My perception of the entity was muffled. I squinted to see what appeared to be a large man, dressed in a Roman ermine-fringed robe with senatorial embroiderment. "Who would be so dressed in this day and age?" I wondered. Had I died? Was I now getting my first glimpse of the shades who would accompany me through eternity?
Ah, but I am not a ghost; he brings me food. His serious flint-like eyes penetrate my face. I feel the tip of his finger upon my parched lips. My mouth opened, he places a warm elixir there. I sleep. Upon awakening, I immediately have a rush of questions for my would be guide. He silences me.
Looking almost agrarian, he puts his hand in his satchel and offers me a fresh barley cake with honey. "Is my guide a bee-keeper or a farmer?" I muse. I dismiss the thought and focus on his wreathed forehead and garments. Observation and intuition failing, I address the stranger: "Thank you for your life-saving hospitality, my friend. I have fallen from the mount, from my former estate, as I will explain in time. I need direction. Can you guide me from this darkened wood?"
In a voice dry as that which had not spoken for centuries, my instructor remarked that he was fully aware of my condition and that he had been sent. Who could have foreseen my plight? This very morning I had no idea I should be in such desperate straights as these.
A Poet Guide
The raspy voice cut off my musing, "Durante Alighieri, the woman who sent me as your guide, she loves you." The quaint sound of my ungainly family name made me realize that this apparition had been informed about me in a thorough manner. Undoubtedly so, since a lover of mine had sent him.
Many women had made such declarations. I turned back to the bark figurines that depicted my life in search of the candidates of my redemption: Pietta, Pargoletta, Lisetta. Who would love me enough to have sent this stately gentleman to my aid? No one whom I had used would have the opportunity to place themselves in the presence of such a herald. Gauging from his dress and his Latin accent, he was not of this world or time.
Upon making this recognition, I knew both who had loved me and whom she had sent. It could be none other than Beatrice, Bicé Portinari, daughter of Folco. My face reddened. I knew that since her death I had not remained loyal to her love, though as these circumstances portend she was ever loyal to me. I was further abashed when I considered her choice of guide. Beatrice had chosen a poet, one of my kind, although of a higher order. Never having met him, I knew him from his verse. In fact, I had imitated him in my own metre-making. There before me in patrician attitude was the long dead Publius Vergilius Maro, offering me refreshment of body and soul.
Unfamiliar with the dynamics of mentorship, I had many queries. How was I to receive this gift of guidance with the full understanding of my reason? What made Virgil the guide suitable to my redemption? How was I to follow this guide? Where would he lead me and by what path? How could I remain myself and still follow him? Could I avoid being blinded by his brilliance?
From my tensed forehead, and not from my lips, the poet of Mantua unveiled my questions, even the queries that my soul had yet to conceive. "You and I, Dante, are poets; do you know yet what a poet is or does? Yes, you have studied and thrust your grand scheme into the faces of your contemporaries. You have done so in fine meter and rhyme but you are a mere lyricist and not yet a true poet. By journey's end you may be a Poet, a devotee of Beauty; yet, you have much to suffer and to exult in."
Virgil wiped his hand across his robe gathering bark and dust. With steady hand, he held it out to me as if it were, one and the same time, a treasure and a reminder that I have come from dust. His every move was emblematic and contributed to the theme of his guidance.
He continued: "This darkened wood has shored up your perceptions and allowed you to detach yourself from your own nature, and its ambition, in order to bind your soul to Nature Herself. Before your fall you saw through the lens of your undisciplined desires. While seeking pleasure, your way of life brought you no sustaining pleasure or joy. I am the envoy of Pleasure, Desire and Passion of a sort you have never conceived. But first you must learn the lesson of observation and participation in Nature.
"I learned Nature's lesson on my father's Mantuan farm while I watched the shepherds and workers of the field write their poetry with plows for quills and sweat for ink. These mute poets lack no eloquence. The same symmetry that goes into the crafting of our words is first and foremost found in Nature, in the sheaths of wheat, in the slender hair of the corn's ear, in the intricate nodes of seashells. These are the poet's first mentors, if he can attend them.
