"The New Life" of Dante

I.

"AT that season," says Boccaccio, in his Life of Dante, "when the sweetness of heaven reclothes the earth with its adornments, and makes it all smiling with flowers among the green leaves, it was the custom in our city for the men and for the ladies to celebrate festivals in their own streets in separate companies. Wherefore if happened, that, among the rest, Foleo Portinari, a man held in much honor in those times among the citizens, had collected his neighbors at a feast in his own house on the first of May. Among them was the before-named Alighieri,— and, as little boys are wont to follow their fathers, especially to festive places, Dante, whose ninth year was not yet finished, accompanied him. It happened, that here, with others of his age, of whom, both boys and girls, there were many at the house of the entertainer, he gave himself to merry-making, after a childish fashion. Among the crowd of children was a little daughter of Foleo, whose name was Bice,—though this was derived from her original name, which was Beatrice. She was, perhaps, eight years old, a pretty little thing in a childish way, very gentle and pleasing in her actions, and much more sedate and modest in her manners and words than her youthful age required. Beside this, she had very delicate features, admirably proportioned, and full, in addition to their beauty, of such openness and charm, that she was looked upon by many as a little angel. She then, such as I depict her, or rather, far more beautiful, appeared at this feast before the eyes of our Dante, not, I believe, for the first time, but first with power to enamor him. And although still a child, he received her image into his heart with such affection, that, from that day forward, never, as long as he lived, did it leave him.” 1

It was partly from tradition, partly from the record which Dante himself had left of it, that Boccaccio drew his account of this scene. In the Vita Nuova, “The New Life,” Dante has written the first part of the history of that love which began at this festival, and which, growing with his growth, became, not many years after, the controlling passion of his life. Nothing is better or more commonly known about Dante than his love for Beatrice: but the course of that love, its relation to his external and public life, its moulding effect upon his character, have not been clearly traced. The love which lasted from his boyhood to his death, keeping his heart fresh, spite of the scorchings of disappointment, with springs of perpetual solace,—the love which, purified and spiritualized by the bitterness of separation and trial, led him through the hard paths of Philosophy and up the steep ascents of Faith, bringing him out of Hell and through Purgatory to the glories of Paradise and the fulfilment of Hope,—such a love is not only a spiritual experience, but it is also a discipline of character whose results are exhibited in the continually renewed struggles of life.

The earthly story of this love, of its beginning, its irregular course, its hopes and doubts, its exaltations and despairs, its sudden interruption and transformation by death, is the story which the “Vita Nuova” tells. The narrative is quaint, embroidered with conceits, deficient in artistic completeness, but it has the ndïedé and simplicity of youth, the charm of sincerity, the freedom of personal confidence ; and so long as there are lovers in the world, so long as lovers are poets, so long will this first, and tenderest love-story of modern literature be read with appreciation and responsive sympathy.

But “The New Life” has an interest of another sort and a claim, not yet sufficiently acknowledged, upon all who would read the “Divina Commedia” with fit appreciation, in that it contains the first hint of the great poem itself, and furnishes for it a special, interior, imaginative introduction, without the knowledge of which it is not thoroughly to be understood. The character of Beatrice, as she appears in the "Divina Commedia,” the relation in which the poet stands to her, the motive of the dedication of the poem to her honor and memory, and many minor allusions, are all explained or illustrated by the aid of the "Vita Nuova.” Dante’s works and life are interwoven as are those of no other of the poets who have written for all time. No other has so written his autobiography. With Dante, external impressions and internal experiences—sights, actions, thoughts, emotions, sufferings—were all fused into poetry as they passed into his soul. Practical life and imaginative life Were with him one and indissoluble. Not only was the life of imagination as real to him as the life of fact, but the life of fact was clothed upon by that of imagination ; so that, on the one hand, daily events and common circumstances became a part of his spiritual experience in a far more intimate sense than is the case with other men, while, on the other, his fancies and his visions assumed the absoluteness and the literal existence of positive external facts. The remotest flights of his imagination never carry him where his sight becomes dim. His journey through the spiritual world was no less real to him than his journeys between Florence and Rome, or his wanderings between Verona and Ravenna. So absolute was his imagination, that it often so far controls his reader as to make it difficult not to believe that the poet beheld with his mortal eves the invisible scenes which he describes. Boccaccio relates, that, after that part of the "Commedia" which treats of Hell had become famous it happened one day in Verona, that Dante “passed before a door where several women were sitting, and one of them, in a low voice, yet not so but that she was well heard by him and his companion, said to another woman : 'See that man who goes through Hell and comes back when he pleases, and brings news of those who are down there!' And then one of them replied simply: 'Indeed, what you say must be true; for do you not see how his beard is crisped and his face brown with the heat and smoke of it?'"2

