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Longfellow’s Dante
by [?]


[Note 1:
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 3 vols. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.]

THE task of a translator is a thankless one at best. Be he never so skilful and accurate, be he never so amply endowed with the divine qualifications of the poet, it is still questionable if he can ever succeed in saying satisfactorily with new words that which has once been inimitably said–said for all time–with the old words. “Psychologically, there is perhaps nothing more complex than an elaborate poem. The sources of its effect upon our minds may be likened to a system of forces which is in the highest degree unstable; and the slightest displacement of phrases, by disturbing the delicate rhythmical equilibrium of the whole, must inevitably awaken a jarring sensation.” Matthew Arnold has given us an excellent series of lectures upon translating Homer, in which he doubtless succeeds in showing that some methods of translation are preferable to others, but in which he proves nothing so forcibly as that the simplicity and grace, the rapidity, dignity, and fire, of Homer are quite incommunicable, save by the very words in which they first found expression. And what is thus said of Homer will apply to Dante with perhaps even greater force. With nearly all of Homer’s grandeur and rapidity, though not with nearly all his simplicity, the poem of Dante manifests a peculiar intensity of subjective feeling which was foreign to the age of Homer, as indeed to all pre-Christian antiquity. But concerning this we need not dilate, as it has often been duly remarked upon, and notably by Carlyle, in his “Lectures on Hero-Worship.” Who that has once heard the wail of unutterable despair sounding in the line

“Ahi, dura terra, perche non t’ apristi?”

can rest satisfied with the interpretation

“Ah, obdurate earth, wherefore didst thou not open?”

yet this rendering is literally exact.

A second obstacle, hardly less formidable, hardly less fatal to a satisfactory translation, is presented by the highly complicated system of triple rhyme upon which Dante’s poem is constructed. This, which must ever be a stumbling-block to the translator, seems rarely to interfere with the free and graceful movement of the original work. The mighty thought of the master felt no impediment from the elaborate artistic panoply which must needs obstruct and harass the interpretation of the disciple. Dante’s terza rima is a bow of Odysseus which weaker mortals cannot bend with any amount of tugging, and which Mr. Longfellow has judiciously refrained from trying to bend. Yet no one can fail to remark the prodigious loss entailed by this necessary sacrifice of one of the most striking characteristics of the original poem. Let any one who has duly reflected upon the strange and subtle effect produced on him by the peculiar rhyme of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” endeavour to realize the very different effect which would be produced if the verses were to be alternated or coupled in successive pairs, or if rhyme were to be abandoned for blank verse. The exquisite melody of the poem would be silenced. The rhyme-system of the “Divine Comedy” refuses equally to be tampered with or ignored. Its effect upon the ear and the mind is quite as remarkable as that of the rhyme-system of “In Memoriam”; and the impossibility of reproducing it is one good reason why Dante must always suffer even more from translation than most poets.

Something, too, must be said of the difficulties inevitably arising from the diverse structure and genius of the Italian and English languages. None will deny that many of them are insurmountable. Take the third line of the first canto,–

“Che la diritta via era smarrita,”

which Mr. Longfellow translates

“For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Perhaps there is no better word than “lost” by which to translate smarrita in this place; yet the two words are far from equivalent in force. About the word smarrita there is thrown a wide penumbra of meaning which does not belong to the word lost. [2] By its diffuse connotations the word smarrita calls up in our minds an adequate picture of the bewilderment and perplexity of one who is lost in a trackless forest. The high-road with out, beaten hard by incessant overpassing of men and beasts and wheeled vehicles, gradually becomes metamorphosed into the shady lane, where grass sprouts up rankly between the ruts, where bushes encroach upon the roadside, where fallen trunks now and then intercept the traveller; and this in turn is lost in crooked by-ways, amid brambles and underbrush and tangled vines, growing fantastically athwart the path, shooting up on all sides of the bewildered wanderer, and rendering advance and retreat alike hopeless. No one who in childhood has wandered alone in the woods can help feeling all this suggested by the word smarrita in this passage. How bald in comparison is the word lost, which might equally be applied to a pathway, a reputation, and a pocket-book! [3] The English is no doubt the most copious and variously expressive of all living languages, yet I doubt if it can furnish any word capable by itself of calling up the complex images here suggested by smarrita. [4] And this is but one example, out of many that might be cited, in which the lack of exact parallelism between the two languages employed causes every translation to suffer.