A Comic Vision of
Great Constancy
Stories about Unlocking the Wisdom of Everyman
A Reading of “The Knight’s Tale”
and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Divine Comedy of Dante’s Homecoming: The Beginning of La Vita Nuova

Part One: A Return to the Source

The beginning of Dante’s relationship with Beatrice in La Vita Nuova coincides with that time of year when the sun returns to his birth day. His relationship with Beatrice, he intimates, will guide him to the source of life. La Divina Comedia finishes the story that opens with La Vita Nuova. Like Homer in The Odyssey Dante’s epic poem tells a story about a homecoming.

He recognizes in Beatrice a transcendent beauty which calls him to her. It awakens “the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart.” The story begins here, not with a thought, but with the deepest sort of feeling.

The heart declares that “a god has come to rule over me.”

The feeling is so profound and so unlike all others that the highest spirit (I would guess the intellect or reason) announces “Now your source of joy has been revealed.” The highest spirit endorses the feeling. He knows that Beatrice is the source of his heart’s rebirth and that she will guide him home to her.

Part Two: Imagination, the Source in Human Beings of a Great Power

The natural spirit (I would guess the natural appetites for food, comfort, pleasure, sleep) complains that “I shall be impeded from now on.”

Love, as Dante describes it, is not a natural fact (as Burke would say). Love disrupts the appetites of our animal nature.

Love acquires mastery over him “owing to the power which my imagination gave him.” This statement about Love explains what sets human beings apart from the natural world, the one made up of objects in motion, the one animals inhabit. Human beings are gifted with imagination.

The sighting of Beatrice is not just another bump-in-the-night. Her image transcends the course of nature and appeals to the spirit which “dwells on high” revealing “a source of joy.” Imagination, he tells us, empowers Love, and Love then acquires mastery over him. We’re a long way from objects in motion and a stomach growling with hunger. Love comes to life in the prose and poetry of Dante’s imagination.

The imagination, as Dante tells us, is a source of great power, but he makes it clear that the image of Beatrice embodies a transcendent, spiritual power. The power, he intimates, ultimately doesn’t come from him. In La Vita Nuova the image of Beatrice represents a saving grace, but imagination can also trigger a “base” desire. In this form it’s a source of great suffering rather than joy. This happens later in the story when he’s greatly moved by the compassion of a gracious lady. The image of her compassionate gaze, he finally decides, “pleases him too much” (from section XXXVII), and he grieves anew the loss of Beatrice. Imagination has great power, but it’s a double edged sword. Attachment to an image of something in the world “out there” can too easily devolve into a narrowing desire to possess it. On that basis it becomes merely a projection of oneself, a means to an end. It ceases to exist, as it is, for itself.

Part Three: A Vision of Love and Loss

The opening words of Dante’s first sonnet, “To every captive soul and gentle lover”—like the opening of the whole adventure with the sun’s return to his day of birth, direct us to that momentous beginning, the moment when Love feeds our hearts to a naked figure wrapped only in a mantle. Henceforth, we are captives who serve our master, the one empowered by our imagination.

In Dante’s vision Love seems joyful when he appears with the naked figure in his arms, but on departing Love weeps. Out of the blue and in a sky “wherein all the stars show their radiance,” Love shows up but only to make a meal of our heart before leaving. As Helena puts it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the heart is “mine own and not mine own.” Love and loss are inextricably linked.

Dante has this vision after Beatrice greeted him in the street for the first time, nine years after he first saw her. The timeline he provides surrounds the moment of greeting, a matter of seconds, with the vast expanse in time and space of nine years. Love comes to him in a dream later that day as inexplicably as his lady’s greeting earlier, and, as inexplicably, Love ascends to heaven with the naked figure in his arms.

Like our poet, let’s return to where we began. Like the day he was born, Dante sees in Beatrice an opening to the source of life. Unlike a love for the creator or His only begotten son, Dante loves a person he encounters in the street and who, the second time they meet, unexpectedly greets him. It’s an ordinary, everyday event, and yet it’s not. It transports him to the edge of the known world where the mystery play of his vision is later enacted.

While the vision is unlike anything we know in life, his story is intelligible. Dante asked his friends to “expound its sense,” and, out of the many things that have been or could be said, this little essay is my reply. For skeptics of any generation Dante’s sonnet and the prose that prepares the way for it help us to love heaven. It’s not a place in an other dimension; it’s a person we love whom we can’t physically see. This world, the everyday world, contains many things that we can’t see. He didn’t see Beatrice for nine years, and yet she appears to him one morning in purest white walking between two other women. This tells us as much about the limitations of our sight as it does the limitations of life, and Dante includes the limitation of life in his story about Beatrice. Even as he records her “ineffable courtesy,” he tells us, too, that her graciousness “is now rewarded with eternal life.” Dante writes of one who died, and yet she lives in his prose and poetry. Owing to the power of his imagination, Love is joyous creation.

At this point, he knows of her death only retrospectively. At this point, after the naked figure has eaten his heart, he also learns that Love involves a sadness, as in a separation. His heart has left him and belongs to another.

The story teaches us that the light of day now shines on the secret self; our heart is “out there” in the world, in others, even if we cannot see them. Our eyes see more by this light. We are what we are, what others see.

Our hearts are kept in those we love. So we must take care of them as we would ourselves. Dante has been reborn in a strange new world of presences unlike those we encounter in a world made up of matter in motion.

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