THE power of Dante lies in his use of words. There are many great works of fiction where the interest lies in the situation and development of the characters or in the wrought-up climax of the action, and where it is necessary to read the whole work before one can feel the force of the catastrophe. But Dante’s poem is a series of disconnected scenes, held together only by the slender thread of the itinerary. The scenes vary in length from a line or two to a page or two; and the power of them comes, one may say, not at all from their connection with each other, but entirely from the language in which they are given.
A work of this kind presents great difficulties to the translator, because the verbal felicities, to use a mild term, of any poem are essentially untranslatable. This may in some measure account for the dullness of translations of Dante. What English words, for instance, can render the mystery of that unknown voice that calls out of the deep, —
Torna sua ombra che era dipartita ” ?
The cry breaks upon the night, full of awful greeting, proclamation, prophecy, and leaves the reader standing next to Virgil, afraid now to lift up his eyes to the poet. Awe breathes in the cadence of the words themselves. And so with many of the most splendid lines in Dante, the meaning inheres in the very Italian words. They alone shine with the idea. They alone satisfy the spiritual vision. But for all this, Dante will always have plenty of translators. One cannot read him without thinking that if only these miraculous words could be exactly translated the effect would be great. His vivid fiery force of expression will probably to the end of time tempt persons of other nationalities to translate him ; yet in all likelihood there will be no adequate translation of his poem until a poet very nearly as great as Dante shall set himself to the task.
Of all the greatest poets, Dante is most foreign to the genius of the English race. From the point of view of English-speaking people, he is lacking in humor. It might seem at first blush as if the argument of his poem were a sufficient warrant for seriousness; but his seriousness is of a nature strange to northern nations. There is in it a gaunt and sallow earnestness which appears to us inhuman.
In the treatment of the supernatural the Teutonic nations have generally preserved a touch of humor. This is so intrinsically true to the Teutonic way of feeling that the humor seems to go with and to heighten the terror of the supernatural. When Hamlet, in the scene on the midnight terrace, addresses the ghost as “old mole,” " old truepenny,” etc., we may be sure that he is in a frenzy of excitement and apprehension. Perhaps the explanation of this mixture of humor and terror, of which many other instances might be given, is that when the mind feels itself shaken to its foundations by the immediate presence of the supernatural, palsied, as it were, with fear, there comes to its rescue, and as an antidote to the fear itself, a reserve of humor, almost of levity. Staggered by the unknown, the mind opposes it with the homely and the familiar. The northern nations were too much afraid of ghosts to take them seriously. The sight of one made a man afraid he should lose his wits if he gave way to his fright. Thus it has come about that in the sincerest terror of the north there is a touch of grotesque humor ; and this touch we miss in Dante. The hundred cantos of his poem are unrelieved by a single scene of comedy. The strain of exalted tragedy is maintained throughout. His jests and wit are not of the laughing kind. Sometimes they are grim and terrible, sometimes playful, but always serious and full of meaning. This lack of humor becomes very palpable in a translation, where it is not disguised by the transcendent beauty of Dante’s style.
There is another difficulty peculiar to translating Dante into English. English is essentially a diffuse and prodigal language. The great English writers have written with a free hand, prolific, excursive, diffuse. Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Browning, all the typical writers of English, have been many-worded. They have been men who said everything that came into their heads, and trusted to their genius to make their writings readable. The eighteenth century in England, with all its striving after classical precision, has left behind it no great laconic English classic who stands in the first rank. Our own Emerson is concise enough, but he is disconnected and prophetic. Dante is not only concise, but logical, deductive, prone to ratiocination. He set down nothing that he had not thought of a thousand times, and conned over, arranged, and digested. We have in English no prototype for such condensation. There is no native work in the language written in anything which approaches the style of Dante.
In translating a poem, the object is to make something that shall produce the effect, or some semblance of the effect, of the original. For those who have read the original no one can hope to do more than call up a reminiscence. Now, the form and metre of the original are the strongest means at the translator’s command for getting a resemblance of some kind, at least an external resemblance ; and he had need be a strong man who discards these in his translation. To translate a poem and reproduce it in a different metre is much as if one should transpose a piece of music from one instrument to another, and in so doing should change the time. It follows that a translation of Dante must be in terza rima, for the ear’s sake : otherwise it will not give an echo of Dante. But the terza rima has never been domesticated into English. It is rare that we find the metre in English poetry, and the rhymes fall in a way which at first puzzles the mind. The progressive sets of rhymes, each overlapping the other, weave a texture of verse close-knit and flexible, which has been aptly compared to a coat of mail. The requirements of this poetical form are strict, and the reduction of any thought to rhymed lines of a given length is a task requiring patience and ingenuity, as any one who has ever tried to write a sonnet — and who has not? — can witness. The terseness of the original Italian words cannot in general be imitated by the employment of the corresponding cognate or derivative words in English. Words of Latin origin, though the English tongue swarms with them, cannot be made to express the caustic sense of Dante. They are not close enough to the life of the language. And with the use of Saxon words comes an immense difficulty with the metre. Nothing can be farther from the linked sweetness of the Italian terza rima than the rough-hewn Saxon words. They end short, generally finishing in a consonant or two consonants, and they end very heterogeneously, so that rhymes are hard to find. In Italian almost all the rhymes are two-syllabled, for most Italian words are accented on the penultimate, and this feature of the language lends its aid in producing the native melody of the verge. In writing the following translation I have been especially conscious of its metrical shortcomings, some of which might perhaps have been avoided by a freer use of double rhymes.
