In the first post, Dante woke up in a dark wood. There, he met the shade of Virgil and asked him to take them to ‘the gates where now St Peter stands’ (Canto 1. Line 133)
We rejoin Dante as night falls and he prepares to begin his journey through hell. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, he is nervous about the road the lies ahead.
Turning to Virgil, he says
‘… my poet and my guide,
Look at me hard. Am I in spirit strong enough
for you to trust me on this arduous road?’
The way Dante frames the question is very touching. He could have simply asked ‘Am I ready?’; instead, he frames the question in terms of Virgil’s well being.
Dante’s kindness receives its just reward. The ‘shadow of that noble mind’ (l.44) gives Dante an answer that is sure to warm his heart – he doesn’t simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but tells him how he came to join him in the first place.
A beautiful woman called him. Her eyes shone ‘brighter than the stars’ (l.55) and she spoke ‘as angels might, in her own tongue’ (l.57). She said
A man most dear to me – though not to fate –
is so untrammelled on the lonely hill
that no w he turns, all terror, from the way,
My fear must be he’s so bewildered there
that – hearing all I’ve heard of him in Heaven –
I rise too late to bring him any aid.
The woman asks Virgil to go and help the poor soul. But who is she, this beautiful and kind lady? A few lines later, she identifies herself as Beatrice.
A woman named Beatrice Portinari was the great love of Dante Alighieri’s life. As she died in 1290 (aged just 24) and The Divine Comedy was written between 1308-21 it makes sense that Dante would regard her as being in heaven and have her come down from there to his aid.
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti* (1864-70)
However, I note from her entry on Wikipedia that scholars do not fully accept that the Beatrice of The Divine Comedy is indeed Beatrice Portinari. You can read more about her here.
Back to the poem – Beatrice tells Virgil that
“When I again appear before my Lord,
then I shall often speak your praise to Him.”
I find these lines very difficult to understand. In the first canto we learnt that Virgil would not be able to take Dante into heaven as he – Virgil – was a pagan.
If that is the case, wouldn’t Beatrice’s praise rather annoy God? Why would she want to praise someone she knew couldn’t enter heaven in the first place? Dante’s conception of God here seems to miss the mark.
Such considerations are not on Virgil’s mind as he respond to her in terms that not only recall the Blessed Virgin Mary but give The Divine Comedy a rather science fiction feel.
“Lady of worth and truth, through you alone
the human race goes far beyond that bourne set
by the lunar sphere, smallest of all the skies.”
The identification of Beatrice with the Blessed Virgin continues when Beatrice describes herself as
… created by the grace of God –
and so untouched by all your wretchedness.
When she says ‘your’ I do not take her to be criticising Virgil personally but more likely the stain of his paganism.
Beatrice goes on to refer to another Lady ‘gracious, good and kind’ (l.94), who asked another woman named Lucia to to come to Dante’s aid. In her turn, Beatrice says, Lucia came to herself as she sat with her friend Rachel, and asked her to help Dante.
The Lady is not identified but I wonder if it might not be the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. The reason I say that is because Dante has her
… grieve at the impasse that I send you to,
and, weeping, rives the high unbending rule.
I take ‘the impasse’ to mean the gap between Purgatory and heaven and ‘the high unbending rule’ to refer to be the ban on pagans entering heaven. If I am correct, Mary would be the perfect person to ‘rive’ (i.e. tear it apart). She is, after all, the greatest intercessor for Catholics.
God’s ways are not our ways but what basis Dante has for suggesting that Mary could persuade God to let Virgil into heaven, I don’t know. It’s another tricky theological moment.
Dante is inspired by Beatrice. Let us set off, he says to Virgil, and they enter ‘that deep and wooded road’ (l.142).
* Rossetti was named after Dante Alighieri
- I am reading the Penguin Classics (2006) edition of Inferno tr. Robin Kirkpatrick
- I have never read The Divine Comedy before and my knowledge of mediaeval Italian literature is minimal so if any of my thoughts or ideas are so wrong it hurts, feel free to put me right in the comments!