The Last Lecture in Professor Norton's Course on Dante.
As far as we have gone up to this time in the Divine Comedy, said Professor Norton, Dante has travelled through the regions of Hell and Purgatory in a world of realities, where all was visible and tangible, but from this time on we are to follow him through a spiritual world, and to the journey we must bring greater imagination than has been necessary heretofore. Up to this time the experience of Dante in the world of the dead has been preternatural; from this time on it is supernatural. That there is much in this part of the Divine Comedy that will seem crude in conception is unquestionable, but to the careful student and to the lover of higher poetry, Dante's picture of Paradise will be a fitting conclusion to his wonderful poem. In studying Dante we should bear in mind that he had no mode or guide to follow in his writing. The Divine Comedy was the first poem of its kind that the world had seen. It was marvellous that there should suddenly have appeared in a country which could boast no literature, a poem of such large design, and such masterly execution, and of a sweetness and strength that has never since been attained by any poet.
Reason in the person of Virgil, has guided Dante through the realms of Hell and Purgatory, and has finally departed from him in the Earthly Paradise. There Revelation meets him, in the person of Beatrice, and conducts him through the seven heavens to the throne of God. The picture of Hell was one of darkness and horror; that of Purgatory was one of light, color, and hope; and that of Heaven is one of light, glory and joy.
Swifter than lightning Dante transcends the earth, and travels from planet to planet towards the highest beatitude. The first heaven is the planet of the Moon, where dwell the souls of those whose wills though set upon virtue, were unstable in character. From the Moon Beatrice lifts Dante with a look to the second heaven of Mercury, where rest the souls of those who have pursued honor and glory on earth. Their low station in heaven is owing to their excessive desire for honor while in the world of the living. The third sphere is that of the planet Venus, the last to which the shadow of the earth reaches. Here are the souls of those whose perfect virtue has been injured by the mingling of divine and sensual love in their hearts. Thus Dante and Beatrice rise through the seven degrees of blessedness, and Dante talked with the joyful spirits, and increased in wisdom. Still led by the wonderful reflected light in the eyes of Beatrice, Dante ascends among the fixed stars. Here his eyes are cleared, and he looks back at the earth, which seems so mean and little, and smiles. Above him is the living light of Christ so bright that even his eyes can not endure it. He is now tested by St. John and by St. Peter in regard to Faith, Hope and Charity. In these he is not found wanting, and he rises still further. Here he finds joy that transcends every sweetness. The livid light shines about him with such brightness that everything is rendered invisible. Once more he mounts beyond his own power into the very presence of God. His eyes are strengthened and he sees everything with perfect clearness, although the light is much greater than before. Beatrice leaves Dante here, and takes her place upon the third circle from the throne itself, which place she had made for herself by her virtue upon earth. By the earnest entreaty of Beatrice, Dante is lifted into the highest circles of salvation. It is a fitting consummation of the form and of the life of a poet. In 1320 the Divine Comedy was finished, and in the next year Dante died.
Above all other poetry, the Divine Comedy is the record of a lofty character and a manly earnestness of purpose. Dante did not fail in the indirect accomplishment of his attempt to lead men to righteousness. In every generation men have listened to his words and been helped by them. If we read the poem simply for the sake of the poetry, we find in it a pleasure, which only the words of the great poet can give us. The reader of the poem becomes its lover. Poetry is the garb which wisdom has chosen for itself, and the lover of poetry is the lover of wisdom.