Williams: The Figure of Beatrice

March 20, 2023

The Figure of Beatrice
A Study in Dante
Charles Williams
(Apocryphile, 2005) [1944]
240 p.

Aquinas was clear that a philosophical way to God proceeds in large measure by making affirmations of what God is not. God is immutable. God is impassable. God is unlimited in knowledge, power, and love. God is eternal — that is, not temporal. And we proceed in this way because what God is lies, for the most part, beyond our comprehension and capacity to articulate. The things that have been made might be images, in some sense, of God, but they are so inadequate to His reality that they are more likely to lead us astray than lead us to Him. And this via negativa is not just a tradition of philosophical method, but a spiritual discipline too, from at least Pseudo-Dionysius onward, and has given rise to an enduring school of devotion and spiritual life. It is venerable and I’ll not gainsay it.

But it has always existed, in Christianity, with a tendency in the other direction. Jesus taught us to call God “father”, which is a specific image. When he wanted to speak about the reality of God’s power and providence, he didn’t call for a retreat from the realm of everyday experience, but asked us instead to consider the lilies of the field, or to think of a sparrow, or of a mustard seed. And Jesus’ own person was, in a preeminent sense, an identification of God with a specific created thing. Under these conditions, it surely cannot be impossible, or even unlikely, that we find our way to God along a via positiva, through encounters with created things that we experience through our bodily senses.

Charles Williams is an advocate of this via positiva, which he calls the Way of Affirmation of Images, and he believes that Dante was as well. For Dante, the image by means of which God came to him was the figure of Beatrice, and the whole of the Divine Comedy, and of La Vita Nova also, is an account of how that vision of Beatrice led him, step by step, to salvation. It is Williams’ conviction that Dante’s experience of romantic love as a means of grace was real, and of general application, and very much worth serious thought.

In what ways does the experience of romantic love — of being “in love” — have moral and religious significance? Williams asks us to consider a young man who has fallen into this state:

He has met a young woman; he is attracted to her; his emotions are moved, his sensations increased, his intellect excited, and that dim state of being which we call his soul purged and cleaned. He is ‘in love’. He is concerned (perhaps) to ask questions about this new quality of life. It seems to him to have a terrible power, grand but (in a sense) ominous, related to every recognizable element in him. The girl seems to him something like perfection.

This description, which I hope is recognizable as a description of a real experience that you’ve had, has two aspects on which I’d like to focus. First, the vision of perfection, and, second, the purging and cleaning of the soul.

Love is blind, the saying goes, and there is an allied school of thought that sees the radiance that the girl sheds on the boy’s eyes as a kind of blindness, a distortion and obscuring of her actual, probably very normal, person. But Williams will have none of that. To his way of thinking, love gives the lovers true sight:

Maintaining that the beloved is there seen in her proper and heavenly perfection, they [the lovers] maintain also that such a perfection is implicit in every human being, and (had we eyes to see) would be explicit there.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ wonderful essay “The Weight of Glory,” in which he argues, along similar lines, that ordinary people are anything but, and that each of us has a capacity, in some sense already realized, for a glory that would overwhelm us if we could see it. It is similar to the beauty that a mother sees in her child: perhaps no one else can see it to the same extent, for no one else is so attentive, but let it not be said that the mother sees falsely. The child is beautiful, each one, though we are usually too weak or preoccupied to perceive it.

This vision of perfection can be a true insight without the beloved being actually perfect. She is potentially perfect, and that potentiality is made perceptible to the lover, who is dazzled by it:

The vision of the perfection arises independently of the imperfection; it shines through her body whatever she makes of her body. Thus chastity is exhibited in the lecherous, and industry in the lazy, and humility in the proud, and truth in the false… Her lover’s testimony told her what, in fact, the image of her was; it was for her to make haste to become it.

