Beyond Beatrice: from Love Poetry to a Poetry of Love
By Brian Reynolds
Paper given at the Fu Jen Fourth Annual Medieval Conference: Chivalry and Knighthood in Middle Ages (2003)
Introduction: In this essay I shall consider how Dante combines elements from the Marian tradition with the conventions of courtly love in drawing together literary, religious and philosophical strands and forging his own unique viewpoint on the feminine-love motif. I shall argue that the Marian element plays an important role in transforming the motive force of the lover-beloved dynamic from amor to caritas, creating a new vision of poesis, where the beauty of femininity is central to the salvific process and ultimately to union with God.
The feminine, whether as muse, mediatrix, temptress or ultimately as clarifier of the divine mysteries, lies at the heart of almost everything that Dante wrote, while love is the driving force that impels him to ever greater poetic and spiritual heights. In the early poems of the Vita Nuova, we find a Beatrice who largely conforms to the conventions of the courtly love tradition, but who then transforms into a divine presence and the means to Dante’s salvation. In the Convivio, Dante deals at length with the theoretical nature of love and it is the intellectual attractions of Lady Philosophy that beguile, while in De Vulgari Eloquentia Dante reviews the whole courtly love tradition, in the context of justifying the use of the “illustrious vernacular” in poetry. Finally, in the Divina Commedia, love provides the momentum that draws poet and poem onwards and upwards through the earthly-divine figures of Beatrice and the Virgin Mary, who are the fulcrum on which the poem turns, to the source of all love, God.