Literary Wisdom · Poetry

The Split-Heart Plight of Beatrice Portinari: A Sestina

Hi everyone!

If I were to select any literary couple other than Prince Hamlet and Lady Ophelia with whom to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I would choose Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari without question. Though their real-life romance is rather tragic—one could even see the dismal misfortune in a Wikipedia biography—their literary reconciliation is among the sweetest and most ancient epitomes of Christian romantic devotion. In The Divine Comedy, Alighieri portrays himself as a stumbling man, unable to bear a single burden more before he ventures into the brambles of temptation. Yet it is in this very moment of desperation when Beatrice, a saint from Heaven, pleads for the already-perished Virgil to take him from Earth and administer aid. Thus she compensates for her lack of physical strength with the surge of the spiritual—without which strength, Dante would never have gained sight of eternity. With that message in mind, then, I invite you to read my sestina* below, which uses a bit of my imagination to provide a larger framework for Portinari’s intervention than we see in Inferno. May the piece bring warmth to your soul, music to your ears, and a yearning for the upper realms of our existence.

*Note: defines “sestina” as “a poem of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy, originally without rhyme, in which each stanza repeats the endwords of the lines of the first stanza, but in different order, the envoy using the six words again, three in the middle of thelines and three at the end.”

The Split-Heart Plight of Beatrice Portinari: A Sestina

My foot on Earth, my heart in Paradise,
I know not where I go. I see you fall,
O love of life—each pain of yours is mine—
Yet I am bound, by all I am, to praise:
Perhaps the time is come for me to leave?
To ever aid you, live as we desired?

For since to perfect man occurred the Fall,
The poor souls dumb of God do crave their leave,
Do wish what’s rightly God’s to be called “mine”,
Do love the touch of folly, not His praise.
Yet, o!—in life, good things I true desired,
Those things too sweet for wrath of Paradise.

O how I wish omnipotence were mine!
If it were so, then out from he’en I’d leave,
Descending now to give what you desired—
A love, a peace—and in God’s Hand you’d fall.
O God above! I still do lack Thy praise!
Do grant him aid in this dear Paradise!

Now God does speak to me: ‘His soul is Mine,’
Says He, ‘But ever-life does always leave
No soul to rest in ease. With thee he’ll praise,
Yet only when he walks in his own Fall,
When he does see the devil’s Paradise,
Then shall he love, and live as you desired.’

The gnawing fright my peacefull soul does leave,
Though pain encumbers utter trust and praise,
‘O Lord here present, Thou dost see my fall
Into mistrust, dishon’ring Paradise;
Yet Thy good will is all I’ve true desired.
Please show me what to do; life is not mine.’

‘To Limbo go,’ says Lord of Paradise,
‘For there you’ll find the ordain’d aid desired,
And what you’ll see is sent by Hand of Mine.
Ascending trust requires first a fall,
Yet out of fall comes beautied coupled praise,
And neither you nor he from Love shall leave.’

And thus as moon of white I fall and leave,
To come in pur’ty mine, my God to praise—
O Dante!—your soul desired Paradise!

Happy Valentine’s Day.

“‘O kind and gracious soul of Mantua,
whom the world still renowns and ever shall,
whose fame will last as long as earth endures,
The friend I love—and not a fortune-friend—
has been so checked along his journey up
the desert slope, he has turned back for dread,
And from what I have heard of him in Heaven
I fear he may have wandered so far wrong,
my rising for his help may come too late.
Go then, and with the beauty of your words,
and any skill you have to set him free,
help him, that I may be consoled. I am
The blessed Beatrice who bid you go;
love makes me speak, and bade me hasten from
the place that stirs my longing to return.”

Inferno, Canto II, Lines 58-72


~Sarah Merly

February 13, 2019

Isaiah 53