Critics​ have struggled to define Dante’s first book, Vita Nuova, written in the early 1290s when he was in his late twenties.* Here are some of the possibilities: an autobiography (spiritual and/or poetic); a religious conversion narrative; a treatise on poetry for poets, or a treatise on love for lovers; a Künstlerroman before the invention of the novel; a Bible of Love, or a Bible of Beatrice; a mystical itinerarium mentis to discover God. What genre best suits a collection of half-remembered dreams and visions and hallucinations, unexplained figures and characterless places, a bardo filled with the voices of dead troubadours, an album of artistic failures and false starts? While working on his translation, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his diary that ‘Dante’s Vita Nuova reads like the Book of Genesis, as if written before literature, while truth yet existed,’ but this doesn’t get us much further. We can say that it is a book bound up with beginnings: ‘In the book of my memory, in that part before which little can be read, is a heading: Incipit vita nova. I intend to copy out what is written there into this little book – if not every word, the essence at least.’

Dante’s new life is actually two new lives: the new life of Beatrice’s transformative love and the new life of becoming a poet. And he tells these stories twice over, once in prose, and again in poetry, each sonnet or ballad or canzone surrounded by passages of autobiography and literary criticism. He tells them in two tenses, too, in the present-tense lyric voice of the poems and the past-tense autobiographical voice of the prose. The struggle of love, for Dante, is a struggle to find the right form to write about it.

He produced a sonnet for his poet friends describing a terrifying erotic vision he had one day after Beatrice greeted him on the street. The Lord of Love appeared to him. He held Beatrice in his arms, wrapped only in a crimson cloth. He fed her his burning heart. Dante addressed the sonnet, ‘A ciascun’alma presa e gentil core’, to

all the captive souls and gracious hearts
who chance to see these verses I record,
and, in reply, impart to me their thoughts –
my greetings, in the name of Love, their Lord.

Some wrote back with interpretations of his vision. One advised Dante to ‘give your balls/a good wash, so that the vapours/ that make you talk nonsense/are extinguished and dispersed.’ Dante regretted that ‘no one understood the true meaning of my dream.’ He had issued a challenge, all the same, and identified a problem of interpretation.

Dante apprenticed himself to the troubadour tradition, experimenting with their lyrics and their theories of love. Here he tries on the voice of Guido Guinizelli:

Love and the gentle heart are the same thing,
just as the wise man tells us in his poem …
Nature shapes them in a loving mood,
Love as the Lord, the heart as his abode.

And here that of his ‘first friend’, Guido Cavalcanti, for whom love was a violent force of dispossession:

When Love attacks, he strikes so suddenly,
that life itself all but abandons me,
and of my spirits, only one survives:
he speaks of you – for you, he’s still alive.

But Cavalcanti’s vision of destructive desire was too pessimistic, an artistic dead end. None of the lyric voices of his fellow poets proved a good fit, and Dante wrote a poem about that too: ‘All my thoughts now speak to me of Love,/but all in such diverse, discordant ways … So I know not which thought to make my theme;/I wish to write but don’t know what to say.’ His poetic apprenticeship ended in silence.

Dante needed a new theme. One morning, ‘walking along a path beside a crystal-clear stream’, his ‘tongue, moving as if of its own accord, said: “Ladies that have intelligence of love”’. This moment became the inspiration for the first canzone of his new style: a love poetry that would praise his lady.

Love says of her, ‘How can a mortal creature
be equally as pure as she is fair?’
Beholding her again, he now declares
that in her God intended something new.

In the Divine Comedy, written nearly twenty years later, a poet in Purgatory recognises Dante as ‘the one who brought forth those new rhymes/begun with Ladies that have intelligence of love,’ to which Dante replies: ‘I am one who, when Love/inspires me, takes note and, as he dictates/deep within me, so I set it forth.’ He was not an author but the scribe of Love itself.

The Vita Nuova is a poetry book for poets. In 1843 Emerson translated it into ‘the ruggedest grammar English that can be’; Dante Gabriel Rossetti followed with his own translation in 1861. His was anything but rugged. For Rossetti, translation offered a way into the spirituality of Dante’s world, so that ‘A ciascun’alma presa’ became:

To every heart which the sweet pain doth move,
And unto which these words may now be brought
For true interpretation and kind thought,
Be greeting in our Lord’s name, which is Love.

Through Rossetti, Ezra Pound (who called Dante ‘a knower of dreams rather than a mixer among men’) and T.S. Eliot discovered Dante, and, through him, the earlier Tuscan and Sicilian love poets. ‘A ciascun’alma presa’ was translated by Frank Bidart in 1997 with an immediacy that captures Dante’s summons to follow him along Love’s path:

To all those driven berserk or humanised by love
this is offered, for I need help
deciphering my dream.
When we love our lord is LOVE.

For Dante’s translators, one problem is his vowel endings; Italian offers countless options for rhyme that are impossible to recreate fluidly in English. Recent translators of the Vita Nuova poems have sidestepped this problem by using blank verse (Mark Musa’s 1992 revised translation) or free verse (Cervigni and Vasta’s literal version of 1995). In her welcome new translation, Virginia Jewiss takes a ‘more elastic’ approach to the poems, experimenting with slant rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration and assonance. Her work captures Dante’s lyricism while preserving its freshness and clarity; she maintains the tension between the prose and the poetry by ensuring the poetry remains musical but unfussy.

At the end of Vita Nuova, Dante sighs, and his sigh ascends to Heaven, where it can look on Beatrice:

When it has reached the place it so desires,
it sees a lady, honoured, radiant,
so luminous that she is much admired
for all her splendour by my pilgrim spirit.
The sight is such that when it speaks of her,
I cannot understand the subtleties
it says to my sad heart, which bids it tell.
But that it speaks of my most gracious lady,
I glean from its reciting ‘Beatrice’.
This much, my dearest ladies, I know well.

And so the book ends in failure, and with a benediction. Dante has learned that Beatrice is a miracle, but his poetry is unequal to the task of describing it. ‘And after I wrote this sonnet,’ he explains, ‘a wondrous vision appeared to me, in which I saw things that made me resolve to write nothing more about this blessed one until I could do so in a more worthy manner.’ What did he see that silenced him? Perhaps that his pilgrim spirit would have to enter the depths of hell before it could rise again to meet Beatrice in earthly paradise. Or perhaps he saw her heralded by a choir of a hundred angels, speaking her benediction: ‘Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice.’ ‘Look here! I am, I am Beatrice.’

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