An Introductory Note, a Preface, and an Excerpt
from Able Muse, Winter 2011
The Vita nova of Dante (c. 1292-95) has been characterized in many ways. It has been called a mystical itineranium mentis in Deum (mind's journey to God); a hagiography of "St. Beatrice"; a biblical Acts of Beatrice's Disciple; a Bible of Love; an autobiography in an Augustinian vein; the first book in vernacular Italian; the preface to the Divine Comedy; a treatise on poetry by a poet and for poets; a handbook of the art of poetry; an affirmation of a new poetics; an allegorical tractate against the corrupt Church and in favor of monarchy; an allegory of the enlightenment of the Aristotelian-Scholastic passive intellect by the active intellect; a "Joachist document, designed to mark the long-precluded withdrawal of the Holy Eucharist from a world not worthy of this great miracle"; a sentimental novella; and more besides. There is good reason for having many perspectives on Dante's youthful book. It is a complex work, full of inconsistencies and obscurities. In addition, close readers of the Divine Comedy know that it is never a good idea to underestimate Dante's subtlety and genius for packing a lot into a little space. In anything that Dante writes we expect there to be more than meets the eye, and there almost always is.
Clearly the Vita nova is an autobiography of sorts, since it is a first-person narrative that purports to tell of things that actually happened in the life of the narrator. But by modern standards the "I" in this story is highly stylized and attenuated, as are the other characters the protagonist meets and the places where the action takes place. The protagonist is never named and the place where he lives and (with much trouble) loves is referred to only as the place where the woman he loved was born, lived, and died. One critic has aptly described the Vita nova as an evanescent "episodic presentation of situations" rather than a narrative as we are used to from modern fiction. Another called it a "poetic autobiography," a characterization which accounts for Dante's freedom in manipulating historical memory for the sake of metaphorical or allegorical meanings. The vast amount of scholarly writing on the subject attests that one is never quite sure in the Vita nova where literal history gives way to imaginal history. The editors of one recent English-language edition of the book identify three forms of time in the story: individual time, cosmic time, and calendar time, while the end of the narrative moves out of time altogether, into eternity. The Vita nova's action takes place along shifting and overlapping planes of reality—social, visionary, prophetic, hallucinatory. Given all of this, and despite the fact that T. S. Eliot suggested that the Vita nova is best read after one has read the Divine Comedy, we might add another epithet to the above list and call Dante's youthful work his founding myth. Many cultures' myths likewise are based in history, which is narrated not merely for its own sake but to establish the origins of some religious, social, or cultural practice. Without the Vita nova the reappearance of Beatrice in the earthly paradise, in canto XXX of Purgatorio, and her increasingly radiant smile throughout the Paradiso, would lack personal context and therefore would be far easier to dismiss as allegorical abstractions. This libello ("little book," as Dante calls it) establishes Beatrice as Dante's pole star and beatifier.
The Vita nova's basic storyline is actually quite simple. The narrator tells us that he fell in love when he was nine years old with a girl who was about a year younger than he and who was named Beatrice. His falling in love with her is so powerful that it leaves an indelible mark on his soul, a perception that is reinforced when she greets him in passing nine years later. Because of her, the personification of love—that same "Lord Love" all the love poets of the time wrote about—comes to dwell in his heart. It is not a peaceful residence. The protagonist's feelings of love are so intense and private that he (following the conventions of his time) pretends to others that his love, which he cannot hide, is actually directed toward another woman besides Beatrice. When this woman moves out of the city, leaving the protagonist without his cover, he invents another "screen-woman." Beatrice catches wind of malicious gossip regarding her admirer's alleged unsavory comportment in relation to this second screen-woman, and consequently shuns him. She has no awareness of the effect this has on him. Eventually he finds peace for his unrequited love by resolving to praise her in his poetry independently of her responses to him.
