"The New Life" of Dante
WERE the author of the “ Vita Nuova” unknown, its story of youth and love would still possess a charm, as standing in the dawn of modern literature,— the first book in which modern sentiment finds free expression. It would be of interest, as contrasted with the later growth of the sentimental element in literature, which speedily exhibits the influence of factitious feeling, of self-conscious effort, and of ambitions display. The sentiment of the “ Vita Nuova” is separated by the wide gulf that lies between simplicity and affectation from the sentimentality of Petrarch’s sonnets. But connected as it is with Dante’s life,—the first of that series of works in which truth, intensity, and tenderness of feeling are displayed as in the writings of no other man,—its interest no longer arises merely from itself and from its place in literature, but becomes indissolubly united with that which belongs by every claim to the “ Divina Commedia” and to the life of Dante.
When the “Vita Nuova” was completed, Dante was somewhat less than twenty-eight years old. Beatrice had died between two and three years before, in 1290 ; and he seems to have pleased himself after her loss by recalling to his memory the sweet incidents of her life, and of her influence upon himself. He begins with the words : —
“ In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read is found a rubric which says : Incipit Vita Nova [' The New Life begins ’]. Under which rubric I find the words written which it is my intention to copy into this little book,—if not all of them, at least their meaning.”
This introduction, short as it is, exhibits a characteristic trait of Dante’s mind, in the declaration of his intention to copy from the book of his memory, or, in other words, to write the true records of experience. Truth was the chief quality of his intellect, and upon this, as upon an unshaken foundation, rest the marvellous power and consistency of his imaginations. His heart spoke clearly, and he interpreted its speech plainly in his words. His tendency to mysticism often, indeed, led him into strange fancies ; but these, though sometimes obscure, are never vague. After these few words of preface, the story begins :—
" Nine times now, since my birth, the heaven of light had turned almost to the same point in its gyration, when first appeared before my eyes the glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice, by many who did not know why they thus called her.1 She had now been in this life so long, that in its time the starred heaven had moved toward the east one of the twelve parts of a degree ;2 so that about the beginning of her ninth year she appeared to me, and I near the end of my ninth year saw her. She appeared to me clothed in a most noble color, a becoming and modest crimson, and she was girt and adorned in the style that suited her extreme youth. At that instant, I say truly, the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with such violence, that it appeared horribly in the least pulses, and, trembling, said these words : Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi ! [Behold a god, stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule me ! 3 ]
“At that instant, the spirit of the soul, which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses bring their perceptions, began to marvel greatly, and, addressing the spirits of the sight, said these words : Apparuit jam beatitudo vestra. [Now hath appeared your bliss.] At that instant the natural spirit, which dwells in that part where the nourishment is supplied, began to weep, and, Weeping, said these words : Heu miser ! quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps. [Woe is me wretched ! because frequently henceforth shall I be hindered.]
“ From this time forward I say that Love lorded over my soul, which had been thus quickly put at his disposal ;4 and he began to exercise over me such control and such lordship, through the power which my imagination gave to him, that I was obliged to perform completely all his pleasure. He commanded me many times that I should seek to see this youthful angel, so that I in my boyhood often went seeking her, and saw her of such noble and praiseworthy deportment, that truly of her might be said that saving of the poet Homer: ' She does not seem the daughter of a mortal, but of God.’ And it befell that her image, which stayed constantly with me, inspired boldness in Love to hold lordship over me ; but it was of such noble virtue, that it never suffered that Love should rule without the faithful counsel of Reason in those matters in which such counsel could be useful.”
Such is the account which Dante gives of the beginning of his love for Beatrice. The tenderness and purity of his passion are obscured, but not concealed, by quaintness of expression and formality of learning. In literary style the passage displays the uncertain hand of youth, and in a translation something is lost of the charm of simplicity which pervades the original. But in this passage the keynote of Dante’s life is struck.
