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CHAPTER II.


THE 'VITA NUOVA.'


The 'Vita Nuova' is Dante's earliest work. The period to which it refers, and of which it is the detailed yet visionary history, was over before the graver affairs of life and the more solemn inspiration of his great work came upon him. It begins with his ninth year, and goes on to the twenty-seventh, thus embracing almost the entire period of his youth. We know nothing else of the kind in literature which can be placed by its side. It is a love-story, but such a love-story as never was written before or since—all visionary, yet all real—profound in passion and sincerity, yet fantastic as a dream. No book, probably, has ever been so much discussed. To some critics it has seemed an allegory from beginning to end, and these writers have found in the peerless Beatrice no true woman at all, but only an emblem of heavenly wisdom, the highest light and inspiration of the soul. This far-fetched theory we are fortunately not called upon to discuss; for we cannot believe that any new reader, approaching the wonderful tale with an unbiassed mind, could ever imagine a love so tremulous with delicate passion, so absorbing and all-pervading, to be directed to an abstract quality. There is, however, a second question, when this is disposed of, which has excited many minds, and that is, whether the love of Dante for Beatrice was the mild worship of a Platonic affection, or the hotter and less reasonable love which in its force of passion appropriates to itself exclusively that divine name. Upon this subject almost every reader will form his own conclusion. The poet himself has so curiously combined the divers elements of the tale, mixing the artificial with the artless, the visionary with the real, and even throwing in here and there a suggestion of allegorical meaning, that it becomes difficult to claim any certainty for the impression made upon our mind, as against the impression made upon another, which may be entirely opposite. Whether it is the intention of the young lover to make us more sensible of the supreme elevation of his lady by keeping her purposely out of our reach, so that no profane fancy might guess at the state of her affections, or be able to discover whether she ever stooped from these ethereal heights to repay him so much as by a thought; or whether it is but the subliming influence of the age which received as a solemn doctrine that canon of chivalry by which the respectful adoration of a lady was made necessary to all true knighthood and manhood; or, finally, whether the real facts of the case are simply represented through the wonderful haze, dimness, and brightness of the scene,—it is difficult to tell. Our own opinion inclines towards the latter theory. In no other work that we can recall has the passion of love, which trembles in every word, ever been represented as so entirely separate from its object. The love of Dante lives upon no interchange of feeling, no meetings, no glances, no close consorting; but is nourished by its own musings, its dreams, by the sight of her as she passes, her distant salutation, the beauty and glory of her being, unenhanced by any personal contact; and it is told, not to her ear, but in an exquisite confidence and trust in poetic sympathy to those other poet-souls who could understand this rapture of feeling. The dim, sweet vicissitudes of the tale, mystically intimated to us through a twilight of soft allusions, are no sooner experienced than they are woven into verse, to be sent to Guido Cavalcanti and the others of the brotherhood, who stand round in a hush and thrill of sympathetic spectatorship, watching every change of the delicate drama, not always understanding it, puzzled by times, as we are, by the discrepancy between those fantastic passionate refinements and their own ruder realisation of what love is. But there is not a word to imply that Dante ever had the courage to speak of love to Beatrice herself, or to aspire to any return of it from one whom he felt to be so far above him. She knew of it, as women still, in less romantic days, know now and then of the silent devotion of some man, too young, or too poor, or too humble, ever to approach them more nearly. The sentiment is not obsolete, though it has never produced another 'Vita Nuova.' It is love in its highest and most beautiful sense, but it is incompatible with any idea of marrying or asking in marriage; and even the pang with which the lover sees his lady another man's bride, is rather a wounded sense of some lessening of her perfection thereby than the ordinary pangs of jealousy. This is, of course, a sentiment incomprehensible to many minds, but it is not the less a real one on that account.