That last comment — that the beloved, seen by her lover, is given the task of becoming what he sees in her — is, as with all things in love, reciprocated. The lover, too, finds himself challenged to become worthy of his beloved. His inadequacies seem painfully obvious to himself, but he is inspired, by her love, to master them, making of himself a man who can offer her his best. This was my experience when I fell in love with my wife, and it was Dante’s experience too, when he saw Beatrice. In the Paradiso Dante says of her, as she, in her glory, extends him a hand, “so did her virtue overcome my nature,” which Williams interprets in just the way we are discussing here. The beloved’s presence burns away the dross. “The sight of Beatrice,” says Williams, “filled him with the fire of charity and clothed him with humility”. “She is such that whoever stays to behold her becomes a noble thing or dies.”

Elsewhere Dante argues that the vision of the beloved brings out the masculine virtues in the lover, which are (following Aristotle) courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, love of honour, mansuetude, affability, truthfulness, pleasantness, and justice. Comments Williams:

These are the eleven virtues of largesse; these are the powers which are provoked into action by the girl’s challenge, because they are the ‘valors’ of a man. It is indeed these which Beatrice, consciously or unconsciously, encourages, and in which she takes delight.

All of this, I think, is perceptive and true to experience. I have seen that vision shining through the woman who is now my wife. I have known that summons to virtue that came through her. What I had not considered before was how that experience could be seen within the larger horizon in which Dante presents it: that this experience is not just “infatuation” or some foolishness, but a true, powerful, and natural way to God, whose luminous goodness is partly revealed to the lover’s eye.

Of course, it is a truism, because true, that the overwhelming intensity of first love, the glory of the girl, does not last forever. This, too, happened to Dante, and in a particularly grievous way, for Beatrice died. The specifics differ, but the pattern is common: the vision is withdrawn.

The clouding of the translucency may be the will of the translucency, and the withdrawal of the glory at the will of the glory. Here too, if we may continue the similitude of the young Beatrice with the True Light, it is perhaps glory which says: ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart, I will send him unto you.’

If the vision is from, and of, God, then why is it taken away? Dante believed that this was necessary for the good of the soul of the lover:

But then why do we not see it always, everywhere, and in all? Because the Divine Mercy intervenes. Mercy? Mercy, assuredly. ‘We cannot,’ wrote Dante in the third Tractate of the Convivio, ‘look fixedly upon her aspect because the soul is so intoxicated by it that after gazing it as once goes astray in all its operations.’

I certainly remember my soul’s operations going astray: incapacity to eat, to sleep, to concentrate! I had all the symptoms of the stupefied lover. But this, I think, is not quite what Dante has in mind. In the light of the vision of perfection, the soul is tempted “to extort from the glory its own satisfaction with the glory”. This I take to mean that the attention, and the desire, may drift from the girl who is glorious to the glory itself, as a kind of indulgence that wants to sate itself now instead of heeding the summons to find whatever is in and beyond the girl, like Romeo, who seemed, until he met Juliet (and maybe afterward too), to love simply being in love, without too great regard for whom it was he loved. If the lover’s focus shifts from answering the personal summons to virtue to satisfying his own needs and desires, then the glory has become not a help but a hindrance, and he is prone to this change of focus. “While we are what we are, the Divine Mercy clouds its creation.”

The withdrawal of the vision takes place without the meaning of the vision — the call to become worthy of the glory — being rescinded. The summons remains, even when the vision is no longer so dazzling. This is the structure of the Way of Affirmation, and it is the reason, says Williams, that marriage is the apt context for living out the meaning of romantic love:

The intention of fidelity is the safeguard of romanticism; the turning of something like the vision of an eternal state into an experiment toward that state. Once the experiment has been formally begun, it cannot be safely abandoned, or so the Christian Church maintains.

This fits comfortably with the Christian understanding of marriage as a sacrament: a means of grace intended to assist us on the path to heaven and beatitude. The Way begins in the first flush of romance, but continues to the end of life, when this purpose has been fulfilled, or not. In heaven, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, for if all goes well the girl yields her place to the greater lover. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante has exactly this experience, and it is the fulfillment of all that came before:

Once the voice of Beatrice has been the salutation of love; now her voice is but the sign of the salutation of love. The whole of Dante’s life and work has been to achieve that distinction and understand it. It seems but a very slight distinction, but is the whole purpose of the Way.


