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...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)