Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 32 – the river of light

Dante turns towards the heavenly light. From an 1845 manuscript via PDR (Public Domain Review)

Beatrice appears more beautiful than ever as she nears the end of her ‘special relationship’ with Dante. Doing her bidding one last time, he bathes his eyes in a river of light to free his vision from the last vestiges of earthly defects.

Born a Florentine girl and now among the redeemed in paradise, Beatrice has been Dante’s source of knowing throughout their journey together. With each ascent to a new sphere she has appeared more beautiful, her smile more radiant, her eyes shining with yet more love. He has called her quella ch’imparadisa la mia mente, “she who imparadises my mind”. Now, as he approaches the fulfilment of all he has longed for spiritually, it is time to say goodbye. He looks at her one more time – and bursts into this valedictory love song:  

Dante casts his mind back to childhood, to his first sight of her, aged eight, in a room in Florence. From then until now she has been his inspiration, even if he has not always been constant (that is now forgotten!). But now the struggle with language – that wrestling match in which poets must give their all in the vain attempt to seize and pin down reality – must end: she drives him out of his mind, quite literally, such that he can no longer find words to “limn her loveliness”. She is beyond all his artistry and he must call a halt, defeated. Only God can perceive and enjoy her infinite beauty.

She speaks to him “like a guide whose task is done”. They have come, she explains, to the heaven of greatest light, luce intellectual, piena d’amore, “light intellectual, full of love”. She tells him that here he is to see the redeemed and the saints – this is their proper dwelling place, not the hierarchy of the spheres below, where they have merely appeared. He is conscious of rising beyond his former powers and a vivid light bursts upon him, like lightning, momentarily blinding him. It’s a blindness that heralds new enlightenment, like that of St Paul on the road to Damascus.

The poetry of light reaches a new climax:

Dante is consumed by the desire to know what these new sights mean. Beatrice tells him that these are just shadowy forecasts of the truth. He must bathe his eyes in the river, if he is to perceive their reality:

That it is our defective sight, caused by an impure heart, that prevents us from seeing paradise, which lies about us right here on earth, is, for me, the core message of the Comedy. Understand this, and you have understood the intention of the whole poem, the end to which it points us, the work on ourselves it commands us to undertake.

This is Beatrice’s final piece of tuition and Dante responds to it instinctively, with a primal, elemental appetite:

The river of light is the final frontier. Bathing his eyes in it enables Dante to cross from the relative to the absolute. The flow of time becomes the circle of eternity.

After bathing his eyes in the river of light, Dante sees the mystic rose. From an 1845 manuscript via PDR

Dante sees, “like a hillside reflected in water when it is rich with grass and flowers,” more than a thousand tiers of the redeemed, seated on thrones in the petals of a mystic rose, round which the angels hover like bees. From the rose, odours of praise rise up towards the sun, the eternal light of God’s presence that gives the rose its being.

Aware that his journey is nearing its end, the poet professes himself amazed at the contrast between where he has come from and where he is now:

He looks around for Beatrice and sees an old man – St Bernard, who points to where Beatrice now sits, crowned, in one of the highest tiers of the rose. He utters a prayer of thanks for her work of drawing him from bondage to liberty, from sin to a state of grace. “I prayed thus; and she, so far off as she seemed, smiled and looked at me, then turned again to the eternal fount”.

The rose of saints and angels in the Empyrean by Gustave Doré via Wikimedia

And that is all. There is no more to say, no more smiling and looking to be shared.  Her seeming remoteness – not spiritually real, since in the Empyrean “all place is here” – is a stroke of genius, conveying, amidst all the splendour of paradise, a note of personal sadness in this farewell, the end of intimacy, of the human side of the love affair. But Beatrice’s work is now done. And Dante too has done what he said he would do: he has spoken of her in terms that have never before been used of a woman. And perhaps never will be again, for thus far Dante has had no equal.

What does Beatrice really mean? She is, I think, European literature’s most famous and powerful embodiment of what Goethe, writing half a century later, called das ewig-weibliche, “the eternal feminine”, whose beauty draws us onwards and upwards. Despite its dangers, the pursuit of beauty is an integral part of the spiritual quest. We too must learn to follow it, as Dante does, his early eroticism finding its place in a broader and deeper love over time, culminating in union with the beloved.

The river of light by Botticelli via Wikimedia

Botticelli’s 92 illustrations of the Divine Comedy are considered masterpieces, among his finest works. He intended to complete one drawing for each of the 100 cantos. A few are missing, but the series is broadly complete – until we reach the final three cantos of Paradiso, for which the pages are blank. Even this inspired genius, painter of the goddess Venus, couldn’t bring himself to try to represent what Dante describes.

I can’t either, so this is where my commentary ends! My final tasting note (No. 33) will simply reproduce the text of the Comedy’s closing canto, ending in the beatific vision. But to guide you through it, here’s a brief synopsis:

• The canto begins with St Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary

• Dante’s sight is lifted, so that it enters the pure ray

• His speech and memory fail

• He sees the scattered leaves of the universe, bound by love in one volume

• He sees the Holy Trinity, painted with our likeness

• The Comedy ends in the moment of perfetto veder, of “perfect seeing”: the flash of intuitive knowledge that unites Dante with “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

If you want to know what it is like to see God, please go ahead and read it!

Genius line:
Da questo passo vinto mi concedo. Paradoxically, Dante is at his most articulate when he says that words fail him. He leaves space for our imagination to take over.