From Dante’s Vita nova

by Andrew Frisardi

In this episode of the Vita nova, the protagonist (Dante) has a vision of the imminent death of Beatrice, who, as we learn later in the story, died when she was still young. I have added a few notes on allusions and symbols in this passage.

Once, it happened that a painful illness came over a certain part of my body, so I was in bitter pain for nine days in a row, which reduced me to such a weak condition that I had to stay put like a paralytic. I tell you that on exactly the ninth day, (*) when I was in so much pain it was almost intolerable, a thought about my lady came over me. And after having thought about her for a while, I went back to thinking about my debilitated life; and seeing how fleeting it was, even when it was healthy, I started to weep over such misery. Then, letting out a great sigh, I told myself: “There is no escaping the fact that the most gracious Beatrice will have to die some day.” As a result, such powerful turmoil came over me that I closed my eyes and started to suffer like someone in a delirium, imagining things.(§)

As my fantasy started to stray, faces of women appeared, their hair loose,(#) telling me, “You too will die.” Then, after these women, certain strange faces appeared, horrible to look at, telling me: “You are dead.” With my fantasy starting to stray like this, I came to a point at which I didn’t know where I was. And I seemed to see women walking along with their hair all loose, crying as they went, in extraordinary pain. And it seemed I saw the sun go dark, so that the stars showed a color that made me think they were weeping; and it seemed that the birds flying through the air were falling dead, and that there were tremendous earthquakes. (**)

And marveling over that fantasy, and full of fear, I imagined that a friend came to say: “Don’t you know now? Your miraculous lady has left this world.”(§§)

Then I started to sob piteously—I wasn’t crying only in imagination but I was crying with my eyes, wetting them with real tears.

I imagined that I was looking toward the sky, and I seemed to see a multitude of angels ascending,(## ) and they had in front of them a little pure-white cloud.(***) It seemed that these angels were singing in glory, and I seemed to hear the words of their song as “Osanna in excelsis”—Hosanna in the highest (§§§)—and it seemed I heard nothing else.

Then it seemed that my heart, where so much love was, said to me: “Truly our lady lies dead.” And at this I seemed to go to see the body in which that most noble and beatified soul had been; and the straying fantasy was so intense that it showed me this lady dead; and it seemed that women were covering her—that is, her head—with a white veil. And it seemed that her face had such a humble look that it seemed to be saying: “I am gazing upon the very source of peace.”

In this fantasy, so much humility came over me by seeing her that I called on Death, saying: “Sweet Death,(### ) come, and don’t be cruel to me, for you must be gracious, having been in such a place! Now come to me; I desire you so much, as you can see, that I already have your color.”
 
And when I had seen all the mournful rites that are customarily done with the bodies of the dead, it seemed that I returned to my room, and there I seemed to be looking toward the sky; and my fantasy was so strong that, weeping, I started to say with my actual voice: “O beautiful soul, blessed is he who sees you!”

And once I had said these words with an agonized tearful sob, calling on Death to come to me, a young and gracious woman, who was beside my bed, believing that my crying and talking were only caused by the suffering brought about by my illness, started to cry because she was so afraid. So, other women who were in the room became aware of me, that I was crying, because of this woman’s bursting into tears. And they had her leave my side—she who was joined to me by the closest of blood ties (****)—and drew near me to wake me up, believing that I was dreaming, and they said to me: “Don’t sleep anymore,” and “Don’t despair.”
 
And as they were speaking to me like this, my powerful fantasy ceased at the very moment when I was about to say, “O Beatrice, blessed are you”; and I had already said, “O Beatrice,” when, starting suddenly awake, I opened my eyes and saw that I had been deceived. And for all I called on this name, my voice was so broken by sobbing that these women could not understand me, as it seemed to me; and although I felt thoroughly ashamed, by some admonition of Love I faced them.

And when they saw me, they started saying: “He seems to be dead,” and to one another, “Let’s try to soothe him.” So that they spoke many comforting words to me, and at times they asked me what had frightened me. As a result of which, feeling somewhat recovered and having recognized my unreal fantasy, I responded to them: “I will tell you what happened to me.” Then I told them from beginning to end what I had seen, staying silent about the name of this most gracious of creatures.

