Dante’s ‘little book’ explores roots of modern self

“Vita Nova” by Dante Alighieri, translated with notes and introduction by Andrew Frisardi (Northwestern University Press, 408 pages, $24.95)

What makes us modern?

One answer involves a “sentimental education,” as Gustave Flaubert put it in his 19th-century novel by the same name:

We set out to discover – or create – a romantic narrative that defines who we are.

That concept alone would make Dante Alighieri – the 13th-century Italian poet best known for his magisterial “Divine Comedy”– a bona fide modern soul.

Indeed, the driving force behind Dante’s journey from Hell to Purgatory to Paradise in his three-volume epic poem turns out to be his romantic, then spiritualized love of Beatrice. Having died young, she eventually guides him into Paradise in the “Comedy’s” final stanzas.

Before he elevated Beatrice to the celestial spheres, however, Dante had spied her on the streets of Florence, at the precocious age of 9. Deeply stricken by her beauty and mystical charms, he later wrote what he called “his little book” about the event that gave birth to his romantic self – his first lesson in a sentimental education.

He called the book “Vita Nova,” or “new life,” written in the 1290s, when he was about 30 years old. And to ensure that his readers understood his self-understanding – expressed in the 31 lyric poems, mostly sonnets – he stitched together a prose narrative and explication, resulting in what was then called a “division of text” (poem, prose, poem, prose —with a series of tedious redundancies to boot).

Fortunately, Andrew Frisardi, a translator and scholar in Orvieto, Italy, has given Dante’s divided little book a compellingly clear and lively unity, handling both verse and prose with dexterity.

The result: a version of “Vita Nova” that is a delight to read. Throw in Frisardi’s exhaustive commentary and notes, and you will be able to account for virtually every nuance in this, Dante’s prelude to the “Comedy.”

Most earlier versions of “Vita Nova” rendered the divided text in prose only, the translators apparently intimidated by Dante’s relentless rhyme scheme and medieval meter.

Frisardi proves unbowed by such obstacles, delivering a set of rhyming poems in everyday English have a natural, pleasing flow and grace:

Come and take notice of my every sigh,

O noble hearts, for Mercy can’t say no.

My sighs, disconsolate, arise and go;

if not for them, suffering would make me die,

my eyes would be my debtors, broke thereby,

many more times than I would wish them to,

alas, in crying for my lady so

that they unleash my heart with how they cry.

Whether in poetry or prose, Dante’s sentimental education still has the stunning sweep of a modern self in full bloom. We can all take a lesson from his little book.