Thomas Carlyle wrote that the greatest poets are also prophets, and experience life on quite another sphere than their fellow mortals. Though others may forget the sacred mysteries of life and come to believe in appearances alone, the true poet cannot forget them because he lives in them and is completely honest and dedicated to their universal power. Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, surely our three greatest poets, support this idea of the poet/prophet, or Vates, and if we would seek to understand such genius, we would do well to contemplate this truth – that they are attuned to a key that the masses of men cannot or will not hear. It is this that makes them unique even among poets, who are all commonly regarded as having more sensitive natures, and it is this that also makes understanding them a greater challenge.
Of these three most universal of poets, Dante alone combines spiritual depth with intellectual vigor and intense lyrical sweetness. Although he began writing in the Courtly Love tradition that swept across Europe in the Middle Ages – a tradition invented by the troubadours of southern France – Dante transformed this tradition when he wedded to it the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style), a literary movement popular among Italian poets of his time. The primary characteristics of this style of poetry were not only introspection, puns, and philosophical themes, but also an insistence that the beautiful women about whom these poets wrote were actually angelic beings. Dante took this last theme a step farther than any of his contemporaries by insisting that one angelic lady in particular was literally sent to Earth to show him the way to Heaven. He describes her and his love for her in his poetry manual La Vita Nuova (The New Life) and in his great epic The Commedia (The Comedy). The rest of this essay will explore the life and ideas of this Mediaeval Italian Vates.
Dante was born in Florence in AD 1265 into a noble but impoverished family. His father made a decent living by leasing out family farmlands just north of the city. Although Dante had the advantages of an urban education and manners, and was fiercely devoted to his hometown, descriptions of country life also fill his poetry and show how deeply Nature touched his great spirit. However, the central event in his life occurred on May 1, 1274, when he was about nine. This is when he met eight year old Beatrice Portinari at a party given by her father, and from that day forward love fired his young heart. Soon he began to seek her out in the markets, churches, and streets of the neighborhood where they lived, and although he probably never knew her well, Dante came to see in Beatrice his ideal lady of beauty, grace, and piety, and wrote a number of sonnets and poems in her honor. In fact, her very name comes from the Latin Beatrix, and literally means “one who makes happy.” Tragically, Beatrice died in 1290 at the age of 24.
Dante wrote a few more poems for her, combined them with prose explanations of how he came to write them, and set them forth around 1295 under the title La Vita Nuova. Though he appears to have tried for a while to forget her, her image was so emblazoned on his mind that he ended up making her the central figure of his poetry and of his life. Over time she has become the most memorable literary character in world history. For it is certain that the immortal figure we meet in his writings is an idealized version of the real girl he loved, and who married someone else and died young. Dante also married, but, as was customary in Mediaeval Europe, his was arranged by his family when he was about eleven. The contract was fulfilled in late 1287, and four children resulted from this union.
Dante studied philosophy and theology deeply in the years after Beatrice’s death, and immersed himself in the Republic of Florence’s politics from 1295-1301. Perhaps he became too involved in the factional struggles that continually rocked his native city throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, but things came to a head when he became outspoken against the secular politics of Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface was attempting to increase the power of the papacy, and sought to undermine any Italian city-states that were independent of his authority. His stratagems were but one episode in the Middle Age struggle between the popes and the Holy Roman Emperors, who argued that popes had power only over religious matters, while the emperors controlled all secular matters. All Florentines nominally supported the church in its endeavors and wars against the empire, but some, like Dante, thought that Florence’s independence was more important than serving either master too well. In this regard, Dante was sent as papal ambassador to Rome in 1301 to argue for his city’s continued freedom. Though the other Florentine ambassadors were soon allowed to leave, Boniface, fearing Dante’s eloquence, purposefully delayed his return until the faction supporting papal authority had time to violently wrest control of the city from Dante’s party. Dante would never forgive Boniface for this, and would later blacken the pope’s very name in a manner unique in the history of the papacy. Dante was ultimately exiled from Florence and condemned to death by his political enemies. However, the fame of his poetry and other writings had made him a celebrity, and after a few years if intense poverty, he lived comfortably for the rest of his life, though he wandered from city to city and host to host, and became the ultimate example of the exiled intellectual.
Dantean scholars have emphasized particular aspects of his work and influence that make him one of the two or three greatest poets of all time. C. S. Lewis wrote of Dante’s love poetry being a union of divine and sensual love, John Freccero offered that Beatrice reconciles human love with the Divine plan, and Harold Bloom said she is “the allegory of the fusion of sacred and secular, the union of prophecy and poem.” T. S. Elliott wrote that Dante’s poetry has “the quality of surprise” that E. A. Poe said was “essential to poetry,” while Bloom proffered that Dante’s works have “a strangeness” that we can never completely internalize, and that it is this that gives his poetry its startling originality. Carlyle simple wrote that intensity is “the prevailing character of Dante’s genius.” Northrop Frye suggested that Dante’s Commedia is the supreme example in literature of the “marvelous journey,” while Erich Auerbach said that Dante’s poetry is spell-binding, and that readers are charmed into entering a magical world.
Dante’s influence has been immeasurable, largely through the impact he had on Petrarch, whose sonnets and poems in turn created romantic poetry as we understand it today. Dante’s philosophy and theology have cast a giant shadow upon subsequent thinkers, visionaries, churchmen, and authors. His use of the vernacular Italian, as opposed to the more acceptable Latin, linguistically changed just about everything. But more than anything else, it is Dante’s great lyrical power as a poet that gives him his charm, his darkness, his hope, and his radiance. All of the writers quoted above touch upon some of the aspects that place Dante’s poetry in a class by itself. But perhaps Bloom, the most eloquent of Dante’s admirers after Carlyle and Elliott, summed it up best when he wrote that Beatrice was “a Christian muse” and that for Dante, “love begins and ends” with her.
For Dante’s greatest works, The Commedia and La Vita Nuova, are first and foremost poems about love, and Dante is primarily a poet/prophet of love, whether earthly or spiritual, whether of the flesh or of the soul. No one wrote anything like he did before he lived, and no one has come close to his daring or his depth since he died. When one considers that the girl Dante loved only uttered a handful of words to him during their lives, it is almost impossible for us to comprehend that with words alone, he created a poetic vision so unique and so influential that it is best summed up with the one word he made synonymous not only with himself, but with Love itself. That word is simply the name of the Muse who made him happy and who led him beyond himself even after her death and his exile from Florence: Beatrice. Without Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Love as we understand it today – if we can be said to understand it at all – would be but a shadow of itself, and we would be immeasurably poorer both philosophically and poetically for this loss. Bless Beatrice! Bless Dante! And bless all those who risk their hearts in the great adventure known as Love.
Her color is the pallor of the pearl,
A paleness perfect for a gracious lady;
She is the best that Nature can achieve
And by her mold all beauty tests itself;
Her eyes, wherever she may choose to look,
Send forth their spirits radiant with love
To strike the eyes of anyone they meet,
And penetrate until they find the heart.
You will see Love depicted on her face,
There where no one dares hold his gaze for long.
Dante, an excerpt from the poem “Ladies who have intelligence of love” in La Vita Nuova (The New Life), circa A.D. 1295, translated by Mark Musa, 1973