From this close relation between his life and his works, the “Vita Nuova” has a peculiar interest, as the earliest of Dante’s writings, and the most autobiographic of them in its form and intention. In it we are brought into intimate personal relations with the poet. He trusts himself to us with full and free confidence; but there is no derogation from becoming manliness in his confessions. He draws the picture of a portion of his youth, and lays bare its tenderest emotions; but he does so with no morbid selfconsciousness, and no affectation. Part of this simplicity is due, undoubtedly, to the character of the times, part to his own youthfulness, part to downright faith in his own genius. It was the fashion for poets to tell of their loves; in following the fashion, he not only gave expression to real feeling, but claimed his rank among the poets, and set a new style, from which love-poetry was to take a fresh date.

This first essay of his poetic powers exhibits the foundation upon which his later life was built. The figure of Beatrice, which appears veiled under the allegory, and indistinct in the bright cloud of the mysticism of the "Divina Commedia,” takes her place in life and on the earth through the "Vita Nuova,” as definitely as Dante himself. She is no allegorized piece of humanity, no impersonation of attributes, but an actual woman,—beautiful, modest, gentle, with companions only less beautiful than herself,—the most delightful figure in the midst of the picturesque life of Florence. She is seen smiling and weeping, walking with stately maidenly decorum in the street, praying at the church, merry at festivals, mourning at funerals ; and her smiles and tears, her gentleness, her reserve, all the sweet qualities of her life, and the peace of her death, are told of with such tenderness and refinement, such pathetic melancholy, such delicate purity, and such passionate vehemence, that she remains and will always remain the loveliest and most womanly woman of the Middle Ages,—at once absolutely real and truly ideal.

It was in the year 1292, about two years after the death of Beatrice, and when he himself was about twenty-seven years old, that Dante collected into this libretto d' amore the poems that he had written during Beatrice’s life, adding to them others relating to her written after her death, and accompanying all with a narrative and commentary in prose. The meaning of the name which he gave to the book, “La Vita Nuova,” has been the cause of elaborate discussion among the Italian commentators. Literally “The New Life,” it has been questioned whether this phrase meant simply early life, or life made new by the first experience and lasting influence of love. The latter interpretation seems the most appropriate to Dante’s turn of mind and to his condition of feeling at the time when the little book appeared. To him it was the record of that life which the presence of Beatrice had made new.3

But whatever be the true significance of the title, this “New Life” is full not only of the youthful ness of its author, but also of the fresh and youthful spirit of the time. Italy, after going through a long period of childhood, was now becoming conscious of the powers of maturity. Society, (to borrow a fine, figure from Lamennais.) like a river, which, long lost in marshes, had at length regained its channel, after stagnating for centuries, was now again rapidly advancing. Throughout Italy there was a morning freshness, and the thrill and exhilaration of conscious activity. Her imagination was roused by the revival of ancient and now new learning, by the stories of travellers, by the gains of commerce, by the excitements of religion and the alarms of superstition. She was boastful, jealous, quarrelsome, lavish, magnificent, full of fickleness,—exhibiting on all sides the exuberance, the magnanimity, the folly of youth. After the long winter of the Dark Ages, spring had come, and the earth was renewing its beauty. And above all other cities in these days Florence was full of the pride of life. Civil brawls had not yet reduced her to become an easy prey for foreign conquerors. She was famous for wealth, and her spirit had risen with prosperity. Many years before, one of the Provencal troubadours, writing to his friend in verse, had said,—"Friend Gaueelm, if you go to Tuscany, seek a shelter in the noble city of the Florentines, which is named Florence. There all true valor is found; there joy and song and love are perfect and adorned.” And if this were true in the earlier years of the thirteenth century, it was still truer of its close ; for much of early simplicity and purity of manners had disappeared before the increasing luxury (le morbidezze d’ Egitto, as Boccaccio terms it) and the gathered wealth of the city,—so that gayety and song more than ever abounded. “It is to be noted,” says Giovanni Viliam, writing of this time, “it is to be noted that Florence and her citizens were never in a happier condition.” The chroniclers tell of constant festivals and celebrations. “In the year 1283, in the month of June, at the feast of St. John, the city of Florence being in a happy and good state of repose,—a tranquil and peaceable state, excellent for merchants and artificers,—there was formed a company of a thousand men or more, all clothed in white dresses, with a leader called the Lord of Love, who devoted themselves to games and sports and dancing, going through the city with trumpets and other instruments of joy and gladness, and feasting often together. And this court lasted for two months, and was the most noble and famous that ever was in Florence or in all Tuscany, and many gentlemen came to it, and many rhymers,4 and all were welcomed and honorably cared for.” Every year, the summer was opened with May and June festivals. Florence was rejoicing in abundance and beauty.5 Nor was it only in passing gayeties that the cheerful and liberal temper of the people was displayed.

