‘La Vita Nuova’: Dante’s Love of Beatrice and Poetry

Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinità, inspired by La Vita Nuova (Beatrice is in white). By Henry Holiday, 1883 / Walker Art Gallery

This lecture is devoted to the Vita nuova, Dante’s autobiographical account of his “double apprenticeship” in poetry and love. The poet’s love for Beatrice is explored as the catalyst for his search for a new poetic voice. Medieval theories of love and the diverse poetics they inspired are discussed in contrast. The novelty of the poet’s final resolution is tied to the relationship he discovers between love and knowledge. This relationship is then placed in its larger cultural context to highlight the Vita nuova‘s anticipation of the Divine Comedy.

Lecture by Dr. Guiseppe Mazzotta / 09.09.2008
Sterling Professor in the Humanities for Italian
Yale University

An Introduction to Vita nuova and Its Autobiographical Structure

Wikimedia Commons

Today we’ll be discussing, and a little bit in haste of course, because I haven’t got much time to do this, but we’ll devote the whole class to the Vita nova or nuova, as it is called which is Dante’s first work. I was going to say “first finished work,” but in a way, it’s not a finished work. It is a deliberately unfinished work. Dante doesn’t really finish many of his works. He interrupts them; he breaks off and decides to move on to do other things. This is the case with the philosophical Banquet, this text of ethics that he goes on writing once he’s in exile. It’s true for the text on language, the so-called De vulgari eloquentia, about the vulgar language, a second book he just won’t go on. But it’s also true, in a way, for the Vita nuova to know that ends with a vision, but we do not know what’s going to happen after that. This is — there is a kind of suspension about it, but this is the first work, let’s call it, full work, that Dante writes.

The title means a “new life”; though new or new life, so it means probably youth; that describes the story, an autobiographical account, the lover, the poet who falls in love with Beatrice. You may remember I called it the first decisive event happening in his early life immediately after his mother’s death and describes the story of this love for Beatrice who then in the narrative dies. And he goes — he, the pilgrim, lover, poet, goes on recording the confusion, the sense of loss that ensues this event of the death of Beatrice. His betrayals become an ethical drama, as most lyrical poetry of the Middle Ages does, they’re always dealing with treacherous presences, with betrayals, with infidelity, etc., and then he ends up having a final vision. So it’s youth, it’s the new life meets, above all youth, but youth means many other things which I think the narrative will go on — the meanings of which I think the narrative will sustain.

“New,” in Italian, means surprising, unexpected, even strange, novel, marvelous, it’s — and it therefore gives a kind of direction to the way we should be reading the story. Its primarily, well all of these meanings are true and it’s an autobiography, or what do we call, or we’ll come to the description of what an autobiography is, it’s also what we call a novel of the self. Another way of speaking about autobiography which literally means I write about myself. So let me say a few things about this structure, this autobiographical structure, this form of problems before we get into the narrative as such. From one point of view we might all agree easily that if you knew that this is — it belongs — the Vita nuova belongs to the mode of Provençal poets, who would all write what they would call, “vida” — life. It’s just a word that lingers, continues in Spanish, “life.” So they would write their poems and they would append a brief account of their lives. This is true for Jaufré Rudel, they all would do that when they would publish their poems.

So let’s say that Dante is writing about himself, and inserting the poems as part of the texture of his own life. As an autobiography, though, the text echoes, and is modeled on, the most important autobiography written in the Middle Ages. In fact, it’s written by one who can be called the founder of the autobiographical genre and it is St. Augustine, who writes as you know, the Confessions. A confession, which is a witnessing, which is — it’s really the story of his life, from his childhood in Africa, his growing up as a gifted young rhetorician, philosopher turned rhetorician, who then moves to Rome where he becomes a teacher despised and paid by his students, moves on to Milan and the whole narrative climaxes with a conversion. In fact, the whole idea of an autobiography for Augustine is that it is — it coincides with, it is coextensive, with a conversion. He writes — he achieves this conversion in a garden in Milan, it’s a narrative that we may have at some point a chance to go to and look at it in some detail and then goes on writing a hermeneutics of the biblical Genesis as if the new life that he found, through the conversion, could only literally issue into a commentary about all beginnings; Genesis is the beginning of all beginnings as it were.

Portrait of Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli, 1495 / Bibliothèque et fondation Martin Bodmer, Cologne

After we say this and we say — and I can say that Augustine writes in the full awareness that in effect autobiography has to be the same thing as a conversion because autobiography demands two voices all the time. It’s necessarily ambivalent; it demands the voice of the narrator who is outside of the narrative and who can look back — in fact the mode of writing autobiographies is always retrospection. I look back at my life and try to figure out what are the stages, what are the events, what is it that makes me now the person that I am. There’s a sort of necessary distance between the protagonist and the narrator, two voices. A narrator who knows more than what the protagonist knew. I am caught in time and I have encounters in my own life from day to day, and I never know what those encounters really portend, nor what do they mean and that same thing for you.

You may have a diary and go home at night and you jot down all the great events of the day, but you may overlook the most important. You may have had a meeting with someone, you may have caught sight of some person, who eventually ten years from now will reenter your life and give an altogether different appearance and direction to your life. This is to say, that all autobiographical experiments, like all diary entries, are always uncertain and fundamentally false because you can never really write — you can only write about what you know at that point and you can never really write about the whole structure of your life. To be able to write about the structure of your life you have to die, that’s Augustine’s idea of the necessity of conversion. It’s a symbolic death by means of which you come back into existence, you come back into life as a new man, you have a new life, and now from that standpoint of yours being a new life you can have all the necessary detachment to look at your past and decipher that which was in a haze, that which was uncertain as things went on.

