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26 June, 2013
Dante: "The Central Man of All the World"|
by Slattery, John T.
|I stand as does the reader at the entrance to this book which I have not
as yet entered myself. I have before me the journey through the Inferno
and Purgatorio, into Paradise, with a new companion. I have made the
journey before many times with others, or with Dante and Virgil alone,
but I know that I shall enjoy especially the companionship and comment
of one with whom I have had such satisfaction of comradeship in our
journey as neighbors for a little way across this earth. I invite
others, and I hope they may be many, to make this brief journey with
us, not because I know specifically what Dr. Slattery will say along
the way, but because whatever he says out of his deep and reverent
acquaintance with the Divine Comedy will help us all who follow him,
whether we are of his particular faith or not, to an appreciation of
the meaning of this immortal poem, and make us desire to go again and
again in our reading through these spaces of the struggles of human souls.
A world-literary-movement will commemorat in 1921 the six hundredth
anniversary of the death of the immortal Dante. That a medievalist
should call forth the homage of the twentieth century to the extent of
being honored in all civilized lands and by cultured peoples who, for
the most part, do not know the language spoken by him, or who do not
profess the religion of him who wrote the most religious book of
Christianity, is a marvel explainable by the fact that the Divine Comedy
is a drama of the soul,—the story of a struggle which every man must
make to possess his own spirit against forces that would enslave it. The
central interest of the poem is in the individual who may be you or I
instead of Dante the subject of the work, and that fact exalts the
personal element and gives the spiritual value which we of modern times
appreciate as well as did the thirteenth century.
The Divine Comedy is attractive for other reasons. It may appeal to us
as it did to Tennyson, because of "its divine intensity," or it may
affect us as it did Charles Eliot Norton by "its powerful exposition of
moral penalties and rewards," showing that righteousness is inexorable;
or it may interest us because of its solid realism, its pure strength of
conception, its surpassing beauty, its vivid imaginative power, its
perfection of diction "without superfluousness, without defect."
Whatever be the reason of our interest in Dante, the study of his Divine
Comedy will ever be both a discipline "not so much to elevate our
thoughts," says Coleridge, "as to send them down deeper," and a delight
calling forth the deepest emotions of our being.
JOHN H. FINLEY.