La Vita Nuova

Originally written as one of the book reviews on my old Angelfire site, sometime in the Spring of 2004.

***

This is a sweet underrated autobiography and poetry collection written by a young man desperately in love with the unattainable woman of his dreams. Dante first saw the beautiful Beatrice when he was nine and she was eight, and always remembered how beautiful she was even at that young age. They didn’t meet again for nine more years, and from that point on he loved her desperately, even though she never became his wife or even his lover.

Every time he sees her on the street, in church, outside of his house, walking with her friends, wherever, he’s inflamed with even more love for her, even more intoxicated with her otherworldly beauty, unable to stop thinking about her. Out of this love, which some might call obsessive, sprang some gorgeous sonnets and poems inspired by Beatrice.

So in love is Dante that he not only writes these poems and sonnets, he also prefaces each one by explaining in detail the latest Beatrice sighting or encounter which inspired him to write it, why he wrote it, and then afterwards in italics explaining what each part of the sonnet means, if he’s broken it down into different parts, each with a different theme, and what everything means in plain Italian, as it were. Some of the sonnets, though, are so obvious in intent and meaning he doesn’t give an explanation afterwards for what it really means.

Even after Beatrice dies, sadly, on 8 June 1290, Dante keeps on writing poetry for her, including when one of her five brothers comes to visit him to ask him to write some poetry on the occasion of a certain death. Dante knows it’s her brother, though he’s disguising the reason he’s there, and tells him he knows it’s for his recently deceased sister. He’s very concerned about the impression it’ll make, so he goes through three different poems to create just the right one, and more importantly so the brother won’t think anything improper about Dante’s feelings for Beatrice.

About a year before the tragic death, Dante actually had a terrifying nightmare/vision about his belovèd dying, and he was extraordinarily upset by this, to the point of tears. When asked by Beatrice’s friends whatever was the matter with him, he told them, but didn’t provide her name, letting them think he loved some other woman madly. And of course this terrifying premonition too was “celebrated,” if one can call it that, in another beautiful and long sonnet.

After Beatrice dies, Dante is visited by a beautiful woman, who for a time cheers him up and inspires him to write some poetry in her honour, though he soon feels very ashamed he took another woman as his muse and goes back to writing just for lovely Beatrice. In the final chapter of this cute short work we see the germ of the idea that eventually became The Divine Comedy; Dante got inspired to write a much longer poem celebrating his love for Beatrice, through which he hoped to immortalise her for all time. Mission accomplished.

It’s not really an autobiography proper, and shouldn’t be read as one, since it’s more a celebration of the great love of one’s life, the love one will never have, than a proper book. The love he felt is very obvious, and the poems and sonnets are beautiful; the feelings are genuine, so who cares if it reads like a traditional book or not?

5 thoughts on “La Vita Nuova

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