Dante and Beatrice: A Variety of Religious Experience


THE definition of poetry as a “ criticism of life ” may be unhappily phrased, but its intention is sound. I doubt the dictum of Keats: a thing merely of beauty is not a sufficing joy forever. We have other than æsthetic emotions, other than emotional interests; and unless these also find their satisfaction in a poem, we are not, I think, wholly content with it. A supreme poem would respond to our whole nature; and in responding, reveal the poet’s experience and judgment of life.

Dante’s poetry is certainly, by this test, supreme. But while we cannot deny his many-sided responsiveness, we may perhaps question the significance of his responses for us. He looked at the world through glasses that no longer fit our eyes. Seen through them, life loses its accustomed perspective, and ordinary experience takes on prismatic colors which make it beautiful, but strange; so that out of his book of life we accept the poetry; the reality we question, or explain away. Most of all, we question, or explain away, the reality of his experience of love; that too must be reckoned as “ poetry,” which, if not merest allegory, seems at most an idealization as slightly in touch with reality as a toy-balloon tied to the ground by a thread.

Are we then, after all, reduced to the option of reading Dante as the, for us, idle dreamer of a day, not empty indeed, but past and gone, or as the diarist of men and things once, but no longer, living? Does he appeal only to our antiquarian and aesthetic sides? Did he speak more literally than he knew when he gave thanks solely for

The good style, that has brought me honor ?

We live in an empirical age; and the Pragmatist appears to be its prophet. Our test of reality, of truth, is human experience; and the highest truth for us is that which, verified by human experience, is of deepest import to humanity. We are, as Newman said, not to be converted by syllogisms: not that we need distrust reason, but that we know every nexus of deduction to depend ultimately upon a major premise undeduced and undeducible — save from experience. Supernatural revelation, even were we personally its recipients, would be discounted by us, because we know too well the possibilities of self-illusion, self-suggestion. But if a revelation were given to us, not supernatural, not alien to common experience, but verifiable therein, and of deepest import to humanity, assuredly we should be concerned to listen. And it is precisely such a revelation, I think, that Dante gives.

The one poem, of which the New Life and the Divine Comedy are parts, is the record of a religious experience. Its first crisis came in Dante’s ninth year of age, when he first saw Beatrice, and heard in his heart the words, Eccedeus fortior me. The spiritual outcome of the experience is told in the last words of the Divine Comedy:

To the high fantasy here power failed;
But already my desire and will were turned —
Even as a wheel revolving evenly —
By the Love that moves the sun and other stars.

Such is the redeemed soul; and of such is the kingdom of heaven. There the individual desire and will are not annihilated, not denied, but rather fulfilled; for if one really desires and wills only what omnipotence wills, there can be no disappointment. Such an one is able to say in sincerity with the blessed,

In His will is our peace.

Spontaneous self-surrender to the will of God is the goal of Dante’s spiritual journey. Looking backward along the way, he was able to see the impulse to such surrender in his childish love; and writing the story long after the event, he could read into the mood of the child an intelligence beyond the capacity of any child. Ecce deus fortior me: it is “ lo spirito della vita” the spirit of life, the vital instinct of self, that is made to speak; therefore it is no violence to translate modernly, — Behold a god, Love, stronger than I, who am the instinct of self. And the occasion of this self-overcoming impulse, Beatrice, is forthwith recognized as his “ beatitudo,” or blessedness, not for the delight she may give, but for the spirit of self-renunciation she calls forth. Thus the two extremes of his experience meet in one religious mood: the child is no otherwise moved by the little maiden than the man

By the love that moves the sun and other stars.

She is for him from the beginning the mouthpiece of God, and the means of salvation.

There is nothing abnormal, nothing mystical, in the situation. The instinctive altruism of love is no theory, but a fact of experience. Any small boy who, unintimidated, resigns the core of his apple to another small boy feels it after his fashion. Nancy Sykes dumbly devoted to her abominable Bill; the rake of de Musset’s poem suddenly pitiful of his poor hired drab; St. Francis of Assisi renouncing all for the sake of an unseen Christ — the moods of all these are at least one in this impulse away from self.

