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By DANTE ALIGHIERI
Northwestern University PressISBN: 978-0-8101-2721-0
IntroductionThe Vita nova of Dante Alighieri has been characterized in many ways. It has been called a mystical itinerarium mentis in Deum (mind's journey to God); a hagiography of "St. Beatrice"; a biblical Acts of Beatrice's Disciple; a Bible of Love; an autobiography in an Augustinian vein; the first book in vernacular Italian; the preface to the Divine Comedy; a treatise on poetry by a poet and for poets; a handbook of the art of poetry; an affirmation of a new poetics; an allegorical tractate against the corrupt Church and in favor of monarchy; an allegory of the enlightenment of the Aristotelean-Scholastic "passive intellect" by the "active intellect"; a "Joachist document, designed to mark the long-precluded withdrawal of the Holy Eucharist from a world not worthy of this great miracle"; a sentimental novella; and more besides. There is good reason for having many perspectives on Dante's youthful book. It is a complex work, full of inconsistencies and obscurities. In addition, close readers of the Divine Comedy know that it is never a good idea to underestimate Dante's subtlety and genius for packing a lot into a little space. In anything that Dante writes we expect there to be more than meets the eye, and there almost always is.
Clearly the Vita nova is an autobiography of sorts, since it is a first-person narrative that purports to tell of things that actually happened in the life of the narrator. But by modern standards the "I" in this story is highly stylized and attenuated, as are the other characters the protagonist meets and the places where the action takes place. The protagonist is never named and the setting in which he lives and loves is referred to only as the place where the woman he loved was born, lived, and died. One critic aptly describes the Vita nova as an evanescent "episodic presentation of situations," rather than a narrative as we are used to from modern fiction. Another calls it a "poetic autobiography," a characterization which, he says, accounts for Dante's freedom in manipulating historical memory for the sake of metaphorical or allegorical meanings. The vast amount of writing on the subject attests that one is never quite sure in the Vita nova where literal history gives way to imaginal history. It has been claimed that there are three forms of time in the story: individual time, cosmic time, and calendar time, while the end of the narrative moves out of time altogether, into eternity: "The Vita nuova narrator stakes out the boundaries of his own narrative by marking the story's beginning in reference to cosmic time and the story's end in reference to eternity." The Vita nova's action takes place along shifting and overlapping planes of reality—social, visionary, prophetic, hallucinatory. Given all of this, and despite the fact that T. S. Eliot suggested that the Vita nova is best read after one has read the Divine Comedy, we might add another epithet to the above list and call Dante's youthful work his founding myth. Many cultures' myths likewise are based in history, which is narrated not merely for its own sake but to establish the origins of some religious, social, or cultural practice. Without the Vita nova the reappearance of Beatrice in the earthly paradise, in canto XXX of Purgatorio, and her increasingly radiant smile throughout Paradiso, would lack personal context and therefore would be far easier to dismiss as allegorical abstractions. The libello ("little book," as Dante calls it) establishes Beatrice as Dante's pole star and beatifier.
The Vita nova's basic storyline is simple. The narrator tells us that he fell in love when he was nine years old with a girl who was about a year younger than he and who was named Beatrice. His falling in love with her is so powerful that it leaves an indelible mark on his soul, a perception that is reinforced when she greets him in passing nine years later. Because of her, love—that same "Lord Love" all the love poets of the time wrote about—comes to dwell in his heart. It is not a peaceful residence. The protagonist's feelings of love are so intense and private that he (following the conventions of his time) pretends to others that his love, which he cannot hide, is actually directed toward another woman besides Beatrice. When this woman moves out of the city, leaving the protagonist without his cover, he invents another "screen-woman." Beatrice catches wind of malicious gossip regarding her admirer's alleged unsavory comportment in relation to this second screen-woman, and consequently shuns him. She has no awareness of the effect this has on him. Eventually he finds peace for his unrequited love by resolving to praise her in his poetry independently of her responses to him.
A period follows during which the lover-protagonist vacillates between blissful ruminations on his lady's beauty, spiritual radiance, and self-possession, and dreadful forebodings of death: the death of Beatrice's father, of her, and ultimately of him. When she actually does die, he tells us it was as if the entire city was widowed by her passing, and that he finally came to realize that there was always a mysterious but inexorable connection between Beatrice and the number nine. After her death, still in mourning for her, he is briefly consoled by an anonymous beautiful woman who shows compassion for his grief. He becomes infatuated with her, and feels conflicted between this new movement of love and the loving memory of Beatrice—which, unlike the love for the new woman, is not reinforced by the actual physical presence of the beloved. Finally, the protagonist renounces the new love and resolves to dedicate himself to the dead Beatrice, practicing his art and studying so that he can write about her as no woman has ever been written about. At the same time, his longing, which takes the form of a sigh, rises into the presence of her beatified spirit in heaven.
