Who else in the course of human writing ever intertwined in a textual double helix the arrival of his heart’s desire with the disappearance of a beloved alternately father-like and mother-like mentor and guide? That is what Dante does in Purgatorio 30.
Dante actually records in direct discourse the words he would have spoken to Virgilio had Virgilio still been next to him:
volsimi a la sinistra col respitto col quale il fantolin corre a la mamma quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto, per dicere a Virgilio: ‘Men che dramma di sangue m’è rimaso che non tremi: conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma’. (Purg. 30.43-48)
I turned around and to my left—just as a little child, afraid or in distress, will hurry to his mother—anxiously, to say to Virgil: “I am left with less than one drop of my blood that does not tremble: I recognize the signs of the old flame.”
As I wrote in “Does Dante Hope for Vergil’s Salvation?” (p. 157):
Dante thus inscribes his sweet father indelibly into the very syntax that tells us he is gone. Because of its will to force us to live its lesson of loss, to experience the shock of bereavement for ourselves, to feel it as the death of a beloved parent whose presence is still palpable, the text works at cross-purposes to itself, achieving the same kind of dialectical “living” textuality that, for instance, confounds us by both celebrating Ulysses and damning him. In this case, while the content denotes an absence, the form works to make a presence—with the words that are addressed to one who cannot hear them, with the appropriation of Dido’s verse from the Aeneid, and with the incantatory invocations of a repeated name: “Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia salute die’mi’” (But Vergil had left us deprived of himself, Vergil, most sweet father, Vergil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation) (Purg. 30.49–51).
In a passage studded with the name “Virgilio” and with language from Vergil’s own texts—“Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis” (Purg. 30.21) from Aeneid 6.883 and, most stunningly, Dido’s verse of reawakened passion from Aeneid 4.23, “adgnosco veteris vestigia flammae”, translated by Dante as “conosco i segni dell’antica fiamma” (48)—Virgilio “leaves us deprived of himself” (Purg. 30.49). We note the syntax, which makes Virgilio an actor, rather than acted upon, and the lexicon, whereby Virgilio does not depart, but deprives us of his presence.
Beatrice now takes his place. It would be hard indeed to “like” her given this staging of her arrival.
And then, on top of Virgilio’s disappearance, she turns out not to be the least bit “nice”, not at all the “bella donna” picking flowers of the (male) reader’s fantasy.
So we come to the question: what was Dante making when he made the figure of Beatrice? She is composite; many cultural and textual currents feed into her. She is complex. And, most of all, Beatrice is absolutely not consoling. Bracing, rather, as she regally states her name and challenges Dante to be happy:
«Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice. Come degnasti d’accedere al monte? non sapei tu che qui è l’uom felice?» (Purg. 30.73-75)
“Look here! For I am Beatrice, I am! How were you able to ascend the mountain? Did you not know that man is happy here?”
Eventually Beatrice too will receive the epithet “dolce” (sweet), although never in the superlative, as in “Virgilio dolcissimo patre” (Virgilio most sweet father [Purg. 30.50]). But right away the codes that compose her are startlingly mixed. Beatrice is simultaneously all the following: the object of Dante’s intense and passionate love, in “d’antico amor sentì la gran potenza” (I felt the mighty power of old love [Purg. 30.39]); an admiral encouraging his men on the ship he commands, in the simile that begins in Purgatorio 30.58; regal and disdainful, in verses 70-72; and a stern mother, in the simile of verse 79. (Virgilio has been compared to a mother too, as recently as verse 44 in this very canto, but he was always a tender and kindly mother.)
And there will be so much more . . . biblical currents, stilnovist currents, the language of Boethius and other allegorical writers . . . Perhaps one reason Beatrice does not and cannot work as a “character” in the way that Virgilio does is that she is much more a mosaic of different cultural and scriptural traditions. For more on the traditions that flow into the figure of Beatrice, see my “Notes toward a Gendered History of Italian Literature, with a Discussion of Dante’s Beatrix loquax”, the last chapter in Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture. The point of the title Beatrix loquax is that this female figure is loquacious, in defiance of her lyric origins.
The rest of Purgatorio 30 and a good part of Purgatorio 31 are taken up with Beatrice’s reproof of Dante for his past straying from the path of devotion to her. Her rebuke is the climax of the Augustinian message of the Purgatorio: keep your desire focused on the eternal (primary) good and do not be di-verted by the transient goods, the false earthly goods, no matter how seductive, how captivating (seductive and captivating as in the dolce sirena who seduced Ulysses from his path in the dream of Purgatorio 19).
