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witnessed, he vows to rise above this world, and to aspire with all his power to this supreme felicity. In this admirable fragment, Cicero has collected all his doctrines on God, on nature, and on man.
But the images of a world of spirits are still more vivid in another and more popular work, Virgil's Æneid. In the sixth book of this poem, the Roman poet has given an epitome of the whole religious system of his country. He has shown the origin and destiny of the soul, and has combined the philosophical doctrines of his times with all the pomp and majesty of the Greek mythology. In fact, he may be said to have opened the road to the infernal regions; for all his imitators faithfully crowd after him, and follow him to the cavern of the terrible sibyl. The descent to the regions of death and darkness becomes an easy undertaking, facilis descensus Averno. Ovid leads Orpheus and Juno to them; Silius Italicus shows Scipio visiting Avernus; Statius has given no less than three descriptions of the infernal regions; and Valerius Flaccus and Claudian have followed the common example. The dramatists are not in this respect outdone by the epic poets. It is remarkable, also, that in the fights of the gladiators a figure bearing the attributes of Pluto, with a hammer in his hand, came into the arena to take away the bodies of the dead. The poets of the time of the decline of the Roman empire treat these popular descriptions, and the belief of the multitude, with the greatest contempt. Seneca says, that they are nothing but words devoid of sense. * In the eyes of Juvenal, they are fables to be believed only by "children too young to pay at the public baths."†
Dante, it is probable, was only indirectly indebted to the Greeks for the general conception or the details of his poem, for it is still a question how far he was acquainted with the Greek language; but to the Romans he certainly owed much. He tells us, that, after the death of Beatrice, he sought for consolation in the works of Cicero. He then read the Somnium Scipionis, and, like the great Roman general, overpowered by the admirable vision there related, he determined to rise above the world, and to concentrate all his thoughts on
* "Rumores vacui, verbaque inania.” — Troad, Act II. "Nec pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum ære lavantur." -Juv., Sat. II., Convito, 11, 13.
the mysteries of another life. But to Virgil he was particularly indebted. There is ample evidence of this in the first canto of the Inferno, for there he has himself said, in speaking to Virgil:-"Thou art my master and my guide, thou art he from whom I took the beautiful style which has done me so much honor."* The part which he has ascribed, in his poem, to the great Latin poet shows how well he must have been acquainted with the Eneid. In his eyes, as in those of most men of the Middle Ages, Virgil was the representative of the religious belief of the ancients, in its purest form. He had, as it was then believed, prophesied in one of his Eclogues the advent of Christ. As we have already said, he did not, in the sixth book of the Eneid, follow exclusively the precepts of any one school of philosophy. Whilst he professed the pure and spiritual doctrines of Plato, he did not express any contempt for the mysteries of Eleusis, or the poetic conceptions of the Pythagoreans. These considerations had given rise during the Middle Ages to a peculiar veneration for the name of Virgil. By the people he was considered as a magician; by the men of learning, as a prophet. On the subject of his life and death the most curious legends were in circulation. He figured in the old Mysteries, and there is even an old Spanish ballad entitled Vergilios. It is not surprising, then, that Dante should have chosen him for his guide during the first part of his supernatural initiation in the mysteries of eternity. He was probably acquainted, also, with a number of the minor Latin poets; for, notwithstanding the religious zeal of these times, and the treasures of learning and eloquence which Christianity had given to the world, the cultivation of Greek and Roman letters was never entirely abandoned. In 1325, we find a master of grammar, named Vital, employed in the University of Bologna, at a fixed stipend, to comment upon the works of Cicero and of Ovid. In the monasteries, the passion for antiquity was carried to such an extent, that, even as early as the eleventh century, a German monk complains bitterly of the great abuses to which this taste for Juvenal and Horace might give rise, and accuses himself of having given too
"Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,
Lo bello stile, che m' ha fatto onore."
Inferno, Canto I., 85-88.
much time to the reading of Lucan. But, as M. Ozanam very justly observes, it is in Latin and in making use of the same measure as these poets, that this monk expresses his complaints and regrets.
Such are the sources, in the ancient literature of the Greeks and the Romans, to which Dante is chiefly indebted. If we now turn to the literature of the East for descriptions of another world, we shall find an abundance of curious and instructive material. But it must be remarked, that the Jewish and Hindoo writers can have exercised on Dante's poem but an indirect and rather vague influence, and that it is only when we consider them as one more link of that chain which unites the inspiration of the Florentine poet with those traditions which have occupied and interested the human race at all times, that they can be studied in connection with the Divina Commedia. A rapid analysis of these works will show what were the notions of these people on the subject of a future state.
