“Love is the central theme of Dante’s Vita Nuova and Divine Comedy. It is from love that new life begins. It is in love that life is sustained and made pleasant.”
ncipit vita nova. “New life begins.” So Dante declares from the treasury of his memory in Vita Nuova, his love poem to, and about, Beatrice. When “Midway along the journey of [his] life, [he] woke to find [himself] in a dark wood, for [he] had wandered off from the straight path,” the Roman poet Virgil appears and tells Dante that he has been sent by Beatrice to guide Dante through hell so that Dante can begin his ascent up the Mountain of Love and enter the eternal Abode of Love, the White Rose, to sing of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Let us now pilgrimage with the man whom William Butler Yeats described as the greatest pilgrim of the imagination.
Love is the central theme of Dante’s Vita Nuova and Divine Comedy. It is from love that new life begins. It is in love that life is sustained and made pleasant. The course of Dante’s coming to understand the nature of love is what his restless mind and heart—much like his intellectual forebear, Saint Augustine—deals with. How can love, of a carnal and earthly creature, bring about salvation?
Dante never married Beatrice, but Beatrice was forever seared into the memory of his soul as Dante admits at the beginning of the Vita. A chance encounter on the streets of Florence when Dante was 18 years old, still madly in love with her, caused him to run to his bedroom like a lovesick puppy. Beatrice, of course, acts as his final guide in Paradiso and is the one who commissioned Virgil to pilgrimage with the poet-pilgrim through hell and purgatory. All throughout, then, Dante credits Beatrice with helping him get back on the straight and true path that he had wandered from.
Dante, being a Catholic and himself something of a theologian, is impossible to understand without an appreciation of Catholic sacramentality and theology. All things, properly understood, point to God and can be loved if God—who is Love—is known. To love another is not wrong unless one forgets God in the loving of another. That is what Dante forgot when he meandered off the straight path, turning the beautiful things God had created for our happiness into idols of our lusts. For lust is simply the privation of love that stems from improper knowledge, a forgetting that the human being is made in the image of God and is to be loved because one loves God in loving his creation. The world, properly understood in its magnificent totality, points to Reason and Love (and Reason and Love is God as all those educated in theology know as Dante was).
The Divine Comedy, then, is an epic journey of how Dante must come to know love in its entirety; this includes his journey through the depths of hell—The Inferno—which is probably the one part of the Comedy that people bother to read if they read it at all.
What is the essence of Dante’s journey through hell? Why is the pathway to the realm of eternal Love through the land of lovelessness? Beginning in the circle of lust, Dante meets two illicit lovers forever whipped around the tempestuous whirlwind of Minos’s domain. Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are illicit romantics who broke their vows to be with each other, leading to their deaths. The erotic passion they temporarily shared, which Francesca tells Dante is seared into her memory and now exists as the greatest “pain” and “grief,” is now eternally denied as each other can never consummate their desires as they are whipped about in a whirlwind storm (symbolic of their having been “swept away” by their passions).
In the dialogue between Dante and Francesca, several things that set the tone for The Inferno are manifested. First is that Francesca never blames herself for her sin—her misdirected love. She actually blames Dante because she fell madly in love with Paolo after reading some of Dante’s poetry. This will become a trope throughout The Inferno—the damned never accept their responsibility and, therefore, never ask forgiveness or undertake an act of repentance bringing about reconciliation. It’s never their fault. Second is Dante’s pity he takes on the sinners (even if they do not acknowledge their faults). Though their punishment be just, Dante does not revel in their situation. He takes pity on them. His heart is one of compassion and kindness even unto sinners. (This is especially seen in the realm of the suicides when Dante takes tearful pity on a man-turned-shrub whose limbs, twigs, are ripped off and blood spurts out; as a hiker and nature-lover myself, I tend to weep with Dante during this scene.)