The other reason why you need this kind of structure in autobiographies, this double voice, is obvious. Because if I go on writing about my life without any sense of what my life is about, can you imagine what happens? I go on writing every single thing that I do which means that I would need another life to be able to say well I got up in the morning, then I brushed my teeth, etc., etc. It becomes a random, senseless, accumulation of facts without any particular meaning or direction. Dante is aware of this type of complication of autobiographies. We don’t have this kind of autobiographies, you have autobiographical writings beforehand, you have a kind of self analysis, think of the one — the figure that is most powerful for Augustine is David, King David and his Psalms with a kind of reflection, a kind of turning inward, and trying to pinpoint the shifts in moods, moral judgments, temptations, the idea of one’s own system is, but this really means a kind of internalization of one’s life. Augustine will not do this, Augustine will go into the interiority of his self, into the interiority of his consciousness, but he will also describe what has happened to him in the public space. Now he goes inside and outside all the time.

Dante’s, Vita nuova is really a complicated text from this point of view, because for it being an autobiography, it’s amazing how little he tells us really about his own life. There’s nothing concrete about this text. We know that it has taken place in — it takes place in Florence, but Florence is not even mentioned as a city. We only infer that it’s Florence because at one point there is a description of a river that crosses by it and which Dante uses because he has had an inspiration, words come to him with the same kind of strength and naturalness with which the waters of the river flow, that’s the implied meaning of that association or description of the landscape, there’s a river and fantastic words came to me which I jotted down which I wanted to remember, it’s the turning in point in poetic terms of the Vita nuova. When he addresses the — he understands that to write poetry — he writes the famous line, “Women who have intellect of love.” It is a remarkable line, Donne ch’avete intelletto, it’s a remarkable line and I will explain why it’s a remarkable line. It was never written — that kind of perception was never really part of the understanding — of the warehouse of the poetic imagination.

Double Poise Structure

Mnemosyne (alternately titled: Lamp of Memory or Ricordanza, c. 1876–1881), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation of the Greek goddess by Dante Gabriel Rossetti / Delaware Art Museum

What does Dante do? It’s a little bit abstract. It’s a kind of an enigmatic account that he gives and this is unlike Augustine. It begins with a reference to the book of memory. In that part of the book of my memory, within which little has been written, I find words which I cannot go on repeating and all, but I would just transcribe some sentences, the meanings of them, so he understands that here we have, first of all, it’s a book of memory, not necessarily an act of retrospection and memory it has a number of other implications and dangers. What are the implications? Well, Dante is writing this, he’s about 25, 24; it’s a provisional retrospection of his growth as a poet. He certainly knows that memories of the mother, as you know of the Muses, this is the famous myth, right? There’s the old Greek myth that memory, Mnemosyne, lay with Jupiter for nine successive nights and from their copulations the nine muses came into being, so Memories, the Mother, which means that art is always an act of memory; a way of remembering, an act of remembrance, we could say.

It has also some dangers that Dante will go on reflecting about. It’s that if you go on getting caught in the activity of memory you run a serious risk, the risk of changing your sense of life and your sense of reality into the phantasms of memory because that’s what memory is. It’s called, as you know, the eye of the imagination. That’s the famous description of memory. The Greeks, of course, used to put memory in the heart, and in fact as you know, the ancient Greeks used to put memory in the heart. In fact, as you know, in Italian we still do say — or in Spanish, recordarse, which really has the etymology, in English record, that’s the etymology of the heart we remember. But in the Middle Ages it’s already part of the imagination; it’s called the eye of the imagination which means that it has a visionary component to it. This explains the emphasis of dreams, vision, strange apparitions with which this text is punctuated from the beginning to the end. Dante, I repeat, understands that there is a danger to memory and the danger of memory is the transformation of experience into a phantasmatic reality; the whole living in the world. It’s like you’re always looking backwards and you’re not Janus-like, you don’t look in all directions, you don’t look ahead and Dante will turn against memory.

The second thing that we get from that little exordium of — in that part of the book of my memory, we know that Dante’s placed himself — I find words which have been the inscriptions of memory, I’m not going to repeat them all, but only some of them. We know that Dante has casted himself as the editor of his own book, that’s the double poise. This is the double structure of this little text of his. First of all it’s a double — has duplicity all over, this text has, it’s a book of poetry and it’s a book of prose. It’s not an unusual structure: Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy is written like that. Dante also writes other texts like that, but what are the implications? Well, there’s a lyrical self who has been in the throes of a great passion for Beatrice, who struggles sometimes with his inspiration, who waits. And that’s the problem he has, that one of the crises that he has is that he’s always waiting for words to come to him, he’s always waiting for Beatrice to say hello to him, there is a way in which he casts himself as the passive, a passive protagonist, weak-willed, unable, believing that the will can direct him wherever the will wants and that’s another problem that we are really going to talk about. Then, finally he understands that he better get out of that mode, and in effect, and I will say this by making you turn, just talking about the formal structure now, the whole text is written in the past mode, the whole text in that part of the book of memory; a commemoration of a great event in the private life of Dante, the love which he doesn’t even know what it is, he doesn’t even know the woman, he doesn’t even know what the passion is and part of what the tension of this text is, to ponder what it is that the passion means and what it is that it’s doing to him and to his mind.