Incredulity concerning Dante’s childish love for Beatrice is thus based on a misunderstanding of what Dante meant. How, it has often been asked, could a nine-year-old boy, in whom the sex-instinct is not yet developed, experience such a passion? There is no question of sexual passion. There was never any question of that, so far as we may trust his word, between Dante and Beatrice. But whoever denies that small boys may “ love ” little girls adoringly, devotedly, may perform miracles of juvenile self-sacrifice for their sakes, is a person of singularly limited experience and observation. Whatever, if any, psychological distinction there may be between such “ puppy love,” and childish love for father or mother or nurse, at least the impulse of self-devotion, common indeed to both, is observably stronger in the former. Dante’s child-love then is perfectly normal; that it was the beginning of a religious conversion he only recognized long afterward.

When recognized, this spontaneous altruistic impulse in love became the basis of Dante’s religious experience, and the motive of all his poetry. To feel and follow the impulse is to be truly noble, to have a “ cor gentile,” a gentle heart. To reveal it as the power within ourselves which makes for blessedness is the mission of the “ sweet new style,” the message which, as Dante says, —

... in that manner
Which love within me dictates, I go declaring.

Dante’s poetry is the story of this impulse implanted by love; of its growth from a casual and passing mood into a master passion reaching out, not to one other human being only, but to all humanity, and from humanity, by the leading of faith, to humanity’s God. It is the saving grace: those who have not felt it, and only those, are damned. For all love, however base else, however dark its desire, yet in this impulse, so far looks to, leads to, the light. Therefore is Beatrice able to say that the “ eternal light ” shines through all love; and that,

... if aught else lure your love,
Naught is it save some vestige of that light,
Ill understood, which there is shining through.
Paradiso, v, 10-12.

Her assurance is no vagary of mediæval mysticism, no fallacy of a mind in vertigo, which as it spins blurs the real variety of things into a confused oneness; but a recognition of the observable psychological fact that there is in all love, highest and lowest, a stirring of generous emotion.

Precisely because the altruism of love is a spontaneous impulse, it is demonstrable only by experience, by involuntary experience. Only the lover understands the lover; hence Dante is continually declaring that he addresses those only “ that have intelligence of love.” Nor is he preaching love. The commandment, “ Thou shalt love thy neighbor,” is unconstitutional to our nature: we cannot love to order; we fall, not jump, in love. Dante’s teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas, rightly distinguishes two psychological moments in love, a “ passio ” and a “ virtus,” an impression which evokes an expression. Both indeed are independent of our reason and will: of the impression we are passively receptive; in the expression our nature responds spontaneously, if at all. It is strange that Francesca da Rimini should plead to Dante for Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving. For did Dante himself find requital of his love from the living Beatrice? or did he blame her for her indifference to him? On the contrary, even when she denied him her salutation, — that which had been his blessedness,” and the mere anticipation of which had kindled “ una fiamma di caritate,” a glow of good-will towards all men, — even then, far from complaining or long repining, he came to find his still greater blessedness in the pure altruism of love which gives all, asking nothing. In her will is his peace.

With this mood of self-renunciation begins, as he himself tells, his true “ new life,” and “ the matter new and nobler ” of the “ sweet new style.” But although Dante is now withdrawn into himself, and asks no least response from his lady, his mood is far from the bastard Platonism of the Renaissance, as pithily summarized, for instance, in Michelangelo’s quatrain: —

Mentre ch’alla belta ch’i’viddi in prima
Apresso l’alma, che per gli occhi vede,
L’immagin dentro crescie, e quella cede
Quasi vilmente e senza alcuna stima.

Which may be roughly paraphrased: —

While to the beauty which I first regarded
I turn my soul, that through mine eyes perceiveth,
Within my soul that beauty’s image liveth,
Itself as base and worthless is discarded.