In hell, Dante is learning how to manifest love while surrounded by lust, jealousy, envy, pride, and treachery. One must acknowledge his sins and take pity on those who have aggrieved them. “Love thy enemies,” in the words of Christ. Only through taking responsibility for one’s errors and taking pity on those who bring harm onto one can reconciliation, forgiveness, emerge. And this is precisely what happens in the eighth circle of hell. It is also important, here, to note that Dante—following Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas—believed sin to be a result of deficient reason; thus, to learn the truth means one can reform. What truth do we need to learn? It is to forgive and take pity on others so as to manifest the love that brings reconciliation and relationships.
The only moment of forgiveness in the entire poem is before entering the final circle of hell; it is as if there is an invisible barrier that our pilgrim poets must learn before leaving the cold emptiness of the abode of Hades. The reformation of the negative passions to loving forgiveness is the path out of hell and toward (re)union with God. So Dante, in dilly-dallying (as he so frequently has) causes Virgil to erupt in anger at him. Dante recognizes that his foolishness has hurt his father-figure. Virgil, however, also realizes his anger is wrongheaded. Both forgive and reconcile with each other in this moment:
“I was listening, all absorbed in this debate,
when the master said to me: ‘Keep right on looking,
a little more, and I shall lose my patience.’
I heard the note of anger in his voice
and turned to him; I was so full of shame
that it still haunts my memory today.
Like one asleep who dreams himself in trouble
and in his dream he wishes he were dreaming,
longing for that which is, as if it were not,
just so I found myself: unable to speak,
longing to beg for pardon and already
begging for pardon, not knowing that I did.
‘Less shame than yours would wash away a fault
greater than yours has been,’ my master said,
‘and so forget about it, do not be sad.
If ever again you should meet up with men
engaging in this kind of futile wrangling,
remember I am always at your side;
to have a taste for talk like this is vulgar!'”
This touching scene of forgiveness magnifies the loving relationship Dante and Virgil have been building up to this point. Prior to this moment of forgiveness, a tired Dante is carried down to converse with a damned soul (Pope Nicholas III) on the back of Virgil. In a land of separation (which is what sin causes) Dante and Virgil grow closer and closer until that unity is achieved in an act of forgiving reconciliation which permit the two to enter the final circle of hell, behold the traitors of history—most notably Brutus, Cassius, and Judas being gnawed by the weeping face of Satan—then slip out of hell and return to earth in order to begin their ascent up Mount Purgatory.
Upon leaving hell, Dante notes, “I saw the lovely things the heavens hold, and we came out to see once more the stars.” Beauty and love have been restored. Now that beauty and love have been restored (out of the ugliness and lustfulness of hell which are privations of beauty and love), the journey toward the land of eternal Beauty and Love commences.
In each of the three books, Dante opens with invocations to the muses of poetry. In doing so, Dante is subtly informing his readers that poetry, which is about beauty and love, can direct us to the “lovely things the heavens hold.” (Dante concludes each of the books beholding the heavens.) The ascent up the slopes of Mount Purgatory is the story of poetry and its redemptive power (and how poetry is the intermediary between reason and love, the bridge between both worlds). Or so Dante is proclaiming to us. (I tend to agree.)
Like in The Inferno, Dante carries on conversations with the many souls in purgatory which help him understand something about love. Having learned to take responsibility for his actions and pity on others, which are the prerequisites for forgiveness to be manifested and the trap of hell averted, Dante learns from the souls in purgatory to direct his innate desire—which are good things given to us by the Source of Love itself—to the beautiful things above rather than the insufficient things below. No longer is humanity concerned merely with the things of the world but now concerned with the things of the cosmic whole (following the theological vision of Augustine). If hell is the earth separated from heaven, Mount Purgatory is the bridge that unites earth and heaven in a Platonic whole (and Dante was a good Christian Platonist), permitting the soul to dwell in the completeness of existence rather than an isolated and alienated sliver of it.
