Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lenten Meditations on the Divine Comedy

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
(Inf. I, 1-3)

As a Lenten feature here on Darwin Catholic, we're going to be writing a series of posts on Dante's Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy is one of the great artistic inheritances of Catholicism, and yet although many people have heard of it, I don't know if its power as a spiritual work is nearly as frequently known. The famous part of the Commedia is of course the Inferno, Dante's account of a tour through hell guided by the Roman poet Virgil. It's the first of the three parts of the three parts, so many classes simply don't get any farther. It also features grim descriptions of eternal punishment in places, and so it fits well with the "fire and brimstone" image of religious belief. Perhaps the most standard understanding of Dante is: He was a medieval Italian who wrote a set of poems about the afterlife. He put his enemies under horrible tortures in hell, and later he showed his friends in purgatory and heaven.

However, this misses the spiritual importance of what Dante was trying to achieve with his greatest work. This first piece will, thus, be a brief introduction to the Commedia and an explanation of why I think it's so eminently suitable for a set of Lenten meditations.

The Commedia was written during the years from 1308 through Dante's death in 1321, during which time Dante was living in exile from his native Florence, having ended up on the wrong side of a political feud. However, the poem itself is set in 1300, a Jubilee year proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII, when Dante was 35-years-old and at the height of his career as a city political figure in Florence. The poem begins on the morning of Good Friday and the three poems trace through the Triduum of that Jubilee year.

The poem is, at root, about conversion, and the path to personal salvation and union with God. In the poem's opening, Dante realizes (as one waking from a sleep) that he long ago left the straight path towards heaven, and finds himself lost in a dark wood and beset by beasts that represent the vices of lust, pride and greed.

He is rescued by Virgil, the Roman poet and Dante's artistic and intellectual patron, and is taken on a tour of the afterlife in order to help him return to the path towards salvation. Journeying through hell and later purgatory, Dante meets a number of historical people, who illustrate the various states of sin and repentance.

An important thing to remember, however, is that Dante's placing of certain well known (at the time) people in hell was not simply a spiritual grudge match. Dante used the examples of famous people to illustrate the acts for which they were known, as if a modern American author placed Nixon in hell for lying or Hugh Hefner among the 'panderers and seducers'. Some of Dante's most sympathetic character portraits are found in the Inferno, as Dante comes to understand the nature of sin and why even some of his friends are among the damned.

Having reached the deepest pits of hell, Dante then climbs the mountain of purgatory, in which souls expiate the sins in which they died before entering into eternal bliss, and finally ascends into the spheres of heaven, where the Commedia ends with a vision of God: "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

I'll be doing roughly two posts a week in the Dante series throughout Lent, with each post covering a thematic section of the Commedia, working from the beginning of the Inferno through Purgatorio and Paradiso.

My goal here is both to underline the spiritual beauty of Dante's work, and also to provide an introduction for those who haven't read Dante, or have only read a few bits and felt it wasn't for them. Steeped as it is in medieval Italian culture and events, the Divine Comedy is not the sort of work best appreciated by picking it up and reading it without introduction or notes. The poem itself is indeed supremely beautiful, but I certainly felt like I didn't appreciate it until I'd had the chance to take classes in it, and read it with a good set of commentaries.

Feedback is, of course, welcome.

Thanks to:
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.


Anonymous said...

There was a discussion of Dante translations over at Amy Welborn's blog earlier this month. For what it's worth, here is the link:

I did not realize that so many people disliked Sayers' translation, though nearly everyone seems to agree that her notes are excellent. (Well, I like her translation, including the fact that it's in verse.)

Coincidentally, I recently began rereading the Comedia. I kept it in my locker at work and read a canto and its notes during my 15 minute break. It's been ages since I reread the whole thing and I am determined to make it all the way through this time even if it's at the rate of one canto per day.

Fred said...

Coincidentally, I also started re-reading the Comedia and blogging through it.

Pro Ecclesia said...

Thanks. I was still trying to figure out what to do for Lenten reading. Now I know.

Literacy-chic said...

I haven't yet found a verse translation that I like, though Pinky's has some good moments (he only did the Inferno, though. My favorite translation so far (though admittendly, I have only looked at the most famous) is by John D. Sinclair, and is in prose. It was also the volume that my professor chose when I took a graduate course on Dante and Medieval English literature, based on the accuracy of the translation and some very good notes.