Michelangelo means of course, that, possessing the idea of beauty abstracted from the particular beautiful thing,— woman or other, — we have no further use for the thing; we are not concerned to pull up after us the ladder we have climbed by. But Dante did not discard Beatrice as a thing “ senza alcuna stima,” nothing worth. He may have idealized the woman; but it was the woman still, though idealized, that inspired him. Her individual personality, her particular and unique beauty of body and soul, was for him the greatly precious thing in heaven as upon earth. She is for him no stepping-stone to higher things, which, having served its purpose, is left behind. His last word to her in heaven is a prayer to her as an immortal personality, close indeed to the Divine Personality, but not merged or lost in that. Platonic love, humanly speaking, is selfish: it envisages the one beloved as a provocative to its own contemplative raptures. There is something almost vampirish in this going about imaginatively sucking off the sweets of girls and things just to stock up one’s own mental honeycomb. The very essence of Dante’s love is its unselfishness. To mark the contrast after the manner of his own allegorical vision, it is not he that fed on Beatrice’s beauty, it is she that fed on his heart, that absorbed his desire and will.

It does not appear that Dante ever asked or desired from Beatrice requital of his love; it does appear that he did desire and ask from other women requital of his passion. Boccaccio imputed to him an amatorious disposition; and there are those of his poems which bear out the imputation. He himself confessed and attempted to avoid scandal attaching to certain adventures. Those two ladies whom he professes to have used as “ screens ” to conceal his ideal love for Beatrice, doubtless did so — by being real loves; and that lady compassionate who consoled him a while after Beatrice’s death probably turned his thoughts from heaven in a way not unheard of before or since. Beatrice’s caustic rebuke on the summit of the Mount of Purgatory may well have been for other fallingsoff also, — Dante’s words almost always carry double, — but it invited most, I think, his last and most intimate purgation, by penitence, of the cardinal sin against the very principle of redemption, — pure and unselfish love. Yet the admission of these impure loves is no bar to belief in a pure love coexistent. Even a Paul Verlaine may profess in his Sagesse sincere adoration of the Virgin, along with profanest passion in his Parallélement.

Within this earthly temple there’s a crowd;

and some sanctify the temple as a house of prayer, and some make it a den of thieves.

The disinterestedness of Dante’s love for Beatrice does not, however, reduce it to friendship or hero-worship. He felt the subtle appeal of sex also, but as an appeal for his consciousness translated wholly into terms of tenderness and self-devotion. Let me emphasize again the sanity of his mood over against the essential morbidness of most so-called “ Platonic love,” or courtly love,” or “ chivalric love.” The motive common to these social and literary fashions, so widely current in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, is, broadly speaking, a desire to have your dance without paying the fiddler, to devise ways and means of playing with fire without getting burned. Philandering was never dreamed of in Plato’s own philosophy; and the mood of philandering is almost always morbid, when it is not merely sensualism in masquerade. But Dante tells no tale of self-indulgence in luxurious emotional titillation, of entretiens d’amour — or “ damfoolishncss.” His homage is not that of obsequious vassal to capricious lord, but of the redeemed to the Saviour; for it was she that evoked in him the spirit of sacrifice which is the beginning of redemption.

In the Divine Comedy, indeed, it would at first sight seem that he at least imaginatively assumes requital of his love: the transfigured Beatrice condescends to him, lovingly uplifts him. “ Love moved me,” she tells her messenger, Virgil. Yet Dante, as he proceeds, shows clearly that moving love to be not personal, not the yearning of the individual soul to the individual soul, but a saintly charity, responsive by its nature to all, directed to him only because of his especial appeal to her in his need. Indeed, in her high place in heaven beside the ancient Rachel, she had even been oblivious of his need, until Lucia, sent by the Virgin herself, mother of charity, “ meridian torch of charity,” pleaded with her in his behalf. He is to her but her “ friend,” her “ brother,” in Christ. Or if a warmer impulse is awakened in her, it is that of motherhood, womanly spontaneous at the call of need: —

. . . She after a pitying sigh,
Her eyes directed towards me with that look
A mother casts on a delirious child.
Paradiso, i, 100-102 (Longfellow).

