3] 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.
 As Dante himself observes, "E pero sappia ciascuno, che
nulla cosa per legame musaico armonizzata si puo della sue
loquela in altra trasmutare sanza rompere tutta sue dolcezza e
armonia. E questa e la ragione per che Omero non si muto di greco
in latino, come l'altre scritture che avemo da loro: e questa e
la ragione per che i versi del Psaltero sono sanza dolcezza di
musica e d'armonia; che essi furono trasmutati d' ebreo in
greco, e di greco in latino, e nella prima trasmutazione tutta
quella dolcezza venne meno." Convito, I. 7, Opere Minori, Tom.
III. p. 80. The noble English version of the Psalms possesses a
beauty which is all its own.
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
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. 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 tile 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! 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. 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.
 See Diez, Romance Dictionary, s. v. "Marrir."
 On literally retranslating lost into Italian, we should get
the quite different word perduta.
 The more flexible method of Dr. Parsons leads to a more
satisfactory but still inadequate result:--
"Half-way on our life's Journey, in a wood,
From the right path I found myself astray."
All these, however, are difficulties which lie in the nature of
things,--difficulties for which the translator is not
responsible; of which he must try to make the best that can be
made, but which he can never expect wholly to surmount. We have
now to inquire whether there are not other difficulties,
avoidable by one method of translation, though not by another;
and in criticizing Mr. Longfellow, we have chiefly to ask whether
he has chosen the best method of translation,--that which most
surely and readily awakens in the reader's mind the ideas and
feelings awakened by the original.
The translator of a poem may proceed upon either of two distinct
principles. In the first case, he may render the text of his
original into English, line for line and word for word,
preserving as far as possible its exact verbal sequences, and
translating each individual word into an English word as nearly
as possible equivalent in its etymological force. In the second
case, disregarding mere syntactic and etymologic equivalence, his
aim will be to reproduce the inner meaning and power of the
original, so far as the constitutional difference of the two
languages will permit him.
It is the first of these methods that Mr. Longfellow has followed
in his translation of Dante. Fidelity to the text of the original
has been his guiding principle; and every one must admit that, in
carrying out that principle, he has achieved a degree of success
alike delightful and surprising. The method of literal
translation is not likely to receive any more splendid
illustration. It is indeed put to the test in such a way that the
shortcomings now to be noticed bear not upon Mr. Longfellow's own
style of work so much as upon the method itself with which they
are necessarily implicated. These defects are, first, the too
frequent use of syntactic inversion, and secondly, the too
manifest preference extended to words of Romanic over words of
To illustrate the first point, let me give a few examples. In
Canto I. we have:--
"So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there";
which is thus rendered by Mr. Cary,--
;"Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discovered there";
and by Dr. Parsons,--
"Its very thought is almost death to me;
Yet, having found some good there, I will tell
Of other things which there I chanced to see."
 "Tanto e amara, che poco e piu morte:
Ma per trattar del teen ch' i' vi trovai,
Diro dell' altre Bose, ch' io v' ho scorte."
Inferno, I. 7-10.
Again in Canto X. we find:--
"Their cemetery have upon this side
With Epicurus all his followers,
Who with the body mortal make the soul";--
an inversion which is perhaps not more unidiomatic than Mr.
"The cemetery on this part obtain
With Epicurus all his followers,
Who with the body make the spirit die";
but which is advantageously avoided by Mr. Wright,--
"Here Epicurus hath his fiery tomb,
And with him all his followers, who maintain
That soul and body share one common doom";
and is still better rendered by Dr. Parsons,--
"Here in their cemetery on this side,
With his whole sect, is Epicurus pent,
Who thought the spirit with its body died."
 "Suo cimitero da questa parte hanno
Con Epieuro tutti i suoi seguaci,
Che l'anima col corpo morta fanno."
Inferno, X. 13-15.
And here my eyes, reverting to the end of Canto IX.,
fall upon a similar contrast between Mr. Longfellow's lines,--
"For flames between the sepulchres were scattered,
By which they so intensely heated were,
That iron more so asks not any art,"--
and those of Dr. Parsons,--
"For here mid sepulchres were sprinkled fires,
Wherewith the enkindled tombs all-burning gleamed;
Metal more fiercely hot no art requires."
 "Che tra gli avelli flamme erano sparte,
Per le quali eran si del tutto accesi,
Che ferro piu non chiede verun' arte."
Inferno, IX. 118-120.
