Recent Dante Literature

No analysis of American character can be trusted which does not specify, among other traits, a large endowment of idealism. Your genuine Yankee is practical, and few have surpassed him in grappling with the concrete difficulties of life or in material prosperity ; but he differs from others who have got on in the world — from the Dutch, for instance, or from the English — in remaining at heart an idealist. The more you see of the English, the more you are inclined to look on Shakespeare as un-English, because he is idealist and uninsular ; but Emerson, the supreme modern idealist, was the representative American, as Victor Hugo and Ernest Renan were the representatives of the two chief types of modern Frenchmen. This Yankee idealism often hibernates, and sometimes it volatilizes in the pursuit of fads; but when the great issues call, it responds, and it transforms in the twinkling of an eye the myriads who seem ordinarily bent wholly on money-getting, or on comfort, into the hosts of the Lord, resolved to sacrifice everything for a righteous principle. Yesterday,you saw only salesmen at their counters, merchants at the exchange, bankers planning audacious enterprises, farmers haggling with the country storekeeper over their quarterly barter : today, they are all volunteering in a cause on which the welfare of the race depends. Strangers, who happen to visit us at a time when our material side is uppermost, fall into wonderful misconceptions ; and even our politicians, when they reckon too confidently on the uninterrupted sway of our “ practical ” qualities, are often swept down by an outburst of idealism.

To this quality, among other influences, we may trace the singular hold which Dante has had during the past sixty years on the foremost Americans. The number of his readers here at any one time is small, but it is choice. Out of the handful have sprung Longfellow, Lowell, and Norton, each of whom has contributed a work of capital importance in the Dantean field ; nor should George Ticknor, the earliest distinguished American expounder of Dante, or Dr. T. W. Parsons, who wrote one sterling poem on Dante and an incomplete translation of the epic, be forgotten. Contrast their achievement with the barrenness of the literary product of Classical scholarship in America. Until the last generation our higher education was based on Latin and Greek, yet from among the throng of adepts in the Classics, and from the larger throng who were driven through them on the way to culture, not one has produced a first-rate translation of Homer or the Greek dramatists, nor of Virgil or Lucretius ; and nobody here has written on any of these such an essay as Lowell wrote on Dante, a piece of genuine literature and an addition to literary criticism. The names of our few Latinists and Grecians known outside of the narrow circle of their specialties are those of men who have compiled grammars or revised texts worthy of very great respect, but having no more to do with literature than the study of the structure of the larynx has to do with oratory. And even our best Classical specialists, with perhaps two or three exceptions, rank below the Germans. Not long ago one American professor told me with mingled awe and exultation that Curtius had once referred approvingly to an emendation of an obscure Greek text suggested by another American professor ! Very good; but how many days go by in any college or university in the world where Greek philology is studied that Curtius himself is not still cited ?

Thus it is that although our Classical scholars are many and our Dante scholars few, the literary achievement of the Classicists has been insignificant, while that of the Danteans has been relatively large. Is this because, let the Classicists strive as hard as they will, they can never so purge themselves of the antipagan legacy bequeathed by Puritanism as to become really Classical in spirit ? Or is it because the pedant, who struggles for mastery (and usually conquers) in every teacher, instinctively fastens on those portions of Latin and Greek which have always been the favorite victuals of pedantry ? Whatever the explanation, the fact remains that Dante has inspired works which in any survey of American literature during the past fifty years could not be overlooked ; and it should be added that such works as Dr. Fay’s Concordance, Mr, Koch’s Bibliography, and Latham’s edition of Dante’s Letters, not to mention articles on special points, bear equally high testimony to American philological scholarship.

Dante’s idealism, with its vivid specific illustrations, appeals strongly to the highest type of American idealist. To the French, he has meant little, because they are not idealists. A race which has never really persuaded itself of the supremacy of the moral law — a race which expressed its characteristic views of life through Montaigne in the sixteenth century, through Molière in the seventeenth, through Voltaire in the eighteenth, and through Renan in the nineteenth — could not possibly find Dante’s moral intensity congenial. The French think that they have exhausted him when they have turned over Doré’s drawings of the Hell.

But let us not generalize farther. Dante’s treasures are so varied that men who differ most widely among themselves are his admirers. Minds as far apart as Gladstone and Matthew Arnold called him master; dilettanti like Rossetti and Pater— (Pater, who declared Shadwell’s sing-song verse the best English equivalent for Dante’s terza rima !) — sought Dante as if he were a dilettante ; and so one might go on to enumerate the diversified company of those who would agree only in their admiration of Dante’s genius. But the almost simultaneous publication of the Rev. Charles Allen Dinsmore’s study, The Teachings of Dante,1 and of Professor Charles Eliot Norton’s revised translation of The Divine Comedy,2 is a sufficient example of this. For in most matters, certainly in the forms in which most of the deepest concerns of life are expressed, Mr. Dinsmore and Mr. Norton would evidently not coincide, but in their idealism and in their moral earnestness the orthodox minister and the open-minded agnostic unite.

