Category Archives: Italian Literature

One Final Dante Post: A List of Helpful Resources

For my last post on the Divine Comedy I thought I would share of list of various resources—-translations, essays, books, etc.—that I found helpful and a joy to read along the way.

Translations:

The Divine Comedy, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin: I started out with this translation, but I found it tedious and at times downright inaccessible.  But I still list it because the notes that go along with the text are excellent.

The Divine Comedy, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Everyman’s Library: I have always loved Mandelbaum’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so I switched from Kirkpatrick to this translation and found it much more accessible.  I’ve read that it is also very close to the Italian—he doesn’t take much poetic license, which is the exact reason why I like his Ovid so much.

The Divine Comedy, translated by John D. Sinclair: This was recommended by a fellow reader on Twitter and I am so glad I bought the complete set.  I will use this prose translation the next time I do a complete reread of Dante.  It also comes with the Italian text.

Dante in English, Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, eds., Penguin: This book is a nice way to sample different translations of Dante.  It also includes selections from different poems that have been inspired by the Divine Comedy

Vita Nuova, translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:  This is Dante’s poem about Beatrice and I actually read it before the Divine Comedy.  It greatly enhanced my reading of Paradise in particular.  This has been reissued recently by NYRB.

Dante: De Vulgari Eloquentia (Cambridge Medieval Classics), translated by Steven Botterill:  This is an essay, written in Latin by Dante, on literary theory.  It contains the Latin text as well as an English translation.  A crazy rabbit hole I followed because I was curious about Dante’s Latin text.

Books:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw:  A very informative book in which each chapter is a discussion of a different theme or thread in Dante—Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers and Words.

Reading Dante (The Open Yale Courses Series) by Giuseppe Mazzotta: This was one of my favorite resources, especially for understanding Paradise.  It is more like an extended commentary and helps to unpack the historical and theological ideas of Dante.  I also bought a copy that was signed and inscribed by the author that said, “May you continue on your own journey” which I thought was a very nice find.

Dante A Very Short Introduction by Peter Hainsworth:  Exactly what the title says, a very brief introduction at 115 pages.  I especially like his emphasis on how Dante is still relevant in the modern age.

Dante A Brief History by Peter S. Hawkins:  An excellent overview of Dante’s life and work.  This one has some very good black and white illustrations.  I especially appreciated Hawkins’s chapter on Beatrice.

Dante: Poet of the Secular World by Eric Auerbach:  An excellent discussion of the overall structure of Dante’s works that argues he was the first great realist writer.  This has been reissued by NYRB.

Introductory Papers on Dante: The Poet Alive in his Writings by Dorothy Sayers:  This, with the two books listed below, is a three volume collection of lectures given by Sayers on Dante.  And excellent, helpful introduction to Dante.

Further Papers on Dante: His Heirs and His Ancestors by Dorothy Sayers:  This volume contains essays that compare Dante to other authors who explore similar themes in their writing.

The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement: On Dante and Other Writers by Dorothy Sayers:  This one comes with a fabulous bonus essay describing Sayers’s learning Latin from the age of six and why she thinks learning Latin is so valuable.  All of her points about learning Latin are still relevant today, I will be sharing this with my own students.

Essays:

The Cambridge Companion to Dante, Rachel Jacoff, ed.: As with other books in the series, this Cambridge Companion contains essays on a wide variety of topics covering the Divine Comedy, the Vita Nuova, Dante’s Theology, Dante and Florence, Dante and the classical poets, etc.

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam: a beautiful moving essay about the Divine Comedy.  The essay is included as part of Mandelstam’s Selected Poems published by NYRB.

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner: I actually found the Mandelstam essay because Steiner references it in his essay.  This essay is included in his book On Difficulty.

Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Freccero, ed.: A nice collection of some of the most famous essays written about Dante in the 20th century.  It includes a copy of Mandelstam’s essay.

The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth Century Responses, Peter S. Hawkins, ed.:  A collection of essays by some of the most important 20th century poets including Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Heaney among many others. (I did a previous post with a couple of quotes from this book.)

Dante Comparisons (Publications of the Foundation for Italian Studies, University College Dublin), Eric Haywood, ed.:  I know this is sort of an odd and obscure book to have searched for, but it promised an essay about Dante, Catullus and Propertius! In two previous posts I noted some of the similarities between sections of the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy and Catullus’s poetry so I was thrilled to find this unique collection of essays that covers this very topic.

Ancient Resources:

The Aeneid, Vergil: As I mentioned in my first post on Dante, an appreciation for the Aeneid will greatly enhance any reading of Dante.  I honestly don’t know how anyone could read The Divine Comedy and not be compelled to read Vergil as well.  My favorite translations are Robert Fagles, David Ferry and Robert Fitzgerald.

