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Love Words Sample

From Chapter 4, pages 177-180:

At last, in cantos xxx and xxxiii [of Dante’s Commedia, the ultimate love poem], Poet and Lover meet in two epic similes that compare the pilgrim to a suckling infant. In context these work as climactic evocations of Presence, drawing together many of the previous metaphoric threads that we have seen. The similes are not unusual: we find comparable language in the Purgatorio to suggest literary Source, as when Statius confesses, "dell'Eneïda dico, la qual mamma / fummi e fummi nutrice poetando" (I mean the Aeneid, which was in poetry my mother and my nurse, Purg. xxi. 97-98). We find it again when Virgil describes Homer in periphrasis as that Greek who nursed at the Muse’s breasts longer than his fellow poets (Purg. xxii. 101-2). And in several earlier similes in the Paradiso the pilgrim has been compared to a nursing animal, or fledgling: Beatrice admonishes him not to be like the lamb that leaves its mother’s milk (v. 82-84); the Eagle of Justice circles over him like a stork over the nest where she had fed her young (xix. 91-93); Beatrice, erect and attentive, waits to show him the vision of the Church Triumphant, like a mother bird waiting for the dawn so that she can find food to nourish "suoi dolci nati" (her sweet brood, xxiii. 1-12). But in cantos xxx and xxxiii the similes become crucial, as though with them Poet and Lover all but satisfy the poem’s longing, drawing as close to Source as language allows. The poem as self must become as a suckling infant to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In canto xxx light both embraces the pilgrim and usurps his center: for divine love must put out and then relight the candle of his soul to enable his "novella vista," his new vision of the river of light. Beatrice guides him to drink:


Non è fantin che sì subito rua
con volto verso il latte, se si svegli
molto tardato dall’usanza sua,
com fec’io, per far migliori spegli
ancor delli occhi, chinandomi all’onda
che si deriva perchè vi s’immegli;
e sì come di lei bevve la gronda
della palpebre mie, così mi parve
di sua lunghezza divenuta tonda.

(No infant, waking long after its hour, throws itself so instantly with its face to the milk, as I, to make still better mirrors of my eyes, bent down to the water that flows forth for our perfecting; and no sooner did the eaves of my eyelids drink of it than it seemed to me out of its length to have become round.)

With his new vision he can take in infinite light (59-60), but still he drinks this flowing river with his eyelids, with his eyes shut. Here seeing and drinking, streaming light and radiant water are one, as they are for the gazing infant who can drink as well without diacritic perception, or with closed eyes. And the pilgrim is swallowed by the infinite sight he drinks, for his new vision is consumed in change. As though in response to his intent, drinking gaze (the rhyme-word "vidi" in 95, 97, 99), his eyes are made better mirrors, perfected (spegli…s'immegli) in mimesis of Source, so that the river, jewels, and flowers become the Rose. Even this new metaphor will soon be dismissed as only a metaphor, a form not universal (xxxi. 1), but the poem, through and by means of the evolving metaphors, moves steadily past this "difetto" (xxx.80), toward Source.

In canto xxxiii the pilgrim again drinks in sights, and even in retrospect the sweetness of the draught still drops within the speaker's heart (62-63). His sight is consumed ("consunsi," 84); his drinking gaze is "fissa, immobile e attenta" (fixed, still and intent, 98), as though to turn away would be to become lost, in that familiar term "smarrito" (77). And again his vision is caught up in changes:


Omai sarà più corta mia favella,
pur a quel ch'io ricordo, che d'un fante
che bagni ancor la lingua alla mammella.
Non perchè più ch' un semplice sembiante
fosse nel vivo lume ch'io mirava,
che tal è sempre qual s'era davante;
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava.

(Now my speech will come more short even of what I remember than an infant's who yet bathes his tongue at the breast. Not that the living light at which I gazed had more than a single aspect -- for it is ever the same as it was before—but by my sight gaining strength as I looked, the one sole appearance, I myself changing, was, for me, transformed.)

Poet and Lover pause, wordless before this concentration of light, again revealing that Poet, after all, can attend only to differences, colors, grades of light: words. Yet even as the three circles are differentiated in language, the poem arrives at the ultimate valor ("s'avvalorava"), and that living light is affirmed as single, "semplice" and "sola," the "ideal object" where all good is gathered (103-4), infinite and eternal "punto." Following Bernard's eyes, the pilgrim's gaze has entered that Eternal Light (52-54), and now in turn the Light penetrates to his center and sets his soul and the poem in motion. He has flown like lightning to his own place (i. 92) and now is struck with lightning there, "percossa / da un fulgore" (smitten by a flash, 140-41), in a consummate introjection, a definitive represencing. Now he spins like Peter Damian upon an axis of light: he is represenced forever, "sè in sè regira," and that moment of Presence becomes the eternal present of self and poem.

The “fulgore” that enables the poem is the hyphen between Poet and Lover. To ask how our image has its place ("vi s'indova") in that circle, then, is to ask the nature of that hyphen, to ask how "nostra effige" (our likeness), finite and intact, the work of Poet, can still be painted "del suo colore stesso" (in its own color) upon the reflected light of eternity, the goal of Lover (130-31).