“Lo giorno che costei net mondo venne,
Secondo che si trova
Nel libro della mente che vien nieno,
La mia persona parvola sostenne
Una passion nova.”
That day when she unto the world attained,
As is found written true
Within the book of my now sinking soul,
Then by my childish nature was sustained
A passion new.

In referring to Dante's Minor Poems, we shall refer to them as they stand in the first volume of Fraticelli’s edition of the Opere Minore at _Dante, Firenze, 1834. There is great need of a careful, critical edition of the Canzoniere of Dante, in which poems falsely ascribed to him should no longer Bold place among the genuine. But there is little hope for this from Italy; for the race of Italian commentators on Dante is, as a whole. more frivolous, more impertinent, and duller, than that of English commentators on Shakespeare.

The many great works of Art which were begun and carried on to completion at this time show with what large spirit the whole city was inspired, and under what strong influences of public feeling the early life of Dante was led. Civil liberty and strength were producing their legitimate results. Little republic as she was, Florence was great enough for great undertakings. Never was there such a noble activity within the narrow compass of her walls as from about 1265, when Dante was born, to the end of the century. In these thirty-five years, the stout walls and the tall tower of the Burgello were built, the grand foundations of the Palazzo Vecehio and of the unrivalled Duomo were laid, and both in one year; the Baptistery—Il mio bel San Giovanni—was adorned with a new covering of marble; the churches of Sta Maria Novella, of Or San Michele, (changed from its original object,) and Sta Croce,—the finest churches even now in Florence,— were all begun and carried far on to completion. Each new work was at once the fruit and the seed of glorious energy. The small city, of less than one hundred thousand inhabitants, the little republic, not so large as Rhode Island or Delaware, was setting an example which later and bigger and richer republics have not followed.6 It might well, indeed, be called a “new life” for Florence, as well as for Dante. When it was determined to supply the place of the old church of Santa Reparata with a new cathedral, a decree was passed in words of memorable spirit: “Whereas it is the highest interest of a people of illustrious origin so to proceed in its affairs that men may perceive from its external works that its doings are at once wise and magnanimous, it is therefore ordered, that Arnolfo, architect of our commune, prepare the model or design for the rebuilding of Santa Reparata, with such supreme and lavish magnificence that neither the industry nor the capacity of man shall be able to devise anything more grand or more beautiful; inasmuch as the most judicious in this city have pronounced the opinion, in public and private conferences, that no work of the commune should be undertaken, unless the design be to make it correspondent with a heart which is of the greatest nature, because composed of the spirit of many citizens united together in one single will.”7 The records of few other cities contain a decree so magnificent as this.

It would be strange, indeed, if the youthful book of one so sensitive to external influences as Dante did not give evidence of sympathy with such pervading emotion. And so apparent is this, that one may say that only at such a period, when strength of sentiment was finding vent in all manner of free expression, was such a book possible. Confidence, frankness, directness in the rendering of personal feeling are rare, except in conditions of society when the emotional spirit is stronger than the critical. The secret of the active power of the arts at this time was the conscious or unconscious resort of those who practised them to the springs of Nature, from which the streams of all true Art proceed. Dante was the first of the moderns to seek Poetry at the same fountain, and to free her from the chains of conventionality which had long bound her. In this he shows his close relation to his times. It is his fidelity to Nature which has made him a leader for all successive generations. The “Vita Nuova” was the beginning of a new school of poetry and of prose as completely as Giotto’s O was the beginning of a new school of painting.

The Italian poets, before Dante, may be broadly divided into two classes. The first was that of the troubadours, writing in the Provencal language, hardly to be distinguished from their contemporaries of the South of France, giving expression in their verses to the ideas of love, gallantry, and valor which formed the base of the complex and artificial system of chivalry, repeating constantly the same fancies and thoughts in similar formulas of words, without scope or truth of imagination, with rare exhibitions of individual feeling, with little regard for Nature. Ingenuity is more characteristic of their poetry than force, subtilty more obvious in it than beauty. The second and later class were poets who wrote in the Italian tongue, but still under the influence of the poetic code which had governed the compositions of their Provencal predecessors. Their poetry is, for the most part, a faded copy of an unsubstantial original,— an echo of sounds originally faint. Truth and poetry were effectually divided. In the latter half of the thirteenth century, however, a few poets appeared whose verses give evidence of some native life, and are enlivened by a freer play of fancy and a greater truthfulness of feeling. Guido Guinleelli, who died in 1276, when Dante was eleven years old, and, a little later, Guido Cavalcanti, and some few others, trusting more than had been done before to their own inspiration, show themselves as the forerunners of a better day.8 But as, in painting, Margheritone and Cimabue, standing between the old and the new styles, exhibit rather a vague striving than a fulfilled attainment, so is it with these poets. There is little that is distinguislungly individual in them. Love is still treated mostly as an abstraction, and one poet might adopt the others’ love-verses with few changes of words for any manifest difference in them of personal feeling.

