“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost”[1] 

Dante, Inferno

 

“Already were all my will and my desires

Turned – as a wheel in equal balance – by

The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”[2]

– Dante, Paradise

 

“Reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson,

it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole person”

– William Gladstone, British Prime Minister, 1868-1894[3]

 

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), a city official and politician from a noble family of Florence who became the finest poet of the Medieval era, has relevance for us even today. A number of books and films today draw from Dante’s powerful imagery. Dante pilloried the cruel and the powerful while illustrating the journey of the soul through the various levels of Inferno (Hell), Purgatory, and Paradise (Heaven). Just as Francis forsook a career as a cloth merchant for a life of service, Dante lent his efforts to the common man by composing his Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, written between 1308 and 1320) in the common language rather than in Latin; he using a mixture of Tuscan and other regional dialects, in addition to Latin, to form an amalgamation which came to be known as “Italian.”  Dante parallels Francis, discussed separately in this issue, in showing how we can best serve God and thereby our fellow man: where Francis forsook basic comforts to give of himself, Dante dissected the problem of sin, which eventually preys upon both one’s self and others, in order show how we can complete the journey to God Himself. Both Francis and Dante exemplify how we can ensure that lives, our own and that of our fellow man, matter. Dante points the way out of sin that had persisted since the days of pagan nature worship, the sin that was the discovery the pagans missed, and that yet thrived even in the Christian Europe of Dante’s day. Thus, the poet William Butler Yeats declared Dante to be “the chief imagination of Christendom.”[4]

Dante’s offers fundamental insights on sin, virtue, love and God. While Dante influenced writers of his own time, such as Petrarch (1304 – 1374), Boccaccio (1313-1375), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1320s – 1400) Canterbury Tales, he inspired later works such Paradise Lost of John Milton (1608-1674) and the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892). However, we will trace his themes across more recent works, which include T.S. Eliot’s poetry, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the music of Bob Dylan, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce as well as Perelandra from his Space Trilogy. We will also see how Dante’s imagery flavored other medieval works, such as  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the English approximately poem dated from 1400 and translated by Tolkien (along with The Pearl, which also appears in this issue), and the love sonnets of Petrarch. Finally, recent poems inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and the symbolism of the planets described therein are briefly examined, all coming from Cambridge University’s Poet-Chaplain Malcolm Guite. All such illustrations simply reinforce Dante’s overriding theme, that the soul’s escape of sin and journey to God are driven ultimately by divine love.

Dante begins his story with an admission: “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”[5]  In form, he follows Aristotle, who taught that a story is best begun “in media res” or in the middle of things; in content, however, he more closely resembles the Book of Romans or John Milton in describing the battle with sin. Dante finds himself in the “wilderness so savage, dense and harsh … [and] bitter, death is hardly more” and could not remember when he “first left the way of truth behind” before he spies a valley with “shoulders robed with the rays of that wandering light of Heaven that leads all men aright on every road.”[6] But when he takes this path, he is threatened by a series of three animals which represent the progressive stages of sin: a leopard, a lion and a wolf. The leopard darts about, showing how at first sin distracts our attention; the lion comes straight for Dante, “his head held high, his hunger hot with wrath – [which] seemed to strike tremors in the very air” showing the strength of sin.[7] But the true effect of sin is shown with the wolf who lastly appears, “whose scrawniness seemed stuffed with all men’s cravings” and had “made many live in wretchedness” and despair; the wolf’s desire is never filled despite her constant preying.[8] The wolf shows how sin ultimately leads us to prey, insatiably, on others. However, Dante next finds a guide, Virgil (70 B.C. – 19 B.C.) “honor and light of every poet” whose Aeneid provided a mythology of the founding of Rome.[9] Virgil will guide Dante through the various levels of both Inferno (hell) and Purgatory but will give way to a worthier soul, the Christian figure of Beatrice, to guide him through Paradise. Virgil represents the best that pagan virtues can achieve, as Virgil admits “that great Emperor who reigns above, because I was a rebel to His law, will not allow me entry to his realm;” he lacked Christian faith.[10]

