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Dante in Love

Youthful ardor leads to arduous going.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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While the smitten Dante of La Vita Nuova doesn’t reward the reader like the world-weary Dante of La Divina Commedia, we’re still witness to the initial ascent of the soul’s journey toward God, a journey that gets entangled in the irregular heartbeats of erotic love. Following the autobiographical breakthrough of Augustine’s Confessions, this story narrates Dante’s youthful obsession with Beatrice, whom he first sees in church, an important location because it symbolizes the intersection of eros and agape. Although I’m skeptical about a nine-year-old who testifies, “It was from that moment that Love tyrannized my soul which in no time had wedded itself to him,” he becomes the slave of Cupid—the personification of the Latin noun cupido (desire). The burden of slavery goes so far that, after his second sighting at age 18, Love feeds his burning heart to Beatrice in a dream. And what better way to evoke the violent upheaval of eros than an image of forced cannibalism?

Sickened with longing for his “young angel,” Dante invents a “screen” to hide his feelings for Beatrice: Other women are selected as public objects of his attention. If this lad had been on Freud’s sofa, these screen ladies would be diagnosed as sublimation, the superego’s policing of the unruly id. Whether the screen intensifies or diffuses his love for Beatrice is up for debate, but at the end, it’s clear that Beatrice has triumphed over her rivals, albeit in death rather than in life. Anguished over the loss, Dante courts death so he can be near Beatrice again. Eventually, he realizes that the incorporeal Beatrice is superior to the corporeal Beatrice because she was given to him as a rung in the ladder toward heaven, as a face to behold, dimly or brilliantly, “the face of him qui est per omnia secula benedictus” (who is blessed for all eternity). Overcoming the self-referential narcissism of youth, the poet has begun, in good Platonic fashion, to govern the appetites of his heart through the reasons of his soul, leading him out of grief and closer to glory.

Translations of La Divina Commedia abound, but La Vita Nuova has been somewhat neglected. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first to translate it into English; Dante Gabriel Rossetti liberally translated the libello and idolized Beatrice in his paintings, who was modeled after his deceased wife, most notably in Beata Beatrix. In our day Mark Musa’s prose and blank verse translation has become the standard. If you want your verse to rhyme, as it does in the original Italian, then this new translation of David Slavitt’s will be welcome. Rhyming hazards the risk of distortion through subtraction and addition, a risk that Slavitt accepts because the fun is working “within the constraints of the forms.” The prose commentary of La Vita Nuova, which Slavitt rightly describes as “unnecessary and boring,” is rendered in a clear and direct manner, bringing attention to where it belongs: to the poetry.

Following Slavitt’s preference for viewing translations as performances, permit me to treat one moment from the famous canzone in Chapter 19. Here, Dante glorifies Beatrice to the point of blasphemy.

An angel speaks to the Mind of God to report

that there is a marvel on earth both strange and rare

whose actions arise from a radiant soul down there,

the glow of which illuminates the sky

even to paradise’s heights. In short,

our only lack in heaven is her fair

and splendid presence. All the saints declare

that the Lord must take some action to rectify

this defect promptly. Fortunately, I

can announce that Pity speaks to God as well:

His judgment is that the lady ought to dwell

on earth for a while longer: “It is my

will that he say to the souls in hell that this

was the vision he had of hope of heaven’s bliss.”

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