La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri, Trans. by Mark Musa


Goodreads: The Portable Dante
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1295


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.

4 starsKrysta 64


4 thoughts on “La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri, Trans. by Mark Musa

  1. stephencwinter says:

    Beatrice is certainly not an idol because she points Dante to Christ and does so consistently for the rest of his life. I think the challenge is whether she becomes merely a means to an end and not a person in her own right. Does Dante just use her to achieve his purpose? What woman would want to think that she was not loved for her own sake? Or as Bonhoeffer put it in a letter to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, for a man to be thinking thoughts of God while lying in the arms of his wife is pretty tasteless.
    And yet in Paradiso we find Beatrice consistently pointing Dante away from herself and towards God. She is his guide to what he seeks and not the goal of his seeking. My hope is that in my relationships with others I might be such a guide and I do not feel that I diminish myself in any way by seeking to play that part.
    I think that Dante achieved something remarkable and quite rare in his relationship with Beatrice. He turns a crush, something that most of us experience in our lives, into something much greater. What we can never find out is how this transformation might have shaped and adult relationship between them as Beatrice did not live long enough. We only have the relationship in Dante’s imagination although that is remarkable enough.


    • Krysta says:

      I sometimes wonder about all these questions! I think Beatrice is a person in her own right and not merely a symbol–and yet we know so little about her that it’s hard to feel that you knew Beatrice the character as a person. For that matter, how well did Dante even know Beatrice? He writes that a greeting from her is a miraculous event, but did the two truly never speak? I suppose many people have crushes on people they barely interact with, but I like to speculate about their relationship. Is it, for example, easier at times to point someone to God if they DON’T know you and all your shortcomings very well?

      And I cannot help but wonder what his wife Gemma thought about all this! It’s surely very admirable that your husband is thinking about divine love, but how comfortable would you be if the person pointing him to God were another woman he’s writing love poems about?! And, as you point out, I think it would be just as uncomfortable to be the woman he’s writing love poems to–if he’s merely concerned with how you represent divine love to him.

      I think Dante is correct in suggesting that romantic love points to something greater, that romantic love is good and not dirty, and that that love ought to inspire you to love God better. But surely no one ever took this concept as far as Dante did! And it is fascinating.


  2. Lianne @ says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this title! I haven’t gotten around to reading any of Dante’s works outside of The Divine Comedy but this title has popped up every so often. Will have to bump it up the reading wishlist one of these days 🙂


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