I was an undergraduate when I first read Dante with delight, but in my subsequent study of Romanticism I found that Dante was also a favorite in the nineteenth century.
In what amounts to a lovely convergence of these interests, I just came across a gem of an essay on “The Discovery of Dante by Romanticism” (1929) by Erich Auerbach that appears in a new collection of his works: Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach (ed. James I. Porter; Princeton University Press, 2014).
Auerbach’s essay explains that Dante’s writings fell into neglect over the course of several centuries. Gradually, critics began to regard The Divine Comedy as little more than “tasteless, anarchic, and esoteric” (134). Dante’s reputation, however, re-ascended with the German Romantics. These authors saw in Dante not a “primitive barbarism,” but rather a beauty that signaled perfection beyond the fragmentation of human existence.
Friedrich W. J. Schelling, in particular, recognized the unity of religion and poetry in The Divine Comedy, discovered a poetics that captured the idea of the “undivided whole,” and, in a first since the collapse of the medieval Catholic world, interpreted the “all-encompassing crux” of the poem: “our earthly and historical world in its true and eternal form is a manifestation of God’s judgment” (141). For Schelling, the poet manifests “a kind of eternity” through characters that occupy specific spaces in the story and, thus, represents the paradoxical Christian tension between the intensity of lived, earthly existence and the yearning for fulfillment that our broken experiences incite.
Hegel alone, Auerbach contends, understood Schelling’s point and exemplified the same spirit of interpretation in a particularly illuminating passage of his Lectures on Aesthetics:
“Here, in the face of the absolute grandeur of the ultimate aim and end of all things, everything individual and particular in human interests and aims vanishes, and yet there stands there, completely epically, everything otherwise most fleeting and transient in the living world, fathomed objectively in its inmost being, judged in its worth or worthlessness by the supreme Concept, i.e. by God. For as individuals were in their passions and sufferings, in the intentions and their accomplishments, so now here they are presented for ever, solidified into images of bronze. In this way the poem comprises the entirety of objective life: the eternal condition of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; and on this indestructible foundation the figures of the real world move in their particular character, or rather they have moved and now in their being and action are frozen, are eternal themselves in the arms of eternal justice” (142).
The nineteenth-century preoccupation with Dante, therefore, was not merely the rediscovery of a forgotten work of art, but the re-appropriation of a masterpiece for a distinctly Romantic end. The Divine Comedy opened new avenues in a quest for historical self-awareness—a means of exploring the tensions between real life as it is lived in the present and the paradoxical hope for meaning beyond this humble state of being. The Divine Comedy, then, may be less about the seemingly grotesque, future state of the soul and far more about present, concrete existence set against eternity.
If only someone could direct me to the canto that addresses the perpetual training of the puppies. Honored Beatrice, grant me rest.