Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 22 – I am, I truly am Beatrice

Boy meets girl – Dante meeting Beatrice in Florence by Henry Holliday (1839-1927)

It’s the moment Dante’s been waiting for! He is to meet Beatrice again, after more than 20 years of separation. We might expect a joyous reunion, but that’s not at all what we get.

We left Dante relaxing amidst the grass, flowers and trees of the earthly paradise, beside the stream of Lethe. A woman, Matilda, joins him and weaves garlands from the flowers, the image of “humanity unfallen” and of “the active life in its perfection”, as Sinclair explains. On the other side of the stream a procession arrives, headed by a chariot symbolizing the Church, drawn by a gryphon, a mythical beast denoting the dual nature of Christ.

Seated on the chariot is Beatrice, who is veiled. Dante recognizes her not by sight but by the convulsions she causes:

We know little for sure about Beatrice. She was in all likelihood real flesh and blood and was almost certainly Beatrice Portinari, a daughter of one of Florence’s nobler families, in which case she was born in 1266, married in 1287 and died aged 24 on 8 June 1290. About Beatrice’s effects on Dante we know a great deal more, because he writes them down in the Vita Nuova, a set of poems and prose commentaries that tells the story of his love for her.

Dante first meets Beatrice when she is 8 and he is 9, perhaps at a children’s party. He says that, at the sight of her, his heart “began to tremble so violently that it was painfully perceptible”. From that time on, he says, “Love swayed my soul … and commanded me many times that I should seek out this youngest of the angels.”

In fact, though, he has to wait another nine years before he sees her again, this time in the streets of Florence, when he is 18. On this occasion she salutes him and he is overwhelmed with bliss, retreating to his room to dream about her. His dreams are lurid: love, in the person of a man “of terrible aspect” yet full of joy, speaks to him and says, “I am your Lord”; love carries Beatrice in his arms, naked but wrapped in a blood-red cloth, and commands her to eat the poet’s heart.

Her onslaught is total, affecting his liver (the seat of sexual desire) as well as his heart and mind. His health is affected and he becomes “frail and weak”. His behaviour alters: he is full of good will towards everyone and writes that, to any question asked of him, he would have answered “Love”.

Hmm … Boy meets girl. It’s the oldest story in the world, yet no less marvellous for that, and made more so by Dante’s vivid telling of it. Countless authors have analysed and discussed his experiences, retelling his story in their own words and trying to recapture the beauty and terror of it. They seldom do better than Dante himself, but I like Charles Williams, who writes, in The Figure of Beatrice: “A kind of dreadful perfection has appeared in the streets of Florence. Something like the glory of God is walking down the street towards him.” That understates it, but nicely so!

Dante meets Beatrice again a few years later, and this time she withholds her greeting, plunging him into grief. He understands that “in her salutation dwelt all my blessedness.” He starts to behave strangely around her. This is noticed by other women in Beatrice’s circle and he is mocked for it. He is asked why he loves her when he cannot bear to be in her presence. He answers that, instead of enjoying her company, he now takes delight in writing poems in praise of her, beginning Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore (see Note 19). More poems and commentaries follow, in which he writes of the benefits she brings to all in Florence who meet her and of his strange premonitions of her mortality.

Then suddenly, it’s all over. Dante is mid-canzone when the news comes that Beatrice has died. He breaks off writing the poem and writes instead that “the city is widowed”. He is distraught, wracked by grief and loss, but slowly this wears off and, after about a year, a “lady at the window” appears and looks on him compassionately. He thinks she has been sent to console him and writes a few more poems, some in praise of her and one final one in praise of Beatrice.

The Vita Nuova makes it clear that Dante took himself extremely seriously as a lover. In our post-Romantic times we might regard his attitudes and actions differently. To lighten the mood, try this!

After the death of Beatrice Dante renews himself through the study of philosophy, turning to Boethius and Cicero for consolation. He marries, gets involved in politics, then falls from grace and is exiled. As Sinclair comments, during this period he lapsed from the devout idealism of his youth into worldly preoccupations and moral permissiveness. We cannot know how low he sank, but it was low enough for him to judge himself harshly for it in later life.

Now back to the earthly paradise. In his distress at the sight of Beatrice, Dante turns in search of Virgil. But his guide and comforter is no longer there:

Dante must deal with Beatrice as an adult, without the protection of an external father figure. He bursts into tears, but Beatrice tells him not to mourn Virgil’s departure and that there are other reasons why he should be weeping. She challenges him to look her in the eyes and scolds him, miserable sinner that he is, for his presumption in scaling the mountain:

He cannot face her and averts his gaze. Then comes the moment of truth:

Dante and Beatrice, beside Lethe. By John William Waterhouse (1849–1917)

The stream of forgetfulness, Lethe, lies between Dante and his beloved. But because he has not yet immersed himself in it, it can only mirror back at him all his shortcomings. The whole of his unredeemed self is felt in one awful moment, as on the Day of Judgement. Once again the tears come, this time uncontrollably:

In front of the whole procession, Beatrice berates him:

In other words, when a gifted man goes to the bad, the results are much worse than when a lesser man errs. Beatrice adds: ‘For a time I sustained him with my countenance’, but after she dies,

She tried to call him back, but he was too far gone to respond to her influence. Hence the need to send Virgil to begin the task of restoring his reason by showing him hell:

Beatrice lets up a little and asks him what he thinks. He cannot but agree with her account, murmuring his assent before once again breaking down in tears:

He confesses that false pleasures had indeed turned him away from her soon after her death. Again she reproaches him, saying that her beauty should instead have prompted him to renewed pursuit of spiritual reality.

Beatrice had challenged him to stand before her as an adult, but now he is shamed like a child:

She commands him to look up and she appears more beautiful than ever before, surpassing her former self. His self-reproach – “the nettle of remorse” – hits him so hard that he faints, bringing this extraordinary encounter to a close.

 Beatrice in her chariot by Carl Wilhelm Friederich Oesterley(1805–1891)

Throughout the Vita Nuova Dante uses adjectives such as “courteous”, “gentle” and “noble” to describe Beatrice. But that is not at all the woman we meet in the earthly paradise, who is confrontational, angry, jealous even. She completely destroys him!

In conclusion, let’s turn to the Vita Nuova’s final section. Dante ends the story of his early love for Beatrice by deciding:

“… not to write more concerning this blessed lady, until such time as I am able to treat more worthily of her. And to attain this, I strive as hard as I can; and this she knows well. And if it be pleasing to Him through whom all things have their life, that my life last some few years more, I hope to say of her things that were never yet written of any woman.”

The poet’s powerful autobiographical account of their tempestuous meeting in the earthly paradise marks his start on that great undertaking. In the Paradiso – his great song of praise to Beatrice – Dante will go much further, pushing language to new limits in his efforts to “limn her loveliness”.

Greeting of Beatrice (detail) by Rossetti (1859-1863)

Genius lines:
(1) D’antico amor sentì la gran potenza. They say we never get over our first love. Certainly, Dante never did.

(2) Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice. In this famous line Beatrice challenges Dante to look her in the face, to see her as she is – simultaneously a divine revelation and a strong creature of flesh and blood. On this first occasion he fails; gradually, in the Paradiso, he will become able to endure her smile, to look into her eyes.