In Vita Nuova, Dante’s primary aim, within his circular structure of prose and poetry, is to carefully examine the new life his encounters with Beatrice have afforded him. Dante himself observes—and is sometimes utterly bewildered by—the effects love has on him, but he grants personal agency to Love and repeatedly characterizes him as a wandering spirit, or “pilgrim,” and as a young man and a master. These characterizations of Love make it possible for Dante to arrange and present his love for Beatrice as a universal, received experience, and his use of extended metaphor frames remembered events and feelings within a larger, shared human context. Metaphysical poetry is often described as poetry that asks questions, gives orders, and juxtaposes simplistic language with complex, drawn-out imagery and exaggerated metaphor. Particularly important metaphors and images in Vita Nuova include the heart, the pilgrim, the eyes, and the mouth / the sigh. As part of this effort, Dante periodically uses the Latin language to anchor his own language, Italian, to its literary heritage. In order to interpret love, truth, and memory, Dante gives physical form to the concept of love and tethers a rich array of literary devices to subjective moments and dreams.
Dante vigorously champions love poets’ use of the vernacular (Italian) in chapter XXV. Yet Vita Nuova’s opening chapter leads with a line in Latin: “Here begins a new life [incipit vita nuova]” (3). Throughout the text, notably at the beginning, middle, and end, Dante employs Latin in crucial moments to establish his work’s position within the tradition of Latin epic poetry and love poetry. In XXV, he writes “if any image or colouring of words is conceded to the Latin poets, it should be conceded to the Italian poet” (54), and cites examples of Latin poets such as Virgil, Lucan, Horace, and Ovid, who have “spoken to inanimate objects as if they possessed sense and reason” and “did this not only real things but also with unreal things” (54). He further clarifies that any poet would suffer “great embarrassment” if, “having written things in the dress of an image or rhetorical colouring… [he] would not be able to strip his words of such dress in order to give them their true meaning” (55). Dante makes it clear that he uses personification and extended metaphor to speak to inanimate things—in his case, feelings and sensations—in order to allow real things to transcend to unreal, imagined planes. He does so to breathe startling meaning into feelings, not to render his experiences of love as imaginary or fantastic events.
Dante’s use of Latin and his use of exaggerated metaphor in Vita Nuova constitute some of the many conceits that crystallize the unruly breadth of memory into a surprisingly understandable topic. In XII, a weeping Dante returns to his room and encounters Love as a young man dressed in white clothes. Love speaks in Latin, saying “’My son, it is time to do away with our pretences [Fili mi, tempus est ut pretermictantur simulacra nostra]’” (19). An encouraged Dante asks Love why he is also weeping, to which Love responds, in Latin, “’I am like the center of a circle, equidistant from all points on the circumference, but you are not [Ego tamquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentie partes, tu autem non sic]’” (19). The young and impressionable Dante is here undergoing a long experience that he cannot understand; but, in retrospect, the experience is psychologically accessible and anticipatory. Presenting it in Latin from the mouth of personified Love gives weight to the mysterious, ineffable, yet quantifiable presence of his love for Beatrice and the grace she fills him with. Love, even as one who has already been present in the future and comprehended the fullness of its scope, weeps. Prior to this encounter with Love, Dante says that “whoever might have wished to know what Love is, could have done so by looking at my trembling eyes” (18). Dante later writes, in XXV, that “Love does not exist in itself as a substance, but rather it is an accident in substance” (Musa 53). Because of the extraordinary way Dante experiences love, it gains a physicality and solidness that he can address and interrogate, and Love, in turn, can communicate with him.
The notion that personified love is an “accident in substance” justifies and expands the significance of the many guises in which Love appears to Dante. Love appears, variously, as a wandering pilgrim, a master, and a young man. Love’s repeated appearances as a master seem to imply that Dante himself, writing from the future at a time when he has been “changed,” another word that appears frequently in Vita Nuova, has been instructed by Love and transformed by Love and by Beatrice into a man with enough wisdom and talent to create an artistic work that is interpretive and fluid. When Love is a master, Dante is a poet working within a canzone, because he “would not be able to tell this in the short space of a sonnet” (57). The canzone in XXVII begins
So long a time has Love kept me a slave
and in his lordship fully seasoned me,
that even though at first I felt him harsh,
now tender is his power in my heart. (p.59)
But earlier, in XXIV, Dante writes a sonnet that he says “has many parts,” in which “it seemed that Love revealed himself to me all joyous in my heart coming from a faraway place” (52):
I saw the Lord of Love approaching me,
and hardly recognized him through his joy.