A period follows during which the lover-protagonist vacillates between blissful ruminations on his lady's beauty, spiritual radiance, and self-possession, and dreadful forebodings of death: that of Beatrice's father, of her, and ultimately of him. When she actually does die, at age twenty-four, he tells us it was as if the entire city was widowed by her passing, and that he finally came to realize that there was always a mysterious but inexorable connection between Beatrice and the number nine. After her death, in mourning for her, he is briefly consoled by an anonymous beautiful woman who shows compassion for his grief. He becomes infatuated with her, and feels conflicted between this new movement of love and the loving memory of Beatrice—which, unlike the love for the new woman, is not reinforced by actual physical presence of the beloved. Finally, the protagonist renounces the new love and resolves to dedicate himself to the dead Beatrice, practicing his art and studying so that he can write about her as no woman has ever been written about. At the same time, his longing, which takes the form of a sigh, rises into the presence of her beatified spirit in heaven.
All of this seems clear enough until one realizes that the stages and progress of the story are established only by the prose passages that preface the poems and explicate or analyze them. Modern scholarship has done much to bring to light the artifice of the book's construction. The prosimetrum (poetry combined with prose) that Dante uses had its predecessors: Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, the razos and vidas (prose accounts and short biographies) of the Provençal troubadours, and Dante's early master Brunetto Latini's Rettorica, as well as popular Christian commentaries on such classics as Ovid's Remedia amoris (The Cure for Love). In Dante's work, the poems are placed within a prose context that was written for the most part well after (as much as ten years after) the poems themselves. Any narrative continuity between them—whether historically accurate or not—is an illusion created by the prose. As a recent scholar writes, Dante combined prose and courtly lyrics to create an entirely new kind of text. Rather than the relatively static methods of his predecessors in prosimetrum, Dante's approach is more autobiographical and personal. The razos usually had the subjective element in the poetry, not in the prose, but since Dante explains his own poems, his prose has a more intimate personal character.
One can learn a lot about Dante's design and infer something about his intentions by considering the poems apart from the prose. Despite the undeniably mystical or metaphysical import of the Vita nova's conception and message, including that of many poems themselves, there is no mistaking the fact that a number of poems in the libello are not the least bit mystical or metaphysical. On the contrary, they can be quite urbane and witty, more cosmopolitan than cosmic. They are the carefully wrought, searching poems of a restless, sophisticated young man who is exploring his powerful attraction to women, using the metaphors and conventions of the love poetry of his time. After the first ten poems in the book, the content of some of the poems does become more metaphysical, but others are still just love poems—although they were avant-garde love poems for their time. They range "from the merest gallantry to the ultimate intuition of divine love" (Maurice Valency). The Victorian-Rossettian interpretation of the Vita nova made Dante "a master of frail harmonies ... diffident, sensitive, somewhat bookish ... a knower of dreams rather than a mixer among men" (Ezra Pound), but this statement says more about late-Romantic aesthetics than it does about Dante and the Vita nova. Dante was writing in a tradition wherein robust soldiers and magistrates were passive and sentimental characters in their own poems. In addition, there is wit, wordplay, irony, and courtliness in the poems of the Vita nova, as well as tenderness, visionary beauty, and, yes, delicate harmonies. The poems by themselves—forgetting about prose for a moment—in effect are a showcase for Dante's youthful mastery of various genres: praise poetry, poetry of complaint, the plea for pity, the reproach, the excuse, the vision, the poetry of mourning. The language of the poetry is often unadorned, close to the living speech of Dante's time and place. Other times, for heightened effect, the language is in a more aulic register, laced with Latinisms and with words derived from the Provençal and Sicilian traditions. And the poems clearly exhibit the young poet's skill with various forms as well. Of the thirty-one poems that Dante chose for this volume, twenty-five are sonnets (a form that had been invented only a half-century earlier in Sicily), including two double sonnets; five are canzones (a longer lyric form adapted from the Provençal canso); and one is a boldly innovative ballad—this is the poem that I include below. Dante's voracious assimilation of poetic styles echoes and then surpasses his early mentors Guittone d'Arezzo, Guido Guinizzelli, and Guido Cavalcanti. It is a brilliant young poet's tour de force.