The structure of the Dante-verse embodies the opposites of sin and virtue, with the journey through Inferno (hell), a descent into a pit with Satan waiting at the bottom, and the journey back through Purgatory, the ascent of a tower, the positive mirror image of the pit of hell, with the garden of Eden on top. The structure of Inferno mirrors the seven levels of sin organized into three types as depicted by the animals previously encountered: the distractions of indulgence (the leopard), lust, gluttony, greed and anger characterize levels two through five, sins of violence (the lion) are found on level seven, and sins against others (the wolf) occupy levels eight and nine, namely fraud and treachery. Before reaching these levels, however, Dante first passes through an antechamber in which resides the small-souled and cowardly whose petty lives “merited neither praise nor infamy.”[11] The first level of hell encountered is named “Limbo,” where there is neither joy nor suffering, and is occupied by virtuous but non-believing pagans, poets and philosophers like Virgil, Homer, and Aristotle. At the gates of hell is a sign with a message, the final line of which reads “Abandon All Hope You Who Enter Here.”[12] As Dante views the long line waiting to be ferried across the river, he remarks, “a long file so numerous a host of people ran, I had not thought death had unmade so many.”[13]  The final level of hell shows the deep ironies of sin. Instead of a lake of fire, the bottom level is cold and dark in the farthest remove from the light and warmth of God’s love. But most profoundly ironic is the lake found there, not the proverbial lake of fire but in fact a lake of ice, frozen by Satan’s defiant flapping of his wings, so that in trying to free himself he has frozen the lake of hell in which he is eternally encased. Satan loses the freedom and autonomy he so desired by his very act of defiance. Satan also has three slavering faces which devour sinners (much like the wolf of predatory sin encountered earlier) and as a final poetic touch, instead of reaching the heights of God through his rebellion, Satan is buried upside down in the sand, his legs protruding in the air.

The rich imagery of Inferno finds its way into not just medieval works but those in the present day. First, we examine two examples from the Medievals which illustrate key insights from Inferno before moving onto more modern examples. The progression of sin, as represented by the distracting leopard, strong lion and predatory wolf, appears to inform the Medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The tale begins by likening Aeneas’s noble albeit mythical founding of Rome (as chronicled by Virgil in The Aeneid) to that of his descendant Brutus who is claimed to have founded Britain (which thus gets its name from him) and of Arthur. When Arthur’s court is challenged by the Green Knight, Gawain steps in to save Arthur and the Court from the perils of the contest, as he humbly considered himself the most expendable knight of King Arthur’s court. The Green Knight offers to endure a single blow after which the contestant must travel to his castle a year later to offer the same; when the Green Knight picks up his head after Gawain’s mighty strike and rides off, a grave fear results. Gawain’s fortitude and faith are tested on his journey, near the end of which he endures three days of trial in the Green Knight’s castle, in the form of three attempts at seduction by the Green Knight’s wife which are progressively more difficult to resist; these occur while the Green Knight himself is gone hunting during each day. The Knight and Gawain have agreed to exchange their days’ bounty with each other: Gawain thus is forced to exchange the kisses he has received for the Knight’s captured game, which consist of, in order, a deer, a boar and a fox, each more difficult than the one prior to catch. Since at least leopards and lions were not available in the English wood, one is left to wonder at the parallel to the Dante’s animals showing the progressive stages of sin, given that the Tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is estimated to have been written in 1400 A.D., just eighty years after Dante finished his trilogy. Gawain’s tale ends on a Dantean note of humility at his own sin and shame, as, against the rules of the contest, Gawain had accepted (and not handed over) a garter belt from the Green Knight’s wife, as the belt was said to confer defensive powers on its owner. After surviving the Green Knight’s original challenge (Gawain keeps his head), Gawain keeps the belt as a reminder of his own sin, ending the tale with the motto of the chivalric British Order of the Garter, “HONY SOYT QUI MAL PENCE,” translated as “shame to him that thinks evil.”

