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On laying down the “Vita Nuova” our soul is at first filled and resounding with the love of Beatrice. Whatever habits or capacities of noble loving may lurk within ourselves, have been awakened by the solemn music of this book, and have sung in unison with Dante’s love till we have ceased to hear the voice of his passion and have heard only the voice of our own. When the excitement has diminished, when we have grown able to separate from our own feelings the feelings of the man dead these five centuries and a half, and to realize the strangeness, the obsoleteness of this love which for a moment had seemed our love; then a new phase of impressions has set in, and the “Vita Nuova” inspires us with mere passionate awe: awe before this passion which we feel to be no longer our own, but far above and distant from us, as in some rarer stratum of atmosphere; awe before this woman who creates it, or rather who is its creation. Even as Dante fancied that the people of Florence did when the bodily presence of this lady came across their path, so do we cast down our glance as the image of Beatrice passes across our mind. Nay, the glory of her, felt so really while reading the few, meagre words in the book, is stored away in our heart, and clothes with a faint aureole the lady if ever in our life we chance to meet her in whom, though Dante tells us nothing of stature, features, eyes or hair, we seem to recognize a likeness to her on whose passage “ogni lingua divien tremando muta, e gli occhi non ardiscon di guardare.” Passion like this, to paraphrase a line of Rossetti’s, is genius; and it arouses in such as look upon it the peculiar sense of wonder and love, of awe-stricken raising up of him who contemplates, which accompanies the contemplation of genius.

But it may be that one day we feel, instead of this, wonder indeed, but wonder mingled with doubt. This ideal love, which craves for no union with its object; which seeks merely to see, nay, which is satisfied with mere thinking on the beloved one, will strike us with the cold and barren glitter of the miraculous. This Beatrice, as we gaze on her, will prove to be no reality of flesh and blood like ourselves; she is a form modelled in the semblance of that real, living woman who died six centuries ago, but the substance of which is the white fire of Dante’s love. And the thought will arise that this purely intellectual love of a scarce-noticed youth for a scarce-known woman is a thing which does not belong to life, neither sweetening nor ennobling any of its real relations; that it is, in its dazzling purity and whiteness, in fact a mere strange and sterile death light, such as could not and should not, in this world of ours, exist twice over. And, lest we should ever be tempted to think of this ideal love for Beatrice as of a wonderful and beautiful, but scarcely natural or useful phenomenon, I would wish to study the story of its origin and its influence. I would wish to show that had it not burned thus strangely concentrated and pure, the poets of succeeding ages could not have taken from that white flame of love which Dante set alight upon the grave of Beatrice, the spark of ideal passion which has, in the noblest of our literature, made the desire of man for woman and of woman for man burn clear towards heaven, leaving behind the noisome ashes and soul-enervating vapours of earthly lust.


The centuries have made us; forcing us into new practices, teaching us new habits, creating for us new capacities and wants; adding, ever and anon, to the soul organism of mankind features which at first were but accidental peculiarities, which became little by little qualities deliberately sought for and at lengths inborn and hereditary characteristics. And thus, in, what we call the Middle Ages, there was invented by the stress of circumstances, elaborated by half-conscious effort and bequeathed as an unalienable habit, a new manner of loving.

The women of classical Antiquity appear to us in poetry and imaginative literature as one of two things: the wife or the mistress. The wife, Penelope, Andromache, Alkestis, nay, even the charming young bride in Xenophon’s “Oeconomics,” is, while excluded from many concerns, distinctly reverenced and loved in her own household capacity; but the reverence is of the sort which the man feels for his parents and his household gods, and the affection is calm and gently rebuking like that for his children. The mistress, on the other hand, is the object of passion which is often very vehement, but which is always either simply fleshly or merely fancifully aesthetic or both, and which entirely precludes any save a degrading influence upon the sensual and suspicious lover. Even Tibullus, in love matters one of the most modern among the ancients, and capable of painting many charming and delicate little domestic idyls even in connection with a mere bought mistress, is perpetually accusing his Delia of selling herself to a higher bidder, and sighing at the high probability of her abandoning him for the Illyrian praetor or some other rich amateur of pretty women. The barbarous North whose songs have come down to us either, like the Volsunga Saga translated by Mr. Morris, in an original pagan version, or else, as the Nibelungenlied, recast during the early Middle Ages the North tells us nothing of the venal paramour, but knows nothing also beyond the wedded wife; more independent and mighty perhaps than her counterpart of classical Antiquity, but although often bought, like Brynhilt or Gudrun, at the expense of tremendous adventures, cherished scarcely more passionately than the wives of Odysseus and Hector. Thus, before the Middle Ages, there existed as a rule only a holy, but indifferent and utterly unlyrical, love for the women, the equals of their husbands, wooed usually of the family and solemnly given in marriage without much consultation of their wishes; and a highly passionate and singing, but completely profligate and debasing, desire for mercenary though cultivated creatures like the Delias and Cynthlas of Tibullus and Propertius, or highborn women, descended, like Catullus’ Lesbia, in brazen dishonour to their level, women towards whom there could not possibly exist on the part of their lovers any sense of equality, much less of inferiority. To these two kinds of love, chaste but cold, and passionate but unchaste, the Middle Ages added, or rather opposed, a new manner of loving, which, although a mere passing phenomenon, has left the clearest traces throughout our whole mode of feeling and writing.

To describe mediaeval love is a difficult matter, and to describe it except in negations is next to impossibility. I conceive it to consist in a certain sentimental, romantic, idealistic attitude towards women, not by any means incompatible however with the grossest animalism; an attitude presupposing a complete moral, aesthetical, and social superiority on the part of the whole sex, inspiring the very highest respect and admiration independently of the individual’s qualities; and reaching the point of actual worship, varying from the adoration of a queen by a courtier to the adoration of a shrine by a pilgrim, in the case of the one particular lady who happens to be the beloved; an attitude in the relations of the sexes which results in love becoming an indispensable part of a noble life, and the devoted attachment to one individual woman, a necessary requisite of a gentlemanly training.

Mediaeval love is not merely a passion, a desire, an affection, a habit; it is a perfect occupation. It absorbs, or is supposed to absorb, the Individual; it permeates his life like a religion. It is not one of the interests of life, or, rather, one of life’s phases; it is the whole of life, all other interests and actions either sinking into an unsingable region below it, or merely embroidering a variegated pattern upon its golden background. Mediaeval love, therefore, never obtains its object, however much it may obtain the woman; for the object of mediaeval love, as of mediaeval religious mysticism, is not one particular act or series of acts, but is its own exercise, of which the various incidents of the drama between man and woman are merely so many results. It has not its definite stages, like the love of the men of classical Antiquity or the heroic time of the North: its stages of seeking, obtaining, cherishing, guarding; it is always at the same point, always in the same condition of half-religious, half-courtier-like adoration, whether it be triumphantly successful or sighingly despairing. The man and the woman or rather, I should say, the knight and the lady, for mediaeval love is an aristocratic privilege, and the love of lower folk is not a theme for song the knight and the lady, therefore, seem always, however knit together by habit, nay, by inextricable meshes of guilt, somehow at the same distance from one another. Once they have seen and loved each other, their passion burns on always evenly, burns on (at least theoretically) to all eternity. It seems almost as if the woman were a mere shrine, a mysterious receptacle of the ineffable, a grail cup, a consecrated wafer, but not the ineffable itself. For there is always in mediaeval love, however fleshly the incidents which it produces, a certain Platonic element; that is to say, a craving for, a pursuit of, something which is an abstraction; an abstraction impossible to define in its constant shifting and shimmering, and which seems at one moment a social standard, a religious ideal, or both, and which merges for ever in the dazzling, vague sheen of the Eternal Feminine. Hence, one of the most distinctive features of mediaeval love, an extraordinary sameness of intonation, making it difficult to distinguish between the bona fide passion for which a man risks life and honour, and the mere conventional gallantry of the knight who sticks a lady’s glove on his helmet as a compliment to her rank; nay, between the impure adoration of an adulterous lamia like Yseult, and the mystical adoration of a glorified Mother of God; for both are women, both are ladies, and therefore the greatest poet of the early Middle Ages, Gottfried von Strassburg, sings them both with the same religious respect, and the same hysterical rapture. This mediaeval love is furthermore a deliberately expected, sought-for, and received necessity in a man’s life; it is not an accident, much less an incidental occurrence to be lightly taken or possibly avoided: it is absolutely indispensable to man’s social training, to his moral and aesthetical self-improvement; it is part and parcel of manhood and knighthood. Hence, where it does not arise of itself (and where a man is full of the notion of such love, it is rare that it does not come but too soon) it has to be sought for. Ulrich von Liechtenstein, in his curious autobiography written late in the twelfth century, relates how ever since his childhood he had been aware of the necessity of the loyal love service of a lady for the accomplishment of knightly duties; and how, as soon as he was old enough to love, he looked around him for a lady whom he might serve; a proceeding renewed in more prosaic days and with a curious pedantic smack, by Lorenzo dei Medici; and then again, perhaps for the last time, by the Knight of La Mancha, in that memorable discussion which ended in the enthronement as his heart’s queen of the unrivalled Dulcinea of Toboso. Frowendienst, “lady’s service,” is the name given by Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a mediaeval Quixote, outshining by far the mad Provencals Rudel and Vidal, to the memoirs very delightfully done into modern German by Ludwig Tieck; and “lady’s service” is the highest occupation of knightly leisure, the subject of the immense bulk of mediaeval poetry. “Lady’s service” in deeds of arms and song, in constant praise and defence of the beloved, in heroic enterprise and madcap mummery, in submission and terror to the wondrous creature whom the humble servant, the lover, never calls by her sacred name, speaking of her in words unknown to Antiquity, dompna, dame, frowe, madonna words of which the original sense has almost been forgotten, although there cleave to them even now ideas higher than those associated with the puella of the ancients, the wib of the heroic days lady, mistress the titles of the Mother of God, who is, after all, only the mystical Soul’s Paramour of the mediaeval world. “Lady’s service” the almost technical word, expressing the position, half-serf-like, half-religious, the bonds of complete humility and never-ending faithfulness, the hopes of reward, the patience under displeasure, the pride in the livery of servitude, the utter absorption of the life of one individual in the life of another; which constitute in Provence, in France, in Germany, in England, in Italy, in the fabulous kingdoms of Arthur and Charlemagne, the strange new thing which I have named Mediaeval Love.

Has such a thing really existed? Are not these mediaeval poets leagued together in a huge conspiracy to deceive us? Is it possible that strong men have wept and fainted at a mere woman’s name, like the Count of Nevers in “Flamenca,” or that their mind has swooned away in months of reverie like that of Parzifal in Eschenbach’s poem; that worldly wise and witty men have shipped off and died on sea for love of an unseen woman like Jaufre Rudel; or dressed in wolf’s hide and lurked and fled before the huntsmen-like Peire Vidal; or mangled their face and cut off their finger, and, clothing themselves in rags more frightful than Nessus’ robe, mixed in the untouchable band of lepers like Ulrich von Liechtenstein? Is it possible to believe that the insane enterprises of the Amadises, Lisvarts and Felixmartes of late mediaeval romance, that the behaviour of Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena, ever had any serious models in reality? Nay, more difficult still to believe because the whole madness of individuals is more credible than the half-madness of the whole world is it possible to believe that, as the poems of innumerable trouvères and troubadours, minnesingers and Italian poets, as the legion of mediaeval romances of the cycles of Charlemagne, Arthur, and Amadis would have it, that during so long a period of time society could have been enthralled by this hysterical, visionary, artificial, incredible religion of mediaeval love? It is at once too grotesque and too beautiful, too high and too low, to be credible; and our first impulse, on closing the catechisms and breviaries, the legendaries and hymn-books of this strange new creed, is to protest that the love poems must be allegories, the love romances solar myths, the Courts of Love historical bungles; that all this mediaeval world of love is a figment, a misinterpretation, a falsehood.

But if we seek more than a mere casual impression; if, instead of feeling sceptical over one or two fragments of evidence, we attempt to collect the largest possible number of facts together; if we read not one mediaeval love story, but twenty not half a dozen mediaeval love poems, but several scores; if we really investigate into the origin of the apparent myth, the case speedily alters. Little by little this which had been inconceivable becomes not merely intelligible, but inevitable; the myth becomes an historical phenomenon of the most obvious and necessary sort. Mediaeval love, which had seemed to us a poetic fiction, is turned into a reality; and a reality, alas, which is prosaic. Let us look at it.

Mediaeval love is first revealed in the sudden and almost simultaneous burst of song which, like the twitter and trill so dear to trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers, fills the woods that yesterday were silent and dead, and greeted the earliest sunshine, the earliest faint green after the long winter numbness of the dark ages, after the boisterous gales of the earliest Crusade. The French and Provencals sang first, the Germans later, the Sicilians last; but although we may say after deliberate analysis, such or such a form, or such or such a story, was known in this country before it appeared in that one, such imitation or suggestion was so rapid that with regard to the French, the Provencals, and the Germans at least, the impression is simultaneous; only the Sicilians beginning distinctly later, forerunners of the new love lyric, wholly different from that of trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers, of the Italians of the latter thirteenth century. And this simultaneous revelation of mediaeval love takes place in the last quarter of the twelfth century, when Northern France had already consolidated into a powerful monarchy, and Paris, after the teachings of Abelard, was recognized as the intellectual metropolis of Europe; when south of the Loire the brilliant Angevine kings held the overlordship of the cultured Raymonds of Toulouse and of the reviving Latin municipalities of Provence \ when Germany was welded as a compact feudal mass by the most powerful of the Stauffens; and the papacy had been built up by Gregory and Alexander into a political wall against which Frederick and Henry vainly battered; when the Italian commonwealths grew slowly but surely, as yet still far from guessing that the day would come when their democracy should produce a new civilization to supersede this triumphant mediaeval civilization of the early Capetiens, the Angevines, and the Hohenstauffens. Europe was setting forth once more for the East; but no longer as the ignorant and enthusiastic hordes of Peter the Hermit: Asia was the great field for adventure, the great teacher of new luxuries, at once the Eldorado and the grand tour of all the brilliant and inquisitive and unscrupulous chivalry of the day. And, while into the West were insidiously entering habits and modes of thought of the East; throughout Germany and Provence, and throughout the still obscure free burghs of Italy, was spreading the first indication of that emotional mysticism which, twenty or thirty years later, was to burst out in the frenzy of spiritual love of St. Francis and his followers. The moment is one of the most remarkable in all history: the premature promise in the twelfth century of that intellectual revival which was delayed throughout Northern Europe until the sixteenth. It is the moment when society settled down, after the anarchy of eight hundred years, on its feudal basis; a basis fallaciously solid, and in whose presence no one might guess that the true and definitive Renaissance would arise out of the democratic civilization of Italy.

