Behind every great painting, symphony, piece of literature, or other artwork there hides a powerful emotion that fuels the artist from start to completion. When we look at a painting, we are not just seeing colored pigment suspended in oil on a stretched canvas, we are taking a close look into the heart and soul of the creator of that painting. Every piece of art is also a piece of the artist. One need only glance at one of the many self-portraits of Van Gogh to see a glimpse into his life and his inner turmoil.
Similarly, one must only read the early and late poetry of Dante to gain insight into his mind, his passions, and, ultimately, his soul, and the way in which he changed throughout his life. To understand Dante’s poetry requires us to understand his motivations. Throughout his life and career, Dante’s primary motivation was always love. As Dante grew older, his ideas about love and life changed and these changes are reflected in his poetry. In particular, Dante’s ideas of love were focused upon a single person in his life: Beatrice. Dante first saw Beatrice when he was only 9 years old (Dinsmore 69).
She became his inspiration for almost every major work he created and he viewed her as his savior, first temporally and later spiritually (Fergusson 165, Inf. II, 109-114). His La Vita Nuova is a collection of poems and prose commentary inspired by Beatrice and collected after her death in 1290. Dante’s love, however, was unrequited, as he himself says in a conversation with a lady recounted in La Vita Nuova: “What purpose have you in loving this lady, when you cannot bear her presence? Tell us about it, because surely the purpose of such love must be very strange.
And when she had said this, not merely she but all the ladies showed by their expressions that they were awaiting my answer. Then I said to them: “The ultimate desire of my love was only the salutation of this lady [Beatrice] whom I suppose you refer to, and in it dwelt all my happiness, because it was the consummation of all my hopes. ” (Gilbert 142). As with many artists, the pain of an unfulfilled and unattainable love drove them to a greatness that they perhaps would never have achieved had it not been for the emotional torment that they endured.
It is perfectly clear that Dante loved and adored Beatrice. In fact, there is reason to believe that she knew of this “devotion of his, but she [showed] no desire for it, although she [did] object to his conduct with another woman” (Ibid. ). We can imagine how profound a role Dante’s almost fanatical obsession played in his writings. As much as an effect her life had upon Dante’s, Beatrice’s death may have been an even greater effect upon his literary endeavors. In the last chapter of the Vita Nuova, Dante determines to write about Beatrice “that which has never been written of any other woman.
Over two decades later, he made good on this promise with the Divine Comedy. It is a testament both to his skill as a poet and to his love for Beatrice that this poem is, after 700 years, still very well known and widely read. Perhaps one of the things that makes the poem so popular still is that almost everyone can relate to the way Dante feels about Beatrice. Beatrice, to Dante, symbolizes everything that is right in the world; all the good and hope and wonder that exists. He places her upon a pedestal of glass and hopes to God that it will not shatter.
In order to fully understand Dante’s poetic conversion, we must first look at what life events had taken place that may have changed his outlook. Before beginning his Divine Comedy, Dante suffered several set backs in his life. The death of Beatrice in 1290 deeply wounded him, as did his exile from Florence due to the political intrigue in the city (Priest 8). Dante, while not becoming disillusioned with the Catholic Church as an institution, was also firmly opposed to the attempts by the papacy to exercise temporal power in Italy (Op. Cit. 11-12).
Dante became an outcast from this home and his family; his property was seized by the government; he was branded as a traitor by the government he once served; he was accused of being unfaithful to an institution that he revered; his object of adulation was taken away from him. Taken together, these events could do nothing but change Dante in some way. Dante found that he had less and less to live for in this world, thus he began to turn his eyes to what lay beyond this life. The Divine Comedy is much more than just an homage to Beatrice or a physical description of hell; it is his confession and atonement (Freccero 186).
The Divine Comedy is Dante’s Purgatory here on Earth. He is freely confesses the mistakes that he made, partly to free his conscious and explain, and partly as a warning to others who follow the same path that he did. Dante progressively becomes more aware of what is truly important and by looking at three of his major works, one can map Dante’s journey: Vita Nuevo, Convivo, and Divine Comedy. The Vita Nuevo was written rather early on in Dante’s life, when his head was full of ideas of courtly love (Op. Cit. 7) and he was completely engulfed by his love for Beatrice. His earthly love, or lustful love, is transmitted through this work.
