SIX SONNETS ON DANTE'S DIVINE COMEDY
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (1807-1882)
Oft have I seen at
some cathedral door
laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his
off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
Become an undistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter here
from day to day,
leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the
inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.
How strange the
sculptures that adorn these towers!
crowd of statues, in whose folded sleeves
Birds build their nests; while canopied with leaves
Parvis and portal bloom like trellised bowers,
And the vast
minster seems a cross of flowers!
fiends and dragons on the gargoyled eaves
Watch the dead Christ between the living thieves,
And, underneath, the traitor Judas lowers!
Ah! from what
agonies of heart and brain,
exultations trampling on despair,
What tenderness, what tears, what hate of wrong,
outcry of a soul in pain,
this poem of the earth and air,
This mediaeval miracle of song!
I enter, and I see
thee in the gloom
the long aisles, O poet saturnine!
And strive to make my steps keep pace with thine.
The air is filled with some unknown perfume;
The congregation of
the dead make room
thee to pass; the votive tapers shine;
Like rooks that haunt Ravenna's groves of pine,
The hovering echoes fly from tomb to tomb.
confessionals I hear arise
of forgotten tragedies,
And lamentations from the crypts below
And then a voice
celestial that begins
the pathetic words, "Although your sins
As scarlet be," and ends with "as the snow."
veil, and garments as of flame,
stands before thee, who so long ago
Filled thy young heart with passion and the woe
From which thy song in all its splendors came;
And while with
stern rebuke she speaks thy name,
ice about thy heart melts as the snow
On mountain heights, and in swift overflow
Comes gushing from thy lips in sobs of shame.
Thou makest full
confession; and a gleam
of the dawn on some dark forest cast,
Seems on thy lifted forehead to increase;
Eunoe--the remembered dream
the forgotten sorrow--bring at last
That perfect pardon which is perfect peace.
I Lift mine eyes,
and all the windows blaze
forms of saints and holy men who died,
Here martyred and hereafter glorified;
And the great Rose upon its leaves displays
and the angelic roundelays,
splendor upon splendor multiplied;
And Beatrice again at Dante's side
No more rebukes, but smiles her words of praise.
And then the organ
sounds, and unseen choirs
the old Latin hymns of peace and love
And benedictions of the Holy Ghost;
And the melodious
bells among the spires
all the house-tops and through heaven above
Proclaim the elevation of the Host!
O star of morning
and of liberty!
bringer of the light, whose splendor shines
Above the darkness of the Apennines,
Forerunner of the day that is to be!
The voices of the
city and the sea,
voices of the mountains and the pines,
Repeat thy song, till the familiar lines
Are footpaths for the thought of Italy!
Thy fame is blown
abroad from all the heights,
all the nations; and a sound is heard,
As of a mighty wind, and men devout,
Strangers of Rome,
and the new proselytes,
their own language hear thy wondrous word,
And many are amazed and many doubt.
'Ich habe unter meinen Papieren ein Blatt gefunden,
wo ich die Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne.'
(Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1829 March 23)
I found Dante in a bar. The Poet had indeed
lost the True Way to be found reduced to party chatter in a Capitol Hill
basement, but I had found him at last. I must have been drinking in the Dark
Tavern of Error, for I did not even realize I had begun the dolorous path
followed by many since the Poet's journey of A.D. 1300. Actually no one spoke
a word about Dante or his Divine Comedy, rather I heard a second-hand Goethe
call architecture "frozen music." Soon I took my second step through the gate
to a people lost; this time on a more respectable occasion--a lecture at the
Catholic University of America. Clio, the muse of history, must have been
aiding Prof. Schumacher that evening, because it sustained my full three-hour
attention, even after I had just presented an all-night project. There I heard
of a most astonishing Italian translation of 'la Divina Commedia' di Dante
Alighieri. An Italian architect, Giuseppi Terragni, had translated the Comedy
into the 'Danteum,' a projected stone and glass monument to Poet and Poem near
the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome.
Do not look for the Danteum in the Eternal City.
In true Dantean form, politics stood in the way of its construction in 1938.
Ironically this literature-inspired building can itself most easily be found in
book form. Reading this book I remembered Goethe's quote about frozen music.
Did Terragni try to freeze Dante's medieval miracle of song? Certainly a
cold-poem seems artistically repulsive. Unflattering comparisons to the lake
of Cocytus spring to mind too. While I cannot read Italian, I can read some
German. After locating the original quotation I discovered that 'frozen' is a
problematic (though common) translation of Goethe's original 'erstarrte.' The
verb 'erstarren' more properly means 'to solidify' or 'to stiffen.' This
suggests a chemical reaction in which the art does not necessarily chill in the
transformation. Nor can simple thawing yield the original work. Like a
chemical reaction it requires an artistic catalyst, a muse. Indeed the Danteum
is not a physical translation of the Poem. Terragni thought it inappropriate
to translate the Comedy literally into a non-literary work. The Danteum would
not be a stage set, rather Terragni generated his design from the Comedy's
structure, not its finishes.