To her he turns as a little tired child to its mother: —

Oppressed with stupor, I unto my guide
Turned like a little child who always runs
For refuge there where he confideth most;
And she, even as a mother who straightway
Gives comfort to her pale and breathless boy
With voice whose wont it is to reassure him,
Said to me, etc.
Paradiso, xxii, 1-7 (Longfellow).

Symbolic of their spiritual relationship is the aspect of their physical ascent:—

Beatrice upward gazed, and I on her.
Paradiso, ii, 22.

Very different from this almost hieratic condescension is Margaret’s intimate gladness at Faust’s redemption. Margaret sees her lover returned, not merely to goodness, to God, but to herself, for herself to love and cherish and serve in heaven as on earth, only more perfectly and forever. The Mater Gloriosa has not to plead for him with her; it is she who makes passionate appeal to the Mater Gloriosa:

Incline, O Maiden,
With Mercy laden,
In light unfading,
Thy gracious countenance upon my bliss!
My loved, my lover,
His trials over
In yonder world, returns to me in this! . . .
Vouchsafe to me that I instruct him!
Still dazzles him the Day’s new glare.

And the Virgin advises her: —

Rise, then, to higher spheres! Conduct him,
Who feeling thee, shall follow there!
Faust, Part ii, Act v, Scene 7 (Taylor).

In those higher spheres, Faust is presumably to be reunited forever with Margaret. Not so may Dante hope. Once her saving mission accomplished, Beatrice also rises to her own higher sphere, where she is forthwith, Dante once more forgotten, rapt in contemplation wholly of God.

. . . She, so far away,
Smiled, as it seemed, and looked once more at me;
Then unto the eternal fountain turned.
Paradiso, xxxi, 91-93 (Longfellow).

Beatrice in heaven, then, remains for him what she had been on earth — a mover of personal love, herself unmoved by personal love. The same spirit of caritate, of loving-kindness, with which he, enamoured, identified her, living, is the principle of his apotheosis of her, dead. The real Beatrice may have merited the apotheosis, may have been such an incarnation of loving-kindness, or not — who can say? Dante, loving her, thought so, — even as every Jack in love thinks his Jill. The illusion is primal. But the only tragedy of illusion is disillusionment; and in the chance for disillusionment is the risk of requited love. For that blessedness in renunciation which Dante declared “ cannot grow less,” there is also a cynical justification: who renounces union with one beloved assures himself against that contempt which familiarity may — though of course need not — breed. Indeed, if Dante himself was altogether innocent of the cynicism, he must have been singular in his time. The time held woman the inferior animal, to whom man must rationally condescend, could not rationally look up. It soberly believed, as Leopardi later, that

. . . that which is in gentle hearts inspired
By her own beauty, woman dreams not of,
Nor yet might understand.

There may be serious question, therefore, if Dante’s religious experience of love could for him have remained religious had Beatrice proved kind. A Lovelace in a modern French play, being informed by his married mistress that, suddenly widowed, she is now ready to marry him, exclaims in consternation, “ Mais, madame, je vous aime en homme du monde! ” One feels, not intending irreverence, that Dante must have answered Beatrice, yielding, “ Mais, madame, je vous aime en homme d’autremonde! ” Tennyson’s idealization in The Princess of love in domesticity, love in harness pulling toward a common goal of ideal good, was hardly thinkable for Dante. The reason was not., I think, that the code of " chivalric love,” by Andreas Capellanus, redactor of the code, had declared “ amorem non posse inter duos jugales suas extendere vires,” love to be incapable of extending its power over the wedded. Dante never bowed to code or dogma — even highest dogma of the Church — without question; for him ever

. . . springs up, in fashion of a shoot,
Doubt at the foot of truth.
Paradiso, iv, 130, 131. (Longfellow.)