Not so with Dante. The “Vita Nuova,” although retaining many ideas, forms, and expressions derived from earlier poets, is his, and could be the work of no other. Nor was he unaware of this difference between himself and those that had gone before him, or ignorant of its nature. In describing himself to Buonagiunta da Lucca in Purgatory, he says, "I am one who, when Love breathes, mark, and according as he dictates within, I report"; to which the poet of Lucca replies, “O brother, now I see the knot which kept the Notary and Guittone and me back from that sweet new style which now I hear. I see well how your pens have followed close on the dictator, which truly was not the case with ours.”9 As Love was the common theme of the verses from which Buonagiunta drew his contrast, the difference between them lay plainly in sincerity of feeling and truth of expression. The following close upon the dictates of his heart was the distinguishing merit of Dante's love-poetry over all that had preceded it and most of what has followed it. There are, however, some among his earlier poems in which the “sweet new style" is scarcely heard,—and others, of a later period, in which the accustomed metaphysical and fanciful sublilties of the elder poete are drawn out to an unwonted fineness. These were concessions to a ruling mode, —concessions the more readily made, owing to their being in complete harmony with the strong subtilizing and allegorizing tendencies of Dante’s own mind. Still, so far as he adopts the modes of his predecessors in this first book of his, Dante surpasses them all in their own way. He leaves them far behind him, and goes forward to open new paths which he is to tread alone.

—"father
Of me and all those better others
Who sweet chivalric lovelays formed.”

Pury. xxvi. 97-99.

And Guido Cavalcanti, "he who took from this other Guido the praise of speech,” (Purg. xi. 97,) is more famous as Dante’s friend than as a poet.

But there is yet another tendency of the times, to which Dante, in his later works, has given the fullest and most characteristic expression, and which exhibits itself curiously in the “Vita Nuova." Corresponding with the new ardor for the arts, and in sympathy with it, was a newly awakened and generally diffused ardor for learning, especially for the various branches of philosophy. Science was leaving the cloister, in which she had sat in dumb solitude, and coming out into the world. But the limits and divisions of knowledge were not firmly marked. The relations of learning to life were not clearly understood. The science of mathematics was not yet so advanced as to bind philosophy to exactness. The intellects of men were quickened by a new sense of freedom, and stimulated by ardor of imagination. New worlds of undiscovered knowledge loomed vaguely along the horizon. Philosophy invaded the sphere of poetry, while, on the other hand, poetry gave its form to much of the prevailing philosophy. To be a proper poet was not only to be a writer of verses, but to be a master of learning. Boccaccio describes Guido Cavalcanti as “one of the best logicians in the world, and as a most excellent natural philosopher,”10 but says nothing of his poetry. Dante, more than any other man of his time, resumed in himself the general zeal for knowledge. His genius had two distinct, and yet often intermingling parts,—the poetic and the scientific. No learning came amiss to him. He was born a scholar, as he was Born a poet,—and had he written not a single poem, he would still be famous as the most profound student of his times. Far as he surpassed his contemporaries in poetry, he was no less their superior in the depth and the extent of his knowledge. And this double nature of his genius is plainly shown in many parts of "The New Life.” A youthful incapacity to mark clearly the line between the work of the student and the work of the poet is manifest in it. The display of his acquisitions is curiously mingled with the narrative of his emotions. This is not to be charged against him as pedantry. His love of learning partook of the nature of passion ; his judgment was not yet able, if indeed it ever became able, to establish the division between the abstractions of the intellect and the affections of the heart. And above all, his early claim of honor as a poet was to be justified by his possession of the fruits of study.