Dante and Beatrice lived in Florence within fifty yards of each other; they were neighbours from their childhood; they knew the same people, breathed the same air, moved about the same streets,—it was not possible that Beatrice, with all those gentlewomen about her, who sympathised with the young lover's visionary passion, and all those noble young troubadours, Guido and the rest, among whom his sonnets were handed about, should not be aware of the intense yet veiled adoration which followed her wherever she went; but if Dante ever told her of that love, the confession finds no place in the 'Vita Nuova.' There, she is only apparent to us through a haze of distance, passing in subdued angelic glory, bowing her gracious head sometimes, in a greeting which ennobled those who received it, like the salutation of a superior being, but taking no part except this lofty passive one in the course of affairs. The reader is like the populace, which the poet describes as hastening to the corners of the streets to look at her as she passes, saying, "This is no woman, but a beautiful angel." She is entirely raised above even the adoring record of her perfections. That is for the lover, for the spectators, who themselves worship in a far-off degree, but not worthy the look of the most gentle Beatrice. She passes on, "crowned and clothed with humility," always gracious, divinely courteous, but never brought to a standstill, or audibly to us letting drop one of those heavenly utterances which are too delicate for mortal ear. Afterwards she speaks when we reach the loftier regions of spiritual life, but never on earth or in Florence. The tale is of love, but not the love of two hearts approaching each other in a glow of mutual emotion. More delicate, severe, high-fantastical as Shakespeare would have the lover's dreams, this wonderful story is of a love unshared, unanswered, yet undiscouraged, not only no response coming from the object of the passion, but no idea even or anticipation of reply.

We have the story of the first meeting of these two whose names were never henceforth to be sundered, from two sources—first from Dante himself, and again in the poetic narrative of so sympathetic a historian as Boccaccio. They met at a great entertainment given by Folco Portinari, the father of the child Beatrice, in his big palace round the corner, over the way from where the Alighieris lived, to which the little Dante accompanied his parents when he was nine years old. The 'Vita Nuova' begins with a description of this meeting:—


"Nine time already, since my birth, had the heaven of light returned to wellnigh the same point in its orbit, when to my eyes was first revealed the glorious lady of my soul, even she who was called Beatrice by many who wist not wherefore she was so called. She was then of such an age, that during her life the starry heavens had advanced towards the East the twelfth part of a degree; so that she appeared to me about the beginning of her, and I beheld her about the end of my, ninth year. Her apparel was of a most noble colour, a subdued and becoming crimson, and she wore a cincture and ornaments befitting her childish years. At that moment (I speak it in all truth) the spirit of life which abides in the most secret chamber of the heart began to tremble with a violence which showed horribly in the minutest pulsations of my frame. And tremulously it spoke these words—'Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi! Behold a god stronger than I, who cometh to lord it over me!' And straightway the animal spirit who abides in the upper chamber, whither all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions, began to marvel greatly, and addressing itself especially to the spirits of vision, it spoke these words—'Apparuit jam beatitudo vestra. Now hath your bliss appeared.' And straightway the natural spirit, which abides in that part whereto our nourishment[1] is ministered, began to wail, and dolorously it spoke these words—'Heu miser! quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps! Ah wretched me! for henceforth shall I be oftentimes obstructed!' From that time forth I say that Love held sovereign empire over my soul, which had so readily been betrothed unto him; and through the influence lent to him by my imagination, he at once assumed such imperious sway and masterdom over me, that I could not choose but do his pleasure in all things. Oftentimes he enjoined me to strive, if so I might behold this youngest of the angels—wherefore did I during my boyish years frequently go in search of her; and so praiseworthy was she, and so noble in her bearing, that of her might with truth be spoken that saying of the poet Homer—

'She of a god seemed born, and not of mortal man.'"


The second meeting, conscious on both sides, seems to have befallen as follows:—


"When so many days had passed away, after the vision of that most noble lady above recorded, as made up the exact measure of nine years, on the last of these days it came to pass that this wonderful lady appeared to me once more, arrayed in the purest white, between two noble ladies older than herself. And as she passed along the street, she turned her eyes towards the spot where I, thrilled through and through with awe, was standing; and by her ineffable courtesy, which now hath its guerdon in everlasting life, she saluted me in such gracious wise that I seemed in that moment to see beatitude in all its length and breadth. The hour her most sweet salutation reached me was certainly the ninth hour of that day: and forasmuch as this was the first time that words of hers had reached my ears, I was smitten with such delight that I broke away from the company I was in like a drunken man. And having retired within the solitude of my chamber, I sate me down to meditate upon that most courteous lady; and as I mused, a sweet sleep came over me, wherein a marvellous vision was presented to my eyes."


The vision is described in the sonnet that follows, so that it is unnecessary to give it twice, though this the poet does in detail, lingering over every word of the prolonged and mystic tale:—


"Then musing upon what I had seen, I resolved to make it known to the many famous poets of the time; and having erewhile proved myself to possess the art of discoursing in rhyme, I determined to make a sonnet, in which, saluting all that were under fealty to Love, and entreating them to expound my vision, I should relate that which I beheld in my sleep; and this was the sonnet that I made:—

"To every captive soul and gentle heart,
Into whose sight shall come this song of mine,
That they to me its matter may divine,
Be greeting in Love's name, our master's, sent!
A fourth part of the hours was nearly spent,
When all the stars of heaven most brightly shine,
When Love came suddenly before mine eyne,
Remembering whom with horror makes me start.
Joyful he seemed, and bore within his hand
My heart; while in his arms, and calmly sleeping,
My lady, folded in a mantle, lay.
He woke her, and she ate by his command
The burning heart, as though she feared her prey;
And then Love went his way, deject and weeping."

—M.

"This sonnet divides itself into two parts. In the first I send greeting and crave response; in the second I indicate unto what response is to be made. The second part commences with the words—'A fourth part.'

"To this sonnet I received replies from many, and of various import, and among those who answered was he whom I call the foremost of my friends, who on this occasion wrote a sonnet beginning, 'Vedesti al mio parere ogni valore,—All worth, unto my thinking, thou hast seen.' And our friendship may be said to date from the time when I sent this to him. The true meaning of my dream was not then perceived by any one, but now it is manifest to the most simple.

"From the time of this vision my natural spirit began to be obstructed in its working, forasmuch as my soul was wholly given up to thinking of this most gracious creature; whereby I fell ere long into a state of health so feeble and delicate, that my appearance caused much concern to many of my friends; while others, moved thereunto by malice, cast eagerly about to discover that which above all things I wished to conceal. And I, being well advised of the vile motive of their questionings, did by the prompting of Love, who counselled me in accordance with the dictates of reason, reply to them, that it was Love who had brought me to this pass; and this I said, because I bore in my looks so many of his marks, that the fact could not be concealed. And when they asked me, 'For whom are you so love-shaken?' I looked at them and smiled, and answered them not again."


After this it occurs to Dante to veil his devotion to Beatrice under an appearance of love to another—a somewhat doubtful expedient, which, however, he seems to have thought, in the strange subtility of his absorbed mind, quite justifiable; so much so, that when the first lady who acted as a screen to his worship of Beatrice left Florence, Love himself appeared to the poet in a dream, and recommended another for the same purpose—a recommendation so well followed out that trouble ensued. Dante's attentions to this second "screen" were, it would seem, misconstrued, and the fair fame of the innocent third party was endangered. "The thing was spoken of by many in terms which passed the bounds of courtesy," he tells us, and he himself was accused of vicious behaviour. This slander came to the ears of "that most gentle being, who was the destroyer of every vice and the very queen of virtue," and a terrible punishment followed. "As she passed me on a time," says the unhappy lover, "she denied me that most gracious salutation which was my all-in-all of bliss." Here he pauses to enlarge upon what that salutation was to him. It was all the recompense, so far as appears, that he ever had for his love, yet it was enough not only to delight but to purify his adoring mind. "Whenever and wherever she appeared, in the hope of that priceless salute, I had no longer an enemy in the world, such a flame of charity was kindled in me, making me forgive every one who had done me any wrong;" and with his usual intensity and minuteness of subtle detail, he proceeds to describe how he felt "when she was on the verge of giving me her greeting,"—the quickened current that coursed through his veins, the concentration of his sight upon her and her only. "Whoso had wished to know and see Love, had only to look upon the tremor of my eyes." And "when this most sweet lady did actually vouchsafe her salute," words have no power to describe the intolerable rapture, in which his physical being seemed to be cast off like a dead thing, and his soul lost itself in very excess of happiness. Sometimes the bliss was greater than he could bear. Let the young reader imagine, then, what the youth's sensations were when Beatrice passed him by without that sign of gracious amity. "Rushing away from the crowd, I sought a lonely spot wherein to bathe the earth with most bitter tears." Then after that first indulgence he retired to his own chamber, where his grief could flow forth unheard; and there, with his usual mingling of sacred and classical devotion, called alternately upon the Lady of Mercy, and upon Love, whose faithful servant he was. Here in his misery he fell asleep, "sobbing like a beaten child," and had a wonderful vision, in which Love appeared to him, sad and pensive, and uttering enigmatical speeches which Dante himself could not comprehend, but which seem to have some far-off reference to the death of Beatrice, that woe which was soon to darken earth and heaven. The practical result of the vision was, that Dante resolved, by the advice of Love, to throw aside all screens and pretences, and avow his true passion. Only through the direct mediation of Love himself, however, was the avowal to be made; and his heart, thus still restrained within the bonds of enigmatical utterance, poured itself forth in a song, which the lover commands "to seek out Love, and go with him where my dear lady is"—no meaner ambassador than the very god himself being worthy to treat with that supreme lady. The tumult and conflict in the poet's mind, however, now begins to rise into the following controversy:—