Such is the moment when we first hear the almost universal song of mediaeval love. This song comes from the triumphantly reorganized portion of society, not from the part which is slowly working its way to reorganization; not from the timidly encroaching burghers, but from the nobles. The reign of town poetry, of fabliaux and meistersang, comes later; the poets of the early Middle Ages, trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers are, with barely one or two exceptions, all knights. And their song comes from the castle. Now, in order to understand mediaeval love, we must reflect for a moment upon this feudal castle, and upon the kind of life which the love poets of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century whether lords like Bertram de Born, and Guillaume de Poitiers, among the troubadours; the Vidame de Chartres, Meurisses de Craon, and the Duke of Brabant among the trouvères of Northern France; like Ulrich von Liechtenstein among the minnesingers; or retainers and hangers-on like Bernard de Ventadour and Armand de Mareulh, like Chrestiens de Troyes, Gaisses Brulez, or Quienes de Bethune, like Walther, Wolfram, and Tannhaeuser great or small, good or bad, saw before them and mixed with in that castle. The castle of a great feudatory of the early Middle Ages, whether north or south of the Loire, in Austria or in Franconia, is like a miniature copy of some garrison town in barbarous countries: there is an enormous numerical preponderance of men over women; for only the chiefs in command, the overlord, and perhaps one or two of his principal kinsmen or adjutants, are permitted the luxury of a wife; the rest of the gentlemen are subalterns, younger sons without means, youths sent to learn their military duty and the ways of the world: a whole pack of men without wives, without homes, and usually without fortune. High above all this deferential male crowd, moves the lady of the castle: highborn, proud, having brought her husband a dower of fiefs often equal to his own, and of vassals devoted to her race. About her she has no equals; her daughters, scarcely out of the nurse’s hands, are given away in marriage; and her companions, if companions they may be called, are the waiting ladies, poor gentlewomen situated between the maid of honour and the ladies’ maid, like that Brangwaine whom Yseult sacrifices to her intrigue with Tristram, or those damsels whom Flamenca gives over to the squires of her lover Guillems; at best, the wife of one of her husband’s subalterns, or some sister or aunt or widow kept by charity. Round this lady the stately, proud lady perpetually described by mediaeval poets flutters the swarm of young men, all day long, in her path: serving her at meals, guarding her apartments, nay, as pages, admitted even into her most secret chamber; meeting her for ever in the narrowness of that castle life, where every unnecessary woman is a burden usurping the place of a soldier, and, if possible, replaced by a man. Servants, lacqueys, and enjoying the privileges of ubiquity of lacqueys, yet, at the same time, men of good birth and high breeding, good at the sword and at the lute; bound to amuse this highborn woman, fading away in the monotony of feudal life, with few books to read or unable to read them, and far above all the household concerns which devolve on the butler, the cellarer, the steward, the gentleman, honourably employed as a servant. To them, to these young men, with few or no young women of their own age to associate, and absolutely no unmarried girls who could be a desirable match, the lady of the castle speedily becomes a goddess, the impersonation at once of that feudal superiority before which they bow, of that social perfection which they are commanded to seek, and of that womankind of which the castle affords so few examples. To please her, this lazy, bored, highbred woman, with all the squeamishness and caprice of high birth and laziness about her, becomes their ideal; to be favourably noticed, their highest glory; to be loved, these wretched mortals, by this divinity that thought must often pass through their brain and terrify them with its delicious audacity; oh no, such a thing is not possible. But it is. The lady at first, perhaps most often, singles out as a pastime some young knight, some squire, some page; and, in a half-queenly, half-motherly way, corrects, rebukes his deficiencies, undertakes to teach him his duty as a servant. The romance of the “Petit Jehan de Saintre,” written in the fifteenth century, but telling, with a delicacy of cynicism worthy of Balzac, what must have been the old, old story of the whole feudal Middle Ages, shows the manner in which, while feeling that he is being trained to knightly courtesy and honour, the young man in the service of a great feudal lady is gradually taught dissimulation, lying, intrigue; is initiated by the woman who looms above him like a saint into all the foulness of adultery. Adultery; a very ugly word, which must strike almost like a handful of mud in the face whosoever has approached this subject of mediaeval love in admiration of its strange delicacy and enthusiasm. Yet it is a word which must be spoken, for in it is the explanation of the whole origin and character of this passion which burst into song in the early Middle Ages. This almost religious love, this love which conceives no higher honour than the service of the beloved, no higher virtue than eternal fidelity this love is the love for another man’s wife. Between unmarried young men and young women, kept carefully apart by the system which gives away a girl without her consent and only to a rich suitor, there is no possibility of love in these early feudal courts; the amours, however licentious, between kings’ daughters and brave knights, of the Carolingian tales, belong to a different rank of society, to the prose romances made up in the fourteenth century for the burgesses of cities; the intrigues, ending in marriage, of the princes and princesses of the cycle of Amadis, belong to a different period, to the fifteenth century, and to courts where feudal society scarcely exists; the squires, the young knights who hang about a great baronial establishment of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, have still to make their fortune, and do not dream of marriage. The husband, on the other hand, the great lord or successful knightly adventurer, married late in life, and married from the necessity, for ever pressing upon the feudal proprietor, of adding on new fiefs and new immunities, of increasing his importance and independence in proportion to the hourly increasing strength and claims of the overlord, the king, who casts covetous eyes upon him the husband has not married for love; he has had his love affairs with the wives of other men in his day, or may still have them; this lady is a mere feudal necessity, she is required to give him a dower and give him an heir, that is all. If the husband does not love, how much less can the wife; married, as she is, scarce knowing what marriage is, to a man much older than herself, whom most probably she has never seen, to whom she is a mere investment. Nay, there is not even the after-marriage love of the ancients: this wife is not the housekeeper, the woman who works that the man’s house may be rich and decorous; not even the nurse of his children, for the children are speedily given over to the squires and duennas; she is the woman of another family who has come into his, the stranger who must be respected (as that most typical mediaeval wife, Eleanor of Guienne, was respected by her husbands) on account of her fiefs, her vassals, her kinsfolk; but who cannot be loved. Can there be love between man and wife? There cannot be love between man and wife. This is no answer of mine, fantastically deduced from mediaeval poetry. It is the answer solemnly made to the solemnly asked question by the Court of Love held by the Countess of Champagne in 1174, and registered by Master Andrew the King of France’s chaplain: “Dicimus enim et stabilito tenore firmamus amorem non posse inter duos jugales suas extendere vires.” And the reason alleged for this judgment brings us back to the whole conception of mediaeval love as a respectful service humbly waiting for a reward: “For,” pursues the decision published by Andre lé Chapelain, “whereas lovers grant to each other favours freely and from no legal necessity, married people have the duty of obeying each other’s wishes and of refusing nothing to one another.” “No love is possible between man and wife,” repeat the Courts of Love which, consisting of all the highborn ladies of the province and presided by some mighty queen or princess, represent the social opinions of the day. “But this lady,” says a knight (Miles) before the love tribunal of Queen Eleanor, “promised to me that if ever she should lose the love of her lover, she would take me in his place. She has wedded the man who was her lover, and I have come to claim fulfilment of her promise.” The court discusses for awhile. “We cannot,” answers Queen Eleanor, “go against the Countess of Champagne’s decision that love cannot exist between man and wife. We therefore desire this lady to fulfil her promise and give you her love.” Again, there come to the Court of Love of the Viscountess of Narbonne a knight and a lady, who desire to know whether, having been once married, but since divorced, a love engagement between them would be honourable. The viscountess decides that “Love between those who have been married together, but who have since been divorced from one another, is not to be deemed reprehensible; nay, that it is to be considered as honourable.” And these Courts of Love, be it remarked, were frequently held on occasion of the marriage of great personages; as, for instance, of that between Louis VII. and Eleanor of Poitiers in 1137. The poetry of the early Middle Ages follows implicitly the decisions of these tribunals, which reveal a state of society to which the nearest modern approach is that of Italy in the eighteenth century, when, as Goldoni and Parini show us, as Stendhal (whose “De l’Amour” may be taken as the modern “Breviari d’Amor”) expounds, there was no impropriety possible as long as a lady was beloved by any one except her own husband. No love, therefore, between unmarried people (the cyclical romances, as before stated, and the Amadises, belong to another time of social condition, and the only real exception to my rule of which I can think is the lovely French tale of “Aucassin et Nicolette"); and no love between man and wife. But love there must be; and love there consequently is; love for the married woman from the man who is not her husband. The feudal lady, married without being consulted and without having had a chance of knowing what love is, yet lives to know love; lives to be taught it by one of these many bachelors bound to flutter about her in military service or social duty; lives to teach it herself. And she is too powerful in her fiefs and kinsmen, too powerful in the public opinion which approves and supports her, to be hampered by her husband. The husband, indeed, has grown up in the same habits, has known, before marrying, the customs sanctioned by the Courts of Love; he has been the knight of some other man’s wife in his day, what right has he to object? As in the days of Italian cecisbei, the early mediaeval lover might say with Goldoni’s Don Alfonso or Don Roberto, “I serve your wife such or such another serves mine, what harm can there be in it?” ("Io servo vostra moglie, Don Eugenio favorisce la mia; che male c’ e?” I am quoting from memory.) And as a fact, we hear little of jealousy; the amusement of En Barral when Peire Vidal came in and kissed his sleeping wife; and the indignation of all Provence for the murder of Guillems de Cabestanh (buried in the same tomb with the lady who had been made to eat of his heart) showing from opposite sides how the society accustomed to Courts of Love looked upon the duties of husbands.

Such was the social life in those feudal courts whence first arises the song of mediaeval love, and that this is the case is proved by the whole huge body of early mediaeval poetry. We must not judge, as I have said, either by poems of much earlier date, like the Nibelungen and the Carolingian chansons de geste, which merely received a new form in the early Middle Ages; still less from the prose romances of Mélusine, Milles et Amys, Palemon and Arcite, and a host of others which were elaborated only later and under the influence of the quite unfeudal habits of the great cities; and least of all from that strange late southern cycle of the Amadises, from which, odd as it seems, many of our notions of chivalric love have, through our ancestors, through the satirists or burlesque poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, been inherited. We must look at the tales which, as we are constantly being told by trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers, were the fashionable reading of the feudal classes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the tales best known to us in the colourless respectability of the collection made in the reign of Edward IV. by Sir Thomas Malory, and called by him the “Morte d’Arthur” of the ladies and knights of Arthur’s court; of the quest of the Grail by spotless knights who were bastards and fathers of bastards; of the intrigues of Tristram of Lyoness and Queen Yseult; of Launcelot and Guenevere; the tales which Francesca and Paolo read together. We must look, above all, at the lyric poetry of France, Provence, Germany, and Sicily in the early Middle Ages.

Vos qui très bien ameis i petit mentendeis
Por l’amor de Ihesu les pucelles ameis.
Nos trouvons en escris de sainte auctoriteis
Ke pucelle est la fleur de loyaulment ameir.

