Dante, the World’s Second Greatest Poet

Dante and Beatrice, by Carl Friederich Oesterley (19th c.).

Sometime this month back in 1265, exactly 750 years ago, the World’s Second Greatest Poet was born in Florence, Dante Alighieri. Not many realize that Popes Benedict XV and Paul VI issued official Vatican statements lauding Dante for the unmatchable beauty of his poetry, his Divine Comedy above all. This is a “comedy” because, beginning in tragedy, it ends victorious (versus a “tragedy,” like Oedipus Rex, which begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe).  But what makes Dante so great and so appreciated almost a millennium later?

Dante wrote in a very pivotal time for the history of Europe and the history of the Church. His much-loved metropolis of Florence was divided over the amount of control the Papal States should have over Tuscany. Dante began as a soldier and was successively made a member of all the right guilds, a city councilman, and eventually a member of the Council of the Hundred (which was responsible for the city’s highest financial and civic decisions), as well as a Florentine ambassador to other major Italian-speaking cities. Dante never wavered from his disdain over the machinating and malicious Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). In fact, Boniface is immortalized in the eighth circle of Dante’s hell among the simoniacs and other ecclesiastics who used their sacred office to attain personal gain.

Yet, what is deeper in Dante than his political intrigue is his unique theological appreciation for the role Christians have in uniting others to Christ. While Dante is an orthodox Catholic thinker on every level, he exhibits a rare and unguarded insight that the divine comes to humans not only through others but even as other humans. Just as the Father relied on the humanity of Mary to bring his Son into the world, Jesus Christ continues to rely on the flesh of his saints to bring others back to him. For Dante, this divine magnetism is found most brilliantly in the eyes of his beloved Beatrice, who is responsible for keeping the Poet focused and forever hungry, as he makes his way up from hell, through purgatory, and, eventually, into heaven. Not since the Song of Songs is human eros used as delightfully as both metaphor and motor of how the human soul comes to be embraced by the divine.

Dante saw Beatrice Portinari only fleetingly on the streets of Florence and never married or even officially courted her. While this may sound strange to a culture that leaves no image uncaptured or no thought un-Tweeted, Dante and Beatrice’s love is part of the courtly love tradition that enjoys a long tradition in Christianity. Here the lover refuses to possess his beloved, and he, instead, uses that yearning to be propelled to God. By channeling his poetic energy on the woman he can easily see and know directly, Dante came to know and love the God he could not see. This is a lesson he needs to learn from Beatrice herself, as she instructs him:

Beatrice stared at the eternal spheres
       Entranced, unmoving, and I looked away
       from the Sun’s height to fix my eyes on hers.
And as I looked, I felt begin within me
       what Glaucus felt eating the herb that made him
       a god among the others in sea.

                                                  (Paradiso 1.64-66; trans., John Ciardi, p. 598)

Drawing from a famous scene in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante here likens the fisherman’s Glaucus’s becoming a god through magical food to his own transformation by keeping his eyes on the face of his beloved Beatrice.

In the best of the Christian tradition, love never competes with Love. A few weeks ago, we prayed in one of the Easter Octave Collects, “… may we rejoice in heaven over what gladdens us now on earth.” Dante’s pure love for Beatrice is, not only what gladdened him on earth, but precisely the lever that lifted him heavenwards. This is the beauty of the Christian faith: if we love another rightly on earth, we never, ever have to say goodbye, but can love that other forever. In the Catholic creed, this is why the Saints are so important. In them, we see the majestic love of Christ reincarnated once again. As such, Beatrice has no qualms telling Dante:

Open your eyes and turn them full on me!
       You have seen things whose power has made you able
       to bear the bright smile of my ecstasy.
                                                 (Paradiso 23.46-48; trans., Ciardi, p. 799)

Such love is always ecstatic and transformative: it brings us out of ourselves and, thus, allows us to be filled with God’s very self.

This all began when a young woman from Nazareth allowed herself to be taken by God. That is why, this May, I want to honor Mary as the Greatest Christian Poet! In her Magnificat, she both personalizes and prophesies what God is doing in every soul in love. The divine draws near, and we are never the same again, “filling the hungry with good things” (Lk 1:53). May is traditionally Mary’s month. It is the season of new life, and the recognition that the cold is over. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) honors Our Lady through his “The May Magnificat,” wondering why this is the season when our eyes and heart turn to Mary. Let us close with Hopkins’s lively verse, knowing that Dante was a human master of words only because Mary first gave all of humanity to the Word.

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Deacon Michael Grella says:

    A delightful and insightful article! Thank you.

  2. Bob in Maryland says:

    I was ready to take umbrage at your assertion that anyone could possibly knock Dante off his place as First Among Poets. But when I saw just who had supplanted him, I had to bow to your wisdom. No argument there!

  3. Elizabeth D says:

    I say Dante is 3rd after Mary and St John of the Cross!

  4. I noticed that you are a professor of patristic theology did your studies have anything to do with Msgr. John F. McCarthy?

  5. Martin Drew says:

    Father Meconi, yes Dante is the top Poet of all even over W. Shakespeare. Some years ago I was able to read the entire Divina Commedia in intervals in a literal English translation. One must read it slowly with concentration to capture the moving story line where Dante in the scenes where he places many persons. in their diverse lives.