"After this vision which I have recorded," he says, "and having written the words that Love dictated to me, I began to be harassed by many and divers thoughts, by each of which I was sorely tempted; and in especial there were four among them that left me no rest. The first was this—'Certainly the lordship of Love is good, seeing that it diverts the mind from all mean things.' The second was this—'Certainly the lordship of Love is evil, seeing that the more homage his servants pay to him, the more grievous and painful are the torments wherewith he torments them.' The third was this—'The name of Love is so sweet in the hearing, that it would not seem possible for its effects to be other than sweet, seeing the name must needs be like the thing named, as it is written, Nomina sunt consequentiæ rerum (Names are the consequents of things).' And the fourth was this—'The lady whom Love has chosen out to govern thee is not as other ladies, whose hearts are easily moved.' And by each of these thoughts I was so sorely assailed, that I was like unto him who doubteth which path to take, and wishing to go, goeth not."


After this self-conflict—in which, perhaps, we may divine some gleam of enlightenment on the part of the young lover, and of sense that he was spending the sweetness of his life for nought—there occurs one of the few things which can be called an incident in the visionary tale. One of his friends takes him to a place in which there is "a numerous assemblage of gentlewomen." "To what end are we come among these ladies?" Dante inquires. His friend makes a reply, in which the very soul of the troubadour's modification of chivalry seems to breathe,—"To the end that they may be worthily served." Upon which the following strange scene ensues:—


"They were assembled there around a gentlewoman who had that day been wedded; and such being the custom of the city, it was meet that she should be so attended on first taking her seat at table in the mansion of her new spouse: so that I, thinking to please my friend, resolved to stay and join with him in doing suit and service to those ladies. But no sooner had I come to this resolve than I felt a strange tremor in my left side, which spread apace over all my body. Therefore I made a feint of leaning against a painting which covered the wall of the house, and fearing that my emotion might be observed, I raised my eyes, and looking towards the ladies, beheld among them the most gentle Beatrice. Straightway my spirits were so distraught by the vehemence of Love, on finding myself so near that most gentle lady, that nothing remained to me of life but the spirits of vision, and even these were driven forth from their own organs, forasmuch as Love determined to occupy their most honoured place that he might behold that admirable lady. . . . Then many of these ladies, observing my confusion, began to marvel; and they fell to whispering with that sweet lady and making mock of me: whereupon my friend, taken quite aback, and at a loss what to understand, took me by the hand, and leading me aside, asked me what was amiss. Then having rested awhile, and the spirits which had died within me having risen to life again, and those which had been chased away having returned to their abodes, I made answer to my friend,—'I have set my foot in that path of life, to pass beyond which with purpose to return is impossible.' And bidding him farewell, I returned home into the chamber of tears, and there weeping, and blushing as I wept, I said to myself—'If this lady did but know my condition, she would not thus, methinks, make sport of my appearance; rather would she, I believe, be moved to pity.'


This is supposed by many commentators to refer to the marriage-feast of Beatrice herself; but this seems very improbable, since no friend of Dante's is likely to have led him unawares into the heart of such a merrymaking. Much more likely it would seem that the young poet, suddenly brought into immediate contact with the lady whom he had worshipped afar off, should be rendered speechless by the unsuspected shock of a privilege too much for him, and of which he could take no advantage, surrounded as both were by that bevy of smiling ladies, ready to flout and mock his too great timidity. It is much more reasonable to suppose that the trick played upon him went no further than an innocent conspiracy to introduce him suddenly into the presence of the object of his fanciful adoration. That he should be completely overcome by love and awe and shamefacedness is quite natural, and in keeping with the delicacy of his passion, and especially that any appearance on the part of Beatrice of joining in the laugh against him should have cut him to the quick. When he is back again in the "chamber of tears," he knows very well, poor lover, what to say, and pours forth another sonnet full of impassioned remonstrance:—


*******

"For when Love finds me near thee, he so high
Dominion takes and scornful mastery,
That on my trembling spirits straight he flies,
And some he slays, and some he drives away,
Till he alone remains to gaze on thee.
Thence am I changed into another's guise;
Yet not so changed, but that the pangs with me,
Which tortured so those exiled spirits, stay."