This is something Dante must learn in purgatory in his encounter with the many souls therein. Calls for vengeance must be abated. The pridefulness that causes only self-love must be purged. The passions that would cause separation must be mended toward a love that unites. Here, again, pity takes hold of Dante—perhaps none more powerfully so when he speaks of the many souls in the Terrace of the Proud, “I saw Briarerus on the other side, pierced through by the celestial thunderbolt…O Niobe, I saw your grieving eyes: they wept from your carved image on the road, between your seven and seven children slain…O mad Arachne, I could see you there, half-turned to spider, sad above the shreds of your own work of art that sentenced you.” Later, in another powerful episode of pity, he meets one of his childhood friends (Forese Donati) and weeps with him though he be on the road to heaven, “When death was on your face, I wept…and now the grief I feel is just as great, seeing your face so piteously disfigured.” Let us take pity on those to be drawn closer to them in love, and ultimately to Love itself, Dante is prophesying in his tears.
Moreover, Dante now treads the path of the poets. He meets many poets in purgatory. In fact, the Divine Comedy is the history of poetry and its role in salvation. He met Hesiod and Homer in Limbo. Now he meets all the poets of history up to his own time. None more important, however, than the man who served as the bridge between Virgilian (pagan) Rome and Christian Rome: Statius. (It was a common Christian belief that Statius had become a Christian before his death though this is fanciful apocrypha but still makes for a great bedtime story.)
Statius, like all the poets in purgatory, was a poet of love. For that is what poetry is principally about: love. Statius joins the company of poet-pilgrims, now numbering three, a reflection of the Trinity that should not be lost on readers. Friendship is the human instantiation of the Trinity in temporal life (Dante follows Augustine on this note). Friendship requires more than the self; therefore, one is like father and the other like son, bound together by the spirit of love which glues them together. This is what Dante symbolically communicates through the new trio of poets ascending Mount Purgatory and talking about the richness and wonder of poetry in the process (Virgil as father, Dante as son, Statius as spirit). They are the human manifestation of the Trinity, the love required to propel the soul to God above. This answers Dante’s opening prayer from the beginning of Purgatorio, “Here let death’s poetry arise to life, O Muses sacrosanct whose liege I am! And let Calliope rise up and play her sweet accompaniment in the same strain that pierced the wretched magpies with the truth of unforgivable presumptuousness.” And the poets and their poetry are alive during the climb!
In this company of friendship love blossoms. “All you have said reveals your love for me,” Statius says. Love allows us, not just the self, to approach the heavenly realm. Our fault, Statius teaches Dante, is not that we do not love but that we do not love enough! And in this love that grows and grows and grows between people, “The world is born again.” What permits life to arise from the dead? Love. And poetry seems to have this special, and unique, power among all the human creative endeavors.
In purgatory, then, Dante learns that love is to be ordered to a vision of wholeness which includes others rather than just himself. The wholeness of love reaches fruition in the joy of friendship, the highest human manifestation of Divine Love. How wonderful it must be to have another, to gaze upon the beautiful and graceful face of a smiling human and be able to say: “All you have said reveals your love for me.”
Now at the top of Mount Purgatory, Beatrice, radiant in her beauty, appears. Dante beholds her. Beatrice, the woman whom Dante loves, has appeared at last: “With eyes of light more bright than any star in low, soft tones she started to address me in her own language, with an angel’s voice.”
So far, Dante has been teasing out the difference between love and lust, selfishness and selflessness, and how all the myriad of human desires and emotions can cast us into the oblivion of alienation and destruction or friendship and life anew. How, then, should one understand Beatrice? Why is she so essential? What makes her different from Virgil—who is an in-situ father-figure through hell and purgatory before his departure—and from Statius (a friend)?
Beatrice is Dante’s in persona Christi, the person to whom the love of God moves and speaks. This is the proper understanding of all humans Dante is also telling us. For that is how Dante wandered into darkness (he was also at this point exiled from Florence too during the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, we cannot forget), and that is how Dante comes back to the light of heaven. Beatrice. Beatrice. Beatrice. It is, perhaps, romantic to imagine that as Dante wandered from his literal exile, contemplating on his metaphysical exile, that he saw the image of that young woman so eternally etched in his memory time and again calling out to him to find his way home.