Later, having recovered from this illness, I planned to compose a poem about what happened to me, since it seemed to me to be a love theme worthy of an audience. And so I wrote this canzone, “A woman green in years, compassionate.”

A woman green in years, compassionate,
and graced by all her warm humanity,
present when I called out to Death in prayer,
seeing my eyes so piteously wet
and hearing me rave in my insanity,
was moved to wild weeping by the scare.
And other women, who were made aware
of me because she cried with me that day,
then sent her on her way,
as they drew near to rouse me for my sake.
And one said, “Stay awake,”
and one, “Why are you filled with such despair?”
My baffling fantasy, I overcame
as I was calling out my lady’s name.

My voice came out so painfully distressed,
so broken up by all my choking cries,
my heart’s own name was only heard by me.
Despite the rank humiliation pressed
across my face and showing in my eyes,
Love turned me toward them in my agony.
My color at that point was such to see,
it made them whisper death was on my brow:
“Here, let us soothe him now,”
the women gently said as they converged.
And several times they urged:
“What did you see that made your forces flee?”
And when I was a bit more reassured,
I said, “I’ll tell you, ladies, what occurred.

“While I was thinking how my life’s so frail,
how brief the interval the years allot,
within my heart, Love’s home, I heard Love cry;
at which my soul was so beyond the pale,
I panted breathless as I had this thought:
‘I know my lady one day has to die.’
With that I felt so full of panic, I,
disconsolate, let shut my heavy lids—
my spirits, like invalids,
so weakened that they wandered off in awe.
As if in dream I saw—
estranged from truth and consciousness thereby—
some women’s faces menacing and glum,
repeating: ‘Death will come . . . Your death will come.’

“And I saw many things, grim and abstruse,
as I entered in the unreal vision-scene.
I seemed someplace—just where, I couldn’t guess—
where women walked along with their hair loose,
and some shed tears and some unleashed a keen
that discharged fiery arrows of distress.
Then bit by bit it seemed I saw progress
the sun’s darkening when first a star appears,
both sun and star in tears;
and the birds flying through the air fall down,
and tremors shake the ground.
A man appeared, spectral and colorless,
who said: ‘Come on. Do you know what befell?
Your lady’s dead, who was so beautiful.’

“I raised my eyes, all wet with tears I’d cried,
and saw, appearing like a shower of manna,
angels returning in a heaven-tending spate;
and saw a little cloud before them glide,
in the wake of which they all proclaimed, ‘Hosanna!’—
if they had said still more, I’d tell you straight.
Love said: ‘I won’t hide it from you or wait;
come with me now to see our lady’s corpse.’
The fantasy that warps
transported me to see my lady dead:
I saw her there outspread
where women laid a veil upon her state.
She had such humbleness in her decease,
it seemed that she was saying: ‘I am at peace.’

“I felt so humbled by my suffering,
to see such humbleness was traced in her,
that I said: ‘Death, I deem you most humane;
you must by now be such a gracious thing,
considering you have been placed in her,
that you are full of mercy not disdain.
See? I have come with such a thirst to gain
a place with yours, that I resemble you.
Come, for my heart asks too.’
I left when I had spent each doleful moan,
and when I was alone,
I said, as I looked toward the high domain:
‘He’s blessed, O lovely soul, who sees your face!’
And then you women called me by your grace.”

—trans Andrew Frisardi

Dante: Donne pietosa e di novella etate

Donna pietosa e di novella etate,
adorna assai di gentilezze umane,
ch’era là ’v’io chiamava spesso Morte,
veggendo li occhi miei pien di pietate,
e ascoltando le parole vane,
si mosse con paura a pianger forte.
E altre donne, che si fuoro accorte
di me per quella che meco piangia,
fecer lei partir via,
e appressarsi per farmi sentire.
Qual dicea: “Non dormire,”
e qual dicea: “Perché sì ti sconforte?”
Allor lassai la nova fantasia,
chiamando il nome de la donna mia.

Era la voce mia sì dolorosa
e rotta sì da l’angoscia del pianto,
ch’io solo intesi il nome nel mio core;
e con tutta la vista vergognosa
ch’era nel viso mio giunta cotanto,
mi fece verso lor volgere Amore.
Elli era tale a veder mio colore,
che facea ragionar di morte altrui:
“Deh, consoliam costui,”
pregava l’una l’altra umilemente;
e dicevan sovente:
“Che vedestù, che tu non hai valore?”
E quando un poco confortato fui,
io dissi: “Donne, dicerollo a vui.

“Mentr’io pensava la mia frale vita,
e vedea ’l suo durar com’è leggiero,
piansemi Amor nel core, ove dimora;
per che l’anima mia fu sì smarrita,
che sospirando dicea nel pensero:
‘Ben converrà che la mia donna mora.’
Io presi tanto smarrimento allora,
ch’io chiusi li occhi vilmente gravati,
e furon sì smagati
li spirti miei, che ciascun giva errando;
e poscia imaginando,
di caunoscenza e di verità fora,
visi di donne m’apparver crucciati,
che mi dicean pur: ‘Morra’ti, morra’ti.’

“Poi vidi cose dubitose molte,
nel vano imaginare ov’io entrai;
ed esser mi parea non so in qual loco,
e veder donne andar per via disciolte,
qual lagrimando, e qual traendo guai,
che di tristizia saettavan foco.
Poi mi parve vedere a poco a poco
turbar lo sole e apparir la stella,
e pianger elli ed ella;
cader li augelli volando per l’are,
e la terra tremare;
ed omo apparve scolorito e fioco,
dicendomi: ‘Che fai? Non sai novella?
morta è la donna tua, ch’era sì bella.’

“Levava li occhi miei bagnati in pianti,
e vedea, che parean pioggia di manna,
li angeli che tornavan suso in cielo,
e una nuvoletta avean davanti,
dopo la qual gridavan tutti: Osanna;
e s’altro avesser detto, a voi dire’lo.
Allor diceva Amor: ‘Più nol ti celo;
vieni a veder nostra donna che giace.’
Lo imaginar fallace
mi condusse a veder madonna morta;
e quand’io l’avea scorta,
vedea che donne la covrian d’un velo;
ed avea seco umilità verace,
che parea che dicesse: ‘Io sono in pace.’

“Io divenia nel dolor sì umile,
veggendo in lei tanta umiltà formata,
ch’io dicea: ‘Morte, assai dolce ti tegno;
tu dei omai esser cosa gentile,
poi che tu se’ ne la mia donna stata,
e dei aver pietate e non disdegno.
Vedi che sì desideroso vegno
d’esser de’ tuoi, ch’io ti somiglio in fede.
Vieni, ché ’l cor te chiede.’
Poi mi partia, consumato ogne duolo;
e quand’io era solo,
dicea, guardando verso l’alto regno:
‘Beato, anima bella, chi te vede!’
Voi mi chiamaste allor, vostra merzede.”

___________

Notes

* One of the many allusions in the Vita nova that implicitly compares Beatrice to Christ. See Mark 15:34: “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, . . . ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”

§ Several commentators have noted that a vision of Beatrice’s death would be “illusory” precisely because she is actually in eternal life.

# Women in Dante’s time loosened their hair as a sign of mourning.

** Many commentators have recognized in this section allusions to signs in scripture of the death of Jesus and the end of the world. There is an echo of the death of Christ in Matt. 24:29: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened”; and of Ezek. 32:7: “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark”; and of Isa. 13:10: “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light.” See also Rev. 6:12–14: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

§§ From wording in the liturgical Office of the Dead: “anima . . . quam hodie de hoc saeculo migrare iussisti [the soul . . . whom Thou hast bidden this day to pass out of this world].”

## Luke 2:13–15: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’ . . . the angels went away from them into heaven.”

*** The cloud is a typical accessory in the visionary repertoire, to contain a soul or some form—see, for example, medieval accounts of the lives of the saints. Also, Acts 1:9, about Jesus’s ascension: “And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

§§§ From Matt. 21:9 and Mark 11:10, describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

### Same as the words of St. Francis, recorded by Tommaso da Celano in the Legenda secunda S. Francisci (Second Life of St. Francis): “Come to me sweet sister death.”

*** Believed to be one of Dante’s two stepsisters, born of his father’s second marriage.

Hear the Canzone in English:

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And in Italian

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