Dante’s desires are clear, and they are more about temporal wants than eternal happiness. Beatrice’s death is a major blow to Dante and triggers a shift in his way of thinking. He seeks to abandon the memory of his love for Beatrice by “beginningto base his life and poetry on the foundations of philosophical truth. It initiates a line of poems, where beauty and truth contend, and where the sweet old life of the Vita Nuevo is shown to be struggling against the overpowering appeal of a rigorous and difficult new life” (Quinones 43-44).
Dante’s love is now given to “Lady Philosophy” (Op. Cit. ) and it is further contended that “[n]ot only did philosophy become the supreme thing [for Dante], it soon became the only thing, occupying all of Dante’s thoughts” (Ibid. ) Dante’s love affair with Philosophy was to culminate in the Convivo, a philosophical commentary that was left uncompleted at the time of his death. The Convivo was a necessary step for Dante in the journey away from the love poetry of his youth. The growth and maturation shown when the Vita Nuevo and Convivo are contrasted are striking, even though some of the Vita Nuevo did foreshadow his philosophical stances taken in Convivo (Op. Cit. 45).
What makes the Divine Comedy different from every other poem that Dante wrote is that fact that in the Comedy Dante “search[es] for the form to encompass his remarkably varied experience” (Op. Cit. 52). Dante was the true embodiment of a scholar, and his interest and knowledge in all areas of literature and natural science is incredibly impressive (Priest 13). If the Vita Nuevo is a poem of earthly, temporal, and physical love, and the Convivo is a work of philosophical truth and intellectual love, then the Divine Comedy seeks to unite both of these ideas, along with the theological believes that Dante held so dear.
Dante seeks to create a palinode, that is, he wishes to give his past work a new meaning by brining it into his present work. The Divine Comedy serves as the vessel for this palinode. John Freccero’s ideas are along much the same lines: When Dante quotes his earlier poetry in the Commedia, we are meant to perceive a distance, perhaps even an ironic distance, between a former poetic self and the poem we read. The same can probably be said of any writer who refers to his former work within a confessional structure, but it is especially true of Dante, whose whole poetic career was a continual askesis in preparation for his last work.
In such a linear evolution, a glance backward to a previous poetic achievement is more likely to be a sign of transcendence rather than of return, of self-critique rather than self-satisfaction. (Freccero 185, italics added). Dante is seeking to “transcend” his earlier work. Part of his confession in the Comedy is that he recognizes the mistakes he made as a foolish youth and is trying to make sure that that is not the way that he is remembered and that others do not follow him.
Freccero goes on to say that an “allusion to a former work within such a context is inevitably palinodic, for it invests the poetry itself with the dramatic double focus that is part of the story: the conversion of the Dante who was into the poet whose work we read” (Ibid. ) The clearest example of a palinode in the Divine Comedy occurs when Dante speaks with Francesca and Paolo (quoted as prose for sake of space): Then I turned back to them and spoke, and I began: “Francesca, your sufferings make me sad and piteous to tears.
But tell me: in the time of your sweet sighs, by what and how did Love grant you to know your dangerous desires? ” And she to me: “There is no greater pain than to remember the happy time in wretchedness; and this your teacher knows. But if you have so much desire to know the first root of our love, I will do as one who weeps and speaks. We were reading one day, for pleasure, of Lancelot, how love beset him; we were alone and without any suspicion. Many times that reading drove our eyes together and turned our faces pale; but one point alone was the one that overpowered us.
When we read that the yearned-for-smile was kissed by so great a lover, he, who will never be separated from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it: that day we read there no further. ” While one spirit said this, the other was weeping so that for pity I fainted as if I were dying, and I fell as a dead body falls. (Inf. 5. 115-142). The book that was the undoing of Francesca and Paolo, their “Galeotto”, was of the same type of poetry as that that Dante wrote when he was young.
