Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)