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Any literary translation that aims to carry over some sense of the original text as more than its content is a translation of qualities, not just words. This is a truism, of course, but one that bears repeating in light of what some translators of poetry have said about "staying true to the original" by stringing words on the page that do not imitate any of the original's aesthetic characteristics, just its literal sense. "Literal translations" of poems, in any case, are not really literal, since the only truly literal sense of a poem is that poem itself, in its own original words. Even blank verse translations of poems such as those in the Vita nova—the first translation into English of all these poems, by Charles Lyell, a botanist and the godfather of the poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was in blank verse—ultimately fall short of bringing them across as poetry, however understandable such an approach is as a precaution against forcing the poem, in the name of rhyme, to do something it doesn't want to do. Another approach to accessing the Vita nova in English would be to use Osamu Fukushima's book An Etymological Dictionary for Reading Dante's ''La vita nova," which lists the meanings and some etymology of all the words that Dante uses in these poems, line by line and poem by poem, but unless one knows the original language much of the literal sense is lost anyway, and of course the entire aesthetic experience goes down the drain.
Dante's poems in the Vita nova accentuate (at different times and from poem to poem) melody, wit, urbanity, symmetry, syntactical and rhetorical complexity, grace, profundity, wordplay, seriousness, and irony, among other qualities. Complex sentences full of subordinate clauses often play across the verses, with the occasional enjambment, exploiting the expressive opportunities created by the tension between verse form and sentence structure. Dante at this stage is far from the plurilinguistic mastery that he will use so brilliantly in the Divine Comedy, but the Vita nova's poetry is laced with Latin, Sicilian, and Provençal linguistic influences that give the poems the savor of their pedigree. Also very often, these poems' language is straightforward Florentine speech, as direct and plainspeaking as Robert Frost. A translation of the poems that does not convey such values or qualities, to the extent that is possible, is not really translating the poems; at best (and even this is optimistic, as I explain above) it is translating their literal sense, which, as every poet knows, is not the half of what a poem is.
An integral aspect of the symmetry, music, rhetoric, and elegance of the originals in this book is their meter and rhyme, so I have employed them, trying also to bring across the plain speaking that is so essential to Dante's style. The Victorian-age translations of Rossetti, using faux-antique, flowery language, established a Dante that does not exist. Dante did not write period pieces; as mentioned above, much of the language in the Vita nova is straight-talking Florentine—much more similar to current speech in central Italy than Chaucer's English is to contemporary speech in London. My translations have followed suit in contemporary American English.
In addition, the Vita nova is full of keywords from the courtly love poetry tradition, as well as biblical allusions and the Scholastic lexicon of Dante's day. Since these terms do not have exact equivalents in contemporary English, I often varied the translation of them according to the context. Many of the American English equivalents of Dante's terminology—descriptors such as "noble" and "gracious"—are hardly used, other than ironically, in contemporary American discourse, so the translator must work at getting readers to consider the various connotations of Dante's expressions. At times, for example, I translated the very frequently-used gentile as "gracious," at other times as "noble" or "open," since openhandedness, magnanimity, and graciousness are main qualities of the gentile person, according to the poets of Dante's circle.
* * *
What follows is the episode of the Vita nova (chapter XII in most editions, although my edition uses a different system) that contains the longest of Dante's six extant ballads, a so-called ballata di scusa (ballad of pardon), addressed to an "irate" beloved, inspired by the Occitan escondig (pardon) genre, wherein the lover defends himself or herself against slander. Regarding the form of this poem: the ballata metrical form was invented in the mid-thirteenth century, and has a strophic structure like that of the canzone, with one major difference: it begins with a refrain (ripresa, ritornello) of varying length, that is then repeated (in performance) after every strophe; originally ballate were written for music and dance—the initial refrain (echoed here by the repeating rhyme word at the end of each stanza) was sung by the dancers, while the stanzas were sung by a soloist.
