An Author Profile
Second Canto: Vita Nuova

By Gabriel Blanchard

From the depths of political, personal, and spiritual defeat, Dante went on—"God knoweth how"—to write one of the great masterpieces of hope indestructible.

❧ For referential details (full name, dates, etc.), see our first installment on Dante

So. The poet’s longed-for just emperor was dead, with neither legacy nor worthy successor; the papacy had proceeded from its own too-familiar rot to almost literal captivity in France; he had lost Beatrice more than twenty years ago now; his own native city, if he dared set foot in it, would burn him to death. Dante’s hopes were crushed, north, south, east, and west. The only way out was up. Beginning around 1308, and continuing for a decade, perhaps more, step by step, he recounted the way up.

The history of Western literature features many quests in an other place: that is, a place whose main trait is other-ness, often understood or assumed to be the land of the dead. (Even the name Hades, strictly translated, means something like “things invisible.”) Some are attempts to obtain wisdom, as in the apocalypses of early Christian literature, or the underworld journey of the Æneid. Many are about saving a loved one from death, with surprisingly varied results. The underworld voyage par excellence is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice; its tragic conclusion, which is of its essence today, seems to have been Virgil’s invention—that is, it seems not to have been the original ending. Tolkien also took up the Orphic motif in The Silmarillion, though there it is the heroine whose enchanting voice and tale move even the inexorable keeper of the dead, and allow the resurrection of the hero. Dante’s trek through the invisible world is undertaken for both purposes, the achievement of knowledge and the rescue of one beloved, with two twists. First, the knowledge is bestowed rather than achieved; and second, the rescue is accomplished by the beloved, and on behalf of a fool who—to paraphrase her account of things—contrived to get lost while walking on an open road at midday.

The soul of Beatrice perceives that Dante is far off the road of salvation, lost in the woods—so far gone he will not even be able to hear her. She enlists the help of Virgil, one of the souls in Limbo.* Virgil finds Dante, takes him through hell to make him understand that his current way of life is leading toward damnation. After passing through the center of the earth, Virgil take his charge up to Purgatory (an isolated mountain at the antipode of Rome). Dante is pardoned, healed, and strengthened as he makes the climb—thousands of miles—to the earthly paradise at its summit. Here, Virgil hands Dante over to the soul of Beatrice, whom he is at last ready once more to hear and heed. With her as his new guide, Dante is lifted into the heavens themselves. He meets rank upon rank of luminous spirits: in each planet, the virtue  appropriate to it (e.g. courage for Mars) is rewarded, and the light of the planets is in fact the glory of the saints. At last, he passes through the outermost sphere and into the Empyrean, where time, space, matter, and change are transcended; Beatrice in turn hands Dante over to the Cistercian mystic St. Bernard. Beatrice had exhibited the elect in their diversity: Bernard shows them to Dante in their essential unity, all beholding God at once in the shape of a rose. At the prayer and example of the Blessed Virgin, Dante finally turns to gaze upon God Himself, and the Comedy closes with the serene and glowing statement that “my will and my desire were revolved / by the love that moves the Sun and other stars.”

Both these bones of the thing, and the finer points that we left out, are governed by the rules of allegory. Allegory is a specific form of symbolism in which the characters, plot, and setting are personified abstractions.** Most allegories are morality tales; The Pilgrim’s Progress is a typical example, both of the subject matter of allegorists, and of the techniques they use to show what a character or setting or arc symbolizes—which are in many cases named frankly for the purpose, like Christian’s fair-weather friend Pliable or the Castle Despair. The Comedy is Dante’s own spiritual journey, from his own ruin and that of his ideals in the early 1300s, through his wanderings from city to city and sorrow to sorrow, to his slow recovery of his sense of rightness and purpose (at first intellectual, then spiritual), and finally a recovery of grace.

If the reader is wondering where all the, you know, personifications are in this ostensible allegory, Dante’s technique is quite unusual. The issue is that, as characters, personifications have a grave drawback: ideas have no native personalities. The writer must try to work up our interest. Dante instead makes use of symbolic personages. These were figures familiar to the reading public—some mythical, but most drawn from history and many near-contemporaries—who, because of their personalities and historical significance, were fitted to represent the traits or concepts Dante had in mind.† By way of illustration: if a modern allegorist who wanted to convey the idea of “art for art’s sake” through personifications, he might create a character named Gratia Artis, arm her with a paintbrush, and give her dialogue about æsthetic principles and the creative calling; but, if he chose to aim at the same meaning with symbolic personages instead, he might use J. R. R. Tolkien or Bill Watterson instead, looking and talking like Tolkien or Watterson.

