From Longfellow’s translation of the Divine Comedy
This time, a poignant excerpt as Dante meets his muse Longfellow’s Victorian version of the great medieval allegory
“You look like the Wreck of the Hesperus,” my mother used to exclaim irritably, when I came in from play looking particularly dishevelled. No, she wasn’t a literary lady: she enjoyed “the flicks” rather more than books, and preferred knitting patterns to poetry. But, like anyone else who had gone to school in the first quarter of the 20th century, she’d been introduced to verse by the venerable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). As for me, I loved the swashbuckling sound of “Wreck of the Hesperus”, but years passed before I met the poem.
Longfellow’s verse was swept long ago from the school curriculum, but he was once, after Tennyson, the most popular poet in the English-speaking world. He wrote prose as well as poetry, epics as well as lyrics, was a master of metre, and fluent in many languages. Although hardly an iconoclast, he was no less concerned than later American poets with the project of forging a national literary identity. The much-parodied “The Song of Hiawatha” (which Longfellow called “the Indian Edda”) is a dull plod to the modern ear, but try instead the rangy dactylic hexameters of Evangeline, still a wonderfully readable “tearjerker” of a romance, set in Nova Scotia. Longfellow sometimes reminds me a little of Charles Dickens (whom he met in London in 1842). He can be sentimental, like Dickens, but he too is a master story-spinner and conjuror of atmosphere.
Longfellow began translating Dante’s La Divina Commedia at a sombre point in his life, after the death of his second wife in a fire. Instead of attempting hendecasyllables, the American poet uses blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He follows Dante’s syntax when he can, and writes compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.
I’ve chosen as this week’s “poem” an extract from Canto XXX of the Purgatorio. It describes an intensely emotional moment. Dante has reached the Earthly Paradise at the summit of Mount Purgatory. Having witnessed the Pageant of the Sacrament, he at last sees Beatrice: almost simultaneously, he discovers, to his dismay, that his guide, Virgil, “sweetest of all fathers,” is no longer at his side. For the first time in the whole Commedia, Dante’s name is used – and by Beatrice herself. But Beatrice’s address is stern and even a little sarcastic, her purpose not yet to welcome the poet but admonish him.
Subsequently, the Angels’ song reduces Dante, the pilgrim, to sobs. But Dante, the narrator, never loses control of pace or structure, and Longfellow’s style, too, is economical, though not always wholly natural-sounding.
Most, if not all, of the ellipses (“e’en”) and Latinate inversions (“continued she”) are inevitable for a translation of the period (the first edition appeared in 1867). The archaisms, in Beatrice’s speech, for example, would have seemed fitting in so deeply sacred a context. Today, translation’s “rules” are more flexible. And we prefer our English Dante in an earthier language, one which is perhaps closer, in spirit at least, to the poet’s Tuscan dialect. However, for a faithful translator of the Commedia, some formality is still unavoidable; Dante’s sentences are frequently complex, demanding, for instance, a spectrum of conjunctions not wholly natural to the terser poetic styles we use today.
Perhaps you prefer a different translation of the Purgatorio: you may even have worked on your own. Be copyright-conscious, but, otherwise, bring them on!
from Canto XXX, Purgatorio
“Dante, because Virgilius has departed
Do not weep yet, do not weep yet awhile;
For by another sword thou need’st must weep.”
E’en as an admiral, who on poop and prow
Comes to behold the people that are working
In other ships, and cheers them to well-doing,
Upon the left hand border of the car,
When at the sound I turned of my own name,
Which of necessity is here recorded,
I saw the Lady, who erewhile appeared
Veiled underneath the angelic festival,
Direct her eyes to me across the river.
Although the veil, that from her head descended,
Encircled with the foliage of Minerva,
Did not permit her to appear distinctly,
In attitude still royally majestic
Continued she, like unto one who speaks,
And keeps his warmest utterance in reserve:
“Look at me well; in sooth I’m Beatrice!
How dids’t thou deign to come unto the Mountain?
Dids’t thou not know that man is happy here?”
Mine eyes fell downwards into the clear fountain,
But, seeing myself therein, I sought the grass,
So great a shame did weigh my forehead down.
As to the son the mother seems superb,
So she appeared to me, for somewhat bitter
Tasteth the savour of severe compassion.
Silent became she, and the Angels sang
Suddenly, “In te, Domine, speravi:”
But beyond “pedes meos” did not pass.
Even as the snow among the living rafters
Upon the back of Italy congeals,
Blown on and drifted by Sclavonian winds,
And then, dissolving, trickles through itself
Whene’er the land that loses shadow breathes,
So that it seems a fire that melts a taper;
E’en thus was I without a tear or sigh,
Before the song of those who sing for ever
After the music of the eternal spheres.
But when I heard in their sweet melodies
Compassion for me, more than had they said,
“O wherefore, lady, dost thou thus upbraid him?”
The ice, that was about my heart congealed,
To air and water changed, and in my anguish
Through mouth and eyes came gushing from my breast.
“Car” – chariot
“Foliage of Minerva” – Beatrice was wearing the wreath of olive leaves associated with the goddess of wisdom
“In te, Domine, speravi…pedes meos” – The angels are singing Psalm 31, which begins, “In Thee, O Lord, have I placed my trust.” They stop at Verse 8: “Thou hast set my feet in a spacious place.”
“Living rafters” (“le vive travi”) – the pine-woods on the Apennines. The trees are frozen by the north wind from “Slavonia”, and thawed by the south wind from Africa.
(The text from which the extract from Canto XXX is taken is Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, illustrated by Gustave Doré, edited by Anna Amari-Parker, and published by Arcturus, London, 2006).
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/16/poem-of-the-week-longfellow-dante