So many versions of the Divine Comedy exist in English that a new one might well seem needless. But most of these translations are in verse, and the intellectual temper of our time is impatient of a transmutation in which substance is sacrificed for form's sake, and the new form is itself different from the original. The conditions of verse in different languages vary so widely as to make any versified translation of a poem but an imperfect reproduction of the archetype. It is like an imperfect mirror that renders but a partial likeness, in which essential features are blurred or distorted. Dante himself, the first modern critic, declared that "nothing harmonized by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony," and every fresh attempt at translation affords a new proof of the truth of his assertion. Each language exhibits its own special genius in its poetic forms. Even when they are closely similar in rhythmical method their poetic effect is essentially different, their individuality is distinct. The hexameter of the Iliad is not the hexameter of the Aeneid. And if this be the case in respect to related forms, it is even more obvious in respect to forms peculiar to one language, like the terza rima of the Italian, for which it is impossible to find a satisfactory equivalent in another tongue.
If, then, the attempt be vain to reproduce the form or to represent its effect in a translation, yet the substance of a poem may have such worth that it deserves to be known by readers who must read it in their own tongue or not at all. In this case the aim of the translator should he to render the substance fully, exactly, and with as close a correspondence to the tone and style of the original as is possible between prose and poetry. Of the charm, of the power of the poem such a translation can give but an inadequate suggestion; the musical bond was of its essence, and the loss of the musical bond is the loss of the beauty to which form and substance mutually contributed, and in which they were both alike harmonized and sublimated. The rhythmic life of the original is its vital spirit, and the translation losing this vital spirit is at best as the dull plaster cast to the living marble or the breathing bronze. The intellectual substance is there; and if the work be good, something of the emotional quality may be conveyed; the imagination may mould the prose as it moulded the verse,—but, after all, "translations are but as turn-coated things at best," as Howell said in one of his Familiar Letters.
No poem in any tongue is more informed with rhythmic life than the Divine Comedy. And yet, such is its extraordinary distinction, no poem has an intellectual and emotional substance more independent of its metrical form. Its complex structure, its elaborate measure and rhyme, highly artificial as they are, are so mastered by the genius of the poet as to become the most natural expression of the spirit by which the poem is inspired; while at the same time the thought and sentiment embodied in the verse is of such import, and the narrative of such interest, that they do not lose their worth when expressed in the prose of another tongue; they still haye power to quicken imagination, and to evoke sympathy.
In English there is an excellent prose translation of the Inferno, by Dr. John Carlyle, a man well known to the reader of his brother's Correspondence. It was published forty years ago, but it is still contemporaneous enough in style to answer every need, and had Dr. Carlyle made a version of the whole poem I should hardly have cared to attempt a new one. In my translation of the Inferno I am often Dr. Carlyle's debtor. His conception of what a translation should be is very much the same as my own. Of the Purgatorio there is a prose version which has excellent qualities, by Mr. W. S. Dugdale. Another version of great merit, of both the Purgatorio and Paradiso, is that of Mr. A. J. Butler. It is accompanied by a scholarly and valuable comment, and I owe much to Mr. Butler's work. But through what seems to me occasional excess of literal fidelity his English is now and then somewhat crabbed. "He overacts the office of an interpreter," I cite again from Howell, "who doth enslave himself too strictly to words or phrases. One may be so over-punctual in words that he may mar the matter."
I have tried to be as literal in my translation as was consmstent with good English, and to render Dante's own words in words as nearly correspondent to them as the difference in the languages would permit. But it is to be remembered that the familiar uses and subtle associations which give to words their full meaning are never absohitely the same in two languages. Love in English not only SOUNDS but IS different from amor in Latin, or amore in Italian. Even the most felicitous prose translation must fail therefore at times to afford the entire and precise meaning of the original.
Moreover, there are difficulties in Dante's poem for Italians, and there are difficulties in the translation for English readers. These, where it seemed needful, I have endeavored to explain in brief footnotes. But I have desired to avoid distracting the attention of the reader from the narrative, and have mainly left the understanding of it to his good sense and perspicacity. The clearness of Dante's imaginative vision is so complete, and the character of his narration of it so direct and simple, that the difficulties in understanding his intention are comparatively few.
