Inferno Canto 2: “Love Moved Me”

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.

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About jtimpane

Media Editor/Writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer. View all posts by jtimpane

6 responses to “Inferno Canto 2: “Love Moved Me”

  • jeffvamos

    John, a true honor to be a fellow pilgrim with you on this journey. Really, really enjoyed reading our insights on Canto II.

    I particularly LOVE this insight: “if we love, we deal in salvation”. And the notion that Dante forgets the love that’s somehow native to, implanted within his spirit (to forget is to fear?). This is what that made me think about how the final image in the Canto has always spoken to me. That of the (if I’m not mistaken” sunflower (lines 103ff).

    “As flowers bend and shrunken by night at dawn / Unfold and straighten on their stems, to wake / Brightened by sunlight, so I grew strong again–”

    Perhaps this speaks to my Protestant sensibilities (sorry, can’t help it): like that thing within the sunflower – some native, natural, God-implanted something that enables it to lift its head by the power of the sun (something outside itself) – we get the juice to move on through some power both within and outside of us, but not possessed by us; something about which we can’t say after the fact, “I did it my way.”

    I guess that speaks to me because of times in my life when I felt like it was impossible to proceed, there were times when something not of my own virtue, or sheer human will, seemed at work. How the hell did I ever get that done? Get through that?

    Onward!

    • John Timpane

      Beautiful, Jeff, just beautiful. Who need apologize for the Protestant or Catholic or Muslim in them? OR about who had Love first and who has it now? I think the Inferno is suffused with a lively awareness of our connectedness, our moment-to-moment resonance, with the source of what is best and truest. Poetry can awaken us to such things — in fact, whenever language reawakens us to such things, I call it poetry.

      And I’ve had the same feeling. Am having it now — if I get through the next 40 days in anything close to OK shape, and there’s seldom a guarantee I will, I will have had a lot of help.

      This is fun.

  • jeffvamos

    John – one other question here. That you may know about, perhaps. In Pinsky’s notes, he speaks of the figure of Beatrice – as a figure in whom we might “telescope”…lady philosophy. SHE is not just Beatrice Portinari; she is Christ; she is philosophy itself! Yes?

    All this somehow part of the (now odd-seeming) culture of courtly love.

    I’m aware of the famous Sonnet to “Lady Philosophy” where Dante eats his own burning heart (wild!) – the first in La Vida Nuova (The New Life)? Somehow also quoted in Silence of the Lambs (wilder).

    Found this really excellent blog entry too: http://morogroves.blogspot.com/2008/07/dantes-la-vita-nuova.html

    We need to do a blurb on Courtly Love too, methinks.

    Anyway – would love to hear your wisdom on that, if you’ve time….

  • jtimpane

    Courtly love is a complex amalgam of medieval aristocratic behavior, new poetic genres arising out of the sexual frustrations of Provencal poets, Christianity, and Platonism. At its best, it goes something like this: I love you for yourself because in you is God. To love truly is to ascend to God through intense spiritual union with another. Love transforms us, makes us better, in both spiritual and physical worlds. The more I can love you, the better I become. The closer I ascend to my best. And I do this with and for you, also, for all these benefits happen for you, too. But because you are the portal to The One, you are the guide to right thinking, right conduct, right prayer, the immolation of the ego is its rise to the divine, where it belongs. (Beatrice is thus Lady Philosophy.) You are better than me: you are Blessing itself, the conferral of grace that transforms. What you shed on me is intellectual light, always an avatar of the divine, both an image of illumination and real illumination, ontological, essential illumination shed on me so I can shed the old man and be reborn in you and in The One.

  • jeffvamos

    OK – so here’s another question – for you John – or for anyone out there.

    What would happen if Dante and Bea ever got together? And discovered, after all the idealized love that is aimed at the other (and in reality aimed at a real “you”, but one whom Dante in reality never talked to)…after all that, what if then Dante starts to discover that Beatrice might chew with her mouth open on occasion, and that the laugh that initially seemed so cute and endearing now starts to grate on him?

    And what does Gemma think of all this?

    Actually – this IS something I’ve often found myself wondering about in reading this.

    Realize we’re talking of a very different (Medieval) world, and culture (courtly love, which had particular rules back then). But how does that translate to modern, romantic love? Which has so much freight attached to it in our culture?

    So…John or anyone…. Floor’s open.

    • Amy Andrews

      Such interesting questions. I wonder if it makes sense to think about this question in terms of incarnation, whether or not it is possible for an abstraction, an ideal, to actually enter our lives without losing its divinity? I wonder about the parallels between this question and the question of whether we believe — really believe — God can actually join us, meet us, in all of our awkwardness and bad manners and annoying ticks. That he (or she?) could take on a body, take on all of the confusions and craziness the body brings with it, and laugh strangely, or fail to hang his/her clothes up, or use poor grammar, or write in long, winding, uncontrolled sentences, perhaps, — whether we believe God can really look like… that.

      And if so, whether we’re able to perceive Him (or Her, I suppose) in this form. Do we recognize that which is essential, this presence, once it looks more like we do? Once it’s a little frumpier?

      I have the feeling that I’m too often unable to see through, beyond, to behold the divine, the dream, the hope that precedes and succeeds each of us, the spirit that is embodied in the enfleshed presence of the other. Thinking about that, working on that, in this season of Lent.

      And, as for how this might relate to modern, romantic love? So freighted, yes. Perhaps because so much of the culture wants to sever the link between spirit and body, between agape and eros? (is that right?) that is implied in the incarnation. Maybe?

      At any rate, I’m finding it very interesting to think about this easy movement between heaven earth, to think about the way love sort of cascaded down, passed on through words (so many references to “words” here!), and found its way to our pilgrim.

      Amy

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