Read The Portable Dante Online

Authors: Dante Alighieri

The Portable Dante (3 page)

The first word of the opening sentence is “Nine”: “Nine times al
ready since my birth the heaven of light had circled back to almost the same point, when there appeared before my eyes the now glorious lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice even by those who did not know what her name was. ” The number nine will be repeated twice more in the next sentence (and it will appear another twenty times before the book comes to an end). In this opening sentence the reader not only finds a reference to the number nine of symbolic significance, but he also sees the emphasis on mathematical precision that will appear at frequent intervals throughout the
Vita nuova.

In the opening sentence also the child Beatrice is presented as already enjoying the veneration of the people of her city, including strangers who did not know her name. With the words “the now glorious lady of my mind” (the first of two time shifts, in which the figure of the living Beatrice at a given moment is described in such a way as to remind us of Beatrice dead) the theme of death is delicately foreshadowed at the beginning of the story. As for the figure of Beatrice, when she appears for the first time in this chapter she wears a garment of blood-red color—the same color as her shroud will be in the
next chapter
.

In the next three sentences the three main spirits are introduced: the “vital” (in the heart), the “animal” (in the brain), and the “natural” (in the liver). They rule the body of the nine-year-old protagonist, and they speak in Latin, as will the God of Love in the chapter that follows (and once again later on). The words of the first spirit describing Beatrice anticipate the first coming of Love in the
next chapter
and suggest something of the same mood of terror. The words of the second spirit suggest rapturous bliss to come (that bliss rhapsodically described in
chapter XI
), while in the words of the third spirit there is the first of the many references to tears to be found in the
Vita nuova.
It is the spirit of the liver that weeps. It is only after this reference to the organ of digestion that Love is mentioned. He is mentioned first of all as a ruler, but we learn immediately that much of his power is derived from the protagonist’s imagination—this faculty of which there will be so many reminders in the form of visions throughout the book.

We are also told that Love’s power was restricted by reason, and later in the book the relation between Love and reason becomes an important problem. Two more themes are posited in this beginning chapter, to be woven into the narrative: the godlike nature of Beatrice and the strong “praise of the lady” motif. Both sound throughout the chapter as the protagonist’s admiration for Beatrice keeps growing during the nine years after her first appearance.

Thus the opening chapter prepares for the rest of the book not only in the obvious way of presenting a background situation, an established continuity out of which single events will emerge in time, but also by setting in motion certain forces that will propel the
Vita nuova
forward—forces with which Dante’s reader will gradually become more and more familiar.

In
chapter XLII
, the final chapter of the
Vita nuova,
the poet expresses his dissatisfaction with his work: “After I wrote this sonnet there appeared to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blesséd one until I should be capable of writing about her in a nobler way. ” As the result of a final vision, which is not revealed to the reader, he decides to stop writing about Beatrice until he can do so more worthily. The preceding vision he had in the course of the story had made him decide to keep on writing; this one made him decide to stop. If the main action of the book is to be seen, as some critics believe, as the development of Dante’s love from his preoccupation with his own feelings to his enjoyment of Beatrice’s excellence and, finally, to his exclusive concern with her heavenly attributes and with spiritual matters, then this action, and the
Vita nuova
itself, ends in an important sense in failure.

To understand the message of the book, to understand how it succeeds through failure, we must go back in time and imagine the poet Dante, somewhere between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-five, having already glimpsed the possibility of what was to be his terrible and grandiose masterpiece, the
Divine Comedy.
We must imagine him rereading the love poems of his earlier years and feeling shame for a number of them. He would have come to view Beatrice as she was destined to appear in the
Divine Comedy,
and indeed as she does appear briefly in the
Vita nuova,
specifically in that essay (chapter XXIXM) on the miraculous quality of the number nine (the square of the number three, the symbol of the Blessed Trinity)—that is, as an agent of divine salvation.

