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Dante’s Vita Nova

Falling in love with Love

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

Vita Nova
By Dante Alighieri
Translation, introduction, and notes by Andrew Frisardi
(Northwestern University Press, 350 pp., $24.95)

DANTE ALIGHIERI, whom Yeats called “the chief imagination of Christendom,” has become for the Western world the poet of the Commedia (only later characterized as “divine”). But Dante’s verse was born in the harmonies of the Vita Nuova,or The New Life, and reborn in the insistently philosophical and poetically knotty three poems of the Convivio,or The Banquet; and only then did itreach its intimidating maturity in his epic Commedia, in which Dante, who was born in 1265 and died in 1321, embodied not only everything he knew but everything he could invent: human life in all its variety; illustrations of the vices and the virtues; classical and Christian conceptions of the physical universe; and complex living frescoes of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—all bolstered with the politics, science, philosophy, and theology of his era. It is probably natural, given the drama and the human interest of the Commedia, that readers have flocked to it. 

We have a fairly solid idea of how Dante ended up, but most of us have a vague notion of how he began. Andrew Frisardi’s new translation of the Vita Nuova, finely introduced and closely annotated, is a book intended for the general reader who wants to understand the intricacy of Dante’s early undertaking in the deceptively “open” poems of the sequence. (I depend on Frisardi’s scholarly Introduction and Notes for some of what follows.) The Vita Nuova is a “prosimetrum”—a work in which prose alternates with poetry. The form was popularized by the sixth-century philosopher Boethius’s Latin work called The Consolation of Philosophy, but Dante’s “little book” (as he called it) could hardly be more different from Boethius’s compendium. Boethius’s successive prose pieces undertake a sustained dialogue on moral questions with Lady Philosophy, while his interspersed lyrics (varying in form) include exhortations, stories, hymns, prayers, and lamentations. Dante’s book, composed not in the expected Latin but in Italian, consists of a retrospective “frame-story,” introducing, with short prose narratives and analytical remarks, each of its thirty-one lyrics (which are mostly sonnets, but include three long canzoni, or songs).

The narrative as a whole tells of the poet’s attachment to the lady Beatrice, and the poems, as printed, appear to be responses to, or illustrations of, the narrative. But this appearance of the book is deceiving: the poems were in fact written first, beginning when Dante was eighteen. Only a few years later—after Beatrice had died and Dante had undertaken the study of philosophy—was the frame-story written to surround those earlier lyrics. The “fit” between the narrative and the poems is consequently uneasy: Beatrice is already dead when the prose narrative begins, but as Dante recollects his youth the “inserted” poems themselves record the ongoing life-chronology of love followed by mourning.

Much of the Vita Nuova might seem almost artless if we had not read Frisardi’s extensive, detailed, and satisfying notes, which draw on the major editions, commentaries, and critical works in Italian as well as in English, and also venture conclusions of Frisardi’s own. As Frisardi warns us, Dante draws on a vocabulary that is Aristotelian in origin but modified by Christian philosophy from Augustine through Aquinas, a vocabulary as foreign to the modern reader as are the special meanings of the topics it discusses: substance and accident (or the unchanging and the contingent), anger and pride (two of the seven deadly sins), intellect (or a pure awareness of Being), and so on. Other stumbling blocks to the modern reader are the poet’s classical and Biblical allusions, rarely identified since Dante expected his readers to recognize them. And then there is the arcane number symbolism that pervades the work: in the middle of the crucial narrative announcing Beatrice’s death the modern reader finds the medieval poet engaged in a baffling (but to Dante’s mind essential) “digression” on the number nine:

I tell you that, according to the custom of Arabia, her wholly noble soul departed in the first hour of the ninth day of the month; and according to the custom of Syria, she departed in the ninth month of the year, since the first month there is Tixryn the First, which for us is October; and according to our custom, she departed in that year of our indiction [reckoning]—that is, the years of our Lord—in which the perfect number [nine] had come round nine times in that century [the thirteenth] in which she had been placed in this world.... This number was her friend in order to make it understood that all nine motioning heavens utterly, perfectly harmonized with one another at the moment of her conception.

This excursus—ranging into the calendrical customs of Arabia and Syria as well as of Italy—continues into an even stranger assertion that Beatrice herself “was this number [nine],” since nine is the square of three, the number belonging to the Trinity. Dante’s fantastic reasoning requires pages of annotation, which Frisardi, drawing on a number of commentators, furnishes to the bewildered reader. The theological elaboration of the number nine—merely one instance of how far from our own are Dante’s habits of thought—will convince any doubting reader that the Vita Nuova requires annotation far beyond what its pages might seem to demand.

Frisardi has chosen to present his Vita Nuova as Dante’s readers encountered it—as a single book in a single language. In 1861, Dante Gabriel Rossetti made the same monolingual choice, but subsequent translations have usually been bilingual ones (or ones that gave the prose in English but the poems in both Italian and English). Frisardi wishes to offer us the Vita Nuova (which he calls, borrowing Dante’s introductory Latin, Vita Nova) in “contemporary American English”: we sink or swim in an American text. (An appendix reproduces the poems in their original Italian, with literal prose translations.) The monolingual page is the outcome of an understandable decision: few American readers would be much helped by a facing page in thirteenth-century Italian. And, after all, most foreign authors are offered to us in “straight English”—Herodotus, Cervantes, Pascal.

But in the case of certain kinds of poetry, the heart rebels against translation. Dante’s own heart rebelled against it. In the seventh chapter of the Convivio, he declares that “everyone should know that nothing harmonized according to the rules of poetry can be translated from its native tongue into another without destroying all its sweetness and harmony.” His language is deliberately intemperate and deliberately prescriptive—everyone; nothing; destroying all (ciascuno; nulla cosa; rompare tutta)—because poems of the sort found in the Vita Nuova are (for reasons I will come to in a moment) absolutely untranslatable. Poems with defined arguments, plain narratives, or clear images are more readily rendered into another language, because a lyric putting forth an argument or a story, clarified by a montage of realistic images (as in Miłosz), can be substantially carried over into another set of words—or at least its arguments, narratives, and images can. But what of poems with a ghostly narrative, few images, an abstract line of argument, and an aspiration toward transcendent language?

BEFORE PURSUING the question of translation, we might stop to ask two questions. Why is the Vita Nuova of historical importance? And why should we still read it? Surely it is not merely a vestige of medieval Christianity, remembered because in it Dante boldly chose to write in Italian rather than in Latin. That alone cannot be the reason for its durability: no literary work is interesting for its historical importance alone, and no poetry—whatever its original cultural matrix—can survive for seven centuries without appealing to cultures subsequent to its own. The Vita Nuova certainly would not have lasted without its poems, or even perhaps without its prose; the two genres combine to make a tantalizing and perplexing whole, constantly under discussion since its publication in 1576, almost three hundred years after its composition. What sort of merit do the poems of the Vita Nuova have? And if they can stand alone, as they were first composed, why did Dante later invent a retrospective analysis in prose to give his youthful poems narrative coherence and a spiritual (rather than Earthly) nature? 

Dante prefaces the appearance of the first poem of the sequence with an elaborate symbolic narrative. When he was almost nine, says the poet, he saw a nine-year-old girl (not here named) and was undone by her beauty. (Frisardi’s notes clarify the religious import of collecting the poems into groups of nine, and the symmetrical arrangement of the whole sequence around its three long “songs,” or canzoni.) As he grows up, the young Dante seeks further glimpses of “this youthful angel,” and nine years later, when he is eighteen, he passes her on the street as she, for the first time, “greeted me with such power that then and there I seemed to see to the farthest reaches of beatitude.” The name itself of this young woman—“Beatrice,” revealed only later in the work—expresses that beatitude toward which she will much later, in the Paradiso of the Commedia, lead the poet.

Overcome with joy at her greeting, the adolescent Dante withdraws to his room and falls asleep. And then—troubling the earlier sweetness—there appears to him a terrifying dream. In his room he sees “a fiery cloud” within which stands “a lordly man” who announces his role: “Ego dominus tuus”(“I am your lord”). The “lordly man” is Love, come to explain to his adept, the powerless poet, the nature of passionate love. The dream continues with a striking erotic narrative, in which the formerly innocent and purely visual eye of childhood now encounters an explicitly carnal vision of Beatrice: Dante sees “naked but for a crimson silken cloth, ... the lady ... who earlier that day had deigned to salute me” asleep in the arms of Love. Holding in his hand “something consumed by flame,” Love says to Dante, in Latin, “Behold your heart.” Awakening the sleeping lady, Love persuades her to “eat the thing burning in his hands.” “Then [Love’s] happiness turned into the bitterest tears, and as he cried he picked up this woman in his arms, and he seemed to go off toward the sky.” The poet feels an anguish so strong that it wakes him.

The shock of this dream-vision sets the tone for the first sonnet, in which Dante addresses other “captives” of Love (in this way identifying this passion as one deriving from the troubadours and their conventional worship of the inaccessible beloved). When, in the frame-story, Beatrice—misled by gossip—denies her greeting to the young Dante, he begins to ponder, in his chagrin, the self-interested nature of possessive desire, and he determines to change, to resign desire and write only poetry of pure praise of Beatrice. Other events in the narrative are few: the death of Beatrice’s father; the poet’s own illness. The premature and unforeseen death of Beatrice herself marks the sequence of “lived” poems (although her death has been intimated in the retrospective prose from the beginning).

The poet, inconsolable after the death of Beatrice, closes his prose narrative by declaring that he has had “a marvelous vision ... in which I saw things that made me decide not to say anything more about this blessed lady until I was capable of writing about her more worthily.” That hope is mentioned again in the first chapter of the Convivio, where Dante, although he looks ahead to future writing, refuses to disavow the Vita Nuova:

If in the present work, which is called The Banquet ... the subject is treated more maturely than in the Vita Nuova, I do not intend by this in any way to disparage that book but rather more greatly to support it with this one, seeing that it understandably suits that one to be fervid and passionate, and this one tempered and mature.

Dante, one of the governors of Florence, was on the losing side of an internecine Florentine political battle and was sent into exile under punishment by death if he should return. In exile, he wrote the Commedia, in which he presents Beatrice as the mediator of his salvation: she has drawn him (as he says in his last address to her) from slavery to liberty. By the end of the Commedia, Dante has learned to speak in an idiom encompassing all tonalities: sweet and harsh, narrative and visionary, historical and spiritual. The human dramas of history and salvation, voiced in sentences as varied as the universe they describe, join to enact the grand panoramic actions of the Comedy. Dante rejoiced when he came at last into the fullness of his own imaginative powers: at fifty-four, as he was completing the Paradiso, he said (in a Latin eclogue) that he would consent to receive a laurel crown only

when all the bodies flowing round
     the world
… and all the souls that live
within the stars and in the lower realms
will manifest themselves in this
     my song.

To aspire to a song revealing not only all Earthly bodies but also all souls, whether they dwell in the starry heaven or in the lower realms of hell, is almost beyond our conceiving; but by that aspiration we measure how far the epic Dante had come from the lyric poet of the Vita Nuova.

WHEN YEATS READ the Vita Nuova (in Rossetti’s English translation), he was transfixed by its vision of the lover’s fiery heart consumed by the beloved. Himself only too well acquainted with unslakable passion, he used Love’s claim, “Ego Dominus Tuus,” as the title of a poem in which he described Dante in exile as a poet who “set his chisel to the hardest stone”: 

Being mocked by Guido for his
     lecherous life,
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb that stair and eat that bitter
He found the unpersuadable justice,
     he found
The most exalted Lady loved by a man.

And in his psychological essay “A Vision” Yeats placed Dante in the same phase of the moon as himself, that of the “Daimonic Man,” whose Socratic daemon dictates what the poet should write: as Dante says of himself in the Purgatorio,“Count of me but as one/Who am the scribe of love; that, when he breathes,/Take up my pen, and, as he dictates, write.”

Just as Yeats fell under the influence of Dante, so have other twentieth-century poets, from Mandelstam to Miłosz to Merrill to Heaney. But it is chiefly the Dante of the Commedia to whom they have responded. The Vita Nuova gained a presence in English only through the translation by Rossetti, which is now—in its Victorian ornateness—no longer a text that Americans could easily like or even understand. Rossetti himself—an accomplished poet fluent in the Italian of his scholar-father Gabriele, who had edited the Commedia—could not reproduce in clear English the strange poems of the Vita Nuova. The reader of Rossetti’s English page finds baffling scenarios:

That lady of all gentle memories
Had lighted on my soul; —for whose
     sake flow’d
The tears of Love; in whom the power
Which led you to observe while I did
Love, knowing that dear image to be his,
Woke up within the sick heart
     sorrow-bow’d,Unto the sighs which are its weary load,
Saying, “Go forth.” And they went forth,
     I wis.

Frisardi, like Rossetti, wants to keep Dante’s Petrarchan rhymes, and in consequence his versions, too, become distorted:

She had just come into my memory,
that gracious lady Love is weeping for,
the moment that her virtue’s great
where I was working, made you look
     to see.
Love, who sensed her there inside
     of me,
awoke within my heart’s demolished
and told my sighs, “Each of you, out
     the door!”—
at which they all got up in pain to flee.

Although Frisardi’s rendition of the prose of the Vita Nuova is graceful and readable, his resolve to duplicate Dante’s verse in “contemporary American English” sits ill with the archaism of medieval manners and sentiment in Dante’s fiction. In fact, Frisardi cannot really remain within his desired idiom: in the United States we do not say lady, we say woman; we do not say flee, we say run away. One cannot imagine a native American speaker referring to his heart’s demolished core. And yet to offer the poems in a prose translation, as some have done, forfeits the very form of the Vita Nuova—the back-and-forth, prose-to-verse, retrospection to instantaneity—which establishes the rhythm of the whole: how life feels when you are living it (the poem) and how, looking back, you see it really was (the prose).

IF ONE READS only the poems of The New Life, the youthful Dante’s verse-manner begins to clarify itself. It is one that values linguistic beauty (aural, verbal, syntactic, etymological, repetitive) immensely more than theme—so much more, in fact, that specificity is virtually erased in abstraction. The style is all the more arresting because it differs so enormously from the inclusive cinematic style of the Commedia, with its chiaroscuro, its parade of characters from murderers to saints, its geographical punctiliousness, its varieties of violence, its celestial harmonies, its human narratives grim and joyful, its dramatic unfolding of the poet’s ascending quest. If the poet of the Commedia is “Dante,” then who is the poet of the Vita Nuova? He is, above all, one to whom the “rightness” of a completed poem is attached far more to the binding of one sound-syllable to another than to semantic articulation. 

The young Dante is someone to whom certain Italian words and their associated emotions have become talismanic. (Others might say fetishized.) Each such indispensable sound-word represents a certain note in a repertory of notes, and the music under the poet’s construction requires that this note be struck here and repeated there, that it be colored by these adjoining notes in this place and by other notes at other places. It is as though a set of precious game-pieces had been distributed to the poet, and he was adjured to arrange them in telling permutations and combinations, each configuration unique while recognizably part of a total pattern. (The nearest musical parallel might be a Bach canon.) If in the first sonnet we see alma, gentil, core, Amore, madonna, vedea, piangendo, and then see, in the third, piangete, amanti, piange, Amore, donne, gentil core, gentil donna, Amor, vidi, alma gentil, donna, it is only too clear that a chain of harmonic signifiers is being begun. Other words in these poems initiate similar chains linked to further sonnets, and so on. Rhymes, too, so rich in Italian, participate in the enchaining: the words Amore, core, onore, segnore, servidore, valore, dolzore, tremore, dolore, colore (and so on) throb through the end-rhymes of the poems. The rhyme-words core/Amore, frequent in Dante’s Italian lyric predecessors, become the heavenly twins of Dante’s prose and verse. The rhyme-chain core/Amore persists throughout the thirty poems of the Vita Nuova, and when we arrive at the very last sonnet we are hardly surprised to find a reprise of the first sonnet’s core, Amore: these, together with the reverent onore and splendore, close the poetic sequence.

FOR DANTE, each word had a telling savor and shape. Defining “combed” words (against “ragged” ones), he said that they “leave a certain sweetness in the mouths of those who utter them: such as amore, donna, disio, virtute, donare, letitia, salute, securitate and defesa.” Although many of the rhymes and “sweet words” to which Dante was so attached are visible in the poetry of his predecessors, it is my impression that his soundscape is far more hypnotic in its repetitions than that of Guido Cavalcanti, to whom the Vita Nuova is dedicated. And the poet’s sustained enchaining is recognizable in the overwhelming number of repetitions—listed in the concordance to the Vita Nuova—of the “combed” words that permeate not only the poems but also the prose: not only amore, but also amanti, amor, amorosa, amorosamente, amorose, and amoroso. Not only Beatrice, but beata, beati, beato, beatitudo, and beatitudine; and because this is the commencement of a new life, not only comincia but also cominciai, cominciamenti, cominciamento, cominciando, cominciandome, cominciare, cominciaro, and cominciò—and so on. In Frisardi’s ninety pages there are 208 instances of donna/donne, sixty-seven variants of “to weep.” 

The lingering reverberation makes each sound-group a recognizable accumulating “chord,” so that the form of the whole book begins to resemble a star, with Beatrice as the radiant center of the sequence, enshrined in chiming sound-groups that stream out around her. Eventually, surrounded by all these separate instances of echoing phonemes (which occur not merely in end-rhymes but also in words within lines, reinforcing the sound-spectrum), the full star of the aggregated prose and verse appears, each ray of sound-meaning pulsing in the beholding eye and the listening ear.

Such a poetics exists to bring about a trance-like state, in which the reader is naturalized further and further into Dante’s specialized, repetitive, and consciously restricted vocabulary. We must recall that the “sweetness” of which Dante spoke is that of individual words: words that are sweet in the mouth can be used to express pain, or lament, or self-reproach as much as to evoke praise or love or worship. In the Vita Nuova, the poet restrains the density that will pervade the Commedia. Here, when he plucks a string he sets resonating all its preceding and subsequent harmonics; only then can he pluck the next and set off the next vibration.

Dante’s own view of words makes of each a star. In the Convivio, he writes: “In every science [by which he means “area of knowledge”] the written word is a star filled with light which reveals that science.” And if each word is a star, each poem becomes a constellation configuring lights to illuminate some essence. Since the search for the essence of Beatrice—which will end only in the Paradiso—is the motif of the poems of the Vita Nuova, the poet hopes that by inscribing, and then re-inscribing, and then linking, and then re-linking, a multitude of verbal chains, he will, by the sheer congregation of these clouds of language, reveal not only the being of Beatrice but also his poetic efforts to summon her into existence. The surpassing wealth of mutually resonant syllables in Italian must have been one of the reasons for Dante’s preferring to write the Vita Nuova in the vernacular (and must also have been one of his reasons for choosing the recurrent interwoven rhymes of terza rima for the Commedia, by which each canto becomes—until its closing line—literally unstoppable in the reader’s ear).

IRONICALLY, IT WAS in the formal Latin of his De vulgari eloquentia that Dante lodged his defense of Italian as the language of literary endeavor. Since Dante’s sublime vernacular writing helped to found Italian literature, modern readers may be surprised that he had to defend the practice with such vehemence. Italian (in all its dialectical variety, explicitly recognized by Dante) was the common language of everyone; Latin was the language of the clerisy, the educated, the elite (and therefore Dante used it for his learned polemics on the vernacular and on monarchy). The Vita Nuova had to prove not only that Italian was as acceptable as Latin, but also that Italy’s lyric literature, in the form of the extended song (the canzone), was as complex as any classical lyric rival. 

“Whatever has flowed down to the lips of illustrious poets from the loftiest reaches of their minds,” Dante declares, “is found only in canzoni,” whereupon he embarks on a technical disquisition on the structure and style of the canzone that is almost unreadable in its particularity:

By diesis I mean a movement from one melody to another, which we call a “turn” when speaking the vernacular.... Some stanzas ... tolerate diesis: but there can be no diesis, in the sense in which I use the term, unless one melody be repeated, either before the diesis, or after it, or on either side.... If there is no repetition before the diesis, we say the stanza has a “forehead”; if there is none after, then we say it has a “tail.”

He proceeds in the same daunting fashion throughout his long defense and explication of the form of the vernacular canzone. No one could possibly think of Italian as an inexpressive language of peasants once Dante had had his say.

In the Vita Nuova, Dante—as is universally recognized—gave to the West a myth whereby the love of woman could lead to the love of God. And the arrival at the love of God no longer required the recantation of the love of woman, as it formerly had in Christian thought. By drawing an analogy between Beatrice and Christ, by terming her a “miracle,” by allowing her to participate in the “three-ness” of the Trinity, Dante could transmute his proper function as a lover into a forsaking of possessiveness in favor of an outpouring of praise, trusting that her virtute would lead to his salute. When he repeats the rhyme—a common one—of salvation with virtue, Dante (by his literary power) “guarantees” their connection. The salvation of Dante-the-pilgrim has already occurred when Virgil, who has accompanied Dante through Hell and Purgatory, yields his role as guide to Beatrice. Dante hears from Beatrice, now unveiled, one of the most shining lines of reward in literature: “Guardami ben: io son, io son, Beatrice.” (“Look on me well: I am, I truly am, Beatrice.” At the heights of Paradise, her poet speaks to her for the last time. As Longfellow pointed out, this is the only moment in the Commedia when Dante addresses her in the familiar “tu”: “Tu m’hai di servo tratto a libertate.” (“You have drawn me out of slavery to freedom.”) As the poet praises Beatrice for leading him to liberty, the rhymes take on their wonted “guaranteeing”: salute/vedute/virtute; bontate/libertate/potestate.

Poems such as those in the Vita Nuova (whatever the continuing efforts to translate their sentiments) entirely lose their function as poems when their constituting sound-chains, their word-notes, are made to disappear. The Vita Nuova has left many rhetorical and thematic legacies to Western poetry—the disturbances and vacillations of possessive love, the eye as the erotic organ par excellence,the refinement of the mixed genre of prose and poetry, the symmetry of the arrangement of the poetic sequence, the drama of direct address to a beloved, the power of simplicity in language in poems of complex interiority—and for all these bequests the Vita Nuova will continue to be remembered and debated. In their original Italian, the poems will be memorized, pondered, and loved. Andrew Frisardi—through his translation, introduction, and generous annotation—enables us to revisit this decisive step in the invention of the Western psyche, and reminds us, by the very difficulties of his attempt at rendering Dante’s verse in English rhyme, of the existence of one peculiar but fundamental species of poetry—ear-fixated, insistent, repetitive, hypnotic—that is resistant even to paraphrase, and, in the end, fatally insusceptible to translation.

Helen Vendler is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline The Road to Paradise.”