But by the end of the — in Chapter XLII, which by the way, let it be said in passing, its division in numbers is completely arbitrary. We don’t know, that’s not the way books were written, codices were written in Dante’s time, it was a continuous — to say page something, page something, people really believe, but the modern editors have made it controversially into XLII, so this should be XXX, and I agree with that. Let me read the last passage, the last paragraph which is not poetry now, ends with prose. With a voice of reflection prose functions as the work of reflections on the lyrical inspirations, on the immediacy of the lyrical voice, so that’s the double voice. I’m an editor and I’m a poet at the same time; sometimes the editing, the notes that he writes, say nothing about the poem. They try to — sometimes he goes on into formal mechanical description about love, this sonnet is divided into two parts, that doesn’t really add much to the inner life, to our understanding of the inner life of the protagonist.

A recreated death mask of Dante Alighieri / Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

This is what he says in XLII, Chapter XLII, “After I wrote this sonnet,” which is about the famous vision of Beatrice sitting at the foot of God’s throne, and so he decides that he has to go there. He decides that he has to go and meet her, that’s the last vision. “After I wrote this sonnet there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things,” like a visionary burden of the narrative is kept up from memory now to vision, “that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one. . .” “Blessed” in Italian, by the way is a pun on the name of Beatrice, the one who is blessed, the one who is the bearer of the good, now that’s really what it means — ;”. . . until I will be capable of writing about her in a nobler way.” That’s the unavoidably unfinished quality of the text, I can’t go on to write about her, I need to do more work. I need to do more research and find out what I really can say about this woman. So he will stop. That’s what I call an unfinished, an inevitably unfinished narrative. “To achieve this I’m striving as hard as I can, and this she truly knows. Accordingly, if it be the pleasure of Him through whom all things live that my life continue for a few more years, I hope to write of her that which has never been written before of any other woman. And that it may please the One who is the Lord of graciousness that my soul ascend to behold the glory of its lady, that is, of that blessed Beatrice who in glory contemplates the countenance of the One qui est per omnia secula benedictus” — and to all times blessed, and ends with a pun on, again, on Beatrice.

What is the most important — to me the most important point of this paragraph, the intrusion of the verb of the future. The only time you find it in the narrative, “I hope.” The whole text is contained between an exercise of memory, an idea of something which is past, and that tempts him greatly because if something is past and you have — you think that you can even control it, you can certainly decipher it, you can hope to extract from it some particular meaning, complacently or not, and then ends with a projection of the self into the future, another work is to come. This is the preamble to something more which I cannot really contain, so memory is abandoned, the work ends with an image, and within the horizon of the future. This is really very important.

The limitations of memory are — can be understood only from this point of view because hope, as you know, when you think of hope, hope grammatically — this is what is the future. He says I hope to write, there’s no future there, I hope that’s the present. But hope grammatically is a verb, those of you who have studied a little bit of Latin, remember, always take the future participle. I hope that I will do this; I hope I would have done this; it doesn’t work. I wished I had done that, but so it takes all — it’s a verb of the future. It is literally also in substantial terms, it’s a virtue. This is a — to say “I hope” is a theological virtue, hope which always implies the future. It says that the past is not really over and done with because once you include, or you intrude the category of hope, you really believe you can change the meaning of the past. That things may be happening that whereby all your past errors, all your past mistakes can be seen and will be seen in a new life, so much then for this question of destruction.

I repeat, we have prose and poetry, we have the voice of the lover, and we have the voice of the editor, we have a text of memory that at the same time turns against itself, points out the limitations of memory, and opens to the future through hope, and you have this idea that something amazing is going to happen. Something that, though nothing concrete is being given, everything will take place within the self. It’s the moment where Dante abandons Augustine. We began by saying, I began by saying that the mode, the rhetorical mode that Dante really follows is Augustine’s Confessions which is a text of retrospection and ends with a commentary of Genesis, Dante ends with what we call a prolepsis, a weird word that’s not so weird, but all that means, a projection to the future; autobiography has this kind of future dimension and cannot be contained. In other words, it’s not over and done with.

The mode which, just to make this really intelligible to you, the kind of text that is most like what Dante has written in the Vita nuova is really Joyce who writes The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That’s the way you can really — if you cannot have a conversion, if you cannot die as Augustine says you have to do when you write, write an autobiography, in order to come back as a new man and be able to write your life story and find out the meaning of your life, then what you can do is write about yourself with a kind of temporal distance that is brought by time. I’m no longer the young man I used to be, but I do know those passions. I remove myself from them in exactly the same way Joyce does it with The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which ends with the projection of going to the — descending into the smithy of this whole and writing, and then forge the epic of the future. That’s really the — it ends with a project for the future so this is a kind of a mode of autobiographical writing that Dante really prepares and puts forth.

Dante Writes about Love

Konrad von Limpurg as a knight being armed by his lady in the Codex Manesse (early 14th century), by Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) / Universitätsbibliothek, Heidelberg

What happens in the text? It’s a love story. It’s a love story of a young man who meets, at the age of nine, meets a young woman who is roughly the same age, he says she’s in her ninth year, doesn’t even know who she is but feels a kind of bliss. Then he sees her again nine years later, so we know that there is a kind of numerical symbolism running through. The number for Beatrice is three, 333, a Trinitarian number, she comes — she reappears and is convinced that this is going to be the love of his life, but he doesn’t even know what love is. He does not know what love is, what he does know at the beginning, and this is what part of the whole — the economy of this narrative really focuses on trying to ponder what love may be.