Having arrived at this point, he would have chosen from among his earlier love poems many that exhibit his younger self at his worst, in order to offer a warning example to other young lovers and especially to other love poets. This would imply on Dante’s part, as he is approaching the midmost part of life (the “
mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”
of the
Divine Comedy
), a criticism of most of the love poetry in Italian literature, for which his century was famous, and also that for which Provençal poetry was famous in the preceding century.

One might even say that the
Vita nuova
is a cruel book; cruel, that is, in the treatment of the human type represented by the protagonist. In the picture of the lover there is offered a condemnation of the vice of emotional self-indulgence and an exposure of its destructive effects on a man’s integrity. The “tender feelings” that move the lover to hope or despair, to rejoice or to grieve (and perhaps even to enjoy his grief), spring from his vulnerability and instability and self-love; however idealistically inspired, these feelings cannot, except spasmodically, lead him ahead and above as long as he continues to be at their mercy. In short, he must always fall back into the helplessness of his self-centeredness. The man who would realize a man’s destiny must ruthlessly cut out of his heart the canker at its center, the canker that the heart instinctively tends to cultivate. This is, I am convinced, the main message of the
Vita nuova.
And the consistent, uncompromising indictment it levels has no parallel in the literature of Dante’s time. But of course the
Vita nuova
offers more than a picture of the misguided lover: there is also the glory of Beatrice and the slowly increasing ability of the lover to understand it, although he must nevertheless confess at the end that he has not truly succeeded.

Both in the treatment of the lover and in that of Beatrice, Dante has gone far beyond what he found at hand in the love poetry of the troubadours and their followers. He has taken up two of their preoccupations (one might almost say obsessions) and developed each of them in a most original way: the lover’s glorification of his own feelings, and his glorification of the beloved. Of the first he has made a caricature. Unlike his friend Guido Cavalcanti, also highly critical of the havoc wrought by the emotions within a man’s soul, who makes of the distraught lover a macabre portrait of doom, Dante has presented his protagonist mainly as an object of derision.

As to the glorification of the lady, all critics of the
Vita nuova
admit that Dante has carried this idealization to a degree never before reached by any poet, and one that no poet after him will ever quite attempt to reach. However blurred may be the lover’s vision of the gracious, pure, feminine Beatrice, Dante the poet, in
chapter XXIX
, probes to the essence of her being and presents the coldness of her sublimity. Thus the tender foolishness of the lover is intensified by contrast with the icy perfection of the beloved.

With a few exceptions, Dante’s lyrical poems (and not only those contained in the
Vita nuova
) are inferior as works of art to those of Cavalcanti and Guinizelli, or, for that matter, to those of Bernart de
Ventadorn and Arnaut Daniel. The greatness of the
Vita nuova
lies not in the poems but in the purpose that Dante made them serve. Certainly the book is the most original form of recantation in medieval literature—a recantation that takes the form of a reenactment, seen from a new perspective, of the sin recanted.

The
Convivio,
or
Banquet,
which Dante wrote in Italian sometime between 1304 and 1308, is an unfinished piece of work (it would be difficult to call it a work of art). His purpose in writing it is explained in the opening sentence, which is a quotation from Aristotle’s
Metaphysics:
“All men by nature desire to know. ” Dante invites his reader to a feast consisting of fourteen courses (only three were completed), of which the “meat” of each is a
canzone
concerning love and virtue, while the “bread” is the exposition of it. Dante invites to his
Banquet
all those worthy people who, because of public duties, family responsibilities, and the like, have not been introduced to the science of philosophy. It is the laymen whom Dante invites to his feast, for it is through philosophy, he believes, that they can attain the temporal goal of happiness.

While the
Vita nuova
is Dante’s monument to his first love, the lady Beatrice, the
Convivio
is a monument to his “second love, ” the lady Philosophy. That the lady who offers to console Dante a year after the death of Beatrice in the
Vita nuova
is that same lady Philosophy of the
Convivio
is revealed in book II,
chapter II
.