All of this seems clear enough until one realizes that the stages and progress of the story are established only by the prose passages that precede or follow the poems and explicate or analyze them. Modern research has done much to bring to light the artifice of the book's construction. The prosimetrum (poetry combined with prose) that Dante uses had its predecessors: Boethius's Consolatio philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy), the razos and vidas (prose accounts and short biographies) of the Provençal troubadours, and Dante's early master Brunetto Latini's Rettorica (Rhetoric), as well as popular Christian commentaries on such classics as Ovid's Remedia amoris (The Cure for Love). In Dante's work, the poems are placed within a prose context that was written for the most part well after the poems themselves. Any narrative continuity between them—whether historically accurate or not—is an illusion created by the prose. A recent scholar has written about how "Dante combines prose and courtly lyrics to create an entirely new kind of text." Rather than the relatively static methods of his predecessors in prosimetrum, "Dante positions each lyric as the culmination or expression of an almost present life-event." His approach, in other words, is more autobiographical and personal than that of his prosimetrum exemplars. Another writer points out that the razos usually had the subjective element in the poetry not in the prose, but since Dante explains his own poems, his prose has a more intimate personal character, "quite unlike anything which had been written in the lyric tradition up to that time."
One can learn a lot about Dante's design and infer something about his intentions by considering the poems apart from the prose. Despite the undeniably mystical or metaphysical import of the Vita nova's conception and message, including that of many poems themselves, there is no mistaking the fact that a number of poems in the libello are not the least bit mystical or metaphysical. On the contrary, they can be quite urbane and witty, more cosmopolitan than cosmic. They are the carefully wrought, searching poems of a restless, sophisticated young man who is exploring his powerful attraction to women, using the metaphors and conventions of the love poetry of his time. After the first ten poems in the book, the content of some of the poems does become more metaphysical, but others are still just love poems—although they were avant-garde love poems for their time. The poems of the libello range "from the merest gallantry to the ultimate intuition of divine love." The Victorian-Rossettian interpretation of the Vita nova made Dante "a master of frail harmonies ... diffident, sensitive, somewhat bookish ... a knower of dreams rather than a mixer among men," but this statement says more about late-Romantic aesthetics than it does about Dante and the Vita nova. Dante was writing in a tradition, which I will sketch below, wherein robust soldiers and magistrates were passive and sentimental characters in their own poems. In addition, there is wit, wordplay, irony, and courtliness in the poems of the Vita nova, as well as tenderness, visionary beauty, and, yes, delicate harmonies. The poems by themselves—forgetting about the prose for a moment—in effect are a showcase for Dante's youthful mastery of various genres: praise-poetry, poetry of complaint, the plea for pity, the reproach, the excuse, the vision, the poetry of mourning. The language of the poetry is often unadorned, close to the living speech of Dante's time and place. Other times, for heightened effect, the language is in a more aulic register, laced with Latinisms and with words derived from the Provençal and Sicilian traditions. And the poems clearly display the young poet's skill with various forms as well. Of the thirty-one poems that Dante chose for this volume, twenty-five are sonnets (a form that had been invented only a half century earlier, in Sicily), including two double sonnets; five are canzones (a longer lyric form adapted from the Provençal canso); and one is a boldly innovative ballad. Dante's voracious assimilation of poetic styles echoes and then surpasses his early mentors Guittone d'Arezzo, Guido Guinizzelli, and Guido Cavalcanti. It is a brilliant young poet's tour de force.