Passing over many things, he says that exactly nine years were completed after the above-described appearance of this most gentle lady, when it happened that “ she appeared before me clothed in purest white between two noble ladles, and, passing along the street, she turned her eyes toward that place where I stood very timidly, and, by her ineffable courtesy, which is now rewarded in eternity, saluted me with such virtue, that I seemed to behold all the bounds of bliss. The hour when her most sweet salutation reached me was exactly the ninth of that day ; and since it was the first time that her words came to my ears, I felt such great delight, that, as it were intoxicated, I turned away from the crowd, and, betaking myself to the solitary place of my chamber, sat myself down to think of this most courteous lady, and, thinking of her, a sweet slumber came upon me, in which a marvellous vision appeared to me.” After describing this vision, he says, that, thinking of what had appeared to him, he " proposed to bring it to the knowledge of many who were famous poets at that time ; and since I had already seen in myself the art of speaking words in rhyme, I proposed to write a sonnet, in which I would salute all the vassals of Love ; and praying them to give an interpretation of my vision, I wrote to them that which I had seen in my slumber. And I began then this sonnet :—
“ To every captive soul and gentle heart
Before whose sight may come the present word,
That they may thereupon their thoughts impart,
Be greeting in Love’s name, who is their lord.
“ Now of those hours wellnigh one third had gone
In which each star appears in heaven most bright,
When on a sudden Love before me shone,
To think upon Whose being gives me fright.
“Joyful seemed Love, and he was keeping
My heart within his hands, while on his arm
He held my Lady, covered o'er and sleeping.
“ Then waking her, he with this flaming heart
Did humbly feed her, fearful of some harm.
Sudden I saw him weep, and quick depart."
This sonnet is somewhat obscure in the details of its meaning, and has little beauty, but it is of interest as being the earliest poetic composition by Dante that has been preserved for us, and it is curious as being the account of a vision. In our previous article on the “New Life,” we referred to the fact of this book being in great part composed of the account of a series of visions, thus connecting itself in the form of its imaginations with the great work of Dante’s later years. As a description of things unseen except by the inward eye, this sonnet is bound in poetic connection to the nobler visions of the “Divina Commedia.” The private stamp of Dante’s imagination is indelibly impressed upon it.
He tells us that many answers were made to this sonnet, and “ among those who replied to it was he whom I call the first of my friends, and he wrote a sonnet which began,
' Thou seest in my opinion every worth.’ This was, as it were, the beginning of our friendship when he knew that it was I who had sent these verses to him.” This first of Dante’s friends was Guido Cavalcanti. Their friendship was of long duration, beginning thus in Dante’s nineteenth year, and ending only with Guido’s death, in 1300, when Dante was thirty-five years old. It may be taken as a proof of its intimacy and of Dante’s high regard for the genius of his friend, that, when Dante, in his course through Hell, at Easter in 1300, represents himself as being recognized by the father of Guido, the first words of the old man to him are,
" If through this blind prison thou goest
through loftiness of soul, where is my son ?
oh, why is he not with thee ? " 5
The sonnet of Guido, in reply to that sent him by Dante, has been preserved, together with the replies by two other contemporary poets ; but Dante says of them all, — “ The true meaning of my sonnet was not then seen by any one, though now it is plain to the simplest.”
After this vision, the poet, whose soul was wholly devoted to his most gentle lady, was brought by Love into so frail a condition of health, that his friends became anxious for him, and questioned him about that which he most wished to conceal. Then he told them that it was Love which had brought him to this pass. But when they asked him, “ For whom has Love thus wasted thee ?” he looked at them smiling, and said nothing.
“ One day it happened,” he goes on to relate, “ that this most gentle lady sat where words concerning the Queen of Glory are heard, and I was in a place from which I beheld my bliss. Between her and me in a direct line sat a gentle lady of most pleasing aspect, who looked at me often, wondering at my gaze, which seemed to terminate upon her ; and many observed her looks. So great attention, indeed, was paid to this, that when I went out from the place I heard some one say,
‘ Behold how that lady wastes the life of this man !'—and naming her, I heard that they spoke of her who had been in the path of the straight line which, parting from my most gentle Beatrice, had ended in my eyes.” Then he says he thought to make this lady serve as a screen for his real love, and he did this so well that in a short time many persons fancied they knew his secret. And in order to deceive them still more, he addressed to this lady many trifles in rhyme, of which he will insert in this account of his “ New Lite ” only those which bear reference to Beatrice.
