From The New Life of Dante Alighieri, translated by Charles Eliot Norton; Houghton, Mifflin and Company; Boston and New York; 1896; pp. 135-168.
The book of my memory. So in the Paradiso, xxiii. 54, Dante calls the memory, “Il libero che ’l preterito rassegna,” — “The book that records the past.” In the Inferno, ii. 8, he says, “O mente! che scrivesti ciò ch’ io vidi,” — “O mind! that didst write down that which I saw.” And again in the same canzone beginning, “E’ m’ incresce di me sì malamente,” he uses the same expression: —
Secondo che si trova
Nel libro della mente,” —
“According as is found in the book of memory.” Chaucer and Shakespeare both use the same metaphor; it is indeed such a common one with the poets that its use by Dante is worth noting only because of its peculiar appropriateness to his own memory, the distinctness and strength of which were such as if its recollections were registered where every day he turned the leaf to read them
Nine times now, since my birth. The number nine plays a great part in this little book. According to the so-called Ptolemaic system of astronomy, which Dante adopted, there were nine revolving concentric heavens or spheres, in the centre of which the earth rested immovable, while outside 138 all was the tenth, — the Empyrean, — immovable and most divine, the seat of God, and the Paradise of Blessed Spirits. The Empyrean was the cause of the motion of the crystalline or first moving Heaven, “all the parts of which so long to be united with those of that most divine quiet Heaven, that it revolves within it with such desire that its velocity is almost inconceivable.” (Convito, ii. 4.) The revolution of the invisible crystalline sphere was accomplished in very nearly twenty-four hours, and regulated the daily revolution of all the other spheres comprised within it. (Convito, ii. 3, 15.)
By the heaven of light Dante means the sphere of the Sun, the fourth in order above the earth, which, as he tells us, “moves, following the movement of the starry sphere, from west to east one degree in a hundred years.” The apparent movement of the Heaven of the Fixed Stars from west to east, to which Dante here refers, is due to what in modern times has been called the precession of the equinoxes. “The term denotes a small annual variation in the position of the line in which the planes of the ecliptic and equator intersect each other, in consequence of which the sun returns to the same equinoctial point before completing his apparent revolution with respect to the fixed stars.” The precessional motion of the equinoctial points was known at an early period, but its precise rate has only been recently determined. The retrogradation is now estimated at one degree in seventy-one and six tenths years, but in Dante’s time the rate at which the equinoctial points retrograded on the ecliptic was supposed to be about one degree in a hundred years. (Convito, ii. 6.) One of the twelve parts of a degree would consequently be passed through in eight and a half years. As Dante was born in 1265, it follows that his first meeting with Beatrice was in 1274.139
The glorious Lady of my mind: the epithet gloriosa is here used to indicate that the Lady was no longer living, and the meaning of these words is, “the Lady of my memory now in glory.” See chapter xxix.
Who was called Beatrice by many who knew not what to call her: that is, who knowing not her proper name called her Beatrice, she who blesses, as the name belonging to her by right of nature. Compare the sonnet in chapter xxiv. in which Love says of Beatrice —
The spirit of life . . . . began to tremble. Compare with this passage the canzone beginning, “E’ m’ incresce di me si malamente,” especially that portion of it in which Dante speaks of the effect of the first sight of his lady upon him: —
������� ��� ��������ῦ ��ῖ� ἔ��������, ἀ����ᾲ �����ῖ��
Dante’s acquaintance with this saying of Homer’s concerning 140 Hector came through Aristotle, who cites it in the Nicomachean Ethics (vii. 1). The Iliad was not accessible to readers in Dante’s time.
Boccaccio has closely imitated this section of the Vita Nuova in the beginning of is Filocopo, introducing even the same citation from Homer.
This most gentle lady. The usual epithet which Dante in the New Life applies to Beatrice is gentilissima, “most gentle,”while other ladies to whom he refers are called simply gentile, “gentle.” The term is used with a signification similar to that which it has in our own early literature, and of fuller meaning than it now retains. It refers both to race, as in the phrase “of gentle birth,” and to qualities of nature and character.
The canzone to the illustration of which the fourth Treatise of the Convito is devoted, is on gentilezza, and the poet tells us that gentilesse is a grace of God, the companion of virtue, and bestowed on that soul which God sees to possess an outward form adapted and disposed to receive this divine infusion. And in the comment he says (c. 14) that gentleness and nobleness are the same, and (c. 16) that “by nobleness is meant the perfection of its own nature in anything.” Gentilissima, therefore, as Dante uses it, implies all that is loveliest in person and character.