Petrarch, who died fifty years after Dante in 1374, famously made use of Dante’s notion of Beatrice as an inspiring Christian guide. Dante knew Beatrice as a youth and fell in love, but lost track of her until later in life when he learned that she had died while in her twenties. Dante thus imagined a heavenly Beatrice as representing the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love (also called the cardinal virtues) which surpassed the classical virtues (typically considered those of courage, justice, self-control and moderation) of Dante’s pagan guide Virgil, who could only take Dante to the gates of Heaven. Virgil can thus also represent the limited achievement of human reason, while Beatrice shows how the Christian revelation of God’s love allows us to respond by faith and gain us the hope of heaven. Beatrice also is considered more warm and loving than the ideal but unattainable, courtly Medieval woman who often served as muses to knights in their quests. Petrarch found his Beatrice in a Laura de Sade, whom he once glanced at while bathed in light from a cathedral window, though he likely never spoke to her, and she was already or soon to be married. Petrarch used Laura in hundreds of sonnets, found in his collection Il Canzoniere which promoted the Medieval notion of idealized love as a means of understanding divine love, in much the same way Dante used Beatrice. Thus, in Love Sonnet 3 Petrarch declares

 

“When Love within her lovely face appears …

The more the wish I love within me grows …

There comes from her all joyous honesty

That leads you by the straight path up to Heaven-

Already I fly upon my hope.”[14]

 

Patrarch’s use of the Beatricean Laura is discussed further in other works; otherwise, we will see Beatrice in more detail when Dante later approaches the gates of Paradise.[15] [16]

While we are yet mired in Hades, however, a number of connections to Dante can be found. The most direct can be found in C.S. Lewis’s own story of a journey from hell to heaven, in the form of a bus ride, in The Great Divorce. Lewis describes interactions with ten different individuals, nine of whom ultimately choose hell rather than heaven, just as Dante peoples his levels of Inferno with those who, by their choice of captivity to various sins, landed themselves in (in Dante’s case) very cold water. Lewis has his own guide, the Scottish minister and fantasy writer George MacDonald, whom Lewis claims reminds him of Dante’s Beatrice on account of their holiness. Lewis does not cite Dante’s sign at the gates of Hell, but he does claim to follow (the Dante-influenced) Milton who stated that the choice of every lost soul is expressed by “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”[17]  Thus, just as those in Heaven say to God “Thy will be done,” so does God reciprocate to those in hell the same, states Lewis, declaring ‘Thy will be done.”[18] Further, where Dante used animals to obtrude the path to heaven, Lewis uses a pack of unicorns to draw a character back towards the path, as the unicorns offered a distraction from her focus on herself. Otherwise, Lewis mimicked Dante in showing Hell as a paradox, as it is a vast and lonely gray city instead of a fiery lake; it is too insubstantial to reckon with such simple but vibrant items as fruit or even blades of grass, and is so small (smaller than a pebble or even an atom) that “only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell.”[19]

T.S. Eliot used not just imagery but lines quoted verbatim from Dante’s Divine Comedy in his poetry. Both The Wasteland (1922) and The Hollow Men (1925) speak of the cultural and spiritual exhaustion of the Great War (World War I), which had so cruelly dashed the optimism of the preceding century’s worth of peace and progress. Eliot references Dante’s long line of the damned when in The Wasteland he describes London as the

 

“Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many”[20]

 

Eliot arguably also uses the same imagery of souls waiting in line to cross the river of death in The Hollow Men three years later, when he portrays the state of humanity with

 

“We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid [swollen] river”[21]

 

Even more recently, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has Gandalf the Gray enter a realm of Hell of sorts in the process of becoming Gandalf the White in a scenario which brings Dante’s account to mind. Dante’s tale itself is modeled after Christ’s own descent into Hell between his Crucifixion and Resurrection, Dante claiming his story took place between the night before Good Friday and the Wednesday after Easter in the Spring of 1300. Remembering that darkness runs throughout the buried levels of Dante’s Hell and that at the bottom of Dante’s Hell is a frozen lake, Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog as the fellowship leaves the Mines of Moria takes on a Dantean air. Gandalf and the Balrog fall first through flame, arguably an ode to the conventional notion of hell, but are then “plunged into the deep water and all was dark” where “cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart,” Gandalf declares.[22] Dante’s image of Satan frozen in a lake at the bottom of hell peeks out from between Tolkien’s words, as does Tolkien’s further description of the bottom of the abyss which is “beyond light and knowledge,” the very opposite of where Dante’s journey will take him. Gandalf then clutches onto the heel of the Balrog as it ascends “above the mists of the world” to the peak of Mount Celebdil before Gandalf throws it back to (middle) earth, and Gandalf falls into a swoon on the mountain top, straying “out of thought and time.”[23]  As Gandalf lay there, he reflects the loneliness of Christ who cried out “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”[24] then in a similar vein declares, “Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done … I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world.”[25] Gandalf’s task then appears very much like that of Christ’s redemption of the lost souls of humanity as he describes:

 

“Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone”[26]

 

After this, in the manner of the resurrected Christ, Gandalf becomes known as Gandalf the White; popular images of Jesus in whitened resurrection clothing easily come to mind.

Just as Dante’s Inferno ranked sins in its descending levels by the animal types encountered earlier along the path, Purgatory is organized by the types of deficiency in love: excessive love (lust, gluttony, greed), deficient love (sloth) and malicious love (wrath, envy, pride). These levels are augmented by an initial level of those who were late to repent, as well as another level for the excommunicated. The final level, on top of the tower of purgatory, is the Garden of Eden, showing the final reconciliation achieved between God and man once the soul has been purified at the end of its journey. The theme of love is key to purgatory, as we distort the pure love that flows from God for which reason the purification of Purgatory is necessary before reaching communion with God in Paradise.  While punishments in Inferno were often ironic – cases of poetic justice one might say – such as the greedy being consigned to eternally rolling boulders in ceaseless unrest – the remedies in Purgatory are profoundly therapeutic. On Purgatory’s level of pride can be seen statues displaying humility, and stories of generosity are told on its level of envy.

At the top level of Purgatory, Dante places the garden of Eden, which is tended by Matilda, younger sister of Beatrice and daughter of Eden. Matilda describes the significance of the garden, as

 

“By his own fault, man did not dwell here long

By his own fault, he took up grief and toil,

Pawning his honest laughter and sweet play”[27]

 

Yet, the Garden offers a place for redemption, as it includes a “holy meadow’ with “fruit never plucked in any mortal land” and a spring which“takes its water from the will of God” and splits into two streams, one side of which “descends with power to take away all memory of sin” while the other “will restore all memory of good deeds;” this final stage of Purgatory prepares the soul for its journey to Paradise. Matilda tends to the paradisal garden of Eden, declaring that its

 

“Newfound wonder leaves you lost in doubt,

but the psalm ‘You have delighted’ will shed light

to lift your intellects’ clouds and whisk them out.”[28]

 

Matilda thus cites Psalm 92:4 and its account of the delight we find in God’s works; she later claims that it is this handiwork of God which inspired pagan poets to dream of a lost golden age, as

 

“For here the human race was innocent;

Forever spring, and fruit upon the vine.

This is the nectar which the poets meant.”[29]

 

C.S Lewis partly used the image of Matilda in Perelandra, the middle book of his Space Trilogy, in which the Venusian planet Perelandra, teeming with life and likened to paradise before the fall (Tinidril, an Eve figure, resists temptation in the story). As did Matilda with the Garden of Eden, Tinidril tends to the garden planet of Perelandra. This parallels John Milton’s descriptions in Paradise Lost, which Lewis drew on in his own spiritual autobiography: he likened early experiences of joy to “Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden,” while finding mythical notions such as Asgard and the Western Garden as mere images.[30] In his article Perelandra: Preventing the Fall, Bradley Birzer emphasizes how Lewis used Tinidril and Perelandra to illustrate the importance of the Incarnation, in which Christ came to redeem all of creation.[31]

The long journey of the soul through Purgatory is rewarded once it reaches Paradise, but at that point, Dante finds his pagan but virtuous guide Virgil has wandered off and he encounters Beatrice.

