crimson frock. To the dreamy poet-boy the little girl was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and from that day she became, what knighthood was to the young men of the Middle Ages, his ideal, something he must live to be worthy of. Though Beatrice died when Dante was yet a young man of twenty-four, he kept her as his ideal right through his life; and as she plays a large part in his life, so she plays a large part in his great poem.
He was educated after the fashion of his day, but with no printed books his knowledge was necessarily limited. All that he learnt was in Latin, which was the language of all learned people at this time. He served in the wars of his country, for Florence was torn by strife and divided by party; and Dante loved Florence as Socrates had loved Athens. The State accepted his talents and devotion, and by the time he was thirty-five he had risen to a post of honour in the city.
Then disturbances arose, feeling ran high, parties were divided; and the result was that Dante, in the full vigour of his manhood, was exiled from his own city, doomed henceforth to a life of woe and wandering. Not only was he banished from Florence, but if caught he was to be burnt alive. Later it was proposed that Dante should apologise, pay a fine to the State, and return.
"If I cannot return without calling myself guilty, I will never return," answered this man with fixed stern pride.
For Dante now there was no home in the world. He wandered from place to place, from patron to patron, always working to get back to his beloved Florence, but in vain.
"How hard is the path," he exclaims bitterly.
Hard it was indeed. Alone, friendless, hopeless, cast out of his home for ever, to wander over the face of the cold earth, with no living heart to love him, no kindred soul to comfort him, Dante now turned his thoughts to another world, and tried to imagine what it would all be like. And so, brooding over the unknown in speechless gloom, he bursts forth at last into the wonderful song we delight in to this day, known as the Divine Comedy.
It was the story of a vision Dante supposed he saw—a vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It took him years to write, for it was written with pain and toil, with "his heart's blood." None could hinder him now, he had found his work to do, he would not rest till that work was done.
"Follow thou thy star," he could say to himself in his extremest need; "thou shalt not fail of a glorious haven."
He has passed from the cold world of reality into the spirit world, and all the Christianity that had been creeping over Europe during the Middle Ages is summed up in Dante's great poem.
But not only is this Divine Comedy of Dante's the first great Christian poem, but it is the opening of a new European era of song, the beginning of a language and a national literature. For it is written in the Italian language, the language of the people, and not in Latin or Greek, the language of the learned only. A few books had been translated into the language of the people by Alfred the Great of England and other scholars, a few songs had been composed in the language of France. But no great work had been written in any of the languages of modern Europe till Dante wrote his great poem in the language of Italy.
So he did more for his country than he can ever have expected to do, when he left it sorrowing and alone, for he laid the foundation of the union of divided Italy. The people in the cities, such as Venice, Milan, and Genoa, were eager to claim Dante as a countryman, one who spoke and wrote in the language of their country. He had become the one world-voice.
The great work done, the poet died, still an exile, it is said, broken-hearted. In the vision of his life he had reached Paradise and had seen again the Beatrice whom he loved, his goal and his ideal.
Here we must leave the poet, but from out the long ages Dante still speaks for those to hear who