Although full of the most poetic images, the Hebrew Scriptures contain little or nothing on this topic. There is no complete description of hell to be found, and the few expressions which are used to designate it convey but a vague idea to the mind of the reader. Even the visions of Elias, of Ezekiel, or of Enoch, do not give any details. respecting it. In the Hindoo literature, on the contrary, there is much on the subject. In the Maha-Barata, we find the description of the journey of Ardjuna to the heaven of India. In the Atharva-Veda, that most ancient of poems, we see the young Brahmin Tadjkita sent by his father to the king of Death, from whose kingdom no living man ever returned. The king, touched by the obedience of Tadjkita, sends him back to earth, after having granted him three gifts, which he may choose as he likes. After he has asked for two, which are granted, the conversation between them continues thus. Tadkjita says, "This is my third request; among those who discuss these matters, there are many contradictions. Some say there is nothing beyond this world, and that, when the body perishes, nothing remains; others think that the soul is distinct from the body, and that, when the body dies, the soul enters another world, where it is treated according as it has merited. I therefore wish that you should instruct me, in order that I may learn which
of these opinions is true." The king of Death replied, "On this subject the gods themselves are in doubt; it is a subtile matter which escapes the powers of the intelligence." Tadjkita said, "O King! this is my great desire, and I have no other desire stronger than this." The king of Death replied, "Ask me to grant you a great number of children, and that they may live a long time, each one living to the age of a hundred years; ask me to give you the world and all its riches; ask me to grant you a long life, or any thing else you like; only do not ask me to answer that one question, happens after death? For none of those who are dead ever return to the world to tell this to the living." Tadjkita rejoined, "You say, Ask me to grant you a long life. But if in the end I must die, what shall I gain by living many years? Keep therefore for yourself the world and its riches, and a long life. I have but one wish; that is, that you should instruct me. I ask this because I live in the world, and because I fear death and old age. I ask you to teach me something which shall prevent my fearing either old age or death." The king, touched by the earnestness of his request, informs him of the state of the soul after death, and sends him back to the world with the certainty of a future existence.*
Similar scenes are to be found in some of the songs of the Edda. In the Vafthrudnis-mal, the giant Vafthrudnir informs Odin of what he has seen in the Valhalla, and in the darker regions of death. In the Vegtams-quida, Odin mounts his horse, Sleipner, and descends into the infernal regions, there to consult the spirit of a prophetess respecting the fate of Balder, the youngest and the fairest of the human race. Thus we find analogous ideas on the subject of a future state in the literature of all nations, even of those the most remotely connected. This is not surprising, when we reflect that the earliest application which was made of poetry was to religious subjects. Quintilian tells us, that poetry was destined to preserve sacred doctrines, to express the decrees of the oracles, and to animate devotion. Thus the common origin
Oupnek 'hat. Vol. II. 37.
For an analysis of this part of the Vafthrudnis-mal, see Wheaton's History of the Northmen, p. 68.
See a translation in verse of this Saga, in Spenser's Miscellaneous Poetry, Vol. I., p. 50.
of all poetry explains the singular resemblances we find between the Hindoo and Scandinavian literatures, resemblances which would otherwise be inexplicable.
We have seen how far the ancients succeeded in penetrating the mysteries of our spiritual nature and future destiny. We have witnessed the isolated attempts of poets and philosophers, and the combined efforts of whole nations, to explain what is to be the state of the soul after death. How vague and unsatisfactory are the results of these undertakings! But life and immortality were brought to light by the gospel, and what had been the subject of the doubtful meditations of men of science since the beginning of the world was made evident to the followers of the new religion. Still, as a society of men cannot exist without some kind of poetry to gratify their ima ginations, the New Testament soon became the source of poetic inspiration. All the narratives, which in the sacred books had been designedly left unfinished, were soon completed, according to the taste of the early ages of our era. We need mention but one example of this, that of the legends relative to the Virgin Mary. The mother of the Saviour is mentioned but once in the New Testament after the death of her son, because at the foot of his cross all the interest she inspired vanishes; her sacred character disappears, she is no longer superior to any other woman. The legendary spirit, however, which at so early a period sprung out of the new faith, did not respect the silence of Scripture on this subject. A narrative of the life and death of the Virgin was invented; the popular belief penetrated into the church; and even at the present day, all Roman Catholics celebrate the 15th of August as the day of the ascension of the Virgin. The multitude had free access to the sanctuary; consequently the sanctuary was not always respected. The mysteries of another life had been laid open to all men; they no longer feared to gaze upon those secret regions where retribution awaits those who have left this life. Our Saviour and his apostles had never attempted to give any description of heaven or of hell; the poetic and zealous spirit of the new Christians did not hesitate to supply this omission. Hence the vast number of legends and visions which pervade the literature of the Middle Ages, and which were not destined to receive a definitive and permanent form until Dante combined them in his immortal work, and gave to them the sanction of genius. We