The Metamorphoses, Ovid: Dante actually makes more references to Ovid than to Vergil.  The two commentaries I used were very thorough with explaining Dante’s references to Ovid.  But reading Ovid’s epic poem will also greatly enhance one’s understanding of many parts of the Divine Comedy.  My favorite translation, as noted above, is Mandelbaum.

Achilleid, Statius translated by Stanley Lombardo:  I fell down a long, winding rabbit hole by reading and translating Statius, an author whose work I have not picked up in 20 years.  The Achilleid is a beautiful, unfinished epic that describes Achilles as a boy before he goes off to fight in Troy.  It is really not necessary to read any Statius to understand his role in the Divine Comedy even though this Roman poet guides Dante at the end of Purgatory and into Paradise.

Thebaid, Statius, translated by Jane Wilson Joyce:  This poem, about the destruction and havoc that Oedipus’s sons cause one another while battling over who will rule  Thebes, is long, lugubrious and dense.  Statius likes to go into great detail about obscure mythological names and references.  When I first translated this 20 years ago in a Silver Age Epic course in graduate school, I did not have the patience for it.  This time around I did find some stunning passages that I truly enjoyed.  But there is still a lot of very dense material that, at times, can be incomprehensible.

Pharsalia, Lucan:  I also translated this in my Silver Age Epic course and really fell in love with Lucan’s underappreciated work.  Since Dante mentions Lucan as being among the ancient poets in limbo I decided to revisit a few of my favorite passages—his description of Pompey and the witch scene.  The Loeb translation of this epic is very good.

Websites:

A series of lectures by Yale Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta.  If you don’t want to read his book I cited above, you can watch his series of lectures: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/a-free-course-on-dantes-divine-comedy-from-yale-university.html

Digital Dante from Columbia University.  This was a great resource for looking at the Italian text and commentaries for the Divine Comedy.  This site includes illustrations of the Divine Comedy and readings of it  as well as a good historical timeline of Dante’s life: https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/

Finis.

Please let me know in the comments if there are other resources that I should add to my list.

I was feeling lost for several days when I finished Dante.  But I have decided on a new reading project that I am very excited about: Kafka!

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Filed under Essay, Italian Literature, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry

Full of Delights, of Pleasure, Of Tenderness: The Poets’ Dante

I have been reading some of the essays from The Poets’ Dante which arrived in the mail yesterday. It is a collection of writing from some of the most prominent 20th century poets who reflect on how Dante has shaped their own verses. I offer here a few passages from some of my favorite essays so far:

Ezra Pound comments on the genre and classification of the Divine Comedy:

The Divine Comedy must not be considered as an epic; to compare it with epic poems is usually unprofitable. It is in a sense lyric, the tremendous lyric of the subjective Dante; but the soundest classification of the poem is Dante’s own, ‘as a comedy which differs from tragedy in its content,’ for ‘tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly,’ and the end is terrible, ‘whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings the matter to a prosperous end.’ The is, in fact, a great mystery play, or better, a cycle of mystery plays.

Jorge Luis Borges on the intensity and gentleness of Dante:

Carlyle and other critics have observed that the most notable characteristic of Dante is intensity. If we think of the hundred cantos of the poem, it seems a miracle that that intensity never lets up, except in a few places in the Paradiso which for the poet were light and for us are shadow. I can’t think of another example, except perhaps Macbeth, which begins with the three witches and continues to the death of the hero without a weak moment.

I would like to mention another aspect: the gentleness of Dante. We always think of the somber and sententious Florentine poem, and we forget that the work is full of delights, of pleasure, of tenderness. That tenderness is part of the structure of the work. For example, Dante must have read somewhere that the cube is the most solid of volumes. It was a current, unpoetical observation, and yet Dante used it as a metaphor for man, who must support misfortune: ‘ben tetragono ai colpi di fortuna,’ man is a good tetragon, a cube. That is truly rare.

And Seamus Heaney’s personal reflection on his experiences with the Divine Comedy:

What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together, the strong strain of what has been called personal realism in the celebration of bonds of friendship and bonds of enmity. The way in which Dante could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to a scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country. The main tension is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self.

This is only a very small sampling of the book and I will, no doubt, spend some time with this volume as I pick my way through the variety of essays it contains.

Earlier today my husband noticed, with a wry comment and smirk, that I had acquired yet two more books on Dante. The intensity with which I throw myself into things has become a bit of a family joke—books, blogging, gift wrapping, acquiring the best coffee/teas, fashion/shoes, etc. (a small selection of my “obsessions” that my husband has pointed out, for which he claims he loves me dearly). And, yes, I have applied the same intensity to reading Dante and everything I can get my hands on about Dante. I have, I think, one final post left in me—a wrap up of sorts with a list of various books, essays, and translations I have acquired along the way. The journey from Hell, to Purgatory to Heaven has been a truly rich, rewarding and intense reading experience for me—an intense book, indeed, to match the intense person I can be. If you’ve enjoyed my posts then thanks for paying attention; if you are sick of me going on about the Divine Comedy then I promise the end is nigh and I will be reading different authors this week!

