By John Timpane
First thing: read the canto and then come back here. Ten minutes max. I’ll wait.
One of the many wondrous things about Canto II – and we haven’t even reached the Inferno yet! – is how almost everything and certainly everyone in Dante’s imagined world is more than themselves. The characters are themselves, but they also telescope out into other people who pre- and postfigure them.
Dante is Dante, the Florentine who suffered exile, who descends through the Inferno and ascends through Purgatory and Paradise to find blessing, meaning, and justification in God and Beatrice – but he’s also Aeneas, who descended into Hades. He’s also Paul, who spoke in Corinthians of ascending to the third heaven. Aeneas, a Trojan, founded Rome; Paul, a pagan, founded the future of Christianity. Each had to make an arduous, cleansing journey to another realm before they could remake history. And Dante – can he do it, too? No wonder he’s scared. Paul’s world replaced Aeneas’ as popes replaced caesars – how might one pilgrim’s renewal usher in a new order of the ages?
Canto II suggests an answer. Dante sees Aeneas as a prophet – as a man who spoke the future into being. Paul is the great Christian prophet. Could Dante, as a pilgrim, as a Christian searching for his way through life, as a poet working his way through his losses and griefs, reach a place where he can say the future, a new, better future? And if so, how the heck can he get there?
The second telescoping figure is Vergil. We already know from Canto I that Vergil encompasses many guides, all great poets, “the glory and light of the other poets.” He’s not only a great stylist, as Dante keeps saying – he’s also, for him, a Roman without Christ who nevertheless foresaw the coming of Christ. So Vergil, too, is a prophet.
And Beatrice – isn’t she great? I love how, in this Canto, Dante is rescued via a chain of women. We can work back up that chain all the way to Paradise. Remember our problem: Dante is scared, scared he’s not up to the journey, scared he has nothing to say, nothing to contribute, not as pilgrim, not as poet, not as a person. Who will help him?
His saving chain begins with the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “The Lady is gentle in heaven who feels such compassion / For this impediment where I send you / That hard judgment there [in heaven] is broken.” They’ll budge the rules up there for the sake of the Mother of God. She turns to Lucia, a patron saint of vision and light, among other things – the shortest day of the year is named St. Lucia because, once that day is done, the light does nothing but increase! And Lucia goes to Beatrice, who, stirred by Dante’s steadfast love for her, hurries down to him.
There’s the beautiful third telescope of this Canto: Mary-Lucy-Beatrice. Lucy calls Beatrice “the true loda of God” – and loda has all sorts of meanings, including “glory,” “treasure,” and “praise.” Remember that.
All this telescoping reminds us that (1) this is an amazing, multilayered poem by a writer in firm command, in clarion awareness, of history, literature, and theology. All the relations are present to him, clearly, in an instant, at once. But (2) this is also a way of thinking we see in the medieval Christian mind, of seeing one thing as the type of others, of human history as a constant mirroring, a constant teaching by the repetition of immemorial patterns established throughout history by an instructing, guiding God. We are not just like Adam; we are Adam. We are not just like Paul; we are, each of us, a Paul. It’s not simile, it’s not metaphor – it’s a mystical identity. That’s a good (3): this poem plays out the constant awareness of our unfurling mystical identities, back and forth, to heaven and back, resonating constantly.
It doesn’t take Beatrice long to buck Dante up. All she has to do is remind him of the women who support him in Paradise. Energized, he hits “lo cammino alto e silvestro” – the “deep and wooded [meaning wild] road.”
I could say a lot about the poetry. I am, as a person who reads and tries to write poetry, blown away by the verse in this Canto. Dante wields a poetic line both tight (it follows a strict rhythmic and stanzaic form) and fluid (it is seldom crabbed, often conversational, often simple and direct, often lyrical).
But I’m not supposed to do that. Instead, I want to think through Lent in terms of this Canto and vice versa.
Dante, we just saw, telescopes back and forth into all sorts of historical and theological figures. But there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet: the reader. Here’s a figure wracked with sin, terror, doubt, and suffering, in search of meaning and redemption. He can’t do it all by himself – he needs a guide, he needs champions in heaven (Mary/Lucia/Beatrice), and he needs God. He’s got what he needs to make the journey, but he seldom realizes it. Dante’s plight is mine, is yours, is ours. He telescopes into us, and we into him.
What a Lenten thought that is. I often find myself hesitant before ducking beneath the lintel of another Lent, another long, harsh passage, nothing but faith and an honest appraisal of oneself for company. I hope for healing. I hope for health. I always wonder whether I am up to it.
Two things Dante learns: (1) we bear a lively, constant connection to the divine, with lots of folks working hard on our behalf; and (2) what redeems us, what always redeems us, what brings us closer and closer to God, what is always our resource and our hope, is that we have loved. The universe does not forget that we have loved.
Lucia asks Beatrice: “How could you not help one who loved you so much / that he left, for your sake, the order of the common man?” Dante loves Beatrice so much, and so hard, and so faithfully, that Beatrice courses down through Limbo to speak to him on the path to the Inferno. Why do all this, if you’re Beatrice? She tells us, in one of the truly beautiful apercus in the poem: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” something like “love moved me; it makes me speak.”
So we’re never alone, no matter how dark, how deep, how savage the road.
And if we love, we deal in salvation, of ourselves and others.
Which brings us to this: Dante can remake the future because he has loved. He can succeed Paul as Paul succeeded Aeneas, and by the same act: the rediscovery and renewal of love. Each of us can. Whenever a human being is saved by love, saved through God, the future is redeemed, for that person and for the cosmos.
Lent is supposed to be both personal and communal, but in practice, maybe I’m wrong, but it tends, relentlessly, unbearably, to focus on me, on making me better, on looking with clear eye on what needs to change, what needs healing and health. It can be a terribly lonesome time. There’s so much about Lent you can’t share. Sometimes it seems as if the Unblinking Gaze is Closed. For one thing, I don’t deserve it. For another, who am I that Thou shouldst be mindful of me?
Beatrice rushes down with the message of Mary, of weeping Lucia (“her illumined eyes weeping”), the message that is God’s message: there is mercy, there is compassion, it is known that you suffer, it is known that you fear you are lost.
It is also known – here’s the main thing – that you love. Dante has loved, Lucia knows it, and Beatrice loves him for it. And when she says, “Love moved me,” she means more than just the personal experience of love. She means what that experience connects us to: capital-l Love. Fear had made Dante forget that, forget his power to love, forget God in love, and God’s love in his love for Beatrice.
We are not built to keep things in mind. That’s the burden of living in time: we have to go with the flow, pass from this to that. We forget what we possess, what we have been given. Lent could, at least potentially, be a time of great joy. Because, wouldn’t it be joyful, in the midst of a grey, hard Lent, all banged up, so far from the spring – to rediscover what we had all along, what will get us through: the ransoming power of our maculate love? Love as connection to God, a connection we re-enact each time we know love.
Maybe Dante just needs to see the love in her eyes, the love that sent her. “Why hesitate? Why hold back?” she asks Dante. Why, indeed? “Go now,” he tells Vergil. Dante is ready now. He’s ready to write the prophetic poem he hopes will remake the world (as it has), remake his life, remake his past . . . and he’s ready to undergo the work and suffering on the long, overgown, untamed road to understanding and blessing.