In the New Life, especially after Beatrice’s death, the term gloriosa is occasionally substituted for gentillissima; and the latter epithet is never applied to her in the Divine Comedy. Its appropriateness had ceased, for there was “another glory of the celestial body.”141
Her infinite courtesy. “Courtesy” also fails to render the full significance of cortesia. In the Convito (ii. 11) Dante says; “Nothing is more becoming to a lady than courtesy. And let not the wretched herd be deceived, supposing courtesy to be naught else than liberality; for liberality is a special act of courtesy, not courtesy in general. Courtesy and integrity are all one; and because in courts of old the virtues and fair manners were customary (as to-day the opposite is the case), this word was derived from the courts; and to say courtesy was the same as to say the usage of the court; but, if to-day this word were to be derived form courts, especially from those of Italy, it would mean naught else than depravity.”
Famous poets at that time. The infancy of Italian poetry at this period is indicated by the use here of the word trovatore, “troubadour,” which I have translated by “poet.”
To every captive soul and gentle heart. This dark sonnet is of interest as being the earliest known poetic composition by Dante, and also as describing a vision. I have already referred to the fact, that this book is in great part composed of the account of a series of visions, and is thus connected in the form of its imaginations with the great work of Dante’s later years. As a description of things seen by the spiritual eye, this sonnet is united in poetic relationship to the nobler visions of the Divine Comedy; but it has the defects of a juvenile composition, and alike in form and in conception resembles the work of Dante’s poetic predecessors, from whose archaic limitations his genius was soon to free itself.
This sonnet is divided into two parts. The interruption of 142 the narrative here, and after or before all the following poetic compositions in the New Life, by a formal division and analysis of the structure of each poem, interferes with the continuity of the story, and may sometimes jar on the feelings of the modern reader by seeming to connect an element of artificiality with the expression of feeling the depth and simplicity of which it is impossible to doubt. But the literary taste and training of Dante’s day were so different from ours, that it is wrong to apply our modern standard to his work. In compiling and publishing the New Life he was making a great innovation. He was claiming a position of dignity for his work which had hitherto been refused to all compositions in the vulgar tongue. It was an assault on the literary supremacy, still superstitiously maintained, of the Latin language. He had to prove his right, not only as poet, but also as scholar; to show that his verses were productions deserving of as much consideration as if composed in a dead language, and that a comment upon them was as much in place as upon the verses of a classic author.
There is no essential incongruity between these divisions and the remainder of New Life. They are simply indications of an early stage of literary culture, and their naïveté often adds a fresh charm of simplicity to the little book.
He whom I call first of my friends. This was Guido Cavalcanti. Their friendship was of long duration, beginning thus in Dante’s nineteenth year, and ending only with Guido’s death in 1300. It may be taken as a proof of its intimacy, as well as of Dante’s high estimate of the genius of his friend, that, when in his course through Hell he is recognized by the father of Guido, the first words of the old man to him are: —143
“If through this blind
Prison thou goest by loftiness of genius,
Where is my son? and why is he not with thee?”
Benvenuto da Imola in his comment on this canto calls Guido “alter oculus Florentiæ tempore Dantis.”
The sonnet of Guido in reply to that sent him by Dante has been preserved, and may thus be translated: —
See the excellent editions of Le Rime di Guido Cavalcanti, by Professor Nicola Arnone, Florence, 1881.
Two other answers to Dante’s sonnet have also come down to us, one by the famous poet Cino da Pistoja, to whom a letter ascribed to Dante is addressed, in which the writer calls him frater carissime. Dante in his treatise De Vulgari Eloquio praises Cino’s poems, beside always citing his own poems as by “the friend of Cino.” The other answer is by Dante de Majano, one of the minor poets of the day. Neither of them is worth translating.
The true meaning of this dream was not then seen by any one. The possession of Dante’s heart by the lady in the arms of Love was clearly evident, but it was not seen that the departure of Love in tears to Heaven was the premonition of the death of Beatrice.
I composed an epistle in the form of a serventese. The sirvente or serventese was a form of poetic composition derived by the Italians from the Provençal poets. The sirvente of the Provençals seems to have been originally, as its name indicates, a poem of service or honor, but it soon acquired the character of a poem of praise or satire, seldom treating of matters of love. It was written sometimes in stanzas of eight lines, sometimes in quatrains, but more commonly in triplets, interwoven by the rhyme. But, according to Crescimbeni (Della Poesia Italiana, ii. 13), its construction seems not to have been determined by any fixed rules.
