There is none of the Christian poets who has exercised so great an influence in the intellectual world as Dante Alighieri. His "Vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise" has been, ever since its appearance, a mine in which artists, poets, philosophers, theologians, historians, and statesmen have found treasures. In Italy, immediately after his death, professors were appointed in the universities to explain his work, and numbers of both lay and clerical savants, among them even princes, bishops, and archbishops, took delight in its study and exposition. With the spread of the Italian language, on which Dante has stamped for ever the impress of his genius, and with the progress of Italian culture, all Europe became acquainted with the Commedia, and learned to admire its beauty and its grandeur. It was translated into other tongues; learned foreigners undertook to fathom its depths; and even the spirit of religious unity in the sixteenth century did not check its influence over the Roman-Germanic nations. Protestant translators and expositors contended with the Catholic writers who made of the work of Dante a special study. The Germans especially have not been backward in this respect, and to prove it we need only name Kannegieser, Strecksufs, Kofisch, Witte, Wegele, and Philalethes (the present king of Saxony).
When we wish to assign Dante his proper place in Christian art and poetry, by comparison with antiquity, we are reminded at once of Homer and the veneration in which he was held by the Greeks. But how has the Florentine poet merited such high consideration? Is it by the might of his genius and the peculiarity of his chosen theme? By the perfection and the poetic charm of his expression and language? By his deep knowledge of life and of human nature? By the philosophic and moral truths which he has woven into his poem? By his religious and political views? Or by his judgment of historical personages and facts?
No doubt all these have been helping causes to establish Dante's fame and give him the position which he holds. But the true reason of all the singular prerogatives of the poet and of the poem, the reason which gives us the key to the right understanding of the "Divine Comedy," and of the various and discrepant explanations of it, must be sought deeper. There is a principal cause of Dante's greatness, from which the secondary causes, just named, diverge, as rays of light from a common centre, and to the knowledge of which only a philosophical comprehension of history, and especially of poetry, can lead us. We shall endeavor in this essay to discover this cause, after having given a brief sketch of the contents and the scope of the great poem.