For him, behind the code must appear the sanction; and at least one sanction of Andreas’s code was experience. As a fact of experience, marriage in the Middle Ages was not of a nature to justify Tennyson’s idealization. There may be question if marriage is altogether commonly so yet.

In one sense, then, the inaccessibility, the “splendid isolation,” of Beatrice was a fortunate accident. Because of it, Dante’s religious experience of love was saved from possible disillusionment. Experiencing the instinctive altruism of love, he was able, uninhibited, to project the color of his own mood into her nature who had evoked his mood. For Dante explicitly concedes nobleness of impulse to woman, while he denies to her reasoned and seasoned virtue. In his ode on true nobility, he declares, —

Gentlehood is wherever there is virtue,
But virtue not wherever gentlehood;
Even as the heaven is wherever is the star,
But not the converse holds.
And we in women and in youthful age
Discern this saving grace,
So far as they are held to be shamefast,
Which yet’s not virtue, —

but is — as he explains in his commentary on the ode — “ certa passion buona,” an estimable emotion. Such in Beatrice was that caritate, unreflective, passional, the essence of her womanliness, her spiritual beauty. Awakened by her in him, the emotion becomes through his masculine reflection selfconscious, understood; and so is translated from an instinctive emotion to a rational virtue. This virtue his reason recognizes as identical in principle with “ la prima virtu,” the supreme virtue of God, —

The love that moves the sun and other stars.

In this sense, Beatrice the woman is for Dante the symbol of the lovable God. She is no mere allegory, in which truth is infolded “ in covert veil ” by the poet’s own ingenuity. She has religious significance as a symbol, precisely as the Communion when the “ Real Presence ” is admitted: God lovable is “ truly, really, and substantially ” contained in her, as after the consecration of the bread and wine, Christ is “ truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things.” Hence the symbolism of the New Life — the association of Beatrice with the mystic number nine, “of which the root is the Blessed Trinity”; the esoteric significance of her name, as “Blessedness”; the daring intimation of her identity with the Christ Himself — this symbolism is not poetic fantasy or amorous hyperbole, but spiritual truth. In her presence he is as in the presence of God; and therefore his own visions and tremblings and swoonings and exaltations, morbid or incredible in a mere human lover, are normal and familiar in the religious convert of all ages.

VOL. 105-NO. 2

Dante’s was a time of peculiar religious sensibility; but turning instead to the matter-of-fact nineteenth century and the prosaic United States, consider the conversion, the “new life,”of the young Methodist Bradley, cited by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. The confession of the obscure young American throws a strange backward light on that of the great Florentine poet. “ At first,” Bradley says, “ I began to feel my heart beat very quick all on a sudden, which made me at first think that perhaps something is going to ail me, though I was not alarmed, for I felt no pain. My heart increased in its beating, which soon convinced me that it was the Holy Spirit from the effect it had on me.” So at first sight of Beatrice, Dante’s heart beat “ fortemente” and he recognized the coming of the “ deus fortior me,” — which was divine love, even as the Holy Spirit is love.

Bradley continues: “ I began to feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a sense of unworthiness as I had never felt before. I could not very well help speaking out, which I did, and said, Lord, I do not deserve this happiness, or words to that effect, while there was a stream (resembling air in feeling) came into my mouth and heart in a more sensible manner than that of drinking anything, which continued, as near as I could judge, five minutes or more, which appeared to be the cause of such a palpitation of my heart. It took complete possession of my soul, and I am certain that I desired the Lord, while in the midst of it, not to give me any more happiness, for it seemed as if I could not contain what I had got. My heart seemed as if it would burst, but it did not stop until I felt as if I was unutterably full of the love and grace of God . . . and all the time that my heart was a-beating, it made me groan like a person in distress, which was not very easy to stop, though I was in no pain at all.”

