|Beatrice of Florence, muse of the ages|
by Andy Nowicki
On this date, over seven centuries ago, the most famous literary muse of all time—namely Dante Alighieri’s beloved Beatrice—ascended to her eternal glory. Dante followed his muse into the bourn of the undiscovered country three decades later, but not before composing a host of works which testify to the full extent of the Beatrician influence on the Dantean imagination.
Thanks to the exiled poet’s powerful consciousness of this Florentine belle’s loveliness, charm, and luminous holiness, the course of Western literature, history, and faith have all been unimaginably altered. It was through obedience to Beatrice’s guiding spirit that Dante composed not only The Divine Comedy, his world-famous and multitudinously influential epic of the afterlife, but also the oddly affecting early composition La Vita Nuova (or The New Life), a work which chronicles the youthful infatuation and worship with which he attended his dream girl, up to the time of her abrupt death at the age of 24 on June 8, 1290.
The Vita follows a narrative of sorts, starting with Dante’s first sighting of Beatrice when he is ten and she nine. Immediately the young Alighieri lad is smitten, yet he keeps his feelings hidden from the world; afterwards, he feigns an attachment to a different woman, and then to yet another, to the point where his romantic intentions become so misconstrued that he is widely regarded as a sleazy cad by Florentine society. One day on the street, disapproving of what she takes to be his womanizing ways, Beatrice spurns his greeting. Dante is heartbroken, and weeps for hours afterwards. Later, after he manages to reconstruct his reputation, Dante finds himself haunted by a terrible dream in which Beatrice perishes and loathsome, hellish hags taunt him for his loss. The dream proves to be prophetic, and Beatrice’s sudden death in June—whose cause is never explained—leaves Dante bereaved yet more convinced than ever of his muse’s glorious sanctity. Indeed, it may well be said that Beatrice becomes more alive than ever for Dante following her soul’s departure from her earthly body. It is she, after all, who later escorts him through Paradiso.
La Vita Nuova is striking for many reasons, but the most fascinating exercise for the reader may be attempting to scrutinize the true complexion of Dante’s passion for Beatrice. Though he finds her radiantly beautiful, he never entertains thoughts of possessing her physically. The notion of attempting to woo or seduce her doesn’t occur to him, nor does he even appear interested in approaching her for conversation, preferring to admire her from afar while zealously guarding the secret of his love. It’s possible, of course, that this desire is mere sublimated carnality, but it seems more likely that Dante the poet has seen fit to transmute his earthly appetites into a more exalted form of ecstasy, related to the thrilling reality of God’s love for man. Dante partakes of Beatrice as a kind of sacrament—she is an earthly reminder of heavenly grace.
Indeed, very concept of the muse—initially of pagan origin—is thoroughly Christianized in Dante’s rendering. Beatrice is no less than a vision of womanly perfection; it wouldn’t be a sacrilege to say that in a way she represents a reiteration of the blessed Virgin herself, in that she is what Eastern rite practitioners call a Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” for Dante—through her, the divine glory is revealed to the world.
Brilliant though he was, Dante could not have felt moved to reach the heights of aesthetic sublimity without the continual nurturance of his muse, Beatrice. Whether alive or dead, she remained a constant source of inspiration, a pipeline of spiritual sustenance on which his poet’s soul feasted for the remainder of his days. Every artist needs aesthetic incentive to create, though muses aren’t always benevolent and holy. What inspires one poet to take to the magnificent “viewless wings of poesy” can also, in a different mode, tempt another “to the dreadful summit of the cliff/ And there assume some other horrible form/ Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/ And draw you into madness.” The latter manifested itself to the protagonist Aschenbach of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in the person of Tadzio, a beautiful muse who proved to be a siren, luring the hapless hero to his destruction. Many a careless would-be creator has made a similar, Icarus-like blunder, and has been undone by his ambition. Once we seek to possess the Muse for ourselves, we invite our doom. The trick is not to possess, but to allow ourselves to be possessed, for in truth, we don’t have our muse—rather, our muse (and by extension, God) has us.
An artist’s muse is a consuming fire, which destroys even as it forges, transforms, purifies, and renews. One must not draw too close to the flame, but one must get close enough to discern its features properly, if one intends to be an active witness to what is true, good, and beautiful. On this day—which also happens providentially to fall this year on the feast of Pentecost, when “tongues of fire” sent from the Holy Spirit settled upon the heads of the apostles, leading them to preach in new languages and begin building the Church—let us take a moment to remember Beatrice, a lady whose short life and early death led to one man’s salvation and a civilization’s renewal.
Viva Vita! Viva Beatrice! Happy Muse Memorial Day!