By Joshua Philipp

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri is best known for his journey into hell, purgatory, and heaven which he told of in his “Divine Comedy.” But before he took that journey, he took a very different, although in some ways very similar, journey into the world of longing, love, and loss.

Dante and Beatrice, Carl Wilhelm Friederich Oesterly (1805–1891)

Dante fell deeply in love with a woman named Beatrice, and he wrote numerous poems to express his love for her, which he collected years later in his book Vita Nuova (New Life) along with some wonderful passages explaining his thoughts on composing each poem.

Amid Dante’s state of longing for Beatrice, whom for most of the book he admires from afar and collapses with butterflies in his stomach each time he sees, he is questioned on the nature of his love by a group of girls close to her.

This question of whether his love was pure, or whether it was laden with lust, led Dante to begin looking more deeply into the nature of love poetry, and how such poetry could be used to respectfully honor love.

He later has a divine vision, in which a deity gives Dante direct guidance on how to compose love poetry, and Dante wonderfully describes this vision and his lesson in the book.

As his tale of love and loss progresses, he reflects on how to turn worldly love into poems that can honor love itself. These reflections on how the nature of this love may be transfigured to a loftier realm is something that makes the Vita Nuova a timeless piece of medieval poetry.

For this review I used a 1992 translation from Mark Musa, published by The Folio Society, which is dedicated to high-quality printing, and that for the Vita Nuova contains Dante’s original Italian side-by-side with Musa’s more literal English translation.

Of course, translating poetry from another language is difficult, since it leaves the translator having to decide whether to sacrifice authenticity for rhyme and form, but in this case I found it worked fairly well, since I could get a sense of the poetry’s sound from the original Italian (which I know very little of, other than basic pronunciation), then could switch to reading the English to get the meaning.

As for the book itself, the binding is top-notch as is expected from The Folio Society. I did, however, find some of the art that decorates the inner pages to be too dark and modern, which contrasted with the lofty nature of Dante’s writing. On the other hand, it has some pleasant floral designs, and the typeface and unique layout make this version a pleasure to read.

In terms of translations, anyone looking for one that retains as rhyme and form, I highly recommend the 1861 translation from Dante Gabriel Rossetti (published at that time in “The Early Italian Poets,” and which he had written the translation of in 1846). It manages to stay close to what we find in the literal translation, although the language can sometimes be more difficult to read.

As a comparison, here is a poem from Musa’s 1992 translation:

Beyond the sphere that makes the widest round,
passes the sigh which issues from my heart;
a strange, new understanding that sad Love
imparts to its keeps urging it on high.
When it has reached the place of its desiring,
it sees a lady held in reverence,
splendid in light, and through her radiance
the pilgrim spirit gazes at her being.
But when it tries to tell me what it saw,
I cannot understand the subtle words
it speaks to the sad heart that makes it speak.
I know it talks of that most gracious one,
because it often mentions Beatrice;
this much is very clear to me, dear ladies.

And here is the same poem from Rossetti’s 1846 translation:

Beyond the sphere which spreads to widest space
Now soars the sigh that my heart sends above:
A new perception born of grieving Love
Guideth it upward the untrodden ways.
When it hath reached unto the end, and stays,
It sees a lady round whom splendors move
In homage; till, by the great light thereof
Abashed, the pilgrim spirit stands at gaze.
It sees her such, that when it tells me this
Which it hath seen, I understand it not,
It hath a speech so subtle and so fine.
And yet I know its voice within my thought
Often remembereth me of Beatrice:
So that I understand it, ladies mine.

Both of these versions of course have their charms. With some parts I found myself teetering between which translation I liked better. Below is one that I’m caught between.

I’ll start this time with part of a poem from the 1846 translation:

For ever, among all my sighs which burn,
There is a piteous speech
That clamors upon death continually:
Yea, unto him doth my whole spirit turn
Since first his hand did reach
My lady’s life with most foul cruelty.
But from the height of woman’s fairness, she,
Going up from us with the joy we had,
Grew perfectly and spiritually fair;
That so she spreads even there
A light of Love which makes the Angels glad,
And even unto their subtle minds can bring
A certain awe of profound marveling.

