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Dante's Vita Nuova
A Translation and an Essay
By Mark Musa
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1973 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
By the end of Chapter II of the Vita nuova, that is, by the end of the first chapter of the narrative proper (for the brief Chapter I is only a preface), all of the motifs significant for the story that is about to unfold step by step, have been introduced. The first word of the opening sentence is "Nine":
"Nove fiate già appresso lo mio nascimento era tornato lo cielo de la luce quasi a uno medesimo punto, quanto a la sua propia girazione, quando a li miei occhi apparve prima la gloriosa donna de la mia mente, la quale fu chiamata da molti Beatrice li quale non sapeano che si chiamare."
(Nine times already since my birth the heaven of light had circled back to almost the same point, when there appeared before my eyes the now glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice even by those who did not know what her name was.)
The number 9 will be repeated twice more in the next sentence and appears twenty-two times in all within the Vita nuova. And not only does the reader find in the first sentence a reference to the number 9 of symbolical significance: he also finds an emphasis on mathematical precision that shows up very frequently throughout Dante's Nevo Life. In this same opening sentence the child Beatrice is presented as already enjoying the veneration of the citizens of Florence, including strangers who did not know her name (but who, nevertheless, were inspired to call her Beatrice: "... la quale fu chiamata da mold Beatrice li quali non sapeano che si chiamare"). And with the words "la gloriosa donna de la mia mente"—the first of two time-shifts in which the figure of the living Beatrice, at a given moment, is described in such a way as to remind us of Beatrice dead—the theme of death is delicately foreshadowed at the beginning of the story. As for the figure of Beatrice, when she is allowed to be seen for the first time, she is dressed in a garment of blood-red color—the same color as her "shroud" will be in the following chapter. In the next three sentences the three main spiriti are introduced: the "vital" (in the heart), the "natural' (in the liver) and the "animal" (in the brain). They rule the body of the nine-year-old protagonist, and they speak in Latin, as will the god of Love in the chapter that follows (and once again later on). The words of the first spirit describing Beatrice, "Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi" (note the masculine form deus), anticipate the first coming of Love, that takes place in the next chapter ("Ego dominus tuus"), and suggest something of the same mood of terror. (In this relationship there is contained an implicit suggestion of the parallel between Beatrice and Love which is made explicit in Chapter XXIV.) The words of the second spirit, "Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra," suggest rapturous bliss to come (that bliss rhapsodically described in Chapter XI) while, in the words of the third spirit, there is the first of the many references to tears to be found in the Vita nuova. Here it is the spirit of the liver that weeps: "Heu miser, quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps!" Though this spirit will be mentioned only once again (IV), the reader may gradually come to wonder if the lover's tears, so frequently recorded in the narrative, are not often strongly influenced physiologically.
It is only after this reference to the organ of digestion that Love is mentioned ("D'allora dico che Amore segnoreggiò la mia anima ..."). He is mentioned first of all as a ruler, but we learn immediately that much of his power is derived from the protagonist's imagination—this faculty of which there will be so many reminders in the form of visions throughout the book. We are also told that Love's power was restricted by reason; later in the book the relation between Love and reason will become a problem. After this summary of the nine years spent by the lover in the service of Beatrice, before she grants him her first greeting (and in this summary is contained the first suggestion of the godlike in Beatrice: "Ella non parea figliuola d'uomo mortale, ma di deo"), the chapter ends with a refusal to go into further details about his youthful behavior ("... le passioni e atti di tanta gioventudine ..."). And Chapter II rings throughout with the sound of "praise of the lady," as the protagonist's admiration for Beatrice keeps growing during the nine years after her first appearance.
Thus, this opening chapter prepares for the rest of the book not only in the obvious way of presenting a background situation, an established continuity out of which single events will emerge in time, but also by setting in motion certain forces that will propel the Vita nuova forward—forces with which Dante's reader will gradually become more and more familiar.
Of the forty-two chapters of the Vita nuova exactly two-thirds contain a poem (two of them contain two poems), a poem which we are expected to believe was inspired by the experience recounted in the prose. The relationship between the experience and the poem may be of two sorts: more than half the time it is the experience itself that is narrated in. verse as, for example, in the sonnet describing the first appearance of Love (III); in such cases the effect made by the poem on the reader of the Vita nuova is "recapitulative," as if the poem were repeating the prose. The rest of the poems deal not with the experience itself but with ideas suggested and emotions inspired by the experience, as in Chapter VIII when the death of a companion of Beatrice prompts the lover to write two poems about death.