Critics point out the archaic patina of the language of this poem, its use of words and conventions characteristic of the poetic tradition of Provençe and Italy before Dante's time. The poem is derivative but that is hardly surprising in a poet who is twenty years old or so. Cavalcanti hovers in the background in much of the Vita nova. In this poem, the most explicit Cavalcantian trace is its genre, which the opening word of the poem states directly—the ballata is the Cavalcantian form par excellence.
The first part of the Vita nova dramatizes the failure of courtly values. Early in the book (this is the sixth of the thirty-one poems in it), Dante arranges poems that represent the nearly exhausted courtly love tradition. For example, the first sonnet in Vita nova represents the planh or mourning genre, and here, the ballata represents the escondig or excuse genre. The lexicon of the poem reflects its courtly origins. The poems early in the Vita nova recapitulate the tradition Dante was drawing on in order to surpass it with the avant-garde poetry—the dolce stil novo (sweet new style)—that appears later in the book. A heavily Cavalcanti-influenced section follows this poem—four sonnets that imitate much of Cavalcanti's manner—and then Dante introduces the sweet new style in the form of the famous canzone Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore (Women who understand the truth of love), where he is conscious of breaking new ground in style and content.
Even in this ballad, though, Dante is experimenting and innovating: the entire poem is an extended envoy (or tornada, in Dante's terminology). A tornada is the concluding stanza of a canzone that directly addresses the canzone itself ("I know, canzone, you'll go off and say ... " etc.). The envoy or tornada was a survival of the practice in Provençe by which instructions were given to the jongleur or performer of the poem as to where and how he was to sing the poem. There is a precedent for the sort of extended tornada that Dante uses in this poem—a canzone by the Florentine poet Chiaro Davanzati, A San Giovanni, a Monte, mia canzone (To Saint John, to Monte, my canzone), addressed to the poet Monte Andrea—but the concept was new in Dante's time, and he and Guido Cavalcanti characteristically took it to its limit.
In De volgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular), Dante notes the superiority of the canzone form, which is excellent in part because it is complete in itself, requiring no external aids, unlike the ballata, which must have accompaniment of dancers. So Dante claims the ballata and the sonnet are relatively inferior genres of poetry. Critics point out that the ballata is an intermediary between the lower style, represented in the first poems in the Vita nova, and the higher style of the canzones. Some view the ballata as approaching the solemnity of the canzone, whereas I don't see this poem as solemn at all. Quite the contrary: it is playful in a formal way, highly wrought, stylish, even dapper, but it is not solemn. My translation attempts to bring this urbane quality across, including some of the wordplay that communicates it.
I include a few notes that explain some of the obscurer allusions in the prose part of this episode.
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from the Vita nova
I tell you that after my beatitude was denied to me,(1) so much suffering came over me that, withdrawing from people, I went to a solitary place to soak the ground with the bitterest of tears. And once my crying had eased a little, I took refuge in my room, where I could weep without being heard; and there, calling on the mercy of the lady of benevolence and grace, and saying, "Love, help your faithful one!" I fell asleep crying like a little boy who'd been beaten.
About halfway into my sleep I seemed to see in my room, seated beside me, a young man dressed in the whitest of vestments,(2) who, with an anxious expression, watched me where I was lying. And after he had looked at me for a while, it seemed that he sighed and called me, saying: "Fili mi, tempus est ut pretermictantur simulacra nostra."(3)
Then it seemed that I recognized him, since he was calling me the way he had often called me in my dreams; and as I looked at him it seemed that he was crying piteously and was waiting for me to say something. So, gathering courage, I said: "Lord of nobility, why are you crying?" And he said: "Ego tanquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentie partes; tu autem non sic."(4)
Then, as I thought about his words, it seemed to me that he had spoken very obscurely; so that I forced myself to speak, and I said to him: ''Why, lord, do you speak to me in such an obscure way?" And he responded in the common tongue: "Do not ask me more than might be useful to you."(5)
Then I started to discuss with him the greeting which had been denied to me, and I asked him the cause of it. He responded: "That Beatrice of ours heard certain people talking about you. They said that the woman I mentioned to you on the road of sighs was being treated by you in an unseemly manner;(6) and so this most gracious of women, who is against all unseemliness, refused to greet you, fearing you were inclined to be unseemly. So, inasmuch as your secret is, in fact, somewhat known to her because it has been in use so long, I want you to compose a poem in which you discuss the hold that I have on you because of her, and how you were hers from the start, ever since your childhood. And call him who knows about it as witness, and plead with him to tell her about it; and I—who am he—will gladly discuss it with her. In this way she will come to see your intentions, and seeing them, she will understand the words of the people who are misinformed. Make it so that your words are a kind of intermediary,(7) so that you do not speak to her directly, which would not be proper. And do not send them without me, anywhere they might be heard by her, but adorn them with a sweet harmony in which I will be present whenever needed."
