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Dante and Beatrice first met in Florence when he was nearly nine years old (1274) and she was just turned eight. She was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante fell in love with her at first sight and thought of her as angelic with divine and noble qualities. He frequented places where he could catch a glimpse of her, but she never spoke to him until nine years later. Then one afternoon (1283) he saw her dressed in white, walking down a street in Florence. Accompanied by two older women, Beatrice turned and greeted him. Her greeting filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room to think about her. Falling asleep, he had a dream that became the subject of the first sonnet in his La Vita Nuova, one of the world’s greatest romantic poems. The above Rossetti print depicts scenes from La Vita Nuova III where Beatrice first greeted Dante, and Purgatorio XXX when Beatrice meets Dante in Eden “with a white veil and a wreath of olive.” Three chapters from La Vita Nuova are quoted below:
When exactly nine years had passed since this gracious being appeared to me, as I have described, it happened that on the last day of this intervening period this marvel appeared before me again, dressed in purest white, walking between two other women of distinguished bearing, both older than herself. As they walked down the street she turned her eyes toward me where I stood in fear and trembling, and with her ineffable courtesy, which is now rewarded in eternal life, she greeted me; and such was the virtue of her greeting that I seemed to experience the height of bliss. It was exactly the ninth hour of day when she gave me her sweet greeting. As this was the first time she had ever spoken to me, I was filled with such joy that, my senses reeling, I had to withdraw from the sight of others. So I returned to the loneliness of my room and began to think about this gracious person. (La Vita Nuova III)
Whenever and wherever she appeared, in the hope of receiving her miraculous salutation I felt I had not an enemy in the world. Indeed, I glowed with a flame of charity which moved me to forgive all who had ever injured me; and if at that moment someone had asked me a question, about anything, my only reply would have been: ‘Love’, with a countenance clothed with humility. When she was on the point of bestowing her greeting, a spirit of love, destroying all the other spirits of the senses, drove away the frail spirits of vision and said: ‘Go and pay homage to your lady’; and Love himself remained in their place. Anyone wanting to behold Love could have done so then by watching the quivering of my eyes. And when this most gracious being actually bestowed the saving power of her salutation, I do not say that Love as an intermediary could dim for me such unendurable bliss but, almost by excess of sweetness, his influence was such that my body, which was then utterly given over to his governance, often moved like a heavy, inanimate object. So it is plain that in her greeting resided all my joy, which often exceeded and overflowed my capacity. (La Vita Nuova XI)
After this sonnet there appeared to me a marvellous vision in which I saw things which made me decide to write no more of this blessed one until I could do so more worthily. And to this end I apply myself as much as I can, as she indeed knows. Thus, if it shall please Him by whom all things live that my life continue for a few years, I hope to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman. And then may it please Him who is the Lord of courtesy that my soul may go to see the glory of my lady, that is of the blessed Beatrice, who now in glory beholds the face of Him who is blessed forever.
Dante, La Vita Nuova XLII (1290), translated by Barbara Reynolds (1969)
Dante completed La Vita Nuova (1294) when he was 29 years old. Yet he felt that his love sonnets still did not do justice to honor the beauty and blessedness of his dear Beatrice. So he vowed to write a poem to honor his beloved that has never been written of any woman. Dante fulfilled this promise 27 years later just before his death, when he finished La Commedia (1321)— the greatest love poem about the soul’s ascent from Inferno to Purgatory to Paradise. What’s insightful about this journey is that the poet Virgil took Dante only up to the heights of Mount Purgatory. From that point onward, only Beatrice could guide Dante to Paradise. Here Dante would learn about universal gravitation as he flies through the heavenly spheres, sharing with us his celestial vision, and concluding Paradiso with “ by Love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars.” I find it fascinating that Goethe echoed Dante’s vision with “Eternal Feminine, leads us above” when he concluded his epic drama Faust just before his death (1832). Lao Tzu also advises us “to cling to the feminine” in the Tao Te Ching XXVIII (6th century B.C.). Perhaps the male principle (yang or animus) as represented by Virgil or logic could take our intellect only so far, and we need to harness the feminine principle (yin or anima) as represented by Beatrice or intuition to penetrate the realm beyond space-time so we could experience the transcendence and blessedness of paradise.
When I started this blog, my vision was to share the best works of art, music, poetry, and philosophy that will lift our mind and spirit to cosmic consciousness, spiritual awareness, and enlightenment. Images of enlightened masters and sages usually show a single person in meditation, alone in a cave, desert, or mountain. On the other hand, images of romance show couples embracing, dancing, kissing, closely together. At first glance, romance and enlightenment appear exclusive of each other— the first mostly physical and emotional, the second mostly mental and emotionless. But the path of romance need not be stuck on the lower three chakras (energy centers of survival, sex, and food). If we learn to rise to the fourth chakra (heart), true love enters and we become compassionate to all sentient beings. Dante’s love for Beatrice enables him to glow “with a flame of charity” (La Vita Nuova XI). From here on, his spirit would rise to the fifth chakra (throat)— the voice of poetry, then ascend to the sixth chakra (third eye)— celestial vision, and finally soar to the seventh chakra (thousand-petal lotus)— spiritual awakening and bliss. The spirit of romance is also a valid path to enlightenment. Romeo of Villeneuve has done it when he tutored and married all of Count Beranger’s four daughters to kings, then walked away from his glory to become a lonely beggar-pilgrim again. Dante Alighieri has done it when his love for Beatrice enabled him to experience the soul’s ascent to paradise, then toiled to write The Divine Comedy for us to drink. May we be worthy of these celestial gifts when we bestow our heart on those whom we love.