Does it not seem that in all these cases Mr. Longfellow, and to a
slightly less extent Mr. Cary, by their strict adherence to the
letter, transgress the ordinary rules of English construction;
and that Dr. Parsons, by his comparative freedom of movement,
produces better poetry as well as better English? In the last
example especially, Mr. Longfellow's inversions are so violent
that to a reader ignorant of the original Italian, his sentence
might be hardly intelligible. In Italian such inversions are
permissible; in English they are not; and Mr. Longfellow, by
transplanting them into English, sacrifices the spirit to the
letter, and creates an obscurity in the translation where all is
lucidity in the original. Does not this show that the theory of
absolute literality, in the case of two languages so widely
different as English and Italian, is not the true one?
Secondly, Mr. Longfellow's theory of translation leads him in
most cases to choose words of Romanic origin in preference to
those of Saxon descent, and in many cases to choose an unfamiliar
instead of a familiar Romanic word, because the former happens to
be etymologically identical with the word in the original. Let me
cite as an example the opening of Canto III.:--
"Per me si va nella eitti dolente,
Per me si va nell' eterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente."
Here are three lines which, in their matchless simplicity and
grandeur, might well excite despair in the breast of any
translator. Let us contrast Mr. Longfellow's version.--
"Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost,"--
with that of Dr. Parsons,--,
"Through me you reach the city of despair;
Through me eternal wretchedness ye find;
Through me among perdition's race ye fare."
I do not think any one will deny that Dr. Parsons's version,
while far more remote than Mr. Longfellow's from the diction of
the original, is somewhat nearer its spirit. It remains to seek
the explanation of this phenomenon. It remains to be seen why
words the exact counterpart of Dante's are unfit to call up in
our minds the feelings which Dante's own words call up in the
mind of an Italian. And this inquiry leads to some general
considerations respecting the relation of English to other
Every one is aware that French poetry, as compared with German
poetry, seems to the English reader very tame and insipid; but
the cause of this fact is by no means so apparent as the fact
itself. That the poetry of Germany is actually and intrinsically
superior to that of France, may readily be admitted; but this is
not enough to account for all the circumstances of the case. It
does not explain why some of the very passages in Corneille and
Racine, which to us appear dull and prosaic, are to the
Frenchman's apprehension instinct with poetic fervour. It does
not explain the undoubted fact that we, who speak English, are
prone to underrate French poetry, while we are equally disposed
to render to German poetry even more than its due share of merit.
The reason is to be sought in the verbal associations established
in our minds by the peculiar composition of the English language.
Our vocabulary is chiefly made up on the one hand of indigenous
Saxon words, and on the other hand of words derived from Latin or
French. It is mostly words of the first class that we learn in
childhood, and that are associated with our homeliest and deepest
emotions; while words of the second class--usually acquired
somewhat later in life and employed in sedate abstract
discourse--have an intellectual rather than an emotional function
to fulfil. Their original significations, the physical metaphors
involved in them, which are perhaps still somewhat apparent to
the Frenchman, are to us wholly non-existent. Nothing but the
derivative or metaphysical signification remains. No physical
image of a man stepping over a boundary is presented to our minds
by the word transgress, nor in using the word comprehension do we
picture to ourselves any manual act of grasping. It is to this
double structure of the English language that it owes its
superiority over every other tongue, ancient or modern, for
philosophical and scientific purposes. Albeit there are numerous
exceptions, it may still be safely said, in a general way, that
we possess and habitually use two kinds of language,--one that is
physical, for our ordinary purposes, and one that is
metaphysical, for purposes of abstract reasoning and discussion.
We do not say like the Germans, that we "begripe" (begreifen) an
idea, but we say that we "conceive" it. We use a word which once
had the very same material meaning as begreifen, but which has in
our language utterly lost it. We are accordingly able to carry on
philosophical inquiries by means of words which are nearly or
quite free from those shadows of original concrete meaning which,
in German, too often obscure the acquired abstract signification.
Whoever has dealt in English and German metaphysics will not fail
to recognize the prodigious superiority of English in force and
perspicuity, arising mainly from the causes here stated. But
while this homogeneity of structure in German injures it for
philosophical purposes, it is the very thing which makes it so
excellent as an organ for poetical expression, in the opinion of
those who speak English. German being nearly allied to
Anglo-Saxon, not only do its simple words strike us with all the
force of our own homely Saxon terms, but its compounds also,
preserving their physical significations almost unimpaired, call
up in our minds concrete images of the greatest definiteness and
liveliness. It is thus that German seems to us pre-eminently a
poetical language, and it is thus that we are naturally inclined
to overrate rather than to depreciate the poetry that is written
With regard to French, the case is just the reverse. The
Frenchman has no Saxon words, but he has, on the other hand, an
indigenous stock of Latin words, which he learns in early
childhood, which give outlet to his most intimate feelings, and
which retain to some extent their primitive concrete
picturesqueness. They are to him just as good as our Saxon words
are to us. Though cold and merely intellectual to us, they are to
him warm with emotion; and this is one reason why we cannot do
justice to his poetry, or appreciate it as he appreciates it. To
make this perfectly clear, let us take two or three lines from
"Blow, blow, thou winter wind!
