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The New Life (La Vita Nuova) Kindle Edition
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And unto which these words may now be brought
For true interpretation and kind thought,
Be greeting in our Lord’s name, which is Love.
Of those long hours wherein the stars, above,
Wake and keep watch, the third was almost nought,
When Love was shown me with such terrors fraught
As may not carelessly be spoken of.
He seemed like one who is full of joy, and had
My heart within his hand, and on his arm
My lady, with a mantle round her, slept;
Whom (having wakened her) anon he made
To eat that heart; she ate, as fearing harm.
Then he went out; and as he went, he wept.
The Kindle (fre)e-book is the Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with an introduction:
... This may possibly have been the first important thing that he translated from the Italian: ... 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.
A youthful translator befits a youthful book, perhaps:
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 the Commedia; but it is true that the Vita Nuova is 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.
This is a beautiful and arcane book, and Rossetti's English versions of Dante's poetry and prose, although they may seem betrayals to those who know the Italian, are in themselves wonderful, again, especially to the young:
Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.
The poems of The New Life, though arranged as chronological narrative, were not written as a cycle; indeed, many date from Dante’s youth. The first, for example, is an extraordinary dream poem originally sent for comment to Guido Cavalcanti. Guido was older than Dante and a proud, disdainful Florentine Guelf. He was quick to seize on the sonnet’s strong psychological implications. Love appears as a feudal lord. In his arms he holds a sleeping woman, who is naked except for a blood-red cloak thrown about her. In his hand he holds the poet’s heart. Love then awakens the woman, convinces her to eat the poet’s heart, then departs with her, and the dream ends. Though written considerably earlier than The New Life, this sonnet sets the psychological tone for the entire work. Without knowing, the lady has consumed the poet’s heart and, by extension, his soul and his life; the poet’s own love is the means by which she has done this.
Poems, however, constitute only one part of The New Life. Accompanying them are two kinds of commentary. The first is prose narrative that illuminates the verse that follows it. The second, which immediately follows and appears whenever the poet deems necessary, is a commentary on the poem’s prosody itself. For example, the commentary on the dream poem notes that it is divided into two parts, that it initiates a response and resolves it, and that it was controversial when Dante had first circulated it, but that it ultimately won for him a special friend and mentor (Cavalcanti), who, however, remains unnamed.
This second variety of commentary breaks the narrative of the prose commentaries that introduce and link the verse; nevertheless, the commentaries on prosody indicate that the process through which Dante created The New Life is just as important to him as the work itself. Admittedly, Dante handles his concern with aesthetics less gracefully in this work than in The Divine Comedy; still, the privileged place that he implicitly assigns to prosody by including technical commentaries indicates his clear thesis that a poet grows artistically in direct proportion to the poem as it is written.
Even at the point when Beatrice dies, the logical climax and the place where one might expect some particularly personal element to appear, Dante refuses to allow it. Instead, he introduces a quotation from the lamentations of the book of Jeremiah to suggest the depth of his grief, notes that he cannot provide details about her death, and in the following section precisely calculates by the Arabic method the hour, day, and month on which she died. The result is that the reader dwells upon the mystical nature of the experience. The poet first encounters the woman as she begins her ninth year, and she dies on the ninth day of the ninth month. Thus, although one can calculate that the unnamed love dies on June 8, 1290 (by the Roman calendar), the affair becomes universalized, even stylized, in a way that implies a symmetry in the stages of life.