Dante and His Poem ; Domenico di Michelino, 1465
Extracts from :
The Value of the Study of Dante to Mothers
The Value of the Study of Dante to Mothers
"The last two centuries have been largely scientific and analytic. The effort has been to get away from the pictorial and symbolic, to get at the exact facts. Yet, after each new step forward in exact thinking, comes the reaction toward the more poetic forms of thought. The human imagination becomes hungry and demands that it shall have its share of intellectual food as well as the human reason.
This is the secret of the power which the world’s great poets have always exercised. They throw essential truth back into its embodied or symbolic form, so that the imagination may see it pictured forth even where the reasoning power is not strong enough to grasp it in its abstract form. The “myth” has always been the great educator of the race. The mighty prophets and seers of the past ages have ever made use of it as a means by which to express God’s messages to mankind.
Froebel, the apostle of childhood, illustrates to the mother how she can give an impression of a great spiritual law by means of a certain poetic presentation in play. He then adds:
“Behold then in this little play
A world-wide truth set free !
Easily may a symbol teach
What thy reason cannot reach.”
In fact, almost all of the kindergarten songs and stories and games have in them an inner or symbolic meaning. They not only teach to the child the facts of the world about him and guide him to observe accurately such properties of matter as form, color, number, position, size, etc., but they give him much deeper, more significant impressions of higher things.
The study of Dante emphasizes the value of the poetic form of expression for the experiences of the human soul. The Divine Comedy can be looked at in many ways, literally, politically, artistically and ethically. We could regard it merely as the imaginary experiences of a man who suddenly awoke and found himself in the midst of a dark wood, who in trying to find his way out was met by a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. He turns back in despair to the place “where the sun is silent,” but is met by the poet Virgil, who offers to show
another way out, and so on. These mere literal facts of the poem could not cause it to live in the hearts of men for six hundred years.
Some commentators have explained the poem to be the political disappointment of Dante, pouring itself out in bitter though brilliant imagery. The leopard is Florence, the lion is France, the she-wolf is the Papal power of Rome. But Florence and France and Rome have passed out of their supremacy in the minds of men, and the Divine Comedy still keeps its hold upon the affections of mankind. Some other meaning must lie in the poem, else we
would not be studying it to-day.
Is it not this ? Dante is giving us an account of the soul’s estrangement — that soul is his own soul, yet it mirrors also each soul which has wandered “from the true path.” In fact it describes the spiritual struggle of every soul which has felt that it was out of harmony with the divine order. The beasts of selfishness, of pride and of greed have stood in the way and obstructed the return to the path of light. The great question is, How can this soul get back into the right path ? It is the old story of Adam and the fall of man retold. It is the picture which every great poet holds up — man’s soul in a state of estrangement, and the struggle to get back to “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.” This will explain why the human heart for six hundred years has read and re-read the great poem of Dante.
Marvellous and significant indeed are the lessons which we can learn from it — lessons which can be applied every day to our own lives and the lives of those about us, who are groping blindly in “the dark wood,” yet who are longing to get out of their vice, or doubt, or despair. Is it self-indulgence ? Is it inordinate ambition, or is it greed of possession (not always money possessions) which stands in the way ? Must we pass through an inferno of suffering, and learn by experience that God’s way is the best way, or, can we learn that the way of the transgressor is hard from this great drama; learn, as it were, by “vicarious experience” instead of actual experience ?
Rightly understood, this is the office of every great soul, to save its fellow-mortals if possible from sin and suffering. Thus the Divine Comedy becomes the shield of Perseus in which the terrible gorgon head of evil may be seen and comprehended without withering or turning to stone the life that comes in contact with it.