"Look over at that fallen tree that has intrigued you since your arrival. First of all, it is fallen through an act of violence, as I perceive from the charred base. Second, that tree belongs no more in this gully than you yourself, Dante. There is no evidence of its roots or its origins at its base. In fact, that tree once resided in the upper level of the ravine. It may have been pitched here by a labourer making room for Nature's more productive commodities. Nonetheless, within this tree you have read your life. The tree is Nature's scripture guiding you, carving a living narrative.
"You have been cast away by labourers of another nature? Displaced from whence you have come. Ripped from your roots in Florence, you have come to this place through an act of violence. You lay here reflecting not only your own life but like that tree, you are a symbol of all those who have gone astray. If you become the poet that you are, you will come to reflect the reclamation and grace of the One whose love moves the sun and stars.
"Not only has that tree and the animals, whose instincts shadow your own nature, guided you but your sallies among men and woman, when viewed in like lens, have much to teach as well. While you have refused it, you could have been mentored in many ways. Can you not recall your first brush with genius, and by that I do not mean intelligence but the 'spirit' of a person? As a gangly youth, you watched Guido Guinizelli, the word craftsman of your poetic trade. You learned to speak with his cadences, as you later learned to copy my style. However, in your rush for life, you satisfied yourself with form not substance, metre not meaning. Beneath, beyond, and above the words that stuck in your bosom were the raw experiences of men and woman - available chisels to carve your character. These experiences viewed with sympathy and compassion could have led you to exclaim, 'bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh'. Instead, you used those you met to exalt yourself. We will revisit those neglected sources of guidance as you travel with me to the nether regions of hell, climb the crags of purgatory, and then, crowned with your own discernment, enter paradise itself.
What Greater Mentor is there than Love?
"Before I lead you through such places, I would be negligent not to speak of the woman who loved you enough to send me from Limbo to this darkened wood. Dante, can you bear to hear the words I have concerning the patron of your soul?
"The young girl you met at the May Day Feast, the young woman whose glance slew your self concern, translated you to heaven with her acceptance and to hell with her indifference. It is she who sponsors this journey. Although you later dismissed it as the foolishness of youth, you were correct when you wrote, 'Behold a deity stronger than I, who coming, will rule over me.' Let me ask you this Dante, 'What greater mentor is there than Love?' For without the love of another who sees us as we came from the hand of God, how can we continue? It is so easy to dismiss this love, to confuse it with the senses, to grow accustomed to it and to slay it with cynicism and savvy.
"Though not with you in flesh, Beatricé has ever been with you in spirit. When she passed beyond this veil, instead of fixing your inner ear to the music of her heart, you allowed your soul to drop to sensuality - to become ensnared in lesser goods, lesser passions, and ambitions. The pain of her death drove you to write of her but once finished la vita nuova (The New Life), you turned away, as many do, to worship principle and precept rather than person and perception. While in no way despising the intellect, I am here to reacquaint you with your mentor and the source of her Love.
"Beatrice has enlisted another lady to waken you to yourself. Her name is St. Lucy and she, being the patron saint of sight, has given you this injunction, 'Observe.' To which I would add, 'Observe your guides, Dante: Nature, Love, Genius, and your own Soul.' You have dismissed them all. In re-attending them you will gain the New Life you so eloquently extol in your poetry.
"With your gifted tongue you will find it difficult to keep silent and learn. You will be tempted to write off what you see but you must first of all engrave what I am about to show you on your heart. The quill will be pointed and painful and the ink will be made from your tears. I have drawn this lesson from the experience of realizing the limits of my own vision which was hemmed in by admitting only what could be accomplished by the light of human reason. As your love has become unhinged from reason due to your passions, my reason had become unhinged from love due to my lack of a faith. What I offer you, Dante, is to tether your passions to reason by escorting you through the nether realms. Consider me your Soul Friend and rely on our common bond as poets and those in need of grace and guidance.