And here’s the same part in the 1992 translation:

And there is blended out of all my sighs
a chorus of beseeching
that constantly keeps calling upon Death.
Towards this has turned each one of my desires
since that day when my lady
was taken from me by Death’s cruelty.
This is because the pleasure of her beauty,
having removed itself from mortal sight,
was transformed into beauty of the soul
spreading throughout the heavens
a light of love that greets the angels there,
and moves their keen and lofty intellects
to marvel at such graciousness as hers.

With all of this said, Vita Nuova is (in my opinion) one of the more useful books of Western poetry. It’s not just a book of poems, but also a tutorial of sorts on the type of thinking that goes into writing traditional poetry. Dante gives deep insight into his trains of thought, and explains requests that were made to him for certain poems, and his process of going about completing those poems. It also contains his insight into the deeper value of poetry to express that which prose is often too clumsy to express—namely, going beyond surface meaning, to capture the inner feeling of an experience.



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4 Responses

  1. Buceli da Werse

    Thank you for your comments, Mr. Phillip. As you know many of us at SCP, like the British Romantics or the American Fireside poets, appreciate Dante’s poetry, from its earliest to its most mature phases. Of all the translators of Dante Alighieri, I suspect the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Rosetti would be the closest, because of the kind of poetry he wrote. Nevertheless, it is informative to see the sonnets of Dante’s you looked at with Dante’s sonnet itself. What I like about Musa’s translation, leaving behind the rhyme, is that Dante’s poetry nearly always seems more modern to me, and Musa’s seems the most modern. This may be because Dante wrote not only for his time, but for all time. As T. S. Eliot once said, the “style of Dante has a peculiar lucidity and… universality” about it. Here is his poem in Italian followed by the translation of James Russell Lowell, who like Rosetti, retained the rhyme.

    Oltre la spera che più larga gira
    passa ‘l sospiro ch’esce del mio core:
    intelligenza nova, che l’ Amore
    piangendo mette in lui, pur su lo tira.

    Quand’ elli è giunto là dove disira,
    vede una donna, che riceve onore,
    e luce si, che per lo suo splendore
    lo peregrino spirito la mira.

    Vedela tal, che quando ‘l mi ridice,
    io no lo intendo, si parla sottile
    al cor dolente, che lo fa parlare.

    So io che parla di quella gentile,
    però che spesso ricorda Beatrice,
    sì ch’io lo ‘ntendo ben, donne mie care.

    Beyond the sphere that hath the widest gyre
    Passeth the sigh that leaves my heart below;
    A new intelligence doth love bestow
    On it with tears that ever draws it higher;
    When it wins thither where is its desire,
    A Lady it beholds who honour so
    And light receives, that, through her splendid glow,
    The pilgrim spirit sees her as in fire;
    It sees her such, that, telling me again
    I understand it not, it speaks so low
    Unto the mourning heart that bids it tell;
    Its speech is of that noble One I know,
    For “Beatrice” I often hear full plain,
    So that, dear ladies, I conceive it well.

    Note the fluidity and translucence of Dante’s sonetto viz. the English translations. His poetry transcends his time, and that is why I admire it. May I say, without disturbing those great immortal voices of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the best writers in the modern linguistic traditions, his is the finest poetry of the World, with the caveat that neither his prose, nor his thoughts fit that that description, nor are there not other great qualities found in poetry.

  2. Satyananda Sarangi

    Hello Sir,

    This essay, I must confess, is a piece that could spark waves of curiosity in young poets who are beginning to know more about great ancient masters of poetry. It was very useful for me.


  3. kamran

    Hi Mr. Phillip, you wrote a very informative post and presented a useful comparison of two different versions. After reading this work of ancient times, I wonder that poetry has always been remained a big source to show someone’s love. I will also read the translation from Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, that you have mentioned.

  4. Suleman

    Hi Mr. Phillip,
    Your writing skills are very good and you write classic book review in good manners.
    Thanks for sharing.


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