‘Think now of nothing but to honour me,’
I heard him say and each word was a smile;
and as my master stayed awhile with me,
I looked along the way that he had come
and saw the Lady Joan and Lady Bice
advancing toward the place in which I stood:
a miracle upon a miracle!
And as my memory tells me of it now,
Love said to me: ‘The first of these is Spring,
and she who so resembles me is Love.’ (p.52)
Dante’s coy use of the phrase “as my memory tells me of it now” suggests that only now, in the future present, can he interpret his vision of Love, the master, and possibly even suggests that Love is most profoundly understandable not in its lived moment but in later reflection. In XVIII, Dante writes that “after reflecting much…it seemed to me that I had undertaken too lofty a theme for myself, so that…I remained for several days afterwards with the desire to write and the fear of beginning” (34). At this stage of Vita Nuova, Dante is still working with memory in a naïve and anticipatory way. As John Kleiner writes, “While the poems before Beatrice’s death look forward to the future for their explication, the poems that follow Beatrice’s death depend on a revelation that has already occurred” (Kleiner 89). Yet in III, following a sonnet in which Dante writes of the dream-vision in which Love “woke [Beatrice] then and trembling and obedient // she ate that burning heart out of his hand” (Musa p.7), he makes the profoundly surprising statement that “the true interpretation of the dream I described was not perceived by anyone then, but now it is very clear to even the least sophisticated” (7). The mature Dante is present in his circle, even at this early “equidistant” point (which is thematically equal in importance to all its other points), to claim that once his past work has been completed, his treatise will make clear to even the most uninitiated—which includes his past self—that the nature of Love can be fully understood through a series of artistic devices that lend meaning to experience. Gregory Stone writes that
the dream’s “true meaning” (Dante’s aim in inscribing it into his libello) is nothing other than its extreme overdetermination, its great plurality of senses: its meaning is that it is meaningful – that is, full of meaning…Dante’s aim is not to communicate any one single or specific sense but rather to attribute to his text (the dream and the sonnet) a general aura of semantic richness. (Stone 140)
The sheer plurality of imagery and devices throughout Vita Nuova, then, contribute in two ways to the understanding of memory and love. First, in the early chapters, Dante’s poetry and prose instill in the reader a great sense of expectation that understanding will arrive and be received through the poetry that captures Beatrice’s qualities and articulates Love’s substantive nature. Second, in the middle and later chapters, Dante’s shift in tone after Beatrice’s death from one of an overwhelmed admirer to one of a transformed, reflective artist determined to dwell with her risen spirit cement in the reader’s mind the belief that Love has been captured, by a sensitive mind, as a fully-imagined spirit that is both unique (to the lover) and ubiquitous (for all lovers, in unique ways).
In the sonnet in IX, love appears “in pilgrim’s rags” (p.15) and
‘[comes] from that far land,
where I had sent your heart to serve my will;
I bring it back to court a new delight.’” (p.16).
Love here acts as an emissary and as a motivator for Dante’s actions and responses. Given the vitality of the language Dante assigns to Love, Dante seems to view his own love for Beatrice as the only aspect that is noble enough to wander close to Beatrice’s divine spirit. Love, the pilgrim of Dante’s psyche, has traveled out from Dante, dwelled with Beatrice, and returned to the man who is as yet unable to do the work of acting as an emissary for Beatrice’s message of grace on earth. Only in XL does Dante begin to attempt this work in his own right, when pilgrims arrive in his city. He writes that “If I could detain them awhile, I certainly would make them weep before they left this city, for I could speak words that would make anyone listening to them weep” (80). In the accompanying sonnet, Dante “[knows], from what my sighing heart is saying, / that afterwards you will depart in tears” (p.81). In XLI, he explains that in his sonnet his “thought ascends into the nature of this lady to such a degree that my mind cannot grasp it, for our mind functions in relation to those blessed souls as the weak eye does in relation to the sun” (Musa 82). The sonnet in full reads
Beyond the sphere that makes the widest round,
passes the sigh which issues from my heart;
a strange, new understanding that sad Love
imparts to it keeps urging it on high.
