Political alignments caused Dante’s exile, but exile broadened Dante’s historical perspective and thus provided an important dimension for his verse. The attribute one most closely associates with Dante’s mature poetry is, indeed, his ability to universalize particular historical details. He is able to see all human experience in terms of his own, and there is little doubt that his long period of wandering and his life as an exile, begun in middle age and continued through the rest of his life, furnished the salvation metaphor central to The Divine Comedy.
From the earliest period of his life, Dante was fascinated with the possibilities of vernacular Italian as the medium for his poetry. Even in his student verse, he had moved away from classically inspired convention and what he considered its artificiality. His relationship to the classical past is something that he clearly acknowledges; it is implied by the fact that he elects to have Vergil, the prominent poet of Latin literature, lead his Pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory. It is also the writers of classical Greece and Rome who welcome the Pilgrim as one of their fraternity in the Limbo of the Poets (Inferno 4). This reception and its location in the region of the unbaptized indicate that, at the beginning of his journey, and correspondingly at the beginning of his career as a poet, Dante derived satisfaction from his relationship to the classical tradition. Correspondingly, the fact that the Pilgrim leaves Vergil behind when he enters Paradise implies more than that only the baptized can enjoy the Beatific Vision. In effect, the progress of the Pilgrim equals the progress of the Poet. The wandering exile, the man searching for meaning in his own life and in life generally, the poet who is ambitious and who seeks to surpass the poets who have influenced him—all of these are simultaneously Dante.
Still another indication that Dante would accept such a description of his life and work (which became for him synonymous) appears in his treatment of Brunetto Latini in Inferno 15. Brunetto, his former teacher, appears among the sodomites. This sensational context, seen in terms of Dante’s aesthetics, becomes, however, an argument against stultifying imitation, a verbal sodomy that feeds upon the conventions of the past and thus inhibits genuine progress. In truth, the meaning of the Brunetto canto is one of the most disputed in Dante’s poem; yet, this view of its meaning, that it provides an important key to Dante’s philosophy of composition through the criticism that it implies, does not preclude the debt that Dante felt to Brunetto as his teacher. If anything, it underscores the difference between a teacher (who privileges the value of the past and transmits it) and the superior creative artist (who uses the past but privileges innovation and originality).
One measure of Dante’s ability to make innovative change appears in the figure of Beatrice. It is likely that he based his creation upon the daughter of Folco dei Portinari, a wealthy Florentine who died in 1289. It matters relatively little whether one accepts this testimony, provided by Boccaccio. If so, however, it makes the relationship poignant and Platonic, for this Beatrice died a young bride (the wife of the banker Simone dei Bardi) at the age of twenty-four. What is important for Dante’s aesthetics is that Beatrice illustrates the remarkable way that Dante alters the conventions of courtly love as it had appeared in medieval poetry.
If one believes the tradition, Dante saw Beatrice for the first time when she was nine years of age, on May 1, 1274. His love grows, documented in La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), though his lady remains unnamed and never reciprocates the poet’s attentions. The unnamed persona of The New Life finds her ultimate development in...
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- Critical Essays