From the very start of the Aeneid, Virgil makes it clear that his epic is to find its focus in two essential subjects: arma virumque, “arms and a man” (Virg. A. I.1). These two major themes each carry larger significance that is developed throughout the epic: arma refers not only to arms, but also, by metonymy, to public wars, the deeds of arms, and virum refers to the private experiences and developments of a man as an individual. So from the outset, Virgil offers his readership a poem that considers the human experience in both a public and a private context. He reconciles these two perspectives in the character of Aeneas, who is both a public hero, as the founder of Rome, and a private individual, as a lover of Dido and victim of fortune. This reconciliation is among the most clearly manifest poetic innovations that, several centuries later, would cause Dante Alighieri to say of Virgil, tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi / lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore, “you alone are he from whom I took the beautiful style that has done me honor” (Dante Inferno I.86-7). However, Dante views the foundation of Rome not as a political conquest, but as a spiritual mission, and so accordingly, in the literary character of Dante, his own parallel of Virgil’s Aeneas, we find the reconciliation of a private drama with a public one that is not political, but spiritual—a divine comedy.
In the Aeneid, Aeneas is introduced as both a public leader and a private individual. When he and his men find themselves in an unknown land, having lost thirteen ships, he encourages his men with a speech, after which Virgil’s narration affords us additional insight into his character: Talia voce refert curisque ingentibus aeger / spem vultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem, “He relates such things with his voice, and sick with great worries, he imitates hope with his face, repressing pain deep in his heart” (Virg. A. I.208-9). Here Virgil paints the image of a public leader, who puts forth a front of spei, ‘hope’, but as a private individual, carries great curas, ‘worries’, within—the nearly golden line (209) creates a powerful juxtaposition of these two facets of Aeneas’ Character. At the same time, Venus expresses a similar two-fold interpretation of Aeneas when she raises her entreatment to Jupiter. She says, Certe hinc Romanos olim volventibus annis, / hinc fore ductores, revocato a sanguine Teucri … pollicitus … / hoc equidem occasum Troiae tristesque ruinas / solabar fatis contraria fata rependens, “Surely, you have promised that the Romans, the rulers, shall be from these men, recalled from Trojan blood. In this, indeed, have I found solace for the fall of Troy, holding fate against fate” (Virg. A. I.234-7). Here she first expresses a public concern, the founding of Rome, but her reaction is private. We are presented, in this single speech, with the images of both a patron goddess, longing for her promised and fated city, and a mother, grieving the misfortunes of her son.
However, for Dante, the significance of Rome’s destiny is not political, but spiritual: Per quest’andanta onde li dai tu vanto, / intese cose che furon cagione / di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto, “through this journey, from where you give him [Aeneas] praise, he understood things that were occasions of his victory and the papal mantle” (Dante Inferno II.25-7). Here Dante acknowledges that Aeneas’ learnings are a personal victory, but the public founding of Rome, as it functions in the establishment of the Church, is not merely a political victory, but a spiritual one. In this way, Virgil’s pagan force of fate is reinterpreted as a Christian force of providence, and the focus is shifted from the destiny of an empire to the will of the gods (or of God). In both cases, a private drama is held against a public one, but for Dante, the public drama is only public in the sense that it is universal: just as the political issue of the founding of Rome made Aeneas’ private history relevant to the entirety of Virgil’s Roman audience—thus transforming it into a public history—so, for Dante, does the spiritual issue of God’s will make the private histories of both him and Aeneas relevant to his whole Christian audience, all of whom are to be subjects of quello imperador, ‘that emperor’ (God), and citizens of sua città, ‘his city’ (Dante Inferno I.124-6). Thus, issues of politics are equated to those of salvation.
But with this Christianisation in place, Dante’s and Virgil’s tasks are really quite similar: they both endeavour to transform private stories of love and misfortune into public ones. Dante expresses the need for such a transformation in the fortieth chapter of his Vita Nuova, where he tells the story of two pilgrims who seem ignorant of his local, private griefs, chè forse pensano de li loro amici lontani, li quali noi non conoscemo, “for perhaps they are thinking of their far away friends, whom we do not know.” Here Dante expresses a frustration with the disconnect between his personal drama and theirs. He acknowledges that each party has its own story, his being the drama of Beatrice and theirs being, perhaps, some drama involving distant friends. But he then resolves to write parole le quali farebbero piangere chiunque le intendesse, “words that would make anyone who listens weep” (Dante Vita Nuova XL). This universal appeal, which will exploit the commonalities of all private dramas, is to be the great accomplishment of the dolce stil novo, and is one of the major innovations for which Dante is in debt to Virgil.
