Dorothy Sayers on “romantic theology” in Dante Alighieri and Charles Williams

High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave D...

"The Souls of Paolo and Francesco," by Gustav Dore, illustrating Canto V of Dante's Inferno

The following are some reflections on Dorothy L. Sayers’s essay “Dante and Charles Williams,” published in The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy L. Sayers (New York: Collier Books, 1987):

Dorothy Sayers rarely wrote an uninteresting word–much less when talking about her chief late-life passion: the great Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.

Like C. S. Lewis, Sayers saw in the quirky novelist, Dantist, and romantic mystic Charles Williams something of enduring value. Especially, she saw Williams as having grasped a crucial point about why Dante–and countless other historical figures–are still important to us today. [I posted here on how Sayers, Lewis, and Williams all drew different sorts of sustenance from that great poet.]

The point is this: Dante, despite the fact that he lived “long ago and far, far away,” was a human like us, with experiences in many respects like ours, and he is still of great value to us because he had acute insights into the truths behind those experiences, along with a poet’s ability to express those insights deeply and brilliantly. [I posted here on Sayers’s argument in this essay against the sort of “historicism gone to seed” that spends all its resources on teasing out the peculiarities of other periods, and thereby effectively drives an impassable (indeed, also impassible) wedge between the modern reader and the experience of those who lived in those other periods.]

Williams, who worked as an editor for the Oxford University Press, first encountered the Divine Comedy “when he was hurriedly correcting the proofs of Cary’s translation” for that press. “His immediate reaction was, ‘But this is true.’” [Also, I have to say, my own reaction!]

There had been over the previous century, says Sayers, plenty of approaches to Dante. “He has been treated as a theologian, as a moralist, as a political satirist, as a manufacturer of ‘wild Gothick fancies,’ as a repository of curious historical allusions, and, occasionally, as a mystic of a rather irregular kind.”

But now Williams, as his interest in Dante grew and as he began to publish on the great poet, began to present him as he had “very seldom” been understood before: “as a poet among poets, creating . . . ‘an accurate image of actual experience.’” (These, Sayers points out, are Williams’s exact words, from his book Love and Religion in Dante [Dacre Press])

In particular, the “true experience” Williams found in Dante that he felt is still valid is this: the transcendent nature of human (romantic) love. The way that it points toward God. Sayers tells us how Williams was having his hair cut and “at the same time lending a sympathetic ear to the history of the barber’s love affair. ‘When my girl’s about,’ said the barber, ‘I’m that happy I don’t feel as if I had an enemy in the world—I’d forgive anybody anything.’ ‘My dear man,’ cried Charles, leaping up and wringing the barber’s hand enthusiastically, ‘my dear man, that’s exactly what Dante said.’”

In other words, “Williams’s approach, to Dante as to everybody else, was existential. He recognized in the Comedy, not merely the doctrine of hell, purgatory, and heaven, but the experience of those states.”

Therefore, concludes Sayers, “it is easy to see why, the poem being such as it is, this approach should be found disquieting. If the thing that happened to Dante in thirteenth-century Florence is identical with what happens today to a barber in Fleet Street, then the whole experience might happen to any of us at any time, and nobody can feel safe.”

Sayers admits that Williams’s “romantic theology” came not from Dante, but from his own experience. But “when he encountered it in Dante, he recognized it immediately and knew that Dante and he were living within the same tradition.”

Sayers doesn’t detail Williams’s, or Dante’s, romantic theology in the essay I’m quoting here, so I’ll sketch it, as it appears in the Dante chapter of my Patron Saints for Postmoderns. The root of it is a girl Dante met when he was a young man: Beatrice.

The first and perhaps most important of the formative events in Dante’s life was his encounter with the girl who would become his lifelong inspiration. It happened like this: At the age of nine, Dante was attending one of the parties that structured the social world of the Florentine upper classes. He was no doubt already being trained in the graces and gravitas so important to a middle-class family with aspirations to nobility. But none of his parents’ coaching could have prepared him for what happened next. Suddenly, as if illuminated by a flash of lightning, a vision shone out amidst the throng—the most enchanting girl Dante had ever seen. Dressed in “noble crimson,” she possessed a luminous physical beauty that awakened Dante’s senses. But there was more than this. As if in a dream, he watched her as she conversed graciously with those around her. And he was overwhelmed by her spiritual beauty. Her presence seemed that of an angel, and it shook him to his core. He began to tremble. And from that moment, this girl a few months his junior, “little Beatrice, daughter of Folco Portinari,” filled his waking thoughts and his dreams, becoming his muse, his inspiration—in his words, “‘the glorious lady of my mind.’”

