Page images
PDF
EPUB

son by the goddess Circe, who gets into a scuffle with the Ithacans, and kills his father unknowingly. It is added that Telegonus afterwards returned to his mother's island, taking Penehis lope and her half-brother Telemachus with him; and here a singular arrangement takes place, more after the fashion of a modern Catholic dynasty, than an ancient heathen one; for while Edipus was fated to undergo such dreadful misfortunes for marrying his mother without the knowledge of either party, Minerva herself comes down from heaven, on the present occasion, to order Telegonus, the son of Ulysses, to marry his father's wife; the other son at the same time making a suitable match with his father's mistress, Circe. Telemachus seems to have had the best of this extraordinary bargain, for Circe was a goddess, consequently always young; and yet to perplex these windings-up still more, Telemachus is represented by some as marrying Circe's daughter, and killing his immortal mother-inlaw. Nor does the character of the chaste and enduring Penelope escape in the confusion. Instead of waiting her husband's return in that patient manner, she is reported to have been overhospitable to all the suitors; the consequence of which was a son called Pan, being no less a personage than the god Pan himself, or Nature; a fiction, as Bacon says, "applied very absurdly and indiscreetly." There are different stories respecting her lovers; but it is reported that when Ulysses returned from Troy, he divorced her for incontinence; and that she fled, and passed her latter days in Mantinea. Some even go so far as to say, that her father Icarius had attempted to destroy her when young, because the oracle had told him that she would be the most dissolute of the family. This was probably invented by the comic writers out of a buffoon malignity; for there are men, so foolishly incredulous with regard to principle, that the reputation of it, even in a fiction, makes them impatient.

Now it is impossible to say, whether Dante would have left Ulysses quietly with Penelope after all his sufferings, had he known them as described in Homer. The old Florentine, though wilful enough when he wanted to dispose of a modern's fate, had great veneration for his predecessors. At all events, he was not acquainted with Homer's works. They did not make

their way back into Italy till a little later. But there were Latin writers extant, who might have informed him of the other stories relative to Ulysses; and he saw nothing in them to hinder him from giving the great wanderer a death of his own.

He has accordingly, with great attention to nature, made him impatient of staying at home, after a life of such adventure and excitement. But we will relate the story in his own order. He begins it with one of his most romantic pieces of wildness. The poet and his guide Virgil are making the best of their difficult path along a ridge of the craggy rock that overhangs the eighth gulf of hell; when Dante, looking down, sees the abyss before him full of flickering lights, as numerous, he says, as the fireflies which a peasant, reposing on a hill, sees filling the valley, of a hot evening. Every flame shot about separately; and he knew that some terrible mystery or other accompanied it. As he leaned down from the rock, grasping one of the crags, in order to look closer, his guide, who perceived his earnestness, said, "Within those fires are spirits; everyone swathed in what is burning him." Dante told him, that he had already guessed as much; and pointing to one of them in particular, asked who was in that fire which was divided at top, as though it had ascended from the funeral pile of the hating Theban brothers. "Within that," answered Virgil, "are Diomed and Ulysses, who speed together now to their own misery, as they used to do to that of others." They were suffering the penalty of the various frauds they had perpetrated in concert; such as the contrivance of the Trojan horse, and the theft of the Palladium. Dante entreats, that if those who are within the sparkling horror can speak, it may be made to come near. Virgil says it shall; but begs the Florentine not to question it himself, as the spirits, being Greek, might be shy of holding discourse with him. When the flame has come near enough to be spoken to, Virgil addresses the "two within one fire ;" and requests them, if he ever deserved anything of them as a poet, great or little, that they would not go away, till one of them had told him how he came in that extremity.

At this, says Dante, the greater horn of the old fire began to lap hither and thither, murmuring; like a flame struggling with the wind. The top then, yearning to and fro, like a tongue try.