The culture of the Middle Ages is filled with literature of love. This could be viewed as one of the many love books of the Middle Ages, and in case some of you may be looking already for a topic for your paper, you could write about the love books of the Middle Ages. What are the other love books, the famous love books of the Middle Ages, which are completely different from the love books of the Middle Ages coming before. For instance, The Art of Courtly Love of Andreas Capellanus, which is as some of you know, it’s a codification of what love is. The idea that love is an art, the “art of courtly love,” that it’s obviously natural instinct or thrust or passion and yet has to be changed as if there can be a sentimental education. One has to learn how to contain, how to hold off excesses, how to hold off the potential disruptions and violence that love will commute. There are the romances of Chrétien de Troyes that you may know about, which is all about love at the court, the place of pleasure within the unfolding of responsible life. There are so many other texts, a lot of the Provençal poets whom Dante really evokes. Dante writes about love.

Let me say a couple of things so that you can really — it’s not the first time that people reflect upon love of course. The Greeks tried to do that and you may remember Socrates who always wonders what love is. Is it a figure of speech, a manner of feeling or is there such a thing as love? It’s — that’s just a useless figure of love. Is it a god that possesses me? Is this a natural instinct that we call love. This variety of passions, this variety of ways of understanding love all figure within this text. The main thing is that Dante meets Beatrice, because if we don’t know who she is, does not know what’s happening to him at the age of eight, it starts in an involuntary way. The whole point of this narrative is that things seem to be happening to him, not only as a passive figure, but even love comes to him. It’s — he doesn’t will it, he doesn’t look for it, and in many ways, look at this passage here in book — in Chapter II, “Nine times already since my birth the heaven of light had circled back to almost the same point, when there appeared before my eyes,” it’s appearing, it’s an apparition, something gives itself to him, “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. She had been in this life long enough for the heaven of fixed starts to be able to move a twelfth of a degree to the East in her time; that is, she appeared to me at about the beginning of her ninth year,” so she’s a little younger than he is “and I first saw her near the end of my ninth year. She appeared dressed in the most patrician of colors, a subdued and decorous crimson. . . At that very moment, and I speak the truth, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that even the most minute veins of my body were strangely affected; and trembling, it spoke these words: Here is a god stronger than I who is coming to dominate me, to rule over me.”

This is — these are set descriptions of what love is, the point is that he doesn’t will it, he does not know what this is about. Why does he present himself as unwilling this passion? Because passions which are unwilled seem to be more important than the things that we will. If they are unwilled and they happen to me they may have the mark of a secret necessity. There may be a pattern behind them that I do not know but it happened to me. Do you see what I’m saying? I do not have any responsibility about it. I don’t know what that is. He will find out in time that he cannot go on obeying the rules of the will that he has to go on understanding that the will needs to be in turn ruled by reason. Yet, nothing that he does is that this figure of love is a god, really a literary conceit. He has no idea who speaks to him or around him. All around him he takes refuge in the chamber of his house, the chamber of his mind and there he goes on engaged in deliriums, dreams, etc. That is to say, all the clinical signs of love. He thinks that love is a passion that disables him.

This whole problem will come to a head with the first sonnet that he writes, which by the way, is really the poem we know. Dante’s seventeen years old when he wrote this poem, we know that this is really a kind of — sort of — it’s a dream. It’s a poem which appears as a dream which I’ll read in English in this so and so translation, but it’s better than anything I could try. “To every captive soul,” it’s a horrifying dream as you can see.

To every captive soul and loving heart
to whom these words I have composed are sent
for your elucidation in reply,
greetings I bring for your sweet lord’s sake, Love.
The first three hours, the hours of the time
of shining stars, were coming to an end,
when suddenly Love appeared before me
(to remember how it really was appalls me).Joyous, Love seemed to me, holding my heart
within his hand, and in his arms he had
my lady, loosely wrapped in folds, asleep.
He woke her then, and gently fed to her
the burning heart; she ate it, terrified.
And then I saw him disappear in tears.

Guido Cavalcanti’s portrait, in Rime di Guido Cavalcanti (1813) / Wikimedia Commons

It’s a dream, a horrifying dream about a lady which is asleep, held in the arms of the lord of love. She wakes and eats the heart, the heart was given to her. It’s a story of clearly how the heart nourishes love, that’s the sense of it. The meaning, he says, it’s a dream, another involuntary experience, a dream comes to us without our will, without our wanting it, and he says the meaning of this sonnet was unclear.

He writes the sonnet and sends it out to his fellow poets in Florence. He sends one of them to the person who’s going to become his best friend and to whom this text is dedicated. It will appear very soon in the text. His name is Guido Cavalcanti; we shall see him in Hell by the way. Dante put him in Inferno X and we’ll talk about him at length.