This strange entreaty to love the maidens for the sake of Christ’s love, this protest of a nameless northern French poet (Wackernagel, Altfranzoesische Lieder and Leiche IX.) against the adulterous passion of his contemporaries, comes to us, pathetically enough, solitary, faint, unnoticed in the vast chorus, boundless like the spring song of birds or the sound of the waves, of poets singing the love of other men’s wives. But, it may be objected how can we tell that these love songs, so carefully avoiding all mention of names, are not addressed to the desired bride, to the legitimate wife of the poet? For several reasons; and mainly, for the crushing evidence of an undefinable something which tells us that they are not. The other reasons are easily stated. We know that feudal habits would never have allowed to unmarried women (and women were married when scarcely out of their childhood) the opportunities for the relations which obviously exist between the poet and his lady; and that, if by some accident a young knight might fall in love with a girl, he would address not her but her parents, since the Middle Ages, who were indifferent to adultery, were, like the southern nations among whom the married woman is not expected to be virtuous, extreme sticklers for the purity of their unmarried womankind. Further, we have no instance of an unmarried woman being ever addressed during the early Middle Ages, in those terms of social respect madame, domna, frowe, madonna which essentially belong to the mistress of a household; nor do these stately names fit in with any theory which would make us believe that the lady addressed by the poet is the jealously guarded daughter of the house with whom he is plotting a secret marriage, or an elopement to end off in marriage. This is not the way that Romeo speaks to Juliet, nor even that the princesses in the cyclical romances and in the Amadises are wooed by their bridegrooms. This is not the language of a lover who is broaching his love, and who hopes, however timidly, to consummate it before all the world by marriage. It is obviously the language of a man either towards a woman who is taking a pleasure in keeping him dangling without favours which she has implicitly or explicitly promised; or towards a woman who is momentarily withholding favours which her lover has habitually enjoyed. And in a large proportion of cases the poems of trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers are the expression of fortunate love, the fond recollection or eager expectation of meetings with the beloved. All this can evidently not be connected with the wooing, however stealthy, however Romeo-and-Juliet-like of a bride; still less can it be explained in reference to love within wedlock. A man does not, however loving, worship his wife as his social superior; he does not address her in titles of stiff respect; he does not sigh and weep and supplicate for love which is his due, and remind his wife that she owes it him in return for loyal, humble, discreet service. Above all, a man (except in some absurd comedy perhaps, where the husband, in an age of cicisbeos, is in love with his own wife and dares not admit it before the society which holds “that there can be no love between married folk “) a husband, I repeat, does not beg for, arrange, look forward to, and recall with triumph or sadness, secret meetings with his own wife. Now the secret meeting is, in nearly every aristocratic poet of the early poetry, the inevitable result of the humble praises and humble requests for kindness; it is, most obviously, the reward for which the poet is always importuning. Mediaeval love poetry, compared with the love poetry of Antiquity and the love poetry of the revival of letters, is, in its lyric form, decidedly chaste; but it is perfectly explicit; and, for all its metaphysical tendencies and its absence of clearly painted pictures, the furthest possible removed from being Platonic. One of the most important, characteristic, and artistically charming categories of mediaeval love lyrics is that comprising the Provencal serena and alba, with their counterparts in the langue d’oil, and the so-called Wachtlieder of the minnesingers; and this category of love poetry may be defined as the drama, in four acts, of illicit love. The faithful lover has received from his lady an answer to his love, the place and hour are appointed; all the day of which the evening is to bring him this honour, he goes heavy hearted and sighing: “Day, much do you grow for my grief, and the evening, the evening and the long hope kills me.” Thus far the serena, the evening song, of Guiraut Riquier. A lovely anonymous alba, whose refrain, “Oi deus, oi deus; de l’ alba, tan tost ve!” is familiar to every smatterer of Provencal, shows us the lady and her knight in an orchard beneath the hawthorn, giving and taking the last kisses while the birds sing and the sky whitens with dawn. “The lady is gracious and pleasant, and many look upon her for her beauty, and her heart Is all in loving loyally; alas, alas, the dawn! how soon it: comes! ” “Oi deus, oi deus; de l’alba, tan tost ve!” The real alba is the same as the German Wachtlieder, the song of the squire or friend posted at the garden gate or outside the castle wall, warning the lovers to separate. “Fair comrade (Bel Companho), I call to you singing. ’Sleep no more, for I hear the birds announcing the day in the trees, and I fear that the jealous one may find you;’ and in a moment it will be day, ’Bel Companho, come to the window and look at the signs in the sky! you will know me a faithful messenger; if you do it not, it will be to your harm” and in a moment it will be dawn (et ades sera l’ alba)... Bel Companho, since I left you I have not slept nor raised myself from my knees; for I have prayed to God the Son of Saint Mary, that he should send me: back my faithful comrade, and in a moment it will be dawn In this alba of Guiraut de Borneulh, the lover comes at last to the window, and cries to his watching comrade that he is too happy to care either for the dawn or for the jealous one. The German Wachtlieder are even more explicit. “He must away at once and without delay,” sings the watchman in a poem of Wolfram, the austere singer of Parzifal and the Grail Quest; “let him go, sweet lady; let him away from thy love so that he keep his honour and life. He trusted himself to me that I should bring him safely hence; it is day ...” “Sing what thou wilt, watchman,” answers the lady, “but leave him here.” In a far superior, but also far less chaste poem of Heinrich von Morungen, the lady, alone and melancholy, wakes up remembering the sad white light of morning, the sad cry of the watchman, which separated her from her knight. Still more frankly, and in a poem which is one of the few real masterpieces of Minnesang, the lady in Walther von der Vogelweide’s “Under der linden an der Heide” narrates a meeting in the wood. “What passed between us shall never be known by any! never by any, save him and me yes, and by the little nightingale that sang Tandaradei! The little bird will surely be discreet.”

The songs of light love for another’s wife of troubadour, trouvère, and minnesinger, seem to have been squeezed together, so that all their sweet and acrid perfume is, so to speak, sublimated, in the recently discovered early Provencal narrative poem called “Flamenca.” Like the “Tristram” of Gottfried von Strassburg, like all these light mediaeval love lyrics, of which I have been speaking, the rhymed story of “Flamenca,” a pale and simple, but perfect petalled daisy, has come up in a sort of moral and intellectual dell in the winter of the Middle Ages a dell such as you meet in hollows of even the most wind-swept southern hills, where, while all round the earth is frozen and the short grass nibbled away by the frost, may be found even at Christmas a bright sheen of budding wheat beneath the olives on the slope, a yellow haze of sun upon the grass in which the little aromatic shoots of fennel and mint and marigold pattern with greenness the sere brown, the frost-burnt; where the very leafless fruit trees have a spring-like rosy tinge against the blue sky, and the tufted little osiers flame a joyous orange against the greenness of the hill.

Such spots there are and many in the winter of the Middle Ages; though it is not in them, but where the rain beats, and the snow and the wind tugs, that grow, struggling with bitterness, the great things of the day: the philosophy of Abelard, the love of man of St. Francis, the patriotism of the Lombard communes; nor that lie dormant, fertilized in the cold earth, the great things of art and thought, the great things to come. But in them arise the delicate winter flowers which we prize: tender, pale things, without much life, things either come too soon or stayed too late, among which is “Flamenca;” one of those roses, nipped and wrinkled, but stained a brighter red by the frost, which we pluck in December or in March; beautiful, bright, scentless roses, which, scarce in bud, already fall to pieces in our hand. “Flamenca” is simply the narrative of the loves of the beautiful wife of the bearish and jealous Count Archambautz, and of Guillems de Nevers, a brilliant young knight who hears of the lady’s sore captivity, is enamoured before he sees her, dresses up as the priest’s clerk, and speaks one word with her while presenting the mass book to be kissed, every holiday; and finally deceives the vigilance of the husband by means of a subterranean corridor, which he gets built between his inn and the bath-room of the lady at the famous waters of Bourbon-les-Bains. In this world of “Flamenca,” which is in truth the same world as that of the “Romaunt of the Rose,” the “Morte d’Arthur,” and of the love poets of early France and Germany, conjugal morality and responsibility simply do not exist. It seems an unreal pleasure-garden, with a shadowy guardian impalpable to us gross moderns called Honour, but where, as it seems, Love only reigns. Love, not the mystic and melancholy god of the “Vita Nuova,” but a foppish young deity, sentimental at once and sensual, of fashionable feudal life: the god of people with no apparent duties towards others, unconscious of any restraints save those of this vague thing called honour; whose highest mission for the knight, as put in our English “Romaunt of the Rose” is to

Set thy might and alle thy witte
Wymmen and ladies for to plese,
And to do thyng that may hem ése;

while, for the lady, it is expressed with perfect simplicity of shamelessness by Flamenca herself to her damsels, teaching them that the woman must yield to the pleasure of her lover. Now love, when young, when, so to speak, but just born and able to feed (as a newborn child on milk, without hungering for more solid food) on looks and words and sighs; love thus young, is a fair-seeming godhead, and the devotion to him a pretty and delicate piece of aestheticism. And such it is here in “Flamenca,” where there certainly exists neither God nor Christ, both complete absentees, whose priest becomes a courteous lover’s valet, whose church the place for amorous rendezvous, whose sacrifice of mass and prayer becomes a means of amorous correspondence: Cupid, in the shape of his slave Guillems de Nevers become patarin(zealot) for love peeping with shaven golden head from behind the missal, touching the lady’s hand and whispering with the words of spiritual peace the declaration of love, the appointment for meeting. God and Christ, I repeat, are absentees. Where they are I know not; perhaps over the Rhine with the Lollards in their weavers’ dens, or over the Alps in the cell of St. Francis; not here, certainly, or if here, themselves become the mere slaves of love. But this King Love, as long as a mere infant, is a sweet and gracious divinity, surrounded by somewhat of the freshness and hawthorn sweetness of spring which seem to accompany his favourite Guillems. Guillems de Nevers, “who could still grow,” this brilliant knight and troubadour, in his white silken and crimson and purple garments and soundless shoes embroidered with flowers, this prince of tournaments and tensos, who hearing the sorrows of the beautiful Flamenca, loves her unseen, sits sighing in sight of her prison bower, and faints like a hero of the Arabian Nights at her name, and has visions of her as St. Francis has of Christ; this younger and brighter Sir Launcelot, is an ideal little figure, whom you might mistake for Love himself as described in the “Romaunt of the Rose;” Love’s avatar or incarnation, on whose appearance the year blooms into spring, the fruit trees blossom, the birds sing, the girls dance at eve round the maypoles; behind whom, while reading this poem, we seem to see the corn shine green beneath the olives, the white-blossomed branches slant across the blue sky. For is he not the very incarnation of chivalry, of beauty, and of love? So much for this King Love while but quite young. Unfortunately he is speedily weaned of his baby food of mere blushing glances and sighed-out names; and then his aspect, his kingdom’s aspect, the aspect of his votaries, undergoes a change. The profane but charming game of the loving clerk and the missal is exchanged for the more coarse hide-and-seek of hidden causeways and tightened bolts, with jealous husbands guarding the useless door; Guillems becomes but an ordinary Don Juan or Lovelace, Flamenca but a sorry, sneaking adulteress, and the gracious damsels mere common sluts, curtseying at the loan (during the interview of nobler folk) of the gallant’s squires. For the scent of May, of fresh leaves and fallen blossoms, we get the nauseous vapours of the bath-room; and, alas, King Love has lost his aureole and his wings and turned keeper of the hot springs, sought out by the gouty and lepers, of Bourbon-les-Bains; and in closing this book, so delightfully begun, we sicken at the whiff of hot and fetid moral air as we should sicken in passing over the outlet of the polluted hot water.

“But where is the use of telling us all this?” the reader will ask; “every one knows that illicit passion existed and exists, and has its chroniclers, its singers in prose and in verse. But what has all this poetry of common adultery to do with a book like the ‘Vita Nuova,’ with that strange new thing, that lifelong worship of a woman, which you call mediaeval love?” This much: that out of this illicit love, and out of it, gross as it looks, alone arises the possibility of the “Vita Nuova;” arises the possibility of the romantic and semi-religious love of the Middle Ages. Or, rather, let us say that this mere loose love of the albas and Wachtlieder and “Flamenca,” is the substratum, nay, is the very flesh and blood, of the spiritual passion to which, in later days, we owe the book of Beatrice.

It is a harsh thing to say, but one which all sociology teaches us, that as there exists no sensual relation which cannot produce for its ennoblement a certain amount of passion, so also does there exist no passion (and Phaedrus is there to prove it) so vile and loathsome as to be unable to weave about itself a glamour of ideal sentiment. The poets of the Middle Ages strove after the criminal possession of another man’s wife. This, however veiled with fine and delicate poetic expressions, is the thing for which they wait and sigh and implore; this is the reward, the supremely honouring and almost sanctifying reward which the lady cannot refuse to the knight who has faithfully and humbly served her. The whole bulk of the love lyrics of the early Middle Ages are there to prove it; and if the allusions in them are not sufficiently clear, those who would be enlightened may study the discussions of the allegorical persons even in the English (and later) version of Guillaume de Lorris’ “Roman de la Rose;” and turn to what, were it in langue d’oc, we should call a tenso of Guillaume li Viniers among Maetzner’s “Altfranzoesische Lieder-dichter.” The catastrophe of Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s “Frowendienst,” where the lady, the “virtuous,” the “pure,” as he is pleased to call her, after making him cut off his finger, dress in leper’s clothes, chop off part of his upper lip, and go through the most marvellous Quixotic antics dressed in satin and pearls and false hair as Queen Venus, and jousting in this costume with every knight between Venice and Styria, all for her honour and glory; pulls the gallant in a basket up to her window, and then lets him drop down into the moat which is no better than a sewer; this grotesque and tragically resented end of Ulrich’s first love service speaks volumes on the point. The stones in Nostradamus’ “Lives of the Troubadours,” the incidents in Gottfried’s “Tristan und Isolde,” nay, the adventures even in our expunged English “Morte d’Arthur,” relating to the birth of Sir Galahad, are as explicit as anything in Brantome or the Queen of Navarre; the most delicate love songs of Provence and Germany are cobwebs spun round Decameronian situations. And all this is permitted, admitted, sanctioned by feudal society even as the cecisbeos of the noble Italian ladies were sanctioned by the society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the mediaeval castle, where, as we have seen, the lady, separated from her own sex, is surrounded by a swarm of young men without a chance of marriage, and bound to make themselves agreeable to the wife of a military superior; the woman soon ceases to be the exclusive property of her husband, and the husband speedily discovers that the majority, hence public ridicule, are against any attempt at monopolizing her. Thus adultery becomes, as we have seen, accepted as an institution under the name of service; and, like all other social institutions, developes a morality of its own a morality within immorality, of faithfulness within infidelity. The lady must be true to her knight, and the knight must be true to his lady: the Courts of Love solemnly banish from society any woman who is known to have more than one lover. Faithfulness is the first and most essential virtue of mediaeval love; a virtue unknown to the erotic poets of Antiquity, and which modern times have inherited from the Middle Ages as a requisite, even (as the reproaches of poets of the Alfred de Musset school teach us) in the most completely illicit love. Tristram and Launcelot, the two paragons of knighthood, are inviolably constant to their mistress: the husband may and must be deceived, but not the wife who helps to deceive him. Yseult of Brittany and Elaine, the mother of Galahad, do not succeed in breaking the vows made to Yseult the Fair and to Queen Guenevere. The beautiful lady in the hawthorn alba “a son cor en amar lejalmens.” But this loyal loving is for the knight who is warned to depart, certainly not for the husband, the gilos, in whose despite ("Bels dous amios, baizem nos eu e vos Aval els pratzon chantols auzellos Tot O fassam en despeit del gilos”) they are meeting. The ladies of the minnesingers are “pure,” “good,” “faithful” (and each and all are pure, good, and faithful, as long as they do not resist) from the point of view of the lover, not of the husband, if indeed a husband be permitted to have any point of view at all. And as fidelity is the essential virtue in these adulterous connections, so infidelity is the greatest crime that a woman (and even a man) can commit, the greatest misfortune which fate can send to an unhappy knight. That he leaves a faithful mistress behind him is the one hope of the knight who, taking the cross, departs to meet the scimitars of Saladin’s followers, the fevers, the plagues, the many miserable deaths of the unknown East. “If any lady be unfaithful,” says Quienes de Bethune, “she will have to be unfaithful with some base wretch.”

Et les dames ki castement vivront
Se loiaute font a ceus qui iront;
Et seles font par mal conseil folaje,
A lasques gens et mauvais lé feront,
Car tout li bon iront en cest voiage.