Some time after this, “ it was the pleasure of the Lord of the Angelsto call to his glory a young and beautiful lady, who had been very lovely in the city of Florence. And I saw her body lying without its soul, surrounded by many ladies who wept grievously. Then remembering that I had formerly seen her in company with that most gentle lady, I could not restrain some tears, and, weeping, I proposed to say some words about her death, as a return for that I had seen her sometimes with my lady.” Then, he says, he wrote two poems, of which we give the last, adding to it his verbal comment, as an example of the Style of commentary with which he has accompanied all the poems of the “ Vita Nuova ”:—
“ O villain Death, compassion's foe,
The Mother from of old of woe,
Inexorable judge severe,
Thou givest sorrow for the heart to bear ;
Wherefore in grief I go,
And blaming thee my very tongue outwear.
“ And if of every grace thou wouldst be bare,
It only needs that I declare
The guilt of this thy sinful blow,
So that all those shall know,
And each shall be thy foe,
Who erst were nurtured with Love’s tender care.
“ For thou hast taken from the world the grace
And virtue which are woman’s praise,
And in youth’s gayest days
The charm of loveliness thou dost deface.
“ Who is this lady is not to be told,
Save as these qualities do make her known.
He who deserves salvation may alone
Have hope companionship with her to hold.
“ This sonnet is divided into four parts.6 In the first I address Death by certain of her proper names ; in the second, speaking to her, I tell the reason why I am moved to blame her ; in the third, I revile her ; in the fourth, I speak to a person undefined, although definite as regards my intention. The second part begins at Thou givest ; the third at And if of every grace ; the fourth at He who deserves.”
After this, Dante tells of a journey he was forced to take, in the direction of the city to which the lady who had afforded him the means of disguising his real love had gone. He says, that, on the way, which he calls the way of sighs, he met Love, who was sad in aspect, and clad like a pilgrim, and that Love told him the name of another lady who must thenceforth serve as his screen to conceal his secret. He goes on to relate, that, after his return,7 he sought out this lady, and made her his defence so effectually, that many persons spoke of it beyond the terms of courtesy, which weighed on him heavily. And on account of this lying talk which defamed him greatly, he says that Beatrice, “ the most gentle lady, who was the enemy of all the vices, and the queen of virtue, passing by a certain place, denied me her most sweet salute, in which consisted all my bliss. And departing a little from the present subject, I will declare that which her salutation effected within me. I say, then, that, whenever she appeared, in my hope for her admirable salutation I no longer had an enemy, for a flame of charity possessed me which made me pardon every one who had done me wrong ; and if at that time any one had asked anything of me, my only answer would have been Love, and my face would have Been clothed with humility. And when she was near to giving me a salutation, a spirit of Love, destroying all the other spirits of the senses, drove out the feeble spirits of the sight, and said to them, ' Go and do honor to your lady,’ and he stayed in their place. And whoever had wished to know Love might have done so by looking at the trembling of my eyes.”
After the salutation which had been wont to bring to him a joy almost beyond his capacity had been refused to him, Dante went weeping to his chamber, where he could lament without being heard ; and there he fell asleep, crying like a little child who has been beaten. And in his sleep he had a vision of Love, who entered into talk with him, and bade him write a poem, adorned with sweet harmony, in which he should set forth the truth and fidelity of his love for Beatrice, and should sue for her pardon. Dante awoke at the ninth hour of the day, and at once began the poem, of which the following is a portion. He personifies his poem, and he bids it
“ Tell her,—‘ O Lady, this his heart is stayed
On faithfulness so sure and firm,
Save to serve you it has no other care ;
Early 'twas yours, and never has it strayed.’
