The New Life of Dante Alighieri


Translated by CHARLES ELIOT NORTON, Boston : Ticknor and Fields.
IN “ The New Life ” Dante tells how first he met Beatrice and loved her; but how he feigned that it was another lady he loved, making a defence of her and others still that his real passion might not be known ; how Beatrice would not salute him, believing him false and inconstant with these ladies, her friends ; how being at a banquet where she was, he was so visibly stricken with love that some of the ladies derided him; how Beatrice’s father died, and how Dante himself fell ill ; how Beatrice quitted the city, and soon after the world ; and how Dante was so grateful to another lady who pitied his affliction that his heart turned toward her in love, but he restrained it, and remained true to Beatrice forever. Part of this is told as the experience of children in years, Dante being nine at the time he first sees his love, and she of “ a very youthful age”; but the narrative then extends over the course of sixteen years. The incidents of the slight history furnish occasion for sonnets and canzonets, which often repeat the facts and sentiments of the prose, and which are again elaborately expounded.
Such is “The New Life,” — a medley of passionate feeling, of vaguest narrative, of scholastic pedantry. It is readily conceivable that to transfer such a work to another tongue with verbal truth, and without lapse from the peculiar spirit of the original, is a labor of great and unusual difficulty. The slightest awkwardness in the translation of these mystical passages of prose and rhyme connected by a thread of fact so fragile and so subtle that we must seem to have done it violence in touching it, would be almost fatal to the reader’s enjoyment, or even patience. Their version demands deep knowledge, not only of the language in which they first took form, but of all the civil and intellectual conditions of the time and country in which they were produced, as well as the utmost fidelity, and exquisite delicacy of taste. It appears to us that Mr. Norton has met these requirements, and executed his task with signal grace and success.
The translator of the “ Vita Nuova ” has not departed from the principle which Mr. Longfellow’s translation of the “ Commedia ” is to render sole in the version of poetry. Indeed, there was a greater need, if possible, of literalness in rendering the less than the greater work, while the temptations to “improvement” and modification of the original must have been even more constant. Yet there is a very notable difference between Mr. Longfellow’s literality and Mr. Norton’s, which strikes at first glance, and which goes to prove that within his proper limits the literal translator can always find room for the play of individual feeling. Mr. Longfellow seems to have developed to its utmost the Latin element in our poetical diction, and to have found in words of a kindred stock the best interpretation of the Italian, while Mr. Norton instinctively chooses for the rendering of Dante’s tenderness and simplicity a diction almost as purely Saxon as that of the Bible. This gives the prose of “The New Life” with all its proper archaic quality ; and those who read the following sonnet can well believe that it is not unjust to the beauty of the verse : —
“ So gentle and so modest doth appear
My lady when she giveth her salute,
That every tongue becometh, trembling, mute
Nor do the eyes to look upon her dare.
Although she hears her praises, she doth go
Benignly vested with humility ;
And like a thing come down, she seems to be,
From heaven to earth, a miracle to show.
So pleaseth she whoever cometh nigh.
She gives the heart a sweetness through the eyes,
Which none can understand who doth not prove.
And from her countenance there seems to move
A spirit sweet, and in Love’s very guise,
Who to the soul is ever saying, Sigh !”
Mr. Norton has in all cases kept to the metres of the original, but in most of the canzonets has sacrificed rhyme to literality, —a sacrifice which we are inclined to regret, chiefly because the translator has elsewhere shown that the closest fidelity need not involve the loss of any charm of the original. We have not room here to make any general comparison of Mr. Norton’s version with the Italian, but we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of giving the following sonnet, so exquisite in both tongues, for the better proof of what we say in praise of the translator : —
“ Negli occhi porta la mia donna Amore ;
Per che si fa gentil ciocch' ella mira :
Ove ella passa, ogni uom ver lei si gira,
E cui saluta fa tremar to core.
Sicche bassando ’! viso tutto smuore,
Ed ogni suo difetto allor sospira :
Fugge dinanzi a lei superbia ed ira.
Aiutatemi, donne, a farle onore.
Ogni dolcezza, ogni pensiero umile
Nasce nel core, a chi parlar la sente,
Onde è laudato chi prima la vide.
Quel, ch’ ella par, quando un poco sorride,
Non si puo dicer, ne tenere a mente ;
Si è nuovo miracolo, e gentile.”
“ Within her eyes my lady beareth Love,
So that whom she regards Is gentle made ;
All toward her turn, where’er her path is laid.
And whom she greets, his heart doth trembling move;
So that with face cast down, all pale to view,
For every fault of his he then doth sigh ;
Anger and pride away before her fly : —
Assist me, dames, to pay her honor due.
All sweetness truly, every humble thought,
The heart of him who hears her speak doth hold ;
Whence he is blessed who hath her seen erewhile.
What seems she when a little she doth smile
Cannot be kept in mind, cannot be told,
Such strange and gentle miracle is wrought.”
The poems are of course rendered with varying degrees of felicity, and this we think one of the happiest versions, though few in their literality lack that ease and naturalness of movement supposed to be the gift solely of those wonder-workers who render the “ spirit ” of an author, while disdaining a “ slavish fidelity ” to his words,— who as painters would portray a man’s expression without troubling themselves to reproduce his features.
It appears to us that generally the sonnets are translated better than the canzonets, and that where Mr. Norton has found the rhyme quite indispensable, he has all the more successfully performed his task. In the prose there is naturally less inequality, and here, where excellence is quite as important as in the verse, the translator’s work is irreproachable, His vigilant taste seems never to have failed him in the choice of words which should keep at once all the dignity and all the quaintness of the original, while they faithfully reported its sense.
The essays appended to the translation assemble from Italian and English writings all the criticism that is necessary to the enjoyment of “ The New Life,” and include many valuable and interesting comments by the translator upon the work itself, and the spirit of the age and country in which it was written.
The notes, which, like the essays, are pervaded by Mr. Norton’s graceful and conscientious scholarship, are not less useful and attractive.
We do not know that we can better express our very high estimate of the work as a whole, than by saying that it is the fit companion of Mr. Longfellow’s unmatched version of the “ Divina Commedia,” with which it is likewise uniform in faultless mechanical execution.