“I have taken the cross on account of my sins,” sings Albrecht von Johansdorf, one of the most earnest of the minnesingers; “now let God help, till my return, the woman who has great sorrow on my account, in order that I may find her possessed of her honour; let Him grant me this prayer. But if she change her life (i.e., take to bad courses), then may God forbid my ever returning.” The lady is bound (the Courts of Love decide this point of honour) to reward her faithful lover. “A knight,” says a lady, in an anonymous German song published by Bartsch, “has served me according to my will. Before too much time elapse, I must reward him; nay, if all the world were to object, he must have his way with me” ("und waerez al der Werlte leit, so muoz sin wille an mir ergaen"). But, on the other hand, the favoured knight is bound to protect his lady’s good fame.

Se jai mamie en tel point mis,
Que tout motroit (m’octroit) sans esformer,
Tant doi je miex sonnor gaiter

thus one of the interlocutors in a French jeu-parti, published by Maetzner; a rule which, if we may judge from the behaviour of Tristram and Launcelot, and from the last remnants of mediaeval love lore in modern French novels, means simply that the more completely a man has induced a woman to deceive her husband, the more stoutly is he bound to deny, with lies, rows, and blows, that she has ever done anything of the sort. Here, then, we find established, as a very fundamental necessity of this socially recognized adultery, a reciprocity of fidelity between lover and mistress which Antiquity never dreamed of even between husband and wife (Agamemnon has a perfect right to Briseis or Chryseis, but Clytaemnestra has no right to Aegisthus); and which indeed could scarcely arise as a moral obligation except where the woman was not bound to love the man (which the wife is) and where her behaviour towards him depended wholly upon her pleasure, that is to say, upon her satisfaction with his behaviour towards her. This, which seems to us so obvious, and of which every day furnishes us an example in the relations of the modern suitor and his hoped-for wife, could not, at a time when women were married by family arrangement, arise except as a result of illegitimate love. Horrible as it seems, the more we examine into this subject of mediaeval love, the more shall we see that our whole code of Grandisonian chivalry between lovers who intend marriage is derived from the practice of the Launcelots and Gueneveres, not from that of the married people (we may remember the manner in which Gunther woos his wife Brunhilt in the Nibelungenlied) of former ages; nay, the more we shall have to recognize that the very feeling which constitutes the virtuous love of modern poets is derived from the illegitimate loves of the Middle Ages.

Let us examine what are the habits of feeling and thinking which grow out of this reciprocal fidelity due to the absence of all one-sided legal pressure in this illegitimate, but socially legitimated, love of the early Middle Ages; which are added on to it by the very necessities of illicit connection. The lover, having no right to the favours of his mistress, is obliged, in order to win and to keep them, to please her by humility, fidelity, and such knightly qualities as are the ideal plumage of a man: he must bring home to her, by showing the world her colours victorious in serious warfare, in the scarcely less dangerous play of tournaments, and by making her beauty and virtues more illustrious in his song than are those of other women in the songs of their lovers he must bring home to her that she has a more worthy servant than her rivals; he must determine her to select him and to adhere to her selection. Now mediaeval husbands select their wives, instead of being selected; and once the woman and the dowry are in their hands, trouble themselves but little whether they are approved of or not. On the other hand, the mistress appears to her lover invested with imaginative, ideal advantages such as cannot surround her in the eyes of her husband: she is, in nearly every case, his superior in station and the desired of many beholders; she is bound to him by no tie which may grow prosaic and wearisome; she appears to him in no domestic capacity, can never descend to be the female drudge; her possession is prevented from growing stale, her personality from becoming commonplace, by the difficulty, rareness, mystery, adventure, danger, which even in the days of Courts of Love attach to illicit amours; above all, being for this man neither the housewife nor the mother, she remains essentially and continually the mistress, the beloved. Similarly the relations between the knight and the lady, untroubled by domestic worries, pecuniary difficulties, and squabbles about children, remain, exist merely as love relations, relations of people whose highest and sole desire is to please one another. Moreover, and this is an important consideration, the lady, who is a mere inexperienced, immature girl when she first meets her husband, is a mature woman, with character and passions developed by the independence of conjugal and social life. When she meets her lover, whatever power or dignity of character she may possess is ripe; whatever intensity of aspiration and passion may be latent is ready to come forth; for the first time there is equality in love. Equality? Ah, no. This woman who is the wife of his feudal superior, this woman surrounded by all the state of feudal sovereignty, this woman who, however young, has already known so much of life, this woman whose love is a free, gift of grace to the obscure, trembling vassal who has a right not even to be noticed; this lady of mediaeval love must always remain immeasurably above her lover. And, in the long day-dreams while watching her, as he thinks unseen, while singing of her, as he thinks unheard, there cluster round her figure, mistily seen in his fancy, those vague and-mystic splendours which surround the new sovereign of the Middle Ages, the Queen of Heaven; there mingles in the half-terrified raptures of the first kind glance, the first encouraging word, the ineffable passion stored up in the Christian’s heart for the immortal beings who, in the days of Bernard and Francis, descend cloud-like on earth and fill the cells of the saints with unendurable glory.

And thus, out of the baseness of habitual adultery, arises incense-like, in the early mediaeval poetry, a new kind of love subtler, more imaginative, more passionate, a love of the fancy and the heart, a love stimulating to the perfection of the individual as is any religion; nay, a religion, and one appealing more completely to the complete man, flesh and soul, than even the mystical beliefs of the Middle Ages. And as, in the fantastic song of Ritter Tannhaeuser, whose liege lady, so legend tells, was Dame Venus herself, the lady bids the knight go forth and fetch her green water which has washed the setting sun, salamanders snatched from the flame, the stars out of heaven; so would it seem as if this new power in the world, this poetically worshipped woman, had sent forth mankind to seek wonderful new virtues, never before seen on earth. Nay, rather, as the snowflakes became green leaves, the frost blossoms red and blue flowers, the winter wind a spring-scented breeze, when Bernard de Ventadorn was greeted by his mistress; so also does it seem as if, at the first greeting of the world by this new love, the mediaeval winter had turned to summer, and there had budded forth and flowered a new ideal of manly virtue, a new ideal of womanly grace.

But evil is evil, and evil is its fruit. Out of circumstances hitherto unknown, circumstances come about for the first time owing to the necessities of illegitimate passion, have arisen certain new and nobler characters of sexual love, certain new and beautiful conceptions of manly and womanly nature. The circumstances to which these are owed are pure in themselves, they are circumstances which in more modern times have characterized the perfectly legitimate passion of lovers held asunder by no social law, but by mere accidental barriers from Romeo and Juliet to the Master of Ravenswood and Lucy Ashton; and pure so far have been the spiritual results. But these circumstances were due, in the early Middle Ages, to the fact of adultery; and to the new ideal of love has clung, even in its purity, in its superior nobility, an element of corruption as unknown to gross and corrupt Antiquity as was the delicacy and nobility of mediaeval love. The most poetical and pathetic of all mediaeval love stories, the very incarnation of all that is most lyric at once and most tragic in the new kind of passion, is the story, told and retold by a score of poets and prose writers, of the loves of Yseult of Ireland and of Sir Tristram who, as the knight was bringing the princess to his uncle and her affianced, King Mark of Cornwall drank together by a fatal mistake a philter which made all such as partook of it in common inseparable lovers even unto death. Every one knows the result r: how Yseult came to her husband already the paramour of Tristram; how Brangwaine, her damsel, feeling that this unhallowed passion was due to her having left-within reach the potion intended for the King and Queen of Cornwall, devoted herself, at the price of her maidenhood, to connive in the amours of the lovers whom she had made; how King Mark was deceived, and doubted, and was deceived again; how Tristram fled to Brittany, but how, despite his seeming marriage with another and equally lovely Yseult, he remained faithful to the Queen of Cornwall. One version tells that Mark slew his nephew while he sat harping to Queen Yseult; another that Tristram died of grief because his scorned though wedded wife told him that the white-sailed ship, bearing his mistress to meet him, bore the black sail which meant that she was not on board; but all versions, I think, agree in ending with the fact, that the briar-rose growing on the tomb of the one, slowly trailed its flowers and thorns along till it had reached also the grave of the other, and knit together, as love had knit together with its sweet blossoms and sharp spines, the two fated lovers. The Middle Ages were enthralled by this tale; but they were also, occasionally, a little shocked by it. Poets and prose writers tampered every now and then with incidents and characters, seeking to make it appear that, owing to the substitution of the waiting-maid, and the neglect of the wedded princess of Brittany, Yseult had never belonged to any man save Tristram, nor Tristram to any woman save Yseult; or that King Mark had sent his nephew to woo the Irish queen’s daughter merely in hopes of his perishing in the attempt, and that his whole subsequent conduct was due to a mere unnatural hatred of a better knight than himself; touching up here and there with a view to justifying and excusing to some degree the long series of deceits which constituted the whole story. Thus the more timid and less gifted. But when, in the very first years (1210) of the thirteenth century, the greatest mediaeval poet that preceded Dante, the greatest German poet that preceded Goethe, Meister Gottfried von Strassburg, took in hand the old threadbare story of “Tristan und Isolde,” he despised all alterations of this sort, and accepted the original tale in its complete crudeness.

For, consciously or unconsciously, Gottfried had conceived this story as a thing wholly unknown in his time, and no longer subject to any of those necessities of constant rearrangement which tormented mediaeval poets: he had conceived it not as a tale, but as a novel. Gottfried himself was probably but little aware of what he was doing; the poem that he was writing probably fell for him into the very same category as the poems of other men; but to us, with our experience of so many different forms of narrative, it must be evident that “Tristan und Isolde” is a new departure, inasmuch as it is not the story of deeds and the people who did them, like the true epic from Homer to the Nibelungen; nor the story of people and the adventures which happened to them, like all romance poetry from “Palemon and Arcite,” to the “Orlando Furioso;” but, on the contrary, the story of the psychological relations, the gradual metamorphosis of soul by soul, between two persons. The long introductory story of Tristram’s youth must not mislead us, nor all the minute narrations of the killing of dragons and the drinking of love philters: Gottfried, we must remember, was certainly no deliberate innovator, and these thing’s are the mere inevitable externalities of mediaeval poetry, preserved with dull slavish care by the re-writer of a well-known tale, but enclosing in reality something essentially and startlingly modern: the history of a passion and of the spiritual changes which it brings about in those who are its victims.

To meet again this purely psychological interest we must skip the whole rest of the Middle Ages, nay, skip even the great period of dramatic literature, not stopping till we come to the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century, to the “Princesse de Cleves,” to “Clarissa Harlowe,” nay, really, to “The Nouvelle Heloise.” For even in Shakespeare there is always interest and importance in the action and reaction of subsidiary characters, in the event, in the accidental; there is intrigue, chance, misunderstanding, fate active agencies of which Othello and Hamlet, King Lear and Romeo, are helpless victims; there is, even in this psychological English drama of the Elizabethans, fate in the shape of Iago, in the shape of the Ghost, in the shape of the brothers of Webster’s duchess; fate in the shape of a ring, a letter, a drug, but fate always. And in this “Tristan und Isolde” of Gottfried von Strassburg is there not fate also in the love potion intended for King Mark, and given by the mistake of Brangwaine to Mark’s bride and his nephew? To this objection, which will naturally occur to any reader who is not acquainted with the poem of Gottfried, I simply answer, there is not. The love potion there is, but it does not play the same part as do, for instance, the drugs of Friar Laurence and his intercepted letter. Suppose the friar’s narcotic to have been less enduring in its action, or his message to have reached in safety, why then Juliet would have been awake instead of asleep, or Romeo would not have supposed her to be dead, and instead of the suicide of the two lovers, we should have had the successful carying off of Juliet by Romeo. Not so with Gottfried. The philter is there, and a great deal is talked about it; but it is merely one of the old, threadbare trappings of the original story, which he has been too lazy to suppress; it is merely, for the reader, the allegorical signal for an outburst of passion which all our subsequent knowledge of Tristram and Yseult shows us to be absolutely inevitable. In Gottfried’s poem, the drinking of the potion signifies merely that all the rambling, mediaeval prelude, not to be distinguished from the stories of “Morte d’Arthur,” and of half the romances of the Middle Ages, has come to a close and may be forgotten; and that the real work of the great poet, the real, matchless tragedy of the four actors Tristram, Yseult, Mark, and Brangwaine has begun.

