An Analysis of the Relationship of Beatrice to Dante
Dante describes his meeting with Beatrice at an early age and in La Vita Nuova (The New Life) discusses and poeticizes the love he instantly held for her. Beatrice becomes for Dante a gate to the divine love that he examines in La Comedia, today referred to as The Divine Comedy. This paper will analyze the relationship between Dante and Beatrice and show how her role in his life is like that of a muse -- an agent of God, drawing the poet closer and closer not to herself but to the Divine.
The Vita Nuova
In the Vita Nuova, of course, Dante is drawn solely to Beatrice without anticipating the higher love that Beatrice reflects in her own person. It is this reflection in her that attracts Dante, although he does not place it as a reflection of the divine love of God. Yet, as a poet, his intuition is not long in divining that the source of this love is indeed Heaven. But what draws him first is simply her: "Her apparel was of a most noble tincture, a subdued and becoming crimson, and she wore a cincture and ornaments befitting her childish years" (Vita Nuova 1). It is a vision of beauty that will compel him towards the transcendentals -- the unum, bonum, verum -- the one, the good, and the true, which reside in God Himself (as Dante will show in The Divine Comedy).
Dante gives a hint of this compulsion, however, immediately he is attracted to Beatrice: He states, "At that moment (I speak it in all truth) the spirit of life, which abides in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with a violence that showed horribly in the minutest pulsations of my frame, and tremulously it spoke these words: & #8230;'Behold a god stronger than I, who cometh to triumph over me!'" (Vita Nuova 2). Dante remembers the poetry of Homer and is able to locate the origin of Beatrice's beauty in Heaven. He quotes Homer, applying the words of praise to Beatrice: "From heaven she had her birth, and not from mortal clay," (Vita Nuova 2); therefore, it is no surprise to see that Dante should, after the death of Beatrice, compose an epic poem in which he is the central character traversing the realms of the afterlife with the ultimate object of reaching Heaven, where Beatrice waits for him.
Yet, what Dante learns along the way is that Beatrice herself is not the ultimate goal or object to be attained -- but something else: an inspiration, a means of drawing Dante to Heaven, which is union with God. Dante desires union with Beatrice (even though he does not hear her even speak until he is eighteen), but as her death in Vita Nuova (and his encounters in the Inferno and the Purgatorio) teach him, the greater and more important desire of all human souls should be that of union with the Divine. Beatrice is Dante's introduction to love, which, his Divine vision assures him, is not located on Earth but in Heaven.
Dante's love for Beatrice did not end in earthly marriage (for she married another), nor did it end with her death (for she appears as a guide to Dante in the Divine Comedy). Her role in his life is as a light of grace, a light to God. Their relationship develops over the years of their initial contact as children (although in a largely one-sided way). What appears to be a kind of masked devotion on Dante's end, is actually revealed (in the Divine Comedy) to be a full, deep, and spiritual relationship that extends into the everlasting.
The Vita Nuova ends with Dante's conception of this relationship, for he writes, "After I had written this sonnet there appeared to me a wonderful vision, in which I saw things that made me determine to write no more of this dear saint, until I should be able to write of her more worthily" (74). But Dante then proceeds to reveal something of the vision he has received -- for he seems to appeal to the Giver of the Vision in a petition for time to do the seeming impossible: "So, if it shall please Him, by whom all things live, to spare my life for some years longer, I hope to say that of her which never yet hath been said of any lady" (74). Dante concludes by begging God for one more sight of her in Heaven -- but as Dante himself will learn throughout the completion of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice herself pales in comparison to the wonders that await in Heaven. Being herself a creation and mere reflection of God, she pushes Dante on his way to that vision of Perfection, which is God Himself, and for which Dante admits, at the end of the Divine Comedy, he actually has no words.
When Dante next appears, he is lost in a dark wood, and the reader may presume that he is lost in life because he has lost his spiritual light. Beatrice, in fact, chastises Dante for becoming lost when later they meet in the Divine Comedy; she abuses him for his lack of faith and his weakness in losing his way just because she was gone. God was still there, she insists. But before Dante can be reprimanded in such a way, he must go through the Inferno to see what his spiritual darkness leads to.
His guide is Virgil, the Roman poet whose place for eternity is in the First Circle of the Inferno. Virgil tells Dante that he shall guide him through the afterlife -- but only so far -- and that the last portion will require a different guide. It is the first reference to Beatrice in the Divine Comedy, and comes from Virgil, who seems to know of the love that Dante has for the good woman, precisely because she has called upon Virgil to retrieve him: "Among those was I who are in suspense, / And a fair, saintly Lady called to me / In such wise, I besought her to command me… / And she began to say… / 'A friend of mine, and not the friend of fortune, / Upon the desert slope is so impeded" (2.54-62). Virgil reveals that he is there to help Dante because (it is presumed) Beatrice has heard Dante's cry for help. Here the reader sees that Dante's soul is dear to Beatrice even though they are separated by the grave. Here also is one of the central themes of Dante's Divine Comedy -- the efficaciousness of prayer. As Dante will illustrate timem and time again, those who pray are saved, and those who do not are damned.
Virgil goes on to tell Dante of what he has in store in this journey -- and that he will get to see the woman his soul desired to see once more at the end of the Vita Nuova: "A soul shall come, worthier for that than I: I'll place thee 'neath her guidance, quitting mine." This is Virgil's reference to Beatrice -- a reference which gives hope to Dante.
Dante is now free to traverse the underworld with the guide that Beatrice has appointed for him. It is important to realize that it is through Virgil that Dante is to be introduced to the realms of the afterlife -- and that it is Virgil whom Beatrice has chosen for Dante. Here one sees the intimate connection between the Dante and Beatrice. Knowing Dante's respect for poetry, she calls upon a poet to lead him out of darkness. In other words, Beatrice understands the needs of the man who has loved her (albeit from a distance) in life. She knows, too, how to reach him.
But by appointing Virgil as his guide, she also reveals something else about their relationship: that it must needs be more spiritual than earthly. Virgil was admired by the medieval world for his seemingly prophetic remarks concerning the coming of the Christ. Virgil thus represents something higher and more divine in Dante's eyes -- and constantly calls him back to himself, reminding him that the Inferno is no place to tarry, and that his presence is demanded in a higher realm. Virgil is for Dante a kind of ambassador sent from Heaven (though not of Heaven), to prepare Dante both in mind and heart for the vision he is to have later in the Comedy.
Yet Virgil also reveals that Beatrice herself had been preoccupied in discourse with the "ancient Rachel," and that she was only moved to find him and request his services in the salvation of Dante by the intercession of one Lucia (a name which means light), who herself interceded on the behalf of "a gentle Lady in Heaven," who could be none other than the Virgin Mary. Beatrice relates all…