The infatuation grew over the years, and as a teenager, Dante began to write poetic homages to Beatrice. He hymned the elegance of her clothes; “her stride; her eyes; her silence; her smile; her aura.” Above all, these poems described Beatrice as a young lady of exceptional, virtuous grace, who transformed all around her, so that they could speak only “whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely,” and “of good repute” (Phil. 4:8). In short, these poems hint—and the young poet makes this explicit in his autobiographical Vita Nuovathat Beatrice’s Presence in his life was far more than a youthful “crush.” As love for a woman has done for many men, only in this case from an agonizingly unbridgeable distance (she far outranked him socially), Beatrice’s luminous person set Dante on “the path of self-discovery”—emotionally, vocationally, and spiritually. Her influence on the young poet convinced him in later years that God uses romantic love as a sort of mediating influence, to lead humans to the Being who is Love Himself. In fact, it is not too extreme to call Beatrice (and Dante said as much) a kind of Christ-figure in his life. In the culminating Paradiso of his divine trilogy, Dante says that it is through Beatrice he “first found entry to that faith which makes souls welcome unto God.”

We might ask: Is this elevation of a human being to the status of “Christ-bearer” a sort of blasphemy? Does it feed an unhealthy obsession with human love, from which there is no guarantee that a person will move on to love for God? Sayers hurries, in her essay, to make a qualification that Williams himself made:

The “personal relationship of adoration” that is central to this romantic theology “need not be (though in literature it most frequently is) that of a man for a woman. It might . . . be that of a woman for a man. . . . Or the element of sex might not enter it at all. But in one way or other, the Image is that of the God-bearing person, whose earthly archetype is Mary, and whose heavenly archetype is Christ.”

Thus human romantic love operates as one of the “five great images” Williams believed operated in our experience to draw us to God. “They are: the religious experience itself; the image of woman [romantic love, sometimes also of woman for man, etc.—see above]; the image of nature; the image of the city; and the experience of great art. Of these,” Sayers says, “four at least [Williams] found . . . already manifest in Dante.”

Each of these “images” can become for us a mode of the “affirmative way” to God—that is, not the apophatic (“negative”) but the kataphatic (“positive”) way. This way takes seriously, sacramentally, the rich biblical and traditional imagery of the Christian faith. In particular, while not deying sin, the noetic effects of the fall, and the rest, this affirmative way takes seriously the ways humans reflect and embody God to one another. Sayers uses the phrase “the sanctity of the flesh” to describe this dimension of the affirmative way, and she roots it in the Incarnation itself:

“The theme of the sanctity of the flesh is, of course, common to both poets [Dante and Williams], as it in reason ought to be to all those who acknowledge the Incarnation, and as it must necessarily be to all followers of the affirmative way. For that way begins always with the intuitive perception of the divine image in the material creation—not displacing but informing it, as Moses beheld God in the burning bush, ‘and the bush was not consumed’”

This is the sort of thing we find in “Dante, beholding in the flesh-and-blood Florentine girl the appearance of the in-godded Beatrice in her unfallen nature . . .” [I cannot help hearing in such phrases–“in-godded”–the theosis of the East and of the church fathers.]

Of course, we can easily think of ways this romantic theology can go wrong. Dante is no less aware of these, as Sayers observes Williams pointed out in his book The Figure of Beatrice:

“Williams, in his chapter on the Inferno, speaks of the soul being ‘here drawn down the perverted way of affirmation’ . . . Dante . . . shows in hell the perverted experience of those goodnesses that are seen exalted in heaven. Paolo and Francesca, Ulysses and Diomede, Ugolino and Ruggieri are, at different levels, the perverted images of that mutuality that is the life of those blessed who make up the body of the eagle in the heaven of justice and ‘when they think we, say I,’ because they are members of one another.”

But to see the perversions—as both Dante and Williams would say—is not to deny the original: the beautiful ways romantic love point us to divine love.

There is much more in this essay, as there is much more in the thought of Williams about Dante. But this start should give a sense of what both were about, and what Sayers owed Williams when she approached Dante as one of his great 20th-century translators.

One response to “Dorothy Sayers on “romantic theology” in Dante Alighieri and Charles Williams

  1. Williams’ book is Religion and Love in Dante (not Love and Religion in Dante)

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