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Dante tells us that, when he first met Beatrice in the streets of Florence, there fell upon him a stupor. This Latin word is really quite untranslatable, but it does manage to convey to our minds something of that flash of shifting apprehension, that awe mixed with fear, which the experience of love at first sight always brings.

But to Dante this stupor was mixed with reason, with what he calls ‘the good of intellect.’ We may note that Dante, being a good mediaeval, does the exact opposite to what modern young men in the same situation would do. They, being good materialists, promptly hand the whole thing over to sentiment. Dante, whom they would dub ‘benighted, superstitious and priest-ridden,’ hands the matter over to reason. He knew of course that reason was not all; but he also knew for certain that real love must have in it the element of reason. Is not this precisely the factor which distinguishes love from infatuation? Infatuation is always in the end unreasonable, while genuine love must include the element of reason. But reason being there in the first flush, one or other of two things can then happen to it. It can be ignored and forgotten, left by the wayside as it were, while the lovers descend the slippery slope into mere sentiment. Or it can be transformed into something else; for transcendence does not exclude reason, it overtops it. If reason be lost, then indeed we are undone; but if no one go beyond reason, then romance itself will die.

The second thing about this stupor was that it had an almost physical effect, a phenomenon with which all lovers are familiar. Poets have described it in many ways: ‘She walks in golden light,’ etc. Perhaps the most moving description of all is to be found in Charles Williams’ ‘The Coming of Galahad,’ where he talks of someone seeing

each motion and mode of the princess Blanchefleur; who walked dropping light, as all our beloved do.

Poets both good and bad have surpassed themselves in trying to describe what really happens here. And, though no one would say that the ‘golden light’ is objective, or could be spectroscopically analysed, yet every lover knows perfectly well that this is something that he has seen.

Dante then proceeds to talk about that quality in the beloved which caused the sudden shift of apprehension of which we were speaking: the vision which called her an angel or an inhabitant of the Land of Youth. There comes to every lover, as there came to Dante, a knowledge of something which is at once she and not she, a vision which sees her as she really is, and yet at the same time somehow larger than herself. Dante named it ‘the quality of eternity.’

William P. Wylie (from The Pattern of Love, 1958)

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