There is much strange in La Vita Nuova, the libello or “little book” that Dante composed fifteen or so years before starting in on the Divine Comedy. Take, for starters, the form of the book, an alternation of prose and poetry that produces effects as dizzying as any in Williams's Spring and All. Or take the central narrative, which describes a love—young Dante’s, for the slightly younger Beatrice—so intense that it causes the poet to faint in public and forces him, poor lad, to write lying love poems to the donne dello schermo, the “screen ladies” he uses to hide the real object of his affection. Take even Beatrice herself, who begins the book as a girl in a girdled dress only to reveal herself not long after as a miracle made flesh.
All of this is strange for us to read, or should be, even if, grinning behind our commentaries, we spot in the donna dello schermo an unacknowledged ancestor of the celebrity beard. After all, when Dante says that Beatrice is a miracle, he isn’t indulging mere hyperbole, the way Roxette did in that song I remember too well from seventh grade. Nor does he mean it less merely in the manner of an established trope, as John Donne did at the end of “The Relic.” Uniquely for the time and all but blasphemously, Dante meant that his beloved’s appearance on earth was a miracle that repeated (and maybe even competed with) Christ’s Incarnation itself. In the young poet’s eyes, Beatrice was the agent of his religious salvation and the summit of all Creation, the radiant filament that binds together heaven and earth.
Dante’s strangeness, his distance from us in time and cultural space, is the reason Eugenio Montale took T.S. Eliot gently to task for suggesting that the Commedia was “extremely easy to read…for a foreigner who does not know Italian very well.” It’s not that Montale felt any need to defend the reluctant intricacies of his native tongue. His point was to insist that “Dante is not a modern poet…and that the instruments of modern culture are not ideally suited to understanding him.”
And yet even if we accept Montale’s reminder as well warranted, and I do, I don’t think it’s careless or unfair to say that there are times when Dante can feel close to us, “strangely close,” as Montale admitted. Graduate school is far enough behind me that I won’t bother you with theories of transhistorical subjective affiliation. My effort here is only to point out, a little like a finger before the moon, a single small moment that I love in the Vita Nuova.
The moment I mean happens early in the libello. At the start of the third chapter, Dante is describing his second encounter with Beatrice. (The first occurred nine years earlier.) The meeting is brief and profound: eighteen-year-old Dante sees Beatrice in the street, she waves hello, and her greeting causes the young poet so much giddy distress that he decides he can only go home and put himself to bed.
That night Dante has a dream, and—perhaps predictably, dreams being dreams—this is where things get weird. In his sleep the poet sees uno segnore di pauroso aspetto emerge from a fiery cloud. Despite his fearful aspect the lord is happy, very possibly because he is carrying in his arms a naked woman asleep beneath a crimson drape. After Dante realizes that the woman is Beatrice, the lord holds up a burning object and tells the dreaming poet, in Latin, Behold your heart. At that moment the lord wakes Beatrice and starts to force-feed her Dante’s flaming heart. With understandable reluctance, Beatrice eats the thing until the lord’s happiness mysteriously turns to grief and he carries her away, presumably to heaven.
As I said: weird.
It was weird for Dante, too. So weird, he tells us, that he woke immediately afterward and decided to write a sonnet about what he saw. Not only did he write a sonnet but he told his readers, in the poem's second and third lines, that “these words I have composed are sent for your elucidation in reply.” And not only did Dante include this request (which I like to think of as the thirteenth-century equivalent of a self-addressed stamped envelope) he also decided to send the sonnet to molti li quali erano famosi trovatori in quello tempo, “many of the famous poets of that time.”
And here, finally, we get to the moment I love, the slender moon my finger’s been wagging after all this time. Here we see Dante—newly a poet, desperately in love—appealing to the judgment of his literary betters. Ostensibly, of course, the point was to ask about the dream, but who could doubt that what Dante really wanted was a judgment on his poem? What writer, what person of any ambition whatsoever, can’t remember that feeling of wanting to know—wanting to test—the quality of her nascent talent?
It’s in this way that Dante comes to occupy, in my mind, anyway, the head of a secret history of such events, the benedictions or baptisms that link one poetic generation to the next. This is the history in which a young Walter Whitman sends Ralph Waldo Emerson an unsigned and unattributed copy of Leaves of Grass. This is Emily Dickinson asking T. W. Higginson, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” This is Paul Muldoon sending Seamus Heaney a sheaf of poems topped with the question “What's wrong with these?” (“Nothing,” the older poet responded, or so the story goes.)
Among those who responded to Dante, the Vita Nuova acknowledges only Guido Cavalcanti, whose response “Vedeste, al mio parere, onne valore” marked the start of the poets’ friendship. On the reading of his future primo amico, Dante’s dream was a vision of “all value, every joy and goodness that one can feel.” Cavalcanti suggests that the lord “who rules the world of honor” wanted to bring Beatrice back from near-death with the flaming food of Dante’s love.
It’s no surprise that Dante would choose this response to quote in his Vita Nuova, even while he would insist, as well, that “the true meaning of the dream I described was not perceived by anyone then.” As scholars have argued, Cavalcanti’s interpretation of the dream, while not strictly coincident with Dante’s own, was nevertheless close enough to buttress the latter’s dramatic sense of his love’s significance.
Not all of Dante’s respondents, however, were so encouraging. Of the three reply-sonnets that survive, one, by the Tuscan poet Dante da Maiano, is about as far from Cavalcanti in spirit and tone as we can imagine. In so many words da Maiano tells Dante that it’s simple love-sickness that’s got him bothered, and probably bad hygiene besides. If Dante really wants to heal himself he needs to get rid of the noxious vapors infecting his brain. And the only way to do that, da Maiano says, smirking down the centuries, is for the young poet to go and give his testicles a good washing.
Here, too, we get the chance to meet Dante at his most queasily familiar: not as a prodigy reveling in the warm validation of his peers, but as a callow poetaster hearing harsh words from a poet he respects. It’s probably too easy to admire da Maiano’s sonnet for its precocious snark, but I appreciate his poem even more for the rare gift it affords: the chance for once to meet Dante outside the glare of his own genius.