May 24, 2016

Metaphysical poetry as explained by Florence + the Machine (part 2/4)

paradiso(For the introduction to this series, see here)


“And I had a dream/ about my old school”

Dante’s journey through hell and most of purgatory is guided by the great poet Virgil, who he credits as his mentor. When they first meet on the outskirts of hell in Inferno Canto 1:61-99, Dante proclaims the deep tutelary impact that Virgil has had on his career: “Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain, that pours out so great a river of speech?…You are my master, and my author: you alone are the one from whom I learnt the high style that has brought me honour.”

“And she was there all pink and gold and glittering/ I threw my arms around her legs/Came to weeping”

The other source of edification who leads Dante through the remainder of purgatory and finally into heaven is none other than Dante’s idolized muse, Beatrice. And while she is not described as gilded, pink, and glittering, she pretty much has some of the most fabulous entrances ever described in both The Divine Comedy and The New Life.

In Purgatorio Canto 20: 1-48 she takes over from Virgil, emerging in a cloud of flowers, carried by angels, dressed in “colours of living flame,” and crowned with a wreath of Minerva’s olive leaves set over a white veil. In response, Dante quakes in awe and turns to tell Virgil that “There is barely a drop of blood in me that does not tremble.”

Beatrice’s appearance in Dante’s vision in The New Life is equally as grand: an unknown figure identified as Dante’s master carries her as she eats Dante’s flaming heart while clad in nothing but a crimson cloth. It’s curious how Dante always seems to attire her in red when he claims to despise the colour in Inferno Canto 14 because it reminds him of Bulicame, a hot spring known as much for its trail of red clay as it was for its usage as a source of bath water for prostitutes.

“And I heard your voice/ As clear as day/ And you told me I should concentrate/ It was all so strange/ And so surreal/ That a ghost should be so practical”

Beatrice’s first words to Dante are unfortunately not tender ones. Although she is obscured by her veil, she speaks in a clear and severe voice, first telling him that he should not weep for Virgil’s disappearance because he should save his tears for what is about to happen next. She then admonishes him for being unaware of his unworthy placement in heaven:

“‘Look at me, truly: I truly am, I truly am Beatrice. How did you dare to approach the Mount? Did you not know that here Man is happy?’ My eyes dropped to the clear water, but seeing myself there, I looked back at the grass, so much shame bowed my forehead down. As the mother seems severe to her child, so she seemed to me: since the savour of sharp pity tastes of bitterness.”

“And my body was bruised and I was set alight/ But you came over me like some holy rite/ And although I was burning, you’re the only light”

As a mere mortal wandering through otherworldly places, Dante endures his fair share of emotional and physical discomfort throughout his journey towards heaven and Beatrice, who symbolizes the path to God. Luckily for him, his guides, along with other blessed creatures, ensure that he is not too badly affected. For instance, in the seventh circle of hell’s third ring, large flakes of fire fall from the heavens to burn the naked sinners below. To protect Dante, Virgil instructs him to walk along the edge of the sand, lest his feet be burned.

Even more uncomfortable is Dante’s crossing onto the shore of the Blessed. In Purgatorio Canto 31, the lady Matilda submerges and pulls him by his head along the river Lethe in such a way that sounds like drowning. He swallows water but is eventually fished out and declared cleansed to satisfaction.

“And the grass was so green against my new clothes”

When Dante asks Matilda where Beatrice is in Purgatorio Canto 32, she replies, “See her sitting under the new foliage at its root.” In fact, the entire expanse at which they stand at the foot of heaven’s door is a woodland covered in lush grass and greenery. It is there that Matilda draws Dante across the stream of forgetfulness and where he also drinks from the river Eunoë. These waters essentially prepare Dante to venture into heaven through their transformative powers, and he describes the experience as one that renders him anew in Canto 33:103-145: “I came back, from the most sacred waves, remade, as fresh plants are, refreshed, with fresh leaves: pure, and ready to climb to the stars.”

Although there is no specific mention of whether this transformation applies to his superficial trappings (i.e., clothes), Dante’s preparation runs parallel to the biblical allegory of the Church in its preparation as a bride for Christ. In that allegory, as described in the book of Revelation 19:7-8, the bride is given fine, bright linen to wear, thereby illustrating the biblical importance of cleanliness and newness vis-à-vis the ascent to paradise.

Next (part 3/4): Milton’s Paradise Lost as set to “Cosmic Love”



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