But if she trust not what thou dost affirm,
Tell her to ask of Love, who will the truth declare ;
And at the end, beg her, with humble prayer,
That she her pardon of its wrong would give ;
Then let her bid that I no longer live,
And she shall see her servant quick obey." 8
After this poem was finished, Dante describes what he calls “ a battle of thoughts ” concerning Love within his mind, and then goes on to relate that it happened one day that he was taken, by a friend who thought to give him pleasure, to a feast at which many ladies were present. “ They were assembled,” he says, “ to attend a lady who was married that day, and, according to the custom of the city, they bore her company at her first sitting at table in the dwelling of her new husband.” Dante, believing thus to do pleasure to his friend, proposed to stand in waiting upon these ladies. But at the moment of this intention he felt a sudden tremor, which caused him to lean for support against a painting which ran round the wall,9 and, raising his eyes, he beheld Beatrice. His confusion became apparent ; and the ladies, not excepting Beatrice herself, laughed at his strange appearance. Then his friend took him from their presence, and having asked him what so ailed him, Dante replied, “ I have set my feet on that edge of life beyond which no man can go with intent to return.” Then leaving him, he went to the chamber of tears, weeping and ashamed ; and in his trouble he wrote a sonnet to Beatrice, in which he says, that, if she had known the cause of his trouble, he believes that she would have felt pity for him. 10
The foregoing passage, like many others in the “ Vita Nuova,” is full of the intense and exaggerated expressions of passionate feeling. But this feeling is recorded with a frank simplicity which carries conviction of the sincerity of emotion. It may be laughed at, but it cannot be doubted. It is possible, though hardly probable, that the scene took place at the wedding festival of Beatrice herself. She was married sometime previous to 1287, and unless a reference to this event be found here, no notice of it is taken by Dante in what he has written concerning her. That the fact of her marriage changed in no degree the feeling with which Dante regarded her is plain. His love was of no low quality, to be altered by earthly circumstance. It was a love of the soul. No change or separation that left the being untouched could part him from it. To the marriage of true souls there was no impediment, and he would admit none, in her being the wife of another. The qualities which she possessed as a maiden belonged to her no less as a wife.
It was in the same year, probably, as that in which the “Vita Nuova” was composed and published, that Dante himself was married to Gemma Donati. There are stories that their married life was unhappy. But these stories have not the weight of even contemporary gossip. Possibly they arose from the fact of the long separation between Dante and his wife during his exile. Boccaccio insinuates more than he asserts, and he concludes a vague declamation about the miseries of married life with the words, “ Truly I do not affirm that these things happened to Dante, for I do not know.” Dante keeps utter silence in his works,—certainly giving no reason to suppose that domestic trials were added to his other burdens. One thing is known which deserves remembrance, — that, when, after some years, a daughter was born to him, the name which she received was Beatrice.
In the next few pages of the “ Vita Nuova” Dante describes various thoughts which came to his mind concerning his appearance when in presence of his lady ; but, passing over these, we come to a passage which we give in full, as containing a delightful picture from Florence in its old time, and many sentences of sweet and characteristic feeling.
“ Many persons had now learned from my looks the secret of my heart. And it happened that certain ladies, who well knew my heart, each of them having witnessed many of my discomfitures, had assembled together, taking pleasure in each other’s company. And I, by chance passing near them, was addressed by one of these gentle ladies. She who called to me was very graceful in her speech, so that when I reached them, and saw well that my most gentle lady was not with them, reassuring myself, I saluted them, and asked what might be their pleasure. The ladies were many, and some of them were laughing together, and others looked at me, waiting for what I might say, while others spoke among themselves, and one of them, turning her eyes toward me, and calling me by name, said, ‘ To what end dost thou love this lady, since thou canst not support her presence ? Tell us, for it is certain that the object of such a love must be a very strange one.’ And when she had said these words to me, not only she, but all the others, began to attend in expectation of my reply. Then I said to them, ‘Ladies, the object of my love was, in truth, the salutation of that lady of whom perhaps you speak ; and in that dwelt the bliss which was the end of all my desires. But since it has pleased her to deny it to me, my lord Love, thanks be to him, has placed all my bliss in that which cannot be taken from me.’ Then these ladies began to speak together, and, as we sometimes see rain falling mingled with beautiful snow, so, it seemed to me, I saw their words mingled with sighs. And after they had spoken for some time among themselves, the same lady who had first spoken to me said to me,
' We pray thee that thou wouldst tell us in what consists this thy bliss.' And I, replying to her, said, ‘ In those words which speak my lady’s praise.’ And she answered, ‘ If thou sayest truth in this, those words which thou hast spoken concerning thine own condition must have been written with another intention.’11 Then I, thinking on these words, and, as it were, ashamed of myself, departed from them, and went, saying to myself, ' Since there is such bliss in those words which praise my lady, why has my speech been of other things ? ’ And I proposed to take always for my subject, henceforward, the praise of this most gentle lady. And thinking much on this, I seemed to myself to have taken too lofty a subject for my power, so that I did not dare to begin. Thus I delayed some days, with the desire to speak, and with a fear of beginning. † This Canzone is one of the most beautiful of Dante’s minor poems. We have preferred to give it in a literal translation, rather than to attempt one in which the involved rhyme of the original should be preserved, fearing lest this could not be done without sacrifice of the meaning to the form. The original “ Ladies who have intelligence of Love,
I of my lady wish with you to speak ;
Not that to tell her praise in full I think,
But to discourse that I may ease my mind. must be read by those who would understand its grace of expression combined with its depth of feeling. Dante himself prized this Canzone, and represents Buonagiunta da Lucca in Purgatory as addressing him,_
“ Then it happened, that, walking along a road, at the side of which ran a very clear stream, so great a wish to speak came to me, that I began to think on the method I should observe; and I thought that to speak of her would not be becoming, unless I addressed my words to ladies,—and not to every lady, but only to those who are gentle, and not mere women.12 Then I say that my tongue spoke as if moved by its own accord, and said, ‘ Ladies who have intelligence of Love.’ These words I laid by in my mind with great joy, thinking to take them for my beginning. And returning to the city, after some days I began this Canzone :—13
“ I say that when I think upon her worth,
So sweet doth Love make himself feel to me,
That if I then did not my courage lose,
Speaking I would enamor all mankind.
