Dante's Hell

Cantos I. to X. A Literal Metrical Translation. By J. C. PEABODY. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.

A MAN must be either conscious of poetic gifts and possessed of real learning, or very presumptuous and ignorant, who undertakes at the present day a new translation of Dante. Mr. J. C. Peabody might claim exemption from this dictum, on the ground that his translation is not a new one; but he himself does not put in this plea, and we Cannot grant to him the possession of poetic power, or declare that he is not ignorant and presumptuous. He says in his Preface, with a modesty, the worth of which will soon become apparent, “The present is on a different plan from all other translations, and must be judged accordingly. While I disclaim all intention of disputing the palm as a poet or


“Art thou, then, that Virgil and that fountain which pours abroad so rich a stream of speech? I answered him with bashful front. O glory and light of other poets! May the long zeal avail me and the great love which made me search thy volume. Thou art my master and my author.”

Opening again at random, we take the two translations at the beginning of the Eighth Canto.


“I say, continuing, that long before we reached the foot of the high tower our eyes went upward to the summit, because of two flamelets that we saw put there; and another from far gave signal back,—so far that the eye could scarcely catch it. And I, turning to the Sea of all knowledge, said: What says this? and what replies yon other light? And who are they that made it?”

We open again in Cantos Nine and Ten, and find a like resemblance between Dr. Carlyle's prose and Mr. Peabody’s metre; but we have perhaps quoted enough to enable our readers to form a just idea of the latter person's “labor and plodding.” It is not, however, in the text alone that the resemblance exists. J. C. Peabody's scholar with the least of those who have walked with Dante before me, yet, by such labor and plodding as their genius would not allow them to descend to, have I made a more literal, and perhaps, therefore, a better translation than they all.” Mr. J. C. Peabody is right in supposing that none of the previous translations of Dante could descend to such labor and plodding as his. In 1819, Dr. Carlyle published his literal prose translation of the “Inferno.” It was in many respects admirably done, and it has afforded great assistance to the students of the poet in their first progress. Mr. Peabody does not acknowledge any obligations to it, or refer to it in any way. Let us, however, compare a passage or two of the two versions. We open at line 78 of tire First Canto. We do not divide Mr. Peabody’s into the lines of verse.


"Art thou that Virgil and that fountain, then, which pours abroad so rich a stream of speech? With bashful forehead him I gave reply, O light and glory of the other bards! Afay the long zeal and the great love avail me that hath caused me thy volume to explore. Thou art my master, thou my author art.”


“I say, continuing, that long before unto the foot of that high tower we came, our eyes unto its summit upward went, cause of two flamelets that we saw there placed; while signal hack another gave from far; so far the eye a glimpse could hardly catch. Then I to the Sea of all wisdom turned, and said: What sayeth this and what replies that other fire? And who are they that made it?

notes bear a striking conformity to Dr. Carlyle's, There are fourteen notes to the Second Canto in Mr. Peabody’s book,— all taken, with more or less unimportant alteration and addition, from Dr. Carlyle, without acknowledgment. Of the twelve notes to Canto Eight, nine are, with little change, from Dr. Carlyle. We have compared no farther; ex uno omnes. Now and then Mr. Peabody gives us a note of his own. In the First Canto, for instance, he explains the allegorical greyhound as “A looked for reformer. ‘The Coming Man.’” The appropriateness and elegance of which commentary will be manifest to all readers familiar with the allusion. In the Fourth Canto, where Virgil speaks of the condition of the souls in limbo, our professed translator says: “Dante says this in bitter irony. He ill brooks the narrow bigotry of the Church,” etc. etc., showing an utter ignorance of Dante’s real adherence to the doctrine of the Church. He has here read Dr. Carlyle’s note with less attention than usual; for a quotation contained in it from the “De Monarchiâ” would have set him right. The quotation is, however, in Latin, and though Mr. Peabody has transferred many quotations from the “Æneid” (through Dr. Carlyle) to his own notes, they are often so printed as not to impress one with a strong sense of his familiarity with the Latin language. We give one instance for the sake of illustration. On page 40 appear the following lines:—

Terribili squarlore Charon cui plurima mento
Canities inculta jucet; staut lumina flamina.

Nor is he happier in his quotations from Italian, or in his other displays of learning. Having occasion to quote one of Dante’s most familiar lines, he gives it in this way:—

Lasciatte ogni speranzi, voi ch'entrate.

Anacreon is with him "Anachreon”; Vallombrosa is “Vallambroso”; Aristotelian is “Aristotleian.” Five times (all the instances in which the name occurs) the Ghibelline appears as the “Ghiberlines”; and Montaperti is transformed into “Montapesti.”

Nor is J. C. Peabody’s poetic capacity superior to his honesty or his learning; witness such lines as these;—

“My parents natives of Lombardy were.”
“They’ll come to blood and then the savage party.”
“Like as at Palo near the Quarnāro.”
“I am not Æneas; I am not Paul.”

We have exhibited sufficiently the merits of what its author declares to be “perhaps a better translation” than any other. He says that “the whole Divine Comedy of which these ten cantos are a specimen will appear in due time." If the specimen be a fair one, the translation of the “Purgatory” and the “Paradise” will not appear until after the publication of Dr. Carlyle’s prose version, for which we may yet have to wait some time.

We are confident that so honorable a publishing house as that of Messrs. Ticknor and Fields must have been unaware of the character of a book so full of false pretences, when they allowed their name to be put on the title-page. But to make up for even unconscious participation in such a literary imposition, we trust that they will soon put to press the remainder of Dr. Parsons’s excellent translation of Dante’s poem, a specimen of which appeared so long since, bearing their imprint.