When it has reached the place of its desiring,
it sees a lady held in reverence,
splendid in light, and through her radiance
the pilgrim spirit gazes at her being.
But when it tries to tell me what it saw,
I cannot understand the subtle words
it speaks to the sad heart that makes it speak.
I know it talks of that most gracious one,
because it often mentions Beatrice;
that much is very clear to me, dear ladies. (p.83)
In this sonnet multiple images that have special significance in earlier chapters of Vita Nuova reach and transcend their apex of importance and interpretation: the sphere, the eyes, the sigh, sad Love, the pilgrim spirit, light, words and speech (the mouth). Ronald Martinez points out that “Dante imagines increasingly more far-flung audiences, going beyond the “fedeli d’amore” to consider addressing pilgrims in “Deh, peregrini” and finally projecting his spirit and voice beyond the physical cosmos” (Martinez 19). Indeed, the last line of the book, in XLII, reads, in Latin, “who is through all ages blessed [qui est per omnia secula benedictus]” (Musa 84).
The imagery in this final sonnet has been established as illuminating and significant throughout Vita Nuova in Dante’s descriptions of Beatrice’s heavenly face. In the two sonnets in XXVI, Dante writes of Beatrice’s effect on others: “every tongue is stammering then mute, / and eyes dare not to gaze at such a sight” (p.56).
[H]er 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!” (p.57)
In an earlier sonnet in XXI, ‘The power of Love,’ “the heart of him she greets is made to quake, // his face to whiten, forcing down his gaze” (p.41). And
The image of her when she starts to smile
breaks out of words, the mind cannot contain it,
a miracle too rich and strange to hold. (p.41)
In his explanatory prose, Dante writes that he “[does] not mention how this last act of her mouth works in the hearts of people because the memory is not capable of retaining the image of such a smile nor its effects” (42). It is curious and significant that Dante here chooses both to describe and to not explain the “miracle too rich and strange to hold” of Beatrice’s smile, given that the power of the two greetings she bestows on him is central to the significance of his new life. In XIX, Dante says “First I speak of her eyes, which are the initiators of love; next I speak of her mouth, which is the supreme desire of my love…this lady’s greeting, which is an act performed by her mouth; namely, that it was the goal of all my desire so long as I was able to receive it” (Musa 38). The significance of the eyes, the mouth, and the sighs they cause to issue in the heart becomes clear, given the context of the final sonnet in XLI and the vision in III. In the vision, the lordly master, Love, holds Beatrice’s body within flames and makes her eat Dante’s heart. In the sonnet that follows,
trembling and obedient
she ate that burning heart out of his hand;
weeping I saw him then depart from me” (p.7).
Present here is the “trembling” later ascribed to Dante’s loving eyes, and the heart from which a sigh, in the end, issues.
The sustained use of these metaphors for Love—and these images that describe Beatrice’s effects on Dante—creates a deeply mysterious poetic work that exists outside of narrative time. Upon reaching the end of the Vita Nuova, the impulse is to re-read the work with both its subjectivity and its universal reach in mind. The reader is tempted to extrapolate, from Beatrice’s ascension, a high, ubiquitous quality of love that exists in each person according to his or her own past, a “miracle too rich and strange to hold.” Elements of mutual physical and erotic love are left unexamined in Vita Nuova, but their absence does not detract from the power of the poetry. Because Dante establishes, throughout his extended poetic conceits, the separation of Love from physicality and establishes it in the language of visions and contemplative praise, the aspect of love that is most fully-realized is the one that is achieved only from the position of memory and reflection, one that is both intellectual and spiritual. Dante unites these positions with love itself, and with this elaborate work of art he creates a new kind of reflective love poetry that is metaphysical and psychological.
Musa, Mark. Vita Nuova / Dante Alighieri. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Martinez, Ronald. “Mourning Beatrice: The Rhetoric of Threnody in the ‘Vita Nuova.’” MLN, vol. 113, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1–29.
Kleiner, John. “Finding the Center: Revelation and Reticence in the Vita Nuova.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 32, no. 1, 1990, pp. 85–100.
Stone, Gregory B. “Dante’s Averroistic Hermeneutics (On ‘Meaning’ in the ‘Vita Nuova’).” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, no. 112, 1994, pp. 133–159.