Charles Eliot Norton (essay date 1859)
SOURCE: "The New Life of Dante," in Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 23, 1983, pp. 52-68.
[In the following essay, origianlly written in 1859, Norton discusses the development of Dante's thought about Beatrice and the relationship of the Vita Nuova to his other works.]
The year 1289 was one marked in the annals of Florence and of Italy by events which are still famous, scored by the genius of Dante upon the memory of the world. It was in this year that Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were starved by the Pisans in their tower prison. A few months later, Francesca da Rimini was murdered by her husband. Between the dates of these two terrible events the Florentines had won the great victory of Campaldino; and thus, in this short space, the materials had been given to the poet for the two best-known and most powerful stories and for one of the most striking episodes of the Divina Commedia.
In the great and hard-fought battle of Campaldino Dante himself took part. "I was at first greatly afraid," he says, in a letter of which but a few sentences have been preserved, "but at the end I felt the greatest joy—according to the various chances of the battle." When the victorious army returned to Florence, a splendid procession, with the clergy at its head, with the arts of the city each under its banner, and with all manner of pomp, went out to meet it. There were long-continued feasts and rejoicings. The battle had been fought on the 11th of June, the day of St. Barnabas, and the Republic, though already engaged in magnificent works of church building, decreed that a new church should be erected in honor of the Saint on whose day the victory had been won.
A little later in that summer, Dante was one of a troop of Florentines who joined the forces of Lucca in levying war upon the Pisan territory. The stronghold of Caprona was taken, and Dante was present at its capture; for he says, "I saw the foot-soldiers, who, having made terms, came out from Caprona, afraid when they beheld themselves among so many enemies" (Inferno, XXI, 94-96).
Thus, during a great part of the summer of 1289, Dante was in active service as a soldier. He was no lovesick idler, no mere home-keeping writer of verses, but was already taking his part in the affairs of the state which he was afterwards to be called on for a time to assist in governing, and he was laying up those stores of experience which were to serve as the material out of which his vivifying imagination was to form the great national poem of Italy. But of this active life, of these personal engagements, of these terrible events which took such strong possession of his soul, there is no word, no suggestion even, in the book of his New Life. In it there is no echo, however faint, of those storms of public violence and private passion which broke dark over Italy. In the midst of the tumults which sprang from the jealousies of rival states, from the internal discords of cities, from the divisions of parties, from the bitterness of domestic quarrels—this little book is full of tenderness and peace, and tells its story of love as if the world were the abode of tranquility. No external excitements could break into the inner chambers of Dante's heart to displace the love that dwelt within them. The contrast between the purity and the serenity of the Vita Nuova and the coarseness and cruelty of the deeds that were going on while it was being written is complete. Every man in some sort leads a double life—one real and his own, the other seeming and the world's—but with few is the separation so entire as it was with Dante.
But in these troubled times the New Life was drawing to its close. The spring of 1290 had come, and the poet, now twenty-five years old, sixteen years having passed since he first beheld Beatrice, was engaged in writing a poem to tell what effect the virtue of his lady wrought upon him. He had written but the following portion when it was broken off, never to be resumed:
So long hath Love retained me at his hest,
And to his sway hath so accustomed me,
That as at first he cruel used to be,
So in my heart he now doth sweetly rest.
Thus when by him my strength is
So that the spirits seem away to flee,
My frail soul feels such sweetness verily,
That with it pallor doth my face invest.
Then Love o'er me such mastery doth seize,
He makes my sighs in words to take their
And they unto my lady go to pray
That she to give me further grace would
Where'er she sees me, this to me occurs,
Nor can it be believed what humbleness is
Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! facta est quasi vidua domina gentium!
(How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! how is she become as a widow, she that was great among the nations! [Lamentations, I, 1])
I was yet engaged upon this Canzone, and had finished the above stanza, when the Lord of justice called this most gentle one unto glory under the banner of that holy Queen Mary whose name was ever spoken with greatest reverence by this blessed Beatrice.
And although it might give pleasure, were I now to tell somewhat of her departure from us, it is not my intention to treat of it here for three reasons. The first is, that it is no part of the present design, as may be seen in the poem of this little book. The second is, that, supposing it were so, my pen would not be sufficient to treat of it in a fitting manner. The third is, that, supposing both the one and the other, it would not be becoming in me to treat of it, since, in doing so, I should be obliged to praise myself—a thing altogether blameworthy in whosoever does it—and therefore I leave this subject to some other narrator.
Nevertheless, since in what precedes there has been occasion to make frequent mention of the number nine, and apparently not without reason, and since in her departure this number appeared to have a large place, it is fitting to say something on this point, seeing that it seems to belong to our design. Wherefore I will first tell how it had place in her departure, and then I will assign some reason why this number was so friendly to her. I say, that, according to the mode of reckoning in Italy, her most noble soul departed in the first hour of the ninth day of the month; and according to the reckoning, in Syria, she departed in the ninth month of the year, since the first month there is Tismim, which with us is October; and according to our reckoning, she departed in that year of our indiction, that is, of the years of the Lord, in which the perfect number [the number ten] was completed for the ninth time in that century in which she had been set in the world; and she was of the Christians of the thirteenth century.