Yet if we seek again to account to ourselves for this astonishing impression of modernness which we receive from Gottfried’s poem, we recognize that it is due to something far more important than the mere precocious psychological interest; nay, rather, that this psychological interest is itself dependent upon the fact which makes “Tristan und Isolde,” so modern to our feelings. This fact is simply that the poem of Gottfried is the earliest, and yet perhaps almost the completest, example of a literary anomaly which Antiquity, for all its abominations, did not know: the glorification of fidelity in adultery, the glorification of excellence within the compass of guilt. Older times more distant from our own in spirit, though not necessarily in years have presented us with many themes of guilt: the guilt which exists according to our own moral standard, but not according to that of the narrator, as the magnificently tragic Icelandic incest story of Sigmund and Signy; the guilt which has come about no one well knows how, an unfortunate circumstance leaving the sinner virtually stainless, in his or her own eyes and the eyes of others, like the Homeric Helen; the heroic guilt, where the very heroism seems due to the self-sacrifice of the sinner’s innocence, of Judith; the struggling, remorseful guilt, hopelessly overcome by fate and nature, of Phaedra; the dull and dogged guilt, making the sinner scarce more than a mere physical stumbling-block for others, of the murderer Hagen in the Nibelungenlied; and, finally, the perverse guilt, delighting in the consciousness of itself, of demons like Richard and Iago, of libidinous furies like the heroines of Tourneur and Marston. The guilt theme of “Tristan und Isolde” falls into none of these special categories. This theme, unguessed even by Shakespeare, is that of the virtuous behaviour towards one another of two individuals united in sinning against every one else. Gottfried von Strassburg narrates with the greatest detail how Tristram leads to the unsuspecting king the unblushing, unremorseful woman polluted by his own embraces; how Yseult substitutes on the wedding night her spotless damsel Brangwaine for her own sullied self; then, terrified lest the poor victim of her dishonour should ever reveal it, attempts to have her barbarously murdered, and, finally, seeing that nothing can shake the heroic creature’s faith, admits her once more to be the remorseful go-between in her amours. He narrates how Tristram dresses as a pilgrim and carries the queen from a ship to the shore, in order that Yseult may call on Christ to bear witness by a miracle that she is innocent of adultery, never having been touched save by that pilgrim and her own husband; and how, when the followers of King Mark have surrounded the grotto in the wood, Tristram places the drawn sword between himself and the sleeping queen, as a symbol of their chastity which the king is too honest to suspect. He draws, with a psychological power truly extraordinary in the beginning of the thirteenth century, the two other figures in this love drama: King Mark, cheated, dishonoured, oscillating between horrible doubt, ignominious suspicion and more ignominious credulity, his love for his wife, his trust in his nephew, his incapacity for conceiving ill-faith and fraud, the very gentleness and generosity of his nature, made the pander of guilt in which he cannot believe; and, on the other side, Brangwaine, the melancholy, mute victim of her fidelity to Yseult, the weak, heroic soul, rewarded only with cruel ingratitude, and condemned to screen and help the sin which she loathes and for which she assumes the awful responsibility. All this does Gottfried do, yet without ever seeming to perceive the baseness and wickedness of this tissue of lies, equivocations, and perjuries in which his lovers hide their passion; without ever seeming to guess at the pathos and nobility of the man and the woman who are the mere trumpery obstacles or trumpery aids to their amours. He heaps upon Tristram and Yseult the most extravagant praises: he is the flower of all knighthood, and she, the kindest, gentlest, purest, and noblest of women; he insists upon the wickedness of the world which is for ever waging war upon their passion, and holds up to execration all those who seek to spy out their secret. Gottfried is most genuinely overcome by the ideal beauty of this inextinguishable devotion, by the sublimity of this love which holds the whole world as dross; the crimes of the lovers are for him the mere culminating point of their moral grandeur, which has ceased to know any guilt save absence of love, any virtue save loving. And so serene is the old minnesinger’s persuasion, that it obscures the judgment and troubles the heart even of his reader; and we are tempted to ask ourselves, on laying down the book, whether indeed this could have been sinful, this love of Tristram and Yseult which triumphed over everything in the world, and could be quenched only by death. That circle of hell where all those who had sinfully loved were whirled incessantly in the perse, dark, stormy air, appeared in the eyes even of Dante as a place less of punishment than of glory; and, especially since the Middle Ages, all mankind looks upon that particular hell-pit with admiration rather than with loathing. And herein consists, more even than in any deceptions practised upon King Mark or any ingratitude manifested towards Brangwaine, the sinfulness of Tristram and Yseult: sinfulness which is not finite like the individual lives which it offends, but infinite and immortal as the heart and the judgment which it perverts. For such a tale, and so told, as the tale of Gottfried von Strassburg, makes us sympathize with this fidelity and devotion of a man and woman who care for nothing in the world save for each other, who are dragged and glued together by the desire and habit of mutual pleasure; it makes us admire their readiness to die rather than be parted, when their whole life is concentrated in their reciprocal sin, when their miserable natures enjoy, care for, know, only this miserable love. It makes us wink with leniency at the dishonour, the baseness, the cruelty, to which all this easy virtue is due. And such sympathy, such admiration, such leniency, for howsoever short a time they may remain in our soul, leave it, if they ever leave it completely and utterly less strong, less clean than it was before. We have all of us a lazy tendency to approve of the virtue which costs no trouble; to contemplate in ourselves or others, with a spurious moral satisfaction, the development of this or that virtuous quality in souls which are deteriorating in undoubted criminal self-indulgence. We have all of us, at the bottom of our hearts, a fellow feeling for all human affection; and the sinfulness of sinners like Tristram and Yseult lies largely in the fact that they pervert this legitimate and holy sympathy into a dangerous leniency for any strong and consistent love, into a morbid admiration for any irresistible mutual passion, making us forget that love has in itself no moral value, and that while self-indulgence may often be innocent, only self-abnegation can ever be holy.

The great mediaeval German poem of Tristram and Yseult remained for centuries a unique phenomenon; only John Ford perhaps, that grander and darker twin spirit of Gottfried von Strassburg, reviving, even among the morbidly psychological and crime-fascinated followers of Shakespeare, that new theme of evil the heroism of unlawful love. But Gottfried had merely manipulated with precocious analytical power a mode of feeling and thinking which was universal in the feudal Middle Ages; the great epic of adultery was forgotten, but the sympathetic and admiring interest in illegitimate passion remained; and was transmitted, wherever the Renaissance or the Reformation did not break through such transmission of mediaeval habits, as an almost inborn instinct from father to son, from mother to daughter. And we may doubt whether the important class of men and women who write and read the novels of illicit love, could ever have existed, had not the psychological artists of modern times, from Rousseau to George Sand, and from Stendhal to Octave Feuillet, found ready prepared for them in the countries not re-tempered by Protestantism, an assoiation of romance, heroism, and ideality with mere adulterous passion, which was unknown to the corruption of Antiquity and to the lawlessness of the Dark Ages, and which remained as a fatal alloy to that legacy of mere spiritual love which was left to the world by the love poets of early feudalism.


The love of the troubadours and minnesingers, of the Arthurian tales, which show that love in narrative form, was, as we have seen, polluted by the selfishness, the deceitfulness, the many unclean necessities of adulterous passion. Elevated and exquisite though it was, it could not really purify the relations of man and woman, since it was impure. Nay, we see that through its influence the grave and simple married love of the earlier tales of chivalry, the love of Siegfried for Chriemhilt, of Roland for his bride Belle Aude, of Renaud for his wife Clarisse, is gradually replaced in later fiction by the irregular love-makings of Huon of Bordeaux, Ogier the Dane, and Artus of Brittany; until we come at last to the extraordinary series of the Amadis romances, where every hero without exception is the bastard of virtuous parents, who subsequently marry and discover their foundling: a state of things which, even in the corrupt Renaissance, Boiardo and Ariosto found it necessary to reform in their romantic poems. With idealizing refinement, the chivalric love of the French, Provencal, and German poets brings also a kind of demoralization which, from one point of view, makes the spotless songs of Bernard de Ventadour and Armaud de Mareulh, of Ulrich von Liechtenstein and Frauenlob, less pure than the licentious poems addressed by the Greeks and Romans to women who, at least, were not the wives of other men.

Shall all this idealizing refinement, this almost religious fervour, this new poetic element of chivalric love remain useless; or serve only to subtly pollute while pretending to purify the great singing passion? Not so. But to prevent such waste of what in itself is pure and precious, is the mission of another country, of another civilization; of a wholly different cycle of poets who, receiving the new element of mediaeval love after it has passed through and been sifted by a number of hands, shall cleanse and recreate it in the fire of intellectual and almost abstract passion, producing that wonderful essence of love which, as the juices squeezed by alchemists out of jewels purified the body from all its ills, shall purify away all the diseases of the human soul.

While the troubadours and minnesingers had been singing at the courts of Angevine kings and Hohenstauffen emperors, of counts of Toulouse and dukes of Austria; a new civilization, a new political and social system, had gradually been developing in the free burghs of Italy; a new life entirely the reverse of the life of feudal countries. The Italian cities were communities of manufacturers and merchants, into which only gradually, and at the sacrifice of every aristocratic privilege and habit, a certain number of originally foreign feudatories were gradually absorbed. Each community consisted of a number of mercantile families, equal before the law, and illustrious or obscure according to their talents or riches, whose members, instead of being scattered over a wide area like the members of the feudal nobility, were most often gathered together under one roof sons, brothers, nephews, daughters, sisters and daughters-in-law, forming a hierarchy attending to the business of factory or counting-house under the orders of the father of the family, and to the economy of the house-under the superintendence of the mother; a manner of living at once business-like and patriarchal, expounded pounded by the interlocutors in Alberti’s “Governo della Famiglia,” and which lasted until the dissolution of the commonwealths and almost to our own times. Such habits imply a social organization, an intercourse between men and women, and a code of domestic morality the exact opposite to those of feudal countries. Here, in the Italian cities, there are no young men bound to loiter, far from their homes, round the wife of a military superior, to whom her rank and her isolation from all neighbours give idleness and solitude. The young men are all of them in business, usually with their own kinsfolk; not in their employer’s house, but in his office; they have no opportunity of seeing a woman from dawn till sunset. The women, on their side, are mainly employed at home: the whole domestic arrangement depends upon them, and keeps their hands constantly full; working, and working in the company of their female relatives and friends. Men and women are free comparatively little, and then they are free all together in the same places; hence no opportunities for tete-a-tete. Early Italian poetry is fond of showing us the young poet reading his verses or explaining his passion to those gentle, compassionate women learned in love, of whom we meet a troop, beautiful, vague, half-arch, half-melancholy faces, consoling Dante in the “Vita Nuova,” and reminding Guido Cavalcanti of his lady far off at Toulouse. But such women almost invariably form a group; they cannot be approached singly. Such a state of society inevitably produces a high and strict morality. In these early Italian cities a case of in’ fidelity is punished ruthlessly; the lover banished or killed; the wife for ever lost to the world, perhaps condemned to solitude and a lingering death in the fever tracts, like Pia dei Tolomei. A complacent deceived husband is even more ridiculous (the deceived husband is notoriously the chief laughing stock of all mediaeval free towns) than is a jealous husband among the authorized and recognized cicisbeos of a feudal court. Indeed the respect for marriage vows inevitable in this busy democratic mediaeval life is so strong, that long after the commonwealths have turned into despotisms, and every social tie has been dissolved in the Renaissance, the wives and daughters of men stained with every libidinous vice, nay, of the very despots themselves Tiberiuses and Neros on a smaller scale remain spotless in the midst of evil; and authorized adultery begins in Italy only under the Spanish rule in the late sixteenth century.

Such were the manners and morals of the Italian commonwealths when, about the middle of the thirteenth century, the men of Tuscany, now free and prosperous, suddenly awoke to the consciousness that they had a soul which desired song, and a language which was spontaneously singing. It was the moment when painting was beginning to claim for the figures of real men and women the walls and vaulted spaces whence had hitherto glowered, with vacant faces and huge ghostlike eyes, mosaic figures, from their shimmering golden ground; the moment when the Pisan artists had sculptured solemnly draped madonnas and kings not quite unworthy of the carved sarcophagi which stood around them; the moment when, merging together old Byzantine traditions and Northern examples, the architects of Florence, Siena, and Orvieto conceived a style which made cathedrals into marvellous and huge reliquaries of marble, jasper, alabaster, and mosaics. The mediaeval flowering time had come late, very late, in Italy; but the atmosphere was only the warmer, the soil the richer, and Italy put forth a succession of exquisite and superb immortal flowers of art when the artistic sap of other countries had begun to be exhausted. But the Italians, the Tuscans, audacious in the other arts, were diffident of themselves with regard to poetry. Architecture, painting, sculpture, had been the undisputed field for plebeian craftsmen, belonging exclusively to the free burghs and disdained by the feudal castles; but poetry was essentially the aristocratic, the feudal art, cultivated by knights and cultivated for kings and barons. It was probably an unspoken sense of this fact which caused the early Tuscan poets to misgive their own powers and to turn wistfully and shyly towards the poets of Provence and of Sicily. There, beyond the seas, under the last lords of Toulouse and the brilliant mongrel Hohenstauffen princes, were courts, knights, and ladies; there was the tradition of this courtly art of poetry; and there only could the sons of Florentine or Sienese merchants, clodhoppers in gallantry and song, hope to learn the correct style of thing. Hence the history of the Italian lyric before Dante is the history of a series of transformations which connect a style of poetry absolutely feudal and feudally immoral, with the hitherto unheard-of platonic love subtleties of the “Vita Nuova.” And it is curious, in looking over the collections of early Italian lyrists, to note the alteration in tone as Sicily and the feudal courts are left further and further behind. Ciullo d’ Alcamo, flourishing about 1190, is the only Italian-writing poet absolutely contemporaneous with the earlier and better trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers; and he is also the only one who resembles them very closely. His famous tenso, beginning “Rosa fresca aulentissima” (a tolerably faithful translation heads the beautiful collection of the late Mr. D.G. Rossetti), is indeed more explicitly gross and immoral than the majority of Provencal and German love-songs: loose as are many of the albas, serenas, wachtlieder, and even many of the less special forms of German and Provencal poetry, I am acquainted with none of them which comes up to this singular dialogue, in which a man, refusing to marry a woman, little by little wins her over to his wishes and makes her brazenly invite him to her dishonour. Between Ciullo d’ Alcamo and his successors there is some gap of time, and a corresponding want of gradation. Yet the Sicilian poets of the courts of Hohenstauffen and Anjou, recognizable by their name or the name of their town, Inghilfredi, Manfredi, Ranieri and Ruggierone da Palermo, Tommaso and Matteo da Messina, Guglielmotto d’ Otranto, Rinaldo d’Aquino, Peir delle Vigne, either maintain altogether unchanged the tone of the troubadours, or only gradually, as in the remarkable case of the Notary of Lentino, approximate to the platonic poets of Tuscany. The songs of the archetype of Sicilian singers, the Emperor Frederick II., are completely Provencal in feeling as in form, though infinitely inferior in execution. With him it is always the pleasure which he hopes from his lady, or the pleasure which he has had “Quando ambidue stavamo in allegranza alla dolce féra;” “Pregovi donna mia Per vostra cortesia E pregovi che sia Quello che lo core disia.” Again: “Sospiro e sto in rancura Ch’ io son si disioso E pauroso Mi fate penare Ma tanto m’ assicura Lo suo viso amoroso E lo gioioso Riso e lo sguardare E lo parlare Di questa criatura Che per paura Mi fate penare E di morare Tant’ e fina e pura Tanto e saggia e cortese Non credo che pensasse Ne distornasse Di cio he m’ impromise.” It is, this earliest Italian poetry, like the more refined poetry of troubadours and minnesingers, eminently an importuning of highborn but loosely living women. From Sicily and Apulia poetry goes first, as might be expected (and as probably sculpture went) to the seaport Pisa, thence to the neighbouring Lucca, considerably before reaching Florence. And as it becomes more Italian and urban, it becomes also, under the strict vigilance of burgher husbands, considerably more platonic. In Bologna, the city of jurists, it acquires (the remark is not mine merely, but belongs also to Carducci) the very strong flavour of legal quibbling which distinguishes the otherwise charming Guido Guinicelli; and once in Florence, among the most subtle of all subtle Tuscans, it becomes at once what it remained even for Dante, saturated with metaphysics: the woman is no longer paramount, she is subordinated to Love himself; to that personified abstraction Amor, the serious and melancholy son of pagan philosophy and Christian mysticism. The Tuscans had imported from Provence and Sicily the new element of mediaeval love, of life devotion, soul absorption in loving; if they would sing, they must sing of this; any other kind of love, at a time when Italy still read and relished her would-be Provencals, Lanfranc Cicala and Sordel of Mantua, would have been unfashionable and unendurable. But in these Italian commonwealths, as we have seen, poets are forced, nilly-willy, to be platonic; an importuning poem found in her work-basket may send a Tuscan lady into a convent, or, like Pia, into the Maremma; an alba or a serena interrupted by a wool-weaver of Calimara or a silk spinner of Lucca, may mean that the imprudent poet be found weltering in blood under some archway the next morning. The chivalric sentimentality of feudalism must be restrained; and little by little, under the pressure of such very different social habits, it grows into a veritable platonic passion. Poets must sing, and in order that they sing, they must adore; so men actually begin to seek out, and adore and make themselves happy and wretched about women from whom they can hope only social distinctions; and this purely aesthetic passion goes on by the side nay, rather on the top, of their humdrum, conjugal life or loosest libertinage. Petrarch’s bastards were born during the reign of Madonna Laura; and that they should have been, was no more a slight or infidelity to her than to the other Madonna, the one in heaven. Laura had a right to only ideal sentiments ideal relations; the poet was at liberty to carry more material preferences elsewhere.