Guido answers, because that was the fashion, just write the poem, and then by taking your own rhyme scheme as a kind of response, they go on really writing about this. And Guido Cavalcanti says to him, well you’re really right — you really had the vision which means that you cannot quite trust love, that you really have to turn away. It’s a kind of admonition to you: move away from all of these figments of love and turn to philosophical studies. It’s only in the mind that you can find, and in the pursuits of the works of the mind, that you can find some kind of truth and stability for yourself. Outside of it, there is only — and if you pursue love there’s the world of the arrangements. By the way, another physician of the time, Dante — his name was also Dante, Dante da Maiano, he decides to write to him and also writes about the sonnet. He says, well this really means that you have humoural problems: take cold baths and everything will be okay. You really need to rebalance the new equilibrium for your humors.

One reduces love to a question of bodies, the physician, as if it were just a disease, the other one reduces it to a question of love’s danger vis-a-vis the stability of the mind. Dante will go neither with one and will not listen neither to one nor to the other. The rest of the poem will be that of trying to understand what this love really is. Crucial chapters will appear. Chapter VIII, he describes his going to a funeral, you remember, he sees a dead woman, and you wonder what is the point of this kind of seeing. And the point I think that — of that scene is that there is a body and that body is inert and dead and that there is no possible connection between him and this dead body. So that love is not reusable only to bodies. There must be some kind of animation, there must be some kind of soul that is — or life that accompanies it. In Chapter XII finally, Dante seems to be moving a little bit away from this Provençal — this way of describing love in terms of conventional terms that I have to describe to you, and he has this other dream about the god of love who comes to him and says it’s time for you to put aside all simulacra, all fictions and all emptiness.

Understandings of Love and Friendship

View of the Amo River taken from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy / Wikimedia Commons

Let me just say a little bit about more of this point about love and a kind of questions that Dante raises. Whenever we think about love in the modern era, as you know, these are not my ideas, but particularly I believe in them. Others have formulated these ideas. Whenever we think about love in modern times that — the formulation of love is as we understand it today is essentially medieval. The Greeks do not have the understanding of love the way — the romantic idea of love the way we do. They understand love as an intellectual pursuit, as an ascent up the ladder of being. That it’s the work of philosophers that the minds can go on from degrees — through the various degrees of reality and intellectual reality and one can grasp it. There is friendship of course, but there’s not the idea of the love of a man for a woman which is so crucial to the romantic understanding of love. The Romans had no understanding at all about either, what the Greeks knew, what we know. The most important Latin voice of — about love is, for instance, I think, Catullus, who talks about love as something to be slightly embarrassed about. It’s a weakness, a serious guy does not involve oneself in this kind of pursuits, this kind — you have to do the serious work of living: the political issues, going to the forum, negotiate, etc.

But come the Provençal world in the south of France, the Provençal courts, love changes, both its meaning and its contours. Now love is the love of a man for a woman and it’s usually described, and you can see in Andreas Capellanus and The Art of Courtly Love, or in the texts of Chretien de Troyes, it’s described as maybe it can be a clandestine, secret relationship, it need not be within marriage because marriages are — usually are business propositions. It is a kind of emotion that’s potentially violent, in fact the effort one should — what is the sociology of love? Can a noble man fall in love with a plebian, can a noble woman fall love with a plebian man? It’s an arrangement about what love can be, and yet also they describe it, they always describe it as the experience that causes insomnia, loss of appetite, the lover turns pale and can’t speak in the presence of the beloved, they go on describing the physical properties of love. The other great revolution about love is what is contained in this text. He’s not the only one; Dante’s not the only one to have brought it about. His teachers and people, the likes of Guido Cavalcanti and Guinizelli were going to the same direction, namely, that love has to be explored for the changes it brings to the mind. How can it be? This is the kind of problem that they raise. How can it be that I see a woman and the image of that woman obsesses me? What is it about my mind? Why do I want to be better than I am? How am I going to be educated in the light of the love that I feel for this woman? And in effect, this kind of metaphysical aspect of love is the special burden of this text.

Let me just give you an idea, it happens — the first time that this happens is exactly with the famous poem that I mentioned to you that is the turning point, Chapter XIX. Let me just read this paragraph. This is the turning point in Dante’s understanding of what love is. “Then it happened, that while walking down a path, along which ran a very clear stream…” — we guess that it’s the Arno River. He won’t say, he’s not interested in the outside world, he’s only interested in what love does to his inner self, to this thought of his mind — “I suddenly felt a great desire to write a poem, and I began to think how I would go about it.” What an extraordinary moment, finally he’s not just jotting down words that come to him, he just starts thinking. This is not just about a self as desiring or willing, or unwilling, and who lives that kind of strange world; oh it’s a good thing that things are happening to me because I can’t help it. I can give up my whole exercise of what I can do, the sense of purpose about what is happening, changing will into a rational activity.

Now he starts thinking and: “I began to think how I would go about it. It seemed to me that to speak of my lady would not be becoming unless I were to address my words to ladies, and not just to any ladies, but only to those who are worthy, not merely to women. Then, I must tell you my tongue,” — he’s not out of it yet — “as if moved of its own accord, spoke and said: Ladies who have,” — actually he says, “Women who have intelligence of love. With great delight I decided to keep these words in mind and to use them at the beginning of my poem. Later, after returning to the aforementioned city and reflecting for several days, I began writing a canzone,” — meaning a song, which for Dante is the noblest form of rhetorical form — and “using this beginning and then constructed it in a way that will appear below in its divisions. The canzone begins:

Ladies who have intelligence of love
I wish to speak to you about my lady,
not thinking to complete her litany,
but to talk in order to relieve my heart.

