There was an article in the Washington Post this week, reviewing a new costume drama called ‘Young Goethe in Love’. In it, the author, Kelly Jane Torrance, poses the following question:
Would Dante Alighieri have become simply Dante had he not had his first (and second-to-last) glimpse of Beatrice at the age of 9?
This got me thinking about Dante’s “relationship” with Beatrice – a woman with whom he was so incredibly and utterly in love that he dedicated his entire literary (if not physical) corpus to her. If, as Torrance suggests, Dante had never met Beatrice, would we know about him today? Was his heartbreak the sole driving force behind his poetry? And is it not a bit extreme for him to be so smitten with someone he has only really admired from afar? Obviously it’s all very subjective (that’s just the nature of Art, darlings…) so you could argue the toss for whatever you may personally think. However, my feelings are as follows…
1) Yes, it is all very melodramatic for Dante to sit in his room, weeping and wishing suicide upon himself, just because some girl WHO HE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW has shunned him. Why shouldn’t she shun him?! I think I’d shun someone too if they followed me around weeping, declaring their undying love for me, when I didn’t even know them from Adam. It’s just a tiny bit weird in my eyes.
2) I think Dante would have been equally as exceptional as a poet had he never met Bea. Sometimes I get all caught up in the “stories” in poetry – the heartbreak of the Vita Nuova, the scariness of the Commedia – that I forget that poetry is totally different from prose. Yes, it’s still beautiful and illustrative literature, and yes, it reaches some deep and emotional part of me, but it’s not the same. Just because Dante is talking about Bea and about how amazingly virtuous and beautiful and sickeningly perfect she is, it doesn’t mean that that’s what he actually means to SAY. He could just as well be using her as an extended metaphor for religion. Or his relationship with his mother. Or… I don’t know… poetry itself. It’s really easy to take Dante’s works at face-value, because they’re beautifully crafted and so very human, but I think that is potentially reductive and, in doing so, one can run the risk of doing his work a great disservice.
I’m not even going to pretend like I know anywhere near enough about Dante to come up with some far-flung theory about his poetry; I don’t even think that I know enough to really understand it at face-value. But I know that, from what I’ve read, the way that Dante’s literature is constructed allows me to read things into it, draw my own conclusions, find my own hidden meanings. That’s what I mean when I say that it is subjective: everyone has to necessarily bring something of THEMSELVES to any work; their understanding and interpretation of a text/picture/song is conditioned by their own beliefs, experiences, lives. So I really truly think that Beatrice (for me, anyway) has zip-all to do with what Dante is really about. Her presence (or hypothetical lack thereof) does not make a jot of difference to the humanity and emotion which arises from his literature.
I hope that answers your question, Ms. Torrance.