La Vita Nuova (75 Books LXVII)

Writing about Dante’s non-fiction Monarchia not once, but twice on this blog, and once at length on the main site, made me want to revisit his poetry. I haven’t had time to tackle The Divine Comedy this year, but was able to get through the fairly short La Vita Nuova over Christmas weekend, when not visiting with my kinsfolk.

La Vita Nuova is a bit of an odd work; the poetry makes up the centrepiece, but the work as a whole is autobiographical, and concerns Dante’s relationship, such as it was, with Beatrice. His love for Beatrice is famous, and plays a large part in The Divine Comedy, but as intensely felt as it was for Dante, from the outside not much seems to have come from it. They never really do anything together, barely so much as even a short conversation, and Dante deliberately hides his love for at least the first part of this story. If anything, the style of the book reminds me of the Hyakunin Isshu, which I just wrote about, in that it’s essentially a collection of occasional poems that Dante wrote capturing or commenting on moments with Beatrice, her friends, love in general, and so on. Basically, as the hundred poets would write a tanka as almost a matter of course whenever something subjectively interesting happens, Dante does the same but typically in sonnet form. As for the poems themselves, each is preceded by a paragraph or so of prose explaining the context, and is also accompanied by a short explanation of the poem itself. Most of these, about 4/5, are sonnets, though Dante occasionally uses a longer form. Though I wouldn’t call this light reading, they typically aren’t very difficult to follow, especially compared to the much more allusive, ambitious Divine Comedy. Again, I’d compare them to the Hyakunin Isshu in that the main goal seems to be capturing a moment or feeling in more elevated language.

For example, early on Dante hides his love by using another lady as a “screen,” so it would seem to others that she was the one he loved. This becomes impossible, though, when this lady leaves for another city. Dante writes:

All ye that pass along
Love’s trodden way,
Pause ye awhile and say
If there be any grief like unto mine:
I pray you that you hearken a short space
Patiently, if my case
Be not a piteous marvel and a sign.

Love (never, certes, for my worthless part,
But of his own great heart,)
Vouchsafed to me a life so calm and sweet
That oft I heard folk question as I went
What such great gladness meant:
They spoke of it behind me in the street.

But now that fearless bearing is all gone
Which with Love’s hoarded wealth was given me;
Till I am grown to be
So poor that I have dread to think thereon.

And thus it is that I, being like as one
Who is ashamed and hides his poverty,
Without seem full of glee,
And let my heart within travail and moan.

Translating poetry is notoriously tricky, but my edition was translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, himself a poet and thus well-suited to translating Dante Alighieri’s poems. I don’t know how closely Rossetti followed Dante’s form, though I expect it was about the same in almost all cases since sonnets are a set form. Sometimes this may require prioritising form over strictly accurate content, but that’s fine with me. My one concern with Rossetti’s translation is that there are a few editorial notes on individual words that Rossetti mistranslated; these are all straightforward things like “ninth hour” instead of the correct “noon” at one point, but it makes one wonder about the accuracy of the translation as a whole.

In any case, is there a point in giving a thumbs-up-or-down to Dante? At only fifty pages or so, there’s no reason not to read this one, and it makes for a fine introduction to the great poet.