—M.


In the explanation which follows, and which is attached to every sonnet with quaint force and iteration, he thus, with luminous mystical irradiation of commentary, makes clear, or thinks he makes clear, the dimness of the text:—


"In the passage where I explain the circumstance which gave rise to this sonnet, there are some ambiguous expressions—those, I mean, where I say that Love slays all my spirits, and that those of vision remain in life, though extraneously to their organs. Now this is ambiguous, and impossible to explain to any one who is not in like degree the liegeman of Love; but to those who are, the meaning of these ambiguous words is obvious."


Delightful interpretation, full of character and truth! for is not every wonder an open secret—clear and evident to those who know, unexplainable to all others? But fortunately Love enlists his liegemen in all classes and ages; and there are few, we believe, to whom this sublime of explanations will not convey some glimmering of what the poet meant.

Two other sonnets, each with its commentary, follow, in something of the same strain of remonstrance and personal appeal; and then the strain changes. Not yet, it would seem, if ever, had the salutation which he prized so highly been restored to him; and the next step in the tale brings us into a company of noble Florentine ladies, and reveals, like a scene out of one of the dim beautiful frescoes still existing, a new-old society, in quaint rich robes, with a quaint openness of subtle talk. Thus the queens of love and beauty in the fantastic Provencal courts of love might have interrogated a young troubadour:—


"Through the changes in my looks the secret of my heart was now known to many; and certain ladies, to whom it was well known (they having often seen how sorely troubled I was), had met together on a day, drawn by their delight in each other's society. Happening to pass that way, led, as it were, by happy chance, one of these ladies called to me to approach. She who so called me was very gay and pleasant of discourse; so when I came in among them, and saw that my most gracious lady was not there, I recovered my courage, and, saluting them, inquired what might be their pleasure. There were many ladies there, some of whom were laughing among themselves, whilst others regarded me as if in expectation of what I should say. Others there were who talked together, of whom one, turning her eyes on me, and calling me by name, addressed me thus: 'Unto what end lovest thou this lady, seeing her mere presence overwhelms thee? Tell us, for of a surety the end and aim of such a love must be of a new kind.' And when she had thus spoken, not only she, but all the others, fixed their eyes upon me, awaiting my reply. Thereupon I made answer: 'The end and aim of my love hath until now been the salutation of this lady, of whom belike you speak, for in that salutation I found the happiness which was the goal of all my wishes. But since it pleaseth her to deny it to me, Love, my liege lord, in guerdon of my fealty, has placed all my happiness in something which can in no wise fail me.' Thereupon these ladies fell to conversing among themselves; and as we sometimes see rain falling mingled with beautiful snow, so did their words appear to me intermingled with sighs. And when they had talked together for a time, the same lady who had questioned me before, spoke to me in these words: 'Tell us, we pray thee, wherein abides this happiness of thine?' And I made answer, 'In the words which praise my lady.'"


This would seem to have been a sudden inspiration called forth by the questioning, but the poet goes away from those sympathetic inquisitors with his head full of the new thought. Since there is such happiness in praising her, why has he ever employed otherwise his gift of song? He determined accordingly that this, and this only, should be his future theme—then was struck by fear that the undertaking was too great for him, and so wavered "between desire to speak and fear to begin." At last, one day, when walking by a clear-flowing stream, the needful inspiration came. Poets understand each other. So Burns says, little thinking of the Italian youth, long mouldered into dust—

 

"The muse a poet never fand her,
Till by himself he learned to wander
Adown a flowing burn's meander."


Dante, musing along the pleasant way, with the clear stream singing by him, found the key-note he wanted; and thus began, in melodious sublimation of the theme, through which, consciously or not, the forebodings of great love—always so near the heart when its passion is deepest—steal in like a solemn second, deepening and enriching the happier strain:—


"Ladies who have intelligence in love,
I would speak of my lady to your ear,
Though well I know her sum of praise could ne'er
Be ended; but to give some utterance meet
To ease the mind—I say her worth above
All other greatness fills me with such fire
Of love, that did not failing forces tire
Speaking, I should bring all men to her feet
Not now in such a lofty guise I treat;
Lest all too mean for song so high I prove,
But rather of the gentle state I love,
With softer tones will sing, oh ladies sweet,
Ladies and maidens gentle-souled, as who
Could speak on such a theme to only you.