In those poems which simply relate the experience itself this experience is seldom an event in the usual sense. It may be a vision (III, IX, XXIII, XXIV), but more often it is a mood, and usually one in which despondency or tension or both predominate (XIII, XV, XVI, XXXV through XXXIX). Twice, the experience involves an outer event of which the protagonist is an eyewitness. In Chapter XXVI he describes in his two sonnets Beatrice passing before the people, receiving their veneration; he decides to describe this, we learn from the prose narrative, in order that those who cannot see his lady with the physical eye may somehow share the experience from his description. In Chapter XL the outward event described, which also takes place in the streets of the lover's city, has meaning only for himself: he sees a group of pilgrims passing down the middle of the city, having come from other places, on their way to Rome; to his bewilderment they show no signs of grief as they pass through the city widowed by Beatrice's death.
Of the remaining chapters, that is, those in which the theme of the poem is not the event that occasioned its composition, four tell us that the poem represents the fulfillment of a request. The ballata of Chapter XII was written at the suggestion of the god of Love; in the other three, the author of the request will be one (or more) of the lover's friends: the admirers of his first canzone, who ask him to write a definition of love (XX); the brother of Beatrice who, after her death, indirectly requests a poem about her (XXXII); the two ladies of Chapter XLI who, while they ask the protagonist only to send them some of his already-written poetry, inspire him also to compose a poem especially for them.
Again, the occasion for the poem is the writing of a previous poem. Having written the sonnet of Chapter XX, describing in generic terms the effect on a man of a beautiful woman, the protagonist-lover decides, in Chapter XXI, to continue the theme of love and the gentle heart by limiting the phenomenon of the birth of love to the more extraordinary effect produced by Beatrice. Later, in Chapter XXVII, on re-reading his twin sonnets of praise in Chapter XXVI, that describe the effect of Beatrice on the people of Florence, he finds them defective since nothing was said about her effect on him at the present time. And he begins to write a canzone on this theme. The third case in which a poem leads to a poem also involves disappointment over the previous composition: having written in Chapter XXXIII a poem for Beatrice's brother, the lover decides in the next chapter that the close relationship between brother and sister calls for a worthier poem, and he writes a canzone of two stanzas.
It could be said that in all three cases it is the protagonist's thoughts rather than some outward event that provides the occasion for writing the poems. And this is all that can be said of the inspiration of the poem in Chapter XXXIV. On the anniversary of Beatrice's death the lover sits remembering her and drawing the figure of an angel on "certe tavolette." He looks up to see a group of men watching him, and speaks the ambiguous words, "Altri era testé meco, però pensava." After their departure he returns to his sketching, in the midst of which he decides to write an anniversary poem—which, we can only assume, continues the thoughts that came to him as the angel took form under his hand.
With the rest of the poems the occasion is a happening which takes place in society. In Chapter VII, after his first screen-lady has left Florence for a far-away place, the protagonist decides to write a poem expressing grief over her departure. One might call the theme of his poem "loss of a loved one." And in Chapter VIII this theme is found again, in a tragic sense: both poems in this chapter are poems of mourning for the death of a lovely young lady who had been one of Beatrice's companions. There will be three more poems of mourning: two in Chapter XXII, occasioned by the death of Beatrice's father, and in Chapter XXXI, the last canzone, in which the dead Beatrice is mourned.
In addition to the theme of death (loss) there is the theme of mockery. Already in Chapter IV the ravaged appearance of the young lover (whose absorption in Beatrice had been detrimental to his spirito naturale) had aroused the impertinent curiosity of his neighbors. In Chapter XIV the suggestion of mockery introduced earlier takes the form of a public humiliation. Having accompanied a friend of his to a wedding feast where Beatrice is present, the lover collapses at the sight of her; his appearance provokes the derision of the ladies surrounding Beatrice and he sees her laughing with them. The chapter ends with a sonnet written to his lady, reproaching her for her cruelty and appealing to her pity by describing in detail the disastrous effects of her presence on his nervous system. And there are reverberations of this scene of mockery in the two chapters that follow; the lover, still suffering from the shameful memory and wrestling with the problems it raises, writes two more sonnets in which he mainly seeks to explain to his lady the paradoxical effect her desired presence produces in him—making of him the object of her mockery.
The importance of the theme of death, which culminates in the central canzone and lingers to the end, hardly needs to be stressed; as all readers of the Vita nuova know, it is central to an understanding of the work. The theme of mockery does not seem to have attracted the attention of the critics; but as we shall see later, in the final part of this essay, the theme of mockery is also central, and it works on more than one level. The one instance of mockery discussed so far (and there will be a similar scene later on), has been simply society's punishment for the young lover's foolishness and morbidity.
