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Stories from Dante by  Mary Macgregor

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DANTE'S EXILE

[7] BUT before Dante wrote his great poem trouble befell him.

In those days there was no King of Italy, for each Italian city had its own ruler.

The city of Florence was governed by magistrates chosen by the people, but their power lasted only for two short months.

There were, as you may easily suppose, many quarrels among the citizens of Florence as to who should rule over them, and often they would be divided into two great parties.

So fierce was the strife between these two parties, that the one which was in power would avenge itself on the other by banishing it from the city. Such banishment brought with it great loss and sorrow, for to the citizens of Florence their city was very dear. How could they work for her welfare when they had been robbed of their property and were without her walls?

Dante grew up amid the strife of his countrymen, and their quarrels grieved him so greatly that when he was old enough he tried to make [8] peace prevail among the citizens. But the strife was too fierce to be overcome by his efforts.

Now when Dante was about thirty-five years of age, a Florentine, named Donati, invited Charles, a brother of the King of France, into Florence.

Donati hoped, with the aid of Charles, to secure the government of Florence for himself and his party.

Charles came, as he was invited, into Florence, and Donati and his followers joined the French prince and fought against those who were opposed to him.

When they were victorious Donati and his party sent many of the Florentines who had fought against them into exile.

Dante was among these banished citizens, and, for he loved his city well, he was overcome with grief and indignation at his sentence.

It was indeed a cruel one, for it not only sent him into exile, but it said that should he ever attempt to enter Florence again he would be burned alive.

Now about three years after the death of Beatrice Dante had married Gemma, a kins [9] woman of Donati. When he was forced to leave Florence he left Gemma and his children in the city, knowing that they would be safe with Donati the victorious citizen.

Year after year Dante hoped that he would be allowed to return to the city of his birth. But the years passed and still he was a wanderer, enduring many hardships, for he had no money to make his journeys less toilsome.

Yet Dante could bear the hardships of his lot better than he could bear his poverty, for he had a proud spirit, which chafed and grew bitter when he was forced to accept help from others.

Sometimes Dante taught in the universities as he journeyed through Italy, sometimes he did work for the government of his country. Often he was the guest of princes and nobles, yet however kindly he was treated, Dante suffered, for ever his pride whispered to him that he was but a servant, dependent on the whims and fancies of these princes and nobles.

One young prince, at whose court in Verona Dante lived for some time, treated the exile as a dear friend, yet even there Dante's pride was restive as a high-spirited steed.

[10] If you listen, you will hear his voice, as one day in Verona he raises it and cries out bitterly, "How salt the savour of another's bread, how hard the climbing by another's stairs."

It was during these years of wandering that Dante wrote down his dream in a wonderful poem. After it was written he longed more than ever to be recalled to his beloved Florence.

In the city of Florence stood a church dedicated to St. John, which Dante had loved from the time he was a little boy. Here he, as every other little child born in Florence, had been taken to be christened. At its font he had been given his name Durante.

"To this church, my beautiful St. John," as he would often call it, to this church which he so dearly loved, Dante longed to go. Fain would he have placed upon his brow in this hallowed spot the crown of laurel. As a poet the crown was his meed, yet to Dante it seemed that it would lose much of its beauty, were it not bestowed upon him by his native city, in the church which had been his since he had been carried to its font to be christened.

Listen to his wistful words:

[11] "If ever it should happen that the sacred poem, to which I have devoted my hand, and the writing of which has made me lean for years, should vanquish the cruelty which shuts me out from the dear sheepfold where I rested as a lamb, I should return with a different voice and receive on my brow the poetic crown."

Once indeed, about fifteen long years after he had been exiled, Dante might have returned to Florence. Yet the conditions on which he might return were such as his proud spirit could not brook, no, not even for the sake of treading once again the narrow streets of his beloved city.

To pay a fine, to make a public confession of his offence, such were the terms his enemies laid before Dante. He waved the terms aside with scorn.

But the pain of exile was graven on the poet's face. If you look at the portraits taken during these last years of his banishment you will see the pain quite well. You cannot think a smile lurks round the corner of those tight-closed lips; you cannot believe hope looks out of those large, sad eyes. Nay, joy has been [12] crushed out of the poet's life through nineteen years of exile.

Dante's last refuge was at Ravenna, where he found a protector in a rich man named Guido, who was himself a poet. It was here at Ravenna, when he was fifty-six years old, that he died in 1321.

Then, when it was too late, Florence repented of her harshness, and begged that the body of the great poet might rest in his native city. But she begged in vain, and Dante still lies far from the beautiful City of Flowers which he loved so well.

Dante dead! Then is there no more to tell?

Ah yes, for if you will listen to the wonderful dream which the exile made into a great poem you will find yourself wandering with him in strange places. Now it will be in a dark and gloomy place where the sun never shines, now it will be on a steep mountain that points towards the light of God. And if you climb to the very top, it will be to find that with Dante you have entered into Paradise.

For in his dream Dante did indeed journey until he stood before the throne of God.


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