Dec 20 2015
By Tim Rose

The powerful imagery of rebirth weaves itself through our world and history, appearing in major religious traditions and the spirituality of indigenous peoples, in story and song, in the sacred and the secular. Many tales of rebirth center around a crisis that becomes a catalyst for change—change which depends on the protagonist’s self-expression as the gateway to being reborn. 

In the year 1294, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, known widely as the author of the Divine Comedy, crafted a work that both described his rebirth and created it: La Vita Nuova. In this profound poem, Dante tells the tale of a woman he loved, Beatrice, who married someone else and died a few years later. His love for her abided after her death, and the crisis he faced became his catalyst for not only his spiritual rebirth, but his poetic rebirth. 

Dante transformed his grief for Beatrice into a profound religious dedication. Dante lost her both in this life (to marriage) and to the next (in her death). These losses could have consumed him. Instead, his poem shows how he used them to purify himself—her memory came to represent Divine Philosophy and guide him to ultimate truth, and his love for her was transformed into his love for the truth. 

The poem narrated a transformation, and it also facilitated one: in writing La Vita Nuova, a writer of love poems was reborn as a serious poet, one who would one day write his Divine Comedy. The groundbreaking La Vita Nuova, which was more personal than the work of his peers and combined prose and poetic verse in a new way, was the vessel of Dante’s artistic rebirth. 

And La Vita Nuova—translated as “the new life”—continues to be reborn itself as new generations encounter it. Poet Andrew Frisardi, whose translation of La Vita Nuova was published in 2012, lists over a dozen ways it has been understood over time, from a mystical mind’s journey to God, to an allegory in opposition to a corrupt Church, to an Augustinian-esque biography, and more. Its rich imagery allows new readers to find new meanings beneath its surface.

The imagery of rebirth affects us so powerfully because it expresses the human capacity for self-renewal and self-transformation, in the face of (and often because of) crises we face. Like Dante and like musician Bonnie McCoy, we can step boldly into our creative power to bring about our own spiritual and artistic rebirth—and when we use our creativity to transform ourselves, we open a space for others to begin their own process of rebirth. 

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