It is a noticeable fact that in by far the greater number of passages where a doubt in regard to the interpretation exists, the obscurity lies in the rhyme-word. For with all the abundant resources of the Italian tongue in rhyme, and with all Dante's mastery of them, the truth still is that his triple rhyme often compelled him to exact from words such service as they did not naturally render and as no other poet had required of them. The compiler of the Ottimo Commento records, in an often-cited passage, that "I, the writer, heard Dante say that never a rhyme had led him to say other than he would, but that many a time and oft he had made words say for him what they were not wont to express for other poets." The sentence has a double truth, for it indicates not only Dante's incomparable power to compel words to give out their full meaning, but also his invention of new uses for them, his employment of them in unusual significations or in forms hardly elsewhere to be found. These devices occasionally interfere with the limpid flow of his diction, but the difficulties of interpretation to which they give rise serve rather to mark the prevailing clearness and simplicity of his expression than seriously to impede its easy and unperplexed current. There are few sentences in the Divina Commedia in which a difficulty is occasioned by lack of definiteness of thought or distinctness of image.
A far deeper-lying and more pervading source of imperfect comprehension of the poem than any verbal difficulty exists in the double or triple meaning that runs through it. The narrative of the poet's spiritual journey is so vivid and consistent that it has all the reality of an account of an actual experience; but within and beneath runs a stream of allegory not less consistent and hardly less continuous than the narrative itself. To the illustration and carrying out of this interitr meaning even the minutest details of external incident are made to contribute, with an appropriateness of significance, and with a freedom from forced interpretation or artificiality of construction such as no other writer of allegory has succeeded in attaining. The poem may be read with interest as a record of experience without attention to its inner meaning, but its full interest is only felt when this inner meaning is traced, and the moral significance of the incidents of the story apprehended by the alert intelligence. The allegory is the soul of the poem, but like the soul within the body it does not show itself in independent existence. It is, in scholastic phrase, the form of the body, giving to it its special individuality. Thus in order truly to understand and rightly appreciate the poem the reader must follow its course with a double intelligence. "Taken literally," as Dante declares in his Letter to Can Grande, "the subject is the state of the soul after death, simply considered. But, allegorically taken, its subject is man, according as by his good or ill deserts he renders himself liable to the reward or punishment of Justice." It is the allegory of human life; and not of human life as an abstraction, but of the individual life; and herein, as Mr. Lowell, whose phrase I borrow, has said, "lie its profound meaning and its permanent force."  And herein too lie its perennial freshness of interest, and the actuality which makes it contemporaneous with every successive generation. The increase of knowledge, the loss of belief in doctrines that were fundamental in Dante's creed, the changes in the order of society, the new thoughts of the world, have not lessened the moral import of the poem, any more than they have lessened its excellence as a work of art. Its real substance is as independent as its artistic beauty, of science, of creed, and of institutions. Human nature has not changed; the motives of action are the same, though their relative force and the desires and ideals by which they are inspired vary from generation to generation. And thus it is that the moral judgments of life framed by a great poet whose imagination penetrates to the core of things, and who, from his very nature as poet, conceives and sets forth the issues of life not in a treatise of abstract morality, but by means of sensible types and images, never lose interest, and have a perpetual contemporaneousness. They deal with the permanent and unalterable elements of the soul of man.
 Mr. Lowell's essay on Dante makes other writing about the poet or the poem seem ineffectual and superfluous. I must assume that it will be familiar to the readers of my version, at least to those among them who desire truly to understand the Divine Comedy.
The scene of the poem is the spiritual world, of which we are members even while still denizens mu the world of time. In the spiritual world the results of sin or perverted love, and of virtue or right love, in this life of probation, are manifest. The life to come is but the fulfilment of the life that now is. This is the truth that Dante sought to enforce. The allegory in which he cloaked it is of a character that separates the Divine Comedy from all other works of similar intent, In The Pilgrim's Progress, for example, the personages introduced are mere simulacra of men and women, the types of moral qualities or religious dispositions. They are abstractions which the genius of Bunyan fails to inform with vitality sufficient to kindle the imagination of the reader with a sense of their actual, living and breathing existence. But in the Divine Comedy the personages are all from real life, they are men and women with their natural passions and emotions, and they are undergoing an actual experience. The allegory consists in making their characters and their fates, what all human characters and fates really are, the types and images of spiritual law. Virgil and Beatrice, whose nature as depicted in the poem makes nearest approach to purely abstract and typical existence, are always consistently presented as living individuals, exalted indeed in wisdom and power, but with hardly less definite and concrete humanity than that of Dante himself.
The scheme of the created Universe held by the Christians of the Middle Ages was comparatively simple, and so definite that Dante, in accepting it in its main features without modification, was provided with the limited stage that was requisite for his design, and of which the general disposition was familiar to all his readers. The three spiritual realms had their local bounds marked out as clearly as those of time earth itself. Their cosmography was but an extension of the largely hypothetical geography of the tune.