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Italian Literature

Open Your Eyes and See What I am Now: Beatrice and Dante in Paradise

Beata Beatrix. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Oil on Canvas. 1864-1870.

This has already proven to be a long, tough week but I have been elevated by reading Dante’s Paradise. My favorite experience in reading this final book in the Divine Comedy has been the interaction between Dante and Beatrice as they journey through heaven.  The respect and awe the poet has for Beatrice, his muse and inspiration, even when she is scolding him, is moving. One of my favorite passages of Paradise is Canto XXI where Beatrice explains to him that she can’t smile at Dante because he would burst into flames, like Semele did when she looks at the god Jupiter in all of his celestial splendor (trans. Mandelbaum):

By now my eyes were set again upon
my lady’s face, and with my eyes, my mind:
from every other thought, it was withdrawn.
She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: “Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,
because, as you have seen, my loveliness—
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness—
were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as it flashed, your mortal faculty
would see a branch a lightning bolt has cracked.

Dante follows Beatrice’s guidance through one stage after the next of heaven and takes her chiding seriously because he knows it is for his benefit. His reward is that, in a few spheres later, he is able, through his ordeal and his learning, to bear her smile:

Open your eyes and see what I now am;
the things you witnessed will have made you strong
enough to bear the power of my smile.

That spine tingling, lover’s gaze which occurs over and over; a lover who not only teaches, but challenges you to become a better person. How could this not be a love story?  It is, I think, an ideal love towards which it is nice to aspire.

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Let Mortals Never Take a Vow in Jest: Dante Paradise Canto V and Catullus

Illustration of Beatrice explaining divine wisdom to Dante from the Mandelbaum translation.

No, I haven’t lost my mind, you read that title correctly. I wrote a post at this time last year discussing the similarities I noted between Catullus’s love poems and Dante’s Vita Nuova. As I was reading the final book in the Divine Comedy this afternoon, I was surprised to see in Canto V of Paradiso what I believe are some parallels, similarities, perhaps even influence from the Roman poet Catullus. In this Canto, Beatrice is instructing Dante about the seriousness of a vow—at first she is, of course, talking about religious vows and nuns and how they cannot be broken unless one makes a promise of something loftier. But the conversation, I think, moves into more general matters of faithfulness and agreements that anyone is capable of making over the course of his or her life. Beatrice tells Dante (trans. Mandelbaum):

Let mortals never take a vow in jest;
be faithful yet circumspect, not rash
as Jephthah was, in offering his first gift;
he should have said, ‘I did amiss,’ and not
done worse by keeping faith. And you can find
that same stupidity in the Greeks’ chief—
when her fair face made Iphigenia grieve
and made the wise and made the foolish weep
for her when they heard tell of such a rite.
Christians, proceed with greater gravity:
do not be like a feather at each wind,
nor think that all immersions wash you clean.

Even I was surprised when reading this Canto to have thoughts about Catullus flash across my mind. In Carmen 76 and 70 Catullus is admonishing his former lover Clodia (Lesbia) for holding out vows and promises to him which, in the end, she could not keep. Catullus uses the language of vows, pleasure, faith, wind and water to describe his staying faithful to a promise of love and companionship and Clodia’s breaking of those same promises. It is also evident that the words Catullus uses in his poems have religious, spiritual and legal connotations. Poem 76 begins (Latin translations are my own):

If there is any pleasure for a man in remembering previous good deeds, when he knows for a fact that he has been dutiful, and that he has not violated a sacred vow, and that he has never, in any agreement, abused the gods for the purpose of deceiving his fellow man, then many joys remain for you throughout your long life, Catullus, even though these joys have resulted from a thankless love.

And in poem 70 Catullus writes:

My woman says that she prefers to marry no other man over me, not even if Jupiter himself were to ask for her hand in marriage. She says this: but what a woman promises to an eager lover should be written on the winds or the swift flowing rivers.

As I mentioned above, Latin words like pius (dutiful, pius), fides (promise, vow), foedere (agreement, contract) all have religious connotations. Catullus takes the vow he has made to his beloved as seriously as if it were a religious or a legal contract. And we can likewise view the passage from Dante as not only bearing religious meanings, but also romantic ones—especially since the words are spoken between Dante and Beatrice. It also struck me that the example of a broken vow that Dante uses is that of Iphigenia who was promised by her father, Agamemnon, a wedding but instead was sacrificed at the altar of Artemis—a myth with both religious and marital references. I haven’t been able to find a reference or footnote in any of the Dante commentaries about Catullus. But can you see, fellow readers, why Dante reminded of these carefully composed elegiac meters from Catullus?

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A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Literature in Translation