Years ago, I had a roommate who regularly teased me for my taste in movies. Sure, I liked artsy cinema and even enjoyed blockbusters as much as the next person, but the films to which I returned time and again were what my roommate called “sadboy movies.” For those unfamiliar with the word, “sadboy” is a slightly derogatory term for the kind of scrawny, ponderous young men who listen to mopey British pop music from the ’80s and considers getting a tattoo with a quotation from Camus or Belle & Sebastian. My roommate found it ridiculous that I habitually re-watched films like  Days of Summer, The Graduate, Garden State, Rushmore, and Metropolitan.
But what attracted me to these films? Many were well-directed, yes, and they often had excellent soundtracks, but more often, I think, I sympathized with the difficulties of the protagonists. Despite my outgoing personality and generally upbeat attitude, as a single twenty-something living in a major metropolitan area, I felt in my bones that, as Genesis puts it, “it is not good for man to be alone.” I yearned for marital, familial love, the kind of love the men in these films desire and take faulting, often self-destructive, steps toward.
It may seem crass to those more cultured than I, but these films helped me to appreciate the subject of this article, Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”). This book, issued nearly fifteen years before the poet began composing the undisputed treasure of Western literature that is the Commedia, shares many traits with the later masterpiece. It is told in the first-person with a semi-fictionalized Dante as the protagonist, it prominently features the lady Beatrice, and it grapples with the relationship between earthly love and divine love. But at the same time, La Vita Nuova is indisputably the work of a young man, a man whose passions (and poetic compositions) are still discovering the place they ought to have in the world. Thankfully, though, Dante’s ‘immature’ juvenilia is far greater and more penetrating a work than most poets can ever compose in the entire course of their lives.
The New Life and the courtly love tradition
There is no getting around it: if you pick up La Vita Nuova without knowing anything about the background it will seem to be a very odd book. The work, which is made up of alternating prose and poetry, opens by telling the story of how the nine-year-old Dante fell in love with a little girl named Beatrice. Dante tells of how, upon seeing the eight-year-old Beatrice, the “spirit of life” appeared to him, saying “behold a god more powerful than I, who comes to rule over me,” and the “animal spirit” tells Dante, “now has appeared your beatitude.” Dante then spends the rest of his life in love with this woman, though never communicating this love to Beatrice.
This, I think it’s safe to say, is not a contemporary love story. Where our love stories are between two (generally very attractive) adults with intense chemistry, there is little implication of a sexual side to Dante’s passion. And where our love stories are only interested in telling a very earthly story, Dante connects his devotion towards Beatrice with devotion to God. Finally, and most obviously, where our love stories put great emphasis on confession of feelings and the couple ‘getting together,’ Dante never seems to consider telling Beatrice what is happening in his heart, and there is no question at any point of any romantic incident occurring between the two.
This last is where it is helpful to consider the tradition within which Dante was working, namely, that of ‘courtly love.’ Developing over the course of the Middle Ages, this tradition is connected with the noble courts where the ideals of chivalry evolved. The prototypical courtly love poem would be the expression of a troubadour’s love for a noblewoman to whom he was not—and never would be—married. Many works have discussed this subject over the centuries, but perhaps the most influential contemporary discussion of the ideals of courtly love is that of Andreas Capellanus’ De amore (On Love), which, among other things, advises readers that, “Love made public rarely endures.”
It has become fashionable in recent decades to claim that marriage was, until recently, an essentially economic endeavor, and that romantic love is a fundamentally modern idea. This argument is advanced by both those on the Left, who trumpet modern notions of love and the sexual libertinism it supposedly requires, and those on the Right, who bemoan them. For many who hold this position, the courtly tradition of love poetry, with its focus on romantic passion and its apathy towards marriage, plays a crucial role in the evolution of romantic love. Personally, I am skeptical of the claim that romantic love has historically had little connection to marriage. Putting aside the fact that ancient Greek figures (most famously Plato) composed extremely powerful discussions of eros, and even putting aside ancient tales of marriage, such as those found in the Old Testament where what we would call ‘love’ is clearly present, I have a more fundamental objection to this idea: it ignores human nature.
While it is true that our social arrangements shift and transform down the centuries, human nature is a constant. We are just as we have been since the Fall and as we shall continue to be until the Eschaton. Thus, while I agree with critics of modern notions of romantic love that marriage ought to be founded on a surer footing than mere sexual chemistry if it is to survive, this in no way implies that romantic love is a fundamentally harmful or dangerous thing, only that it needs to be tempered by grace and reason. To consider how that might be done, let’s return to Dante’s own love.
The love of Beatrice
Some speak of La Vita Nuova as a kind of rebuke of the tradition of courtly love poetry, but I think this goes too far. Dante owes much to its predecessors (as he admits in the Commedia) and not just to the ancients. Yes, he famously idolizes Virgil, but this work bares the marks of many more courtly influences. Composed in Dante’s own vernacular, Tuscan Italian, rather than the traditional Latin, La Vita Nuova is clearly conceived as a work of courtly love poetry. (Vernacular poetry was generally considered necessarily inferior at the time of the work’s writing, and Dante later wrote a work, De Vulgari Eloquentia, in defense of vernacular composition.)
That being said, Dante is obviously developing the tradition of courtly love poetry. In his intermingling of Christian and pagan elements (which he would later perfect in the Commedia), he turns Beatrice into a sort of icon of the Christian God. I say “icon” and not “idol” very intentionally, as Dante is careful to make clear in the work that Beatrice is not some kind of rival to God, as she might become in a lesser poet’s verses. Instead, through extensive numerological symbolism and gorgeous verse (that should be heard in Italian whether or not you know the language), Dante places Beatrice always within the context of God’s love for mankind. Indeed, something as small as Beatrice greeting him calls his mind immediately to the love of God.
Just as in his later masterpiece, for Dante, his beloved is a path to God. In addition to its pedigree going back to the works of Plato, this idea constitutes an insight that finds its fullest expression within the context of the Christian Faith. The Triune God who is Love calls His creation back to Himself, offering salvation to lost and weary people. While the fullness of salvation is only experienced in the next world, there are gifts and consolations offered as we walk through this vale of tears. One for which I am especially grateful (and of which Dante’s works often remind me) is marriage, which God instituted from the beginning of the world.
Love & marriage (& God)
Throughout La Vita Nuova, the character of the young Dante seems almost terrified of others discovering his feelings for Beatrice. As a result, he even allows them to think that he has feelings for other women. There is undeniably something odd about the subterfuge he attempts to pull off, and commentators have had no end of discussion of it. Indeed, if misread, La Vita Nuova could seem to be advocating the kind of quiet pining of which ‘sadboys’ are justifiably accused.
I propose, however, that what is most important is not the subterfuge, but the Divine Love that, as Dante says in a later work, “moves the sun and the other stars.” This Love, namely the Love that the three Persons of the Godhead have for one another and for creation, can seem far removed from human life. In a world where evil surrounds us and the Devil is ever lurking, it is crucial to see the places where this Love bursts through. One of the clearest images of this Love, as I briefly indicated above, is a devoted marriage.
In my own life, it has been striking to see the ways that marriage incarnates the Love God shares with me. Yes, I can go hours without appreciating my wife and son, but then there might be a single moment that transcends the mundane. Just as Beatrice’s greeting brings Dante’s mind immediately to God, similarly a kind word from my wife or a smile from my son can call me out from myself and lead me to thank God for the great gift of Christian marriage.
While Dante wrote with wonderful power 700 years ago about how our experiences of love can help us to know God, we today also benefit from more recent reflections on the topic. Indeed, while the last century has experienced the horrors of the sexual revolution and its aftermath, it has also seen a renewed focus within Christian theology on the sacrament of marriage. While I think that this focus at times has the unintended negative consequence of overshadowing crucial discussions about the celibate life, I am thankful for these discussions all the same.
Perhaps the most famous Christian treatment of marriage in recent decades is that of Pope St. John Paul II. Over the course of his pontificate (and before it), he wrote and spoke on many occasions of the beauty and importance of married love between a man and his wife. My wife and I have benefitted both from Pope John Paul’s written works and his intercession. Pope John Paul wrote:
Marriage is the ‘most ancient revelation (manifestation) of the plan [of God] in the created world, with the definitive revelation and manifestation—the revelation that ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,’ conferring on his redemptive love a spousal character and meaning.
This, I think, is a crucial point for Christians to acknowledge. Marriage is a microcosm, and giving oneself to it can help us to cultivate a right relation with God and the world. Christian marriage calls husband and wife to love one another selflessly, but even when they fail, the marriage is still there serving as an icon of God’s Love.
Dante’s treatment of love in La Vita Nuova does not focus on marriage, but I think these considerations help us to enter more fully into his poetry. Dante’s love for Beatrice can help us to understand the Love of God. Indeed, Dante’s later growth into the poet who depicts the wedding feast of the Lamb in the last part of the Commedia, the Paradiso, feels almost like the natural development of La Vita Nuova. This work, more accessible than the Commedia, is a wonderful book that rewards our attention and calls us to love, not just with the heart of man, but with a heart transformed by God’s Love.