1824
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Criticisms on the chief Italian Writers. No. I. Dante.

Knight's Quarterly Magazine 2 (January 1824) 207-23.

Thomas Babington Macaulay


Writing as "Tristram Merton," young Macaulay declares that "Even Spenser's allegory is scarcely tolerable, till we contrive to forget that Una signifies innocence, and consider her merely as an oppressed lady under the protection of a generous knight" p. 220. Henry Francis Cary's recent translation of Dante had attracted new attention to Dante, often at the expense of Spenser, whose use of allegory would was increasingly slighted as nineteenth-century readers came to know Italian poetry at first hand.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "Knight's Quarterly Magazine died after completing three volumes. It is very difficult to be obtained now, at any price, in England, and is curious as containing among other things, as much of Macaulay's poetry and prose as would fill a volume" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 1:364.

George Saintsbury: "When we first meet him as a critic of scarcely four-and-twenty, in the articles contributed to Knight's Quarterly, we may feel inclined to say that nobody whom we have yet met (except perhaps Southey) can have had at that age a wider range of reading, and nobody at all an apparently keener relish for it. He is, what Southey was not, a competent scholar in the classics; he knows later (if unfortunately not quite earlier) English literature extraordinarily well; he has, what was once common with us, but was in his days getting rare, and has since grown rarer, a pretty thorough knowledge of Italian, and he is certainly not ignorant of French (though perhaps at not time did he thoroughly relish its literature), while he is later to add Spanish and German. But he does not only know, he loves. There is already much personal rhetoric and mannerism especially in the peroration of his review of Mitford's Greece, where he reproaches that Tory historian with his neglect of Greek literature. But it is quite evidently sincere. He displayed similar enthusiasm in his earlier article on Dante, and he shows wonderful and prophetic knowledge of at least parts of literature in his paper on the Athenian Orators, as well as in the later article on History, belonging to his more recognised literary period. From a candidate of this kind, but just qualified to be a deacon of the Church in years, we may surely expect a deacon in the craft of criticism before very long, particularly when he happens to possess a ready-made style of extraordinary, and not merely, popular qualities. There are some who would say that this expectation was fully realised: I am afraid I cannot quite agree with them" History of English Criticism (1911) 443.




No person can have attended to the Divine Comedy without observing how little impression the forms of the external world appear to have made on the mind of Dante. His temper and his situation had led him to fix his observation almost exclusively on human nature. The exquisite opening of the eighth canto of the Purgatorio affords a strong instance of this. He leaves to others the earth, the ocean, and the sky. His business is with man. To other writers, evening may be the season of dews and stars and radiant clouds. To Dante it is the hour of fond recollection and passionate devotion, — the hour which melts the heart of the mariner and kindles the love of the pilgrim, — the hour when the toll of the bell seems to mourn for another day which is gone and will return no more.

The feeling of the present age has taken a direction diametrically opposite. The magnificence of the Physical world, and its influence upon the human mind, have been the favourite themes of our most eminent poets. The herd of blue-stocking ladies and sonneteering gentlemen seem to consider a strong sensibility to the "splendour of the grass, the glory of the flower," as an ingredient absolutely indispensable in the formation of a poetical mind. They treat with contempt all writers who are unfortunately

—nec ponere lucum
Artifices, nec rus saturum laudare.

The orthodox poetical creed is more Catholic. The noblest earthly object of the contemplation of man is man himself. The universe, and all its fair and glorious forms, are indeed included in the wide empire of the imagination, but she has placed her home and her sanctuary amidst the inexhaustible varieties and the impenetrable mysteries of the mind.

In tutte parti impera e quivi regge
Quivi e la sua cittade e l'alto seggio.

Othello is perhaps the greatest work in the world. From what does it derive its power? From the clouds? From the ocean? From the mountains? Or from love strong as death, and jealousy cruel as the grave? What is it that we go forth to see in Hamlet? Is it a reed shaken with the wind? A small celandine? A bed of daffodils? Or is it to contemplate a mighty and wayward mind laid bare before us to the inmost recesses? It may perhaps be doubted whether the lakes and the hills are better fitted for the education of a poet than the dusky streets of a huge capital. Indeed, who is not tired to death with pure description of scenery? Is it not the fact, that external objects never strongly excite our feelings but, when they are contemplated in reference to man, as illustrating his destiny, or as influencing his character? The most beautiful object in the world, it will be allowed, is a beautiful woman. But who that can analyze his feelings is not sensible that she owes her fascination less to grace of outline and delicacy of colour, than to a thousand associations which, often unperceived by ourselves, connect those qualities with the source of our existence, with the nourishment of our in fancy, with the passions of our youth, with the hopes of our age, with elegance, with vivacity, with tenderness, with the strongest of natural instincts, with the dearest of social ties? To those who think thus, the insensibility of the Florentine poet to the, beauties of nature will not appear an unpardonable deficiency. On mankind no writer, with the exception of Shakespear, has looked with a more penetrating eye. I have said that his poetical character had derived a tinge from his peculiar temper. It is on the sterner and darker passions that he delights to dwell. All love, excepting, the half-mystic passion which he still felt for his buried Beatrice, had palled on the fierce and restless exile. The sad story of Rimini is almost a single exception. I know not whether it has been remarked, that, in one point, misanthropy seems to have affected his mind as it did that of Swift. Nauseous and revolting images seem to have had a fascination for his mind; and he repeatedly places before his readers, with all the energy of his incomparable style, the most loathsome objects of the sewer and the dissecting-room.

There is another peculiarity in the poem of Dante, which, I think, deserves notice. Ancient mythology has hardly ever been successfully interwoven with modern poetry. One class of writers have introduced the fabulous deities merely as allegorical representatives of love, wine, or wisdom. This necessarily renders their works tame and cold. We may sometimes admire their ingenuity but with what interest can we read of beings of whose personal existence the writer does not suffer us to entertain, for a moment, even a conventional belief? Even Spenser's allegory is scarcely tolerable, till we contrive to forget that Una signifies innocence, and consider her merely as an oppressed lady under the protection of a generous knight.

Those writers who have, more judiciously, attempted to preserve the personality of the classical divinities have failed, from a different cause. They have been imitators, and imitators at a disadvantage. Euripides and Catullus believed in Bacchus and Cybele as little as we do. But they lived among men who did. Their imaginations, if not their opinions, took the colour of the age. Hence the glorious inspiration of the Bacchae and the Atys. Our minds are formed by circumstances; and I do not believe that it would be in the power of the greatest modern poet to lash himself up to a degree of enthusiasm adequate to the production of such works.

Dante alone, among the poets of later times, has been, in this respect, neither an allegorist nor an imitator; and, consequently, he alone has introduced the ancient fictions with effect. His Minos, his Charon, his Pluto, are absolutely terrific. Nothing can be more beautiful or original than the use which he has made of the river of Lethe. He has never assigned to his mythological characters any functions, inconsistent with the creed of the Catholic Church. He has related nothing concerning them which a good Christian of that age might not believe possible. On this account, there is nothing in these passages that appears puerile or pedantic. On the contrary, this singular use of classical names suggests to the mind a vague and awful idea of some mysterious revelation, anterior to all recorded history, of which the dispersed fragments might have been retained amidst the impostures and superstitions of later religions. Indeed the mythology of the Divine Comedy is of the elder and more colossal mould. It breathes the spirit of Homer and Aeschylus, not of Ovid and Claudian. . . .


[pp. 218-21]