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Dante at 700 - Part 3

Drawing by Sandro Botticelli
A drawing of Dante and Beatrice by Sandro Botticelli

I finished the second of my blog posts by quoting from the Ulysses Canto (Inferno 26).  It seems to contain a clear message about how we should live – “you were not made to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge”.  However, I went on to say that these lines are given to a man burning in hell for spreading falsehood.

Anyone reading The Divine Comedy has to keep in mind the need to interpret it on several levels at once.  Dante himself is present in the poem in two distinct capacities.

One the one hand, he is the poet, who periodically addresses us directly – it is in one of these interjections that he refers to the work as a commedia.  It’s not of course a comedy in our laugh-out-loud sense, but in the broader sense that it has a happy ending.  The epithet divina was added by critics several centuries later, completing the title which we still use.

On the other hand, Dante is a character in the action, responding to events and, in particular, to the speeches made to him and his guides by the characters undergoing punishment or reward.  There is no fixed pattern to these guest appearances.  Some characters, like Ulysses, dominate a single canto: some spread over several cantos: some, like Bede, only have a line or two.

In fact, the numerological pattern, which I mentioned earlier – the astonishing proliferation of 3s and 11s and 33s – seems like a strait-jacket but is nothing of the sort.  The canto structure leaves Dante free to ramble, or to be extremely succinct, over the whole range of human history and mythology and theology.

Any interpretation of the poem also has to operate on multiple levels.  The encounters with individuals take up most of our attention, but the whole poem conveys meaning in a much more subtle way.  Dante’s first guide is Virgil, his poetic hero, who leads him down into Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory.  Throughout this journey, Dante places total trust in Virgil, describing him as il mio duca – my leader.

When they reach the Garden of Eden which sits atop the mountain (the earthly, as opposed to celestial paradise) Virgil spends several lines telling Dante that he must now leave Virgil behind.  By this stage, Virgil says:

Libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio

In my rough translation - Dante’s will, by this stage, is free (it was of course always free) but more important it is “right and sound” because Dante has learned the consequences of sin and understood that only repentance can lead to salvation.  Soon after this, Dante literally leaves Virgil behind and, for most of the rest of the poem, he is guided by Beatrice.

Who is Beatrice?  Some have identified her as Beatrice Portinari, a young woman from a rich family who Dante may have come across and who undoubtedly died young.  Oddly, Dante is “taking as read” an earlier work by him, the Vita Nova, in which he described seeing Beatrice while walking through Florence.  He sees her – no more – and of course it is eternal love at first sight, another reason Dante was popular with the Romantics.

No-one knows who Beatrice was – she may even have been fictional.  By the time Dante reaches the Garden of Eden, Virgil has mentioned her several times, and in fact he coaxed Dante through one of his most intimidating trials by promising him “this barrier lies between you and Beatrice”.   For most of the rest of the poem, Beatrice is his guide – she resides high up in Heaven, high enough to have the ear of St Lucy.

It is generally agreed that the roles of the two guides can be interpreted as follows.  Reason (ie Virgil) can show us that sin leads to misery, and can show us how to live virtuously: but only Faith (ie Beatrice) can show us how to achieve salvation and eternal bliss.  Dante is clearly very interested in the question – is it true that virtuous non-believers are barred from salvation?  His conclusion, clearly spelled out in the poem, is that only believers can get to Heaven: this is God’s will, and if we do not understand, that is because we are merely human and we have to have faith even in things we do not understand.

In this, Dante is of course an orthodox Catholic of his time.  Most of us nowadays prefer our poetic heroes to be rebels and forerunners, rather than mouthpieces for authority.  Oddly, while Dante is doctrinally orthodox, he is – literally - damning about the morals of the leaders of his own church, and more than one Pope is to be found in Hell.  He is especially critical of the Popes’ willingness to operate as monarchs or tyrants.

Just over a century after Dante’s death, a major politico-religious storm blew up over the Donation of Constantine, a document (apparently authorised by the Emperor himself) awarding the See of St Peter huge areas of territory in central Italy.  Fifteenth century humanists proved the document to be a forgery.  For Dante, the Donation was an abomination, whether it was genuine or not – he was absolutely clear that the Church governed only religion, while the earth should be governed by just kings or (in the case of Italy) the Holy Roman Emperor.

It’s not only Dante’s anti-clericalism which is ground-breaking - the first appearance of Beatrice must have been shocking to many of his contemporaries.  Regardless of whether she represents Faith, or the Church, or Divine Revelation, we are left in no doubt what she thinks of Dante.  When Dante arrives in the Garden of Eden, she gives him a long and thorough telling-off which might not sound out of place coming from one of the tough women in Coronation Street, barring someone from the Rovers Return:

Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice!

Come degnasti d’accedere al monte?

Non sapei tu che qui è l’uom felice?

(Have a good look!  You’re dead right – it’s me, Beatrice! What do you think you’re doing all the way up here?  This place is for decent people, not for the likes of you!)

which leaves him – literally – felled. “Such guilty recognition gnawed my heart, I swooned for pain” in Ciardi’s translation. These three lines are just the start of a long tirade, and fourteenth-century readers might well have been shocked to encounter a heroine speaking at such length and with such vitriol to a gentleman.

Dante’s faint is, as far as the poem’s message is concerned, a key moment – because it is now that Dante really comes to terms with the burden of sin which he has been carrying throughout his life (or, to be more precise, his half-life, as the fictional Dante in the poem is of course 35).  Screenwriting theorists say that the hero of a film must not merely act out the message of the story, but make the audience feel that the message is true.  At this point, Dante the poet is showing us what sin can do to a man, and how totally we must search our consciences.. Annoyingly, as I’ve already said, Dante is still coy about what his sins were, and even Beatrice, while scolding him furiously, does not tell us!

Perhaps this is the wrong note on which to finish this brief sampling of the Divine Comedy.  Dante’s faith may be rigid, but his use of language is wonderfully and mind-bendingly flexible and this (I think) is what makes his masterpiece an unending source of pleasure.  Also, like Shakespeare and the Bible, the influence of this great work runs through thousands of volumes written subsequently.  To take a completely random example - just before writing this, I read in a poem by Paul Verlaine:

“We (poets) whose heads are untouched by celestial light

And who have no Beatrice to guide our steps…”

Dante is still with us, still acting as a guide to those who dare to take the journey with him!

A whole three week celebration of the life and work of Dante begins at the Lit & Phil on December 2nd - full details and how to book can be found here: Dante Celebrations.

About the author

Keith Jewitt

Keith Jewitt is a retired accountant, an environment enthusiast dedicated to the “Keep Jesmond Clean” campaign and a community activist. He is also the author of In a Magpie’s Eye: The Jesmond Year in Haiku. Keith lives in Jesmond.

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