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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004) ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Literary critic Harold Bloom entreats us to remember that the exaltation of Beatrice from object of desire to heavenly angel in The Divine Comedy (we really only see her briefly in the Inferno) is completely outrageous, that she is the poem's "spectacular invention, triumphantly placed inside Dante's Christian machinery of salvationthe key figure that sets Dante's will in motion, providing impetus and strength. "What is Beatrice but Dante's symbol of divine grace, the essence of love, the force of love, the positive movement that love produces, the essence of salvation?"
To understand how Dante arrives at his creation of Beatrice, it helps to know a little bit about his background as a poet in the courtly love tradition, as well as a little bit about his relationship with the real Beatrice of Florence.
Dante had only a passing acquaintance for this great love of his. Apparently he saw her once when they were both nine years old, again when they were 18, and her occasional "hello" when they passed in the street was enough to sustain him his entire lifetime. If she made an indelible impression on him, it was one he absorbed from afar. They were only acquaintances and never lovers, and, in fact, Beatrice is said to have snuffed him once, possibly having caught wind of one of his "affairs." It was generally known that the love poems he circulated were addressed to her, though as convention demanded he disguised them, and she was probably a little disgusted with rumors of his behavior. Her disdain devastated Dante to the core. La Vita Nuova (The New Life) was a book of poems Dante wrote to and about Beatrice after her deathshe died young, at the age of 25and it was celebrated as a great work, earning him his reputation as a courtly love poet. When Beatrice died, he wrote in La Vita Nuova, he claims to have had a vision of her after her death that was too powerful to write about until he was "ready." We assume that vision is the Beatrice we meet in The Divine Comedy, the Beatrice who sits beside "Rachel of old," and is very high up in heaven, indeed.
In La Vita Nuova Dante celebrates Beatrice's beauty, which is unsurpassable, and not merely for its physical radiance but especially for its spiritual depth. Beatrice is "heavenly perfection." (Think back toor forward to, actuallyAlymer and Georgiana in "The Birthmark.) Beatrice's unsurpassed beauty is not her only supernatural quality:
The courtly love
tradition was a kind of poetry written by aristocratic men to aristocratic ladies,
a very elite form with lots of rules and conventions. It was highly stylized,
courteous, and proper. The spirit of it was the poet's attempt to experience
earthly love that would be as close to heavenly love as possible. Earthly love
was associated with lust, procreation, and the demands of the flesh, whereas
heavenly love was associated with more purely spiritual matters. In Beatrice,
Dante brings heavenly and earthly love together; she's an analog of the force
of love, the power of love to convert and to save. When Virgil and Beatrice
converse in Canto II, it's in the language of courtly love poetry, which is
striking because Virgil is a pagan; but notice the tone of extreme courtesy
and propriety. You can notice, too, that when Francesca tells her tale in Canto
V, her language alludes to Dante's earlier love poetry, but this time in an
ironic, almost mocking, self-critical way.
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