Medieval Love Poetry was enriched by Dante Alighieri's La Vita Nuova
Dante is a huge medieval love poetry figure and is widely regarded, not only as the greatest Italian poet but also as one of the most important writers of European literature. He is of course best known for his epic poem La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy)
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born into a Florentine family of noble ancestry. Although orphaned at an early age he received a thorough education in both classical and Christian literature.
At 18, already promised to another, he met a young girl, Beatrice just a few months younger, who seemingly tore his breath from him. When he met Beatrice again years later after her marriage, he had started writing verse and wrote several sonnets to her. 'e per la sua ineffabile cortesia... mi saluto molto virtuosamente tanto che mi parve allora vedere tutti i termini della beatitudine.' (And by her unspeakable courtesy... she greeted me with such skill that at that moment I seemed to glimpse all the farthest bounds of bliss.)
The resultant work, "La Vita Nuova" (1292) is an autobiographical narrative and love poems celebrating Dante's love for Beatrice. His love for her was manifested in the medieval love poetry concept of courtly love, in which the subject (as we have seen) is idealized.
Greatly influenced by the courtly love style, Dante carried on his life-long love for the married Beatrice while being himself married to another woman. Beatrice died in 1290 and according to his own account, they never consummated the relationship. When asked why he still continued unhappily to love her, he answered:
"Ladies, the end of my love was indeed the greeting of this lady, of whom you are perhaps thinking, and in that greeting lay my beatitude, for it was the end of all my desires. But because it pleased her to deny it to me, my Lord in his mercy has placed all my beatitude in that which cannot fail me"
Dante's love consisted entirely of his adoring her from afar and most important--writing poetry about her:
So long a time has Love kept me a slave
And in his lordship fully seasoned me
That even though at first I felt him harsh,
Now tender is his power in my heart.
But when he takes my strength away from me
So that my spirits seem to run away,
My fainting soul then feels overcome1 And my face is drained of all its colour,
For in me Love is working up such power
He makes my spirits rant and wander off
That rushing out they call1 My Lady, begging
her to grant me grace.
This happens every time she sees me
and I am humbled more than you'll believe.
This unfinished poem stands in the centre of the Vita Nuova, before it are poems about the growth of his love, and after it are the poems in which he comes to understand that the dead Beatrice is now even more his love, leading his pilgrim soul into a new life of heavenly vision.
In Dante's medieval love poetry the relationship of man and woman is transformed radically by the exclusion of sexual possession as the goal of desire. Instead, the sight of the beloved becomes a form of Platonic contemplation of Absolute Living Beauty,
At the end of the Vita Nuova, he made a promise to write again about Beatrice, and this was fulfilled when she is his guide through the heights of Paradise in the Divine Comedy, until at last she withdraws and Dante is left face to face with the Woman Herself, what to him is the Blessed Mary in the highest Glory. So in the end, what started as poetry of tragic frustration and destructive lust became for Dante, the way to eternal life!
Let us now take a closer look at the fascinating medieval love poetry of La Vita Nuova:
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