But could such love as this exist, could it be genuine? To my mind, indubitably. For there is, in all our perceptions and desires of physical and moral beauty, an element of passion which is akin to love; and there is, in all love that is not mere lust, a perception of, a craving for, beauty, real or imaginary which is identical with our merely aesthetic perceptions and cravings; hence the possibility, once the wish for such a passion present, of a kind of love which is mainly aesthetic, which views the beloved as gratifying merely to the wish for physical or spiritual loveliness, and concentrates upon one exquisite reality all dreams of ideal perfection. Moreover there comes, to all nobler natures, a love dawning: a brightening and delicate flushing of the soul before the actual appearance of the beloved one above the horizon, which is as beautiful and fascinating in its very clearness, pallor, and coldness, as the unearthly purity of the pale amber and green and ashy rose which streaks the heavens before sunrise. The love of the early Tuscan poets (for we must count Guinicelli, in virtue of his language, as a Tuscan) had been restrained, by social necessities first, then by habit and deliberate aesthetic choice, within the limits of this dawning state; and in this state, it had fed itself off mere spiritual food, and acquired the strange intensity of mere intellectual passions. We give excessive weight, in our days, to spontaneity in all things, apt to think that only the accidental, the unsought, can be vital; but it is true in many things, and truest in all matters of the imagination and the heart, that the desire to experience any sentiment will powerfully conduce to its production, and even give it a strength due to the long incubation of the wish. Thus the ideal love of the Tuscan poets was probably none the weaker, but rather the stronger, for the desire which they felt to sing such passion; nay, rather to hear it singing in themselves. The love of man and wife, of bride and bridegroom, was still of the domain of prose; adulterous love forbidden; and the tradition of, the fervent wish for, the romantic passion of the troubadours consumed them as a strong artistic craving. Platonic love was possible, doubly possible in souls tense with poetic wants; it became a reality through the strength of the wish for it.

Nor was this all. In all imaginative passions, intellectual motives are so much fuel; and in this case the necessity of logically explaining the bodiless passion for a platonic lady, of understanding why they felt in a manner so hitherto unknown to gross mankind, tended greatly to increase the love of these Tuscans, and to bring it in its chastity to the pitch of fervour of more fleshly passions, by mingling with the aesthetic emotions already in their souls the mystical theorizings of transcendental metaphysics, and the half-human, half-supernatural ecstasy of mediaeval religion. For we must remember that Italy was a country not merely of manufacturers and bankers, but of philosophers also and of saints.

Among the Italians of the thirteenth century the revival of antique literature was already in full swing; while in France, Germany, and Provence there had been, in lyric poetry at least, no trace of classic lore. Whereas the trouvères and troubadours had possessed but the light intellectual luggage of a military aristocracy; and the minnesingers had, for the most part, been absolutely ignorant of reading and writing (Wolfram says so of himself, and Ulrich von Liechtenstein relates how he carried about his lady’s letter for days unread until the return of his secretary); the poets of Italy, from Brunetto Latini to Petrarch, were eminently scholars; men to whom, however much they might be politicians and ringleaders, like Cavalcanti, Donati, and Dante, whatever existed of antique learning was thoroughly well known. Such men were familiar with whatever yet survived of the transcendental theories of Plato and Plotinus; and they seized at once upon the mythic metaphysics of an antenatal condition, of typical ideas, of the divine essence of beauty, on all the mystic discussions on love and on the soul, as a philosophical explanation of their seemingly inexplicable passion for an unapproachable woman. The lady upon whom the poetic fervour, the mediaeval love, inherited from Provence and France, was now expended, and whom social reasons placed quite beyond the reach of anything save the poet’s soul and words, was evidently beloved for the sake of that much of the divine essence contained in her nature; she was loved for purely spiritual reasons, loved as a visible and living embodiment of virtue and beauty, as a human piece of the godhead. So far, therefore, from such an attachment being absurd, as absurd it would have seemed to troubadours and minnesingers, who never served a lady save for what they called a reward; it became, in the eyes of these platonizing Italians, the triumph of the well-bred soul; and as such, soon after, a necessary complement to dignities, talents, and wealth, the very highest occupation of a liberal mind. Thus did their smattering of platonic and neo-platonic philosophy supply the Tuscan poets with a logical reality for this otherwise unreal passion.

But there was something more. In this democratic and philosophizing Italy, there was not the gulf which separated the chivalric poets, men of the sword and not of books, from the great world of religious mysticism; for, though the minnesingers especially were extremely devout and sang many a strange love-song to the Virgin; they knew, they could know, nothing of the contemplative religion of Eckhardt and his disciples humble and transcendental spirits, whose words were treasured by the sedentary, dreamy townsfolk of the Rhine, but would have conveyed no meaning even to the poet of the Grail epic, with its battles and feasts, its booted and spurred slapdash morality, Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the great manufacturing cities of Italy, such religious mysticism spread as it could never spread in feudal courts; it became familiar, both in the mere passionate sermons and songs of the wandering friars, and in the subtle dialectics of the divines; above all, it became familiar to the poets. Now the essence of this contemplative theology of the Middle Ages, which triumphantly held its own against the cut-and-dry argumentation of scholastic rationalism, was love. Love which assuredly meant different things to different minds; a passionate benevolence towards man and beast to godlike simpletons like Francis of Assisi; a mere creative and impassive activity of the divinity to deep-seeing (so deep as to see only their own strange passionate eyes and lips reflected in the dark well of knowledge) and almost pantheistic thinkers like Master Eckhardt; but love nevertheless, love. “Amor, amore, ardo d’ amore,” St. Francis had sung in a wild rhapsody, a sort of mystic dance, a kind of furious malaguena of divine love; and that he who would wish to know God, let him love “Qui vult habere notitiam Dei, amet,” had been written by Hugo of St. Victor, one of the subtlest of all the mystics. “Amor oculus est,” said Master Eckhardt; love, love was not love then the highest of all human faculties, and must not the act of loving, of perceiving God’s essence in some creature which had virtue, the soul’s beauty, and beauty, the body’s virtue, be the noblest business of a noble life? Thus argued the poets; and their argument, half-passionate, half-scholastic, mixing Phaedrus and Bonaventura, the Schools of Alexandria and the Courts of Love of Provence, resulted in adding all the fervid reality of philosophical and religious aspiration to their clear and cold phantom of disembodied love of woman.

Little by little therefore, together with the carnal desires of Provencals and Sicilians, the Tuscan poets put behind them those little coquetries of style and manner, complications of metre and rhythm learned and fantastic as a woman’s plaited and braided hair; those metaphors and similes, like bright flowers or shining golden ribbons dropped from the lady’s bosom and head and eagerly snatched by the lover, which we still find, curiously transformed and scented with the rosemary and thyme of country lanes, in the peasant poetry of modern Tuscany. Little by little does the love poetry of the Italians reject such ornaments; and cloth itself in that pale garment, pale and stately in heavy folds like a nun’s or friar’s weeds, but pure and radiant and solemn as the garment of some painted angel, which we have all learned to know from the “Vita Nuova.”

To describe this poetry of the immediate precursors and contemporaries of Dante is to the last degree difficult: it can be described only by symbols, and symbols can but mislead us. Dante Rossetti himself, after translating with exquisite beauty the finest poems of this school, showed how he had read into them his own spirit, when he drew the beautiful design for the frontispiece of his collection. These two lovers the youth kneeling in his cloth of silver robe, lifting his long throbbing neck towards the beloved; the lady stooping down towards him, raising him up and kissing him; the mingled cloud of waving hair, the four tight-clasped hands, the four tightly glued lips, the profile hidden by the profile, the passion and the pathos, the eager, wistful faces, nay, the very splendour of brocade robes and jewels, the very sweetness of blooming rose spaliers; all this is suitable to illustrate this group of sonnets or that of the “House of Life;” but it is false, false in efflorescence and luxuriance of passion, splendour and colour of accessory, to the poetry of these early Tuscans. Imaginative their poetry certainly is, and passionate; indeed the very concentration of imaginative passion; but imagination and passion unlike those of all other poets; perhaps because more rigorously reduced to their elements: imagination purely of the heart, passion purely of the intellect, neither of the senses: love in its most essential condition, but, just because an essence, purged of earthly alloys, rarefied, sublimated into a cultus or a philosophy.

These poems might nearly all have been written by one man, were it possible for one man to vary from absolute platitude to something like genius, so homogeneous is their tone: everywhere do we meet the same simplicity of diction struggling with the same complication and subtlety of thought, the same abstract speculation strangely mingled with most individual and personal pathos. The mode of thinking and feeling, the conception of all the large characteristics of love, and of all its small incidents are, in this cycle of poets, constantly the same; and they are the same in the “Vita Nuova;” Dante having, it would seem, invented and felt nothing unknown to his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, but merely concentrated their thoughts and feelings by the greater intenseness of his genius. This platonic love of Dante’s days is, as I have said, a passion sublimated into a philosophy and a cultus. The philosophy of love engages much of these poets’ attention; all have treated of it, but Guido Cavalcanti, Dante’s elder brother in poetry, is love’s chief theologian. He explains, as Eckhardt or Bonaventura might explain the mysteries of God’s being and will, the nature and operation of love. “Love, which enamours us of excellence, arises out of pure virtue of the soul, and equals us to God,” he tells us; and subtly developes his theme. This being the case, nothing can be more mistaken than to suppose, as do those of little sense, that Love is blind, and goes blindly about ("Da sentir poco, e da credenza vana Si move il dir di cotal grossa gente Ch’ amor fa cieco andar per lo suo regno"). Love is omniscient, since love is born of the knowledge and recognition of excellence. Such love as this is the only true source of happiness, since it alone raises man to the level of the divinity. Cavalcanti has in him not merely the subtlety but the scornfulness of a great divine. His wrath against all those who worship or defend a different god of Love knows no bounds. “I know not what to say of him who adores the goddess born of Saturn and sea-foam. His love is fire: it seems sweet, but its result is bitter and evil. He may indeed call himself happy; but in such delights he mingles himself with much baseness.” Such is this god of Love, who, when he descended into Dante’s heart, caused the spirit of life to tremble terribly in his secret chamber, and trembling to cry, “Lo, here is a god stronger than myself, who coming will rule over me. Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi!”

The god, this chaste and formidable archangel Amor, is the true subject of these poets’ adoration; the woman into whom he descends by a mystic miracle of beauty and of virtue becomes henceforward invested with somewhat of his awful radiance. She is a gentle, gracious lady; a lovable and loving woman, in describing whose grey-green eyes and colour as of snow tinted with pomegranate, the older Tuscans would fain linger, comparing her to the new-budded rose, to the morning star, to the golden summer air, to the purity of snowflakes falling silently in a serene sky; but the sense of the divinity residing within her becomes too strong. From her eyes dart spirits who strike awe into the heart; from her lips come words which make men sigh; on her passage the poet casts down his eyes; notions, all these, with which we are familiar from the “Vita Nuova;” but which belong to Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, nay, even to Guinicelli, quite as much as to Dante. The poet bids his verse go forth to her, but softly; and stand before her with bended head, as before the Mother of God. She is a miracle herself, a thing sent from heaven, a spirit, as Dante says in that most beautiful of all his sonnets, the summing up of all that the poets of his circle had said of their lady “Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare.”

“She passes along the street so beautiful and gracious,” says Guinicelli, “that she humbles pride in all whom she greets, and makes him of our faith if he does not yet believe. And no base man can come into her presence. And I will tell you another virtue of her: no man can think ought of evil as long as he looks upon her.” “The noble mind which I feel, on account of this youthful lady who has appeared, makes me despise baseness and vileness,” says Lapo Gianni. The women who surround her are glorified in her glory, glorified in their womanhood and companionship with her. “The ladies around you,” says Cavalcanti, “are dear to me for the sake of your love; and I pray them as they are courteous, that they should do you all honour.” She is, indeed, scarcely a woman, and something more than a saint: an avatar, an incarnation of that Amor who is born of virtue and beauty, and raises men’s minds to heaven; and when Cavalcanti speaks of his lady’s portrait behind the blazing tapers of Orsanmichele, it seems but natural that she should be on an altar, in the Madonna’s place. The idea of a mysterious incarnation of love in the lady, or of a mystic relationship between her and love, returns to these poets. Lapo Gianni tells us first that she is Amor’s sister, then speaks of her as Amor’s bride; nay, in this love theology of the thirteenth century, arises the same kind of confusion as in the mystic disputes of the nature of the Godhead. A Sienese poet, Ugo da Massa, goes so far as to say, “Amor and I are all one thing; and we have one will and one heart; and if I were not, Amor were not; mind you, do not think I am saying these things from subtlety (’e non pensate ch’ io ’l dica per arte’); for certainly it is true that I am love, and he who should slay me would slay love.”