I do not wish so loftily to speak,
Lest I should fail and fall through very fear.
But of her gentle nature I will treat
With lightest touch compared with her desert,
Ladies and damsels bound to Love, with you ;
For unto others this may not be told.
“ An Angel cries aloud in tongue divine,
And says, * O Sire ! in the world is seen
A miracle in action, that proceeds
From out a soul which far as here doth shine.’
The Heavens, which have no other want, indeed.
But that of her, demand her of her Lord,
And every Saint doth for this favor beg ;
Only Compassion our part defends.
What sayeth God ? what of Madonna means ?
' O my delights, now be content in peace
That, while I please, your hope should there remain
Where dwelleth one who loss of her awaits,
And who shall say in Hell to the condemned,
“I have beheld the hope of those in bliss.” ' 14
“ My lady is desired in high heaven.
Her virtues now will I make known to you.
I say, whoso a gentle lady would appear
Should go with her : for when she passeth by,
Love casts a frost upon all villain hearts,
So that their every thought doth freeze and die ;
And whoso bears to stay and look on her
Will nobler thing become or else will die ;
And when one finds that he may worthy be
To look on her, he doth his virtue prove ;
For then that comes to him which gives him health,
And humbleth him till he forgets all wrong ; And God hath given a still greater grace, That who hath spoke with her cannot end ill.
“ Love says of her, ' How can a mortal thing
Be thus in every part adorned and pure ? ’
Then, gazing on her, to himself he swears
That God in her a creature new designs.
Color of pearl doth clothe her, as it were,—
Not in excess, but most becomingly.
Whate’er of good Nature can make she is ;
And by her model Beauty proves itself.
From out her eyes, wherever they may move,
Spirits inflamed with love do issue forth,
Which strike the eyes of whoso looks on her,
And enter so that every heart they find.
Love you behold depicted on her face,
On which with fixed look no one can gaze.
“ But tell me if I see him who wrote the new rhymes, beginning, ' Ladies who have intelligence of Love.’” Purgat. c. xxiv. 1. 49-51
“ I know, Canzone, thou wilt go to speak
With many ladies, when I send thee forth ;
And now I bid thee, having bred thee up
Like to a young and simple child of Love,
That where thou goest thou shouldst praying say,
‘ Teach me which way to go, for I am sent
To her with praise of whom I am adorned.’
And if thou wishest not to go in vain,
Remain not there where villain folk may be ;
Endeavor, if thou mayst, to be acquaint
Only with ladies, or with courteous men,
Who thee will guide upon the quickest way.
Love thou will find in company with her,
And to them both commend me as thou shouldst.”