Among Dante’s miscellaneous poems there is a sonnet in which there seems to be a reference to the list of the sixty fair women, on which the name of his lady stood as the ninth. It is addressed to Guido Cavalcanti, and the friend referred to in it under the name of Lapo is supposed to have been one Lapo Gianni, — like his friends, a writer of verses in those poetic days. The name of Guido’s mistress was Giovanna, and that of Lapo’s love was Lagia, as we learn from one of his poems. It is she who is referred to in the sonnet has having stood thirtieth on the roll of fair ladies. The sonnet has a modern tone of fancy and feeling, and is known to English readers by a translation of it made by Shelley. The following is a more literal version:145
And then I devised this sonnet. This poem belongs to the class of what are called sonnetti doppi — doubled sonnets. A sonnet of this kind is composed of two sextets followed by two quatrains, instead of being formed as a regular sonnet of two quatrains followed by two triplets. The lines of the regular sonnet are all of five accented feet, while in this form of sonnet, as used by Dante and other writers, the second and fifth lines of each sextet, and the third of each quartet, are of but three feet. As in the regular sonnet, there are but four pairs of rhymes, two in the sextets and two in the quatrains.
The next poem but one is a sonnet of the same sort, and is the only other instance of the use of this form by Dante.
O vos omnes, etc. These words are from Lamentations, i. 12.146
To read these lines aright we must understand that by Love in real form Dante intends to signify Beatrice herself, whom he had beheld lamenting over the lovely damsel dead. In the sonnet in chapter xxiv. he says that Love said to him that this lady, —
Possibly these are the words to which Dante refers when he says that in the last part of the words which he said of the dead damsel he touched somewhat on the fact that he had seen her sometimes with his lady.
Among Dante’s minor poems is the following sonnet, the closing phrase of which resembles these lines: —
In this sonnet there is a play upon the word salute, with its triple meaning of “health,” “salutation,” and “salvation.” A similar use of the word is often to be noticed in the New Life; and thus in the De Monarchia, “Pax vobix, Salus hominum salutabat.”
Ego tanquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentiæ partes; tu autem non sic [I am as the centre of a circle, to which the parts of the circumference bear an equal relation; but thou art not so].
The meaning of this dark saying may be: “I am the centre of a circle of which all lover form the circumference, all equally dependent on and trusting in me; but thou, my son, though a faithful lover, art not so trusted by they love.” Love, therefore, weeps for his vassal, whose fidelity he knows, and bids his liegeman call upon him to give evidence of his constancy.
Take care to adorn them with sweet harmony. Whether this direction refers simply to the structure of the verse, or to the musical notes to which the ballad was to be sung, is not clear. It is certain that these poetic compositions — canzoni, sonnets, and ballads — were, as their names imply, often, perhaps commonly, intended to be sung.
In the De Vulgari Eloquio (ii. 3), Dante, speaking of the superior excellence of the canzone over all other forms of poetry in the vulgar tongue, says, in words not altogether plain, “Sed cantiones per se totum quod debent, efficiunt, 148 quod ballatæ non faciunt (indigent enim plausoribus ad quos editæ sunt); which Trissino translates as follows: “Ma le canzoni fanno per se stesse tuto quello che denno; il che le ballate non fanno, perciò che hanno bisogno di sonatori, ai quali sono fatte;” and this translation may in turn be rendered as follows: “But canzoni are complete in themselves; which ballads are not, for they require musicians for whom they are composed.” But this translation gives to the word plausores a very unusual, if not an unexampled meaning; and if it be accepted as correct, the statement seems to exclude canzoni from the list of poems to be sung, which we know is incorrect. As ballads were written to be sung by dancers, perhaps the sense of the words is as follow: “Canzoni are complete in themselves; which ballads are not, for they require the dancers for whom they are composed.” If this be the right interpretation, Dante may have been led into using plausor in this equally unexampled sense, from recalled the line (Æneid, vi. 644): —
Thus translated by Mr. Conington: —
Virgil’s line is a translation from the Odyssey, viii. 264: —
πέπληγον δὲ χορὸν θεῖον ποσίν
This and the four following verses are supposed to be addressed to Love by the ballad.
