Goodreads: The Portable Dante
In a combination of poetry and prose, Dante reexamines his approach toward writing and his experience of the courtly love tradition. This is the work that will lead him toward an understanding of what Beatrice means in his life and prepare the way for The Divine Comedy.
Before Dante lost himself in a dark wood, he had another life-changing crisis–or so we are to believe from the Vita Nuova. In this book, composed of both poetry and prose, after the fashion of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Dante examines the value of his life’s work, interspersing poems from his past in a prose frame that comments upon and reinterprets them; while he once seems to have been tempted by the ideal of courtly love celebrated by other poets, he begins here to turn from that ideal and to focus on the meaning of Beatrice–or divine revelation or love. Through a severe self-reflection, Dante reimagines himself as a poet and promises to write of Beatrice “that which has never been written of any other woman” (Musa 649).
In his introduction to The Portable Dante, Musa suggests that most of Dante’s poems are, in fact, not that great–or at least that other poets of the time were superior to him. Perhaps this is true; I am not sure how well one can judge from a translation. However, I admit that I do not find the majority of Dante’s poems particularly compelling–they seem to vary from the very straightforward to the extremely obscure. Why is Beatrice eating your heart, Dante? This is weird.
So I admit I do not read the Vita Nuova because I want to read Dante’s poetry, but because I am fascinated by his ability to reinvent himself. He wrote his poems before he conceived of the Vita Nuova, but here he fashions them in to a tale of artistic and spiritual awakening, dwelling on the shame he feels by having spent his poetic talents on lesser subjects and having left the pursuit of Beatrice/the divine life for Lady Philosophy. This is all the more compelling because it seems that after he wrote promising to turn back to heavenly contemplation, he wrote the Convivio, an unfinished encyclopedic work in which he pursues philosophy once more. Dante was nothing if not a man of contradictions!
Here, however, the focus remains on Beatrice, the woman who was not Dante’s lover as some might believe, but instead the sign he found in a human woman of God’s infinite love. He recounts here his first alleged sight of Beatrice when he was nine, the effect of his greeting him, the way in which she inspired goodness in others and left a city desolate when she died. Dante almost seems to verge on the blasphemous, comparing his lady to Christ, her coming announced by Giovanna–that is, John the Baptist. And yet Beatrice is so much more to him than an idol or even a crush. She is something mysterious, almost ineffable–God’s presence on earth, a sign pointing to God. And yet always herself.
The complexity of the work, both with its tantalizing details–how much is real for Dante and how much is invented for the story of Dante the poet?–and its grappling with issues of human understanding and human life, make it an intriguing read. Dante is never predictable here, never didactic, never sentatious. He is a man with an extraordinary mind, probing what is known and what can never be known. Restless, eager, fearless, he questions everything–and happily invites us along on his journey of self-discovery.