An angel of divine intelligence
Lifts up his voice and says, 'Sire, on this earth
Such wondrous light from one of mortal birth
Shines forth that all below resplendent glows.
Heaven nothing lacks but this, nor can dispense
With her; and thus upon the Lord we call
To grant her to us, saints and angels all.'
Pity alone some pleading for us shows,
And God replies, who best my lady knows,
'My dearly-loved, have patience till descends
Th' appointed hour. On earth is one, attends
Her loss with trembling—he who 'mid the woes
Of the ill-born shall pass through deepest hell,
And "I have seen the hope of saints shall tell.'

My lady thus is longed for in high heaven,
And of her power this I would have you know,
Who would be noble known, with her should go;
For when she passes forth upon the way,
All evil hearts are from her presence driven,
And in her eyes pure love indignant chills
Ill thoughts, and every foulness binds or kills.
Noble must he become who dares to stay
And gaze on her; or die; and whoso may
Worthy behold her, proves her greatness more.
If she salutes him, all his being o'er
Flows humbleness that bears all wrath away;
And yet a higher grace does God confer—
He never will end ill who speaks with her.

Love says of her, can anything that lives
So fair adornèd be and yet so pure?
Then looks at her, and swears that, true and sure,
Great God of her a new creation makes.
Pale as a pearl she is; paleness that gives
A woman grace, yet not too pale a hue.
In her is seen what Nature all can do;
Her for most high example Beauty takes.
Within her sweet eyes, as she moves, there wakes
Such gleam and glow of love, so warm and bright,
As dazzles gazing eyes and kindles light
And warmth in every heart whereon it breaks.
Love in her lovely smiling, pictured lies;
But who can gaze on it with steadfast eyes?

Song, well I know thou wilt go forth and talk
With many ladies, when thou art despatched;
I warn thee, I who trained thee and have watched
Thy growth, a young and modest child of love,
Where'er thou comest ne'er thy mission balk,
But say, 'Speed thou me on, my charge is this,
To reach her feet whose praise my treasure is,'
Yet if thou wouldst delay, be still above
Such weakness as to rest with hearts that rove
In paths ignoble; let thy heart be shown
Solely to ladies sweet, and men who love,
Who, courteous, the quick path will speed thee on
To where she sits, and with her Love alway.
Ah then, my song, commend me as thou may."


A short time after this the father of Beatrice, Folco Portinari, of whom we have already heard, died. She herself had been married some time before to Simone dei Bardi (of the family which, the reader will be pleased to recollect, afterwards produced Romola, by grace of God and of George Eliot). It was the custom, Dante tells us, that in times of grief men and women mourned apart; and accordingly, Beatrice was attended in her affliction by "many ladies," the companions by whom she is always surrounded through the tale. It would seem that the poet himself kept lingering about the doors of the closed house, with a natural longing to be near her in her grief, and to hear of her, though incapable of giving her any consolation. "Where I sat," he says, "her friends passed continually in and out, and as they passed, I could hear them speak concerning her, how she wept." As two of these ladies came out talking of their friend, one said to the other, "She grieves so, that one is like to die of pity." At this the young man, half hidden by some friendly pillar, felt the tears rush to his eyes, and hastily covered his face with his hands that no one might see them; and he would have gone away, "to be alone," most likely to that chamber of tears which he had filled with so many thoughts of Beatrice, but that he hoped to hear more. By-and-by another group came past with the same murmurs of reverential sympathy. "Which of us can be glad any more who have heard her talk so piteously?" they said. This evidently produced in the poet a new outburst of grief, for they then transferred their regards to him, saying among themselves, "He that sits there could not weep more had he seen her as we have done;" and, "he is so altered that he does not seem himself." And still, as the ladies went and came, "I could hear them speak thus" (with a certain satisfaction and pleasure in the conjunction) "of her and of me." "Wherefore afterwards," he adds, with that curious recollection and presence of mind in the midst of his self-abandonment, which is at once so artless and so quaintly artificial, "having considered, and perceiving that there was herein matter for poetry, I resolved that I would write certain rhymes in which should be contained all that these ladies had said." Two sonnets follow which we need not quote.

