Graham's Magazine, Vol. XXXVI, No. 6, June 1850
Vol. XXXVI. June, 1850. No. 6.
Table of Contents
Fiction, Literature and Articles
Poetry and Music
Transcriber’s Notes can be found at the end of this eBook.
Vol. XXXVI. PHILADELPHIA, June, 1850. No. 6.
FROM THE GERMAN OF SCHELLING.
BY HENRY W. LONGFELLOW.
[In the following elaborate specimen of literary criticism there are many passages which will be very obscure, notto say unintelligible, to those who are not familiar with the philosophic phraseology of the Germans. The student ofDante, however, will find in it many hints and suggestions worthy his consideration. It cannot be otherwise thaninteresting to see two such minds as those of Schelling and Dante brought into contact; and to hear what the Germanphilosopher has to say of the Italian poet.]
In the sanctuary where Religion
“is married to immortal Verse,”
stands Dante as high-priest, and consecrates all modernArt for its vocation. Not as a solitary poem, butrepresenting the whole class of the New Poetry, anditself a separate class, stands the “Divine Comedy,”so entirely unique, that any theory drawn from peculiarforms is quite inadequate to it;—a world by itself,it demands its own peculiar theory. The predicate ofDivine was given it by its author, because it treats oftheology and things divine; Comedy he called it, afterthe simplest notion of this and its opposite kind,—onaccount of its fearful beginning and its happy ending,and because the mixed nature of the poem, whose materialis now lofty and now lowly, rendered a mixedkind of style necessary.
One readily perceives, however, that according tothe common notion it cannot be called Dramatic, becauseit represents no circumscribed action. So far asDante himself may be looked upon as the hero, whoserves only as a thread for the measureless series ofvisions and pictures, and remains rather passive thanactive,—the poem seems to approach nearer to aRomance; yet this definition does not completely exhaustit; nor can we call it Epic, in the usual acceptationof the word, since there is no regular sequence inthe events represented. To look upon it as a Didacticpoem is likewise impossible, because it is written in afar less restricted form and aim, than those of teaching.It belongs therefore to none of these classes inparticular, nor is it merely a compound of them; butan entirely unique, and as it were organic mixture ofall their elements, not to be reproduced by any arbitraryrules of art,—an absolute individuality, comparablewith itself alone and with naught else.
The material of the poem, is, in general terms, theexpress identity of the Poet’s age;—the interpenetrationof the events thereof with the ideas of Religion,Science and Poetry in the loftiest genius of that century.Our intention is not to consider it in its immediatereference to its age; but rather in its universalapplication and as the archetype of all modern Poetry.
The necessary law of this poetry, down to the stillindefinitely distant point where the great Epic of moderntimes, which hitherto has announced itself onlyrhapsodically and in broken glimpses, shall presentitself as a perfect whole, is this:—that the individualgives shape and unity to that portion of the worldwhich is revealed to him, and out of the materials ofhis time, its History and its Science, creates his ownMythology. For as the ancient world is, in general,the world of classes, so the modern is that of Individuals.In the former the Universal is in truth the particular,the race acts as an individual; in the latter, theIndividual is the point of departure, and becomes theUniversal. For this reason, in the former all thingsare permanent and imperishable: Number likewise isof no account, since the Universal idea coincides withthat of the Individual;—in the latter, constant mutationis the fixed law; no narrow circle limits its ends,but one which through Individuality widens itself toinfinitude. And since Universality belongs to the essenceof Poetry, it is a necessary condition that theIndividual through the highest peculiarity should againbecome universal, and by his complete speciality becomeagain absolute. Thus through the perfect individualityand uniqueness of his Poem, Dante is theCreator of modern art, which without this arbitrarynecessity, and necessary arbitrariness, cannot be imagined.
From the very beginning of Greek Poetry, we seeit clearly separated from Science and Philosophy, asin Homer, and this process of separation continueduntil the Poets and the Philosophers became the antipodesof each other. They in vain by allegorical interpretationsof the Homeric Poems sought artificiallyto create a harmony between the two. In moderntimes Science has preceded Poetry and Mythology,which cannot be Mythology, without being universaland drawing into its circle all the elements of the thenexisting culture, Science, Religion and even Art, andjoining in a perfect unity the material not only of thepresent but of the past. Into this struggle, (since Artdemands something definite and limited, while thespirit of the world rushes towards the unlimited, andwith ceaseless power sweeps down all barriers,) mustthe Individual enter, but with absolute freedom, seekto rescue permanent shapes from the fluctuations oftime, and within arbitrarily assumed forms to give tothe structure of his poem, by its absolute peculiarity,internal necessity and external universality.