I intend to solve . . . this doubt . . . in a more difficult passage, — namely, in chapter xxv.149
They were met together here to attend a gently lady who was married that day. It has been supposed by some commentators on this passage that the marriage thus referred to was that of Beatrice herself; but this seems hardly probable. If the beloved of Dante was — as has been generally supposed, on the untrustworthy authority of Boccaccio — the daughter of Folco Portinari, she was married some time before January, 1287, for the will of her father, which is dated on the 15th of that month, contains the following clause: Item: Dominæ Bici filiæ suœ et uxori Domini Simonis de Bardis reliquit libr. 50 ad floren, — “Item: To Mistress Bice his daughter, wife of Master Simon de’ Bardi, he bequeaths fifty florins.” In the spring of 1290, Beatrice died. In 1291 Dante himself was married to Gemma dei Donati.
I am, on many grounds, disposed to reject Boccaccio’s statement in regard to Beatrice, and, consequently, to believe that nothing is known of her but what Dante tells.
It shows how completely Dante’s inner life was that of the imagination, that there is no reference in any of his works to the marriage of Beatrice, or to his own, — and no mention of his wife, or of his children.
There are stories that Dante was unhappy with his wife; but they start with Boccaccio, who was a story-telling gossip. He insinuates more than he asserts concerning Dante’s domestic felicity, and concludes a vague declamation about the miseries of married life with the words, “Truly, I do not affirm that these things happened to Dante, for I do not know.” One thing is known, however, which deserves remembrance, — that when, after some years, a daughter was born to Dante, the name which she received was Beatrice.150
The whole of this passage of the New Life , like many others, is full of the intense and exaggerated expressions of the passionate emotion of youth. As yet his sensibility overmasters the lover and poet, but discipline comes from defeat, and out of sorrow comes strength; each new trial helping toward that complete self-possession which he finally attained, and which he displays in the Divine Comedy.
I leaned against a painting which ran around the wall of this house. Probably a pictured hanging or tapestry, which clothed the wall.
Although ever afterwards I should abstain from addressing her. The preceding sonnet is the last of the poems addressed directly to Beatrice.
Ladies that have intelligence of Love. This is one of the most beautiful minor poems of Dante, and would seem to have been justly prized by him; for when he meets with Bonagiunta da Lucca, who had been a writer of verses of the old style, he represents himself as addressed by him:—
“But say, if I see him who drew forth the new rhymes, beginning, ‘Ladies, that have intelligence of Love’?” — Purgatory, xxiv. 48-61.
The passage of which these lines are the close has sometimes been interpreted as containing a hint of the Divine Comedy. But it seems improbable that the conception of the great 151 poem was formed in Dante’s mind at the time to which this canzone is assigned, and hardly less improbable that these lines were inserted in the canzone at a later date, when the project of the Divine Comedy was complete.
If Dante had not written the Divine Comedy, these words would awaken no suspicion of a double meaning, and the simple interpretation of which they are susceptible would then appear sufficient. They would be taken to mean that the youthful poet, in the exaltation of his passion and the exaggeration of his humility, feeling the infinite distance between the perfection of his beloved and his own sinfulness, and acknowledging the separation that such difference would create between himself and her in the external world, set her, where she belonged, in highest heaven, but doomed himself to hell, foreseeing that even there he should retain the joy of remembering that he had beheld the hope of those in bliss.
This passage of the canzone seems to have been suggested by the last verses of one of the sonnets of Guido Guinicelli, which begins
The first verses of the sonnet are commonplace, but the closing lines, which Dante has followed and improved, are simple and beautiful: —
Thinking that after such a treatise it were beautiful to treat somewhat of Love.
Dante calls his canzone a trattato, inasmuch as he had treated in it of his lady; and after discourse of her, he turned naturally to discourse of love.
The sage whose saying is thus referred to was doubtless Dante’s poetic forerunner, Guido Guinicelli. It was not uncommon to give the title of sage to a poet.
says Dante to Virgil in the first canto of the Inferno (v. 89): and so again in the seventh canto (v. 3) he says,
Guido Guinicelli begins one of his canzoni thus: —
The question what is Love — quid sit Amor — was one which much occupied the Florentine poets of the thirteenth century. Guido Cavalcanti wrote a famous and obscure canzone on the theme, and all the host of lesser rhymesters employed their ingenuity, rather than their imagination, in trying to define the subtile essence of that which is in its nature incapable of precise definition.
This reference to Guido Guinicelli in Dante’s youthful sonnet is of the more interest from the fact that in his mature 153 years, when he meets Guido Guinicelli in Purgatory, he speaks of him as “father of me and of my betters, who ever used sweet and gracious rhymes of love.” And when Guido says, “Tell me what is the cause why in speech and look thou showest that thou dost hold me dear?” he replies, “The sweet verses of yours, which, so long as the modern fashion shall endure, will still make dear their ink.” (Purgatory, xxvi. 91-114)
Guinicelli is said to have died in 1276, when Dante was eleven years old.