Shortly after, Dante himself fell ill—so ill as to be reduced to great weakness after serious suffering, and on the ninth day of his sickness (for everything is regulated by this mystic number), being very ill, thoughts of death came into his mind. But these thoughts were not of his own death, which would have been sufficiently natural. What was he, that any one should think of his living or dying? The thought that rushed upon him with all the force of a revelation was that some time or other "the very gentle Beatrice must die." Notwithstanding the visionary gleam of this possibility which appears in the canzone above quoted, where the angels ask for her, and God Himself leaves her on earth only for the sake of "one who dreads to lose her," yet it is evident that this sudden realisation of the inevitable drove Dante into a panic of despairing passion. His confused imagination began to work "like that of a frantic person." He seemed to see visions, faces of women who said to him, "thou shalt die;" faces more horrible, which said, "thou art dead." The sun seemed to him darkened, the stars as if they wept—great earthquakes heaved and rumbled round, and the birds fell dead about him; and in the midst of all this tumult and terror appeared a friend who said, "Knowest thou that thy excellent lady has departed out of this world?" Then, in the relieving of the brain which came by tears, the dreamer looked up and saw heaven opened, and a multitude of angels returning there preceded by a white cloud of wonderful brightness; upon which, his imagination once more dropping earthward, he seemed to be transported into the room where Beatrice lay dead. The confusion and bewilderment of his fever are strangely mingled in this vision with the master-thought of his life, which thus forcibly makes itself the centre of every new condition of mind and being. The mournful fancy goes on so long as this feverish sleep or swooning lasts. He sees her laid out for her grave, her face covered with a white veil. He sees in the dead countenance such an aspect of unspeakable sweetness, that it seemed as though she said, "I have attained to look on the beginning of peace." Then he calls upon Death with such beseeching, that "the young and gentle lady" (whom he explains to be very nearly related to him) who sat by his bedside watching him, was overcome by the sight, and began to weep, and the attention of the other attendants in the room was drawn to his condition. They woke him while he was in the act of saying, "Oh, Beatrice!" though his voice was so broken that they could not distinguish what he said; and the poet was consoled by finding it all a dream. After a while he tells what has happened to his sympathetic nurses, and finally weaves it into another song. Whether Beatrice had by this time shown symptoms of delicate health, or whether it was the mere foreboding of prescient love which made this dream so distinct and terrible, it is impossible to say.

The next scene is very different. Once more it is the dim, sweet world of the frescoes that opens upon us, and through the peopled space the poet sees, advancing towards him, a beautiful lady. Madonna Vanna, the beloved of Guido Cavalcanti, who had given her the name of Primavera, or Spring. After her, heralded by "the accustomed tremor" in his heart, came Beatrice, "each by the side of the other a miracle" of beauty and grace. As these two fair and sacred creatures passed him by, it suddenly occurred to Dante why the lesser wonder of the two should be called Primavera. Was she not, like spring, the harbinger of summer, as she went along, a little in advance of her heavenly companion? an office also expressed in her other name, Giovanna, which is derived from that John who preceded the True Light. This also, it is needless to say, was made into a sonnet, and specially sent to Guido Cavalcanti, whose heart was full of this beautiful precursor, as Dante's was of the still more perfect Beatrice. "This is Spring; and the name of the other is Love."

Thus dreaming dreams and seeing visions—now of Love himself, the youthful god, now of that fair representative of his, supreme above all women—the visionary tale flows on. By right of her own superlative grace, and by right, too, we seem to perceive, of that poetic adoration of which all the neighbourhood had become aware, Beatrice acquired, in her young lover's thoughts at least, a kind of divinity in Florence. The people came to the comers of the streets to see her pass. "When she drew near any one, a feeling of reverence so profound came over his heart, that he had no courage to raise his eyes." When they looked at her, "men felt within them an inexpressible sweetness and elevation; nor was it possible for any one to look upon her but straightway a sigh arose from, his heart." The poet never tells us that this universal homage was in any degree the result of his own perpetual adoration, or that Beatrice had been made into a queen and goddess in all men's eyes by the young worshipper, ever on his knees before her; but there is an exquisite inference, delicate and subtle, of satisfaction in the universal homage, which seems to point to this. "The excellent lady of whom I spake . . . became an object of so much interest." "This lady of my heart came to be so highly esteemed." He must have felt that he had something to do with it, and the thought no doubt was sweet to him. Every thought of her calls forth a sonnet. He sees that her very companions are honoured for her sake, and he immediately weaves into shape a melodious scrap of song upon "the lady mine, with other ladies round." Another is devoted to that oft-lauded grace, "My lady's greeting," and all the wonderful attributes that were in it. Thus he goes about the dream-streets, his young soul rapt in this contemplation, his being thrilled through and through by the delight of seeing her moving towards him in gracious sweetness, the only creature in Florence unaware of her own perfections, "crowned and clothed with humility;" or when the thoughts become too big to keep silent, betakes him to his chamber to write down the glowing words, and explain and dwell upon them, ringing the changes upon each intense minute detail. Thus he reached the very flower of his young manhood—not the less a man that he was so absorbed and adoring a lover. But his manhood, his fighting, his studying—all the other side of his life—is outside the 'Vita Nuova.' In this there is nothing but poetry, and the worship of that perfection of all womanhood, that embodiment of sweetness and purity and love.

