Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1537
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 style underscores the poet’s thesis: to fix upon those moments that mark the beginnings of a new life. To provide every detail would limit the experience to only those persons immediately concerned. Leaving such details unwritten makes memory, that of the reader, as well as of the poet, essential to a reading of the work. The New Life thus marks an important stage in the poet’s development as a poet. It logically precedes The Divine Comedy insofar as it lacks the latter poem’s highly personal references; yet it resembles this work as a journal of universalized human experience.
The New Life provides additional linkages that unify its discontinuous narrative. Besides the numerology that frames the poet’s encounters with the Beatrice figure, the three meetings themselves occur at times that mark stages of the poet’s own life. The first, discussed above, is the childhood meeting that occurs at the end of the poet’s ninth year and the beginning of the Beatrice figure’s ninth year. This point marks the poet’s boyhood; he realizes that the encounter is meaningful, for it affects his vital, animal, and natural spirits. Yet this tumult is sexless; what has taken place is a fundamental alteration in the poet’s perceptions and a basic development in his personality.
The second encounter takes place nine years later in the ninth hour of the day. Now the poet sees the Beatrice figure, who actually greets him. The physical dimension adds to the nature of the experience. Again, the poet has reached a new stage in his life. He retires to his room and experiences the dream noted above. The personification of Love, his declaration Ego dominus tuus (I am your master), the naked Beatrice figure clothed only with a crimson cloth, and her eating of the poet’s heart all add to the sexual innuendo. That the woman is the same one who greeted the poet is clear. She is both la donna de la salute (the lady of the greeting) and the lady of the poet’s salvation. The poet inquires of many trovatori (troubadours), somewhat naïvely, the meaning of the dream, and this juncture introduces his primo amico (first friend), the otherwise unnamed Cavalcanti. Again, the poet realizes that he has reached a new stage in life but senses even more that the physical dimension has lessened the spirituality of his love. The overwhelming emotion is regret, not lust, and the screen-love device, the poet’s substitution of another woman for his true love, represents his attempt to preserve the purity of the original experience. Appropriately, it is the Love persona himself who counsels the poet to adopt this ruse, and it succeeds so well that the poet acquires the reputation of a roué. When Beatrice next passes him, she withholds her greeting. The greeting in this context assumes the dimension of a benefaction, akin to the creative inspiration that a Muse might furnish. That it is withheld signals a nadir of the poet’s creative activity, just as it indicates another stage in the poet’s life.
Sorrow is the predominant emotion at this point, and the Love figure reappears to counsel that the poet abandon his screen-love ruse. The Love figure, who speaks only in Latin, declares that he is the center of a circle at which all points of the circumference are equidistant. In other words, the poet, though he recognizes the transcendence of love, cannot know love’s eternity. That, in essence, is the creative problem with which Dante as a poet must grapple; indeed, it is one that he manages to surmount only in The Divine Comedy.
Fate increasingly informs the pattern of life after this experience. At a wedding reception, the poet suddenly senses the presence of Beatrice. He attempts to distract himself by looking at the paintings that adorn the walls of the house, then raises his eyes only to discover Beatrice herself. Again, he swoons and observes that at this point he has moved to that stage of life beyond which it is impossible to return to what had been. Death and the poet’s awareness of his mortality intrude when a young woman dies, when Beatrice’s father dies, and when the poet himself falls seriously ill. In the ninth day of his illness, the poet reflects on the inadequacy of life and its brevity. Again a dream intrudes, this time a nightmare, in which disheveled women in mourning first warn the poet of his mortality, then declare him dead. Beatrice is among them, and in the same dream a friend appears to tell the poet that Beatrice herself has died. The landscape clouds over, and the natural world appears fundamentally changed, much as it had at the death of Christ. Even so, the poet now witnesses his beloved’s assumption into heaven. The poet recognizes the beatitude that attends death, and he himself wishes to die.
This vision foreshadows the actual death of Beatrice. The poet sees her death as a divine judgment that the world had been unworthy of one so perfect. Following the death of Beatrice, a young woman pities the poet in his mourning. He accepts her pity and thereby recognizes the mortal, as well as the transcendent, power of love. His sorrow thus passes beyond mortal bounds and arrives at the Empyrean, the largest sphere of First Cause, in which Beatrice herself dwells for all time.