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The Function of Poetry. - The Thirteenth Century in Italy.


Professor Charles Eliot Norton delivered the first of his lectures on Dante, last evening in Sanders Theatre before the largest audience that has greeted a lecturer here for several years. The lecture was an introduction to the discussion of the life and works of Dante. The functions of poetry, the beginnings of Italian Poetry, and the thirteenth century in Italy, were the subjects treated by Professor Norton. In brief the lecture was as follows:

Poetry is the endeavor of a man to give expression to that which is best within himself. The beautiful, it has been said, is greater than the good because it includes the good. We come nearest to the beautiful in poetry, indeed the test of poetry is its beauty. The neglect of poetry, and the consequent failure to appreciate the beautiful in art, not only deprives one of the most pleasurable of intellectual resources, but dulls the moral sensibility, and robs the character of its beauty and dignity. On the other hand a love for poetry transforms a man from a solitary individual into a part of the great human race, and reveals to him all that is best and most beautiful in the soul.

The poet is the interpreter of his age to itself, yet he is not the interpreter to his age alone. He is the contemporary of all ages. The Ilad and Odyssey are not antiquated and the characters of Shakespeare are all modern characters because human nature remains unalterable in its essential elements.

Homer, Shakespeare and Dante are closely bound together, though their methods of expression differed widely. Homer is plain and direct in the substance of his thought, and in the expression of it. With Shakespeare it is different. His characters have lost the simplicity of the older race. He is neither plain and direct in thought, nor in expression. Each of these poets, however, showed to us the scene of life without the interference of their own personalities. They showed us nature as reflected in a mirror. Dante is both a poet and a moralist. He is not content to give men a reflected view of life alone, but he uses his mirror as a medium through which to lead men on to righteousness. He is the chief poet of the higher inward experience of man. In order to understand the character of Dante it will be necessary to consider his surroundings and the tendencies of the age in which he lived.

Italy in the Dark Ages was different from the rest of Europe. Though made up of separate and distinct states bound in no way to one another, one thing formed a bond of union, and that was the imperial grandeur and authority of Rome. The influence of her traditions were strong. The story of Roman deeds was known to all men, and her language formed the basis of the new language which had its origin, during the early party of the twelfth century, in a growing demand for expression. The Roman Church also had a strong hold upon the minds of Italians at this time, and the power which she possessed was the ark of civilization. In the early part of the thirteenth century the long pent up feeling in men's hearts burst forth into a religious revival, which had as its motive the bringing of all men within the fold of the Christian Church.

About this time the Italian cities began to increase in material prosperity, and this growth was accompanied by wider intellectual life. During the early part of this thirteenth century, love was the one theme of all the poets, but later they began to treat the old themes with new expression, and also to take up new subjects, such as religion, politics, and morality. The first great poet who wrote in the sweet, new style, as Dante called it, was Guido Guinicelli, whom Dante has honored in his Divine Comedy by calling him his father and the father of his betters.

It was not in poetry alone that the new life of Italy found expression, but in architecture, sculpture and painting. Into all of these the awakened soul of Italy breathed new life. Of this century in Italy with its love for beauty and its longing for peace, its passion and its cruelty, Dante is the chief figure and his works the chief expression.

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