Beatrice explains to Dante that Paradise is bathed in the

 

“The glory of the One who moves all things

Penetrates the universe with light.”[32]

 

The journey to Heaven turns out to be the journey to God Himself. Dorothy Sayers reinforces the point with her introduction to Dante’s Paradise:

 

“Heaven has, of course, always been inconceivable, “passing man’s understanding.” Of the few poets or prophets who have undertaken to describe it, even fewer have dared to keep us there for long… Of all the poets of fulfilment, Dante alone has had the astonishing courage to take us into Heaven and keep us there for thirty-three long cantos, building it to his ecstatic climax without introducing any grandiose events, any scenery, or any incantatory dreaminess which suspends belief by lulling the wits to sleep. His Heaven is at first sight almost disconcertingly lucid; it is only as it piles up, line upon line, dogma upon dogma, sphere upon sphere to the exquisite and mathematical exactitude of the final vision, that we realize how much of its power to convince lies precisely in its lucidity.  Of the light of Heaven he says

“Pure intellectual light, fulfilled with love

Love of the true Good, filled with all delight,

Transcending sweet delight, all sweets above.”

The word “intellectual” is significant; the light is that of reality.”[33]

 

As Malcolm Guite summarizes, “To know God is the journey into reality.”[34]

Dante’s Paradise has a structure that reflects Virgil’s pagan and Beatrice’s Christian virtues. The first seven levels deal with classical (or cardinal) virtues of moderation (or prudence), courage, justice and self-control, each level being associated with a planet. The Moon, inconstant in its appearances, demonstrates a lack of courage to maintain one’s faith; Mercury, flashy as it erratically darts through the sky indicate the vainglorious who are willing to sacrifice justice; Venus represents self-absorbed lovers who lack self-control in waning from the love of God. The next levels and their planets exhibit positive instances of the virtues: the Sun’s light shows the wisdom of the prudent, the warrior-inspiring Mars shows courage, the kingly Jupiter stands for justice, the wisdom and suffering associated with Saturn exalts ascetic, contemplative monks. The eighth level exhibits the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love and their result in the Church Triumphant, while the ninth level (Primum Mobil) is home to angels who were never tainted by original sin. The final layer, the Empyrean, is God Himself.

Love is a central theme once again, in Paradise just as were the deficiencies of love in Purgatory (and the opposites of love in Inferno). Each sphere of Paradise is turned in its orbit by the sphere below it, and they are all turned, as per the trilogy’s final line, by “The Love that  moves the sun and the other stars,” the Divine Love.[35] The Divine Love is further revealed in the tenth circle, the Empyrean, as a river of light, with “flames of longing” which “you cannot satisfy before you’ve drunk the water of this spring,” and of a “love that soothes this heaven [with] the power to heal the souls that it takes unto itself.”[36] Love in fellowship is realized when Dante discovers in the Empyrean a celestial rose, populated on its petals with all the saints, led by Beatrice, Mary, Rahab and Eve among other women of the faith; his final vision ends his journey the three great mysteries driven by God’s love: Creation, the Trinity and Christ’s Incarnation.

Dante thus recognizes even distorted human love, as he places the Roman courtesan Cunizza who had four husbands and two lovers, as well as the harlot Rahab, in the third level of Paradise, Venus. Cunizza is nearly excused for her wanton love, as she declares

 

“I pardon my old sin; though that might well / seem hard to fathom for your herd below”[37]

 

while Rahab, who aided Joshua in his conquering of Jericho, is the brightest light in Venus’s sphere. But it is the image of Beatrice which provides the most profound image of love that dominates the journey through Paradise. It is not a surprise that modern artists such as Bob Dylan would avail themselves of Dante for images of love, as in the lyrics of the song “Tangled Up in Blue”

 

“She lit a burner on the stove

And offered me a pipe

I thought you’d never say hello, she said

You look like the silent type

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And everyone of them words rang true

And glowed like burnin’ coal

Pourin’ off of every page

Like it was written in my soul

From me to you

Tangled up in blue”[38]

 