In his lust for Beatrice, Dante forgot God and—ironically—forgot Beatrice (he thus, therefore, forget what love is). All was for himself. All was for his own wants. He did not give care or concern for Beatrice. He wanted to consume her for himself. In his love for Beatrice, Dante is brought closer to God. All is for God. All is for others. His concern for Beatrice permits him to grow closer to God in the love God demands of human-human relations.
This, of course, is what Beatrice teaches Dante as they journey through paradise together. Just as The Inferno taught Dante something about love (pity and forgiveness), and just as Purgatorio taught Dante something about love (pity and friendship), Paradiso completes the tripartite movement of teaching love which brings forth salvation. “Direct your mind and gratitude to God, who raised us up to His first star,” Beatrice tells Dante.
As Beatrice guides Dante through heaven, then, not only does he learn about justice and the intellectual life, among other things; he learns that each of the spheres of heaven has the source and fulfillment in God. Justice, then, devoid of God can never be just. The intellectual life divorced from God can never be true rationality (for God is also Truth itself and Reason manifested according to Christianity). The beauty of heaven, too, has its source and fulfillment in God. Beatrice constantly reminds Dante of this fact.
Dante learns this too when speaking to the emperor Justinian. Justinian, such a great and noble man on earth, is far removed from the central glory and beauty of God in heaven. He is in heaven, true, but far off in the periphery. Yet Justinian does not mind this. In fact, he states that all are happy as they are in heaven. And he opines that the beauty of the other lights around him make his little star more beautiful when part of the cosmic whole: “This little star is made more beautiful by valiant souls whose zealous deeds on earth were prompted by desire for lasting fame: the more desire tending toward that goal thus deviating from true love, the less intensely burn the rays that rise toward heaven. To see the perfect balance we have here between reward and merit gives us joy: for we each commensurate with each.” (How Platonic, also, of Dante here; or, if you like, Justinian—one cannot help but also think: “This little light of mine, I’m going let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”)
After learning Love as all-in-all in heaven, Beatrice guides Dante closer to the Trinity itself. The carnality of hell is gone. The corporal purgation of purgatory has faded. Luminescent beauty, the soul itself, is magnified and radiates throughout paradise. (It is important to note the dialectic of imagery in Dante: Hell is the most fleshy and picturesque, and, as we move closer to heaven, the more immaterial and metaphysical the conversations and imagery become.) Dante, having learned that love has its source and fulfillment in Love itself, takes his seat with the choir of angels and saints to sing of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
But “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” did not bring Dante to paradise (or at least not by itself). Beatrice did. God worked through Beatrice. God’s love was seen through Beatrice. Beatrice was an incarnate soul of the Divine Love, the Perfect Flame, we seek. Beatrice sent Virgil. Beatrice ushered Dante into the realm of the White Rose. Beatrice guided Dante through the heavens and filled him with the theological truths Virgil did not possess. Theology (Beatrice) is love, philosophy (Virgil) is reason, and love is greater than reason though the two are the essential components of the sanctifying life. However, it is love—above all other things—that has the power to sanctify and save, to govern and call us home. So it is appropriate that Dante sings of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” at the epic’s conclusion after love incarnate (Beatrice) guided the new Dante reformed by reason (Virgil) to this exalted reality. He does not sing of Reason moving the sun and the other stars.
In the end, however, we cannot miss a subtle and radical theological assertion by Dante. The love of other humans can, and often does, bring us to the seat of paradise. Dante is not alone in his journey to heaven. Someone was always with him. The last person to be with him was the woman he loved to which he owed his eternal life. Only that love of another soul can bring “new life” (this is what the best of philosophy and the best of poetry also teaches). Undoubtedly, then, as Dante was singing with the choir of paradise, he probably uttered those infamous words of the Roman poet Ovid thanks to Beatrice: vivam. It is this journey that Dante takes us on that is the primary reason why Yeats called him “the chief imagination of Christendom.” I like to think that even though Dante’s eyes are now set on Love itself, Beatrice is sitting beside him with a smile on her face as they behold together the Beauty and Love that unites all-in-all.
Paul Krause is the editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He can be found on Twitter @Paul_jKrause