Recent Dante Literature

MODERN comment upon Dante appears to share the positive and searching spirit of the century, which bases itself upon " the document ” and is skeptical of all but proven facts. This temper of our time, provided it shall not mistake the means for the end, is the best augury for the art of the imminent future as well as a virtue of present criticism. It restores to humanity the personages of history, removing from them the cloak of legend with which Oblivion subtly covers great men dead. The coming generation of writers, thanks to those who now take pains to divest truth of all that is fictitious, will find themselves free to interpret with imaginative art that which is at present discussed, judged, and announced.

Two volumes concerning Dante — Professor Charles Eliot Norton’s prose translation of the Inferno,1 and the late Mr. Charles Sterrett Latham’s version of Dante’s Letters,2 with relative comment — are published simultaneously, and are representative, each in its own way, of the modern criticism. Certainly there is place and office for a prose version of the Commedia; while at the same time it is not too much to affirm that Mr. Longfellow’s translation in blank verse is and will remain the definitive English text. In it the original metre is retained, the system of rhyme only remitted ; the flexibility and freedom of poetic construction are its prerogative; its fidelity to the diction of Dante is unsurpassable even by literal prose. No poet has, more than Longfellow, possessed the power of sweetly compelling words to his will, and of meeting halfway the spirit of alien speech. This gift availed him supremely in his work of translating the Commedia, where upon the limpid element of his art the divine epic “ floats double, swan and shadow.”

Therefore it does not appear to us that there was lacking a version of the Commedia in which substance should not “ be sacrificed for form’s sake.” but instead that the value of Professor Norton’s translation consists in its individual excellence, and in the quick appeal which prose, devoid of the slight barriers that verse sets before the eye rather than the mind, is able to make to the reader’s intelligence. Narrative is, perhaps, more directly persuasive when it renounces the conditions and the privileges of poetic form. An interesting testimony, however, to the intrinsic relation of blank verse with the English language is noted in the frequency with which Professor Norton’s prose falls into impeccable iambic pentameters. Rhythmic or semi-rhythmic, his translation always maintains a tonality which is at once elevated and natural; the austere sweetness of the phrases is a pleasure to the intellect and to the ear. Of course, the most exacting test of a prose version occurs in certain famous passages, as the episodes of Francesca da Rimini and of Count Ugolino, the apology of Fortune, the description of the Wood of Harpies and of the Image. In these, Professor Norton has admirably succeeded in the lyric expression of pity, tender or poignant, and in music softly revolving about its theme, or in agitated swift movement, or in portentous chords like those of the opening of a Beethoven symphony.

In the comparison of the English with the Italian text, a very few points of verbal question appear : as in the inadvertence which reads, “ As false sight doth the beast when it is growing dusk ” (Inf. ii. 48), instead of, when it (the beast) shies, — the verb ombrare or adombrare, to take fright, to shy. In Francesca’s speech, the verse “ Mi prese del costui piacer sì forte ” is rendered, “ Seized me for the pleasing of him so strongly,” with non-recognition of the antique use of the word piacere: avvenenza, vaghezza, charm, comeliness. As an example of Professor Norton’s felicity in obtaining an exquisite result by means of spontaneous and simple art may becited the inscription over the infernal gateway : " Through me is the way into the woeful city ; through me is the way into eternal woe ; through me is the way among the lost people.” In it is heard the hollow note of bells that toll for dead souls.

In the prefatory chapter Mr. Norton expounds briefly and luminously the scheme of the Commedia, the great epic of the human will that seeks, in conforming itself to the Divine Will, that liberty which is law. Otherwise his comment is confined to infrequent exegetical footnotes. It is to hoped that with this translation as a basis, he will, when the Commedia is completed, supplement his work with such a body of comment as his long study of Dante would make of extreme value to younger students.

Mr. Latham’s work enjoys the advantage of being the first English translation and comment of the Epistles of Dante ; therefore its contents may be noted somewhat in detail. Nor can the honorable and pathetic circumstances attendant upon its production be passed over in silence. In 1883, Mr. Latham, a student at Harvard College, full of ardor in literary and in athletic pursuits, was stricken by paralysis. Despite the chains with which disease bound him bodily, his spirit was unconquered, and only longed to prove its valor in equal competition with men who were in possession of every power. Arrangements were made by which Mr. Latham was enabled to continue his college course. Notes upon the lectures and directions for reading were regularly sent to him ; the prescribed examinations were held at his bedside; and in 1888 he obtained his degree as of the class of 1884. During the previous year he had studied the works and career of Dante, and desired to compete for the Dante Prize, choosing among the subjects proposed that of the translation and comment of the Letters. Extracts from his correspondence with Professor Norton show Mr. Latham’s nobility of character, and the energy, modesty, and talent which were his. He perceived that his physical deprivation had initiated him into the verities of life, its meaning and its uses. “ When I compare myself with other men of my own age,” he said, “ I am confident that I am happier than most of them, and not less well employed.”

To a spirit like his, firmly trustful in the good which can be wrested from apparent evil, the companionship of Dante must have given peculiar consolation and support. " Looked at outwardly,” James Russell Lowell wrote in his famous essay, “ the life of Dante seems to have been an utter and disastrous failure. What its inward satisfactions must have been, we, with the Paradiso open before us, can form some faint conception.” It was from Sorrow’s self that Dante learned "how a man becomes eternal; ” looking through the shadows, his nerve of vision acquired clear insight of the realities within and beyond the things of the world ; in his writings are found sympathy and comfort for later scholars in the university of human experience, even for those who, like the translator of the Letters, die unaware that to them has been awarded a prize.

The work of Mr. Latham includes the eleven Epistles of Dante according to Signor Fraticelli’s edition. — few indeed out of the vast number which must have been written ; while even of these certain critics would diminish the accredited number. The translation by Mr. Latham is scholarly and finished, in an idiom which well represents the dignity of Dante’s thought, moving somewhat heavily in its antique Roman armor of language. The comment upon the letter to Niccolò da Prato, Cardinal of Ostia, is an intelligible and well synthesized account of the strife of the Bianchi and Neri, closing with the cardinal’s sojourn in Florence and the excommunication of the city. It is written in a sober, historic manner. The author seems to have wished to obtain his effect by clear outlines and just proportions, not caring to charge his palette with the brilliant contrasts of the colors of those times. In the jubilee year of 1300 all Italy was at peace. Florence reveled in banquets and festivals ; youths and damsels, richly clad in velvets, silks, and gold, with jewels, danced in the public squares ; roses, violets, and lilies were strewn about; and day and night the air was filled with song and the throbbing of lutes and viols. Then amid these luxurious delights — which added an entangled undergrowth of flowerage to the selva selvaggia of political and moral evil — the smouldering rancors of the Cerchi and Donati broke into flame as, by the unfortunate mediation of the priors, the firebrands from Pistoia were cast into Florence. The importation of the Bianchi and Neri (factions opposed like the forces of day and night, which destructive criticism—who knows? — may some time wish to reduce to the terms of a sun-myth) involved Florence in strife, and sent Dante, with many others, into exile. Finally, Charles of Valois, invoked by the citizens and welcomed with olive-branches and the music of trumpets, held his brief misrule to the ruin of Florence, that well might have suggested to Dante his flaming city of Dis, inhabited by furies and demons.

The comment upon the letter of condolence addressed to the Counts of Romena begins with a rapid analysis of the qualities which went to the making of the virtù of the Italian nobles in the Middle Ages, their tremendous illimitable vitality and individual force ; then it proceeds to a summary of previously existent criticism, with a discussion as to the identity of the subject of the letter with the Alessandro da Romena spoken of in the thirtieth canto of the Inferno.

The third epistle of Dante was written to Moroello Malaspina, one of the four contemporaries of that name among the great family of the Evil Thorn, which divided itself into the Flowering Thorn and the Dry, and blazoned upon a golden ground the distinctive devices of bloom and of sere stem. There is cause for controversy as to the individual addressed, and also for marvel that Dante should have confided an episode of love to one of those men of war. (By the way, it will have been only by a momentary betrayal on the part of the pen that Mr. Latham, in this comment, writes of Dante’s being prompted to finish the Convito.) We cannot but read between the lines of the Malaspina letter a mystic announcement of some inspired meeting with Philosophy, — a woman indeed well suited “ to the principles, character, and fortunes ” of Dante in unmerited exile, — some blinding vision of Paradise. Also that which, as he bids observe, he leaves unexpressed in the letter to Cino da Pistoia confirms us in the belief that the canzone and epistle to the Malaspina were intended sopra senso.

The letter to Cino was in answer to the question "whether the soul can pass from passion to passion.” It was, the commentator Witte opines, accompanied by the canzone which forms the theme of the second book of the Convito, “ Voi che intendendo il terzo ciel movete,” and was meant as an indication to Cino of the affections immutable because set upon immortal things. In this canzone Dante relates to the Thrones of the third heaven (Convito ii. 6) the pangs of transition, the rending of the chrysalis from which his sad human love emerged winged. Continual comparison is suggested with the canzone of the Malaspina letter.

“ Then came a thought that put the first to flight,
And swayed my being with such lordly power
That my heart trembled and my face was changed!
. . . Well in those eyes of hers
Should stand that love that killeth such as I.”
(Miss Kate Hillard’s translation.)

Of this new passion Dante declares. “ I say and affirm that the lady of whom I was enamored, after my first love, was the most beautiful and most virtuous daughter of the Emperor of the Universe, to whom Pythagoras gives the name of Philosophy.” (Convito ii. 16.) Viewed, then, by the light of the entire testimony of the second book of the Convito, the letters addressed to Moroello Malaspina and to Cino da Pistoia are recognized as appropriate to the recipient and worthy of the writer.

If Mr. Latham had been permitted the strength and time to complete his work, he would have grouped together under one comment the three letters regarding Henry VII. and his sojourn in Italy. In connection with the epistle to the Italian cardinals are narrated, in a strong historic manner, the election of Clement V., the removal of the Apostolic See to Avignon, and the election of John XXII. The noble and pathetic letter to the Florentine Friend would, according to Mr. Latham’s design, have been illustrated by an appendix in which would have been collected and annotated the various decrees against Dante. The comment upon the letter to Can Grande — that precious guide to the understanding of the form and the manifold intent of the Commedia—is in some respects the most mature and characteristic portion of Mr. Latham’s work. It is admirable as a biographical study of the great Lombard family, and very sensitive in the verbal appreciations by which he reaches his conclusions in regard to the hospitality received by Dante at the court of Alboino and Can Grande della Scala.

By the friendly and generous care of Professor C. E. Norton and Professor G. R. Carpenter, of the Dante Society, the volume is provided with a prefatorymemorial of Mr. Latham, and with an appendix concerning the authenticity of the Letters of Dante.

  1. 1The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. I. Hell. Boston and New York; Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1891.
  2. A Translation of Dante’s Eleven Letters. With Explanatory Notes and Historical Comments. By CHARLES STERRETT LATHAM. Edited by GEORGE RICE CARPENTER, and with a Preface by CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1891.