The image of Beatrice as well as various themes from Dante converge in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Just as Dante embarked on a long journey, so does Piscene Patel, or “Pi,” find himself on a long, soulful journey at sea, after the boat that holds his family and the animals from their hometown zoo in India travel to a new life in Canada capsizes somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The author claims Pi’s story, also made into a film, “will make you believe in God.”[39] But it was only when Martel mentioned that he would tell his story in one hundred chapters that the connections to Dante’s Divine Comedy began to appear, as Dante’s work is well-noted for its mathematical structure. Given that the theme of God’s love lies behind the work, Dante used the number three (representing the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) throughout: there are three books, each with thirty three cantos (with one introductory canto, bringing the total to one hundred, itself the perfect square of ten, the number of levels of each of Dante’s realms), and with thirty three syllables in each tercet (three lines of eleven syllables each). Pi’s journey is also broken into three books; it was when Martel mentioned that his tale occupied one hundred chapters, the same number of cantos in Dante’s work, that the thought of a Dantean reading first presented itself. Pi even has a guide, and an animal guide at that, throughout the first two books of Life of Pi, a tiger named Richard Parker.[40]

Life of Pi had been compared to Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, but its themes and its structure indicate a deep connection to Dante’s trilogy.[41] The long struggle at sea alongside the ravenous tiger Richard Parker makes it sensible to compare with Hemingway’s own voyage amidst perilous sharks. However, besides the apparent structural ode to Dante, Life of Pi parallels Dante’s themes of love and virtue; the tiger Richard Parker serves a guide for the same duration as did Virgil (the first two legs of the three-part journey), and Martel even appears to pay an ode to the initial appearance of Beatrice as Richard Parker wanders off, in a manner that is strikingly parallel to Dante’s ode to just as Virgil wanders off. But a quick review of Life of Pi is first needed to explain these connections.

Richard Parker is a key figure.  His significance is explained as the story begins in Pondicherry, India, where Pi’s family owns a zoo. The animals are said to not know the desire for freedom but simply fear and hunger. Pi equates their state to that of religions, stating of zoos and religion “certain illusions about freedom plague them both;” Pi is ultimately more concerned with finding God than finding freedom.[42] Thus, Pi states later that “many people seem to lose God along life’s way” though “that was not my case,” and when a Mr. Kumar lost faith in God due to his polio, remarks that “what a terrible disease that must be if it could kill God in a man.”[43] In fact Pi finds God in perhaps too many ways, becoming Hindu, Christian and Muslim simultaneously.[44] But, it is the animals’ constant fear that ensures their survival, and it is fear of Richard Parker that keeps Pi alive at sea. Pi reacts with great sadness as Richard Parker wanders back into the wild: “I owe you more gratitude than I can express,” Pi declares to Richard Parker, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”[45] Just as Virgil did for Dante, Richard Parker ably helped Pi along the path, but could only take him so far. Richard Parker’s animal nature also compares interestingly with the animals Dante first encountered (the leopard, lion and wolf), though Dante’s animals showed the alluring and destructive stages of sin, whereas Richard Parker represented more of a guiltless survival instinct of fear.

This account makes a natural connection to Hemingway, but in fact has Dantean undertones that are at least as strong. The scene of Richard Parker wandering from the shore to the jungle and freedom echoes Hemingway’s final scene, in which his fisherman dreams of his youth and of lions wandering on an African beach. Further, the sharks with which Hemingway is at constant battle in Old Man and the Sea do find a clean parallel in Richard Parker. However, at least as strong of a case can be made for a Dantean reading. The survival skills inspired by Richard Parker can serve as a proxy for the useful but incomplete pagan virtues that Dante finds in Virgil; when Richard Parker wanders off unceremoniously at the end of Life of Pi’s book two, one is reminded of how Virgil likewise silently disappeared from Dante’s side when he meets Beatrice, also at the end of Dante’s second book, Purgatory. However, Life of Pi gives a most explicit nod to Dante when Pi makes shore, arriving at the third and final leg of his journey. There, he falls and embraces the sandy shore, stating that “this beach, so soft, firm and vast, was like the cheek of God, and somewhere two eyes were glittering with pleasure and a mouth was smiling at having me there.”[46] This strongly brings to mind Dante’s first meeting of Beatrice as he began the journey through Paradise, at the beginning of his third book. Here, the face of Beatrice illuminates and fills Dante with a vision of God:

 

“So she instilled her gazing – through my eyes –

Into my powers of fancy, and I too

Stared at the sun more than our sight can bear…

Into the everlasting wheels of light

Beatrice gazed with silent constancy;