"Good Beatrice has chosen me as your guide because where you are blind I am sighted. At this point in your journey, I can see beyond you, even through you. Just as you can see your life written in the fallen trunk of the tree, I can see what has brought you here by reading the lines in your face and the spent light in your eyes. I can see what paralyzes you; what impedes your progress is scrawled in your countenance. Once I have shared my vision with you, I will suggest a course of action which may lead to your freedom. When you have learned how frozen by the darkness of Hell you have become and have felt the twilight warmth of Purgatory thawing you, I must leave. For that is the extent of my vision. A student can not surpass his or her master. I am no permanent guide, only a transitional one between you and the lover of your soul.
"Following another whose vision is limited although not as limited as your own, requires the same skills as learning the craft of words. Guido Guinizelli and I were the voices you imitated until you had your own distinct voice. So in the art of mentorship, you follow until you find not so much your own voice as your own vision. When you can see what I see and beyond that through Love, you and I will part. I back to Limbo, yourself onward toward your vision enabled by the grace.
"Since upon our journey there will be no time for debate and leisurely discussion, I want to lay out the path and what is required of each of us. Hell is the permanent abode of those who have given up the good of intellect. Unlike the living they have no more capacity to choose, they are forever frozen in the lust of the lesser goods. Each sin and its consequence will be met again in Paradise and seen in the light of reasoned love.
"It is a sad, sorrowful place; not a place of punishment as much as a place of consequence. There are many inhabitants, phantoms that have the capacity to numb the will of the living. They attempt to wear down your state of alertness and entangle you in distractions that lull you asleep. The rhetoric of hell is subtle, more subtle than even the council chambers of Florence. Dante, in this place keep your speech to a minimum, only enough talk to learn your lessons and then quickly move on. I will guide you through if you have truly chosen to take the journey and if you will lean on me and trust my every word. You will move forward only through the stealth of your will. At times you will feel extremely dependent but trust me, for there is nothing more honourable to me than that you receive the mitre and crown yourself with your own vision.
"Once your eyes have been fully opened to that which freezes your will, our relationship will be as friends and partners. I will walk the stony crag only slightly ahead of you. My demeanour will no longer be severe as in Hell but will be characterized by the same courteousness that characterizes all inhabitants of this community of reclamation. This is a place of dignity where you and I walk side by side in equality. I will escort you to the upper level of Purgatory, then I will be replaced."
Free to Learn and to Follow
As Virgil said the word "replaced" I knew he was both saddened that his task would end and delighted that he could serve the Lady who loved me so well. Even before our journey had begun I had learned much from him. First and foremost, I learned that the Teacher was always there, awaiting my readiness. Like Virgil himself, there was no reticence on the part of my many and various mentors to lead me home. The Dark Wood, the Leopard, the Lion and the She-Wolf, even the encounter with the Florentine Council taught me as much. Mentorship was a free thing, not at all the onerous burden I once thought it to be. I was free to learn and to follow. The idea that I was a puppet or a passive participant in an impersonal process was entirely wrong, for I could neither move or be moved without the consent of my deepest will. It was not the powerful authority of the mentor that would deliver me but the power of my reason coupled with love and humility that would draw me forward.
From watching Virgil, I realized the importance of physical objects and movement, as well as every intellectual twist and turn. Nature was moral; it lived and had personality. All life took on the character of a Guiding Friend. People and things could no longer be insensitively used since they were the speech of the Teacher. I was obligated by this loving Instruction to truly observe the depth of what I encountered daily.
From Virgil, I learned that it is not enough to recount my lessons by rote but to allow my heart to be touched by what I saw and experienced. Where would I learn such compassion but through the example of Beatrice who loved me and Virgil whom she sent? In the end, it turns out that my Teacher is my life, my ability to participate and communicate with Love guiding my reason and reason escorting my Love homeward.
The conversation had been long. My Teacher rose, brushed the dirt from his robes, as if he were brushing away my previous misconceptions, and beckoned me to follow. I hesitated. This time not for fear or lack of courage but merely because I sensed gratitude for the gift of his instruction. For once, I was truly humbled yet without shame and ready to move into the journey.