Vita Nuova (Penguin Classics, 2022)
by Dante Alighieri [translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss in a dual language edition with parallel text]
Florence, c. 1292-1295
Enigmatic but somehow super interesting libello of poems and prose commentary ("somehow" because the prosimetrum format invites readers--at least readers in translation--to focus on the internal architecture of the work, its narrative arc, the would be autobiography contained within it, its author's poetic coming of age story, essentially everything but Dante's poetry in deference to his prose). I'll certainly have my work cut out for me if I ever read it again! For now, though, I think it'll be enough to mention a handful of things that stood out to me. As Virginia Jewiss conveniently points out in her introduction, "The essential, unsettling claim of the Vita Nuova is this: Beatrice, a real woman from Florence, is also a miracle, a disruptive, divine force who intervenes in [Dante's] life, causing him to think, to write, and to love in new ways. And, miracle that she is, she continues to do so after she dies, disrupting even the finality of death" (viii). The potential sacrilege of this conceit aside, the way Dante chooses to approach it in the context of traditional love poetry is jarring in the extreme. In Chapter 3, for example, he shares a vision in which a "lordly figure" persuades the dream version of Beatrice, described as "naked save for a loosely wrapped crimson cloth," to eat Dante's "burning" heart before ascending to heaven with her. Even accepting the lordly figure as the personification of Love and allowing leeway for the poet to operate freely in the symbolic realm, the impact of the imagery still seems almost Book of Revelation visionary to me--not at all what was expected. As odd as the combination of religious and love poetry here can be at times, though, the Vita Nuova also provides ample evidence that Dante knew how to up the ante. In Chapter 7, he explains that he wrote a sonnet in which his intent was to "call on Love's faithful with the words of the prophet Jeremiah, 'O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite e videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus,' and to beg them to listen to me." The allusion, which Jewiss attributes to Lamentations 1:12 and translates as "All you who pass along the way, stay here a while, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (21), is a fine example of Dante's intertextual dexterity insofar as the translation of the verse into his sonnet ("You who journey on the path of Love,/stay here a while and see/if there be any grief as great as mine" ["O voi che per la via d'Amor passate,/attendete e guardate/s'egli è dolore alcun, quanto 'l mio, grave"]) foreshadows the lovesick poet's illness-inspired dream in Chapter 23 where presentiments of Beatrice's death find "strange and horrible faces" telling Dante that "you are dead" while "birds in flight fell dead from the sky, and the earth quaked" as an apocalyptic preliminary to the canzone that follows. When Beatrice later does die within the timeline of the work as recounted in Chapter 28, Dante claims that a Lamentations 1:1 allusion he had just written into his canzone ("Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! facti est quasi vidua domina gentium" [Jewiss: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become!"]) was interrupted by the announcement of her death. He then expresses his grief in first prose and then poetry equally powerfully: "Once she had departed from this world, the entire city was like a widow, stripped of all her dignity" ["Poi che fue partita da questo secolo, rimase tutta la sopradetta cittade quasi vedova dispogliata da ogni dignitade"] (Chapter 30); "These eyes, which weep in pity for my heart/have shed so many mournful, plaintive tears/they ache with sorrow but can cry no more" ["Li occhi dolenti per pietà del core/hanno di lagrimar sofferta pena,/sí che per vinti son rimasi omai"] (Chapter 31). The poet's emotions, almost palpable to a reader even several hundred years after they were set down in writing, require no gloss but form a strange kind of coda to the famous earlier Chapter 25 in which Dante verses on the differences between the Latin poets and the vernacular poets and how the recent rise of vernacular poetry in Provençal and Italian, "the languages of oc and of sì," was due in Italy at least to the fact that "the first to begin writing poetry in the vernacular was moved by the desire to make his words understood by a woman who found Latin verses hard to understand." Wild.
La visione: Dante e Beatrice
(Ary Scheffer, 1845)