“Apri li occhi e riguarda qual son io;
tu hai vedute cose, che possente
se' fatto a sostener lo riso mio.”

"Lift up thine eyes; regard me, what I am;
for thou hast seen such things as grant thee
enough thou mayst now bear to see my

This method has several advantages. To start, most of us find people more interesting than abstract concepts—a figure called “Intellect” operating at the behest of one called “Revelation” sounds like a thesis, but Dante being led by Virgil on Beatrice’s orders can make a story. Since his symbolic personages came from current events or known literature, their meanings would be fairly clear (we have lost some of this merit with time, which is why most editions of Dante have lots of textual notes!). Moreover, these personages have great flexibility in what abstractions they can represent. Virgil can be Logic in one context, Poetry in another, and Common Sense in a third—all without getting tied down by a name that might be too vague or dreary for one passage (a character named, say, “Statecraft” sounds like a pompous bore), too specific or ridiculous for another (nobody wants to hear “Deductive Syllogism” make speeches about chivalric love). Dante thus constructs an allegory that maintains at least four distinct levels of significance throughout, modeled on the fourfold interpretation of Scripture practiced by the Catholic Church:

(i) the literal level: Dante’s own ideological and spiritual journey;
(ii) the typological level (unluckily, this can be called “the allegorical sense”): in this sense of the text, Beatrice is Christ, Dante is all the elect, and the plot of the Comedy is the history of redemption;
(iii) the moral level: i.e., the Comedy viewed as a model for all individual acts of repentance and amendment—for this sense, Beatrice is divine grace; and
(iv) the mystical level: the hoped-for union of the redeemed soul (Dante) with God (here, Beatrice represents divine revelation, especially the Church’s teaching function, which will not go on forever).

And there are yet more wheels within the wheels. We might proceed by taking a cue from Dorothy Sayers: she points out in her introductions to the Inferno and Purgatorio that there is a strong communal aspect to both sin and sanctity in the Comedy. Nor are these mere passing images. They invite us to consider the notion of a whole society on the road to salvation or its opposite—Dante the man, Dante the Christian, Dante the penitent, and Dante the immortal spirit, joined by Dante the citizen. Or we might delve into contrapasso (literally “counterstep”), the device by which Dante reveals the sins punished in hell and purged in Purgatory to be, at root, their own penalty and their own penance. Or we might examine the laws—which are many and intricate—of the Medieval courts of Love, to see whether and where Dante observes their laws in his fealty to Beatrice.

But what we must do is conclude. Why linger here? There is no shortage of good translations of Dante: tolle, lege.

So I saw splendors draw to us in droves,
    Full many a thousand, and from each was heard,
    “Lo, here is one that shall increase our loves!”
—Paradiso V.103-105

*Limbo is a widely misunderstood theory, accepted by some Catholics but not authoritative. The idea is that those who have not deliberately rejected what is good, but have also not received regenerating grace—of which the Church considers baptism the normative means—are sent to Limbo rather than Hell “proper.” They are not actively punished there, as they have no serious guilt to call for it; however, they have no natural right to the strictly supernatural bliss of Heaven either, so their eternal recompense is simply to go without that bliss.
**Allegory is frequently confused with a superficially similar genre, the roman à clef or “novel with a key.” Allegories are always philosophical or psychological, often theological or mystical. Romans à clef tend to be political or cultural commentary, disguised in little but names and a few details; they are, in a way, a highly elaborate kind of gossip. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, while called an allegory, is properly a roman à clef.
†It is not certain where Dante got the idea thus to modify allegory. He may have been inspired by St. Paul: in Galatians, the apostle uses the very term (allēgoroumena [ἀλληγορούμενα]) to assign mystical significance to Sarah and Hagar—despite the relevant chapters of Genesis carrying no whiff of figurative intent.


Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle to seven nephews. He has a baccalaureate in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park. A freelance writer, he has been working for the Classic Learning Test since 2019, where he is the company’s editor at large.

Thank you for reading the Journal—and don’t forget to look us up at Anchored wherever you get your podcasts! If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more profiles of the men and women of our Author Bank right here. Have a great day.

Published on 11th December, 2023. Page image from the illustrations created for the Divine Comedy by Gustave Doré in 1868 (this etching in particular is for Canto XIV of the Paradiso, in which Beatrice and Dante ascend into the sphere of Mars, which houses the souls of martyrs and righteous warriors).

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