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude,
Thy tooth is not so keen," etc., etc.;
which I have somewhere seen thus rendered into French:
"Souffle, souffle, vent d'hiver!
Tu n'es pas si cruel
Que l'ingratitude de l'homme.
Ta dent n'est pas si penetrante," etc., etc.
Why are we inclined to laugh as we read this? Because it excites
in us an undercurrent of consciousness which, if put into words,
might run something like this:--
"Insufflate, insufflate, wind hibernal!
Thou art not so cruel
As human ingratitude.
Thy dentition is not so penetrating," etc., etc.
No such effect would be produced upon a Frenchman. The
translation would strike him as excellent, which it really is.
The last line in particular would seem poetical to us, did we not
happen to have in our language words closely akin to dent and
penetrante, and familiarly employed in senses that are not
Applying these considerations to Mr. Longfellow's choice of words
in his translation of Dante, we see at once the unsoundness of
the principle that Italian words should be rendered by their
Romanic equivalents in English. Words that are etymologically
identical with those in the original are often, for that very
reason, the worst words that could be used. They are harsh and
foreign to the English ear, however homelike and musical they may
be to the ear of an Italian. Their connotations are unlike in the
two languages; and the translation which is made literally exact
by using them is at the same time made actually inaccurate, or at
least inadequate. Dole and dolent are doubtless the exact
counterparts of dolore and dolente, so far as mere etymology can
go. But when we consider the effect that is to be produced upon
the mind of the reader, wretchedness and despairing are fat
better equivalents. The former may compel our intellectual
assent, but the latter awaken our emotional sympathy.
Doubtless by long familiarity with the Romanic languages, the
scholar becomes to a great degree emancipated from the conditions
imposed upon him by the peculiar composition of his native
English. The concrete significance of the Romanic words becomes
apparent to him, and they acquire energy and vitality. The
expression dolent may thus satisfy the student familiar with
Italian, because it calls up in his mind, through the medium of
its equivalent dolente, the same associations which the latter
calls up in the mind of the Italian himself. But this power
of appreciating thoroughly the beauties of a foreign tongue is in
the last degree an acquired taste,--as much so as the taste for
olives and kirschenwasser to the carnal palate. It is only by
long and profound study that we can thus temporarily vest
ourselves, so to speak, with a French or Italian consciousness in
exchange for our English one. The literary epicure may keenly
relish such epithets as dolent; but the common English reader,
who loves plain fare, can hardly fail to be startled by it. To
him it savours of the grotesque; and if there is any one thing
especially to be avoided in the interpretation of Dante, it is
 A consummate Italian scholar, the delicacy of whose taste is
questioned by no one, and whose knowledge of Dante's diction is
probably not inferior to Mr. Longfellow's, has told me that he
regards the expression as a noble and effective one, full of
dignity and solemnity.
Those who have read over Dante without reading into him, and
those who have derived their impressions of his poem from M.
Dore's memorable illustrations, will here probably demur. What!
Dante not grotesque! That tunnel-shaped structure of the infernal
pit; Minos passing sentence on the damned by coiling his tail;
Charon beating the lagging shades with his oar; Antaios picking
up the poets with his fingers and lowering them in the hollow of
his hand into the Ninth Circle; Satan crunching in his monstrous
jaws the arch-traitors, Judas, Brutus and Cassius; Ugolino
appeasing his famine upon the tough nape of Ruggieri; Bertrand de
Born looking (if I may be allowed the expression) at his own
dissevered head; the robbers exchanging form with serpents; the
whole demoniac troop of Malebolge,--are not all these things
grotesque beyond everything else in poetry? To us, nurtured in
this scientific nineteenth century, they doubtless seem so; and
by Leigh Hunt, who had the eighteenth-century way of appreciating
other ages than his own, they were uniformly treated as such. To
us they are at first sight grotesque, because they are no longer
real to us. We have ceased to believe in such things, and they no
longer awaken any feeling akin to terror. But in the thirteenth
century, in the minds of Dante and his readers, they were living,
terrible realities. That Dante believed literally in all this
unearthly world, and described it with such wonderful minuteness
because he believed in it, admits of little doubt. As he walked
the streets of Verona the people whispered, "See, there is the
man who has been in hell!" Truly, he had been in hell, and
described it as he had seen it, with the keen eyes of imagination
and faith. With all its weird unearthliness, there is hardly
another book in the whole range of human literature which is
marked with such unswerving veracity as the "Divine Comedy."
Nothing is there set down arbitrarily, out of wanton caprice or
for the sake of poetic effect, but because to Dante's imagination
it had so imposingly shown itself that he could not but describe
it as he saw it. In reading his cantos we forget the poet, and
have before us only the veracious traveller in strange realms,
from whom the shrewdest cross-examination can elicit but one
consistent account. To his mind, and to the mediaeval mind
generally, this outer kingdom, with its wards of Despair,
Expiation, and Beatitude, was as real as the Holy Roman Empire
itself. Its extraordinary phenomena were not to be looked on with
critical eyes and called grotesque, but were to be seen with eyes
of faith, and to be worshipped, loved, or shuddered at. Rightly
viewed, therefore, the poem of Dante is not grotesque, but
unspeakably awful and solemn; and the statement is justified that
all grotesqueness and bizarrerie in its interpretation is to be
Therefore, while acknowledging the accuracy with which Mr.
Longfellow has kept pace with his original through line after
line, following the "footing of its feet," according to the motto
quoted on his title-page, I cannot but think that his accuracy
would have been of a somewhat higher kind if he had now and then
allowed himself a little more liberty of choice between English
and Romanic words and idioms.
A few examples will perhaps serve to strengthen as well as to
elucidate still further this position.
"Inferno," Canto III., line 22, according to Longfellow:--
"There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I at the beginning wept thereat."
According to Cary:--
"Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e'en I wept at entering."
According to Parsons:--
"Mid sighs, laments, and hollow howls of woe,
Which, loud resounding through the starless air,
Forced tears of pity from mine eyes at first."
 "Quivi sospiri, pianti ed alti guai
Risonavan per l' ner senza stelle,
Perch' io al cominciar ne lagrimai."
Canto V., line 84:--
LONGFELLOW.--"Fly through the air by their volition borne."
CARY.--"Cleave the air, wafted by their will along."
PARSONS.--"Sped ever onward by their wish alone."
 "Volan per l' aer dal voler portate."
Canto XVII., line 42:--
LONGFELLOW.--"That he concede to us his stalwart shoulders."
CARY--"That to us he may vouchsafe
The aid of his strong shoulders."
PARSONS.--"And ask for us his shoulders' strong support."
 "Che ne conceda i suoi omeri forti."
Canto XVII., line 25:--
"His tail was wholly quivering in the void,
Contorting upwards the envenomed fork
That in the guise of scorpion armed its point."
"In the void
Glancing, his tail upturned its venomous fork,
With sting like scorpions armed."
PARSONS.--"In the void chasm his trembling tail he showed,
As up the envenomed, forked point he swung, Which, as in
scorpions, armed its tapering end."
 "Nel vano tutta sue coda guizzava,
Torcendo in su la venenosa forca,
Che, a guisa di scorpion, la punta armava."
Canto V., line 51:--
LONGFELLOW.--"People whom the black air so castigates.
CARY.--"By the black air so scourged."
 "Genti che l' aura nera si gastiga."
LONGFELLOW.--"Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating."
CARY.--"My lips all trembling kissed."
 "La bocca mi bacio tutto tremante."
"Purgatorio," Canto XV., line 139:--
"We passed along, athwart the twilight peering
Forward as far as ever eye could stretch
Against the sunbeams serotine and lucent."
 "Noi andavam per lo vespero attenti
Oltre, quanto potean gli occhi allungarsi,
Contra i raggi serotini e lucenti."
Mr. Cary's "bright vespertine ray" is only a trifle better; but
Mr. Wright's "splendour of the evening ray" is, in its
simplicity, far preferable.
Canto XXXI., line 131:--
LONGFELLOW.--"Did the other three advance Singing to their
CARY.--"To their own carol on they came Dancing, in festive ring
WRIGHT.--"And songs accompanied their angel dance."
Here Mr. Longfellow has apparently followed the authority of the
"Cantando al loro angelico carribo,"
and translating carribo by saraband, a kind of Moorish dance. The
best manuscripts, however, sanction M. Witte's reading:--
"Danzando al loro angelico carribo."
If this be correct, carribo cannot signify "a dance," but rather
"the song which accompanies the dance"; and the true sense of the
passage will have been best rendered by Mr. Cary.
 See Blanc, Vocabolario Dantesco, s. v. "caribo."
Whenever Mr. Longfellow's translation is kept free from oddities
of diction and construction, it is very animated and vigorous.
