The poet was guided in his long quest by Virgil, then by Beatrice, to the threshold of the Empyrean. The supreme vision, he has not yet seen it, however. What appears to him then, in the shape of a white rose, is the « holy militia that Christ espoused in his blood ». And in this great flower, plunges, like a swarm of bees, another army of angels, flying and singing the glory of him who sets them ablaze with love. And all these angels « had faces of bright flame, and wings of gold, and the rest so white that no snow comes to this end ».i
Dante marveled at the « triple light », divine, penetrating, which shines « like a star » in this quiet kingdom, – and he thought back on all the road he had already traveled, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, from corruption to justice, and on what still awaits him…
« I, who had come to the divine
from the human, from time to eternity,
and from Florence to the just and healthy people,
of what astonishment I should be filled with! »
Mute with stupor, indeed, Dante sees « eyes, inviting to love, shining with the light of another and their own laughter ». He also sees with a single glance « the general shape of Paradise ». He turns to Beatrice, to question her, but she is no longer there! In her place, an old man, dressed in glory.
« Where is she? « asks Dante at once. The old man replies that Beatrice has brought him down in her place, to bring Dante’s desire « to an end ».
But, adds the old man, – who is, in reality, St. Bernard:
« If you look at the third row
from the highest tier, you will see her again.
on the throne won by her merits. »
Dante looks up and sees her, « who made herself a crown of eternal rays reflected in her. »
Beatrice was at an immeasurable distance from Dante; she was very high, far beyond the reach of a mortal eye, – but it was like nothing, « for her image came down to me unmixed ».
From his abyss of remoteness, Dante addresses Beatrice:
« O lady, in whom my hope comes alive,
and who suffered for my salvation
to leave in Hell the trace of your footsteps,
of so many things I have seen
by your power and kindness,
I recognize grace and virtue.
You pulled me from bondage to freedom
by all these ways, by all these modes
that you had the power to use.
Preserve in me your magnificence,
that my soul, which thou hast healed,
is untied from my body by pleasing you. »
The tone is high, the prayer urgent, the love burning. The poet already despairs of his misfortune. He has just been abandoned by his lover at the very moment when he thought he was reaching Paradise, in her company.
What happens then? Three verses say it, – « the most pathetic verses that literature has ever given us », according to J.L. Borgèsii.
« Cosi orai; e quella, si lontana
come parrea, sorrise e riguaradommi ;
poi si torno a l’etterna fontana. »
« I prayed like this, and so far away
that she seemed, she smiled and looked at me ;
then she turned back to the eternal fountain. »
Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, then turns her back on him to devote herself to the divine vision.
Borgès was so moved by these verses, that he collected comments about them from various authors. For Francesco Torraca: « Last glance, last smile but a sure promise ». Luigi Pietrobono, in the same vein: « She smiles to tell Dante that her prayer has been answered; she looks at him to prove once again the love she has for him. «
Ozanam goes in another direction and considers these verses to be a modest description of « Beatrice’s apotheosis ». But Borgès is not satisfied. He wants to go further. It is really a question for Dante, he says, to let us glimpse the « nightmares of delight ».
The « nightmare », in the Empyrean, on the threshold of ultimate happiness? What a strange idea, that this Borgesean incision!
At this point, a little biographical reminder is perhaps necessary.
One day, in a street in Florence, Beatrice de Folco Portinari did not respond to a greeting from Dante. Did she only love him? It must be thought that she did not. She had already married Bardi. And shortly after this incident she died, at the age of twenty-four.
Dante had always loved her, but in vain.
And now he had found her again, a little later, in his long literary quest. He even thought he had found her again forever, before the eternity of Paradise opening up to him, in his close company.
Suddenly, « horror »… Beatrice smiles at him but turns around and prefers the eternal fountain of light.
Francesco De Sanctis, for his part, had commented on this passage as follows: « When Beatrice walks away, Dante does not let a complaint escape; all earthly residue has been burnt in him and destroyed. »
But this interpretation is false, says Borgès. Nothing has been destroyed, and all the « horror » of the situation is contained in the expression: « so far away that she seemed ».