On her I gazed, far from that central sight.”[47]

 

The face of God that Pi encounters in that sandy beach is but an earthy symbol of how Beatrice reflected in her gaze the light that Dante uses to show divine love. In the vein of redeeming pagan poetry, as Chesterton noted of him, Dante relates Beatrice’s divine visage to a character from Ovid, a Roman poet of Virgil’s time famous for his love poetry, when he states:

 

“Her countenance had the same effect in me

As did the plant that Glaucus tasted when

It made him share the godhead of the sea”  [48]

 

Divine love is the key to Dante’s journey It is reflected not only in the structures of Dante’s cosmos as previously discussed, but in Beatrice. Beatrice is Dante’s earthly love turned into both a reflector of and guide to divine love. When Dante first meets her, he declares his soul comforted by “the crushing glory of her presence,” feeling the “great might of its ancient love;”[49] when she departs, he states “to you I owe the grace and strength I’ve gained,” “I was a slave, you brought me liberty” at which time she “smiled and looked at me; and then turned again to eternal Spring”[50] It is this love, and not Hemingway’s visions of elusive freedom, that drive Life of Pi. Martel admits as much after a spiritual encounter in which he felt that he saw the Virgin Mary, and declared “the presence of God is the finest of rewards.”[51] Someone’s comments about “dry, yeastless factuality” and “the better story” prod him to admit the centrality of divine love, following his thoughts about “divine consciousness, moral exaltation … an alignment of the universe along moral lines and not intellectual ones” with the “realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.”[52] To emphasize the point, he imagines even an atheist finally realizing this in his last words, “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!” whereas an agnostic simply explains death with dry facts, lacking imagination and thus the better story.[53] Thus, when Pi retells each version of his story at sea (one with murderous people and the other with animals struggling to survive) and the insurance agent prefers the story with the animals, Pi declares “and so it goes with God,”[54] God prefers the more imaginative account of reality, that vision given by Beatrice to the one traversed by Virgil, in which God and his love play a central role. Thus, Dante concludes his trilogy with the vision of divine love:

 

“Already were all my will and my desires

Turned – as a wheel in equal balance – by

The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”[55]

 

Dante’s Divine Comedy, a tale and a vision with a happy and not tragic ending, remains relevant to us today. Malcolm Guite, whose lecturing on Dante inspired the writing of this article, has composed poems inspired by each of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise in the collection of poems The Singing Bowl. Guite and Michael Ward also performed a reading of another set of poems at the lecture, poems of each of the seven planets which occupy the levels of Paradise in which the virtues are refined and redeemed. Each planet has a short poem for both the fallen and the pure state of its particular characteristic; the collection is found in After Prayer. It seems fitting to conclude with some lines from the poems for the planet Venus, whose theme is love and the Sun, symbolic of divine wisdom.

Of Venusian love, Guite pens the words

 

“She comes to make us fruitful, to fulfil

The deep desires we shape with her and share

With one another. With her all is well,

The morning star.”[56]

 

And of the Sun’s illumination, Guite writes

 

“Bring out the gold in me, O golden sphere

Whose light and splendour none has ever told

Alchemic archer, brilliant charioteer,

Bring out the gold …

 

Lighten my inner eye till truths unfold,

And blindness turns to sight. Make all things clear,

Bring out the gold.”[57]

 

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Citation Information

Alison DeLong, “A Call to Lament: An Apologetic Study of the Anglo-Saxon Elegies,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 53-68.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/dante-for-moderns/



[1] Alighieri Dante, Inferno I.1-2, tr. Anthony Esolen (New York The Modern Library, 2003), 3.

[2] Alighieri Dante, Paradise 33.143-145, tr. Anthony Esolen (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 359.

[3] Quoted by Malcolm Guite, Above Us Only Sky? Re-imagining the Universe with Dante and C.S. Lewis C.S. Lewis Festival, Sept. 22, 2018, Petoskey Michigan. www.cslewisfestival.org. Online https://www.patheos.com/blogs/elflandletters/2018/09/29/above-us-only-sky-malcolm-guite-and-michael-ward-discuss-the-cosmos-with-dante-and-lewis/ .

