Professor Norton delivered the third lecture of his course on Dante last evening in Sanders Theatre. The prose works of the poet and their relation to the Divine Comedy was the subject. A summary of the lecture follows:
The internal and external side of Dante's nature were very distinct at the time of his life that we are studying. While his inmost being was absorbed in love for Beatrice, he was actively engaged in politics in Florence. Later, in the year before the death of Beatrice, though be knew well that her death was approaching, he was serving his city as a soldier in a distant part of the country. After the death of Beatrice he married and had children. He now threw the whole force of his character into public affairs. To Dante, peace seemed the best of all things ordained for man's well being. But peace at this time was far from the city of Florence, and Italy. In the midst of confusion and strife Dante lifted up his voice, as one crying in the wilderness, preaching peace. His treatise De Monarchia is not the dry product of the understanding, but the living, inmost thought of a man, whose one object is the welfare of his fellowmen. He believed that truth must be spoken at all hazards, and this work was written at the risk of offending the most powerful persons in Florence. Whether as poet or philosopher or prophet, Dante's one strong purpose always remained unchanged. No servant of men ever gave himself to their service with more devotion, or ever served them with more integrity than he did. It is the marvel in Dante's poetry that, intentionally writing for a moral purpose, his work never lost in beauty or art on that account.
In the political contentions of Florence, it was not strange that such a man as Dante, throwing himself heart and soul into politics, should have aroused distrust. In 1302 he was exiled, his property was confiscated, and he was condemned to be burned if found again within the territory of Florence.
During the nineteen years that followed this decree, until his death in 1321, Dante wrote his Divine Comedy and composed the Convito. This work, founded as it is on the philosophy of Aristotle, is full of interest. The one purpose that runs through the book is to bring man into the way of righteousness. In this purpose lies the link which connects the Convito with the Divine Comedy, which was written a little later.
Man in his fullest existence is the subject of the Divine Comedy. Visions of the life to come had long been popular. The novelty of Dante's work lay in the knowledge of the unity of the life on earth and the life after death. Heaven with Dante was not a place of arbitrary reward, nor Hell a place of arbitrary punishment. They were self-determined conditions of the soul of man. He extended the realm of nature into the unseen universe. The Divine Comedy was not intended merely to alarm the sinner by the picture of Hell's horrors, nor to confirm the good by the picture of Heaven's delights. It was intended simply to instruct, to warn, and to guide man. Brevity of utterance, concise expression and directness are the characteristics of the style of the poem. The Divine Comedy is priceless, not only as a work of marvellous beauty, but as an era in the history of thought.