To begin with, then, let me say that the star of Venus had already revolved twice in that circle of hers that makes her appear at evening or in the morning, according to the two different periods, since the passing away of that blessed Beatrice who dwells in heaven with the angels and on earth with my soul, when that gentle lady, of whom I made mention at the end of the
Vita nuova,
first appeared to my eyes, accompanied by love, and occupied a place in my mind.

What attracted the poet-protagonist to this lady was her offer of consolation. In the
Vita nuova
his love for the lady at the window lasts for a short time, and he refers to this love as “the adversary of reason” and “most base, ” but in the
Convivio
he calls this love “most noble. ” It should be remembered, however, that Philosophy in the
Vita nuova
tries to make the young protagonist forget the fact that he has lost Beatrice —something of this earth (such as Philosophy) cannot replace the love of Beatrice. After the vision in
chapter XXXIX
of the
Vita nuova,
after
grasping the true significance of his lady, he returns to Beatrice and vows to never again stray. In doing this he is to be thought of not as rejecting Philosophy, but rather as rejecting the ideal of replacing Beatrice with Philosophy. Never in the
Convivio
does he consider such a replacement.

Here Dante exalts learning and the use of reason to the highest, for only through knowledge can man hope to attain virtue and God. The
Convivio
seems to be the connecting link between the
Vita nuova
and the
Divine Comedy,
since a love that at first has earthly associations turns out to have religious significance. Furthermore, just as Dante praises reason in this work, we know that in the
Divine Comedy,
reason in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is man’s sole guide on earth, except for the intervention of divine grace.

One might say that the
Convivio
is the philosophical counterpart of the
Vita nuova.
Even from a quick reading of the
canzone
that opens book II, “
Voi
che

ntendendo
“ (“You who by understanding”), the reader easily sees that, given the appropriate prose background, it might well have fitted into the
Vita nuova.
But when Dante begins the exposition of this ode it is “the sail of reason” that bears him on.

In the preamble to the
Convivio
Dante suggests reform in his declaring the vernacular suitable for ethical subjects as well as amorous ones. He was a leader in considering the vernacular a potential medium for all forms of expression, and his impassioned defense and praise of it manifest his awareness of its value in scientific interpretation as he comments at length on its uses.

He tells his reader that writings should be expounded in four senses. The first is the literal level. The second is the allegorical; for example, when Ovid tells his reader that Orpheus moved both animals and stones with his music he is signifying the power of eloquence over what is not rational. In this case the literal level of the story or poem need not be true. If it is not true, it is known as the allegory of poets; if the literal level is taken to be the truth, it is known as the allegory of theologians, because the literal level of the Scriptures was considered to be true. The third is the moral level, and this has a didactic purpose: when Christ took only three of his disciples with him on the occasion of the Transfiguration, it was another way of saying that for those things that are most secret we should have little company. The fourth sense is the anagogical, as when Scripture signifies certain spiritual or mystical truths. When we read, for example, that the people of Israel came out of Egypt and that Judea was made free, we must take this to be literally true, but
the statement also signifies the spiritual truth that when a soul turns away from sin it becomes holy and free.

The literal level of a writing must always be exposed first, for it is impossible to delve into the “form” of anything without first preparing the “subject” upon which the form is to be stamped—you must prepare the wood before you build the table. Dante, in book II,
chapter I
of the
Convivio,
proposes to expound the literal level of his
canzone
first and then the allegorical, bringing into play the other levels or senses when it seems appropriate. There are very few passages in Dante’s work where all four senses are at work; in fact, of the three
canzoni
expounded in the
Convivio
he manages to treat only the first two poems on two levels, while the third he discusses only on the literal level. And when Dante talks about the literal sense he means, of course, not the words but what the words mean. We must bear in mind that the literal sense contains all the other meanings.

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