Mr. Dinsmore’s book is a surprise, because it suddenly springs up and proves its right to exist in a field which seemed already overcrowded. One would have said that for the average English reader Symonds’s handbook, Maria Rossetti’s Shadow of Dante, and Mr. Edmund Gardner’s recent marvelously compact primer would suffice ; but one may have these and other manuals and still find Mr. Dinsmore’s book of great value. Interesting it certainly is. Mr. Dinsmore differs from Symonds, Maria Rossetti, and Mr. Gardner in being interpretative rather than descriptive. They are intent on historical, biographical, and literary elucidation, and on disentangling the skein of allegory; he is concerned with the upshot of it all, with Dante’s message.

The broad interpretation he gives of Dante’s view of sin and redemption is unusually fresh because he approaches The Divine Comedy as a Calvinist. The depth of his criticism can best be shown in two or three brief quotations. “ Our modern orthodox ” (that is, Presbyterian) “ view,” he says, “ beginning with faith, emphasizes the redemptive grace of God, and insists that man is saved, not by what he does for himself, but by what God does for him and with him. . . . We measure progress by our deepening consciousness that our lives are ’hid with Christ in God,’ and out of this sense of intimate relationship grow all Christian joy and peace and hope. Coming to Dante from the atmosphere of the modern pulpit, we are surprised at the utter absence of this feeling of the union of the soul with God during the process of salvation. . . . Another characteristic continually manifests itself. One cannot fail to note how conspicuously Christ is absent from this mighty drama of salvation. His work of atonement is assumed, his deity is fully recognized, but he himself is rather a celestial glory in the background than a pervasive presence on the scene of action. In Dante there is not the faintest intimation of the thought so prominent in these days, that Christ is Christianity. His is distinctively a gospel of a system, ours of a person. . . . He differs from nearly all preeminent preachers of righteousness in his starting point. He begins with man, they with God.”

These extracts will suffice to show that Mr. Dinsmore goes to the very foundations ; but only a reading of the book itself can give an idea of the ease and vigor and attractiveness with which he discusses his great themes. He is evidently a theologian ; but above the intellectual pleasure which theological disputation brings him, he no less evidently sets practical religion, the application of doctrine to conduct. As he reads with his own eyes, and thinks with his own brain, his criticism has an unacademic freshness which is like a cool breeze in the desert. Books with him are not mere topics for idle conversation, but vital facts, compounded of good and evil, to be used or shunned by the soul which has dedicated itself to righteousness.

At the outset, a casual reader might be misled by Mr. Dinsmore’s many admiring references to Jonathan Edwards into expecting criticism of only parochial range; and, indeed, it is a mistake to call Edwards “ our Puritan Dante.” Edwards is now remembered chiefly for having mistaken a demon for God, and for describing the everlasting torments of hell with such terrific vividness that he has filled far more insane asylums on earth than seats of the blest in heaven. It is time that posterity, which has repudiated his abominable teachings, should let his name sink into oblivion. Herod has been execrated for causing the slaughter of a few hundred innocent babes ; but Edwards devoted his talents to convince the world that an omnipotent monster has gone on creating myriads of millions of human creatures, of whom hardly one in every thousand is “saved,” and he calls this monster, who had not Herod’s excuse, “ God,” that is, Good. Let us have done with Edwards, and cease to imagine that he is in any sense a Dante.

But in his citation of modern authors, as in his references to the Bible and the Classics, Mr. Dinsmore is often very striking : as when he points out that Vassall Morton, the hero of Francis Parkman’s only novel, agrees with Dante in figuring “ the depth of wretchedness as the bondage of a quagmire.” After reading his chapter on Purgatory in Literature, in which he concludes that the methods of expiation described by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, and by Tennyson in Guinevere, are “ Dantean rather than Christian,” you recognize a literary critic of independent judgment, just as, in the following passages, you perceive that he has converted certain large modern philosophic ideas into terms of literary criticism.

