21.3.11

Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova

Steve Donoghue reviews David Slavitt's new translation
Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova
trans. David Slavitt (2011)
As Harvard University Press publishes a new edition of Dante's classic work, The Quarterly Conversation discusses its biographical significance:
Dante met his Muse in Florence in 1274 when he was nine and the lady in question, his famous Beatrice (Bice Portinari), was eight. A decade later finds Dante writing and circulating his earliest known sonnets, all steeped in the exceedingly mannered medieval culture of courtly love, with its byzantine rationales and its fantastic avoidance of directness. In 1283 our young poet met Beatrice again, and in the same year he met and was befriended by an older and more seasoned poet named Guido Cavalcanti, and some essential element in Dante’s genius was ignited. That same year saw the production of the verses that would eventually become the foundation of Dante’s strangest, most personal, and most sublime work, La Vita Nuova, a sequence of shorter poems and longer canzoniere that nominally concentrates on the poet’s abiding fascinating with Beatrice, his grief at her death in 1290, and his tremulous attempts to take some kind of comfort from life in the aftermath of her passing. Dante formally composed the 31 poems of the Vita Nuova in the early 1290s as part of a vibrant conversation between himself and a group of like-minded poets, foremost of whom was Cavalcanti and all of whom were interested in the inner waves and tides, what a later age would call the psychology, of love itself.

It was a private conversation. The Vita Nuova was never intended for a general audience. Rather, it was polished, circulated, and discussed mainly among that group of like-minded poets and select readers among the nobility. It was a deeply traditional work in is precepts and preoccupations, in its manner, but it’s also a trailblazing thing, written in Italian rather than Latin and turning regularly to gaze upon itself in a way scarcely any love poetry had since Catullus. Dante presents the reader first with the narrative setting of each poem, then with the poem itself, and then, remarkably, with his own section-by-section breakdown of the poem the reader just read. In Dante’s own time and circle, those breakdowns were part of a new, fresh kind of poetry discussion, absolutely thrilling to those participating in it. To later centuries, secure in the fuller expressions of the poetic tradition Dante helped to create, those breakdowns seem baffling. The poetry of the Vita Nuova is so strange, mystical, and heartfelt that the work has devoted adherents who assert its superiority even over Dante’s later masterpiece, the Commedia, but the other things going on alongside the poetry have driven more than one of those devotees to despair. [Read more]

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