The smile seems close, like the last glance, but Beatrice is in fact so far away that she becomes forever inaccessible, once again sending Dante back to his solitude.
I would like to propose yet another interpretation, which has nothing romantic about it, but rather aims at metaphysics. Dante’s love for Beatrice, however high it may be, is only a metaphor, it seems to me. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy from 1307 to 1321. The last pages, the very ones that are commented on here, were therefore written more than thirty years after the death of the beloved.
For Dante, the Beatrice in The Divine Comedy is a figure, an image, a trope, a vision at last, which refers not to the memory of a certain Florentine of the Middle Ages, but to his own soul.
Dante is not guided by the appearance of an imaginary and inaccessible Beatrice, descended from the Empyrean, but by his soul, which brings her back to life and is inspired by her.
Dante’s soul, at the end of his quest, is already burning with divine fire. Suddenly, he sees her moving away. She separates from him. She leaves him! But Dante is not dead. He has crossed Hell, Purgatory and here he is in the Empyrean. He is alive, like Aeneas, Orpheus, and other explorers of the beyond. Not being dead, Dante’s soul is still united to his body. And yet she rises, on the advice of Saint Bernard.
« From this point on my vision went further
than our speech, which yields to vision,
and memory gives way to this excess. »iii
In this strange, intermediate state, Dante’s soul lacks the mobility proper to souls who have actually passed to the other side of the experience of death.
Dante describes Beatrice’s departure as if it were the flight of her own soul. The last smile, the last glance, are not “”promises: they are rather delicate metaphors (of death).
Why does Dante confide such ringing certainties, confronting Florentine cynicism and the indifference of the world, unhesitatingly revealing his secret?
Dante has written a work that is not only the product of his creative imagination, but which also recounts Dante’s experience of death, his journey beyond what can be told.
But which can be somewhat evoked, however.
« Such is he who sees in dreams,
and, the dream being over, the impregnated passion
stays, and he doesn’t remember anything else,
such as I am now, for my vision
almost completely ceases, and in my heart
still flows the softness that was born from her.”iv
The vision almost has ceased. In the light leaves the sentence of Sibyl was lost. But Dante did not forget everything.
« O sovereign light that so much raises you up
above mortal thoughts, repeat a little bit
to my mind of what you looked like,
and make my tongue so powerful
that a spark of your glory
can reach to future people.”v
On the brink of death, Dante was very bold. He resisted. He knew how to « unite his gaze with the infinite value ». He planted his eyes in the eternal fire.
How well I understand these verses! How faithfully I follow Dante in the memory of his journey!
« In its depths I see that is recollected,
lovingly bound in one volume,
what in the universe is disseminating itself :
accidents and substances and their modalities
as fused together, so that
that what I’m saying about it is just a glimmer.
I do believe that I saw the universal form
of this knot, for in saying these words
I feel in me a widening of the enjoyment.”vi
Dante! Very human brother! Discoverer of heights! You have not failed in any way, you have been able to transmit the spark that remained to the people of the Future.
« Thus my soul, all in suspense,
stared, motionless, attentive,
and was constantly on fire looking again.
In this light one becomes such
than to turn away from it for another vision
is impossible to consent to forever.”vii
Like Dante’s, from now on my words will be « short compared to what I remember ».
O how little is enough to say! How the look afterwards laughs! I myself was bound in the night to this eternal view, and « for this flight my wing was too weak ». My wing, yes, but not my soul.
O Dante! Hail to thee through the ages. You have given me the strength to say again, in veiled words, what you proclaim in incandescent verses! Your « high fantasy » has lost none of its power! You have propelled my desire through the ages like a wheel wider than any world!
iDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXI
iiJ.-L. Borgès. Neuf essais sur Dante. Le dernier sourire de Béatrice. In Œuvres complètes t.2. Gallimard. 2010, p.861
iiiDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII
ivDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII
vDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII