Upfront, I am not a poet, and Dante wrote the book for poets about poetry (his own). How do I know? It says so, in the introduction’s first sentence, of the Penguin Classics 1980 edition by Barbara Reynolds, who also translated. So I am not the target audience.
A tradition of love poetry, in the Italian vernacular (as opposed to Latin), had gone on for 150 years prior to Dante’s arrival in the early 14th century, which Dante transformed by grounding it in personal experience – which, in his case, means nonstop tears and sighs.
Clearly, this is stuff of the early Renaissance, the well-off Florentines of Dante’s time with much too much free time on their hands.
In the slim volume of La Vita Nuova, Dante takes the innovative step of assembling his love poetry and then commenting on it, to reveal meaning, structure, and inspiration. In a way, it is a fine Italian tapestry,
The object of Dante’s desire is the fabled Beatrice, a mere wisp of a girl at age 8 when he, nearly 9, first claps eyes on her. His love is mute, however, and never goes beyond public greetings in passing. The first such greeting only occurs nine years later, when her first words to him cause him rapturous joy. Barbara explains:
Her greeting filled him with intense joy and he withdrew to his apartment to think about her. Falling asleep he had the dream which is the subject of his first sonnet.
Alas, “from then onwards Dante’s thoughts dwell constantly on Beatrice. so much so that his health begins to suffer and his friends grew concerned about him.” [p.19]
Matters worsen, until Dante settles upon a “screen-love,” that is a love decoy tradition inherited from courtly love, in which the public is to believe the lover is obsessed with another. It works so well that Beatrice snubs him, throwing Dante into the depths of despair (we are talking about a grown man here). All the while he is writing her love poems, without identifying her. He sees her one last time before she dies, unexpectedly, at age 24. He describes none of the circumstances of her death; other than not pertaining to the book’s scope, “it is not fitting for me to discuss her death for in so doing I would be obliged to write in praise of myself, which is reprehensible above all things.” [XXVIII, p.79]
Dante grieves for a long time. Several years later, while still bereft, he sees a beautiful young woman from an open window looking upon him compassionately. The tears well up in his eyes. He sees in her compassion a noble sort of love and, over several such encounters, writes several sonnets to her, until a feeling of betrayal towards the deceased Beatrice causes him to stop. As Reynolds explains:
. . . just as his reason seemed on the point of being overthrown by his desire, he had a vision of Beatrice, as a child again, and dressed in the soft crimson in which he had first seen her. The effect of this vision was to bring on fresh fits of weeping so that his eyes became tinged with dark red patches; but the crisis, it seems, was over. [p.23]
The last poems include one addressed to two pilgrims to the city who, years after the event, are unaware that the city is still mourning Beatrice; the last to two ladies, with Dante’s vision of Beatrice in Heaven. Thereafter Dante relates a vision which persuades him to no longer write poems about Beatrice, but instead to embark on a new work so that he “may compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman” [XLII, p.99] – that is his Divine Comedy (1317), in which he is guided through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven at first by Virgil and then by Beatrice herself.
I first read La Vita Nuova many years ago, when in love with an Italian girl, and identified her with Beatrice, myself with Dante. I was still in my Romanticism phase, which extended from college through my drama-filled early adult years, when emotionalism and individualism were my main muses for artistic creation.
I now bring a more jaundiced eye to such matters, and see Dante as the precursor to a long and unfortunate Western trend, the worship of people. This convoluted “love” for another is, ofttimes, an expression of self-love, which in these pop psychology days is touted as essential before all else, when by definition it is selfish.
Indeed, my first reading was long enough ago to have forgotten the revelations hidden at book’s end, and raised no where else by Dante or Reynolds. In the first, we learn in the chronology that Dante was married around age 19, just before the first “screen-love ”– so we can rest assured the official screen-love was not his poor wife. The second, buried in the Notes on the Text, was that Beatrice was also married (at an unknown date). Both details were sufficient to shock me – in these days when so little shocks – the knowledge that Dante was married and writing to a married woman coloring the entire text.
What, then, could be the inspiration for such an adulterous love, at the very core and outset of the Western tradition of adulation, especially of women? When one remembers that Bibles were not allowed in the hands of laymen (or nobles), and remained the exclusive domain of Catholic priests until the Reformation, the extolling of such unbiblical love is perhaps more understandable.
In a long and revealing prose passage [XXV, pp. 71-75], Dante excuses his personification of Love as a person, explaining that it is in good Greek and Roman poetic tradition, yet goes so far as to receive visions from this Love personage.
Throughout, Dante describes how sighing and crying were constant fruits of his love for Beatrice. As for the former, he generalizes his reactions to others:
. . . and there was no one who could look at her without immediately sighing. [XXVI, p.76]
There are so many passage about Dante’s red eyes, it is difficult to choose. Here, though is one after learning of Beatrice’s father’s death [XXII, p.62]:
. . . I was left in such distress that my eyes were bathed in tears, and I hid my eyes in my hands again and again. I would have hidden myself away at once as soon as my tears began to flow, but I hoped to hear more about my lady. . .
Even Dante reaches the point of admitting [XXVII , p.78]:
Thus by her merest glance I am unmanned,
And pride humbled, none could understand.
Don’t get me wrong. Women, generally, are far more attractive than men. God made mankind after His image and then went an extra mile with Eve. Indeed, beautiful women startle, as though graced with the divine, coming closest, perhaps, to the first prototype, Eve. To his credit, Dante elevates Beatrice because of her sublime beauty and humility (a rare combination these days).
But as evidenced in the book’s last poem [XLI, p.99], Dante deifies Beatrice with her apotheosis to heaven. The antecedent for such an elevation is made clearer when Dante appeals for divine help, for while referring directly to Jesus only once, his appeals to Mary are more frequent, including such passages as this [XXXIV, p.88]:
Her perfect goodness, God enthroned above
In Mary’s heaven of humility.
Could it be that the worship of Mary made it all the easier to venerate other earthly idols?
So our formidable tradition of Love poetry was birthed by an adulterous poet who platonically worshiped the object of his desire, with so many sighs and tears that he was unmanned. Furthermore, he received visions from a spiritist Love and, during a supposed cultural flowering of the Roman church, was thoroughly unbiblical in both his religious worship of Mary and his obsession with follow-your-heart love.
We may owe more to Dante than we realize.