“So long a time has Love kept me a slave
And in his lordship fully seasoned me,
That even though at first I felt him harsh,
Now tender is his power in my heart”
Before The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote La Vita Nuova (the New Life). The work combines prose with poetry (sonnets, canzones, and ballads). Dante is writing in the tradition of courtly love, but develops the genre further. One big innovation is that he wrote the work in the Italian vernacular rather than in Latin. Beatrice is not merely the beloved woman, but he raises her to a divine figure, foreshadowing her place as Dante’s guide in heaven in his masterpiece the Divine Comedy. From a modern perspective, Dante’s love seems odd. He admires Beatrice, her beauty, but it never leads him to try to consummate his love. In her physical beauty and virtuous qualities, he finds access to the divine realm of heaven, transforming the courtly love poetry into an almost religious experience.
The prose narrative covers from the time he first sees Beatrice from afar to her death. By placing the poetry in between a prose narrative, he structures the work and gives a context to the poetry. These are not just random poems about a loved one, but different events involving his meetings with Beatrice throughout the city give rise to particular poems.
In the very first poem, Dante captures the intensity of his love, giving us an image of Beatrice eating his flaming heart:
“[Love] woke her then and trembling and obedient
She ate that burning heart out of his hand;
Weeping I saw him then depart from me.”
Far from terrified by this metaphorical cannibalism, the last lines give the sense that he is passionately moved by it. His heart burns from the intensity of his feelings. She has such control over him it as if she has eaten his heart. He weeps when they depart. All of this captures his uncontrolled passion. Love is a force that devours us, rules over us, and controls us against our will.
Dante takes his images even further than this, praising Beatrice in terms of a heavenly figure that is borderline sacrilegious.
“The mind of God receives an angel’s prayer
that says: “My Lord, on earth is seen
A living miracle proceeding from
A soul whose light reaches as far as here.”
Heaven, that lacks its full perfection only
In lacking her, asks for her of its Lord,
And every saint is begging for this favor.
An angel from heaven notices her because her beauty and virtue radiate a light that can be seen even from heaven, despite the distance from earth and heaven itself being a place full of light. Dante doesn’t stop with this hyperbole describing his mistress’s qualities. The final lines add on a more powerful piece of hyperbole. Heaven, which in theory should be perfect by the very fact that it is heaven and the dwelling place of a perfect G-d, is incomplete due to lacking her presence and therefore it is not perfect.
In a different poem, Dante again shows his willingness to use heavenly and borderline impious imagery to elevate his lady.
“Because the light of her humility
Cut through the heavens with such forcefulness,
It made the Lord eternal stop amazed.”
One of Beatrice’s virtues is her humility. Not only is her virtue in this regard praised outright, but Dante suggests that this quality resides in her to such an extent that they make even G-d, an omniscient being, stop in amazement as if taken by surprise that any mortal could possess such virtue.