The First Canticle [Inferno] of the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri


Translated by THOMAS WILLIAM PARSONS. Boston : De Vries, Ibarra, and Company.
WHILE we must own that we have no sympathy with the theory of free translation, we recognize the manifold merits of execution in this work, and accept it as one which, together with Mr. Longfellow’s version of the whole of Dante’s Divina Commedia, and Mr. Norton’s translation of the Vita Nuova, will make the present year memorable in our literature. It does not necessarily stand in antagonism to works executed in a spirit entirely different, and we shall make no comparison of it with the “Inferno” by Mr. Longfellow, the admirers of which will be among the first to feel its characteristic and very striking excellences.
In substituting the decasyllabic quatrain for the triple rhyme of the Italian, we suppose Dr. Parsons desired rather to please the reader’s ear with a familiar stanza, than to avoid the difficulties (exaggerated, we think, by critics) of the terza rima, and he could certainly have chosen no more felicitous form after once departing from that of his original, He has almost re-created the stanza for his purpose, giving it new movement, and successfully adapting to the exigencies of dialogue and of narrative what has hitherto chiefly been associated with elegiac and didactic poetry. Something of this may be seen in the following passages (from the description of the transit through the frozen circle of Caina), which moreover appear to us among the best sustained of the version.
” And as a frog squats croaking from a stream,
With nose put forth, what time the village maid
Oft in her slumber doth of gleaning dream,
Stood in the ice there every doleful shade.
Livid as far as where shame paints the cheek.
And doomed their faces downward still to hold,
Chattering like storks, their weeping eyes bespeak
Their aching hearts,their mouths the biting cold. ”
“ A thousand visages I saw, by cold
Turned to dog-faces ; horror chills me through
Whenever of those frozen fords I think.
And as we nearer to the centre drew,
Towards which all bodies by their weight mus sink,
There, as I shivered in the eternal chill,
Trampling among the heads, it happed, by luck,
Or destiny — or, it may be, my will —
Hard in the face of one my foot I struck.
Weeping he cried, ‘ What brings thee bruising us ?
Unless on me fresh vengeance thou wouldst pile
For Mont’ Aperti, why torment me thus ? ’
And I : ‘My Master, wait for me awhile,
That I through him may set one doubt at rest;
Then, if thou bid me hasten on, I will.’
My leader stopped ; and I the shade addressed
Who kept full bitterly blaspheming still,
‘ Say, who art thou whose tongue so foully speaks V
‘ Nay, who art thou that walk’st the withering air
Of Antem, smiting others’ cheeks
That, vert thou living, ’t were too much to bear ? ’
‘ Living I am ; and thou, if craving fame,
Mayst count it precious,’ — this was my reply, —
‘ That I with other notes record thy name.’
He answered thus : ‘Far other wish have I.
Trouble me now no longer, — get thee gone :
Thine is cold flattery in this waste of Hell.’
At this his hindmost hairs I fastened on,
And cried, ‘ Thy name ! I ’ll force thee now to tell,
Or not one hair upon thy head shall grow.’
He answered thus: ‘Although thou pluck me bare,
I ’ll neither tell my name, nor visage show ;
Nay, though a thousand times thou rend my hair.’
“ I held his tresses in my fingers wound,
And more than one tuft had I twitched away
As he, with eyes bent down, howled like a hound ;
When one cried out, ‘ What ails thee, Bocca ? say, —
Canst thou not make enough clack with thy jaws,
But thou must bark too ? What fiend pricks thee now ? ’
‘ Aha ! ’ said I, ‘ henceforth I have no cause
To bid thee speak, thou cursed traitor thou !
I ’ll shame thee, bearing truth of thee to men.’
‘ Away ! ’ he answered : ' what thou wilt, relate:
But, shouldst thou get from hence with breath again,
Mention him too so ready with his prate.”
The encounter of Dante with Farinata and Cavalcante in their fiery tombs is also painted with such animated and fortunate strokes that we must reproduce some of them here : —
“ ‘ O Tuscan ! thou who com’st with gentle speech.
Through Hell’s hot city, breathing from the earth,
Stop in this place one moment, I beseech :
Thy tongue betrays the country of thy birth.
Of that illustrious land I know thee sprung,
Which in my day perchance I somewhat vexed.'
Forth from one vault these sudden accents rung.
So that I trembling stood with fear perplexed.
Then as I closer to my master drew.
‘ Turn back ! what dost thou?’ he exclaimed in haste ;
‘ See ! Farinata rises to thy view ;
Now mayst behold him upward from his waist.’
“ Full in his face already I was gazing.
While his front lowered, and his proud bosom swelled,
As though even there, amid his burial blazing,
The infernal realm in high disdain he held. ’
In this scene, however, the radical defect of Dr. Parsons’s work appears : it is unequal, and unsustained even in some of its best parts. It seems scarcely credible that the poet who could produce the grand lines just given, could also mar the whole effect of the father’s frantic appeal to know if his son Guido be no longer alive, by putting in his mouth the melodramatic words,
“ Sayest thou, ‘he had’? what mean ye ! is he dead ? ”
But our translator does this, and he makes Ugolino report little Anselm as saying,
“ Thou look’st so, father ! what’s the matter, what”
— aline that Melpomene herself could not read with tragic effect, — for,