The prose that relates the events offers a narrative that is remarkably objective. Never does the author pause to reprove or commend the protagonist; even the descriptions of his emotions are done in a rather detached way. But not always is the author content to be the simple narrator of past events; occasionally the reader hears the author's voice speaking on a time-level different from that of the narrative. Sometimes, when we hear his voice, the effect is merely that of a tilting upward of the time level, as when he describes Beatrice in her lifetime in such a way as to remind us of her death (in fact, she is introduced to the reader in terms that could apply only to Beatrice dead). More directly, as if in a conversation with his reader, he may explicitly contrast the present with the past: he tells us (III) that the significance of his first sonnet, which no one perceived at the time the poem was written and circulated, is "now" apparent to the least sophisticated. Much more often, however, we are also made aware of Dante's concerns as author of the Vita nuova: we not only hear him speak on the post-narrative plane, we see him sitting at his desk. In fact, that is precisely where he is when the Vita nuova opens, for it opens with a proem announcing his intentions. Later we see him adding many things to the factual details of the narrative, the most consistent pattern of such "glosses" being that of the divisioni which the author felt necessary to add to most of the poems he includes in his work. Then there are the "essays" represented by Chapter XXV and XXIX in which he treats, respectively, the use of poetic license and the significance of the number 9—and the two brief interpolations in Chapters XXII and XL, the first concerned with the bond that unites a good father and a good child, the second with the terminology appropriate for the various types of pilgrims according to their geographical goals.
As for Dante's device of divisioni, which were omitted by Boccaccio in his edition of the Vita nuova, and which most readers since then have found tedious and unrewarding, how is his predilection for such analysis to be explained? The divisioni never serve to clear up any difficult points the poem may contain; they do serve, as he himself claims in Chapter XIV, to "open up" (aprire) the poem, but the parts into which it is neatly dissected are almost always obviously given, like the wedges of an orange. It is not enough to compare Dante's procedure here with the common practice of the Scholastics—for example, Aquinas' commentaries on Aristotle with their divisions and subdivisions of the original text. In the first place we have, with Aquinas, one writer commenting on another (and a Christian on a Pagan); secondly, the work which Aquinas divides with his prose headings was itself prose. Dante is the first to have applied this scholastic procedure to poetry. He will use this device again in the Convivio, but there it serves a necessary function: it would be impossible for the reader to follow the lengthy allegorical interpretations of the poems without having the poetic material first cut into pieces for him (as a father cuts his child's meat for him at the table). But there are few interpretations, allegorical or otherwise, contained in the divisioni in the Vita nuova.
I wonder if, in this work, Dante was not interested in the abstract act of subdividing for subdividing's sake, and if he might not have had an artistic interest in breaking down a poetic structure into conceptual units. Any poem with fixed rhyme and meter, particularly a sonnet, already offers a rigid system of subdivisions; in breaking this down into conceptual units one is dissecting an artistic compound of a certain tangible form into parts not necessarily given by that form. And a number of the poems in the Vita nuova for which divisioni are offered show a conceptual pattern at variance with the metric pattern, to a greater or lesser degree: Chapters IX, XII, XIII, XXI, XXIII, XXIV, XXXII, XXXVII, XLI.
In presenting the third and last canzone of the Vita nuova Dante changes the position of the divisioni, letting them now precede the poem instead of follow it. He does this, he says, in order that the canzone may seem to remain more "widowed" after it has come to an end: "—Acciò che questa canzone paia rimanere più vedova dopo lo suo fine...." He will continue to follow this order with the rest of the poems. The reader may wonder why Dante's artistic instinct had not shown him earlier that the poetic effect of a lyrical composition should be allowed to linger on; to follow the poem immediately by a rational analysis of its parts must tend to kill the effect. But I shall treat this matter later in this essay.
Behind Dante's fondness for his divisioni may also be his delight in mathematical figures and procedures. What comes to mind immediately is the importance he gives to the number 9 throughout the work and, in Chapter XXIX, his fascination with its divisibility, yielding three as the square root. And one remembers his use of the figure of the circle with its center equidistant from all points on the circumference (XII). There are also indications of his interest in geometrical form that show no concern with symbolical interpretation—for instance, the description of the passage of the pilgrims along a street "la quale è quasi mezzo de la cittade ove nacque e vivette e morìo la gentilissima donna" (XL). This city, which incidentally, the reader is never permitted to visualize, can be, like any other geometrical form, divided into two equal parts. There is a similar, and most effective indication of his interest in sheer geometrical form in Chapter V, where he describes the circumstances that led to the choice of the first screen-lady:
Uno giorno avvenne che questa gentilissima sedea in parte ove s'udiano parole de la regina de la gloria, ed io era in luogo dal quale vedea la mia beatitudine; e nel mezzo di lei e di me per la retta linea sedea una gentile donna di molto piacevole aspetto, la quale mi mirava spesse volte, maravigliandosi del mio squardare, che parea che sopra lei terminasse. Onde molti s'accorsero de lo suo mirare; e in tanto vi fue posto mente, che, partendomi da questo luogo, mi sentìo dicere appresso di me: "Vedi come cotale donna distrugge la persona de costui"; nominandola, io intesi che dicea di colei che mezzo era stata ne la linea retta che movea da la gentilissima Beatrice e terminava ne li occhi miei.
Excerpted from Dante's Vita Nuova by Mark Musa. Copyright © 1973 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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