On First Looking Into Chapman's Dante

— Mr. Chapman might have taken, as motto for his interesting essay in translation of the fourth canto of the Inferno, Dante’s own testimony in the Convito ( i. 7) : “ And therefore let every one be aware that nothing harmonized in service of the Muse can be changed from its own speech to another without breaking all its sweetness and harmony.” For, like every intelligent translator, Mr. Chapman has approached his task with that serious comprehension of its difficulties which is the prime step to their conquest.

To speak frankly, the opening paragraph of his article seems curiously inadequate in its judgment of Dante. Only from a foreign and a purely literary point of view could it be considered that the power of Dante lay in his use of words. To his compatriots, his power is that of the prophet of Italian unity, moral and political, and of the poet, maker of the language of his nation. Also, it is a myopic vision of the great structure of the Commedia that sees in it only disconnected details. Tower and arch, carven wreath and grinning gargoyle, are parts of an ordered design, and balance, even presuppose, one another. Great is the power of Dante’s word, because this is the terse symbol of his scheme of life, evolved through many years of smouldering isolation.

Mr. Chapman’s adoration of the word of Dante has availed him in his metrical version, which is vigorous, well cadenced, and at times surprisingly fortunate. Yet it is certain that the translator of a great poem has at best only a choice in sacrifice. Fidelity is his whole duty; and the means to this end are somewhat dependent upon the nature of the poem. For example, the early lyrics of Dante, — entirely mediæval in tonality, — with their pearly atmosphere and pure, rather rigid outlines, are well rendered by Rossetti’s kindred yet unique idiom. But the grave, intense, sharply individualized Commedia, in which the last word of the Middle Ages chimes with the exordium of the Renaissance, requires a different method of version. Its philosophy and diction are essential; its grace of terza rima only can be spared. In English poetry, rhythm is more intimately effective than rhyme ; and the closely wreathed Italian measure, blossoming in threefold clusters of soft assonances, is at best poorly represented by the diffusive English, dropping from its verses monosyllables hard as nuts. Mr. Chapman notes the inadequacy of the English derivatives from the Latin to imitate the cognate Italian. This is true ; and yet it may be part of the poetic office to restore these words, departed, sometimes degraded, from their prime meaning, or laid on the shelf, like formal best clothes of thought.

Surely, one is bound to convey the message of Dante as directly as may be ; and it will always prove a supreme difficulty to retain the terza rima without offense to the tradition of his boast that rhymes never led him aside. On the whole, we may well rest content with Professor Longfellow’s translation of the Commedia, which mirrors the thought and word of Dante in a metre peculiarly akin to the spirit of the English language. The first and elect bringer of Old World beauty to the new continent would not, without serious decision, have denied to his art the satisfaction of the terza rima.

Finally, Mr. Chapman is to be congratulated upon the scholarly ease of his translation. Rarely does he step quite off the path of Dante ; yet these few new footprints are noticeable. The only important divergence, however, occurs in lines 115 and 116, which I should render (bound not to disturb the translator’s rhymes) : —

“ We went aside to a place free of air
And luminous, whereto the ground made rise.”

But I am not minded to put myself (as says the Italian proverb) in the place of the hare as well as of the hunter, and hasten to return to the safer ground of the critic to note that a pair of griffin’s eyes have been unadvisedly thrust by Mr. Chapman into the eye-sockets of armed Cæsar. Grifagno means, not griffin, but gerfalcon ; and from that word flashes the keen black glance of the great Roman. And finally, something is missed of the splendid tautology where the word “ honor ” in its various forms — orrevol, onori, orranza, onrata, onorate — resounds, us when “ the note of a trumpet is heard from the right hand, and from the left another answers.”