The New Life - Dante Alighieri - E-Book

The New Life E-Book

Dante Alighieri

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The Vita Nuova (the Autobiography or Autopsychology of Dante's youth till about his twenty-seventh year) is already well known to many in the original, or by means of essays and of English versions partial or entire. It is therefore, and on all accounts, unnecessary to say much more of the work here than it says for itself. Wedded to its exquisite and intimate beauties are personal peculiarities which excite wonder and conjecture, best replied to in the words which Beatrice herself is made to utter in the Commedia: "Questi fu' tal nella sua vita nuova." Thus then young Dante was. All that seemed possible to be done here for the work was to translate it in as free and clear a form as was consistent with fidelity to its meaning; and to ease it, as far as possible, from notes and encumbrances.

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The New Life

The New LifePREFATORY NOTEINTRODUCTION.THE NEW LIFE. LA VITA NUOVA.I.II.I.II.NOTESCopyright

The New Life

Dante Alighieri

PREFATORY NOTE

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, being the son of an Italian who was greatly immersed in the study of Dante Alighieri, and who produced a Comment on theInferno, and other books relating to Dantesque literature, was from his earliest childhood familiar with the name of the stupendous Florentine, and to some extent aware of the range and quality of his writings. Nevertheless—or perhaps indeed it may have been partly on that very account—he did not in those opening years read Dante to any degree worth mentioning: he was well versed in Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Byron, and some other writers, years before he applied himself to Dante. He may have been fourteen years of age, or even fifteen (May 1843), before he took seriously to the author of theDivina Commedia. He then read him eagerly, and with the profoundest admiration and delight; and from theCommediahe proceeded to the lyrical poems and theVita Nuova. I question whether he ever read—unless in the most cursory way—other and less fascinating writings of Alighieri, such as theConvitoand theDe Monarchiâ.From reading, Rossetti went on to translating. He translated at an early age, chiefly between 1845 and 1849, a great number of poems by the Italians contemporary with Dante, or preceding him; and, among other things, he made a version of the wholeVita Nuova, prose and verse. This may possibly have been the first important thing that he translated from the Italian: if not the first, still less was it the last, and it may well be that his rendering of the book was completed within the year 1846, or early in 1847. He did not, of course, leave his version exactly as it had come at first: on the contrary, he took counsel with friends (Alfred Tennyson among the number), toned down crudities and juvenilities, and worked to make the whole thing impressive and artistic—for in such matters he was much more chargeable with over-fastidiousness than with laxity. Still, the work, as we now have it, is essentially the work of those adolescent years—from time to time reconsidered and improved, but not transmuted.Some few years after producing his translation of theVita Nuova, Rossetti was desirous of publishing it, and of illustrating the volume with etchings from various designs, which he had meanwhile done, of incidents in the story. This project, however, had to be laid aside, owing to want of means, and the etchings were never undertaken. It was only in 1861 that the volume namedThe Early Italian Poets, including the translatedVita Nuova, was brought out: the same volume, with a change in the arrangement of its contents, was reissued in 1874, entitledDante and his Circle. This book, in its original form, was received with favour, and settled the claim of Rossetti to rank as a poetic translator, or indeed as a poet in his own right.ForThe Early Italian Poetshe wrote a Preface, from which a passage, immediately relating to theVita Nuova, is extracted in the present edition. There are some other passages, affecting the whole of the translations in that volume, which deserve to be borne in mind, as showing the spirit in which he undertook the translating work, and I give them here:— “The life-blood of rhythmical translation is this commandment—that a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one. The only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty. Poetry not being an exact science, literality of rendering is altogether secondary to