Black Boy Annonymous 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 “beginning .. to 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. 44) 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 …