On Dante and Beatrice

THE interesting, one might almost say amusing, idea of ‘The Poets on the Poets', the series published by Messrs. Faber and Faber, is described by those playful publishers themselves as based ‘on the impudent maxims, “Set a Poet to catch a Poet” and “Bards of a feather flock together”’. I am not sure that the latter motto is so exact as the former. Thus Mr. Humbert Wolfe is to write on Tennyson; and it would never have occurred to me that those two excellent bards had a single feather between them. But the former maxim is sound enough, and is well supported by the second of the series, in which an illuminating sketch of Dante is presented by Mr. T. S. Eliot.

In such cases we are all of us only picking up stray feathers here and there, as Browning picked up the eagle’s feather on the heath. Mr. T. S. Eliot would be the last to pretend that he had completely plucked the eagle of Florence and Ravenna. If it is not easy to write a short book about Dante, neither is it easy to write a short article about Mr. Eliot. As he naturally picks out two or three of Dante’s ideas, I can only pick out one or two of his own ideas, and the subject-matter necessarily narrows from the poet to the critic and from the critic to the critic of the critic. But all his ideas are both stimulating and subtle, including any number I have no space to estimate here. Perhaps the most out standing matter, in a popular sense, is his very just reconstruction of the business about the story of Beatrice, as she appears not only in the Divine Comedy, but in the Vita Nuova. There has always been a controversy about Beatrice, and as so often happens (I grieve to say) in the controversies of the very learned, a mass of the most extraordinary nonsense has been talked on both sides. At one extreme there was the school of those who pretended that Beatrice was in the position of Mrs. Harris; or that she was, at best (to quote another great female authority), an allegory on the banks of the Nile: at any rate, hardly human enough to have ever been on the banks of the Arno. Some of them said she was a symbol standing for Theology or Divine Wisdom or some such thing; others, from colleges even nearer Hanwell, said she was an allegory of United Italy or Liberty or the League of Nations or heaven knows what. About that, especially in the case of the Vita Nuova (though I am not learned, and hardly even educated, touching Italian language and letters), I have not myself the shadow of a doubt. The man — or, rather, boy — who remembered with such scorching delight the fact that a little girl had nodded and smiled at him on a particular morning, and with such scorching despair the fact that she had not nodded or smiled at him on another morning, was most certainly in love, It was first love, calf-love, moon-calf-love, no doubt, but certainly human love; and if it wasn’t I will modestly exclaim with Shakespeare, ‘I never writ nor no man ever loved.’ And that Dante does mean the same young woman to reappear in the Paradiso is obvious, not only from many phrases in the Paradiso, but from the quite definite words at the end of the Vita Nuova. But when the opposite extreme of criticism suggests that human love is the whole subject of both books, then, as Mr. Eliot shows, it makes even worse nonsense out of the whole business.

For the Romantics of the nineteenth century really implied that God and the Universe, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, were all one elaborate and rather laborious compliment to Beatrice Portinari. It is truer to say that, in the true sense, Beatrice is a compliment to God. She is lifted like flowers on an altar, or flames on a candlestick, to be an example of that earthly beauty which, used rightly, can lead us to heavenly beauty. And in this case the critics have missed the whole point of the comparison between the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy. The point is that the first slight, youthful, merely emotional story is really a sad story; it is only the completion in Paradise that is a joyful story. The former has an unhappy ending — or, rather, that most unhappy ending which consists in having no ending. It is the mere fragment of a human tragedy; it is only the religious epic that is, in the exact sense, a divine comedy. Dante is drawn as a dark and bitter spirit; but in fact he wrote the only one of the great epics that really has a happy ending.

The trouble was that the age of the Romantics was the age of the Rationalists, or those who thought they were Rationalists. Having figured as ruthless realists sweeping all spiritual visions like cobwebs out of the sky, they then suddenly became extravagant sentimentalists over some of the common or garden flowers they found growing naturally out of the earth. Having forbidden all belief in the legend of Adam and Eve, they demanded universal and absolute belief in the legend of Edwin and Angelina. They were not content with the natural sympathy we all have with such natural feelings; they really gave to them the supremacy of supernatural feelings — and (what is the real point) the only supernatural feelings. They did not use the coarse cant of our day; but they did, in fact, make Sex the supreme end of life for its own sake — in which they were much less sensible than the common or garden flowers. They therefore missed the whole meaning of Dante, which is that human love may indeed be a new life; but the new life must be dedicated to a supreme good as much as the old life. All other goods are only manifestations of that supreme good, and must ultimately be referred to it, as Beatrice to the Beatific Vision.

There is one comment, in this connexion, which occurred to me while reading Mr. Eliot’s book. The Beatific Vision is described by Dante about as well as it could be described by anybody — that is, chiefly by saying that it cannot be described at all. But Mr. Eliot has noticed, as I have often noticed, the very extraordinary effect of the ending, when, after a few grand hints (like that about a happy but forgotten dream), the poet suddenly introduces the vast but seemingly very distant simile about how Neptune must have felt when the Argo first sailed over him. At first sight it seems quite out of the picture; and yet for the imaginative it is right on the spot. Now there seem to be a number of these abrupt and abysmal irrelevancies in Dante’s poetry, and, indeed, in all great poetry. They seem to be suggesting a vivid image by suddenly introducing a totally different image. Instead of saying that Beatrice looked beautiful, Dante says that he felt like Glaucus when he ate the grass that made him seafellow of the gods. I do not know why that dim heathen dream delights me, but it does; much more, probably, than the best direct description of Beatrice’s beauty. It seems as if the sudden presentation of some quite remote vision, as imaginative as the main image, completes it and makes it convincing. There are many examples in other poets, including the rather hackneyed example of Keats, when he broke off a reasonably intelligent discourse on the nightingale to talk about perilous seas and magic casements, with which nightingales have nothing whatever to do. Like Dante, he had got beyond himself, and irrelevancy was the only expression of imagination. But there is something else in it relevant to Mr. Eliot’s thesis. This summoning of remote symbols, this calling of spirits from the vasty deep, like the sea-green Glaucus into the presence of Beatrice, does suggest something involved in the theology of the matter. It suggests that all beautiful images are shadows of the one real beauty, and can be, in a sense, shifted or interchanged for its service. It prevents mere fixed idolatry of one shadow in one minor, as if it were the origin of all. Beatrice is to be loved because she is beautiful; but she is beautiful because there is behind her a many sided mystery of beauty, to be seen also in the grass and the sea, and even in the dead gods. There is a promise in and yet beyond all such pictures; and the poet can see grass or the great sea or the great ship going over it, hearing a sort of whisper: ‘Thine eyes shall see the King in his beauty.’

~G.K. Chesterton: All is Grist, A Book of Essays, first published 1931.

 Dante gazes at Beatrice, from Paradiso illustrated by Gustave DorĂ©, 1883.

'Again mine eyes were fix'd on Beatrice/ And, with mine eyes, my soul that in her looks/ Found all contentment.' (Par. XXI. 1-3.)