this chief law. I sayliterality,—not fidelity, which is by no means the same thing. When literality can be combined with what is thus the primary condition of success, the translator is fortunate, and must strive his utmost to unite them; when such object can only be obtained by paraphrase, that is his only path. Any merit possessed by these translations is derived from an effort to follow this principle.... The task of the translator (and with all humility be it spoken) is one of some self-denial. Often would he avail himself of any special grace of his own idiom and epoch, if only his will belonged to him: often would some cadence serve him but for his author’s structure—some structure but for his author’s cadence: often the beautiful turn of a stanza must be weakened to adopt some rhyme which will tally, and he sees the poet revelling in abundance of language where himself is scantily supplied. Now he would slight the matter for the music, and now the music for the matter; but no, he must deal to each alike. Sometimes too a flaw in the work galls him, and he would fain remove it, doing for the poet that which his age denied him; but no, it is not in the bond.”It may be as well to explain here a very small share which I myself took in theVita Nuovatranslation. When the volumeThe Early Italian Poetswas in preparation, my brother asked me (January 1861) to aid by “collating myVita Nuovawith the original, and amending inaccuracies.” He defined the work further as follows: “What I want is that you should correct my translation throughout, removing inaccuracies and mannerisms. And, if you have time, it would be a great service to translate the analyses of the poems (which I omitted). This, however, if you think it desirable to include them. I did not at the time (on ground of readableness), but since think they may be desirable: only have become so unfamiliar with the book that I have no distinct opinion.” On January 25th he wrote: “Many and many thanks for a most essential service most thoroughly performed. I have not yet verified the whole of the notes, but I see they are just what I needed, and will save me a vast amount of trouble. I should very much wish that the translation were more literal, but cannot do it all again.Mynotes, which you have taken the trouble of revising, are, of course, quite paltry and useless.”In order that the reader may judge as to this question of literality, I will give here the literal Englishing of the Sonnet at p. 38, and the paragraph which precedes it (I take the passage quite at random), and the reader can, if he likes, compare this rendering with that which appears in Dante Rossetti’s text:— “After the departure of this gentlewoman it was the pleasure of the Lord of the Angels to call to His glory a lady young and much of noble[1]aspect, who was very graceful in this aforesaid city: whose body I saw lying without the soul amid many ladies, who were weeping very piteously. Then, remembering that erewhile I had seen her keeping company with that most noble one, I could not withhold some tears. Indeed, weeping, I purposed to speak certain words about her death, in guerdon of my having at some whiles seen her with my lady. And somewhat of this I referred to in the last part of the words which I spoke of her, as manifestly appears to him who understands them: and then I composed these two Sonnets—of which the first begins, ‘Weep, lovers’—the second, ‘Villain Death.’ “Weep, lovers, since Love weeps,—hearkening what cause makes him wail: Love hears ladies invoking pity, showing bitter grief outwardly by the eyes; because villain Death has set his cruel working upon a noble heart, ruining that which in a noble lady is to be praised in the world, apart from honour. Hear how much Love did her honouring; for I saw him lamenting in very person over the dead seemly image: and often he gazed towards heaven, wherein was already settled the noble soul who had been a lady of such gladsome semblance.”It would be out of place to enter here into any detailed observations upon theVita Nuova, its meaning, and the literature which has grown out of it. I will merely name, as obvious things for the English reader to consult, the translation which was made by Sir Theodore Martin; the essay by Professor C. Eliot Norton; the translations published by Dr. Garnett in his book entitledDante, Petrarch, Camoens, 124 Sonnets, along with the remarks in his valuableHistory of Italian Literature; Scartazzini’sCompanion to Dante; and the publications of the Rev. Dr. Moore, the foremost of our living Dante scholars.W. M. Rossetti.August 1899.

INTRODUCTION.

