“Dante, Near and Far”

“There is much strange in La Vita Nuova, the libello or ‘little book’ that Dante composed fifteen or so years before starting in on the Divine Comedy. Take, for starters, the form of the book, an alternation of prose and poetry that produces effects as dizzying as any in Williams’s Spring and All. Or take the central narrative, which describes a love—young Dante’s, for the slightly younger Beatrice—so intense that it causes the poet to faint in public and forces him, poor lad, to write lying love poems to the donne dello schermo, the ‘screen ladies’ he uses to hide the real object of his affection. Take even Beatrice herself, who begins the book as a girl in a girdled dress only to reveal herself not long after as a miracle made flesh.

[. . .]

That night Dante has a dream, and—perhaps predictably, dreams being dreams—this is where things get weird. In his sleep the poet sees uno segnore di pauroso aspetto emerge from a fiery cloud. Despite his fearful aspect the lord is happy, very possibly because he is carrying in his arms a naked woman asleep beneath a crimson drape. After Dante realizes that the woman is Beatrice, the lord holds up a burning object and tells the dreaming poet, in Latin, Behold your heart. At that moment the lord wakes Beatrice and starts to force-feed her Dante’s flaming heart. With understandable reluctance, Beatrice eats the thing until the lord’s happiness mysteriously turns to grief and he carries her away, presumably to heaven.

[. . .]

Here, too, we get the chance to meet Dante at his most queasily familiar: not as a prodigy reveling in the warm validation of his peers, but as a callow poetaster hearing harsh words from a poet he respects. It’s probably too easy to admire da Maiano’s sonnet for its precocious snark, but I appreciate his poem even more for the rare gift it affords: the chance for once to meet Dante outside the glare of his own genius.”    –Robert P. Baird, The Best American Poetry, January 9, 2012