Let’s settle this once and for all first: whatever opinions other people may have, my opinion (which is, to be fair, worth almost nothing) is that Dante Alighieri of Florence is, was, and will forever be the greatest poet in history. Petrarch, Shakespeare, Shelley and Dickinson as well as ANY poet around the world can find a hole and HIDE, for they will never match this Italian colossus. The only person who can probably (PROBABLY) match Dante in poetry is of course Homer (who Dante has the nerve to indirectly compare himself to, but never mind), but as far as I know Homer never set out to talk about the salvation of Man with interlocking triplets.
To be fair, “the salvation of Man” is not a very catchy subject for people to write about. Most poets would prefer to propel their emotions onto a page (apologies to all poets), or if they have to tell a story, just the little, trivial stories (like the Canterbury Tales). But no, this is not enough for our Dante, and he set out to undertakes the hardest task possible: to tell a GREAT story, and convince everyone inside it of the love of God.
And he sells this without bothering to make it exactly subtle. He starts off from the Inferno, with which the descriptions are not exactly flattering:
God’s justice! Who shall tell the agonies
Heaped thick and new before my shuddering glance?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy it for my holidays… the Inferno’s horrors and horrible characters make it a place where anyone, not just good Christians, should not aim to stay. There are people immersed in boiling rivers of blood, transformed into hideous beasts (well, we know where to find them) and being stabbed in all sorts of uncomfortable positions. As we move deeper and deeper towards Satan — and then out through the other side, higher and higher toward God Himself — it’s hard to see where Dante gets all his strength from.
At times, Dante himself admits that he is tired or too scared to go on. But one thing overpowers all and leads him onward: it is love, his passions towards two heavenly beings both not of this world. In the beginning, Beatrice is the motivational force that leads Dante onward. Say, for instance, the first incidence of this in Canto II (Dante’s just heard that Beatrice interceded to ask Virgil to save his soul):
“O blessed she that stooped to take my part!
O courteous thou, to obey her true discerning
Speech, and thus promptly to my rescue start!
Fired by thy words, my spirit now is burning
So to go on, and see this venture through.
I find my former stout resolve returning.
Forward! Henceforth there’s but one will for two.”
(To be honest the first five lines would have done but I wanted to keep the terza rima. Also: Dante, you lovestruck fool…)
Throughout the Comedy Virgil sort of pulls the Beatrice card every time Dante whines about how tired he is, upon which the latter always goes “AHH BEATRICE” and then pops back up as if he’s on an electric charge. But he is weaned of this, ever so slowly, as he ascends higher and higher throughout the heavens. Dante bawls so much that Beatrice has to yell at him when Virgil disappears from the Earthly Paradise, but when it is her turn to dump him (by joining a literal heavenly choir), Dante doesn’t even so much as bat an eyelid when he sees that it’s St. Bernard’s turn to guide him upwards. (No, not like a guide dog, it’s the actual St. Bernard I’m talking about here.)
What does this tell us? That the journey through Paradise has made Dante forget all those around him? That Dante is the world’s most dumpable person? (Note to self: write essay with that as the thesis.) Let’s not think so bad of him: the man’s literally gone through Hell, for Heaven’s sake.
Instead, let’s treat Dante and his Commedia as a story of learning how to focus on the right thing. Throughout the Divine Comedy Dante learns to stop focusing on his sin and on the holy things: Beatrice, virtue, and God. Beatrice is of course the beginning objective, something that Dante takes courage in. But this is merely, if I may use so crude a comparison, the bait towards a greater reward. Beatrice is, for all her immortality, only a human at heart: fallible, crude, subject to the whole gamut of human emotions and feelings. Dante knows that although he loves her (cue Dante fangirl screaming) Beatrice is not the ultimate thing he desires. Beatrice is merely a symbol, a representative of the thing that his heart so desperately strives toward: the love of God.
Dorothy L. Sayers uses the word “ecstasy” in order to describe the final, ultimate encounter he has with God:
Already my heart and will were wheeled by love,
The Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.
It is no longer Beatrice that moves Dante’s heart anymore. It is the love from which everything springs: God, whose love for us overpowers all. This might sound a bit weird to non-Christians: how is it that our love for the paramour of our life can be replaced with something else, a God we cannot even see? (PROSELYTISM ALERT) But since Dante is not on (a better word might be “bound by”) the Earth anymore, every Earthly standard has gone out the window. Beatrice is merely the love of Dante’s life on Earth, but in the spiritual realm, the love of God is the only thing that matters. That’s probably why Dante doesn’t mind being dumped so much the second time round. He’s already learnt how to fix his sights on God.
As a Christian, I often think about how humans should be leading their lives. It’s nice to live out your full potential and everything, but for Christians, God is such an integral part of our lives that it is unthinkable for us to imagine our lives away from Him. He is our guide for all things spiritual, and He never gives us up even in the darkest of times. All in all, He’s actually pretty good to know, and one of his promises — that He will always stand by us if we believe in Him — has never really failed me.
Obviously it’s asking a lot to let go and have God take the wheel. But to have doubts about the ability of God is really just to underestimate how powerful He is. There’s a line from the Book of Romans in the Bible that says “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”. The premise is that we believe in His power and love Him. So I don’t know about you, but I hope I can really let go and allow God to take control of my life, and love Him all the more.
And here’s to all the Christians out there as well. Amen.
Next time: A common joke in England is that the Yorkshire moors can be Hell on a wet and windy day. So let’s visit this wet and windy hell as we swell into that grand finale: “Wuthering Heights”.
(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “The Divine Comedy”, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barabara Reynolds, published 1949-1962, featured photo from the cover of “The Divine Comedy 1: Hell”.)