But there was also in Dante a quality of mind which led him to unite the results of knowledge with poetry in a manner almost peculiar to himself. He was essentially a mystic. The dark and hidden side of things was not less present to his imagination than the visible and plain. The range of human capacity in the comprehension of the spiritual world was not then marked by as numerous boundary-stones of failure as now limit the way. Impossibilities were sought for with the same confident hope as realities. The alchemists and the astrologers believed in the attainment of results as tangible and real as those which travellers brought back from the marvellous and still unachieved East. The mystical properties of numbers, the influence of the stars, the powers of cordials and elixirs, the virtues of precious stones, were received as established facts, and opened long vistas of discovery before the student’s eyes. Curiosity and speculative inquiry were stimulated by wonder and fed by all the suggestions of heated fancies. Dante, partaking to the full in the eager spirit of the times, sharing all the ardor of the pursuit of knowledge, and with a spiritual insight which led him into regions of mystery where no others ventured, naturally connected the knowledge which opened the way for him with the poetic imagination which cast light upon it. To him science was but another name for poetry.

Much learning has been expended in the attempt to show that even the doctrine of Love, which is displayed in “The New Life,” is derived, more or less directly, from the philosophy of Plato. It has been supposed that this little autobiographic story, full of the most intimate personal revelations, and glowing with a sincere passion, was written on a preconceived basis of theory. A certain Platonic form of expression, often covering ideas very far removed from those of Plato, was common to the earlier, colder, and less truthful poets. Some strains of such Platonism, derived from the poems of his predecessors, are perhaps to be found in this first book of Dante’s. But there is nothing to show that he had deliberately adopted the teachings of the ancient philosopher. It may well, indeed, be doubted if at the time of its composition he had read any of Plato’s works. Such Platonism as exists in "The New Life” was of that unconscious kind which is shared by every youth of thoughtful nature and sensitive temperament, who makes of his beloved a type and image of divine beauty, and who by the loveliness of the creature is led up to the perfection of the Creator.

The essential qualities of the “Vita Nuova,” those which afford direct illustration of Dante’s character, as distinguished from those which may be called youthtul, or merely literary, or biographical, correspond in striking measure with those of the "Divina Commedia.” The earthly Beatrice is exalted to the heavenly in the later poem; but the same perfect purity and intensity of feeling with which she is reverently regarded in the “Divina Commedia” is visible in scarcely less degree in the earlier work. The imagination which makes the unseen seen, and the unreal real, belongs alike to the one and to the other. The "Vita Nuova” is chiefly occupied with a series of visions; the "Divina Commcdia” is one long vision. The sympathy with the spirit and impulses of the time, which in the first reveals the youthful impressibility of the poet, in the last discloses itself in maturer forms, in more personal expressions. In the "Vita Nuova" it is a sympathy mastering the natural spirit; in the "Divina Commcdia” the sympathy is controlled by the force of established character. The change is that from him who follows to him who commands. It is the privilege of men of genius, not only to give more than others to the world, but also to receive more from it. Sympathy, in its full comprehensiveness, is the proof of the strongest individuality. By as much as Dante or Shakspeare learnt of and entered into the hearts of men, by so much was his own nature strengthened and made peculiarly his own. The "Vita Nuova" shows the first stages of that genius, the first proofs of that wide sympathy, which at length resulted in the "Divine Comedy." It is like the first blade of spring grass, rich with the promise of the golden harvest.

  1. Vita di Dante. Milan, 1823, pp. 29, 30.
  2. Vita di Dante, p. 69.
  3. For vita nova in the sense, of early life, see Purgatory, xxx. 115, with the comments of Landino and Benvenuto da Imola; and for età novella in a similar sense, see Canzone xviii. st. 6. Fraticelli, who supports this interpretation, gives these with other examples, but none more to the point. Mr. Joseph Carrow, who had a translation into English of the Vita Nuova, printed at Florence in 1846, entitles his book “The Early Life of Dante Allighieri.” But as giving probability to the meaning to which we ineline, see Canzone x. st. 5.
  4. * The word in the original (Villani, Book vii. c. 89) is Giocolari, the Italian form of the French jongleur,—the appellation of those whose profession was to sing or recite the verses of the troubadours or the romances of chivalry.
  5. See Boccaccio, Decamerone;, Giorn. vi. Nov. 9, for an entertaining picture of Florentine festivities.
  6. The feeling which moved Florence thus to build herself into beauty was one shared by the other Italian republican cities at this time. Venice, Verona, Pisa, Siena, Orvieto, were building or adding to churches and palaces such as have never since been surpassed.
  7. Cicognara, Storia della Scultura, II. 147.
  8. Guido Guinicelli will always be less known by his own verscs than by Dante’s calling him
  9. Purgatory, xxiv. 53-60.
  10. Decamerone, Giorn. vi. Nov. 9. Logician is here to be understood in an extended sense, as the student of letters, or arts, as they were then called, in general.