On a recent tour through my old journals, I unearthed an entry I wrote at age nineteen, the year I lived in Florence, when I went to visit Dante’s grave in Santa Croce. I had spent the past few months picking up bits and pieces of Dante because he is everywhere around the city. I tried to read the Commedia on my own while I sat in cafes – an edition with no notes – and, needless to say, I felt defeated. After many weeks searching for the meaning I knew I was missing, I walked to Santa Croce in an effort to find a more tangible way to connect with the poet. When I arrived, I discovered that this ornate tomb was in fact empty; Dante’s remains were still in exile in another tomb in Ravenna. It was the perfect symbol of the way Dante, even in death, eluded me. I wrote a sonnet about it.
On Visiting Dante’s Tomb in Santa Croce
I’ve travelled here with eager mind and heart
To bow before thy laurel crowned head,
Your state is kingly, in your marble bed,
Exalted poet of the highest art.
What? The tomb is empty! Why keep apart
The poet from his Tuscan saltless bread?
Do I, too, seek the living in the dead?
I can’t just gather lilies and depart.
But could I reach my hand through marble walls
And touch the relic of your honored flesh,
Oh master, you would yet elude me - while
Directing my gaze up where love enthralls,
Where song and image make the mind confess
The mystery of your unembodied smile.
I came to Yale to take this course. And I suppose, in summary, Dante still eludes me. But it is in a different way. Now I swim through a sea of images; busy bees on the shores of Carthage; three attempted embraces of the departed; little flowers straightened up by the warming sunlight; two lovers vanquished by Lancelot; red and yellow flowers at the feet of barefoot Matelda; the gryphon; the Coliseum; a holy shout; a womb; a gaze; a smile; a star; a rose.
As I write this, I feel more than ever that I am in a small bark. However, Dante allows small barks to participate in this journey provided they stay very, very close. That is where you all come in. We have traveled this road closely together. I will never read this poem without hearing your voices in it. Susanna’s lone reed at the base of Mount Purgatory; Esther’s love of Virgil and her brave skepticism; Patrick’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Aeneid; Lauren’s confessed desire to stay in Limbo with her heroes; Emily’s beautiful diction; Nate’s command of the anxiety of Ulysses; Rose’s gift of Augustine; Jeff’s spreadsheet and Bible knowledge; and, of course, the many moments of panic when I frantically searched the ground for Peter’s shadow, in desperate need of a capable guide – simultaneously the strict admiral and the nurturing mother.
I cannot hide that this has been the most fulfilling literary experience of my life – perhaps due mostly to the fact that it leaves me with much still to do. The Commedia and I will be together for life. It has given shape to what Dante calls “The innate and perpetual thirst for the deiform realm” (Par.2.19). Dante explains in Paradiso 4, “Per questo la Scrittura condescende / a vostra facultate, e piedi e mano / attribuische a Dio e altro intende.” Using the written word to give hands and feet to God so we might apprehend him. Dante’s images have done the same for my pilgrim journey – giving hands and feet to the restless love that always has and always will draw me to text.
When my fiancé proposed to me, he quoted La Vita Nuova: “Here begins a new life.” Love has the power to do that, doesn’t it? To make all things new. This poem makes me new.
O honor and light of other poets; my master and my author – as George Herbert put it, “O God! Who has praise enough?”