The prose is made up of the so-called ragioni, or prose accounts of the (actual or fictional) occasions behind the poems, and the notoriously dull divisioni (divisions), the dry and Scholastic breakdown of the poems' content. Dante used the prose to get the poems he had already written, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight or so, to accommodate his evolving understanding of love, beauty, and art. He had "to remove [the] too material suggestions [in some of the poems] that jar with the religious atmosphere which the story has in the mind of the author." I will have more to say later in this introduction about Dante's use of memory in the Vita nova; here I will just point out that the prose accounts are structured according to what he says at the beginning of the libello is the "essential meaning" (sentenzia) of memory. Dante presents the prose accounts as recapitulations of events that led to the poems' composition. But it is clear that the content of the prose that Dante has created for the poems often contrasts with the poems' content; hidden meanings are excavated from or imposed upon the poems that require the interpretation of a "commentator"—the poet himself. "By framing the lyrics as he does, [Dante] transforms them: courtly love poems are invested with a universal spiritual significance, thereby becoming worthy of an ever-deepening intellectual and spiritual investigation." Thus, the prose is elliptical and packed with allusions, particularly biblical allusions; this is Dante's means of consecrating courtly love. The prose is like an alchemical bath in which the poems' meanings can dissolve and recoagulate into a higher unity they do not have on their own. One dantista writes that the prose narrative of the Vita nova in effect breaks "the spell of lyric elegy ... [and is] an embodiment of the new narrative poetics" that will eventually become the Divine Comedy.
Several commentators have pointed out that the Gospels are an important model for the prose accounts. In terms of content, Beatrice's deeds clearly (at times explicitly) echo the deeds of Christ. In terms of language and style, certain phrases and ways of forming sentences serve the same purpose. The first printed edition of the Vita nova (1576) was censored by Counter-Reformation authorities for this reason. For example, instead of saying that Beatrice was "no woman, but one of the angels of Heaven," the 1576 edition made her "like an angel of Heaven"; rather than being "gloriosa" (glorious) she was "graziosa" (graceful); "beatitudine" (beatitude) was changed to "felicità" (happiness); "salute" (salvation) to "quiete" (peace). Other details of the Vita nova's prose create a heightened, visionary atmosphere: for example, the repetition of certain keywords;17 the use of Latinisms for solemn or key passages; syntactical complexity and parallel structures in long sentences; frequent superlatives; and beginning chapters or sections with phrases that echo the Gospels. The prose (apart from the divisioni) often has a lyrical air and a freshness of language—a delight in the new vernacular medium that Dante is mastering—as well as "constant tone, not simply mystical but characterized by inwardness and religious contemplation."
Much has been written about what the divisions of the poems are intended to do besides exasperate readers. Boccaccio put them in the margins of his edition, reasoning that since they are glosses they should be formatted as such. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had someone else translate them for him for his version of the Vita nova. Many scholars trace Dante's use of the divisioni to Thomas Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle, although, as one critic writes, "the origin of the divisions ... resides—apart from the tradition of Scholastic commentary—in oratory, where they had the precise aim of orienting and facilitating understanding and memory by providing a schema of the argument." Dante himself says that he is using the divisions to "open the meaning" of the poem, even if the reader often finds that they merely repeat what the poem has already said, sketching the outline of the poem's argument and nothing more. Nevertheless, it is clear that Dante's use of them is one way in which he takes initiative in the interpretation of his own writing, becoming in effect his own first commentator. Dante's innovative use of the divisions in the context of his own prosimetrum enables him to unify the usually separate roles of scribe, compiler, commentator, and author, thus "achieving authorial control over textual reproduction in a scribal culture." In addition, the divisions are an expression of the medieval conception of form in literature, of which there were two aspects, forma tractatus (form of the treatise; also called divisio textus) and forma tractandi (form of treatment). The former, which is the aspect that Dante analyzes in his divisions, is the particular structure or ordering of a poem's content; the latter is the literary style or technique used for the piece. The forma tractandi defined a poem's genre—sonnet or canzone, for instance—but the forma tractatus manifested the poem's uniqueness within that genre. As mentioned above, another hint about the significance of the divisions is a verb that Dante uses with regard to what he intends for them to do: aprire. They are supposed "to open" up that part of a poem which reason can use, grasping the poem's rational substance. In a similar manner, glosses on Holy Scripture sought to open up the meanings of God's Word.
In sum, a common factor in all explanations of the divisions is that they underscore Dante's desire to bring intelligibility to his poems. As far as Dante is concerned, there is nothing more pointless than composing poetry whose intended meaning cannot be explained by the author. Although the divisions often do not tell us what the poem means, since the meaning is already clear enough, the dry schema that they impose on the poems visibly brings intelligence to bear on the emotive and thematic content. This is at least consistent with a central explicit theme of the Vita nova: the fusion of will or love with intelligence or knowledge.
Excerpted from VITA NOVA by DANTE ALIGHIERI Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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