All this, I hasten to add, in the first few chapters of the book, in which Williams develops his framework for a theology of romance. In doing so, he draws on all, or at least most, of Dante’s writings, not just the Divine Comedy and La Vita Nova, but also the Convivio and even De Monarchia. Thereafter, the bulk of the book is devoted to a stage-by-stage, if not quite canto-by-canto, journey through the Divine Comedy, from the dark wood to the celestial rose. Along the way he marshals the evidence for Dante’s Way of Affirmation, but in fact the discussion ranges much more widely, and if one skipped the first few chapters, or had no interest in a religious phenomenology of romance, the book would still have value as a rich and creative commentary on the Divine Comedy.

A recurring idea is that the Comedy was written to be read through the four-fold interpretive schema by which medieval readers approached Scripture: it has a literal meaning, but also an allegorical, moral, and spiritual meaning. Apparently Dante intended it so, which I did not know. When, early in the Purgatorio, Dante sees four stars appear in the sky, they are, according to Williams, stars, but also ladies, and also virtues, and also modes of being. Perhaps. The Way of Affirmation he develops is, from this angle, not only a way of romance, but also of Romanticism in general, and also the way of the city (considered as a community of persons), and also the way of the soul. Beatrice is a girl, but allegorically she is philosophy, the lady with whom Dante first fell in love. What she is morally or spiritually I would not hazard to guess. Reading Dante in this multivalent fashion must be exhausting, but it does seem to be an enriching approach worth considering.

Dante is not the only poet in our tradition to encourage and illustrate for us the Way of Affirmation of Images. To Williams’ mind the other pre-eminent writer to undertake much the same task was Wordsworth — a claim that frankly astonished me but turns out to be plausible and defensible — and the book is sprinkled with citations of Wordsworth alongside lines from Dante.

Charles Williams was, as many know, part of the “Inklings” literary circle at Oxford, alongside Tolkien and Lewis, and he and Lewis were friends and admirers of one another for many years. Owen Barfield was another of that circle, and it strikes me that, at least in the English-speaking world, it would be hard to come up with a group of more creative Christian thinkers in the last century than those who sat together at The Eagle and Child every so often, reading to each other.


I have tried to convey the main arc of the book, insofar as I understood it. Williams himself sums up the argument succinctly:

The Beatrician moment is a moment of revelation and communicated conversion by means of a girl. This, as the Vita and the Commedia show, and as the Commedia is again presently to make clear, present the lover with a way of effort towards nobility and sanctity; say, of salvation — it is the simpler word.

It is a subtly written book, with a marked lyricism in its prose. There was much more in it than I was able to gather. Nonetheless, I found it offered an intriguing and enriching interpretation of my own experience, one that, far from treating romantic love as the arid “nothing but” school does, actually found more in my own experience than I had found myself, and encouraged me to take it more seriously than I had done before. I’m thankful. I hope this is not the end of my acquaintance with Charles Williams.


[Coleridge on Dante]
“Dante does not so much elevate your thoughts, as send them down deeper.”

[Memory of greatness]
The great may have their faults, but our business is to remember their greatness and not to cheapen it.

[Christian largesse]
What is Christianity but a doctrine of largesse? The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine of largesse; the doctrine of the Incarnation and the creation is a doctrine of largesse; the doctrine of the Redemption is a doctrine of largesse; the doctrine of Heaven is in every way a doctrine of largesse.

3 Responses to “Williams: The Figure of Beatrice”

  1. Rob G Says:

    I read a lot of Williams in my 20’s but this is one I didn’t get to, mainly because at the time I wasn’t very familiar with Dante yet.

    The Wordsworth connection is interesting; he’s one of my favorite poets but I’ve never thought of him in this particular light. And this brings to mind the poem I wrote about here:


    …which in its best passages reflects these “panentheistic” ideas even more explicitly, without being a predominantly religious poem.

  2. Rob G Says:

    I’ve been meaning to read a biography of WW for some time but haven’t done so yet. My understanding is that he got more conservative, both religiously and politically, as he got older. I’d like to see how those changes progressed.

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