After stating that Dante is the greatest of all champions of the freedom of the will, in contrast with Shakespeare, who, in Hamlet, in Macbeth, in Othello, virtually “ declares that man but half controls his fate,” Mr. Dinsmore continues : “ The leading Greek dramas still more impressively interpret man as a grain of wheat between the upper and nether millstones of adverse forces. The characters appear to be free, but if one looks deeper down, he perceives that they are the representatives of vast world powers, while the tragedy is the suffering of the individual as the two malign energies crush against each other. The classic tragedy is commonly constructed on the essential antagonism between the family and the state. The necessity of such collision is no longer apparent to us, and we have changed the name of the colossal powers that make sport of human life. For family and state we read heredity and environment, — taskmasters as exacting and irresistible, which allow even less room for the freedom of the individual will.”

Such passages as these should convince readers who are in earnest that Mr. Dinsmore has written a book for them; lovers of Dante have already welcomed him as a congenial colleague. Merely as a running commentary on Dante’s life and the chief currents of The Divine Comedy, his book may be freely recommended ; while for its special qualities, to some of which I have briefly alluded, it deserves to be weighed by all students in this field.

Ten years have passed since Professor Norton first published his translation of The Divine Comedy. These years have tested the work and left no doubt that it is the best in English; they have also popularized the conviction that prose, and not poetry, is the better medium for the translator to use. The person who can read a great poem in the original naturally desires to have the form which stamps it as poetry reproduced in a translation ; but when he makes the experiment, he will find, in the case of two languages as dissimilar in their prosody as are English and Italian, that he must be content with a form which does not at all correspond to the original. In spite of many attempts, our poets, writing spontaneously in English, have never succeeded in naturalizing the Italian terza rima: Shelley came nearest, in that remarkable fragment, The Triumph of Life; but no ear accustomed to Dante can get equal satisfaction, or satisfaction of the same sort, from that as from the Italian; and no ear trained to English verse would mistake Shelley’s terza rima for native, in the way in which the ottava rima in Byron’s Beppo and Don Juan is native.

An equivalent metrical form for the terza rima of The Divine Comedy being out of the question in English, what shall a translator bent on a metrical version do ? If wise, like Longfellow, he will prefer blank verse ; if foolish, or dilettante, like Mr. Lancelot Shadwell, he will choose Marvell’s Horatian Ode as his pattern. Before our age of realism, which insists on the closest fidelity to fact, a translator might candidly announce that he proposed to put as much of the foreign poem into a genuine English metre as he could, regardless of metrical correspondence. Pope practically said this when he turned Homer’s hexameters into heroic couplets; and, in the realm of painting, the old masters did this when they clothed Christ and his apostles in contemporary Renaissance garments, and were untroubled by the anachronism. Pope’s poem possesses many excellences,but they are due to Pope’s genius working in a medium over which it had absolute mastery, and not to any close resemblance to Homer; but to-day, when we wish to know what Homer, and not Pope, actually says, it does not satisfy us.

And so we are thrown back to a prose translation as the vehicle which can convey the substance of Homer’s epic or of Dante’s, and convey it without interposing an English metrical form which no more represents that of the original than a cornet can represent a full orchestra. There is, of course, another medium, the so-called “ poetic prose,” a sort of tertium quid, of which the less we say the better. “ Sir,” quoth Dr. Johnson, referring to Macpherson’s Ossian,the most celebrated specimen of poetic prose ever perpetrated in English, “ Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it.” Persons who delight in it have certainly never felt the rhythm which belongs as structurally to all good prose as to poetry; they, the fatuous ones, would paint the lily and throw a perfume on the violet. In vain do you tell them that, though walking and dancing have each their proper grace, to try to combine the two produces a ridiculous caper. In literature, as in life, a pet is not the less fondled for being a mongrel.

Accepting thoroughbred prose, therefore, as the proper medium for translating The Divine Comedy, the best translation will be that which gives in the best English the exact meaning of the original. It will be as truthful as a “ crib,” but it will have also those literary qualities which we look for in our racy prose. That such a happy combination could be hit upon, Dr. John Carlyle showed more than fifty years ago. His version was so good that had it covered the three canticles, instead of the first only, Mr. Norton has said that he should not have undertaken his translation. Mr. Norton has the obvious advantage over Dr. Carlyle in coming half a century later, when many obscurities due to imperfect text have been cleared up, when the minute details of Florentine and Italian history in Dante’s time have been laid bare, and the few plain facts in Dante’s own career have been separated from much fiction. But Mr. Norton’s superiority has a still deeper cause than the wider information which is now accessible to every reader of Dante: it rests not merely on more knowledge, but on a more intimate sympathy. Dante has had many devotees, but among them all none has surpassed Mr. Norton in a union of qualifications for understanding his spirit, and for communicating it to others. Add to this a command of English equal to every need, — English so transparent that it allows the meaning of the original to shine through without taking the slightest tinge from the translator’s personality, — and you have the ideal translator.