After explaining, according to his custom, and marking the divisions of this poem, Dante copies out a sonnet in which he answers the question of one of his friends, who, he says, perhaps entertaining an expectation of him beyond what was due, asked him, ' What is Love ? ’ Many of the poets of that time tried their hands in giving an answer to this difficult question, and Dante begins his with confirming the opinion expressed by one of them :—
“ Love is but one thing with the gentle heart,
As in the saving of the sage we find.” 15
Another sonnet follows upon this, telling how this Love was awakened by Beatrice, and beginning with the exquisite praise,
“ Within her eyes my lady beareth Love,
So that who looks on her is gentle made. ”16
Not many days after this, the father of Beatrice died.17 “ And inasmuch as it is the custom in the above-mentioned city for ladies to assemble with ladies, and men with men, in such affliction, many ladies assembled at the house where Beatrice was weeping piteously. And seeing certain of them returning from her, I heard them speak of this most gentle lady, how she was lamenting..... When these Indies had passed, I remained in such grief that tears began to fall, and, putting my hands before my eyes, I covered my face. And if it had not been that I expected to hear further of her, for I stood near by where most of the ladies who came from her passed, I should have hidden myself as soon as the tears assailed me. While I still delayed, more ladies passed by, talking together and saying, ‘ Who of us should ever be joyful after hearing this lady speak so piteously ? ’ After these others passed, who said, as they went by, ' This one who is here weeps neither more nor less than if he had seen her as we have. And then others said of me, ' See ! so overcome is he, that he seems not himself.’ And thus these ladies passing by, I heard speech of her and of myself. ’ And going away, after this, he wrote two sonnets, telling of what he had seen and heard.18
It happened not long after this time that Dante was seized with grievous illness, which reduced him to such a state of weakness that he lay as one unable to move. And on the ninth day, suffering greatly, he thought of his lady, and, reflecting on the frailty of life even at its best, the thought struck him that even the most gentle Beatrice must at some time die. And upon this, such consternation seized him that his fancy began to wander, and, he says, “ It seemed to me that I saw ladies, with hair dishevelled, and marvellously sad, pass weeping by, and that I saw the sun grow dark, so that the stars showed themselves of such a color as to make me deem they wept. And it appeared to me that the birds as they flew fell dead, and that there were great earthquakes. And struck with wonder at this fantasy, and greatly alarmed, I imagined that a friend came to me, who said, ‘ Dost thou not know ? Thy admirable lady has departed from this world.' Then I began to weep very piteously, and wept not only in imagination, but with my eyes shedding real tears. Then I imagined that I looked toward heaven, and it, seemed to me that I saw a multitude of angels who were returning upwards, having before them a little cloud of exceeding whiteness. It seemed to me that these angels sang gloriously, and that the words of their song were these : ' Osanna in excelsis ! ’—and other than these I did not hear.19
“ Then the heart in which abode such great love seemed to say to me, ' It is true that our lady lies dead.’ And thereupon I seemed to go to behold the body in which that most noble and blessed soul had been. And the erring fancy was so powerful that it showed to me this lady dead, and it appeared to me that ladies were covering her head with a white veil, and that her face had such an aspect of humility that it seemed to say, ' I behold the beginning of peace.' ”
Then Dante called upon Death to come to him ; and when he had beheld in his imagination the sad mysteries which are performed for the dead, be seemed to return to his own chamber. And so strong was his imagining, that, weeping, he said with his true voice, “ O most beautiful soul ! how is be blessed who beholds thee !” Upon this, a young and gentle lady, who was watching by his bed, thinking that he was grieving for his own pain, began to weep ; whereon other ladies who were in the chamber drew near and roused him from his dream. Then they asked him by what he had been troubled ; and he told all that he had seen in fancy, keeping silence only with regard to the name of Beatrice ; and when, some time after, he recovered from his illness, he wrote a poem which related his vision.
The next incident of his new life which Dante tells is one of a different nature, and of pleasant character. One day he saw Love coming to him full of joy ; and his own heart became so joyful that it seemed to him it could not be his heart, so changed was its condition. Then he saw approaching him a lady of famous beauty, who had been the lady of his first friend. Her name was Giovanna, but on account of her beauty she was called Primavera, which means Spring. And with her was Beatrice. Then Love, after they had passed, explained the hidden meaning of the name Primavera, and said, that, by one considering subtilely, Beatrice would be called Love, on account of the great resemblance she bore to him. Then Dante, thinking over these things, wrote this sonnet to his friend, believing that he still admired the beauty of this gentle Primavera :—
“ An amorous spirit in my heart who lay
I felt awaken from his slumber there ;
And then I saw Love come from far away,
But scarce I knew him for his joyous air.
“ ' Honor to me,' he said. ‘ think now to pay,’
And all his words with smiles companioned were.
Then as my lord awhile with me did stay,
Along the way whence he appeared whilere
“ The Lady Joan and Lady Bice I see,
Coming toward the place wherein I was ;
And the two marvels side by side did move.
