Dante's Poetic Revelation Of His Own New Life In Vita Nuova
The main thrust of the primary narrative thread or 'plot' of Dante's Vita Nuova, or "New Life," is of the love of the poet for the beautiful Beatrice. Beatrice was a woman from Dante's social circle who was holy and beautiful in her manner and countenance. Yet she married another man. Despite this, Dante continued to adore Beatrice from afar, after seeing her and falling in love with her at first sight when both of these poetic protagonists were children. Even though his passion could only take place from a worshipful distance. Dante continued to love Beatrice as his adored poetic and spiritual muse, even after the poet wed another woman, and Beatrice remained faithfully wedded to another man.
The thematic progression of Dante's Vita Nuova is not simply about love. Overall, it tells of the narrator's coming to life as a man and as a poet, as well as a believer. "New Life" means both a new life as a person, as a result of renewed faith, feeling, spirituality and insight, as well as the fact that the poem and prose narrate the youngest episodes of the new life of the poet. However, the poem that comes towards the end of this tale of youth, "Donna pietosa e di novella etade" from Chapter XXIII of Vita Nuova is about a death, namely the death of Beatrice.
The fact that Beatrice dies is another clue to the reader, as is the fact that Dante never marries or even engages in a tryst with his beloved, that Vita Nuova is about spiritual passion, and a new soul, more than romantic love. The love is of a courtly. Even a casual reader of Chapter XXIII, who was unaware of the earlier relationship between poet and muse, even of the chapter's attempt to set the stage for the poet's grief of the demise of Beatrice, might assume from the first line of the poem that the text was about, not a beloved woman, but the Virgin Mary. The poem begins, "A lady, youthful and piteous, / greatly graced with human gentleness," in a worshipful tone of the poet's voice.
This confusion between Mary and Beatrice is not entirely unintentional upon Dante's part. It is partly reflective of the ailing, troubled mind of the narrator as he lays ill in bed. But it is also indicative of how Beatrice has served as Dante's poetic inspiration and muse over the course of his life. Dante, has not adored her like a man, but worshipped her from afar, as if she were a religious figure of adoration. He does not know her, intimately on a sexual level or on a personal and friendly level like a human being or a woman -- Dante only bears witness to the lady in her socially and personally manifested beauty and piety, as if she were a statue, or a great queen, an ideological icon and representation of all that is good in heaven.
This vision of Beatrice, the lady who visits Dante at his sickroom, "who was there where I called to Death, / seeing my eyes full of pity, / and listening to my empty words," functions like Mary, or an intermediary figure of a saint, providing succor and comfort to the poet himself while he dwells with a troubled mind upon the cusp of life and death. The fact that the lady's presence caused Dante to be "moved by fear to intense weeping" intensifies the sense of awe of her presence.
Gradually, the poet makes it clear that the lady is not a physical entity. Rather, she is a manifestation of Beatrice's goodness while Dante languishes between death and life. Her presence is not physical but spiritual. Dante is calling out to her in his sick delirium, and is surrounded by other women, women who are not Beatrice. "Then I left off my strange fantasy/calling out the name of my lady."
But the effect of this scenario is not tragic. Rather it is a holy scenario. The dying or ailing mind of the poet sees goodness more clearly than the whole, healthy bodies of the women around Dante's prostrate form. Although the other women do not comprehend, the thoughts of Beatrice on Dante's own deathbed cause him to be roused to a higher level of spiritual understanding. Beatrice fills him with love, the love of understanding rather than romance. And so, "Love made me turn towards them [the women in the room]. / They saw my color to be such, that they thought me like the dead." Their incomprehension causes them to ask Dante, "What have you seen, that you have lost courage?'" That is, courage in maintaining one's physical existence.
But Dante has a different understanding of courage, now. For, after beholding God through the vision of Beatrice, his Mary figure, lying there, thinking of my fragile life, and seeing how slight its substance is," Dante gains perspective on his limited, human, natural existence through the medium of love, a chaste and spiritual love." Even though he will survive his ailment unlike Beatrice, this is not what matters -- what matters is the goodness of Beatrice and his ability to understand it.
This understanding does not entirely diminish the horror he feels upon gaining a premonition of Beatrice's death. When he is also granted a terrible bit of foresight into the future. "What? Have you not heard the news? / Your lady is dead, who was so lovely." says one of the figures in his vision to Dante, he does feel sorrow. But the sense of goodness of Beatrice's presence and of the lady's initial presence buffets this grief somewhat.
It is interesting to note, that despite being put into a spiritual rather than a physical context, the news conveyed to Dante is personal in nature, while it comes from the divine source and a divinely inspired mouthpiece. It is about Beatrice who is/was still on earth and is/was loved in an earthly fashion by the poet. The personal and the spiritual are always fused in Dante, it is not merely that the personal leads to the spiritual or that understanding the spiritual requires a complete eradication of the world.
Rather, personal truths are conveyed through images of the Bible, such as the Exodus and the book of Revelation. He is "bathed in tears, / and saw, what seemed like manna raining, / angels returning to the sky." The personal is still important, even though the personal must be understood in a larger and sustaining theological vision of angelic goodness, embodied in Beatrice.
The final images of the poem are heavily allegorical as then "Amor" or love himself, a presence rather than purely a sensation, comes himself to the poet to bring news of Beatrice's death. "Amor" said, "I will hide nothing from you:/come and see our lady, lying." / This fantastic dream/carried me to see the dead lady:/and when I was brought there, / I/saw that ladies covered her with a veil:/and she had a look of true humility, / that it seemed as if she said: 'I am at peace.'" Thus, the almost pagan figure of Cupid comes with news of the Christian death of this good woman, veiled like the Virgin, and going to God -- a blending of the poetic tradition esteemed by the author, Christianity, and a personal rendering of Christian spiritual truths through visions of poetic inspiration. The death of Beatrice brings not only grief, but instruction about how to approach mourning -- Beatrice does not die in sorrow, but in peace and innocence, at one with the true God, and the death of Beatrice also brings inspiration to the God of Love and to love poetry.