Together with the knowledge of public life and of scholastic theories, together with the love of occult and cabalistic science, and the craft of Provencal poetry, Dante received from his Florence of the thirteenth century the knowledge of this new, this exotic and esoteric intellectual love. And, as it is the mission of genius to gather into an undying whole, to model into a perfect form, the thoughts and feelings and perceptions of the less highly endowed men who surround it, so Dante moulded out of the love passion and love philosophy of his day the “Vita Nuova.” Whether the story narrated in this book is fact; whether a real woman whom he called Beatrice ever existed; some of those praiseworthy persons, who prowl in the charnel-house of the past, and put its poor fleshless bones into the acids and sublimates of their laboratory, have gravely doubted. But such doubts cannot affect us. For if the story of the “Vita Nuova” be a romance, and if Beatrice be a mere romance heroine, the real meaning and value of the book does not change in our eyes; since, to concoct such a tale, Dante must have had a number of real experiences which are fully the tale’s equivalent; and to conceive and create such a figure as Beatrice, and such a passion as she inspires her poet, he must have felt as a poignant reality the desire for such a lady, the capacity for such a love. A tale merely of the soul, and of the soul’s movements and actions, this “Vita Nuova;” so why should it matter if that which could never exist save in the spirit, should have been but the spirit’s creation? It is, in its very intensity, a vision of love; what if it be a vision merely conceived and never realized? Hence the futility of all those who wish to destroy our faith and pleasure by saying “all this never took place.” Fools, can you tell what did or did not take place in a poet’s mind? Be this as it may, the “Vita Nuova,” thank heaven, exists; and, thank heaven, exists as a reality to our feelings. The longed-for ideal, the perfection whose love, said Cavalcanti, raises us up to God, has seemed to gather itself into a human shape; and a real being has been surrounded by the halo of perfection emanated from the poet’s own soul. The vague visions of glory have suddenly taken body in this woman, seen rarely, at a distance; the woman whom, as a child, the poet, himself a child, had already looked at with the strange, ideal fascination which we sometimes experience in our childhood. People are apt to smile at this opening of the “Vita Nuova;” to put aside this narrative of childish love together with the pathetic little pedantries of learned poetry and Kabbala, of the long gloses to each poem, and the elaborate calculations of the recurrence and combination of the number nine (and that curious little bit of encyclopædic display about the Syrian month Tismin) as so much pretty local colouring or obsolete silliness. But there is nothing at which to laugh in such childish fascinations; the wonderful, the perfect, is more open to us as children than it is afterwards: a word, a picture, a snatch of music will have for us an ineffable, mysterious meaning; and how much more so some human being, often some other, more brilliant child from whose immediate contact we are severed by some circumstance, perhaps by our own consciousness of inferiority, which makes that other appear strangely distant, above us, moving in a world of glory which we scarcely hope to approach; a child sometimes, or sometimes some grown person, beautiful, brilliant, who sings or talks or looks at us, the child, with ways which we do not understand, like some fairy or goddess. No indeed, there is nothing to laugh at in this, in this first blossoming of that love for higher and more beautiful things, which in most of us is trodden down, left to wither, by our maturer selves; nothing to make us laugh; nay, rather to make us sigh that later on we see too well, see others too much on their real level, scrutinize too much; too much, alas, for what at best is but an imperfect creature. And in this state of fascination does the child Dante see the child Beatrice, as a strange, glorious little vision from a childish sphere quite above him; treasuring up that vision, till with his growth it expands and grows more beautiful and noble, but none the less fascinating and full of awfulness. When, therefore, the grave young poet, full of the yearning for Paradise (but Paradise vaguer, sweeter, less metaphysic and theological than the Paradise of his manhood); as yet but a gracious, learned youth, his terrible moral muscle still undeveloped by struggle, the noble and delicate dreamer of Giotto’s fresco, with the long, thin, almost womanish face, marked only by dreamy eyes and lips, wandering through this young Florence of the Middle Ages when, I say, he meets after long years, the noble and gentle woman, serious and cheerful and candid; and is told that she is that same child who was the queen and goddess of his childish fancies; then the vague glory with which his soul is filled expands and enwraps the beloved figure, so familiar and yet so new. And the blood retreats from his veins, and he trembles; and a vague god within him, half allegory, half reality, cries out to him that a new life for him has begun. Beatrice has become the ideal; Beatrice, the real woman, has ceased to exist; the Beatrice of his imagination only remains, a piece of his own soul embodied in a gracious and beautiful reality, which he follows, seeks, but never tries to approach. Of the real woman he asks nothing; no word throughout the “Vita Nuova” of entreaty or complaint, no shadow of desire, not a syllable of those reproaches of cruelty which Petrarch is for ever showering upon Laura. He desires nothing of Beatrice, and Beatrice cannot act wrongly; she is perfection, and perfection makes him who contemplates humble at once and proud, glorifying his spirit. Once, indeed, he would wish that she might listen to him; he has reason to think that he has fallen in her esteem, has seemed base and uncourteous in her eyes, and he would explain. But he does not wish to address her; it never occurs to him that she can ever feel in any way towards him; it is enough that he feels towards her. Let her go by and smile and graciously salute her friends: the sight of her grave and pure regalness, nay, rather divinity, of womanhood, suffices for his joy; nay, later the consciousness comes upon him that it is sufficient to know of her existence and of his love even without seeing her. And, as must be the case in such ideal passion, where the action is wholly in the mind of the lover, he is at first ashamed, afraid; he feels a terror lest his love, if known to her, should excite her scorn; a horror lest it be misunderstood and befouled by the jests of those around him, even of those same gentle women to whom he afterwards addresses his praise of Beatrice. He is afraid of exposing to the air of reality this ideal flower of passion. But the moment comes when he can hide it no longer; and, behold, the passion flower of his soul opens out more gloriously in the sunlight of the world. He is proud of his passion, of his worship; he feels the dignity and glory of being the priest of such a love. The women all round, the beautiful, courteous women, of whom, only just now, he was so dreadfully afraid, become his friends and confidants; they are quite astonished (half in love, perhaps, with the young poet) at this strange way of loving; they sympathize, admire, are in love with his love for Beatrice. And to them he speaks of her rather than to men, for the womanhood which they share with his lady consecrates them in his eyes; and they, without jealousy towards this ideal woman, though perhaps not without longing for this ideal love, listen as they might listen to some new and unaccountably sweet music, touched and honoured, and feeling towards Dante as towards some beautiful, half-mad thing. He talks of her, sings of her, and is happy; the strangest thing in this intensely real narrative of real love is this complete satisfaction of the passion in its own existence, this complete absence of all desire or hope. But this happiness is interrupted by the sudden, terrible thought that one day all this must cease; the horrible, logical necessity coming straight home to him, that one day she must die “Di necessità conviene che la gentilissima Beatrice alcuna volta si muoia.” There is nothing truer, more intensely pathetic, in all literature, than this frightful pang of evil, not real, but first imagined; this frightful nightmare vision of the end coming when reality is still happy. Have we not all of us at one time felt the horrible shudder of that sudden perception that happiness must end; that the beloved, the living, must die; that this thing the present, which we clasp tight with our arms, which throbs against our breast, will in but few moments be gone, vanished, leaving us to grasp mere phantom recollections? Compared with this the blow of the actual death of Beatrice is gentle. And then, the truthfulness of his narration how, with yearning, empty heart, hungering after those poor lost realities of happiness, after that occasional glimpse of his lady, that rare catching of her voice, that blessed consciousness of her existence, he little by little lets himself be consoled, cradled to sleep like a child which has sobbed itself out, in the sympathy, the vague love, of another the Donna della Finestra with whom he speaks of Beatrice; and the sudden, terrified, starting up and shaking off of any such base consolation, the wrath at any such mental infidelity to the dead one, the indignant impatience with his own weakness, with his baseness in not understanding that it is enough that Beatrice has lived and that he has loved her, in not feeling that the glory and joy of the ineffaceable past is sufficient for all present and future. A revolution in himself which gradually merges in that grave final resolve, that sudden seeing how Beatrice can be glorified by him, that solemn, quiet, brief determination not to say any more of her as yet; not till he can show her transfigured in Paradise. “After this sonnet there appeared unto me a marvellous vision, in which I beheld things that made me propose unto myself to speak no more of this blessed one, until the time when I might more worthily treat of her. And that this may come to pass, I strive with all my endeavour, even as she truly knows it. Thus, if it should please Him, through whom all things do live, that my life continue for several more years, I hope to say of her such things as have never been said of any lady. And then may it please Him, who is the lord of all courtesy, that my soul shall go forth to see the glory of its lady, that is to say, of that blessed Beatrice, who gloriously looks up into the face of Him, qui est per omnia saecula benedictus”

Thus ends the “Vita Nuova;” a book, to find any equivalent for whose reality and completeness of passion, though it is passion for a woman whom the poet scarcely knows and of whom he desires nothing, we must go back to the merest fleshly love of Antiquity, of Sappho or Catullus; for modern times are too hesitating and weak. So at least it seems; but in fact, if we only think over the matter, we shall find that in no earthly love can we find this reality and completeness: it is possible only in love like Dante’s. For there can be no unreality in it: it is a reality of the imagination, and leaves, with all its mysticism and idealism, no room for falsehood. Any other kind of love may be set aside, silenced, by the activity of the mind; this love of Dante’s constitutes that very activity. And, after reading that last page which I have above transcribed, as those closing Latin words echo through our mind like the benediction from an altar, we feel as if we were rising from our knees in some secret chapel, bright with tapers and dim with incense; among a crowd kneeling like ourselves; yet solitary, conscious of only the glory we have seen and tasted, of that love qui est per omnia scecula benedictus.


But is it right that we should feel thus? Is it right that love, containing within itself the potentialities of so many things so sadly needed in this cold real world, as patience, tenderness, devotion, and loving-kindness is it right that love should thus be carried away out of ordinary life and enclosed, a sacred thing for contemplation, in the shrine or chapel of an imaginary Beatrice? And, on the other hand, is it right that into the holy places of our soul, the places where we should come face to face with the unattainable ideal of our own conduct that we may strive after something nobler than mere present pleasure and profit is it right that into such holy places, destined but for an abstract perfection, there should be placed a mere half-unknown, vaguely seen woman? In short, is not this “Vita Nuova” a mere false ideal, one of those works of art which, because they are beautiful, get worshipped as holy?

This question is a grave one, and worthy to make us pause. The world is full of instances of the fatal waste of feelings misapplied: of human affections, human sympathy and compassion, so terribly necessary to man, wasted in various religious systems, upon Christ and God: of religious aspirations, contemplation, worship, and absorption, necessary to the improvement of the soul, wasted in various artistic or poetic crazes upon mere pleasant works, or pleasant fancies, of man; wastefulness of emotions, wastefulness of time, which constitute two-thirds of mankind’s history and explain the vast amount of evil in past and present. The present question therefore becomes, is not this “Vita Nuova” merely another instance of this lamentable carrying off of precious feelings in channels where they result no longer in fertilization, but in corruption? The Middle Ages, especially, in its religion, its philosophy, nay, in that very love of which I am writing, are one succession of such acts of wastefulness. This question has come to me many a time, and has left me in much doubt and trouble. But on reflection I am prepared to answer that such doubts as these may safely be cast behind us, and that we may trust that instinct which, whenever we lay down the “Vita Nuova,” tells us that to have felt and loved this book is one of those spiritual gains in our life which, come what may, can never be lost entirely.

The “Vita Nuova” represents the most exceptional of exceptional moral and intellectual conditions. Dante’s love for Beatrice is, in great measure, to be regarded as an extraordinary and exquisite work of art, produced not by the volition of man, but by the accidental combination of circumstances. It is no more suited to ordinary life than would a golden and ivory goddess of Phidias be suited to be the wife of a mortal man. But it may not therefore be useless; nay, it may be of the highest utility. It may serve that high utilitarian mission of all art, to correct the real by the ideal, to mould the thing as it is in the semblance of the thing as it should be. Herein, let it be remembered, consists the value, the necessity of the abstract and the ideal. In the long history of evolution we have now reached the stage where selection is no longer in the mere hands of unconscious nature, but of conscious or half-conscious man; who makes himself, or is made by mankind, according to not merely physical necessities, but to the intellectual necessity of realizing the ideal, of pursuing the object, of imitating the model, before him. No man will ever find the living counterpart of that chryselephantine goddess of the Greeks; ivory and gold, nay, marble, fashioned by an artist, are one thing; flesh is another, and flesh fashioned by mere blind accident. But the man who should have beheld that Phidian goddess, who should have felt her full perfection, would not have been as easily satisfied as any other with a mere commonplace living woman; he would have sought and seeking, would have had more likelihood of finding the woman of flesh and blood who nearest approached to that ivory and gold perfection. The case is similar with the “Vita Nuova.” No earthly affection, no natural love of man for woman, of an entire human being, body and soul, for another entire human being, can ever be the counterpart of this passion for Beatrice, the passion of a mere mind for a mere mental ideal. But if the old lust-fattened evil of the world is to diminish rather than to increase, why then every love of man for woman and of woman for man should tend, to the utmost possibility, to resemble that love of the “Vita Nuova.” For mankind has gradually separated from brute kind merely by the development of those possibilities of intellectual and moral passion which the animal has not got; an animal man will never cease to be, but a man he can daily more and more become, until from the obscene goat-legged and goat-faced creature which we commonly see, he has turned into something like certain antique fauns: a beautiful creature, not noticeably a beast, a beast in only the smallest portion of his nature. In order that this may come to pass and its coming to pass means, let us remember, the enormous increase of happiness and diminution of misery upon earth it is necessary that day by day and year by year there should enter into man’s feelings, emotions, and habits, into his whole life, a greater proportion of that which is his own, and is not shared by the animal; that his actions, preferences, the great bulk of his conscious existence, should be busied with things of the soul, truth, good, and beauty, and not with things of the body. Hence the love of such a gradually improving and humanizing man for a gradually improving and humanizing woman, should become, as much as is possible, a connection of the higher and more human, rather than of the lower and more bestial, portions of their nature; it should tend, in its reciprocal stimulation, to make the man more a man, the woman more a woman, to make both less of the mere male and female animals that they were. In brief, love should increase, instead, like that which oftenest profanes love’s name, of diminishing, the power of aspiration, of self-direction, of self-restraint, which may exist within us. Now to tend to this is to tend towards the love of the “Vita Nuova;” to tend towards the love of the “Vita Nuova” is to tend towards this. Say what you will of the irresistible force of original constitution, it remains certain, and all history is there as witness, that mankind that is to say, the only mankind in whom lies the initiative of good, mankind which can judge and select possesses the faculty of feeling and acting in accordance with its standard of feeling and action; the faculty in great measure of becoming that which it thinks desirable to become. Now to have perceived the even imaginary existence of such a passion as that of Dante for Beatrice, must be, for all who can perceive it, the first step towards attempting to bring into reality a something of that passion: the real passion conceived while the remembrance of that ideal passion be still in the mind will bear to it a certain resemblance, even as, according to the ancients, the children born of mothers whose rooms contained some image of Apollo or Adonis would have in them a reflex, however faint, of that beauty in whose presence they came into existence. In short, it seems to me, that as the “Vita Nuova” embodies the utmost ideal of absolutely spiritual love, and as to spiritualize love must long remain one of the chief moral necessities of the world, there exists in this book a moral force, a moral value, a power in its unearthly passion and purity, which, as much as anything more deliberately unselfish, more self-consciously ethical, we must acknowledge and honour as holy.