TheVita Nuova(the Autobiography or Autopsychology of Dante’s youth till about his twenty-seventh year) is already well known to many in the original, or by means of essays and of English versions partial or entire. It is therefore, and on all accounts, unnecessary to say much more of the work here than it says for itself. Wedded to its exquisite and intimate beauties are personal peculiarities which excite wonder and conjecture, best replied to in the words which Beatrice herself is made to utter in theCommedia: “Questifù talnella sua vita nuova.”[2]Thus then young Dantewas. All that seemed possible to be done here for the work was to translate it in as free and clear a form as was consistent with fidelity to its meaning; and to ease it, as far as possible, from notes and encumbrances.It may be noted here how necessary a knowledge of theVita Nuovais to the full comprehension of the part borne by Beatrice in theCommedia. Moreover, it is only from the perusal of its earliest and then undivulged self-communings that we can divine the whole bitterness of wrong to such a soul as Dante’s, its poignant sense of abandonment, or its deep and jealous refuge in memory. Above all, it is here that we find the first manifestations of that wisdom of obedience, that natural breath of duty, which afterwards, in theCommedia, lifted up a mighty voice for warning and testimony. Throughout theVita Nuovathere is a strain like the first falling murmur which reaches the ear in some remote meadow, and prepares us to look upon the sea.Boccaccio, in his Life of Dante, tells us that the great poet, in later life, was ashamed of this work of his youth. Such a statement hardly seems reconcilable with the allusions to it made or implied in theCommedia; but it is true that theVita Nuovais a book which only youth could have produced, and which must chiefly remain sacred to the young; to each of whom the figure of Beatrice, less lifelike than lovelike, will seem the friend of his own heart. Nor is this, perhaps, its least praise. To tax its author with effeminacy on account of the extreme sensitiveness evinced by this narrative of his love, would be manifestly unjust, when we find that, though love alone is the theme of theVita Nuova, war already ranked among its author’s experiences at the period to which it relates. In the year 1289, the one preceding the death of Beatrice, Dante served with the foremost cavalry in the great battle of Campaldino, on the eleventh of June, when the Florentines defeated the people of Arezzo. In the autumn of the next year, 1290, when for him, by the death of Beatrice, the city as he says “sat solitary,” such refuge as he might find from his grief was sought in action and danger: for we learn from theCommedia(Hell, C. xxi.) that he served in the war then waged by Florence upon Pisa, and was present at the surrender of Caprona. He says, using the reminiscence to give life to a description, in his great way:— “I’ve seen the troops out of Caprona goOn terms, affrighted thus, when on the spotThey found themselves with foemen compass’d so.”(Cayley’sTranslation.)A word should be said here of the title of Dante’s autobiography. The adjectiveNuovo,nuova, orNovello,novella, literallyNew, is often used by Dante and other early writers in the sense ofyoung. This has induced some editors of theVita Nuovato explain the title as meaningEarly Life. I should be glad on some accounts to adopt this supposition, as everything is a gain which increases clearness to the modern reader; but on consideration I think the more mystical interpretation of the words, asNew Life(in reference to that revulsion of his being which Dante so minutely describes as having occurred simultaneously with his first sight of Beatrice), appears the primary one, and therefore the most necessary to be given in a translation. The probability may be that both were meant, but this I cannot convey.[3]

THE NEW LIFE. LA VITA NUOVA.

In that part of the book of my memory before the which is little that can be read, there is a rubric, saying,Incipit Vita Nova.[4]Under such rubric I find written many things; and among them the words which I purpose to copy into this little book; if not all of them, at the least their substance.Nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost, as concerns its own revolution, when first the glorious Lady of my mind was made manifest to mine eyes; even she who was called Beatrice by many who knew not wherefore.[5]She had already been in this life for so long as that, within her time, the starry heaven had moved towards the Eastern quarter one of the twelve parts of a degree; so that she appeared to me at the beginning of her ninth year almost, and I saw her almost at the end of my ninth year. Her dress, on that day, was of a most noble colour, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her very tender age. At that moment, I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words:Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi.[6]At that moment the animate spirit, which dwelleth in the lofty chamber whither all the senses carry their perceptions, was filled with wonder, and speaking more especially unto the spirits of the eyes, said these words:Apparuit jam beatitudo vestra.[7]At that moment the natural spirit, which dwelleth there where our nourishment is administered, began to weep, and in weeping said these words: