The Northern Way

Song and Legend From the Middle Ages

Italian Literature


Page 1

There was no folk poetry and no popular literature in Mediaeval Italy. There were two reasons for this: [1] Italian history, political and intellectual, attaches itself very closely to that of Rome. The traditions of classic learning never died out. Hence the Italian nation was always too learned, to literary to develop a folk literature. [2] Italy was for many centuries dominated by ecclesiastical influence, and the people's minds were full of matters of religious and scholastic philosophy, which excluded art.

The Italians translated and adapted some of the epics, romances, and tales of other countries, during the earlier years of the Middle Ages; but they were written in Latin, or in a kind of French. They produced none of their own. There was no literature written in Italian before the thirteenth century.

In the thirteenth century (1250) there came the first outburst of Italian literature---religious songs, love songs, dramas, and tales. In almost every part of Italy men began to write. But it was in Tuscany, in Florence, that the most remarkable literary development of this period appeared. it was of the nature chiefly of lyric and allegoric poetry. The work of this group of Tuscan poets was really the beginning of Italian literary art. Yet it was a finished art product, not at all like the beginnings of poetry in other countries.

The group numbered a dozen poets of considerable power and skill. The greatest of them and the greatest of Italian poets was Dante Alighieri. In Italian mediaeval literature three names stand out far above all others. They are Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. So completely do they overshadow their contemporaries, that in making our selection of Italian literature we shall confine ourselves entirely to these three.

Dante Alighieri was born at Florence, in May, 1265, and died at Ravenna in September, 1321. he had an eventful and pathetic life. He was much in public affairs. he was banished from his native city in 1302, and died in exile. His literary work is represented chiefly by the following titles: Vita Nuova, the New Life; Convito, The Banquet; De Monarchia, A Treatise on Monarchy; De Vulgari Eloquio, A Treatise on the Vulgar Tongue; and Divina Commedia, his masterpiece and the master-work of the Middle Ages.


The Vita Nuova is a work of Dante's youth, a record of his early life and love. The title may be translated either Early Life or The New Life. From the nature of the work we may infer that the latter translation conveys the poet's thought. It implies that after his first sight of Beatrice he began a new existence. He saw her first when he was nine years old. Nine years later she greeted him for the first time. Inspired by this greeting he began the Vita Nuova. (1) It is written in prose interspersed with sonnets and canzoni. We select for reproduction some of the sonnets from Rossetti's translation.

I. Sonnets telling to other ladies the praise of Beatrice.

Ladies that have intelligence in love

Of mine own lady I would speak with you;

Not that I hope to count her praises through,

But telling what I may to ease my mind.

And I declare that when I speak thereof

Love sheds such perfect sweetness over me

That if my courage failed not, certainly

To him my listeners must be all resign'd.

Wherefore I will not speak in such large kind

That mine own speech should foil me, which were base;

But only will discourse of her high grace

In these poor words, the best that I can find,

With you alone dear dames and damozels:

'Twere ill to speak thereof with any else.

------- -------- -------- ---------

My lady is desired in the high Heaven;

Wherefore, it now behoveth me to tell,

Saying: Let any maid that would be well

Esteemed, keep with her; for as she goes by,

Into foul hearts a deadly chill is driven

By Love, that makes ill thoughts to perish there;

While any who endures to gaze on her

Must either be ennobled, or else die.

When one deserving to be raised so high

Is found, 'tis then her power attains its proof,

Making his heart strong for his soul's behoof

With the full strength of meek humility.

Also this virtue owns she, by God's will:

Who speaks with her can never come to ill.

II. On the death of Beatrice.

When mine eyes had wept for some while until they were so weary with weeping that I could no longer through them give ease to my sorrow, I bethought me that a few mournful words might stand me instead of tears. And therefore I proposed to make a poem, that weeping I might speak therein of her for whom so much sorrow had destroyed my spirit; and I thus began:

The eyes that weep for pity of the heart

Have wept so long that their grief languisheth,

And they have no more tears to weep withal:

And now if I would ease me of a part

Of what, little by little, leads to death,

It must be done by speech, or not at all,

And because often, thinking I recall

How it was pleasant ere she went afar,

To talk of her with you, kind damozels,

I talk with no one else,

But only with such hearts as women's are.

And I will say,---still sobbing as speech fails,---

That she hath gone to Heaven suddenly,

And hath left Love below, to mourn with me.


"Dante once prepared to paint an angel."

"You and I would rather see that angel

Painted by the tenderness of Dante,---

Would we not?---than read a fresh Inferno."

----Brownings One Word More

On that day which fulfilled the year since my lady had been made of the citizens of eternal life, remembering me of her as I sat alone, I betook myself to draw the resemblance of an angel upon certain tablets. And while I did thus, chancing to turn my head, I perceived that some were standing beside me to whom I should have given courteous welcome, and that they were observing what I did; also I learned afterwards that they had been there a while before I perceived them. Perceiving whom, I arose for salutation and said: "Another was with me."

Afterwards, when they had left me, I set myself again to mine occupation, to wit, to the drawing figures of angels; in doing which, I conceived to write of this matter in rhyme, as for her anniversary, and to address my rhymes unto those who had just left me. It was then that I wrote the sonnet which saith "That Lady":

That lady of all gentle memories

Had lighted on my soul; whose new abode

Lies now, as it was well ordained of God,

Among the poor in heart where Mary is.

Love, knowing that dear image to be his,

Woke up within the sick heart sorrow-bowed,

Unto the sighs which are its weary load,

Saying, "Go forth." And they went forth, I wis


1. When Dante first saw Beatrice she was eight years old. From that hour he says he loved her. She was the inspiration of his early poem; and afterward, in the Divine Comedy, she became the embodiment of his conception of divine wisdom. She was married quite young to Simon di Bardi, a citizen of Florence. She died in 1290, when only twenty-four years old.  (back)

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