The maestro’s maestro

I began reading Dante in 1984 when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Italy. I was spending most of my days doing musicology research in the Biblioteca Civica di Bergamo, and the only other American was a fellow from Princeton working on a dissertation in art history. Robert took the bus in every day from a small town about ten miles away, and he passed the time reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. I took it up in the spirit of collegiality.

The medieval Florentine poet turned pilgrim turned prophet became my maestro, just as Virgil was his and the Sibyl was his. We had a mutual friend in Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer who wrote a tone poem called Francesca da Rimini, inspired by the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. Dante never knew the composer, having lived six centuries before him, but Tchaikovsky certainly knew his Dante, to judge from the power of his music. The turbid torments of the adulterous Francesca and her silent partner Paolo are vividly embodied in the orchestral score.

Another of my circle, Jorge Luis Borges, was equally devoted to Dante. As I read his Nuevo ensayos dantescos (Madrid: Alianza editorial, 1999), I often wondered how an Argentine who spoke Spanish and English—he had an English grandmother—learned the Divine Comedy. I found the answer in Siete Noches (Mexico: Tierra firme, 1980), a collection of lectures Borges gave at the theatre Coliseo de Buenos Aires in 1977, when he was 78 years old. He tells how, as a young writer, he supported himself with a menial clerical position at a library in the suburb of Almagro. Every day he made the long, lonely commute to his workplace via tram, and to pass the time he read the Divine Comedy in a bilingual edition that he had found in the stacks at the library where he worked. He had no Italian, but used the English pony to help him get through the three compact volumes, each one of which would just fit into his pocket. Coming to grips with Dante’s Tuscan dialect was what we would call a steep learning curve, but Borges went on to read the Commedia many times. Amusingly, he claimed that his ability to read the Italian without a guide coincided with the moment in Purgatorio when Virgil abandons Dante (XXVII:127-142).

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned to translating the Commedia to console himself after his wife died from burns sustained in a fire at their home; he began with Paradiso. The first American Divine Comedy transcends its tragic inspiration to ascend to the heights of English poetry. If you are like me, you probably associate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with quaint verses like “Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” When I first saw the Longfellow translation at the bookstore, I thought, “Now who would ever buy that?” I was ignorant of the fact that Longfellow was professor of Italian at Harvard and a translator of great skill and sensitivity. He was able to vet his verses with distinguished colleagues like Robert Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who read the translation in progress at Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2004 a young American writer named Matthew Pearl came out with his first historical novel, The Dante Club, which turns the story of Longfellow’s enterprise into an engaging murder mystery. It was a New York Times best seller.

If you’ve never read the Divine Comedy, you might consider the Longfellow translation. It comes in a very economical paperback published by Barnes and Noble with excellent notes by Peter Bondanella, professor of Italian at Indiana University. Because it was written in the 1860s the language may seem a little old-fashioned, but if you grew up on the King James Bible, as I did, it won’t seem so antiquated. Critics have praised this translation for its literal fidelity to the Italian, but Longfellow often captures the music of the original. Here’s what Harold Bloom had to say about it: “Longfellow is a superb lyric poet. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.” (Best Poems of the English Language, ed. H. Bloom, p. 513)

If you prefer a current version, there are two that I like very much. Allen Mandelbaum’s English is very readable without getting slangy and comes in an inexpensive Bantam paperback with the Italian and English texts on facing pages. An upgrade from that would be Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation, also bilingual, with notes and commentary by a scholar who taught Dante at Princeton for 45 years and was president of the Dante Society of America, which Longfellow and his fellows founded in 1881.

Both these modern versions are available on the web. The World of Dante features the Mandelbaum translation and the Princeton Dante Project proffers the Hollanders’ version. Both websites have ancillaries for studying all the works of the Prince of Poets. There are maps of hell, purgatory and paradise as well as illustrations on the World of Dante site. I downloaded a portrait of Dante and put it on my cell phone as wallpaper. My favorite Dante picture is Henry Holiday’s lavishly romantic (1884) painting of Dante and Beatrice, which shows her giving him the snub at the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence. Dante tells us all about that in his early work called La vita nuova (New Life).

Beatrice married someone else and died at twenty-four, but Dante immortalized and apotheosized her in his works. He met her again in Purgatorio and Paradiso, where we last see her seated in her rightful place in the Celestial Rose of the Empyrean, next to Rachel.

Dante composed his Comedy while exiled from Florence. He died in 1321, never having set foot in his beloved city again. He holds a place in the literary pantheon alongside Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Goethe. His immortality is secure.

Dr. Lawrence Sisk is professor of music at Lewis University. He loves to talk about Dante and often lectures at area libraries. His two power-point presentations on Dante last either one hour or ninety minutes.

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