Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Poetry Review: La vita nuova, Dante

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

All references and quotations are from:

Dante. Vita Nuova. Trans. Mark Musa. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

The first major work of Dante (1265-1321), and his principal contribution to lyric poetry, is La vita nuova, which collects thirty lyric poems that Dante composed between 1283 and 1292. There are twenty-five sonnets, four canzoni, and a ballad. However, it is more than a collection of poetry. The poems are situated in a prose commentary in which Dante tells the story behind each piece. He also provides an explanation of the individual poem's structure. The full work was completed in 1294, at which point Dante began performing readings for audiences. Its achievements are many. Many see it as a prelude to Dante's Divine Comedy, arguably the greatest Western literary work since the Classical period. La vita nuova also set the stage for the work of Petrarch, and in so doing helped shape the traditions of European love poetry for the next several centuries, particularly in England. Beyond that, the work is the culmination of the medieval European traditions in lyric poetry, as reflected in the troubadour movement, the Sicilian School, and the Dolce stil novo.

The conventions of the work of Dante's predecessors are all present in La vita nuova. There's the male protagonist undone by love, as well as the hallowing of infatuation. There's also the characteristic treatment of the idealized female object of the protagonist's desire, who is seen as a divine presence come to Earth. In the canzone featured in chapter XIX, Dante describes his poetic self's beloved Beatrice:

The mind of God receives an angel's prayer
that says: 'My Lord, on earth is seen
a living miracle proceeding from
a soul whose light reaches as far as here.'
Heaven, that lacks its full perfection only
in lacking her, asks for her of its Lord,
and every saint is begging for this favour.
Compassion for his creatures still remains,
for God replies, referring to my lady:
'My chosen ones, now suffer peacefully,
and while it pleases me, let your hope stay
with one down there who dreads the loss of her,
who when in hell shall say unto the damned,
"I have beheld the hope of heaven's blessed."'

Dante never falls into mawkishness, though, largely because he treats his poetic self's love for Beatrice as a process in spiritual development. It is here that he most goes beyond the achievements of his predecessors, who have no coherent theory of love guiding their work. (Guido Cavalcanti tried, but the flailing about of Donna me prega demonstrates how short he fell of the goal.) Dante treats romantic love as a crucial step in one's spiritual growth, the culmination of which is one's capacity for divine love. At the end of La vita nuova, he writes, "may it please that One who is the Lord of Graciousness that my soul ascend to behold the glory of its lady, that is, of the blessed Beatrice, who in glory gazes upon the countenance of the One who is through all ages blessed." In essence, Dante presents the love for Beatrice as a transcendent path to the realm of God.

The most significant aspect of La vita nuova is its structure, but the quality of the individual poems is almost as remarkable. Dante matched or surpassed the work of his predecessors here. At times, it almost seems it was his primary goal. In chapter XX, he presents a sonnet that provides a definition of Love, and it appears written in competition with Guinizelli's "Within the gentle heart love shelters him," and Cavalcanti's aforementioned Donna ma prega. Dante alludes to Cavalcanti's piece in the framing text, and he directly references Guinizelli in the poem itself, calling the earlier writer "that wise poet." But he is not engaged in an act of homage; he is asking the reader to consider his work with the other poets' in mind, an implicit request for a comparison. Beyond that, though, Dante's aim seems to be to offer a definition as straightforward and clear as possible. He creates a simple allegory: Love is a king whose home is the heart, with Love sleeping there until a worthy lady is seen, and desire awakens him. This allegory is easily understood, and there's none of the convolutedness that characterizes the Guinizelli and Cavalcanti pieces.

Dante also bests his predecessors in his use of language. The principal technique of medieval poetry is hyperbole, which might seem the most unsubtle of all descriptive language. But Dante is careful to modulate the exaggerations, and he often uses them to render a subject indirectly. A superb example is the first sonnet in chapter XXVI:

Such sweet decorum and such gentle graces
attend my lady's greeting as she walks
that every tongue is stammering then mute,
and eyes dare not to gaze at such a sight;
she moves benignly in humility
untouched by all the praise along her way
and seems a creature come from heaven to earth,
a miracle manifest in reality.
So charming she appears to human sight,
her sweetness through the eyes reaches the heart;
who has not felt this cannot understand.
And from her lips it seems there moves a spirit
so gentle and so loving that it glides
into the souls of men and whispers, 'Sigh!'

The exaggerations that describe the woman directly are quite abstract--"such sweet decorum," "such gentle graces," "she moves benignly in humility"--and they invite the reader to project into the words and create an image in their own minds. The reader is told how to think about the woman's manner, not what physical aspects of her to consider. The more concrete exaggerations never apply directly to the woman: Dante depicts the reactions of those around her--they stammer, fall mute, and are afraid to look upon the woman. The reactions render the woman as much as Dante's characterizations of her qualities. The different approach to the descriptions creates a counterpoint that Dante uses to render a scene that dramatizes his view of the woman as an earthbound angel. His use of personification is extraordinary as well. In characterizing the woman's voice, he identifies it with a spirit that travels to men's souls and whispers. While the spirit's actions are clear, its characterization is abstract ("so gentle and so loving"), and Dante identifies the spirit's final action with a feeling most everyone has had. Every aspect of the sonnet is conceived and executed in terms of dramatic effect and emotional resonance, and Dante's figurations have a delicate, concise perfection to them--everything is just so, and it never fails to be just so right.

The insistence on dramatic intensity is why Dante's allegories are so much more powerful than other writers'. Allegory is most commonly used to illustrate intellectual concepts. However, Dante uses it to achieve emotional effects. Take this passage from the sonnet in Chapter VII:

Now all is spent of that first wealth of joy
that sprang to earth from Love's bright treasury;
I live in poverty,
in writing's place comes insecurity.
And therefore I have sought to be like those
who cover up their poverty for shame:
I dress in happiness
but in my heart I weep and waste away.

The starting point is clearly an allegory--a personification of Love has given the protagonist a gift of joy--and Dante builds a reversal from it: joy has turned to sadness. The trope used for sadness is poverty, and it is consistent with the tropes used for happiness ("wealth of joy," "from Love's bright treasury"). The emotional effect is created by Dante's insistence on relating the terms of his allegory to everyday experience. He sets it up through simile; the protagonist likens himself to those who are materially poor. However, the key touch is the observation that the poor are embarrassed by their state and will strive to maintain pretenses--such as with the clothes they wear--that conceal it. It's conduct that almost anyone can identify with--who hasn't found themselves behaving similarly at one time or another? Dante then identifies the pathos of that circumstance with his protagonist, who declares he will maintain a happy façade despite his sadness. Dante's poetry avoids the failings so common of allegory: it never seems aloof, and it never gets lost in its abstractions. Dante knows creating an emotional rapport with his audience is key.

La vita nuova is a work that makes one wonder about the coolness many well-read people have to Dante's writings. (He's considered a writer's writer, which means that it's generally only other writers who revere him.) I believe most people owe their antipathy to their experience with reading the Divine Comedy; the translations into English often lose the force of the original Italian, and many teachers get so preoccupied with the epic's allegorical aspects that they lose sight of the drama. La vita nuova seems a much more accessible introduction to Dante's work; it's simpler and more emotionally direct. It's also more rooted in adolescent experience, which makes it easier for younger readers to relate to. Most English-language readers have to learn to love Dante; La vita nuova would seem a work where the learning isn't required.

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