The universal appeal of Dante’s dolce stil novo is accomplished through the transformation of his romance with Beatrice into a divine love, relevant to his entire audience. This transformation plays itself out in two ways worth mentioning, both of which parallel phenomena in Virgil: (1) the equating of Beatrice’s love for the literary figure of Dante with that of God for man, and (2) the portrayal of love as an active, cathartic, and redemptive force, rather than a mere enslaving passion. Virgil’s parallel for the first of these has already been mentioned: the love of Venus, who is both a mother and a goddess, for Aeneas. Dante likewise transforms Beatrice’s love—which, while not the love of a mother, is still a private love—into a divine love. He does so in the second canto of the Inferno, when the literary character of Dante has just expressed concern that his journey through hell, unlike Aeneas’, is not divinely willed, and is therefore unwise; whereupon Virgil corrects him, telling him that he was sent by Beatrice, who, moved by love, expressed the divine will that Dante complete his journey (Dante Inferno II.49-114). Beatrice’s love is made divine, clearly, by the fact that she is a blessed soul from heaven, but also by its close association with the Virgin Mary. Just shortly after Beatrice says, amor mi mosse, “love moved me” (Dante Inferno II.7), she explains that Mary, weeping before God, sent Beatrice (via the message of Lucia) to prod Dante onward (which she does via the message of Virgil) (Dante Inferno II.94-114); hence, Beatrice was moved, in one sense, by her own personal love, but in another sense, by the divine love represented by the Virgin Mary. The weeping of Mary—who is a symbol of love—before God, sì che duro giudicio là sù frange, “so that the firm judgment on high breaks” (Dante Inferno II.96), closely parallels the weeping of Venus, the goddess of love, before Jupiter, the god of justice—both of which public dramas portray the universal theme of justice and love.
The second way in which Dante’s private romance is universalised comes directly from a reference to the dolce stil novo. The title of dolce stil novo is first given to Dante’s poetry (and the works of his small poetic circle) in the Purgatorio, where Bonagiunta makes it clear that Dante’s canzone, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, typifies this new style (Dante Purgatorio XXIV.49-57). In the canzone Bonagiunta mentions, Dante expresses, with his praises, the cathartic and redemptive power of his love for Beatrice: e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa, o si morria, “and whoever endures to stand there [near Beatrice] and to look on her either becomes something noble, or dies” (Dante Vita Nuova XIX). Hence, Dante’s private love has been transformed into a redemptive force, something that purifies and promotes the salvation of souls.
It should also be noted that this new style is an active style, a style of praising. Dante writes of the innovation that this new canzone presents: lo fine del mio amore fue già lo saluto di questa donna, … chè era fine di tutti li miei desiderii. Ma poi che le piacque di negarlo a me, lo mio segnore Amore … ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine … in quello parole che lodano la donna mia, “the end of my love used to be the greeting of this lady, [Beatrice,] which was the end of all my desires. But now that it pleases her to deny me that, my lord, Love, has put all my beatitude in those words which praise my lady” (Dante Vita Nuova XVIII). This novissimo, most new, active desire of Dante’s stands in vivid opposition to his earlier passive one. Instead of wishing for something to happen to him (namely, that he be greeted), he now wishes to do something (praise Beatrice). This is the essential difference between the dolce stil novo and the older style; the latter of which is manifest in the first poem of the Vita Nuova, in which Dante addresses ciascun’alma presa, “every engrossed, or captive, soul” (Dante Vita Nuova III). At this earlier point, he is love’s prisoner, only waiting for something to happen to him, but in the dolce stil novo, his narrative has a new-found authority, by which he is able to act all on his own.
In his De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante points out the importance of this active voice in poetry. He says that the word cantio, when used to describe the creation, rather than the performance, of poetry, has an active sense, et secundum istum modum Virgilius, primo Eneidorum, dicit Arma virumque cano, “and according to this usage of the word does Virgil say, at the beginning of the Aeneid, I sing of arms and of a man” (Dante De Vulgari Eloquentia II.viii.4). So Virgil’s active declamation is important to Dante. It contrasts Homer’s deferral of the duty to sing or speak to a muse—e.g. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ, “Sing of the rage, O goddess” (Hom. Il. I.1) and ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, “Tell me of the man, O muse” (Hom. Od. I.1)—which makes Homer’s oeuvre an act of performance rather than of creation, and for Dante, it is therefore cantio only in a passive sense.
With his new, active style, Dante transforms his understanding of love from something that happens to him into something that he seeks. For the sake of love, the purifying force, he journeys through hell and purgatory to salvation, which is his analogue of Aeneas’ trial-filled journey to Italy (because salvation is the destination of Dante’s spiritual journey, while Italy is the destination of Aeneas’ political one). So the transformation of love into something of which one actively seeks to become worthy makes it a divine force—rather than a private affaire—that propels Dante to salvation. In the same way, Virgil transforms love from a mere private affair between Dido and Aeneas into a fateful force that motivates Aeneas’ active quest for Italy, for Aeneas himself says, hic amor, haec patria est, “this [Italy] is my love, this is my fatherland” (Virg. A. IV.347). In the cases of both poets, the transformation of love from a passion that is experienced into a calling that is sought after—which coincides with a poetic narrative that seeks to do something, whether lodare or canere, rather than express what is done—makes it public, and affords it universal appeal.