Not thinking to complete her praise — her praise, it’s a poem of praise. Therefore, a religious kind of — very close to religious poems. As you know, they’re also called laude, laudatory we say in English, to come back to — to give you a sense of what this kind of poems can be. To praise, which he would like us to distinguish from flattery. There’s a difference between praising someone and flattering someone. Praising you really don’t expect anything in return, you’re praising as kind of sense that you are just trying to describe and yielding to the allure and the power of what is in front of you. Flattery always implies some kind of circuitness, some sort of desire to get something. You flatter, it’s a rhetorical form, you flatter because there’s — implies some degree of manipulation. The most important word, it is “women who have intellect of love.”

Finally, intellect and love are not two disjointed activities of the mind. It’s not what Guido Cavalcanti, who really believes in part, who really believes in a world in which one is sundered one from the other, in a fragmentary world — and we will come to that in Inferno X — who really thinks that time is all fragmented from itself anyway, experiences are all fragmentary, that love — if I have a passion I can never quite come to understand anything. In fact, when I am in throes of passion my mind ceases its operations. This poem is written against Dante’s best friend to whom this text is dedicated.

We are forced to think, and I’ll go back with this poem in a moment, but let me make a brief digression about the relationship between friendship and love. They’re two extraordinary virtues. We call them passions, but they’re also virtues. Is there anything better than friendship? Is there anything better than love? Dante says — this is the radical way of Dante’s thinking — he brings us to the point where you really have to distinguish between things that seem to be equally powerful virtues. What is friendship? The text is dedicated to Guido Cavalcanti which means that friendship implies a conversation, a conversation of minds. The word conversation, as you know in Latin means, things turning together. That’s why the minds — when you are conversing, minds are turning together in some kind of harmonious turning, looking for some common agreements and there is a sort of benevolence implied in friendship that presupposes even what you are going to find.

We are going to — not only its benevolence, it’s the condition for friendship, it’s really the point of arrival, we’ve got to like each other even more after we discuss. We disagree, but we are doing it benevolently. That’s the gift of friendship. It’s a virtue. In the Ethics of Aristotle, it counts as this, one of the major virtues — and so does Dante in his own rewriting of the Ethics of Aristotle which is the Banquet. But love for Dante here is more important than friendship and it’s more important for friendship because it forces you to think. Something happens to you and that mobilizes your mind. You’ve got to go looking for the signs of love; you try to look for what kind of sign is my beloved sending to me, etc. The mind is engaged in an extended self — mode of self-reflection. So intellect and love now rolled together, that’s the revolution.

The Sweet New Style

Painting of Guido Guinizelli / Wikimedia Commons

Let me go back to them that I have been — with which I started. This is the beginning of the so-called “Sweet New Style” (dolce stil novo). The kind of poetry that the Tuscans write and which is a sort of rethinking of what the Provençal poets were doing. The Provençal poets are writing poetry in the mode of “I tremble, and I shake, and the image of the beloved I cannot even tell anybody. I have to keep my passion away from the flatterers because they are going to violate my secret and so I have to always protect this, I have to protect the identity of the beloved,” — in a sense singularity and uniqueness to this passion. The Tuscan poets Dante, Cavalcanti, Guinizelli they come along and say no, no what matters is that love can become part of an intellectual experience and intellectual ascent. And knowledge only favors love, and love mobilizes the mind to go on thinking.

See, I really don’t want to say too much now because we have so much time ahead of us. The great debate, philosophical debates in the thirteenth century, is always the following: it’s between the so-called voluntarists and rationalists. Very simple don’t — the voluntarists are those who believe that if I want to know something, I have to love first, that love is crucial to my knowledge. If I — probably you remember from your own early youth, when some of you would be interested enough in a boy, or the boy and the girl, someone would say, “oh you really love that person.” What do you mean? I don’t know — even know him; I don’t even know her, that’s really the issue — if you love so that you may know, that’s the position of the voluntarists. Others would say you have to know first in order that you may love, and it’s a fierce debate; Dante’s circumventing all of this. Intellect and love are like the two feet that carry us along, and you move one and you move the other, and only this way can you walk without being hobbled. They say it would be later when he starts in Inferno.

So, this is the great change, what you call the Sweet New Style. The Sweet New Style means, therefore, a highly philosophical, highly intellectual kind of poetry, a poetry where the woman or the love of a woman can take you up to the divinity, love through love, and the understanding that that which rules the world is not just an idea, it’s just love and therefore love is the only way of coming to it and pursuing it. Some examples of this kind of experience will happen very soon. I want to mention this great poem that he describes, this little sonnet where he — which also — which sort of pursues immediately after Chapter XX. Let’s look at the sonnet. “After the canzone had become. . .” — this canzone about “Women who have intellect of love” — “. . . had become rather well known, one of my friends who had heard it was moved asked me to write about the nature of Love. . .” — that’s not what he — forget about the experiences about being sleepless, but Dante starts as a Provençal poet, he’s not refining their idea and wants to think about the nature of love, philosophical idea about love having — without losing sight of Beatrice — “. . . having perhaps, from reading my poem, acquired more confidence in me than I deserved. So, thinking that after my treatment with the previous theme it would be good to treat the theme of Love and, feeling that I owed this to my friend, I decided to compose a poem dealing with Love. And I wrote this sonnet which begins:

Love and the gracious heart are a single thing
as Guinizelli [who’s another poet of the Sweet New Style , is the father of the sweet new style] tells us in his poem:
one can no more be without the other
than can be a reasoning mind without its reason.
Nature, when in a loving mood, creates them

This is the shift now the full awareness that learning about love. Dante’s gone to the school of the philosophers, in order to learn about this.