As the love of him who has read and felt the “Vita Nuova” cannot but strive towards a purer nature, so also the love of which poets sang became also nobler as the influence of the strange Tuscan school of platonic lyrists spread throughout literature, bringing to men the knowledge of a kind of love born of that idealizing and worshipping passion of the Middle Ages; but of mediaeval love chastened by the manners of stern democracy and passed through the sieve of Christian mysticism and pagan philosophy. Of this influence of the “Vita Nuova” for the “Vita Nuova” had concentrated in itself all the intensest characteristics of Dante’s immediate predecessors and contemporaries, causing them to become useless and forgotten of this influence of the “Vita Nuova,” there is perhaps no more striking example than that of the poet who, constituted by nature to be the mere continuator of the romantically gallant tradition of the troubadours, became, and hence his importance and glory, the mediator between Dante and the centuries which followed him; the man who gave to mankind, incapable as yet of appreciating or enduring the spiritual essence of the “Vita Nuova,” that self-same essence of intellectual love in an immortal dilution. I speak, of course, of Petrarch. His passion is neither ideal nor strong. The man is in love, or has been in love, existing on a borderland of loving and not loving, with the beautiful woman. His elegant, refined, half-knightly, half-scholarly, and altogether courtly mind is delighted with her; with her curly yellow hair, her good red and white beauty (we are never even told that Dante’s Beatrice is beautiful, yet how much lovelier is she not than this Laura, descended from all the golden-haired bright-eyed ladies of the troubadours!), with her manner, her amiability, her purity and dignity in this ecclesiastical Babylon called Avignon. He maintains a semi-artificial love; frequenting her house, writing sonnet after sonnet, rhetorical exercises, studies from the antique and the Provencal, for the most part; he, who was born to be a mere troubadour like Ventadour or Folquet, becomes, through the influence of Dante, the type of the poet Abate, of the poetic cavalière servente; a good, weak man with aspirations, who, failing to get the better of Laura’s virtue, doubtless consoles himself elsewhere, but returns to an habitual contemplation of it. He is, being constitutionally a troubadour, an Italian priest turned partly Provencal, vexed at her not becoming his mistress; then (having made up his mind, which was but little set upon her), quite pleased at her refusal: it turns her into a kind of Beatrice, and him, poor man, heaven help him! into a kind of Dante a Dante for the use of the world at large. He goes on visiting Laura, and writing to her a sonnet regularly so many times a week, and the best, carefully selected, we feel distinctly persuaded, at regular intervals. It is a determined cultus, a sort of half-real affectation, something equivalent to lighting a lamp before a very well-painted and very conspicuous shrine. All his humanities, all his Provencal lore go into these poems written for whom? For her? Decidedly; for she has no reason not to read the effusions of this amiable, weak priestlet; she feels nothing for him. For her; but doubtless also to be handed round in society; a new sonnet or canzone by that charming and learned man, the Abate Petrarch. There is considerable emptiness in all this: he praises Laura’s chastity, then grows impatient, then praises her again; adores her, calls her cruel, his goddess, his joy, his torment; he does not really want her, but in the vacuity of his feeling, thinks he does; calls her alternately the flat, abusive, and eulogistic names which mean nothing. He plays loud and soft with this absence of desire; he fiddle faddles in descriptions of her, not passionate or burning, but delicately undressed: he sees her (but with chaste eyes) in her bath; he envies her veil, &c.; he neither violently intellectually embraces, nor humbly bows down in imagination before her; he trifles gracefully, modestly, half-familiarly, with her finger tips, with the locks of her hair, and so forth. Fancy Dante abusing Beatrice; fancy Dante talking of Beatrice in her bath; the mere idea of his indignation and shame makes one shameful and indignant at the thought. But this perfect Laura is no Beatrice, or only a half-and-half sham one. She is no ideal figure, merely a figure idealized; this is no imaginative passion, merely an unreal one. Compare, for instance, the suggestion of Laura’s possible death with the suggestion of the possible death of Beatrice. Petrarch does not love sufficiently to guess what such a loss would be. Then Laura does die. Here Petrarch rises. The severing of the dear old habits, the absence of the sweet reality, the terrible sense that all is over, Death, the great poetizer and giver of love philters, all this makes him love Laura as he never loved her before. The poor weak creature, who cannot, like a troubadour, go seek a new mistress when the old one fails him, feels dreadfully alone, the world dreadfully dreary around him; he sits down and cries, and his crying is genuine, making the tears come also into our eyes. And Laura, as she becomes a more distant ideal, becomes nobler, though noble with only a faint earthly graciousness not comparable to the glory of the living Beatrice. And, as he goes on, growing older and weaker and more desolate, the thought of a glorified Laura (as all are glorified, even in the eyes of the weakest, by death) begins to haunt him as Dante was haunted by the thought of Beatrice alive. Yet, even at this very time, come doubts of the lawfulness of having thus adored (or thought he had adored) a mortal woman; he does not know whether all this may not have been vanity and folly; he tries to turn his thoughts away from Laura and up to God. Perhaps he may be called on to account for having given too much of his life to a mere earthly love. Then, again, Laura reappears beautified in his memory, and is again tremblingly half-conjured away. He is weak, and sad, and helpless, and alone; and his heart is empty; he knows not what to think nor how to feel; he sobs, and we cry with him. Nowhere could there be found a stranger contrast than this nostalgic craving after the dead Laura, vacillating and troubled by fear of sin and doubt of unworthiness of object, with that solemn ending of the “Vita Nuova,” where the name of Beatrice is pronounced for the last time before it be glorified in Paradise, where Dante devotes his life to becoming worthy of saying “such words as have never been said of any lady.” The ideal woman is one and unchangeable in glory, and unchangeable is the passion of her lover; but of this sweet dead Laura, whose purity and beauty and cruelty he had sung, without a tremor of self-unworthiness all her life, of her the poor weak Petrarch begins to doubt, of her and her worthiness of all this love; and when? when she is dead and himself is dying.

Such a man is Petrarch; and yet, by the irresistible purifying and elevating power of the “Vita Nuova,’” this man came to write not other albas and serenas, not other love-songs to be added to the love-songs of Provence, but those sonnets and canzoni which for four centuries taught the world, too coarse as yet to receive Dante’s passion at first hand, a nobler and more spiritual love. After Petrarch a gradual change takes place in the poetic conception of love: except in learned revivalisms or in loose buffooneries, the mere fleshly love of Antiquity disappears out of literature; and equally so, though by a slower process of gradual transformation, vanishes also the adoring, but undisguisedly adulterous love of the troubadours and minnesingers. Into the love Instincts of mankind have been mingled, however much diluted, some drops of the more spiritual passion of Dante. The puella of Antiquity, the noble dame of feudal days, is succeeded in Latin countries, in Italy, and France, and Spain, and Portugal, by the gloriosa donna imitated from. Petrarch, and imitated by Petrarch from Dante; a long-line of shadowy figures, veiled in the veil of Madonna Laura, ladies beloved of Lorenzo and Michael Angelo, of Ariosto, and Tasso, and Camoens, and Cervantes, passes through the world; nay, even the sprightly-mistress of Ronsard, half-bred pagan and troubadour has airs of dignity and mystery which make us almost think that in this dainty coquettish French body, of Marie or Helene or Cassandrette, there really may be an immortal soul. But with the Renaissance that movement half of mediaeval democratic progress, and half of antique revivalism, and to which in reality belongs not merely Petrarch, but Dante, and every one of the Tuscan poets, Guinicelli, Lapo Gianni, Cavalcanti, who broke with the feudal poetry of Provence and Sicily with the Renaissance, or rather with its long-drawn-out end, comes the close, for the moment, of the really creative activity of the Latin peoples in the domain of poetry. All the things for two centuries which Italy and France and Spain and Portugal (which we must remember for the sake of Camoens) continue to produce, are but developments of parts left untouched; or refinements of extreme detail, as in the case, particularly, of the French poets of the sixteenth century; but poetry receives from these races nothing new or vital, no fresh ideal or fruitful marriage of ideals. And here begins, uniting in itself all the scattered and long-dormant powers of Northern poetry, the great and unexpected action of England. It had slept through the singing period of the Middle Ages, and was awakened, not by Germany or Provence, but by Italy: Boccaccio and Petrarch spoke, and, as through dreams, England in Chaucer’s voice, made answer. Again, when the Renaissance had drawn to a close, far on in the sixteenth century, English poetry was reawakened; and again by Italy. This time it was completely wakened, and arose and slept no more. And one of the great and fruitful things achieved by English poetry in this its final awakening was to give to the world the new, the modern, perhaps the definitive, the final ideal of love. England drank a deep draught how deep we see from Sidney’s and Spenser’s sonnets of Petrarch; and in this pleasant dilution, tasted and felt the burning essence of the “Vita Nuova;” for though Dante remained as the poet, the poet of heaven and hell, this happy half-and-half Petrarch had for full two centuries completely driven into oblivion the young Dante who had loved Beatrice. For England, for this magnificent and marvellous outburst of all the manifold poetic energy stored up and quintupled during that long period of inertness, there could however be no foreign imported ideal of love; there was no possibility of a new series of spectral Lauras, shadows projected by a shadow. Already, long ago, at the first call of Petrarch, Chaucer, by the side of the merely mediaeval love types of brutish lust and doglike devotion of the Wife of Bath and of Griseldis, had rough-sketched a kind of modern love, the love which is to become that of Romeo and Hamlet, in his story of Palemon and Arcite. Among the poetic material which existed in England at the close of the sixteenth century was the old, long-neglected, domestic love, quiet, undemonstrative, essentially unsinging, of the early Northern (as indeed also of the Greek and Hindoo) epics; a domestic love which, in a social condition more closely resembling our own than any other, even than that of the Italian democracies, which had preceded it; among a people who permitted a woman to choose her own husband, and forbade a man wooing another man’s wife, had already, in ballads and folk poetry, begun a faint-twitter of song. To this love of the man and the woman who hope to marry, strong and tender, but still (as Coleridge remarked of several of the lesser Elizabethan playwrights) most outspokenly carnal, was united by the pure spirit of Spenser, by the unerring genius of Shakespeare, that vivifying drop of burning, spiritual love taken from out of the “Vita Nuova,” which had floated, like some sovereign essential oil, on the top of Petrarch’s rose-water. Henceforward the world possesses a new kind of love: the love of Romeo, of Hamlet, of Bassanio, of Viola, and of Juliet; the love of the love poems of Shelley, of Tennyson, of Browning and Browning’s wife. A love whose blindness, exaggeration of passion, all that might have made it foolish and impracticable, leads no longer to folly and sin, but to an intenser activity of mankind’s imagination of the good and beautiful, to a momentary realization in our fancy of all our vague dreams of perfection; a love which, though it may cool down imperceptibly and pale in its intenseness, like the sunrise fires into a serene sky, has left some glory round the head of the wife, some glory in the heart of the husband, has been, however fleeting, a vision of beauty which has made beauty more real. And all this owing to the creation, the storing up, the purification by the Platonic poets of Tuscany, of that strange and seemingly so artificial and unreal thing, mediaeval love; the very forms and themes of whose poetry, the serena and the alba, which had been indignantly put aside by the early Italian lyrists, being unconsciously revived, and purified and consecrated in the two loveliest love poems of Elizabethan poetry: the serena, the evening song of impatient expectation in Spenser’s Epithalamium; the alba, the dawn song of hurried parting, in the balcony scene of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Let us recapitulate. The feudal Middle Ages gave to mankind a more refined and spiritual love, a love all chivalry, fidelity, and adoration, but a love steeped in the poison of adultery; and to save the pure and noble portions of this mediaeval love became the mission of the Tuscan poets of that strange school of Platonic love which in its very loveliness may sometimes seem so unnatural and sterile. For, by reducing this mediaeval love to a mere intellectual passion, seeking in woman merely a self-made embodiment of cravings after perfection, they cleansed away that deep stain of adultery; they quadrupled the intensity of the ideal element; they distilled the very essential spirit of poetic passion, of which but a few drops, even as diluted by Petrarch, precipitated, when mingled with the earthly passion of future poets, to the bottom, no longer to be seen or tasted, all baser ingredients.

And, while the poems of minnesingers and troubadours have ceased to appeal to us, and remain merely for their charm of verse and of graceful conceit; the poetry written by the Italians of the thirteenth century for women, whose love was but an imaginative fervour, remains concentrated in the “Vita Nuova;” and will remain for all time the sovereign purifier to which the world must have recourse whenever that precipitate of baser instincts, which thickened like slime the love poetry of Antiquity, shall rise again and sully the purity of the love poetry of to-day.