ing to speak, threw out a voice, and said: "When I departed from Circe, who withdrew me to her for more than a year in the neighborhood of Gaieta, before Æneas had so named it, neither the sweet company of my son, nor pious affection of my old father, nor the long-owed love with which I ought to have gladdened Penelope, could conquer the ardor that was in me to become wise in knowledge of the world, of man's vices, and his virtue. I put forth into the great open deep with only one bark, and the small remaining crew by whom I had not been left. I saw the two shores on either side, as far as Spain and Morocco; and the island of Sardinia, and the other isles which the sea there bathes round about. Slowly we went, my companions and I, for we were old; till at last we came to that narrow outlet, where Hercules set up his pillars, that no man might go further. I left Seville on the right hand; on the other I had left Ceuta. O brothers, said I, who through a hundred thousand perils are at length arrived at the west, deny not to the short waking day that yet remains to our senses, an insight into the unpeopled world, setting your backs upon the sun. Consider the stock from which ye sprang: ye were not made to live like the brute beasts, but to follow virtue and knowledge. I so sharpened my companions with this little speech on our way, that it would have been difficult for me to have withheld them, if I would. We left the morning right in our stern, and made wings of our oars for the idle flight, always gaining upon the left. The night now beheld all the stars of the other pole; while our own was so low, that it arose not out of the ocean floor. Five times the light had risen underneath the moon, and five times fallen, since we put forth upon the great deep; when we descried a dim mountain in the distance, which appeared higher to me than any I had seen ever before. We rejoiced, and as soon mourned: for there sprung a whirlwind from the new land, and struck the foremost frame of our vessel. Three times, with all the waters, it whirled us round; at the fourth it dashed the stern up in air, and the prow downwards; till, as seemed fit to others, the ocean closed above our heads."

Tre volte il fè girar con tutte l' acque :

A la quarta levar la poppa in suso,

E la prora ire in giù, come altrui piacque,
Infin ch 'l mar fu sopra noi richiuso.

Why poor Ulysses should find himself in hell after his immersion, and be condemned to a swathing of eternal fire, while St. Dominic, who deluged Christianity with fire and blood, is called a Cherubic Light, the Papist, not the poet, must explain. He puts all the Pagans in hell, because, however good some of them may have been, they lived before Christ, and could not worship God properly-(debitamente). But he laments their state, and represents them as suffering a mitigated punishment; they only live in a state of perpetual desire without hope (sol di tanto offesi)! A sufficing misery, it must be allowed; but compared with the horrors he fancies for heretics and others, undoubtedly a great relief. Dante, throughout his extraordinary work, gives many evidences of great natural sensibility; and his countenance, as handed down to us, as well as the shade-struck gravity of his poetry, shows the cuts and disquietudes of heart he must have endured. But unless the occasional hell of his own troubles, and his consciousness of the mutability of all things, helped him to discover the brevity of individual suffering as a particular, and the lastingness of nature's benevolence as a universal, and thus gave his poem an intention beyond what appears upon the sur. face, we must conclude, that a bigoted education, and the fierce party politics in which he was a leader and sufferer, obscured the greatness of his spirit. It is always to be recollected, however, as Mr. Coleridge has observed somewhere in other words, that when men consign each other to eternal punishment and such-like horrors, their belief is rather a venting of present impatience and dislike, than anything which they take it for. The fiercest Papist or Calvinist only flatters himself (a strange flattery, too!) that he could behold a fellow-creature tumbling and shrieking about in eternal fire. He would begin shrieking himself in a few minutes; and think that he and all heaven ought to pass away, rather than that one such agony should continue. Tertullian himself, when he longed to behold the enemies of his faith burning and liquefying, only meant, without knowing it, that he was in an excessive rage at not convincing everybody that read him.

CHAPTER XVIII.

Far Countries.

If it IMAGINATION, though no mean thing, is not a proud one. looks down from its wings upon common-places, it only the more perceives the vastness of the region about it. The infinity into which its flight carries it, might indeed throw back upon it a too great sense of insignificance, did not Beauty or Moral Justice, with its equal eye, look through that blank aspect of power, and re-assure it; showing it that there is a power as much above power itself, as the thought that reaches to all, is to the hand that can touch only thus far.

But we do not wish to get into this tempting region of speculation just now. We only intend to show the particular instance in which imagination instinctively displays its natural humility; we mean, the fondness which imaginative times and people have shown for what is personally remote from them; for what is opposed to their own individual consciousness, even space, in farness of situation.

in

range

of

There is no surer mark of a vain people than their treating other nations with contempt, especially those of whom they know least. It is better to verify the proverb, and take everything unknown for magnificent, than predetermine it to be worthless. The gain is greater. The instinct is more judicious. When we mention the French as an instance, we do not mean to be invidious. Most nations have their good as well as bad features. booths. In Vanity Fair there are many

The French, not long ago, praised one of their neighbors so highly, that the latter is suspected to have lost as much modesty, as the former gained by it. But they did this as a set-off against their own despots and bigots. When they again became the greatest power in Europe, they had a relapse of their old egotism. The French, though an amiable and intelli

« PreviousContinue »