“ Then, as my mind now tells it unto me,
Love said, ' This one is Spring, and this, because
She so resembleth me, is namèd Love.’ ” 20
After this sonnet, Dante enters on a long and fanciful discourse on the use of figurative language, to explain how he speaks of Love as if it were not a mere notion of the intellect, but as if it had a corporeal existence. There is much curious matter in this dissertation, and it is one of the most striking examples that could be found of the youthful character of the literature at the time in which Dante was writing, and of the little familiarity which those in whose hands his book was likely to fall possessed of the common forms of poetry, and of the style of the ancient Latin poets.
Returning from this digression, he says ; “ This most gentle lady, of whom there has been discourse in what precedes, reached such favor among the people, that when she passed along the way persons ran to see her, which gave me wonderful delight. And when she was near any one, such modesty took possession of his heart, that he did not dare to raise his eyes or to return her salutation ; and to this, should any one doubt it, many, as having experienced it, could bear witness for me. She, crowned and clothed with humility, took her way, displaying no pride in that which she saw and heard. Many, when she had passed, said, ‘ This is not a woman ; rather is she one of the most beautiful angels of heaven.’ Others said, ‘ She is a miracle. Blessed be the Lord who can perform such a marvel !’ I say that she showed herself so gentle and so full of all beauties, that those who looked on her tell within themselves a delight so pure and sweet that they could not smile ; nor was there any who could look at her and not feel need at first to sigh. These and more wonderful things proceeded from her, marvellously and in reality. Wherefore I, thinking on all this, proposed to say some words, in which I would exhibit her marvellous and excellent influences, to the end that not only those who might actually behold her, but also others, might know of her whatever words could tell. Then I wrote this sonnet:—
“ So gentle and so modest doth appear
My lady when she giveth her salute,
That every tongue becometh trembling mute,
Nor do the eyes to look upon her dare.
“ And though she hears her praises, she doth go
Benignly clothèd with humility,
And like a thing come down she seems to be
From heaven to earth, a miracle to show.
“ So pleaseth she whoever cometh nigh,
She gives the heart a sweetness through the eyes,
Which none can understand who doth not prove.
“ And from her lip there seems indeed to move
A spirit sweet and in Love’s very guise,
Which goeth saving to the soul, ' Ah, sigh !’ ” 21
With this incomparable sonnet we close that part of the “ Vita Nuova ” which relates to the life of Beatrice. It fitly completes the golden record of youth. Its tender lines are the epitaph of happy days, and in them is found that mingled sweetness and sadness which in this world are always the final expression of love. Its tone is that of the wind of autumn sighing among the leaves of spring. Beneath its outward meaning lies a prophecy of joy,—but that joy is to be reached only through the gates of death.
- It may be that Dante here refers to the meaning of the name Beatrice, — She who renders happy. She who bleases.↩
- According to the astronomy of the times, the sphere of the stars moved from west to east one degree in a hundred years. The twelfth of a degree was, therefore, eight and a half years. See the Convito, Tratt. II. c. vi.↩
- ‡ Compare with this passage Canzone x. st. 5, 6. Especially the lines,↩
- “ E, se 'l libro non erra,
Lo spirito maggior tremò si forte, Che parve ben, che morte
Per lui in questo mondo giunta fosse.”↩
- " And, if the book errs not, the chief spirit so greatly trembled, that it plainly appeared that death for him had arrived in this world.”↩
- When Dante meets Beatrice in Purgatory, he says, referring to this time,— and it is pleasant to note these connections between his earliest and his latest works,—↩
- “ Tosto che nella vista mi percosse
L’ alta virtu, che già m' avea trafitto
Prima ch’ io fuor di puerizia fosse.”↩
- Canto xxx. 1. 40-42.↩
- The text of the Vita Nuova is often uncertain. Here, for example, many authorities concur in the reading, “ la quale fu si tosto a lui disponsata,” “ which had been so quickly betrothed to him.” But we prefer to read “ disposto," as being more in accordance with the remainder of the figure concerning Love. Many other various readings will he passed over without notice,—but a translation might he exposed to the charge of inaccuracy, if it were judged by the text of any special edition of the original, without comparison with Others. The text usually followed in these versions is that of Fraticelli.↩
