The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages

Italian Literature

Page 2

Forth went they from my breast that throbbed and ached;

With such a pang as oftentimes will bathe

Mine eyes with tears when I am left alone.

And still those sighs which drew the heaviest breath

Came whispering thus: "O noble intellect!

It is a year to-day that thou art gone."

IV. The Close of the Vita Nuova.

Beyond the sphere which spreads to widest space

Now soars the sigh that my heart sends above;

A new perception born of grieving Love

Guideth it upward the untrodden ways.

When it hath reached unto the end and stays,

It sees a lady round whom splendors move

In homage; till, by the great light thereof

Abashed, the pilgrim spirit stands at gaze.

It sees her such, that when it tells me this

Which it hath seen, I understand it not;

It hath a speech so subtile and so fine

And yet I know its voice within my thought

Often remembereth me of Beatrice:

So that I understand it, ladies mine.

After writing this sonnet, it was given unto me to behold a very wonderful vision, (2) wherein I saw things which determined me that I would say nothing further of this most blessed one, until such times as I could discourse more worthily of her. And to this end I labor all I can; as she well knoweth. Wherefore if it be His pleasure through whom is the life of all things, that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman. After the which may it seem good unto Him who is the Master of Grace, that my spirit should go hence to behold the glory of its lady: to wit, the blessed Beatrice, who now gazeth continually on His countenance qui est per omnia soecula benedictus. Laus Deo. (3)


Midway in life the poet finds himself lost in the forest of worldly cares, beset by the three beasts, Pride, Avarice, and Worldly Pleasure. Virgil, who is the embodiment of moral philosophy, appears and leads him through the Hell of worldly sin and suffering, through the Purgatory of repentance, to the calm of the earthly Paradise. Mere philosophy can go no further. The poet is here taken under the guidance of Beatrice, the embodiment of divine wisdom, who leads him through Paradise to the throne of God. Such, in the briefest form, is the argument of the Divine Comedy; this statement carries the actual story and the allegory side by side.

The first division of the triple vision is the Inferno. Dante's Inferno is an inverted cone, having its mouth in a deep rugged valley, its sides sloping down to the center of the earth. When Lucifer fell from heaven the earth retired before him, making this hollow cone. This is divided into nine circles, in which the lost souls suffer. These souls are grouped into three main classes: the incontinent, the violent, and the fraudulent.

The first circle of the Inferno is Limbo, where are the souls of children and the unbaptized; of the heathen philosophers and poets. They are neither in pain nor glory. They do not shriek nor groan but only sigh.

I. The Poets in Limbo. From the Inferno.

Broke the deep slumber in my brain a crash

Of heavy thunder, that I shook myself,

As one by main force roused. Risen upright,

My rested eyes I moved around, and search'd,

With fixed ken, to know what place it was

Wherein I stood. For certain, on the brink

I found me of the lamentable vale,

The dread abyss, that joins a thundrous sound

Of plants innumerable. Dark and deep,

And thick with clouds o'erspread, mine eye in vain

Explored its bottom, nor could aught discern.

"Now let us to the blind world there beneath

Descend;" the bard began, all pale of look:

"I go the first, and thou shalt follow next."

Then I, his alter'd hue perceiving, thus:

"How may I speed, if thou yieldest to dread,

Who still art wont to comfort me in doubt?"

He then: "The anguish of that race below

With pity stains my cheek, which thou for fear

Mistakest. Let us on. Our length of way

Urges to haste." Onward, this said, he moved;

Of the first circle that surrounds the abyss.


We were not far

On this side from the summit, when I kenn'd

A flame, that o'er the darken'd hemisphere

Prevailing shined. Yet we a little space

Were distant, not so far but I in part

Discover'd that a tribe in honour high

That place possess'd. "O thou, who every art

And science valuest! who are these that boast

Such honour, separate from all the rest?"

He answer'd: "The renown of their great names,

That echoes through your world above, acquires

Favour in heaven, which holds them thus advanced."

Meantime a voice I heard: "Honour the bard

Sublime! (5) his shade returns, that left us late!"

No sooner ceased the sound, than I beheld

Four mighty spirits towards us bend their steps,

Of semblance neither sorrowful nor glad.

When thus my master kind began: "Mark him,

Who in his right hand bears that falchion keen,

The other three preceding, as their lord.

This is that Homer, of all bards supreme:

Flaccus the next, in satire's vein excelling;

The third is Naso; Lucan is the last.

Because they all that appellation own,

With which the voice singly accosted me,

Honouring they greet me thus, and well they judge."

So I beheld united the bright school

Of him the monarch of sublimest song, (6)

That o'er the others like an eagle soars.

When they together short discourse had held,

They turned to me, with salutation kind

Beckoning me; at the which my master smiled:

Nor was this all; but greater honour still

They gave me, for they made me of their tribe;

And I was sixth amid so learn'd a band.

II. Francesca da Rimini. (7) From the Inferno.


2. This we may believe to be the vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise---the vision which gave him the argument of the Divine Comedy.  (back)

3. Who is blessed throughout all ages. Praise to God.  (back)

4. Dante called his poem a comedy, he says, for two reasons: because it has a sad beginning and a cheerful ending,and because it is written in a "middle" style, treating alike of lowly and lofty things.  (back)

5. The bard sublime----Virgil.  (back)

6. The monarch of sublimest song----Homer.  (back)

7. Francesca da Polenta was given in marriage by her father to Lanciotto da Rimini, a man brave, but of deformed person. His brother Paolo, who was exceedingly handsome, won her affections. They were both put to death by Lanciotto.  (back)

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