One day he was sitting in his chamber, busy over, another sonnet, and, it would seem, thinking no evil, when the thunderbolt out of a clear sky, the calamity which he had divined in those agonising gleams of foresight, suddenly, without apparent warning, fell upon him. He had begun to consider, he says, all that he bad heretofore said of his lady, and found it defective and incomplete, especially those sonnets in which he had attempted to show the effect upon him of the sight of her, and the influence of her presence. "And not thinking that I should be able to say these things in the brief compass of a sonnet, I began a poem (canzone) thus:—


"So long has Love held sway complete,
So used me to his sovereign reign,
That though at first 'twas mickle pain,
Now in my heart I find it sweet.
Though from my life the strength is gone,
And all my forceful spirits flee,
Yet comforts he my soul in me
With gladness such as Death alone
Should purchase; and such power confers,
That every sigh turns to a prayer,
And flies, appealing, where
My lady is, for that dear grace of hers,
In mood so humble that 'tis strange to me;
And this befalls whene'er her face I see"—


So far had he got, untroubled, when all at once the strain breaks off, like a snapped thread, and a solemn line of Latin, abrupt and sorrowful, strikes across the fantastic sweetness of the mood, hushing alike the love and the song. "Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! facta est quasi vidua domina gentium! How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! how is she become a widow, she that was great among the nations!" Beatrice was dead.


"I was still occupied with this poem," he resumes, "having composed only the above stanza, when the Lord God of justice called my most gracious lady unto Himself, that she might be glorious under the banner of that blessed Queen, Mary, whose name had ever been held in highest reverence in the words of this blessed Beatrice."


This is the tennination on earth of Dante's love-tale. His raptures, his tears, his ineffable youthful anguishes and consolations—all end under this overwhelming blow. The city is desolate that was full of people—that lovely, silent figure, neither with smile of gracious greeting, nor sweet sternness of angelical reproof, to be seen there any more for ever—the earth bereaved of her, and Florence, and her poet. This is the end of it; and yet not the end, but the beginning, as the discerning heart will see, and as time has proved. But against the grip of such a Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/56 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/57 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/58 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/59 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/60 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/61 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/62 Page:Dante (Oliphant).djvu/63 and beauty, but an angelic presence, spotless from all earthly alloy, truest, purest, sweetest of created things, most pitiful, most courteous, yet with a heavenly severity of goodness in her, as incapable of approving what is evil as she is of anything but pity for the guilty—the embodiment of all purity and gentle wisdom, yet not a Virtue, always Beatrice, most loved and reverenced of women, yet a woman still. The curious, subtle, admir- able art with which she is kept apart from us, yet ever real to us—surrounded with her body-guard of gentle ladies, never close enough to permit us even to glimpse the pos- sibility of an imperfection, never placed in contact with anything that could stain, "the virgins, her companions," ever about her—is of itself one of the wonders of poetry. Beatrice is the centre of the mystic tale, yet we scarcely hear the sound of her footsteps and never of her voice ; even the smile on her lovely face is an inference, though it lights all the subdued sweet atmosphere with a half- divine reflection. "No one else, so far as we know, has ever thus accomplished the highest results of art with such a visionary exquisite vagueness, with an outline so veiled in mists of sacred awe and reverence. To every man and woman who has purely and truly loved, loved for love's sake, "all for love and nothing for reward," the 'Vita Nuova,' to the end of time, will be a revelation not only of Dante and the peerless Beatrice, but of themselves and their own hearts.


  1. The tongue.