Nothing can be finer than his rendering of "Purgatorio," Canto
VI., lines 97-117:--
"O German Albert! who abandonest
Her that has grown recalcitrant and savage,
And oughtest to bestride her saddle-bow,
May a just judgment from the stars down fall
Upon thy blood, and be it new and open,
That thy successor may have fear thereof:
Because thy father and thyself have suffered,
By greed of those transalpine lands distrained,
The garden of the empire to be waste.
Come and behold Montecchi and Cappelletti,
Monaldi and Filippeschi, careless man!
Those sad already, and these doubt-depressed!
Come, cruel one! come and behold the oppression
Of thy nobility, and cure their wounds,
And thou shalt see how safe [?] is Santafiore.
Come and behold thy Rome that is lamenting,
Widowed, alone, and day and night exclaims
'My Caesar, why hast thou forsaken me?'
Come and behold how loving are the people;
And if for us no pity moveth thee,
Come and be made ashamed of thy renown."
 "O Alberto Tedesco, che abbandoni
Costei ch' e fatta indomita e selvaggia,
E dovresti inforcar li suoi arcioni,
Giusto gindizio dalle stelle caggia
Sopra il tuo sangue, e sia nuovo ed aperto,
Tal che il tuo successor temenza n' aggia:
Cheavete tu e il tuo padre sofferto,
Per cupidigia di costa distretti,
Che il giardin dell' imperio sia diserto.
Vieni a veder Montecchi e Cappelletti,
Monaldi e Filippeschi, uom senza cura:
Color gia tristi, e questi con sospetti.
Vien, crudel, vieni, e vedi la pressura
De' tuoi gentili, e cure lor magagne,
E vedrai Santafior com' e oscura [secura?].
Vieni a veder la tua Roma che piagne,
Vedova e sola, e di e notte chiama:
Cesare mio, perche non m' accompagne?
Vieni a veder la gente quanto s' ama;
E se nulla di noi pieta ti move,
A vergognar ti vien della tua fama."
So, too, Canto III., lines 79-84:--
"As sheep come issuing forth from out the fold
By ones, and twos, and threes, and the others stand
Timidly holding down their eyes and nostrils,
And what the foremost does the others do
Huddling themselves against her if she stop,
Simple and quiet, and the wherefore know not."
 "Come le pecorelle escon del chiuso
Ad una, a due, a tre, e l' altre stanno
Timidette atterrando l' occhio e il muso;
E cio che fa la prima, e l' altre sanno,
Addossandosi a lei s' ella s' arresta,
Semplici e quete, e lo 'mperche non sanno."
Francesca's exclamation to Dante is thus rendered by Mr.
"And she to me: There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
 "Ed ella a me: Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice Nella miseria."
Inferno, V. 121-123.
This is admirable,--full of the true poetic glow, which would
have been utterly quenched if some Romanic equivalent of dolore
had been used instead of our good Saxon sorrow. So, too, the
"Paradiso," Canto I., line 100:--
"Whereupon she, after a pitying sigh,
Her eyes directed toward me with that look
A mother casts on a delirious child."
 Yet admirable as it is, I am not quite sure that Dr.
Parsons, by taking further liberty with the original, has not
"And she to me: The mightiest of all woes
Is in the midst of misery to be cursed
With bliss remembered."
 "Ond' ella, appresso d'un pio sospiro
, Gli occhi drizzo ver me con quel sembiante,
Che madre fa sopra figlinol deliro."
And, finally, the beginning of the eighth canto of the
"'T was now the hour that turneth back desire
In those who sail the sea, and melts the heart,
The day they've said to their sweet friends farewell;
And the new pilgrim penetrates with love,
If he doth hear from far away a bell
That seemeth to deplore the dying day."
 "Era gia l' ora che volge il disio
Ai naviganti, e intenerisce il core
Lo di ch' hen detto ai dolci amici addio;
E che lo nuovo peregrin d' amore
Punge, se ode squilla di lontano,
Che paia il giorno pianger che si more."
This passage affords an excellent example of what the method of
literal translation can do at its best. Except in the second
line, where "those who sail the sea" is wisely preferred to any
Romanic equivalent of naviganti the version is utterly literal;
as literal as the one the school-boy makes, when he opens his
Virgil at the Fourth Eclogue, and lumberingly reads, "Sicilian
Muses, let us sing things a little greater." But there is nothing
clumsy, nothing which smacks of the recitation-room, in these
lines of Mr. Longfellow. For easy grace and exquisite beauty it
would be difficult to surpass them. They may well bear comparison
with the beautiful lines into which Lord Byron has rendered the
"Soft hour which wakes the wish, and melts the heart,
Of those who sail the seas, on the first day
When they from their sweet friends are torn apart;
Or fills with love the pilgrim on his way,
As the far bell of vesper makes him start,
Seeming to weep the dying day's decay.
Is this a fancy which our reason scorns?
Ah, surely nothing dies but something mourns!"
 Don Juan, III. 108.
Setting aside the concluding sentimental generalization,--which
is much more Byronic than Dantesque,--one hardly knows which
version to call more truly poetical; but for a faithful rendering
of the original conception one can hardly hesitate to give the
palm to Mr. Longfellow.
Thus we see what may be achieved by the most highly gifted of
translators who contents himself with passively reproducing the
diction of his original, who constitutes himself, as it were, a
conduit through which the meaning of the original may flow. Where
the differences inherent in the languages employed do not
intervene to alloy the result, the stream of the original may, as
in the verses just cited, come out pure and unweakened. Too
often, however, such is the subtle chemistry of thought, it will
come out diminished in its integrity, or will appear, bereft of
its primitive properties as a mere element in some new
combination. Our channel is a trifle too alkaline perhaps; and
that the transferred material may preserve its pleasant
sharpness, we may need to throw in a little extra acid. Too often
the mere differences between English and Italian prevent Dante's
expressions from coming out in Mr. Longfellow's version so pure
and unimpaired as in the instance just cited. But these
differences cannot be ignored. They lie deep in the very
structure of human speech, and are narrowly implicated with
equally profound nuances in the composition of human thought. The
causes which make dolente a solemn word to the Italian ear, and
dolent a queer word to the English ear, are causes which have
been slowly operating ever since the Italican and the Teuton
parted company on their way from Central Asia. They have brought
about a state of things which no cunning of the translator can
essentially alter, but to the emergencies of which he must
graciously conform his proceedings. Here, then, is the sole point
on which we disagree with Mr. Longfellow, the sole reason we have
for thinking that he has not attained the fullest possible
measure of success. Not that he has made a "realistic"
translation,--so far we conceive him to be entirely right; but
that, by dint of pushing sheer literalism beyond its proper
limits, he has too often failed to be truly realistic. Let us
here explain what is meant by realistic translation.
Every thoroughly conceived and adequately executed translation of
an ancient author must be founded upon some conscious theory or
some unconscious instinct of literary criticism. As is the
critical spirit of an age, so among other things will be its
translations. Now the critical spirit of every age previous to
our own has been characterized by its inability to appreciate
sympathetically the spirit of past and bygone times. In the
seventeenth century criticism made idols of its ancient models;
it acknowledged no serious imperfections in them; it set them up
as exemplars for the present and all future times to copy. Let
the genial Epicurean henceforth write like Horace, let the epic
narrator imitate the supreme elegance of Virgil,--that was the
conspicuous idea, the conspicuous error, of seventeenth-century
criticism. It overlooked the differences between one age and
another. Conversely, when it brought Roman patricians and Greek
oligarchs on to the stage, it made them behave like French
courtiers or Castilian grandees or English peers. When it had to
deal with ancient heroes, it clothed them in the garb and imputed
to them the sentiments of knights-errant. Then came the
revolutionary criticism of the eighteenth century, which assumed
that everything old was wrong, while everything new was right. It
recognized crudely the differences between one age and another,
but it had a way of looking down upon all ages except the
present. This intolerance shown toward the past was indeed a
measure of the crudeness with which it was comprehended. Because
Mohammed, if he had done what he did, in France and in the
eighteenth century, would have been called an impostor, Voltaire,
the great mouthpiece and representative of this style of
criticism, portrays him as an impostor. Recognition of the fact
that different ages are different, together with inability to
perceive that they ought to be different, that their differences
lie in the nature of progress,--this was the prominent
characteristic of eighteenth-century criticism. Of all the great
men of that century, Lessing was perhaps the only one who outgrew
this narrow critical habit.
Now nineteenth-century criticism not only knows that in no
preceding age have men thought and behaved as they now think and
behave, but it also understands that old-fashioned thinking and
behaviour was in its way just as natural and sensible as that
which is now new-fashioned. It does not flippantly sneer at an
ancient custom because we no longer cherish it; but with an
enlightened regard for everything human, it inquires into its
origin, traces its effects, and endeavours to explain its decay.
It is slow to characterize Mohammed as an impostor, because it
has come to feel that Arabia in the seventh century is one thing
and Europe in the nineteenth another. It is scrupulous about
branding Caesar as an usurper, because it has discovered that
what Mr. Mill calls republican liberty and what Cicero called
republican liberty are widely different notions. It does not tell
us to bow down before Lucretius and Virgil as unapproachable
models, while lamenting our own hopeless inferiority; nor does it
tell us to set them down as half-skilled apprentices, while
congratulating ourselves on our own comfortable superiority; but
it tells us to study them as the exponents of an age forever
gone, from which we have still many lessons to learn, though we
no longer think as it thought or feel as it felt. The eighteenth
century, as represented by the characteristic passage from
Voltaire, cited by Mr. Longfellow, failed utterly to understand
Dante. To the minds of Voltaire and his contemporaries the great
mediaeval poet was little else than a Titanic monstrosity,--a
maniac, whose ravings found rhythmical expression; his poem a
grotesque medley, wherein a few beautiful verses were buried
under the weight of whole cantos of nonsensical scholastic
quibbling. This view, somewhat softened, we find also in Leigh
Hunt, whose whole account of Dante is an excellent specimen of
this sort of criticism. Mr. Hunt's fine moral nature was shocked
and horrified by the terrible punishments described in the
"Inferno." He did not duly consider that in Dante's time these
fearful things were an indispensable part of every man's theory
of the world; and, blinded by his kindly prejudices, he does not
seem to have perceived that Dante, in accepting eternal torments
as part and parcel of the system of nature, was nevertheless, in
describing them, inspired with that ineffable tenderness of pity
which, in the episodes of Francesca and of Brunetto Latini, has
melted the hearts of men in past times, and will continue to do
so in times to come. "Infinite pity, yet infinite rigour of law!
It is so Nature is made: it is so Dante discerned that she was
made." This remark of the great seer of our time is what the
eighteenth century could in no wise comprehend. The men of that
day failed to appreciate Dante, just as they were oppressed or
disgusted at the sight of Gothic architecture; just as they
pronounced the scholastic philosophy an unmeaning jargon; just as
they considered mediaeval Christianity a gigantic system of
charlatanry, and were wont unreservedly to characterize the
Papacy as a blighting despotism. In our time cultivated men think
differently. We have learned that the interminable hair-splitting
of Aquinas and Abelard has added precision to modern
thinking. We do not curse Gregory VII. and Innocent III. as
enemies of the human race, but revere them as benefactors. We can
spare a morsel of hearty admiration for Becket, however strongly
we may sympathize with the stalwart king who did penance for his
foul murder; and we can appreciate Dante's poor opinion of Philip
the Fair no less than his denunciation of Boniface VIII. The
contemplation of Gothic architecture, as we stand entranced in
the sublime cathedrals of York or Rouen, awakens in our breasts a
genuine response to the mighty aspirations which thus became
incarnate in enduring stone. And the poem of Dante--which has
been well likened to a great cathedral--we reverently accept,
with all its quaint carvings and hieroglyphic symbols, as the
authentic utterance of feelings which still exist, though they no
longer choose the same form of expression.
 Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship, p. 84.
 See my Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, Vol. I. p. 123.
A century ago, therefore, a translation of Dante such as Mr.
Longfellow's would have been impossible. The criticism of that
time was in no mood for realistic reproductions of the antique.
It either superciliously neglected the antique, or else dressed
it up to suit its own notions of propriety. It was not like a
seven-league boot which could fit everybody, but it was like a
Procrustes-bed which everybody must be made to fit. Its great
exponent was not a Sainte-Beuve, but a Boileau. Its typical
sample of a reproduction of the antique was Pope's translation of
the Iliad. That book, we presume, everybody has read; and many of
those who have read it know that, though an excellent and
spirited poem, it is no more Homer than the age of Queen Anne was
the age of Peisistratos. Of the translations of Dante made during
this period, the chief was unquestionably Mr. Cary's. For a
man born and brought up in the most unpoetical of centuries, Mr.
Cary certainly made a very good poem, though not so good as
Pope's. But it fell far short of being a reproduction of Dante.
The eighteenth-century note rings out loudly on every page of it.
Like much other poetry of the time, it is laboured and
artificial. Its sentences are often involved and occasionally
obscure. Take, for instance, Canto IV. 25-36 of the "Paradiso":
 This work comes at the end of the eighteenth-century period,
as Pope's translation of Homer comes at the beginning.
"These are the questions which they will
Urge equally; and therefore I the first
Of that will treat which hath the more of gall.
Of seraphim he who is most enskied,
Moses, and Samuel, and either John,
Choose which thou wilt, nor even Mary's self,
Have not in any other heaven their seats,
Than have those spirits which so late thou saw'st;
Nor more or fewer years exist; but all
Make the first circle beauteous, diversely
Partaking of sweet life, as more or less
Afflation of eternal bliss pervades them."
Here Mr. Cary not only fails to catch Dante's grand style; he
does not even write a style at all. It is too constrained and
awkward to be dignified, and dignity is an indispensable element
of style. Without dignity we may write clearly, or nervously, or
racily, but we have not attained to a style. This is the second
shortcoming of Mr. Cary's translation. Like Pope's, it fails to
catch the grand style of its original. Unlike Pope's, it
frequently fails to exhibit any style.
It is hardly necessary to spend much time in proving that Mr.
Longfellow's version is far superior to Mr. Cary's. It is usually
easy and flowing, and save in the occasional use of violent
inversions, always dignified. Sometimes, as in the episode of
Ugolino, it even rises to something like the grandeur of the
"When he had said this, with his eyes distorted,
The wretched skull resumed he with his teeth,
Which, as a dog's, upon the bone were strong."
 "Quand' ebbe detto cio, eon gli occhi torti
Riprese il teschio misero coi denti,
Che furo all' osso, come d'un can, forti."
Inferno, XXXIII. 76.
That is in the grand style, and so is the following, which
describes those sinners locked in the frozen lake below
"Weeping itself there does not let them weep,
And grief that finds a barrier in the eyes
Turns itself inward to increase the anguish.
 "Lo pianto stesso li pianger non lascia,
E il duol, che trova in sugli occhi rintoppo,
Si volve in entro a far crescer l' ambascia."
Inferno, XXXIII. 94.
And the exclamation of one of these poor "wretches of the frozen
crust" is an exclamation that Shakespeare might have written:--
"Lift from mine eyes the rigid veils, that I
May vent the sorrow which impregns my heart."
 "Levatemi dal viso i duri veli,
Si ch' io sfoghi il dolor che il cor m' impregna."
There is nothing in Mr. Cary's translation which can stand a
comparison with that. The eighteenth century could not translate
like that. For here at last we have a real reproduction of the
antique. In the Shakespearian ring of these lines we recognize
the authentic rendering of the tones of the only man since the
Christian era who could speak like Shakespeare.
In this way Mr. Longfellow's translation is, to an eminent
degree, realistic. It is a work conceived and executed in entire
accordance with the spirit of our time. Mr. Longfellow has set
about making a reconstructive translation, and he has succeeded
in the attempt. In view of what he has done, no one can ever wish
to see the old methods of Pope and Cary again resorted to. It is
only where he fails to be truly realistic that he comes short of
success. And, as already hinted, it is oftenest through sheer
excess of LITERALISM that he ceases to be realistic, and departs
from the spirit of his author instead of coming nearer to it. In
the "Paradiso," Canto X. 1-6, his method leads him into
"Looking into His Son with all the love
Which each of them eternally breathes forth,
The primal and unutterable Power
Whate'er before the mind or eye revolves
With so much order made, there can be none
Who this beholds without enjoying Him."
This seems clumsy and halting, yet it is an extremely literal
paraphrase of a graceful and flowing original:--
"Guardando nel suo figlio con l' amore
Che l' uno e l' altro eternalmente spire,
Lo primo ed ineffabile Valore,
Quanto per mente o per loco si gira
Con tanto ordine fe', ch' esser non puote
Senza gustar di lui ehi cio rimira "
Now to turn a graceful and flowing sentence into one that is
clumsy and halting is certainly not to reproduce it, no matter
how exactly the separate words are rendered, or how closely the
syntactic constructions match each other. And this consideration
seems conclusive as against the adequacy of the literalist
method. That method is inadequate, not because it is too
REALISTIC, but because it runs continual risk of being too
VERBALISTIC. It has recently been applied to the translation of
Dante by Mr. Rossetti, and it has sometimes led him to write
curious verses. For instance, he makes Francesca say to Dante,--
"O gracious and benignant ANIMAL!"
"O animal grazioso e benigno!"
Mr. Longfellow's good taste has prevented his doing anything like
this, yet Mr. Rossetti's extravagance is due to an unswerving
adherence to the very rules by which Mr. Longfellow has been
Good taste and poetic genius are, however, better than the best
of rules, and so, after all said and done, we can only conclude
that Mr. Longfellow has given us a great and noble work not
likely soon to be equalled. Leopardi somewhere, in speaking of
the early Italian translators of the classics and their
well-earned popularity, says, who knows but Caro will live in
men's remembrance as long as Virgil? "La belie destinee," adds
Sainte-Beuve, "de ne pouvoir plus mourir, sinon avec un
immortel!" Apart from Mr. Longfellow's other titles to undying
fame, such a destiny is surely marked out for him, and throughout
the English portions of the world his name will always be
associated with that of the great Florentine.