He who had been the begetter of such a marvel as this most noble Beatrice was seen to be, departing from this life.
Folco Portinari, the father of that Beatrice who is generally assumed to have been the beloved of Dante, died on the 31st of December, 1289. He was a man of repute and wealth, and his name is still honored in Florence as that of the founder of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.
These angels sang gloriously, and the words of their song it seemed to me were these: “Osanna in excelsis!”
In the Divine Comedy, Dante frequently speaks of angels and of the spirits of the blessed singing Hosanna.
The lady of . . . my first friend. The name of the lady of Guido Cavalcanti was Giovanna, or Joan; but because of her beauty the name of Primavera, that is, “Spring,” had been given to her; and as the freshness of spring precedes 154 the full glory of summer, so Joan was the forerunner of Beatrice, even as John had been the forerunner of the Light of the World.
Ego vox clamantis in deserto: Parate viam Domini. — Matthew, iii. 3.
According to the philosopher. That is, Aristotle.
For to write in rhyme in the vulgar is, after a manner, the same thing as to write in verse in Latin, — so that the writers in rhyme no less deserve the name of poets.
In the tongue of the oco, and the tongue of the si. That is, in the languages of Provence, or Languedoc, and of Tuscany. In his treatise De Vulgari Eloquio, Dante, speaking of the varieties of language in Europe, says: “From one and the same idiom sprang divers vulgar tongues; for all that tract which extends from the mouth of the Danube, or Lake Mæotis, to the borders of the West, which are defined by the boundaries of England, Italy, and France, and by the ocean, was occupied by one sole idiom, though afterwards it was diverted into different vulgar tongues by the Slavonians, Hungarians, Germans, Saxons, English, and other nations as many as there were; this alone remaining in almost all as a sign of common origin, that nearly all of them use Jo [Ya] in affirmation. Beginning from this idiom, namely, from the limits of the Hungarians on the East, another idiom occupied the whole of what is called Europe on that side, and even stretched beyond. But all that remains of Europe outside of these two was occupied by a third idiom, which yet may seem to be threefold. For some say in affirmation Oc, 155 others Oil, others Sì, namely, the Spaniards, the French, and the Italians. . . . Those that use Oc occupy the western part of Southern Europe, beginning from the confines of Genoa. Those that say Sì occupy the region east of these limits, namely, as far as that promontory of Italy from which the gulf of the Adriatic Sea begins, and Sicily. But those that use Oil are somewhat to the north of these, for on the east and north they have the Germans, on the west they are walled in by the English Sea, and bounded by the mountains of Aragon, and on the south also they are shut in by the Provençals and by the curve of the Appennines.” (Lib. i. c. 8.)
In the thirty-third canto of the Inferno the poet defines Italy as
Some illiterate persons acquired the fame of skill in writing verse, — that is, of being poets.
Æole, namque tibi, etc. — Æneid, i. 65.
Tuus, O regina, quid optes, etc. — Id., 76.
Dardanidæ duri, etc.— Id., iii. 94. This was the voice of an oracle.
Multum, Roma, tamen debes civilibus armis. — Pharsalia, i. 44.
Dic mihi, Musa, virum, etc. — De Arte Poetica, 141. This is Horace’s translation of the opening lines of the Odyssey.
Bella mihi, video, bella parantur, ait. — Remedium Amoris, v. 2.156
And my first friend and I are well acquainted with those who rhyme thus foolishly. — The digression which thus concludes with a reference to Guido Cavalcanti that shows the sympathy existing between him and Dante, is an illustration of the infancy of the new literature and the poverty of intellectual culture at the time when the Vita Nuova was written. It shows how little familiarity those into whose hands the book was likely to fall were expected to possess with the common forms of poetry, and the methods of poetic expression. It indicates also something of the range of Dante’s reading. Virgil was already his master and poet, and the four other poets to whim in this digression he refers reappear in company in the Divine Comedy: —
“In the mean time a voice was heard by me:
‘All honor be to the pre-eminent poet,
His shade returns again that was departed.’
After the voice had ceased and quiet was,
Four mighty shades I saw approaching us;
Semblance had they nor sorrowful nor glad.
To say to me began my gracious Master:
‘Him with that falchion in his hand behold,
Who comes before the three, even as their lord.
