Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
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Unit IX: Romance and Mysticism, A.D. 1100-1330

Week 32: Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321

For this week please read:

Dante Alighieri. Paris, Musˇe D’Orsay. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomyAt last we arrive at the Divine Comedy itself. This work is widely regarded as the greatest artistic synthesis of the mediaeval world-view, but it is even greater than that. It has its roots in the ancient world but it speaks clearly to the modern mind; its abundance of moral and spiritual insights, as well as its artistic purity, will nourish you for a long time if you let it. As you probably already know, it is a largely allegorical tale in which Dante presents a vision of a tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. I am not alone in attesting that even though the work is a product of a thoroughly Catholic writer, a Protestant can find a great deal here that will challenge his faith. Indeed, I have found on previous readings that my favorite section of the poem is the Purgatorio — odd for someone who doesn’t believe in Purgatory. My point is merely that you don’t have to subscribe to every detail for the poem to speak clearly to you.Virgil. Paris, Musˇe D’Orsay. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy

Dante wrote in a dialect of Italian called Tuscan — that is, the language of Tuscany, the region around Florence. His is one of the first attempts to use the Italian language for a serious work of poetry: previously serious poets in Italy had written primarily in Latin. By so doing, he established Tuscan as the literary dialect of Italian — a distinction it retains to this day. He also employed a kind of rhyme known in Italian as terza rima: that is, a rhyme scheme that can be represented as aba bcb cdc ded efe fgf...etc. The middle line of one tercet (group of three lines) supplies the rhyme pattern for the first and last line of the next tercet. You will realize immediately that this can be extended indefinitely in a linear way, and so does not impose any artificial demands of length on the form. The use of terza rima provides a sense rolling continuity that is hard to match with any other pattern of rhyme. For an example, look at the piece quoted at the beginning of Auerbach’s chapter.

The translation I have assigned does not, however, preserve this rhyme scheme. This is a difficult decision for a translator, and there have been many attempts to translate the Divine Comedy into English terza rima, one of them that of Dorothy L. Sayers. The problem with using the terza rima in English is that it is extremely demanding, since each rhyming ending must be represented not two but three separate times. Whereas Italian, with its abundance of vowel endings, is a language rich in rhyming possibilities, English, having a more complex and varied inventory of sounds, is relatively rhyme-poor. The result is that every terza rima translation of Dante I have ever seen — including Sayers’, which is worth acquiring for its superlative explanatory notes — tends to sound artificial and stilted, at least to my ear.Count Ugolino. Paris, Musˇe D’Orsay. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomy The single overwhelming feature of Dante’s Italian, however, is not its rhyme, but its almost unearthly and serene clarity; it accordingly seems more important to me to select a translation that preserves the imperturbable flow of the language. Reading Dante should not be a strain — for two reasons: first, because that’s not the way Dante wrote it; and second, because it is simply too long to wade through while fighting against the currents of an artificial language as well. Most of you did that with William Morris’ Volsunga Saga already. Therefore I have chosen the Mark Musa translation, available both in the Penguin Classics series (in three volumes) or in The Portable Dante, which has all three books in one volume, and is cheaper overall. I hope you will use this translation, because I really think it will aid your reading. I will have very little sympathy for anyone who claims, “I couldn’t understand it,” and turns out to have been reading some translation from the 1890’s without notes.

As you read the poem, be sure to pay attention to those explanatory notes. They are quite good. It is probably not possible for any modern reader to pick up the threads of Dante’s imagery and symbolism without a bit of help; with the notes, however, you should find your way smoothed considerably. As you go along, as well, consider how Dante is telling his story, and how he is using symbolic language to express complex moral and spiritual truths. The work is written simply, but it is not a simple work.

I hope you will also consider the strands Dante is bringing together here. He is drawing of course on the great eschatological topics of the Christian faith — that is, those things relating to the last things, Heaven and Hell, and a vision of God that is anything but simplistic. He also is drawing — as you may not realize right away, but as will become apparent by the Paradiso — on the topics of courtly love we discussed in relation to the Yvain and the Nibelungenlied. In the Inferno, however, he also goes out of his way to draw our attention to Vergil, with whom you should now be rather familiar.

We have also come to what is probably the single greatest chapter in Auerbach’s Mimesis — the one entitled “Farinata and Cavalcante”; Auerbach was, above all, a Dante scholar, and those who are interested in following his thinking in this area further might be interested in finding his Dante, Poet of the Secular World. His vision of what Dante is about is not universally shared by all Dante scholars, and that’s okay; it is nevertheless grounded in a deep reading of the poem and, whether you agree with him or not, it will enrich your experience of this amazing work.