The poem is divided into three canticles of thirty-three cantos
each, plus one extra in the first, the Inferno, making a total of one hundred
cantos. Each canto is composed of three-line tercets, the first and third
lines rhyme, the second line rhymes with the beginning of the next tercet,
establishing a kind of overlap, reflected in the overlapping motif of the
Danteum design. Dante's realms are further subdivided: the Inferno is composed
of nine levels, the vestibule makes a tenth. Purgatory has seven terraces,
plus two ledges in an ante-purgatory; adding these to the Earthly Paradise
yields ten zones. Paradise is composed of nine heavens; Empyrean makes the
tenth. In the Inferno, sinners are organized by three vices--Incontinence,
Violence, and Fraud--and further subdivided by the seven deadly sins. In
Purgatory, penance is ordered on the basis of three types of natural love.
Paradise is organized on the basis of three types of Divine Love, and further
subdivided according to the three theological and four cardinal
(Thomas Schumacher, "The Danteum,"
Princeton Architectural Press, 1993)
By translating the structure, Terragni could
then layer the literal and the spiritual meanings of the Poem without allowing
either to dominate. These layers of meaning are native to the Divine Comedy as
they are native to much medieval literature, although modern readers and
tourists may not be so familiar with them. They are literal, allegorical,
moral, and anagogical. I offer you St. Thomas of Aquinas' definition of these
last three as they relate to Sacred Scripture:
. . .this spiritual sense has a threefold division. . .so far as
the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the
allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things
which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral
sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the
anagogical sense. (Summa Theologica I, 1, 10)
Within the Danteum the Poet's meanings lurk
in solid form. An example: the Danteum design does have spaces literally
associated with the Comedy--the Dark Wood of Error, Inferno, Purgatorio, and
the Paradiso--but these spaces also relate among themselves spiritually. Dante
often highlights a virtue by first condemning its corruption. Within Dante's
system Justice is the greatest of the cardinal virtues; its corruption, Fraud,
is the most contemptible of vices. Because Dante saw the papacy as the most
precious of sacred institutions, corrupt popes figure prominently among the
damned in the Poet's Inferno. In the Danteum the materiality of the worldly
Dark Wood directly opposes the transcendence of the Paradiso. In the realm of
error every thought is lost and secular, while in heaven every soul's intent is
directed toward God. The shadowy Inferno of the Danteum mirrors the
Purgatorio's illuminated ascent to heaven. Purgatory embodies hope and growth
where hell chases its own dark inertia. Such is the cosmography shared by
Terragni and Dante.
In this postscript I intend neither to fully
examine the meaning nor the plan of the Danteum, but rather to evince the power
that art has acted as a catalyst to other artists. The Danteum, a modern
design inspired by a medieval poem, is but one example. Dante's poem is filled
with characters epitomizing the full range of vices and virtues of human
personalities. Dante's characters come from his present and literature's past;
they are mythological, biblical, classical, ancient, and medieval. They,
rather than Calliope and her sisters, were Dante's muses.
'La Divina Commedia' seems a natural candidate to
complete Project Gutenberg's first milleditio and to begin its second thousand
e-texts. Although distinctly medieval, its continuum of influence spans the
Renaissance and modernity. Terragni saw his place within the Comedy as surely
as Dante saw his own. We too fit within Dante's understanding of the human
condition; we differ less from our past than we might like to believe. T. S.
Eliot understood this when he wrote "Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern
world between them, there is no third." So now Dante joins Shakespeare (e-text
#100) in the Project Gutenberg collection. Two works that influenced Dante are
also part of the collection: The Bible (#10) and Virgil's Aeneid (#227). Other
major influences--St. Thomas of Aquinas' Summa Theologica, The Metamorphoses of
Ovid, and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics--are available in electronic form at
other Internet sites. If one searches enough he may even find a computer
rendering of the Danteum on the Internet. By presenting this electronic text
to Project Gutenberg it is my hope that in will not rest in a computer unknown
and unread; it is my hope that artists will see themselves in the Divine Comedy
and be inspired, just as Dante ran the paths left by Virgil and St. Thomas that
led him to the stars.
Dennis McCarthy, July 1997
Atlanta, Georgia USA
Text that was originally in italics has been
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End of the Project Gutenberg Etext of The
Divine Comedy of Dante as translanted by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow