The Vita Nuova comes to an abrupt end in the next section, where Dante declares that, after writing this sonnet, he had a “miraculous vision”—the contents of which he does not disclose—which made him decide to speak no further of Beatrice until he could do so in a more worthy manner. He goes on to say (in Slavitt’s translation): “I am now exerting myself to reach that goal,” expressing the hope “that my life may last a few years more.”
Dante’s life did last a few more years after he wrote those words. In the following decade he went on to write some of his best lyric poems, in particular the four canzoni known as the Rime Petrose (the Stony Rhymes). In 1295 he enrolled in one of the mercantile guilds of Florence, which allowed him to hold public office. In 1300 he was elected to serve as one of the priors of the Florentine Republic. That same year he voted, along with the other priors, to banish the heads of the haughty magnate families that had been perpetuating the violent feud between the White and Black factions of the Florentine Guelph party. One of the people exiled in that decree was Dante’s one-time friend Guido Cavalcanti, from whom he had become estranged a few years earlier, for reasons unknown. In one of his extant sonnets addressed to Dante we find Guido complaining about Dante’s dark moods and the sort of company he was keeping. Be that as it may, Guido’s exile to Sarzana proved to be fatal. Within a few months he contracted malaria and died in August 1300. It is impossible to know how much guilt Dante felt about this outcome; all we know for sure is that Guido’s spirit haunts the Divine Comedy like an unappeased ghost.
Two years later Dante himself would be exiled from Florence after the Black faction, conniving with Pope Boniface VIII, took control of the city. For a while he aligned himself with other Florentine exiles who ineptly plotted an overthrow of the Blacks, yet he soon broke with them in disgust and formed, as he put it, “a party of one.” He spent several years in humiliating poverty, dependent on the charity of patrons in various courts of central and northern Italy. During his first five years of exile he wrote and left unfinished two important treatises—De Vulgari Eloquentia and Convivio. Then sometime around 1307 he suffered what today would be called a clinical depression. He felt he had gone utterly astray, spiritually speaking, as if in a dark wood. Try as he may, he could not move forward. Then something happened, and a way opened up to him. The way took the form of a poem he called the Comedìa, later to be known as the Divina Commedia.
The Commedia is one of the boldest and most improbable undertakings in literary history. It is extremely unlikely that Dante could have pulled it off had he not spent the last twenty years of his life in exile (he died in 1321, shortly after finishing the Paradiso). It is a poem written by a man who finds himself lost in a wilderness. Yet it is equally unlikely that he could have written such a poem had he not also received from Beatrice, while she was alive, a lasting infusion of hope. What saved him in his moment of bewilderment was, among other things, his resistance to despair.
In Canto 2 of the Inferno we learn that Beatrice, descending from Heaven into Limbo, sent Virgil to Dante’s rescue in his moment of danger, as Dante found himself lost in the dark wood of Inferno 1. With Virgil as his guide, the Commedia‘s pilgrim undertakes a grim journey through the circles of Hell, followed by an arduous trek up the terraces of the mountain of Purgatory. Virgil takes him as far as the Garden of Eden, where he turns him over to Beatrice, who will be Dante’s guide as they ascend the nine spheres of Heaven. The Beatrice we meet in the Commedia both is, and is not, the Beatrice of the Vita Nuova. The latter was not a fictional character but a real, historically incarnate woman who served as the inspirational basis for the more allegorical character of the Commedia.
It is impossible to say exactly what it was about the living Beatrice that caused Dante to believe that, years after her death, she had played a part in his rescue during the darkest hour of his midlife crisis. Clearly there was more to her than poetic hyperbole, courtly idealization, or what Freud would call overestimation of the erotic object. What makes the Vita Nuova such a singular testament is that, despite its best efforts, it fails to account for the enigma of this mortal woman with whom Dante exchanged only occasional formal greetings while she lived. This failure is one that keeps the Vita Nuova open-ended, projected into future possibilities. It contains within itself the evidence of things unseen and the substance of things hoped for—as in the hope Dante expresses at the end of the book “to say of [Beatrice] what has never been said of any woman.”