Tuesday 9 September 2008

Dante's Love and the Vita Nuova

Dante was the author of the Divina commedia (The divine comedy), regarded as one of the world's most important works of literature. But he is almost as famous for his love for Beatrice, who was the subject of his small book Vita nuova (The new life), which was a step towards his greatest work. As well as 31 poems, Vita nuova contains pieces of autobiography saying how Dante came to write each of them, along with his critical analyses of the poems.

It is often argued that literary art is prompted by emotions, but how emotions contribute to this art is less frequently discussed. Vita nuova gives us a glimpse of this process. First, Dante's love for Beatrice not only kept him concentrating on her, and on writing poems about her, from 1274 when he first met her until Vita nuova was completed some time around 1292 (two years after Beatrice's death). Second, his love set him an urgent problem. Following an incident in which Dante recounts that he nearly fainted in Beatrice's presence and her friends laughed at him, one of these ladies told him he was deceiving himself in saying that he wrote poems only in praise of Beatrice; she pointed out that his poems were actually about his own anguish. This caused a profound crisis in Dante's ability to write. But with its resolution he began to write in a new way starting with a canzone that begins with this:
Donne ch’avete intelletto d'amore,
i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire,
non perch’io creda sua laude finire,
ma ragionar per isfogar la mente.
Io dico che pensando il suo valore,
Amor sì dolce mi si fa sentire,
che s’io allora non perdessi ardire,
farei parlando innamorar la gente.
(Ladies who have understanding of love, I will speak with you of my lady, not that I believe I may exhaust her praises, but in order to relieve my mind. I say that as I think of her worth, Love speaks to me so sweetly, that if I did not lose courage, I should make everyone fall in love by my words. Translation from Auerbach, 1929/2007, p. 47.)

Here is a beautiful expression, not just of Dante's love but of a theory of art which five hundred years later would be called Romanticism, in which deeply experienced emotions prompt their externalization in languages of words, music, or painting. It is made doubly significant here by a universalization: the idea that the poem will make everyone fall in love with the gracious Beatrice, whose existence thereby becomes a great benefit.

From this time onwards Dante's love became generous. He was the first to show how we can glimpse divine love by taking part in human love. He was able to show, too, how rather than assuming with Plato and his followers that everything important occurs in a world of ideals on a different plane than the human one, that earthly human life has value, and that its experience can be turned into verbal expressions such as poems that can come alive as earthly ideals in the minds of readers. Auerbach argues that it was Dante who depicted the first real characters in European literature: characters who are recognizable as human beings, with human experience, making human choices: with the implication that there is something worthy and important about the human form of life.

A discussion of Dante's poetic creativity in Vita nuova as it derived from his love for Beatrice has been published as: Keith Oatley (2007). Dante's love and the creation of a new poetry. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 140-147, and you can access it in our archive of academic papers by clicking here. Auerbach's book, which may be the best introduction to Dante, is: Erich Auerbach (2007). Dante: Poet of the secular world (R. Mannheim, Trans.). New York: New York Review Books (Original publication 1929).

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