Vita nuova


Vita nuova
(New life)
   by Dante Alighieri
(1295)
   The Vita nuova is a collection of 31 of DANTE’s earlier lyric poems, introduced, connected, and explained by 41 prose passages that narrate the story of his love for the woman he called Beatrice (“Bringer of Blessings”), and of her death in 1290, and its devastating effect on the poet. Dante says he began gathering his earlier poems about Beatrice and putting them together to create what is essentially a fictionalized autobiography when he was 27, that is, in 1292. Sometimes the poems recapitulate the events narrated in the prose sections; sometimes they present emotional reactions or ideas generated by the narrated experiences. The arrangement of the poems reflects the development of the young narrator’s attitudes about poetry, love, and his lady, from an early self-centeredness through a focus on the perfections of the Lady herself, to a vision of the Lady as the embodiment of heavenly attributes and the symbol of heavenly love.
   The form of alternating poetry and prose passages was not invented by Dante. It had been used by BOETHIUS in his early sixth-century CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY, a text with which Dante was certainly familiar.What is new in the Vita nuova is the way that the prose passages keep the continuous story going, while at the same time not only explaining the occasion for the poems included, but interpreting the poems from a technical perspective. This technical preoccupation is related to Dante’s concern with structure and with numbers so evident in the Vita nuova. The number 9, for example, appears no less than 22 times in the book: Dante first meets Beatrice in his ninth year; he doesn’t see her again until nine years later, in the ninth hour; he begins to write the Vita nuova after nine more years. Nine as the square of 3, number of the holy Trinity, would suggest for Dante’s medieval audience the harmony of the divinely created universe. A look at the book’s overall structure emphasizes this order and harmony: The poems fall into three groups, each attached to one of three CANZONI, the longer thematic poems in the text. The second group of poems has a canzone in the middle with four shorter poems (mainly SONNETS) on either side. The first and third groups each contain 11 poems, the first having 10 short poems and a canzone, the third having a canzone followed by 10 short poems. The symmetry is inescapable.
   Part of the effect is to focus attention on the central poem of the book—the canzone beginning “Domna pietosa e di novella etate” (A lady of tender years, compassionate). The poem introduces the poet’s premonition of Beatrice’s death, the central event of the narrative. In addition this canzone speaks of that death in language and imagery recalling the crucifixion of Christ, thereby suggesting the ultimate end toward which Dante’s poetry is developing. Dante, looking back at his love affair and recreating it based on his new perspective and understanding, wants to demonstrate the development of his own attitudes as they are shaped by his experiences. As he tells it, the early stages of his love show him preoccupied with his own suffering, focused on his own emotions and exploring them at length, mainly in private, his lady being not much more than a mirror to reflect back his view of himself.At one point, denied a greeting by Beatrice, the young Dante returns to his room where, he says, “I fell asleep like a little boy crying from a spanking” (Musa 1973, 17).
   When he is later convinced by certain unnamed ladies of the town that his true happiness lay in praising his lady rather than focusing on himself, he writes the first of the major canzoni in the book, the poem in section 19 beginning “Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’amore” (Ladies, who have intelligence of love). This poem, presented here legitimately as a turning point in Dante’s career, concentrates on Beatrice’s perfections, rather than Dante’s own emotions. The angels of heaven desire to have Beatrice with them, since heaven lacks perfection without her. On earth her power is able to ennoble those who look on her and, if they are worthy, to bring them God’s salvation. Beatrice has thus become the mediator between the poet and God himself, and when he later has the premonition of Beatrice’s death, the crucifixion imagery implies her Christ-like nature: Just as the love of Christ leads us heavenward and cannot be selfish, so (the poem implies) the same must be said of Dante’s love of Beatrice.
   How much of the text reflects Dante’s real experience and how much reflects his reinterpretation of events years after Beatrice’s death is a moot question; all we can do is look at the literary text as he created it. Here the new attitude toward his love is what ultimately enables him, after some time, to accept her death and continue to see her as a mediatrix for God’s love. The concluding sonnet of the Vita nuova, beginning “Oltre la spera che più larga gira” (Beyond the sphere that makes the widest round), depicts the lover’s sigh ascending into heaven, where it sees his lady Beatrice in splendor. Returning to the earth, however, the sigh is unable to express the sight in a way Dante can understand. He only hears the name of “Beatrice” being uttered many times. But the Vita nuova ends with the poet’s own “miraculous vision” that inspires him to write about Beatrice in a nobler way. He ends by vowing to write of her “that which has never been written of any other woman” (Musa 1973, 86). Nor does Dante write of her again until she becomes the embodiment of Grace in his DIVINE COMEDY: Ultimately Beatrice has become what is promised at the end of the Vita nuova, a conception made possible by the poet’s development in the text of this little book from the egotism typical of earlier COURTLY LOVE poetry to the deification of the beloved typical of what Dante called his own DOLCE STIL NOVO, his “sweet new style” of poetry.
   Bibliography
   ■ Ahern, John.“The New Life of the Book: The Implied Reader of the Vita nuova,” Dante Studies 110 (1992): 1–16.
   ■ Baranski, Zygmunt G. “The ‘New Life’ of ‘Comedy’: The Commedia and the Vita Nuova,”Dante Studies 113 (1995): 1–29.
   ■ Harrison, Robert Pogue. “Approaching the Vita nuova,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dante, edited by Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 34–44.
   ■ Martinez, Ronald.“Mourning Beatrice: The Rhetoric of Threnody in the Vita Nuova,”Modern Language Notes 113 (1998): 1–29.
   ■ Musa,Mark, trans. Dante’s Vita Nuova: A Translation and an Essay. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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