This means that this whole text really is traversed by two inter-related themes, they’re two stories, two thematic strains running through. One is the story of a love for Beatrice, Dante’s love for Beatrice, and we have understanding what love is. Is it a physical impulse? Is it a demon? Is it a figure of speech? Is it a simulacrum, another fiction that we tell each other? Or not, and he goes on learning about this. The other thematic strain of this text has to do with learning to be a poet. Dante is also telling us the story of his poetic growth. How he begins imitating the Provençal poets, imitating now the poets of the Sweet New Style, and finally finding his voice, and how the two themes really shed light on each other because I can only understand this about love and if I understand really things about love that nobody else has understood, I can really go on writing about the poem — writing poems that nobody else can go on writing which is a famous promise, the hope he expresses in Chapter XLII. And if I can go on writing about love in a way that nobody else has ever written, it means that I understand love more than others have understood love. At any rate, the great poem that he starts writing when he’s, in a sense, even in a kind of rivalry with Guinizelli, appears in the sonnet that starts here.

The Apparition of Beatrice; Moving in Circles

Beata Beatrix, by Dante Gabriel Rossett, c.1870 / Tate Britain

I could mention 21, “The power of Love borne in my lady’s eyes,” where now it’s not only about the nature of love but he goes on trying to find love within Beatrice. It’s not the god of love that has been abandoned, it’s not the conceit of love, it’s not the words, the strange and enigmatic words of love that have come to him from oracles and traditions, now that is love for the concreteness of Beatrice herself. As I said earlier, very much in passing, the text has an extraordinary sonnet that I read in Italian a couple lines, a few lines so you can hear the sound of this poem. Chapter XXVI, this is about Beatrice, the apparition of Beatrice, she goes by through the streets and the world is silent, the world falls silent, it’s a kind of general apparition, but also she’s wrapped in a kind of mystery and an inapproachable light. There’s always some kind of distance. This is the poem.

Such sweet decorum, [page 57 of this edition, Chapter XXVI]
and such gentle grace
attend my lady’s greeting as she moves
that lips can only tremble into silence,
and eyes dare not attempt to gaze at her.
Moving, benignly clothed in humility,
untouched by all the praise along the way,
she seems to be a creature come from Heaven
to earth, to manifest a miracle.

We are now — Dante appears as a sort of poetical caress because of love, heaven, and earth mixed up in his head. Beatrice brings heaven down to earth and asks of him that he can rise up to heaven and these are the words in Italian. Listen to the repartitions, the sounds, the “n” sounds:

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
la donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta,
ch’ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
e li occhi no l’ardiscon di guardare.
Ella si va, sentendosi laudare

Only praise can come in toward her — in her direction. Finally, how does he really — how does Dante really get out of this sense of constant wonder because that’s a poem about wonder. Beatrice appears and it’s a miracle, wonder, and that’s how you start thinking as soon as you believe that what you perceive is a wonder that you don’t quite understand. You want to go on trying to understand it. Now that’s the heart of the effort of reflection, right? So there’s this kind of a sense of constant perplexity, great excitement at the idea of Beatrice.

Now Beatrice has died, her death appears around Chapter XXIX. How real can she be now that she’s — well how are you going to relate to someone who is dead? Dante will do that which probably some others can — could do. We try to find a replacement and we go looking for someone who looks exactly like her or reminds him of her and then finds this, Chapter XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV; this woman who has a lot of — so much mercy, sense of mercy for him that he’s very drawn to her. He understands that in the measure in which he tries to duplicate Beatrice, then the love for Beatrice was not really singular; that his own project was at stake here. Either you believe in the singularity of the figure you love, or if you believe in the duplication, then you are undercutting your own project.

So he’s caught in all this drama until finally he sees some pilgrims, and this is really the great direction, and with this I will stop and see if there are some questions.

Chapter XL, some pilgrims, the pilgrimages that used to go to Santiago de Compostela, as they do now. They used to go to the famous — from the north of Europe, the so called — they would go to Jerusalem, they would go to the Via Francigena as it is called, that goes from the north following a particular path, they go to Rome, and here this is some pilgrims going — they’re called romei. He sees some pilgrims going to Rome and this is the poem he writes, this is an extraordinary poem. “Ah, pilgrims. . . ” he addresses them. They don’t listen to him, they know nothing about him. He addresses them:

. . .moving pensively along,
thinking, perhaps, of things at home you miss,
could the land you come from be so far away
(as anyone might guess from your appearance)
that you show no sign of grief as you pass through
the middle of the desolated city. . .

This is a phrase that normally is used for Jerusalem, “desolated, ” “the abandoned city. ” This is Florence, though.

. . . like people who seem not to understand,
the grievous weight of woe it is has to bear?
If you would stop to listen to me speak,
I know, from what my sighing heart tells me,
you would be weeping when you leave this place:
lost is the city’s source of blessedness,
and I know words that could be said of her
with power to humble any man to tears.

This is — it’s really another great shift in the movement of the poem. He sees pilgrims who are going somewhere and he realizes that he is not like them; he’s not going anywhere; he is moving in circles. If you move in circles, you get nowhere. Now, something happens around him that will, in many ways, shake him from that kind of circular self-absorption in which he finds himself. The second thing is that he understands. This is an extraordinary poem. Read it again for yourselves when you have a chance. He says he understands that the mythology he has been constructing about Beatrice is an absolutely private mythology. It means nothing to anybody else. You who come from afar, and he’s like them, because he too is — they are separated pensively, a word that implies suspension. The same word, “to think” and “to be suspended,” it’s the same etymology in Latin. They are halfway: they are here now going through Florence, going somewhere to a destination, and nostalgically separated from the world they left behind. And Dante too, is not going anywhere, but he doesn’t have Beatrice with him and has no idea of where he — though, unlike the pilgrims, where to go. Above all, if I were to tell you anything, you would understand that this is a desolated city but you do not know, an implication is, you may not care. My mythology is private. The effort I have to make is to transform my private mythology into a public discourse.

Vita nuova as a Preamble to the Divine Comedy

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante (Dante and the Divine Comedy). 1465 fresco, in the dome of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (Florence’s cathedral). Dante Alighieri is shown holding a copy of his epic poem The Divine Comedy. He is pointing to a procession of sin. / Wikimedia Commons

This is the transition from the Vita nuova to the Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy would be a text where finally Dante will go on literally, theatricalizing, literally staging his own passion, through the passions of others, involving all others in his discourse and creating what I would call a “public mythology.” This is really the most important moment that — which ends with another journey of the mind that will make the next one,

Beyond the sphere that makes the widest round,
passes the sigh arisen from my heart;
A new intelligence that Love in tears
endowed it with is urging it on high.

Here he sees Beatrice far away and decides to undertake his journey, the journey of knowledge, the journey of exploration of the journey which will — which is the journey of life and which is the journey at the heart of the comedy or the Divine Comedy with which we start next time.

This is really the kind of experience, poetic experience that Dante will go on at the start. He’s still a young man. He’s exploring a lot of possibilities; he’s gathering all the voices around him, but he internalizes them. They are not — it’s not that it’s still the kind of encyclopedic text that the Divine Comedy will necessarily be, but he has to evolve all discourses, all whispers, all groans, all noises. The whole world has to speak through his poem. That’s part of the most inclusive vision, not excluding anything, but this is a time is — it’s an effort to try to find himself as a poet with a project and that project will be necessarily a project for the future.

There is no poet that I know in the Western tradition who is so given to the idea of the future and who is more of a poet of hope than Dante is. I call him a lot of things, and I will call him a lot of things. I’ll call him the poet of exile, which he is. I’ll call him the poet of love, which he is. I’ll call him the poet of peace, which he is. There’s an irenic thrust underneath his whole — even his polemics, fierce polemics. But above all, and now, for now he appears as the poet of hope, in the knowledge that hope is the most realistic of virtues. Because he tells us that the past, not even the past may be dead, that really despair is the most crucial sin that one could have in this universe. Belief is to say that things are over and done with. Dante says I’m not done yet. I still have a project I can’t even begin to tell you about it, but let me stop now because I have other things to do. That’s the substance of this poem, and in this sense, it’s a preamble, a preparation for the Divine Comedy.

Remarks on Dante’s Life

Since I’m trying to give you a sense of Dante’s own life as a flesh and bone kind of guy that he was. What happens after this poem? Beatrice has died; literally in 1289 she dies. Dante now is married — marries a woman he will never mention, belongs to a decent family in Florence, the Donati, troublemakers that Dante doesn’t really like. And Dante will enter public life. This public life, which also means, that he will have a great interruption to his intellectual pursuits. Until in 1302, as I — probably you remember, I mentioned, he’s banned from Florence to go into exile. And once he’s in exile, then his production will start again. He started writing about the language, the theatre of the language, one of the first treatises on language in the Western world. He writes a text of ethics which is the Banquet and then the Divine Comedy.

How is love as a process of acquiring knowledge different or better than friendship?

This is one of the dramas of the Vita nuova, a book dedicated to — Dante dedicates to his best friend, Guido Cavalcanti, and yet it’s about Beatrice. When Cavalcanti appears he says, forget about love, just turn to philosophy in a sonnet that is very well known and that I quote in some piece or other. There is a tension between the two, love and friendship, and we agree and you seem to be agreeing with a very generic, not unusual, the description that I make of friendship. A friendship is really the language of philosophers, right? Philosophers who get together and believe in thought and believe also that friendship is a great virtue, there’s a lot of drama within friendships and in literature, friendships are trying to outdo each other. I’m a better friend than you. To me, I’m a better friend to you than you are to me, as soon as you talk about that kind of rivalry you realize that passions also are getting to that process.

I would say that Dante — I understand Dante to imply here that love is better than friendship exactly because it forces, it does violence on our ways of thinking, because it forces us never to take anything for granted, and in and of itself, because this may even be something that you find very romantic, people can find very romantic. The idea that in love you are going to be surprised by what the signs of love are and ubiquitous of the idea of love, whereas, in friendship you really have a sort of the clarity of an exchange. In love you are going to have the secret signs that lovers can give each other. To me, a great text that maybe Dante — I’m sure Dante read is really Ovid. You go and read all these stories, great stories, but the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, lovers who can see the smallest chink in the wall through which to communicate and all the inventiveness that comes with it. In a sense, it’s really where the idea that love can — I say, can force us to think about in ways that we could never really imagine, because it is tied to the imagination.