That one is Homer, poet sovereign;
He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.’ ”
The contrast between such powerfully imaginative poetry as the magnificent and living scene of which these verses form part, and a passage like this literal statement in the Vita Nuova concerning poetic usage and diction, affords a measure of the growth of Dante’s knowledge and imagination from boyhood to manhood, as well as of the corresponding growth in the literary sense of the public of Italian 157 readers. The air of Florence was genial to art and to letters during this period, and they occupied a degree of attention and interest rarely anywhere accorded to them. Dante was himself in large measure the source of the pervading spirit to which he gave the fullest expression, and of which he felt the reflex influence acting to quicken and confirm his individual genius. He was not only poetry, but, as this passage shows, critic also; and, indeed, this passage is the first essay of modern criticism. In him the poetic and critical faculties were so balanced and proportioned, that each, as it developed, promoted the full and just play of the other.
The direct literary impulse which Dante gave was at once very great, and was soon to become unparalleled. But his commentators in the century after his death often seem to have caught the formal literalism of this youthful passage on poetic diction, and to have joined with it a fantastic pedantry, in their discourse upon the most poetic of poems. Even Boccaccio displays thus the literary juvenility of his time.
As this passage stands in the New Life it is in marked contrast with the pages which immediately follow, pages as tender, sweet, and simple as were ever written.
This portion of the New Life belongs to the year 1289, and the contrast between the tender sweetness and serenity of these poems, and the character of the events of the period at which they were written, is complete. It was in this year that Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were starved by the Pisans in their tower prison. A few months later in the same year, Francesca da Rimini was murdered by her husband. Between the dates of these two cruel deeds the Florentines had won the victory of Campaldino 158 over their Ghibelline enemies; and thus, in this short space, the materials had been given to the poet for the two best known and most powerful narratives and for one of the most striking episodes of the Divina Commedia.
In the great and hard-fought battle of Campaldino, Dante himself took part. “I was at first greatly afraid,” he says, in a letter of which a few sentences have been preserved in Lionardo Aretino’s life of the poet, — “but at the end I felt the greatest joy, — according to the various chances of the battle.” When the victorious army returned to Florence, a splendid procession, with the clergy at its head, with the arts of the city each under its banner, and with all manner of pomp, went out to meet it. There were long-continued feasts and rejoicings. The battle had been fought on the 11th of June, the day of St. Barnabas, and the Republic, though already engaged in magnificent works of church-building, decreed that a new church should be erected in honor of the Saint on whose day the victory had been won.
A little later in that summer, Dante was one of a troop of Florentines who joined the forces of Lucca in levying war upon the Pisan territory. The stronghold of Caprona was taken, and Dante was present at its capture; for he says, “I saw the foot-soldiers, who, having made terms, came out from Caprona, afraid when they beheld themselves among so many enemies.” (Hell, xxi. 94-96.)
Thus, during a great part of the summer of 1289, Dante was in active service as a soldier. He was no lovesick idler, but was already taking his part in the affairs of the state which he was afterwards to be called on for a time to assist in governing, and he was laying up those stores of experience, which were to serve as the material out of which his vivifying imagination was to form the great national poem of Italy. But of this active life, of these personal engagements, 159 of these terrible events which took such strong possession of his soul, thee is no word, no suggestion even, in the book of his new life. In it there is no echo, however faint, of those storms of public violence and private passion which broke dark over Italy. The story of the New Life is a narrative of absorbing personal emotions, told as if the world were the abode of tenderness and peace. Every man in some sort leads a double life, — one real and his own, the other seeming and the world’s, but with few is the separation so entire as it is with Dante.
Quomodo sedet sola civitas, etc. — Lamentations, i. 1. With the same verse from Lamentations Dante began the letter which he addressed to the Italian Cardinals in 1314, on occasion of the election of a papal successor to Clement V., lamenting the desertion of Rome by the head of the Church, upbraiding the prelates by whom the interests of the fold of Christ were abandoned, and exhorting the Italian Cardinals to stand firm for the good of the Church and of Italy.
It is no part of the present design, if we consider the proem which precedes this little book. The words which it was his intention to copy into this little book were those only which related to his own new life.
In so doing, it would be needful for me to praise myself. What circumstance or action Dante may refer to in these words is wholly unknown.
The number nine. The importance which Dante attributes to the relation of the number nine to Beatrice is no indication 160 of puerility of intelligence or poverty of feeling, but gives evidence of the sensitiveness of his imagination to the impressions of a popular superstition, which rested on a basis of natural but unexplained fact. The exalted explanations which his fancy invented to account for the friendliness of this celestial number to Beatrice, were the simple expression of a condition of impassioned sentiment in which the suggestions of fancy seem more true than the literal witness of fact.