The Earth was the centre of the Universe, and its northern hemisphere was the abode of man. At the middle point of this hemisphere stood Jerusalem, equidistant from the Pillars of Hercules on the West, and the Ganges on the East.
Within the body of this hemisphere was hell, shared as a vast cone, of which the apex was the centre of the globe; and here, according to Dante, was the seat of Lucifer. The concave of Hell had been formed by his fall, when a portion of the solid earth, through fear of him, ran back to the southern uninhabited hemisphere, and formed there, directly antipodal to Jerusalem, the mountain of Purgatory which rose from the waste of waters that covered this half of the globe. Purgatory was shaped as a cone, of similar dinmensions to that of Hell, amid at its summit was the Terrestrial Paradise.
Immediately surrounding the atmosphere of the Earth was the sphere of elemental fire. Around this was the Heaven of the Moon, and encircling this, in order, were the Heavens of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Crystalline or first moving Heaven. These nine concentric Heavens revolved continually around the Earth, and in proportion to their distance from it was time greater swiftness of each. Encircling all was the Empyrean, increate, incorporeal, motionless, unbounded in time or space, the proper seat of God, the home of the Angels, the abode of the Elect.
The Angelic Hierarchy consisted of nine orders, corresponding to the nine moving heavens. Their blessedness and the swiftness of time motion with which in unending delight they circled around God were in proportion to their nearness to Him,—first the Seraphs, then the Cherubs, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Princes, Archangels, and Angels. Through them, under the general name of Intelligences, the Divine influence was transmitted to the Heavens, giving to them their circular motion, which was the expression of their longing to be united with the source of their creation. The Heavens in their turn streamed down upon the Earth the Divine influence thus distributed among them, in varying proportion and power, producing divers effects in the generation and corruption of material things, and in the dispositions and the lives of men.
Such was the general scheme of the Universe. The intention of God in its creation was to communicate of his own perfection to the creatures endowed with souls, that is, to men and to angels, and the proper end of every such creature was to seek its own perfection in likeness to time Divine. This end was attained through that knowledge of God of which the soul was capable, and through love which was in proportion to knowledge. Virtue depended on the free will of man; it was the good use of that will directed to a right object of love. Two lights were given to the soul for guidance of the will: the light of reason for natural things and for the direction of the will to moral virtue the light of grace for things supernatural, and for the direction of the will to spiritual virtue. Sin was the opposite of virtue, the choice by the will of false objects of love; it involved the misuse of reason, and the absence of grace. As the end of virtue was blessedness, so the end of sin was misery.
The cornerstone of Dante's moral system was the Freedom of the Will; in other words, the right of private judgment with the condition of accountability. This is the liberty which Dante, that is man, goes seeking in his journey through the spiritual world. This liberty is to be attained through the right use of reason, illuminated by Divine Grace; it consists in the perfect accord of the will of man with the will of God.
With this view of the nature and end of man Dante's conception of the history of the race could not be other than that its course was providentially ordered. The fall of man had made him a just object of the vengeance of God; but the elect were to be redeemed, and for their redemption the history of the world from the beginning was directed. Not only in his dealings with the Jews, but in his dealings with the heathen was God preparing for the reconciliation of man, to be finally accomplished in his sacrifice of Himself for them. The Roman Empire was foreordained and established for this end. It was to prepare the way for the establishment of the Roman Church. It was the appointed instrument for the political governument of men. Empire and Church were alike divine institutions for the guidance of man on earth.
The aim of Dante in the Divine Comedy was to set forth these truths in such wise as to affect the imaginations and touch the hearts of men, so that they should turn to righteousness. His conviction of these truths was no mere matter of belief; it had the ardor and certainty of faith. They had appeared to him in all their fulness as a revelation of the Divine wisdom. It was his work as poet, as poet with a divine commission, to make this revelation known. His work was a work of faith; it was sacred; to it both Heaven and Earth had set their hands.
To this work, as I have said, the definiteness and the limits of the generally accepted theory of the Universe gave the required frame. The very narrowness of this scheme made Dante's design practicable. He had had the experience of a man on earth. He had been lured by false objects of desire from the pursuit of the true good. But Divine Grace, in the form of Beatrice, who had of old on earth led him aright, now intervened and sent to his aid Virgil, who, as the type of Human Reason, should bring him safe through Hell, showing to him the eternal consequences of sin, and then should conduct him, penitent, up the height of Purgatory, till on its summit, in the Earthly Paradise, Beatrice should appear once more to him. Thence she, as the type of that knowledge through which comes the love of God, should lead him, through the Heavens up to the Empyrean, to the consummation of his course in the actual vision of God.
|- CHARLES ELIOT NORTON|