He pities them to the point that he faints dead away. The question that begs to be asked is this: Why does he pity these two so much that he faints, whereas in certain other parts of Hell he shows no or little pity for the souls? The answer is quite simple: Dante can see himself being in their position very easily. His hot-blooded romanticism of youth could have put him into a nearly identical situation with Beatrice, and if the situation were similar, he knows that he would probably act as they acted: impulsively and for what they believed was love.
Francesca’s love, “Love, which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart” (Inf. 5. 100) is no longer Dante the poet’s view. Though her words echo Dante’s view as a youth, her damnation here is a refutation of everything he thought about love. Dante the poet realizes that passion is not love, nor is temporal love the most important thing. This view is further reinforced by the fact that Francesca’s line is taken from a poem by Guido Guinizelli, a poet that Dante very much admired in his youth and whose styles were similar.
Dante the pilgrim is confronted with this unexpected and unpleasant truth, and the idea is so shocking, it makes him faint dead away. Dante the pilgrim metaphorically dies (“I fell as a dead body falls”); that is, the part of Dante that believed in the kind of love that Paolo and Francesca had has died, and Dante has been reborn with a new perspective. He has risen from the ashes. This incident of palinode in the Inferno may be contrasted to one found in Purgatorio. This time, the poem being referred to is one of Dante’s own works, and is found in the Convivo.
And I: “If there’s no new law that denies you memory or practice of the songs of love that used to quiet all my longings, then may it please you with those songs to solace my soul somewhat; for-having journeyed here together with my body-it is weary. ” “Love that discourses to me in my mind” he then began to sing-and sang so sweetly that I still hear that sweetness sound in me. My master, I, and all that company around the singer seemed so satisfied, as if no other thing might touch our minds.
We all were motionless and fixed upon the notes, when all at once the grave old man cried out: What have we here, you laggard spirits? What negligence, what lingering is this? Quick, to the mountain to cast off the slough that will not let you see God show Himself! ” (Purg. 2. 106-123). As has been discussed before, the Convivo was a work of philosophy commenced after Dante had begun his transcendence of his old theories of love. It is very similar to Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, particularly in that it personifies knowledge and philosophy.
The “Lady of Philosophy” is the subject of Dante’s poem “Love that discourses to me in my mind”, sung by Casella in Canto 2. The lady of ‘Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona’ is clearly Lady Philosophy and not a mortal woman, not even at the literal level, as even a cursory reading of the canzone will demonstrate” (Freccero 188). Freccero then goes on to give several examples of why this is so, one of which is Dante’s desire to have the song sung to “solace my soul”, and the function that solace plays in both The Consolation of Philosophy and Convivo.
Just as the Phoenix dies in its own fire and rises up from its ashes, so did the poetics of Dante Alighieri. Dante was a shaped by the world around him, just as well all are. His response to his environment and events that took place directly affected his view of the world, and hence his style of poetry. Knowing both the history of his life and the chronology of his poetry, we can watch the evolution of the soul of a unique human being, as he transcends the status quo and embraces a new philosophy of love and life. With the completion of the Divine Comedy, Dante gives us a new perspective on his older works.
The palinode is a confession and atonement for past mistakes in Dante’s life, which were thus transmitted through his poetry, but as Thomas Bergin wrote, “[t]o have found the ‘confessional’ Dante is not necessarily to have found the Dante most significant to us. What a sinner has to confess need not take very long, though we may respect his sincerity and admire his resolution; what a poet, philosopher, and partisan has to confess is something else again, nor do we care greatly whether it be a true confession” (94).
The Divine Comedy represents the evolution of a great poet and philosopher. In it, Dante the pilgrim metaphorically and symbolically encounters challenges that the real Dante has faced. The Comedy is much more than just a poem: it is an autobiography and memoir from a man whose world came apart, but who held fast to the things he believed. The evolution of his poetics is representative of the evolution of himself as a human being. In the Divine Comedy, both Dante as a person and his poetry died and were reborn out of the ashes into which they expired.