The idea that Beatrice articulates is formulated in a question by her as follows: once you had lost the most beautiful of mortal beings that was ever available for you to love, one moreover that led you only toward the path of righteousness, why were you distracted by any subsequent and lesser mortal objects of desire?
Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto: mostrando li occhi giovanetti a lui, meco il menava in dritta parte vòlto. Sì tosto come in su la soglia fui di mia seconda etade e mutai vita, questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui. Quando di carne a spirto era salita e bellezza e virtù cresciuta m’era, fu’ io a lui men cara e men gradita; e volse i passi suoi per via non vera, imagini di ben seguendo false, che nulla promession rendono intera. (Purg. 30.121-32)
My countenance sustained him for a while; showing my youthful eyes to him, I led him with me toward the way of righteousness. As soon as I, upon the threshold of my second age, had changed my life, he took himself away from me and followed after another; when, from flesh to spirit, I had risen, and my goodness and my beauty had grown, I was less dear to him, less welcome: he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path; he followed counterfeits of goodness, which will never pay in full what they have promised.
This is an idea that Dante had begun to consider as the cornerstone of his personal ideology already in the youthful Vita Nuova (1292-1294), where he first came up with the idea that the death of one’s beloved does not free you to love another mortal beloved but rather redirects your love away from all mortal things and to first principles.
The point that the death of the beloved does not free one from obligation is new to the Vita Nuova and to the courtly tradition. It is a radical thought that Beatrice espouses, saying that her death should have made her more dear to him, not less. Her death should not, in other words, have rendered him vulnerable to the seductions of the serene — the seductions of the new.
The crux of Beatrice’s rebuke here is very simple. She says, you turned away from me — you were seduced by the new — and you gave yourself to ”another”: “questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui” (he took himself from me and gave himself to another [Purg. 30.126].
This concept of an estrangement brought about by Dante’s behavior is reprised in Purgatorio 33, where Dante does not remember (having drunk from the river Lethe) what could ever have estranged him from Beatrice: “Non mi ricorda / ch’i’ stranïasse me già mai da voi” (I don’t remember / making myself a stranger to you [Purg. 30.91-2]). And the answer comes back, from Beatrice, that he doesn’t remember because he drank of Lethe, but that in fact he erred by allowing his will to be “elsewhere intent”: “colpa ne la tua voglia altrove attenta” (the fault was that you had turned elsewhere [Purg. 30.99]).
Beatrice’s first rebuke at her first appearance is “questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui”: he took himself from me and gave himself to another. Her last rebuke — no longer a rebuke but a reminder that a rebuke once occurred — is to let him know that his will was turned elsewhere: “colpa ne la tua voglia altrove attenta”.
From Purgatorio 30 to Purgatorio 33, from altrui to altrove, we have come back to the beginning of Beatrice’s rebuke and the circle is now closed.
The Italian words altrui and altrove are both based in altro — other — and they are both function in the Earthly Paradise as synthetic and powerful indicators of the seduction of the new.
Thus the task that governs all Purgatorio—the need to redirect desire from temporary goods, no matter how good in themselves, to the one primary and eternal good—is focused directly onto the pilgrim, who now fully participates in purgation. Here, in the earthly paradise, his own life and life-choices are directly under assault. And, as we saw, the pilgrim participates in the process of loss and sublimation that provides the deep logic of the second realm, since he must give up his beloved Virgilio.
Here, at the core of what I have termed the personal microcosmic history at the center of the macrocosmic history treated in these canti (see the diagram at the end of Purgatorio 28), Dante is reproved by name. This moment constitutes the only occasion on which the name “Dante” is used in the Commedia, despite the fact that he is recognized by fellow Florentines many times. Here Dante is fully present as his historical self when Beatrice addresses him:
«Dante, perché Virgilio se ne vada, non pianger anco, non pianger ancora; ché pianger ti conven per altra spada.» (Purg. 30.55-57)
“Dante, though Virgil's leaving you, do not yet weep, do not weep yet; you'll need your tears for what another sword must yet inflict.”
In The Undivine Comedy I write that Purgatorio 28-33 “tie up all the narrative strings generated thus far in the poem and provide an overwhelming sense of nexus and completion, most forcefully by staging the chiasmic scene of Vergil’s departure and Beatrice’s arrival” (pp. 162-63).
At this nodal point of the Commedia, the three key dramatis personae of this great drama are named and intersect: Virgilio, Beatrice, and Dante.