Compare with this singular ecstasy Dante’s declaration, in the eleventh chapter of the New Life, of the effects upon himself of Beatrice’s salutation: how a flame of charity possessed him which made him pardon whosoever had offended him; how he could answer any one who spoke to him only “love! ” with a countenance clothed in humility; how when she actually saluted him, at the unbearable beatitude, his body many times fell like a heavy lifeless thing. The similarity of emotional experience is obvious.

Even Dante’s proneness to visions and to intercourse with spiritual presences finds its counterpart in Bradley: “ And while I lay reflecting, after my heart stopped beating, feeling as if my soul was full of the Holy Spirit, I thought that perhaps there might be angels hovering round my bed. I felt just as if I wanted to converse with them, and finally I spoke, saying, ‘ O ye affectionate angels! how is it that ye can take so much interest in our welfare, and we take so little interest in our own.'”

And lastly, the resulting mood for Bradley, as for Dante, was a passionate desire for release from self, and an expansive impulse of altruism. In the morning, continues Bradley, “ I got up to dress myself, and found to my surprise that I could but just stand. It appeared to me as if it was a little heaven upon earth. My soul felt as completely raised above the fears of death as of going to sleep; and like a bird in a cage, I had a desire, if it was the will of God, to get release from my body and to dwell with Christ, though willing to do good to others, and to warn sinners to repent.” So saying, he but says more crudely:

. . . Already my desire and will were turned —
Even as a wheel revolving evenly —
By the Love that moves the sun and other stars.

I have dwelt on this curious analogy, because it seems to me to refute the contention that the extremes of sensibility in the New Life are to be taken as mere amorous and literary convention. Of course, Dante employed the parlance of his masters in love-poetry, just as he must, drawing an angel, have produced a figure which we should call Giottesque. A conventionalized phraseology does not imply necessarily an unoriginal thought any more than a conventionalized frock-coat implies necessarily an unoriginal man. Originality is not the same thing as eccentricity. The “sweet new style ” was, in the first instance, simply the old garment covering a new man; as the man grew and expanded, doubtless the garment was little by little altered to fit.

In the New Life Beatrice is the symbol of the lovable God; in the Divine Comedy, she is still this, and more. She is the symbol of God’s omniscience as well. To love her had been to love God; now to know her is to know God. Again, she is no mere allegory of theology, no personified abstraction like the innumerable didactic phantoms — “Lady Meed” or “Dame Sapience” or “Sister Rightwiseness ” — of mediæval evocation. With the woman’s body she has put off the woman’s limitations. Illuminated by the divine reason, her passive goodness has developed into active virtue, knowing the good which it desires and wills. Therefore at the last, Dante is justified in saying to her in heaven what he would have thought it fantastic to say to any woman on earth: —

Of whatsoever things I have beheld
I recognize the grace and potency.
Even through thy power and thine excellence.
Paradiso, xxxi, 82-84.

Of course, as need hardly be said, Dante is here imaginatively projecting his own illuminated intelligence into the mind of his immortal lady, as in the New; Life he had projected his mood of charity into her mortal heart. It was in each case an act of loving faith. If she really lived here on earth, she may have been what he believed her to be. In any case, the burden of disproof, both of her existence and of her excellence, is upon him who doubts. At present, there is no evidence against, and there is some evidence for, her being Bice Fortinari, a real Florentine girl and woman. I cannot but hope that the present interpretation of Dante’s love for her may relieve their possible relations of any seeming unnaturalness, and at the same time explain how it came to pass that this love grew for him into a religious experience, leading him to conversion and confidence of ultimate redemption.

Experience of the spontaneous altruism of love, — this alone is the major premise of his whole syllogism of life. It is in all love: neither Dante nor, for that matter, Goethe assorts that only the “ woman-love ” leads us upward. But as sex-love is the most intense, perhaps the only intense, love that mankind at large normally experiences, it is most, or only, in sex-love that the still, small voice of caritate, of self-devotion, is heard. Finally, therefore, it is as the supreme expression of this religious experience, in a phase at once most universal and most intense, that Dante’s poetry is a “ criticism of life,” not mediæval life, but human life.