One reason why this number was so friendly to her may be this: since, according to Ptolemy and the Christian truth, there are nine heavens which move, and, according to the common astrological opinion, these heavens work effects here below according to their relative positions, this number was her friend, to the end that it might be understood that at her generation all the nine movable heavens were in most perfect conjunction. This is one reason; but considering more subtilely and according to infallible truth, this number was she herself—I speak in a similitude, and I mean as follows. The number three is the root of nine, since, without any other number, multiplied by itself, it makes nine—as we see plainly that three times three are nine. Then, if three is the factor by itself of nine, and the Author of Miracles by himself is three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are three and one—this lady was accompanied by the number nine that it might be understood that she was a nine, that is, a miracle, whose only root is the marvellous Trinity. Perhaps a more subtle person might discover some more subtle reason for this; but this is the one that I see for it, and which pleases me the best.
After thus treating of the number nine in its connection with Beatrice, Dante goes on to say, that, when this most gentle lady had gone from this world, the city appeared widowed and despoiled of every dignity; whereupon he wrote to the princes of the earth an account of its condition, beginning with the words of Jeremiah which he quoted at the entrance of this new matter. The remainder of this letter he does not give, because it was in Latin, and in this work it was his intention, from the beginning, to write only in the vulgar tongue; and such was the understanding of the friend for whom he writes—that friend being, as we may suppose, Guido Cavalcanti, whom Dante, it may be remembered, has already spoken of as the chief among his friends. Then succeeds a Canzone lamenting the death of Beatrice, which, instead of being followed by a verbal exposition, as is the case with all that have gone before, is preceded by one, in order that it may seem, as it were, desolate and like a widow at its end. And this arrangement is preserved in regard to all the remaining poems in the little volume. In this poem he says that the Eternal Sire called Beatrice to himself, because he saw that this world was not worthy of such a gentle thing; and he says of his own life, that no tongue could tell what it has been since his lady went away to heaven.
Among the sonnets ascribed to Dante is one which, if it be his, must have been written about this time, and which, although not included in the Vita Nuova, seems not unworthy to find a place here. Its imagery, at least, connects it with some of the sonnets in the earlier portion of the book.
One day came Melancholy unto me,
And said, "With thee I will awhile abide";
And, as it seemed, attending at her side,
Anger and Grief did bear her company.
"Depart! Away!" I cried out eagerly.
Then like a Greek she unto me replied;
And while she stood discoursing in her
I looked, and Love approaching us I see.
In cloth of black full strangely was he clad,
A little hood he wore upon his head,
And down his face tears flowing fast he
"Poor little wretch! what ails thee?" then I
And he replied, "I woful am, and sad,
Sweet brother, for our lady who is dead."
About this time, Dante tells us, a person who stood to him in friendship next to his first friend, and who was of the closest relationship to his glorious lady, so that we may believe it was her brother, came to him and prayed him to write something on a lady who was dead. Dante, believing that he meant the blessed Beatrice, accordingly wrote for him a sonnet; and then, reflecting that so short a poem appeared but a poor and bare service for one who was so nearly connected with her, added to it a Canzone, and gave both to him.
As the months passed on, his grief still continued fresh, and the memory of his lady dwelt continually with him. It happened, that,
on that day which completed a year since this lady was made one of the citizens of eternal life, I was seated in a place where, remembering her, I drew an Angel upon certain tablets. And while I was drawing it, I turned my eyes, and saw at my side certain men to whom it was becoming to do honor, and who were looking at what I did; and, as was afterward told me, they had been there now some time before I perceived them. When I saw them, I rose, and, saluting them, said, "Another was just now with me, and on that account I was in thought." When these persons had gone, I returned to my work, that is, to drawing figures of Angels; and while doing this, a thought came to me of saying words in rhyme, as for an anniversary poem for her, and of addressing them to those who had come to me. Then I said this sonnet, which has two beginnings:
Unto my mind remembering had come
The gentle lady, with such pure worth
That by the Lord Most High she had been
Within the heaven of peace, where Mary
hath her home.
Unto my mind had come, indeed, in thought,
That gentle one for whom Love's tears are
Just at the time when, by his power led,
To see what I was doing you were brought.
Love, who within my mind did her perceive,
Was roused awake within my wasted heart,
And said unto my sighs, "Go forth!
Whereon each one in grief did take its
Lamenting they from out my breast did go,
And uttering a voice that often led
The grievous tears unto my saddened eyes.
But those which issued with the greatest woe,
"O noble soul," they in departing said,
"To-day makes up the year since thou to
heaven didst rise."
The preceding passage is one of the many in the Vita Nuova which are of peculiar interest, as illustrating the personal tastes of Dante, and the common modes of his life. "I was drawing," he says, "the figure of an Angel"; and this statement is the more noticeable, because Giotto, the man who set painting on its modern course, was not yet old enough to have exercised any influence upon Dante. The friendship which afterwards existed between them had its beginning at a later period. At this time Cimabue still held the field. He often painted angels around the figures of the Virgin and her Child; and in his most famous picture, in the Church of Sta. Maria Novella, there are certain angels of which Vasari says, with truth, that, though painted in the Greek manner, they show an approach toward the modern style of drawing. These angels may well have seemed beautiful to eyes accustomed to the hard unnaturalness of earlier works. The love of Art pervaded Florence, and a nature so sensitive and so sympathetic as Dante's could not but partake of it in the fullest measure. Art was then no adjunct of sentimentalism, no encourager of idleness. It was connected with all that was most...
(The entire section is 6083 words.)