And having said these words he disappeared and my sleep was broken. Then, reflecting on what had happened, I realized that this vision had appeared to me in the ninth hour of the day.(8) And before I left this room I planned to compose a ballad, which begins: "Ballad, I wish."
Ballad, I wish you'd find where Love has gone,
that you and he would seek my lady out,
and that my defense (the thing you sing about)
would be presented by my lord anon.
Your movement, ballad, is so debonair
that going it alone,
the scenes you'd venture to are myriad;
but if you want to travel free of care,
first find where Love has flown;
going if he's not with you could be bad,
since she who has to hear you is so mad,
I think, about some trouble I have made:
if you showed up without him as your aid,
she'd only shun you as if put upon.
With sweet music, when you're with him anew,
begin with words like this,
after you've asked that mercy acquiesce:
"My lady, he who sends me here to you,
when you'd like, has this wish,
if he's excused: you heed what I profess.
Lord Love is here, who through your loveliness
makes him, on cue, assume a different face:
as to why he made him eye another's grace,
consider that his heart's not changed its song."
Tell her: "My lady, this one's heart has stayed
so true and undeterred,
to serve you each thought pressed him with its seal:
from his first years he was yours; he's never strayed."
If she won't take your word,
tell her: "Ask Love, who knows the truth for real."
And finally present this meek appeal:
that if I've bored her with my alibi,
she tell me through an envoy I should die,
and I'll obey—a servant's paragon.
And assure Love, who is every mercy's key,
before you take your bow,
that he'll know how to state my rationale:
"By virtue of my graceful melody,
remain here with her now;
and what you think about your servant, tell.
If she forgives him since you plead so well,
inspire a lovely look announcing peace."
My noble-hearted ballad, when you please,
and when you might be well-received, move on.
1. Beatrice refuses to greet him now, due to rumors about his relations with a "screen-woman."
2. Mark 16:5 "And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe." This mixing of courtly imagery, here Amor, with echoes from the Bible, is typical of Dante's method here and elsewhere.
3. "My son, it is time for our false images [or simulations] to be put aside."
4. "I am like the center of a circle, to which the parts of the circumference stand in equal relation; but you are not so." Alan of Lille is the source of the famous formulation, "God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
5. In Scholastic culture, Rom. 12:3 was interpreted as, "[I say to each of you] to not want to know more than necessary, but only what is necessary [to know]."
6. Reference here to the "screen-woman" mentioned in the introductory note, and to the gossip about Dante and her that Beatrice was reacting to. All of this is, of course, highly stylized courtly convention.
7. The ballad above acts as intermediary—the pretext for the "envoy" form of the entire poem. Social convention made it "improper" for Dante to address her directly.
8. For various numerological reasons, the number nine symbolizes the effects of Beatrice throughout the Vita nova.
About the Author
Andrew Frisardi has published two books of poetry in translation: Giuseppe Ungaretti: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which won the 2004 Raiziss / de Palchi Award from the Academy of American Poets; and Air and Memory, from the Milanese poet Franco Loi (Counterpath Press). His poems, articles, reviews, and translations have appeared in various print and online journals including The Atlantic Monthly, Cortland Review, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Southwest Review. Northwestern University Press is publishing his translation and commentary of Dante's Vita nova in 2012. Originally from Boston, he has been living in Orvieto, Italy, since 1999.
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