La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri (trans. David Slavitt). Harvard University Press. 160 pp., $18.95.
What Love Said
Dante met his Muse in Florence in 1274 when he was nine and the lady in question, his famous Beatrice (Bice Portinari), was eight. A decade later finds Dante writing and circulating his earliest known sonnets, all steeped in the exceedingly mannered medieval culture of courtly love, with its byzantine rationales and its fantastic avoidance of directness. In 1283 our young poet met Beatrice again, and in the same year he met and was befriended by an older and more seasoned poet named Guido Cavalcanti, and some essential element in Dante’s genius was ignited. That same year saw the production of the verses that would eventually become the foundation of Dante’s strangest, most personal, and most sublime work, La Vita Nuova, a sequence of shorter poems and longer canzoniere that nominally concentrates on the poet’s abiding fascinating with Beatrice, his grief at her death in 1290, and his tremulous attempts to take some kind of comfort from life in the aftermath of her passing. Dante formally composed the 31 poems of the Vita Nuova in the early 1290s as part of a vibrant conversation between himself and a group of like-minded poets, foremost of whom was Cavalcanti and all of whom were interested in the inner waves and tides, what a later age would call the psychology, of love itself.
It was a private conversation. The Vita Nuova was never intended for a general audience. Rather, it was polished, circulated, and discussed mainly among that group of like-minded poets and select readers among the nobility. It was a deeply traditional work in is precepts and preoccupations, in its manner, but it’s also a trailblazing thing, written in Italian rather than Latin and turning regularly to gaze upon itself in a way scarcely any love poetry had since Catullus. Dante presents the reader first with the narrative setting of each poem, then with the poem itself, and then, remarkably, with his own section-by-section breakdown of the poem the reader just read. In Dante’s own time and circle, those breakdowns were part of a new, fresh kind of poetry discussion, absolutely thrilling to those participating in it. To later centuries, secure in the fuller expressions of the poetic tradition Dante helped to create, those breakdowns seem baffling. The poetry of the Vita Nuova is so strange, mystical, and heartfelt that the work has devoted adherents who assert its superiority even over Dante’s later masterpiece, the Commedia, but the other things going on alongside the poetry have driven more than one of those devotees to despair.
More than one translator, too. Charles Eliot Norton mourned that the explicating passages weren’t themselves in verse (presumably thereby making them salvageable); Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose translations of the canzoniere themselves calls forth some of his finest work, could scarcely bring himself to look at the explicating passages (tradition has it that his brother stepped in to translate those sections). Perhaps more than one translator has been tempted by the measure David Slavitt adopts in his new version of the Vita Nuova when it comes to these sections: “I have always thought that these passages were unnecessary and boring, and I was not unhappy that my renditions of the poems meant that there were now inaccuracies in his [Dante's] line references. So I just got rid of them.”
This astonishing admission comes right at the beginning of this new little volume from Harvard University Press; it comes before the learned and amiable introduction by Seth Lerer in which he tells us “For any reader attuned to the nuances of these scholastic distinctions, the status of La Vita Nuova as a treatise on literary composition and criticism should come as no surprise”—making one wonder if Lerer actually read the version of Dante he’s introducing, and forcing one to speculate on just how surprised Slavitt himself would be to learn that Dante intended an element of literary criticism in his little book, that it wasn’t some kind of mistake on his part to append what Slavitt refers to as “Cliffs Notes” to his various ballads, much less a mistake so elementary and extraneous that a translator could just “get rid of them.”
Unfortunately, this is not a quibble. By including those sections of explication, Dante was remaining faithful to a medieval tradition of poetic dissection that went back for centuries. By composing those sections in Italian instead of Latin, Dante was looking toward the “sweet new style,” the dolce stil novo of groundbreaking poets like Cavalcanti. By “getting rid of” those sections because they’ve always struck him as boring, Slavitt calls into question his own basic understanding of the book he’s undertaken to translate. If Slavitt decided that the presence of Virgil in Dante’s Inferno was distracting and so excised him wherever he occurs (perhaps making him an internal dialogue Dante holds with himself), he’d be hooted from the stage—not just because such a decision wouldn’t work artistically, nor even mainly for that reason. No, the real reason could be summed up in a question, preferably growled in a Brooklyn accent: Who the hell are you to muck around with Dante?
Right out of the starting gate, thus, questions are raised about the role of the translator, and Slavitt knows it. “Translating prose, one is the author’s more or less sedulous clerk; translating poetry, one is, perforce, his partner.” A partner with a controlling interest, in this case, and one who at times displays an astounding ego. “Readers who do not face the prospect of an essay or examination will, I hope, be grateful”—grateful, that he’s stripped his translation of a third of what Dante wrote? Hope springs eternal, but this is asking a lot of readers who might be more interested in reading Dante than Slavitt.
So what, despite all that, is reading Slavitt like? The verses he creates are clearly and immediately accessible, as in the paradoxical lament in poem VII: “I become a poor/unfortunate beggar, neither halt nor blind/but pitiable still and longing for/a sympathy that would shame me—so I grind/my teeth and smile, although my heart is sore.” But although those lines might be accessible, they give no access to Dante, whose Si che volendo far come coloro/Che per vergogna celan lor mancanza/Di fuor mostro alleganza/E dentro de lo core struggo e ploro contains no mention of beggars—blind, halt, or otherwise—no mention of sympathy, no mention of smiling, and no mention of grinding teeth. In XXIV, the lovely “Primavera” sonnet, the spirit of Love comes to Dante and shows him Beatrice and another woman approaching—Love christens the other woman Springtime and calls Beatrice after his own name. Slavitt gives it this way:
A loving spirit that had begun to doze
in my heart I felt was stirring again to awake
as I saw Love approach me. Heaven knows
why he was cheerful. Was it to make
amends for his usual gloom? Perhaps he chose
this merry air to tease or for the sake
of demonstrating how he could impose
upon me and give orders that I must take.
But at that moment Vanna and Bice too
were coming down the street, each one a beauty,
and Love pointed at them and said on a whim
that the first was Springtime. And somehow I knew
he meant it. He wasn’t merely being cute. He
said the other was Love—and resembled him.
But again, this is as much Slavitt as Dante. In the original, a dialogue is taking place—Love is speaking to Dante, complete with quotation marks. Changing actual dialogue to reported dialogue mutes the directness of the whole poem—it was an option entirely open to Dante, and he didn’t take it, because he didn’t want the poem to read that way. The first thing Love says to Dante, “Or pensa pur di farme onore”—”Now think to do me honor”—isn’t even reported in Slavitt’s version; it’s disappeared, replaced by that business of Love issuing orders poor Dante has to follow, none of which is in the original. And the second part, the naming of the women, isn’t said “on a whim”—just the opposite in Dante’s earnest account. This isn’t a partnership; this isn’t a matter of nipping and tucking to make a meter; this is a very different poem, standing in place of Dante’s.
The whole work is like that; there are major changes in virtually every piece of verse, far too many to be accounted for by the dreamy, at times elusive nature of Dante’s lines. Thinking back to Slavitt’s own posited defense, the reader might turn to the prose sections of the Vita Nuova in hopes of something different. But no: for example, in the set-up to the heart-wrenching poem VIII (about the death of a young friend of Beatrice), Slavitt gives us this: “I was prompted to write a poem about her death in gratitude for having seen her at times with my lady. I alluded to this in the last part of the poem, as astute readers will doubtless notice.” But Dante’s sì come appare manifestamente a chi lo intende means “as will be clear to anybody who understands”—not only does it avoid the professorial “will doubtless notice,” but it doesn’t have the misleading implication of a general, public readership. And this, too, is the pattern for this translation rather than the exception. This particular clerk could have been a good deal more sedulous.
“Until you understand a writer’s ignorance,” Coleridge warns us, “presume yourself ignorant of his understanding.” The warning is more pertinent today than ever, when the blandishments of Wiki-knowledge lead seasoned translators into dreams of partnership with Dante. That brutal reality can often dash such dreams would have come as no surprise to Dante himself, who later in his life had a violent political falling-out with Cavalcanti. Dante put his erstwhile mentor in the sixth circle of Hell, the ring of heretics. Slavitt should pay heed: there’s always room for one more down there.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His writing has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Lifted Brow. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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