The Courtier (5)

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Ascending the stair of love

[The lover begins to ascend the stair of love.] And beside, through the virtue of imagination, he shall fashion with himself that beauty much more fair than it is indeed [in truth]. But among these commodities [advantages], the lover shall find another yet far greater, in case he will take this love for a stair (as it were) to climb up to another far higher than it. The which he shall bring to pass, if he will go and consider with himself what a strait bond it is to be always in the trouble to behold the beauty of one body alone. And therefore to come out of this so narrow a room he shall gather in his thought by little and little so many ornaments, that meddling [mixing] all beauty together, he shall make an universal conceit [concept], and bring the multitude of them to the unity of one alone, that is generally spread over all the nature of man. And thus shall he behold no more the particular beauty of one woman, but an universal, that decketh out all bodies.

Whereupon being made dim with this greater light, he shall not pass upon the lesser, and burning in a more excellent flame, he shall little esteem it, that he set great store by at the first.

This stair of love, though it be very noble and such as few arrive at it, yet is it not in this sort to be called perfect, forsomuch as where the imagination is of force to make conveyance, [Note 1] and hath no knowledge but through those beginnings that the senses help her withal, she is not clean purged from gross darkness; and therefore though she do consider that universal beauty in sunder [separately] and in itself alone, yet doth she not well and clearly discern it, nor without some doubtfulness, by reason of the agreement that the fancies have with the body.

Wherefore such as come to this love, are like to young birds almost flush [fledged], which for all they flitter a little their tender wings, yet dare they not stray far from the nest, nor commit themselves to the wind and open weather.

The quest for the ideal love not yet ended

When our Courtier therefore shall be come to this point, although he may be called a good and happy lover in repect of them that be drowned in the misery of sensual love, yet will I not have him to set his heart at rest, but boldly proceed him farther, following the high way after his guide, that leadeth him to the point of true happiness. And thus instead of going out of his wit with thought, as he must do that will consider the bodily beauty, he may come into his wit, to behold the beauty that is seen with the eyes of the mind, which then begin to be sharp and thoroughly seeing, when the eyes of the body lose the flower of their sightliness.

Love can awaken the soul itself

Therefore the soul, rid of vices, purged with studies of true philosophy, occupied in spiritual, and exercised in matters of understanding, turning her to the beholding of her own substance [nature], as it were raised out of a most deep sleep, openeth the eyes that all men have, and few occupy [use], and seeth in herself a shining beam of that light which is the true image of the angel-like beauty partnered [communicated] with her, whereof she also partnereth with the body a feeble shadow. . . [Note 2]

And therefore burning in this most happy flame, she [the soul] ariseth to the noblest part of her which is the understanding, and there, no more shadowed with the dark night of earthly matters, seeth the heavenly beauty: but yet doth she not for all that enjoy it altogether perfectly, because she beholdeth it only in her particular understanding, which cannot conceive the passing great universal beauty.

Whereupon not thoroughly satisfied with this benefit, love giveth unto the soul a greater happiness. For like as through the particular beauty of one body he guideth her to the universal beauty of all bodies, even so in the least degree of perfection through particular understanding he guideth her to the universal understanding.

Thus the soul, kindled in the most holy fire of true heavenly love, fleeth to couple herself with the nature of angels, and not only clean forsaketh sense, but hath no more need of the discourse of reason, for being changed into an angel, she understandeth all things that may be understood; and without any veil or cloud, she seeth the main sea of the pure heavenly beauty and receiveth it into her, and enjoyeth the sovereign happiness that can not be comprehended of the senses. . .

So much therefore is this love greater and happier than others, as the cause that stirreth it is more excellent. And therefore, as common fire tryeth gold and maketh it fine, so this most holy fire in souls destroyeth and consumeth whatsoever there is mortal in them, and relieveth and maketh beautiful the heavenly part, which at the first by reason of the sense was dead and buried in them. . .

Let us therefore bend all our force and thoughts of soul to this most holy light, that showeth us the way which leadeth to heaven; and after it, putting off the affections [feelings, passions] we were clad at our coming down, let us climb up the stairs, which at the lowermost step have the shadow of sensual beauty, to the high mansion place where the heavenly, amiable and right beauty dwelleth, which lieth hidden in the innermost secrets of God, lest unhallowed eyes should come to the sight of it; and there shall we find a most happy end for our desires, true rest for our travails , certain remedy for miseries, a most healthful medicine for sickness, a most sure haven in the troublesome storms of the tempestuous sea of this life.

Bembo addresses Love personified

What tongue mortal is there then (O most holy love) that can sufficiently praise thy worthiness? Thou most beautiful, most good, most wise, art derived of the unity of the heavenly beauty, goodness and wisdom, and therein dost thou abide, and unto it, through it (as in a circle), turnest about.

Thou the most sweet bond of the world, a mean betwixt heavenly and earthly things, with a bountiful temper bendest the high virtues to the government of the lower, and turning back the minds of mortal men to their beginning, couplest them with it.

Thou with agreeement bringest the elements in one, stirrest nature to bring forth, and that which ariseth and is born for the succession of the life. Thou bringest severed [separated] matters into one, to the unperfect givest perfection, to the unlike likeness, to enmity amity, to the earth fruits, to the sea calmness, to the heaven, lively light.

Thou art the father of true pleasure, of grace, peace, lowliness [humility], and goodwill, enemy to rude wildness, and sluggishness: to be short, the beginning, and end of all goodness.

And forsomuch as thou delightest to dwell in the flower of beautiful bodies and beautiful souls, I suppose that thy abiding place is now here among us, and from above otherwhile showest thyself a little to the eyes and minds of them that be not worthy to see thee.

A concluding prayer

Therefore vouchsafe (Lord) to hearken to our prayers; pour thyself into our hearts, and with the brightness of thy most holy fire lighten our darkness, and like a trusty guide in his blind maze show us the right way; correct the falsehood of the senses, and after long wandering in vanity, give us the right and sound joy. Make us to smell those spiritual savours that relieve the virtues of the understanding, and to hear the heavenly harmony so tunable, that no discord of passion take place any more in us. Make us drunken with the bottomless fountain of contentation [contentment], that always doth delight, and never giveth ill, and that giveth a smack of the right [true] bliss unto who so drinketh of the renewing and clear water thereof. Purge with the shining beams of thy light our eyes from misty ignorance, that they may no more set by mortal beauty, and well perceive that the things which at the first they thought themselves to see, be not indeed, and those that they saw not, to be in effect. Accept our souls, that be offered unto thee for a sacrifice. Burn them in the lively flame that wasteth all gross filthiness, that after they be clean sundered from the body, they may be coupled with an everlasting and most sweet bond to the heavenly beauty. And we, severed from ourselves, may be changed like right lovers into the beloved, and after we be drawn from the earth, admitted to the feast of the angels, where fed with immortal ambrosia and nectar, in the end we may die a most happy and lively death, as in times past died the fathers of old time, whose souls with most fervent zeal of beholding thou didst hale fom the body, and coupledst them with God.

When Bembo had hitherto spoken with such vehemency, that a man would have thought him (as it were) ravished and beside himself, he stood still without once moving, holding his eyes toward heaven as astonied; when the Lady Emilia, which together with the rest gave most diligent ear to this talk, took him by the plait of his garment, and plucking him a little said: Take heed (master Peter) that these thoughts make not your soul also to forsake the body.

Madam, answered master Peter, it should not be the first miracle that love hath wrought in me. Then the Duchess and all the rest began afresh to be instant [insistent] upon master Bembo that he would proceed once more in his talk, and everyone thought he felt in his mind (as it were) a certain sparkle of that godly love that pricked him, and they all coveted to hear farther; but master Bembo: My Lords (quoth he) I have spoken what the holy fury of love hath (unsought for) indited to me; now that (it seemeth) he inspireth me no more, I wot not what to say. And I think verily that love will not have his secrets discovered any farther.

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  1. While the imagination is strong enough to transport the courtier beyond the specific beauty, it is still limited by the senses, since it is only through the senses that even this universal beauty is perceived. [Back]

  2. The body receives only a faint shadow of the “shining beam” of the light perceived by the eyes of the mind. [Back]

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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