This Dante has done. He had before him, as material,the history of the present as well as of the Past.He could not elaborate this into a pure Epos, partly onaccount of its nature, partly because, in doing this, hewould have excluded other elements of the culture ofhis time. To its completeness belonged also the Astronomy,the Theology and Philosophy of the time. Tothese he could not give expression in a Didactic poem,for by so doing he would again have limited himself.Consequently, in order to make his Poem universal,he was obliged to make it historical. An invention,entirely uncontrolled, and proceeding from his ownindividuality, was necessary, to unite these materialsand form them into an organic whole. To representthe ideas of Philosophy and Theology in symbols wasimpossible, for there then existed no symbolic Mythology.He could quite as little make his Poem purelyallegorical, for then again it could not be historical. Itwas necessary therefore to make it an entirely uniquemixture of Allegory and History. In the emblematicpoetry of the ancients no clue of this kind was possible.The Individual only could lay hold of it, and only anuncontrolled invention follow it.
The poem of Dante is not allegorical in the sensethat its figures only signified something else, withouthaving any separate existence independent of the thingsignified. On the other hand, none of them is independentof the thing signified in such a way as to beat once the Idea itself and more than an allegory of it.There is therefore in his Poem an entirely uniquemean between Allegory and symbolic-objective Form.There is no doubt, and the Poet has himself elsewheredeclared it, that Beatrice, for example, is an Allegory,namely, of Theology. So her companions; so manyother characters. But at the same time they count forthemselves, and appear on the scene as historic personages,without on that account being symbols.
In this respect Dante is archetypal, since he hasproclaimed what the modern poet has to do, in orderto embody into a poetic whole, the entire historyand culture of his age—the only mythological materialwhich lies before him. He must from absolutearbitrariness join together the allegorical andhistorical: he must be allegorical, (and he is so, too,against his will,) because he cannot be symbolical;and he must be historical because he wishes to bepoetical. In this respect his invention is always peculiar,a world by itself, and altogether characteristic.
The only German poem of universal plan, unitestogether in a similar manner the outermost extremesin the aspirations of the times, by a very peculiar inventionof a subordinate mythology, in the character ofFaust: although in the Aristophanic meaning of theword it may far better be called a Comedy, and isanother and more poetic sense Divine, than the Poemof Dante.
The energy with which the individual embodies thesingular mixture of the materials which lie before himin his age and his life determines the measure in whichhe possesses mythological power. Dante’s personagespossess a kind of eternity from the position in whichhe places them, and which is eternal: but not only theactual which he draws from his own time, as the storyof Ugolino and the like, but also what is pure invention,as the death of Ulysses and his companions, hasin the connection of his poem a real mythologicaltruth.
It would be of but subordinate interest to representby itself, the Philosophy, Physics and Astronomy ofDante, since his true peculiarity lies only in his mannerof fusing them with his poetry. The Ptolemaicsystem, which to a certain degree is the foundation ofhis poetic structure, has already in itself a mythologicalcoloring. If however his philosophy is to be characterizedin general as Aristotelian, we must not understandby this the pure Peripatetic philosophy, but apeculiar union of the same with the ideas of the Platonic,then entertained, as may be proved by manypassages of his poem.
We will not dwell upon the power and solidity ofseparate passages, the simplicity and endless naivetéof separate pictures, in which he expresses his philosophicalviews, as the well known description of thesoul which comes from the hand of God as a little girl“weeping and laughing in its childish sport,” a guilelesssoul, which knows nothing, save that, moved byits joyful Creator, “willingly it turns to that whichgives it pleasure:”—we speak only of the generalsymbolic form of the whole, in whose absoluteness,more than in any thing else, the universal value andimmortality of this Poem is recognized.
If the union of Philosophy and Poetry even in theirmost subordinate synthesis is understood as making adidactic poem, it becomes necessary, since the poemmust be without any external end and aim, that the intention(of instructing) should lose itself in it and bechanged into an absoluteness (in eine Absolutheitverwandelt), so that the poem may seem to exist forits own sake. And this is only conceivable, whenScience (considered as a picture of the Universe, andin perfect harmony therewith, as the most originaland beautiful Poetry) is in itself already poetical.Dante’s Poem is a much higher interpenetration ofScience and Poetry, and so much the more must itsform, even in its freer self-existence, be adapted tothe universal type of the world’s aspect (Weltanschauung).
The division of the Universe and the arrangementof the materials according to the three kingdoms ofHell, Purgatory and Paradise, independently of the peculiarmeaning of these ideas in Christian theology, arealso