It would be easy to demonstrate by parallel passages that Mr. Norton’s version excels both in accuracy and in English style that of Dr. Carlyle, his only serious competitor in the first canticle, and those of Mr. A. J. Butler, Mr. Dugdale, and others, in the second and third ; but such a method could be conclusive only if there were space here to give extracts sufficiently long and varied to be fairly representative. A few test passages might satisfy the expert; but any doubter who will read in succession the several versions of a single canto cannot fail, if he have an ear for English prose, to pronounce Mr. Norton’s the best. And if he then compare the English line by line and word by word with the original, he will find that Mr. Norton interprets most closely Dante’s thought.

This new edition is almost a new work, so carefully has Mr. Norton scrutinized every word and substituted the better for what was good before. This results, in some cases, in the adoption of a different interpretation. Thus in Francesca da Rimini’s story the lines

“Per più fiate g’li occhi ci sospinse
Quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso”

become “ Many times that reading urged our eyes, and took the color from our faces,” instead of the earlier, “ Many times that reading made us lift our eyes, and took the color from our faces.” John Carlyle has it, “ Several times that reading urged our eyes to meet, and changed the color of our faces.” Mr. Butler, who shows a tendency to paraphrase, says, “ Many times did that reading impel our eyes, and change the hue of our visages.” Which did Dante mean ? That the reading so absorbed Francesca and her lover that it urged them to return to it several times, or that the amorous story caused them more than once to raise their eyes and look at each other, and to change color as they thus discovered their mutual passion ? The reader may choose ; I cite the passage to show how through what seems a slight verbal emendation the new edition sometimes differs widely from the old.

More often the changes have apparently been inspired by the wish to make the English read more smoothly. Take, for instance, the opening of the twentysixth canto of Hell: “Rejoice, Florence, since thou art so great that over sea and land thou beatest thy wings, and thy name is spread through Hell. Among the thieves I found five such, thy citizens, whereat shame comes to me, and thou unto great honor risest not thereby.” So reads the earlier version; the latter runs thus : “ Rejoice, Florence, since thou art so great that thou beatest thy wings over sea and land, and thy name is spread through Hell! Among the thieves I found five such, thy citizens, whereat shame comes to me, and thou dost not mount unto great honor thereby.” The ear acknowledges at once the superiority of the latter version. And so from the first page to the last, there are few lines which do not bear witness to the ten years’ polishing which Mr. Norton has bestowed on this edition. He has treated word and phrase and sentence as a jeweler treats his gems. Anybody who compares the two versions will learn how a mind of the most delicate critical sensitiveness works, — how patiently, how reasonably ; now cautious, now trusting boldly to imagination. Here we see taste in action.

This new version not only supersedes the old in the text, but also in the notes, which are at least trebled in number, though still brief, pertinent, and uncontroversial. With these volumes a person reading only English can get an intimate knowledge of the substance of The Divine Comedy — yes, and more than the substance — and an explanation of all the really important difficulties. If any passages remain dark, it is because they are dark in the original, and the translator does not believe in substituting for Dante’s words an explanatory paraphrase. We wish that it had been possible to reprint as a general introduction the essay on Dante which Mr. Norton prepared for Warner’s Library a few years ago ; for nowhere else in the same compass — not even in Lowell’s essay — can the novice and the expert alike find so precious a survey of Dante and his wTork.

“ Next to writing a classic, the best service which a man of letters can render is to translate a classic so that it shall live in a new language as if it were a native.” This Mr. Norton has done, and those of us who take the highest view of literature must feel grateful to him for this final revision : an artist less conscientious than he would have been satisfied with his earlier achievement. Now Dante lives in English, and it may well turn out that this translation shall stand as the chief literary product in America during the past twenty years. Our fiction varies with the seasons, nay, with the months and weeks : who recalls now the title of the novel which last June or July a dozen of our best known critics declared would be read as long as the English language lasts ? I wonder that the older novelists — Mr. Howells, for instance — do not republish under new names their earlier works; would anybody know ? Our critics now expound literature according to the social position of authors, or, following Walter Pater, books are to them like different kinds of candy, and the business of the critic is to describe the flavor of each as it glides over the palate. Our poets — but let us respect their incognito. Amid such conditions, common to periods of reaction, it must be beneficial to have attention once again centred on Dante, who is a sure antidote to persiflage and dilettantism, and to the worship of the things which perish, and who, of all poets, teaches how man makes himself eternal. To Mr. Norton let us apply SainteBeuve’s shining phrase, “ La belle destinée de ne pouvoir plus mourir, sinon avec un immortel! ”

William Roscoe Thayer.

  1. The Teachings of Dante. By CHARLES ALLEN DINSMORE. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1901.
  2. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. Riverside Edition. 3 vols. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1902.