- Inferno, x. 58-60.↩
- Dante calls this little poem a sonnet, although, strictly, the name does not belong to it.↩
- In his few words of introduction to the Vita Nuova, Dante implies that he shall not copy out into his book all his compositions relating to its subject. Some of the poems of this period, not included in the Vita Nuova, have been preserved, and we propose to refer to them in their appropriate places. Compare with this passage Sonnet Ixxix., Poesie Liriche, ed. Fraticelli,—↩
- “ Se ’l hello aspetto non mi fosse tolto,”—↩
- which was apparently written during Dante’s absence from Beatrice.↩
- Compare Canz. x. and xi.↩
- This is, perhaps, the earliest reference in modern literature to the use of painting as a decoration for houses. It is probable that it was a recent application of the art, and resulted from the revival of interest in its works which accompanied the revival of the art. We shall have occasion again to note a reference to painting.↩
- To this period, apparently, belong Sonnets xxix. and xxx. of the general collection. The last may not unlikely have been omitted in the Vita Nuora on account of the tenderness with which the death of Beatrice had invested every memory of her, preventing the insertion of a poem which might seem harsh in its expression :—↩
- “ I curse the day on which I first beheld
The light of thy betraying eyes."↩
- This refers to the sonnets Dante had written about his own trouble and the conflict of his thoughts. It will be observed that the words “speak” and “speech" are used in reference to poetic compositions. In those days the poet was commonly called il dicitore in rima, “ the speaker in rhyme,” or simply it dicitore↩
- The epithet which Dante constantly applies to Beatrice is “most gentle,” genlillissima, while other ladies are called gentile, “gentle.” Here he makes the distinction between the donna and the donna gentile. The word is used with a signification similar to that which it has in our own early literature, and fuller than that which it now retains. It refers both to race, as in the phrase “of gentle birth," and to the qualities of character. “ Gentleness means the same as nobleness,” says Dante, in the Convito ; “and by nobleness is meant the perfection of its own nature in anything.” Trait, iv. c. 14-16.↩
- The delicacy and the dignity of meaning attaching to the word render it an epithet especially appropriate to Beatrice, as implying all that is loveliest in person and character. Its use in the Vita Nuova is the more to be remarked, as in the Divina Commedia it is never applied to Beatrice. Its appropriateness ceased with her earthly life, for there was "another glory of the celestial body."↩
- “ Ma di s' io veggio quì colui che fuore
Trasse le nuove rime, cominciando:
Donne, ch' avete intelletto d' Amore."↩
- Note the reference implied in these words to the journey of Dante through Hell.↩
- * It is probable that Dante refers to the first of a Canzone by Guido Guinicelli, which says, “ Within the gentle heart Love always stays,” —a verse which he may have had still in his memory when he makes Francesca da Rimini say, (Inf. v. 100,)↩
- " Love which by gentle heart is quickly learned.”↩
- For other definitions of Love as understood by the Italian poets of the trecento, see Guido Cavalcanti’s most famous and most obscure Canzone, Donna mi priega ; the sonnet (No. xlii.) falsely ascribed to Dante, Molti volendo dir che fosse Amore ; the sonnet by Jacopo da Lentino, Amore è un desio che vien dal core ; and many others.↩
- Compare with this Sonnet xl.,—↩
- “ Dagli occhi della mia donna si muove.”↩
- Folco Portinari died December 31, 1289.↩
- ‡ Compare with this passage Sonnet xlvi., which seems to have been written on this oecasion :—↩
- " Voi, donne, che pietoso atto mostrate,” and Sonnet xlvii.,—↩
- “ Onde venite voi, cosi pensose ? ”↩
- In the Divina Commedina frequent reference is made to the singing of Osanna by the Angels. See Purgat. xi. 11 ; xxix. 51 ; Par. vii. 1 ; xxviii. 94, 118 ; xxxii. 135 ; and especially viii. 28.↩
- See the charming Sonnet lii.:—↩
- “ Guido vorrei che tu, e Lappo, ed io.”↩
- Perhaps the spirit of the latter part of tins sonnet may be better conveyed by rendering thus :—↩
- “ So pleaseth she all those approaching nigh her, . . . . .↩
- Which goeth saying to the soul, ' Aspire ! ’ ”↩
- Compare the very beautiful Ballata vi. and Sonnet xlviii., beginning,↩
- “ Di donne io vidi una gentile schiera.”↩