[4] Ibid., cited by Guite in the same lecture.

[5] Alighieri Dante, Paradise I.1-2, tr. Anthony Esolen (New York The Modern Library, 2003), 3.

[6] Dante, Paradise I.5-7, 12, 16-18.

[7] Dante, Paradise, I.47-48.

[8]  Dante, Paradise, I.49-52.

[9] Dante, Paradise, I.82.

[10] Dante, Paradise, I.124-6.

[11] Dante, Paradise, III.35.

[12] Dante, Paradise, III.9,23.

[13] Dante, Paradise, III.55-57.

[14] Petrarch. Il Canzoniere. Online https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/Petrarchhome.php

[15] Christine Norvell, “Petrarch’s Love Sonnets,” The Imaginative Conservative, November 10, 2017. Online https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2017/11/francesco-petrarch-love-sonnets-christine-norvell.html .

[16] Louis Markos, “Petrarch on Seeking the Ideal,” The Imaginative Conservative, Dec. 16, 2019. https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/12/petrarch-seeking-ideal-louis-markos.html

[17] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 71.

[18] Ibid., 75.

[19] Ibid., 139.

[20] T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” III.60-63 in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays 1909 – 1950 (New York: Harcourt, 1971),III60-63.

[21] T.S. Elio,. “The Hollow Men”IV in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and plays 1909 – 1950 (New York: Harcourt, 1971), 58.

[22] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The White Rider” Book III Ch. V in The Two Towers (New York: Ballantine, 1994), 110.

[23] Ibid., 111.

[24] Matthew 27:46, KJV.

[25] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The White Rider” Book III Ch. V in The Two Towers (New York: Ballantine, 1994), 111.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Dante, Purgatory, XXVIII.94-96.

[28] Dante, Purgatory, XXVII.79-81.

[29] Ibid., XXVIII.142-144.

[30] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1986), 19,175.

[31] Bradley Birzer, “Perelandra: Preventing the Fall.” The Imaginative Conservative, November 2, 2019. https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/11/perelandra-preventing-fall-bradley-birzer.html.

[32] Dante, Paradise, I.1-2.

[33] Dante, Paradise trans. Dorothy Sayers (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 20.

[34] Malcolm Guite, Above Us Only Sky? Re-imagining the Universe with Dante and C.S. Lewis C.S. Lewis Festival, Sept. 22, 2018, Petoskey Michigan.

[35] Dante, Paradise XXXIII.145.

[36] Dante, Paradise XXX.70-74, 52-53.

[37] Dante, Paradise IX.35-36.

[38] Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue” on Blood on the Tracks (Columbia Records, 1975).

[39] Yann Martel, Life of Pi (New York: Harcourt, 2001), x.

[40] It is a curious happenstance that Irrfan Khan, who plays the adult Pi in the film, later played an Oscorp executive who must deal the scientific legacy of one Richard Parker (whose name mentions several times), Peter Parker’s father, in Marvel’s 2012 Amazing Spiderman; in perhaps a thematic coincidence, his character in Universal Pictures 2015 Jurassic World  discusses that “the key to a happy life is to admit that you are never actually in control.”

[41] Martel, Life of Pi, 324.

[42] Martel, Life of Pi, 19.

[43] Ibid, 47, 28.

[44] For further  discussion of Life of Pi and world religions, see  Seth Myers, “Chesterton at the Movies” in An Unexpected Journal, Advent 2019, vol 1.4 Online www.anunexpectedjournal.com/chesterton-at-the-movies/

[45] Martel, Life of Pi, 286.

[46] Ibid., 285.

[47] Dante, Paradise I.52-60.

[48] Ibid.,

[49] Dante, Purgatory XXX.34-38.

[50] Dante, Paradise XXXI. 84-85, 92-93.

[51] Martel, Life of Pi, 63.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 64.

[54] Ibid., 317.

[55] Dante, Paradise XXX. 143-145.

[56] Malcolm Guite, “Venus”  in After Prayer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2019), 38.

[57] Malcolm Guite, “The Sun” in After Prayer (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2019), 40.

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