“ Disse , tu guardi si, padre ; che hai ? ”

As he likewise causes Francesca to say,
“ Love quick to kindle every gentler breast
Fired this fond being with the lovely shape
Bereft me so ! ”
“ Amor, che al cor gentil ratto s’appreade ;
Prese costui della bella persona
Che mi fu tolta ”;
“ Where Po descends in Adria’s peace to rest
Raging with all his rivulets no more,”
“ Su la marina dove 'l Po descend
Per aver pace eo' seguaci sui.”
Indeed, we have to confess that the present is on the whole not a satisfactory translation of the episode of Francesca da Rimini. The inscription on the gate of hell, also, is rendered in a manner scarcely to be called successful, and not bearing comparison with that of the other rhyming translators, — Ford, Wright, and Cayley. As to the beginning of the seventh canto, we must think that Dr. Parsons was chiefly moved by the prevailing sentiment of mankind to translate
“ Pape Satan ! gape Satan aleppe ! ”
“ Ho Satan ! Pope ;—more Popes—head Satan here!”
These and other blemishes arrest the most casual glance. The merits of any work are harder to prove than its faults, though they are quite as deeply felt; and, as we have already intimated, it is the misfortune of Dr. Parsons that some of his greatest defects are in passages otherwise the most generally successful. There are probably few pages of the translation which do not offend by some lapse ; but at the same time there is no page which will not command admiration by sublime and striking lines. We think the whole of the following passage from the thirteenth canto (it is the well-known description of the sentient wood into which the self-violent are turned) has a peculiar strength and dignity : —
“ Amid the branches of this dismal grove.
Their loathsome nests the brutal Harpies build.
Who from the Strophades the Trojans drove
With woful auguries erelong fulfilled.
Huge wings they have, men’s faces, human throats,
Feet armed with claws, vast bellies clothed with
plumes :
From those strange trees they pour their doleful notes.
‘ Now, ere thou further penetrate these glooms,’
Said my good master, ‘ thou shouldst understand
Thou ’rt in the second circlet, ami shalt be,
Until thou come upon the horrid sand.
Give good heed then : more wonders thou shalt see,
Yea, to confirm all stories I have told.’
On every side I heard heart-rending cries.
But not a person could I there behold :
Wherefore I stopped, bewildered with surprise.
Methinks he thought I thought the voices came
From some that, hiding, in the thicket lay :
Because the Master said, ‘ If thou but maim
One of these plants, yea, pluck a branch away.
Then shall thy judgment be more just than now.'
Therefore my hand I slightly forward reached ;
And while I wrenched away a little bough
From a huge bush, ‘Why mangle me?’ it screeched”
Then, ns the dingy drops began to start,
‘ Why dost thou tear me ? ' shrieked the trunk again,
‘ Hast thou no touch of pity in thy heart ?
We that now here are planted, once were men ;
But, were we serpents’ souls, thy hand might shame
To have no more compassion on our woes ':
Like a green log, that hisses in the flame,
Groaning at one end, as the other glows, —
Even as the wind comes sputtering forth, I say,
Thus oozed together from the splintered wood
Both words and blood. I dropped the broken spray,
And, like a coward, faint and trembling stood.
This picture, also, of the apparition of the angel who opens the gates of Dis is done with a hand as firm as it is free : —
“ As frogs before their enemy, the snake,
Quick scattering through the pool in timid shoals,
On the dank ooze a huddling cluster make,
I saw above a thousand ruined souls
Flying from one who passed the Stygian bog,
With feet unmoistened by the sludgy wave ;
Oft from his face his left hand brushed the fog
Whose weight alone, it seemed, annoyance gave.
At once the messenger of Heaven I kenned,
And toward my master turned, who made a sign
That hushed I should remain, and lowly bend.
Ah me, how full he looked of scorn divine ! ”