As for Dante as a spiritual work, I love that you're undertaking this, and will read with much interest! The Commedia is one of two creative works that I credit with my own conversion--the other being Lord of the Rings. Maybe I should have an LOTR Lenten meditation, though i don't know how that would work for Lent.

Literacy-chic said...

That's Pinsky's translation, btw.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to the rest of your posts. I loved the Commedia when I read it in college.

I'd never have thought of it for Lenten reading. Though now that I see your approach, it makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Yes! Historical Context IS important, is it not, in ALL literary history!! Dante's biography is important too, for ANY proper understanding ofhis work! (The same is true regarding the literary works of another author starting with "D"--a fact which gets lost in the ideological fray these days, cluttered by the idea that science is "objective").

Shall this blog be renamed DanteCatholic?! Let's see a show of hands! (Although MrsDarwin's heart would break to become MrsDante: poor Gemma Donati, married to a man who wrote his great love poems about another woman...)


Anonymous said...

By the way, some of my favorite translations:

John Ciardi's
Allen Mandelbaum's
Anthony Esolen's
Pinsky's of the Inferno.

Sayers translation is so creakily Anglo-early-20th-century that its hard to take seriously as the work of an Italian. Her notes are very good, but take them with a grain of salt: for my money they're a bit too influenced by the bizarre theology of Charles Williams.

Merwin's Purgatorio is not recommended: I wish it wasn't taking up shelf space in my library.


mrsdarwin said...

I'm curious to read Esolen's translation, having just read his fine article on Dante and the Annunciation in the latest Magnificat.

I don't know that it would upset me so much to be MrsDante, seeing as how in real life I share a name, not with any great literary figure, but with Dr. Johnson's cat.

Anonymous said...

Haha..very funny MrsD (see, that covers both).

You'll like Esolen's Commedia. For me it was an Event. Rarely do I wait for a book the way I waited for his Paradise---I was like a kid waiting for his favorite band's new album to come out.


Darwin said...

No dice, Nat. Re-branding is always tricky. Conceptually speaking "natural selection Catholic" or "evolution Catholic" might be more accurate, but it just doesn't sound good. DanteCatholic would simply be redundant, and one thing I can't write is poetry.

I'm liking bits of both the Cotter and Mandelbaum translations that I'm found online (Mandelbaum's is interliniar with Italian, which is helpful even though I only know Latin, not Italian, as of yet).

I have a serious fondness for Sayers, though. Partly because it's the first one I read, but also in that my preferences in regards to translations tent to skew heavily towards those which are strict enough to make it very easy to compare the translated line to the original. (This must make me one of the few people who prefers Lattimore's translations of Homer to the Fagles or Fitzgerald.)

Even with a language I don't know (Italian) my preference is to triangulate between a couple translations to try to get a feeling for what the original was probably like.

Anonymous said...

Yo D---

Excellent points on translations etc--I'm a firm believer that "all translators are traitors" and that the only way to get close is to read as many as possible. I have no real Italian either.

Re Sayers....I was perhaps overharsh. I think her translation should remain in print, but boy is it stiff! (It was the first I ever read too). I think you'd love the Ciardi if you can get your hands on a copy--the first page gripped me and didn't let go. I tend to think that Sayers' attempt at terza rima is a misguided project in English--Esolen's blank verse with "found rhymes" occassionally seems a good solution, as does Ciardi's scheme of rhyming 1 & 3. For rapid flow and sheer clarity, I like Mandelbaum best. Something about his approach just seems natural to me. Pinsky's use of Yeatsean near rhyme is downright brilliant and well executed too--it sounds VERY Pinsky though, which is fine but maybe not everyone's cup of tea (I have a pretty healthy respect Pinksy's poetry, actually, so his take intrigues me).

As for DanteCatholic, though redundant to those like us, it is by no means self-evident to the world! Your brave name-change can (and will) be a bold shot across the bow of the secular scholars bent on proving him a covert, anti-Catholic heretic! Move beyond the silly, inconsequential questions of the mere physical sciences and engage in the true controversy of our time: the satanic devaluation of the Poetic. GO FORTH, MIGHTY dANTEcATHOLIC! BRAVO!!!!!!

[Am I now the unofficial blog pest? I'm finding this addictive. You may even begin to call me Gnat, but of course this would be rude....]

Monsieur le NAT! (The Natatonic One)