(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The New Life is a logical precursor of The Divine Comedy; both involve the figure of Beatrice, and both show a marked concern with the aesthetics of writing verse. Both also deal with love, though at this point arises the important distinction: Though pure in both works, the love in The Divine Comedy is divine and therefore infinite. It engineers the Pilgrim’s salvation through the figure of Beatrice and guides the Poet’s progress as would a Muse. The unnamed woman of The New Life, identifiable with Beatrice, is closer, as portrayed, to the feminine persona of courtly poetry, and the love that she represents is transcendent.

The poems of The New Life, though arranged as chronological narrative, were not written as a cycle; indeed, many date from Dante’s youth. The first, for example, is an extraordinary dream poem originally sent for comment to Guido Cavalcanti. Guido was older than Dante and a proud, disdainful Florentine Guelf. He was quick to seize on the sonnet’s strong psychological implications. Love appears as a feudal lord. In his arms he holds a sleeping woman, who is naked except for a blood-red cloak thrown about her. In his hand he holds the poet’s heart. Love then awakens the woman, convinces her to eat the poet’s heart, then departs with her, and the dream ends. Though written considerably earlier than The New Life, this sonnet sets the psychological tone for the entire work. Without knowing, the lady has consumed the poet’s heart and, by extension, his soul and his life; the poet’s own love is the means by which she has done this.

Poems, however, constitute only one part of The New Life. Accompanying them are two kinds of commentary. The first is prose narrative that illuminates the verse that follows it. The second, which immediately follows and appears whenever the poet deems necessary, is a commentary on the poem’s prosody itself. For example, the commentary on the dream poem notes that it is divided into two parts, that it initiates a response and resolves it, and that it was controversial when Dante had first circulated it, but that it ultimately won for him a special friend and mentor (Cavalcanti), who, however, remains unnamed.

This second variety of commentary breaks the narrative of the prose commentaries that introduce and link the verse; nevertheless, the commentaries on prosody indicate that the process through which Dante created The New Life is just as important to him as the work itself. Admittedly, Dante handles his concern with aesthetics less gracefully in this work than in The Divine Comedy; still, the privileged place that he implicitly assigns to prosody by including technical commentaries indicates his clear thesis that a poet grows artistically in direct proportion to the poem as it is written.

Even at the point when Beatrice dies, the logical climax and the place where one might expect some particularly personal element to appear, Dante refuses to allow it. Instead, he introduces a quotation from the lamentations of the book of Jeremiah to suggest the depth of his grief, notes that he cannot provide details about her death, and in the following section precisely calculates by the Arabic method the hour, day, and month on which she died. The result is that the reader dwells upon the mystical nature of the experience. The poet first encounters the woman as she begins her ninth year, and she dies on the ninth day of the ninth month. Thus, although one can calculate that the unnamed love dies on June 8, 1290 (by the Roman calendar), the affair becomes universalized, even stylized, in a way that implies a symmetry in the stages of life.

The depersonalization of the poet’s...

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The New Life Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Dante’s The New Life, a celebration in prose and poetry of the great poet’s love for Beatrice Portinari, begins with the following words: In that part of the book of my mind before which there would be little to read is found a chapter heading which says: “Here begins the new life.” It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written there; if not all of them, at least their essential doctrine.

Perhaps it is revealing to realize that this love was a poet’s love; that is, Dante’s love was not ordinary and practical, leading to forthright pursuit, engagement, marriage, and children. When Dante first saw Beatrice he was nine years and she was eight years old. He was so affected by the sight of her that his “vital spirit” trembled, his “animal spirit” was amazed, and his “natural spirit” wept. At least, this is how it was if readers accept The New Life literally.

Dante realized that, whatever a poet’s passion, such early love could hardly be convincing to anyone save the victim. After a few more sentences of praise, The New Life describes an encounter nine years after the first, when Beatrice stood between two ladies and greeted Dante. It was the ninth hour of the day, and nine had already become a symbol of their love. Readers will not discover what Beatrice said, and it probably does not matter; the important thing is that her greeting inspired Dante’s first poem of love for Beatrice. Readers are told that in a dream after being greeted by Beatrice, Dante had a vision of Love holding Beatrice in his arms “nude except for a scanty, crimson cloth.” Holding forth a fiery object, Love said, “Behold your heart,” and shortly thereafter persuaded Beatrice to eat the heart. Then Love wept and ascended toward the heavens with the lady in his arms. This dream is the subject of the poem.

It is known from other sources that the poem, a sonnet, was sent to Guido Cavalcanti, who wrote a sonnet in return, initiating a strong friendship between the poets. In The New Life, Dante merely refers to “my first friend” and quotes the beginning of a sonnet by Cavalcanti.

Dante reports that love so weakened him that everyone noticed that he was not himself. When his glances at Beatrice were misinterpreted as being directed at another lady, Dante, seizing upon the opportunity to disguise the true object of his love, pretended that the other lady was his love, and he wrote several “trifles” for her. When the lady who served as his screen left Florence on a journey, Dante knew that he should pretend to be dismayed. In fact, he was, but not from love; he was upset because his lover’s scheming had been frustrated. Despite the complications, the resultant sonnet satisfied Dante, and it is included in the collection. The beginning of the sonnet reads

O voi che per la via d’Amor passate,Attendete e guardateS’elli e dolore alcun, quanto ’l mio, grave;E prego sol ch’audir mi sofferiate,E poi imaginateS’io son d’ogni tormento ostale e chiave.

A comparison of this first part of the sonnet with the translation by Mark Musa will give even those who do not read Italian a sense of Dante’s poetic genius.

O you who travel on the road of Love,Pause here and look aboutFor any man whose grief surpasses mine.I ask this only; hear me out, then judgeIf I am not indeedOf every torment keeper and shade.

Despite the attraction of Dante’s poetry, it would be a mistake to take The New Life as primarily a collection of poems, leaving the prose passages for those interested in biography and the poet’s comments on style and intent. The prose passages are charming in themselves, and they reveal an intelligent, sensitive man who is always a poet. Perhaps it is truer to say that Beatrice was for the poems, rather than the poems were for Beatrice. Readers cannot say the same of the prose; it is not merely an instrument to provide a setting for the poetry, but together with the poetry it forms an organic work of art. Dante’s account of his love is so clear and ingenuous in style that it is...

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