The mysterious and mystical properties and relations of numbers were in Dante’s time a subject of serious study, and held to mathematics proper something the same relation as alchemy held towards chemistry.
Cornelius Agrippa, in his book on Occult Philosophy, says on this subject: “Themistius truly, and Boethius, and Averroes the Arabian, together with Plato, so exalt numbers, that they deem no one able without them to philosophize rightly. They speak, indeed, of rational and formal number, not of the material, sensible, or spoken number used by traders. . . . But they direst their attention to the proportion resulting from the latter, which they call natural, formal, and rational number, and from which great mysteries (sacramenta) proceed, alike in natural and in divine and celestial affairs. . . . That great efficacy and power, for good and for bad, lies hid in numbers, not only the most illustrious philosophers unanimously teach, but also the Catholic Doctors.” (De Occulta Philosophia, lib. ii. cc. 2, 3.)
Sir Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus is a good comparatively modern instance of the speculations of a fanciful and contemplative mind concerning the mysteries and secrets of number. The number five is the one whose properties he sets forth.161
According to the mode of reckoning in Arabia. Alfraganus who is twice cited in the Convito, says in his treatise which is known as Elementa Astronomica that the Arabians reckoned their day from sunset to sunset. We may infer then from Dante’s phrase that Beatrice died in the evening of our eighth of June, and in order to show the friendliness of the number nine to her he counts the day, according to the Arabian reckoning, as the ninth. See letter of the Rev. Dr. Moore in The Academy, Dec. 1, 1894.
The perfect number. According to Pythagoras ten was the perfect number. “Decas vero ultra omnes habenda, quae omnes numeros diversae virtutis ac perfectionis intra se habet.” Martiani Capella, lib. vii. § 742.
Since, according to Ptolemy and according to the Christian truth, there are nine heavens which move. By the Christian truth Dante means, not a dogma of religion, but an opinion or doctrine maintained by one or more of those teachers whom the Church generally regarded as authorities. Compare Convito, ii. 3.
Since three is the factor by itself of nine, and the Author of miracles by himself is a three. In the Italian the same word, fattore, serves both for “factor” and “author.” The play on the word is characteristic.
No quality of cold ’t was took her there
Nor yet of heat.
Disease and death were supposed to result from excess of the principle of cold or of heat in the system.
Nor is there wit so high of villain heart
That aught concerning her it can conceive;
Therefore to it comes not the wish to weep.
It is only the evil-disposed who do not weep for her, and they weep not, because they are powerless to conceive aught of her.
There came to me one who . . . was my friend next in order after the first; and he was so near in blood to this lady in glory that there was none nearer. This friend of the poet would seem from these words to have been the brother of Beatrice.
Among the sonnets ascribed to Dante is one which, if it be his, must have been written about this time, and which, although not included in the New Life, is perhaps not unworthy to find a place here. Its imagery, at least, connects it with some of the sonnets in the earlier portion of the book.
I was drawing an angel upon certain tablets. This is an interesting illustration of the personal tastes of Dante, and of his pursuits. “Dante was an excellent draughtsman,” says Lionardo Aretino. In 1291 Giotto, who as an artist deserves to rank side by side with Dante as a poet, was, if we may believe tradition, but fifteen years old. The friendship which existed between him and Dante had its beginning at a later period. At this time Cimabue still held the field. This great artist often painted angels around the figures of the Virgin and her Child; and in his most famous picture, in the church of Santa Maria Novella, there are certain angels of which Vasari says, with truth, that, though painted in the Greek manner, they show an approach toward the modern style of drawing. These angels may well have seemed beautiful to eyes accustomed to the hard unnaturalness of earlier works. The love of art pervaded Florence, and a nature so sensitive and so sympathetic as Dante’s could not but partake of it in the fullest measure. Art was then no adjunct of sentimentalism, no encourager of idleness. It was connected with all that was most serious and delightful in life. It is difficult, indeed, to appreciate the earnestness with which painting, the latest of the arts to feel the breath of the revival, was followed, or to realize the delight which it gave, when it seemed, as by a miracle, to fling off the winding-sheet that had long wrapped its stiffened limbs, and to come forth with new and unexampled life.
This angel drawn by Dante brings to mind the sculptured Angel which the poet saw in Purgatory.