So that I shook myself, springing upright,
Like one awakened by a sudden stroke,
And gazed with fixed eyes and new-rested sight
Slowly about me, — awful privilege, —
To know the place that held me, if I might.
In truth I found myself upon the edge
That girds the valley of the dreadful pit,
Circling the infinite wailing with its ledge.
Dark, deep, and cloudy, to the depths of it
Eye could not probe, and though I bent mine low,
It helped my vain conjecture not a whit.
“ Let us go down to the blind world below,”
Began the poet, with a face like death.
“ I shall go first, thou second.” “ Say not so,”
Cried I when I again could find my breath,
For I had seen the whiteness of his face,
“ How shall I come if thee it frighteneth ? ”
And he replied : “ The anguish of the place
And those that dwell there thus hath painted me
With pity, not with fear. But come apace ;
The spur of the journey pricks us.” Thus did he
Enter himself, and take me in with him,
Into the first great circle’s mystery
That binds the deep abyss about the brim.
Not cries, but sighs that filled the concave dim,
And kept the eternal breezes tremulous.
The cause is grief, but grief unlinked to pain,
That makes the unnumbered peoples suffer thus.
I saw great crowds of children, women, men,
Wheeling below. " Thou dost not seek to know
What spirits are these thou seest ? ” Thus again
My master spoke. “But ere we further go,
Thou must be sure that these feel not the weight
Of sin. They well deserved, — and yet not so. —
They had not baptism, which is the gate
Of Faith, — thou holdest. If they lived before
The days of Christ, though sinless, in that state
God they might never worthily adore.
And I myself am such an one as these. For this shortcoming — on no other score —
We are lost, and most of all our torment is
That lost to hope we live in strong desire.”
Grief seized my heart to hear these words of his,
Because most splendid souls and hearts of fire
I recognized, hung in that Limbo there.
Cried I at last, with eager hope to share
That all-convincing faith, — “but went there not
One, — once, — from hence, — made happy though it were
Through his own merit or another’s lot ? ”
“ I was new come into this place,” said he,
Who seemed to guess the purport of my thought,
“When Him whose brows were bound with Victory
I saw come conquering through this prison dark.
He set the shade of our first parent free,
With Abel, and the builder of the ark,
And him that gave, the laws immutable,
And Abraham, obedient patriarch,
David the king, and ancient Israel,
His father and his children at his side,
And the wife Rachel that he loved so well,
And gave them Paradise,—and before these men
None tasted of salvation that have died.”
But held our constant course along the track,
Where spirits thickly thronged the wooded glen.
And we had reached a point whence to turn back
Had not been far, when I, still touched with fear,
Perceived a fire, that, struggling with the black,
Made conquest of a luminous hemisphere.
The place was distant still, but I could see
Clustered about the fire, as we drew near,
Figures of an austere nobility.
“ Thou who dost honor science and love art,
Pray who are these, whose potent dignity
Doth eminently set them thus apart ? ”
The poet answered me, “ The honored fame
That made their lives illustrious touched the heart
Of God to advance them.” Then a voice there came,
“ Honor the mighty poet ; ” and again,
“ His shade returns, — do honor to his name.” And when the voice had finished its refrain,
I saw four giant shadows coming on.
They seemed nor sad nor joyous in their mien.
And my good master said : “ See him, my son,
That bears the sword and walks before the rest,
And seems the father of the three, — that one
Is Homer, sovran poet. The satirist
Horace comes next; third, Ovid ; and the last
Is Lucan. The lone voice that name expressed
That each doth share with me ; therefore they haste
To greet and do me honor; — nor do they wrong,”
graced The master of the most exalted song,
That like an eagle soars above the rest.
When they had talked together, though not long,
They turned to me, nodding as to a guest.
At which my master smiled, but yet more high
They lifted me in honor. At their behest
I went with them as of their company,
And made the sixth among those mighty wits.
Of things my silence wisely here omits,
As there ‘t was sweet to speak them, till we came
To where a seven times circled castle sits,
Whose walls are watered by a lovely stream.
This we crossed over as it had been dry,
Passing the seven gates that guard the same,
And reached a meadow, green as Arcady
Whose looks were weighted with authority.
Scant was their speech, but rich in melodies.
The walls receding left a pasture fair,
A place all full of light and of great size,
So we could see each spirit that was there.
And straight before my eyes upon the green
Were shown to me the souls of those that were,
Great spirits it exalts me to have seen.
Electra with her comrades I descried,
I saw Æneas, and knew Hector keen,
And in full armor Cæsar, gryphon-eyed,
Camilla and the Amazonian queen,
King Latin with Lavinia at his side,
Brutus that did avenge the Tarquin’s sin,
Lucrece, Cornelia, Martin Julia,
And by himself the lonely Saladin.
Amid the philosophic family.
All eyes were turned on him with reverent awe ;
Plato and Socrates were next his knee,
Then Heraclitus and Empedocles,
Thales and Anaxagoras, and he
That based the world on chance ; and next to these,
Zeno, Diogenes, and that good leech
The herb-collector, Dioscorides.
Orpheus I saw, Livy and Tally, each
Flanked by old Seneca’s deep moral lore,
Euclid and Ptolemy, and within their reach
Hippocrates and Avicenna’s store,
The sage that wrote the master commentary,
Averois, with Galen and a score
Of great physicians. But my pen were weary
Depicting all of that majestic plain
Splendid with many an antique dignitary.
To give the thought the thing itself conveys.
The six of us were now cut down to twain.
My guardian led me forth by other ways,
Far from the quiet of that trembling wind,
And from the gentle shining of those rays,
To places where all light was left behind.
John Jay Chapman.