“The Angel, who came down to earth with tidings
Of peace, that had been wept for many a year,
And opened Heaven from its long interdict,
164 In front of us appeared so truthfully
There sculptured in a gracious attitude,
He did not seem an image that is silent.”
The original is,
The words umiltà, umile, umiliare, seem to be sometimes used by Dante in a sense which implies mildness, peace, tranquillity. In the Convito (iii. 15) he interprets the verse Quest‘ è colei ch‘ umilia ogni perverso, “This is she who makes every perverse one humble,” by the words, volge dolcemente chi fuori del debito ordine è piegato, “mildly turns whoso has taken a wrong course.”
The words umile, umiltà, frequently recur in the New Life, and with other similar words, such as gentile, pace, amore, morte, serve as he key note of its harmony.
That tranquil heaven where Mary dwells is the Empyrean, quieted by fulness of Love. Dante (Convito, ii. 15) says: “The Empyrean Heaven by its peace resembles the Divine Science, which is full of all peace; and which suffers no strife of opinions or sophistical arguments, because of the exceeding certitude of its subject, which is God.”
And that it is fitting to call the appetite the heart, and the reason the soul, is sufficiently plain to those to whom it pleases me that this should be disclosed. In the Convito (iv. 22) Dante says: “No one should say that every appetite is of the soul, for here by the soul is meant only that which belongs to the rational part, namely, the will and the intellect; 165 so that, if one should choose to call the appetite of the senses the soul, he can have here no place nor room; for let no one doubt that the rational appetite is more noble than the sensual, and therefore more to be loved, and it is this of which we now speak.”
There arose one day, about the hour of nones. Here again Dante’s fancy recurs to the number nine. The nones are the canonical offices of the ninth hour of the day.
In those crimson garments in which she had first appeared to my eyes. It will be remembered that Dante says (ch. ii.) that when he first saw Beatrice she was “clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson.”
The blessed image which Jesus Christ left to us as the likeness of his most beautiful countenance. The most precious relic at Rome, and the one which chiefly attracted pilgrims, during a long period of the Middle Ages, was the Veronica, or representation of the Saviour’s face, supposed to have been miraculously impressed upon the kerchief with which he wiped his face on his way to Calvary. It is still preserved at St. Peter’s, and shown each year on special occasions. It is referred to in the Paradise (xxxi. 103-108): —
For an account of the Veronica see Mr. Longfellow’s note on this passage.
Those who go to the house of Galicia are called pilgrims, because the burial-place of St. James was more distant from his country than that of any other of the Apostles.
Pilgrim, from peregrinus, “a foreigner,” or “stranger.”
The shrine of St. James, at Compostella (contracted from Giacomo Apostolo), in Galicia, was a great resort of pilgrims during the Middle Ages, and Santiago, the military patron of Spain, was one of the most popular saints of Christendom. The reader of the Paradise will remember the lines (xxv. 16-18): —
See Mr. Longfellow’s note on this passage.
Chaucer says, the Wif of Bathe
And Shakespeare, in All‘s Well the Ends Well, makes Helena present herself as “St. Jacque’s pilgrim.”
By another which begins “To hearken now.” This was the sonnet written for his friend who was near of kin to his lady in glory; see ch. xxxiii.
And this the Philosopher says in the second book of his Metaphysics. The words of Aristotle here referred to are 167 probably the following; “As the eyes of bats to the daylight, so is our understanding to the clearest things in nature.” (Metaphysics, ii. 1.)
Dante refers to this passage again in the Convito (ii. 5).
That is, to the motionless Empyrean.
When Dante is himself uplifted to the Empyrean, his vision is at first dim with excess of light, and he comprehends not what he beholds: —
“Not that these things are difficult in themselves,
But the deficiency is on thy side,
For yet thou hast not vision so exalted.”
And then may it please Him who is the Lord of Grace, that my soul may go to behold the glory of its lady, namely, of that blessed Beatrice, who in glory looks upon the face of Him qui est per omnia sæcula benedictus [who is blessed forever].
The New Life fitly closes with words of that life in which all things shall be made new, “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, nor shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.”
The Divine Comedy was finished not long before Dante’s death in 1321, thirty-one years after the death of Beatrice.
Dante ended the letter which he addressed to Can Grande 168 della Scala, in sending him the Pardise, with the following words which recall and repeat the ending of the New Life: —
“And because the beginning and source being found, namely, God, there is nothing further to be sought, — since he is the Alpha and Omega, that is, the beginning and the end, — this treatise terminates in God, qui est benedictus in sæcula sæculorum..”