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Dante’s Divine Comedy

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Source: Translator's Introductions to Dante's The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. The Italian Text with a Translation in English Blank Verse and a Commentary by Courtney Langdon, 3 volumes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918, 1920, 1921).


EVERY new translation of the Divine Comedy, though in itself a fresh tribute, however humble, to the interlingual, as well as to the international claims of “the loftiest of poets,” calls for a word of justification. That justification involves the expression of some theory as to the translation of Dante’s world-poem, itself implying a criticism, whether expressed or not, of competitors already in the field.

The present translation, which is the result of over twenty years’ work with large classes in “Dante in English” at Brown University, was undertaken and continued with the object of meeting a need, which did not seem adequately met by the well known translations of Cary, Longfellow, Norton, or others more recent; it, therefore, frankly aimed at being in every possible way an improvement on its rivals old and new.

Since the advent of the feeling that minute loyalty to the actual words and thought of the original is a prerequisite to a translation of any poem of supreme human import, such a pioneer work as that of Cary, which so long held the field, came to be recognized as being, not only no longer abreast of the modern achievements of Dante scholars, but as inadequate in the above all-important respect.

Longfellow’s widely diffused version, which is an almost painfully accurate translation of the then accepted Italian text, at once attained great popularity not only in America but abroad, a popularity largely due to the poetical fame of its author, to its literal loyalty to every word of the original, for which it could so easily be made to serve as a ‘pony,’ and to the wealth and excellence of its accompanying notes. Longfellow, however, in his apparent eagerness to be true to every syllable of the Italian, was led to draw too much upon the tempting Latin element, which looks like Italian, and too little upon the stronger, homely Anglo-Saxon element, of his English medium, to bring due conviction to an English ear; he was also betrayed into infelicities of construction and rhythm peculiarly surprising in such a poet as the author of the incomparable Dante Sonnets, a betrayal which has found explanation in the state of his mind and heart during the prosecution of the work. This, consequently, remains as an instance of a great translation which, not intended to be prose, ought not to have been thought of as poetry. After using it for two or three years, I gave it up, in spite of its many happy lines, and valuable notes, because I found that I could not read it aloud with continuous pleasure either to myself or to my hearers.

Possibly as a reaction against these obvious defects, Charles Eliot Norton produced his well known and excellent prose version, against which the only thing that can be said is, that it is just what it purports to be, prose, a prose only slightly hampered by extreme verbal loyalty; and that it was composed under the strange conviction, expressed in his preface, that “to preserve in its integrity what” (of the thought and sentiment embodied in the verse) “may thus be transferred, prose is a better medium than verse.” Admitting, however, that for the harmonious blending of meaning and music in the original, a new harmony might, indeed, be substituted, Mr. Norton unfortunately added: “but the difference is fatal,” and in giving up the creation of a new harmony himself, he lent the great authority of his name to the suggestion that any such attempt by others would prove futile.

As to such efforts as that of Dean Plumptre and others to translate Dante in English terza rima, it ought to be sufficient to urge, in the first place, that rhymes are practically an insurmountable obstacle for one who, as a translator, is already limited by the demands of loyalty to another’s articulated thought and feeling; and, secondly, that terza rima is not an indigenous, or even a fully acclimated, form of verse in English, and can not be made to sound natural to an English ear, or, at any rate, produce the effect it does in Italian, where it is to the manner born. I, therefore, feel that neither terza rima, nor, indeed, any rhymed translation in metrical forms still more alien in poetical tone to that in which the Divine Comedy was written, can prove to be at best other than unnatural and unsympathetic, though at times brilliant, tours de force. Their readers will too often be met by forced constructions, and forced or weak rhymes, while students familiar with the Italian original will too often be grieved by omissions, weakenings, or additions, to feel that they have been brought into due spiritual, or even intellectual, proximity to it; for even in such interesting translations as those of Parsons and Shadwell, their rhymes and meters would seem to have been indulged in at too great a cost to the poem’s thought, flow and tone.

In view, then, of the above and other similar frank criticisms of the work of my predecessors in the fascinating field of Dante translation, I have been guided by the following considerations, which are modestly offered in justification of the aims, if not of the results, of a slowly matured effort, which has enjoyed the rare help of being progressively tested by being read aloud in public during many years.

The transference of a poem from one tongue to another is capable of success in direct proportion to the degree in which the human and spiritual element in the original predominates over the artistry, however excellent, of the verse-form in which that element is embodied; the Divine Comedy, for example, differing vitally in this respect from such a poem as Poe’s Raven, which owes relatively too much to the charm of its meter and syllables to lend itself to a successful translation. It is, therefore, possible for the indwelling spirit of a supremely great poem to reclothe itself fittingly, and yet retain its essential identity, because in such a case the spirit, and not the clothing, is paramountly the thing; being that which originally made itself a body, it can make itself another, whatever the former’s perfection; but this is true only on condition that the new clothing fit it, and hold something like the same relation to it, as that sustained by the old clothing to the original. Now the evolution and acquired associations of poetical forms having, as I believe, given the qualities of blank verse the nearest possible position in English to those sustained by terza rima in Italian, notwithstanding the rhymes of the latter, blank verse would seem to be the translator’s natural choice. Being rhythmical and also metrical, it can supply the translator with the emotional and fusing element fatally lacking in prose; and being free from the artificial bondage of rhymes, or stanza schemes, which can only rarely prove happy under the restraints of dictated thought, it will release him from all temptation to disloyalty to the integrity of the original’s intellectual and spiritual message, or to any interruption of that formal continuity, which is a quality that blank verse and terza rima possess in common, in spite of the latter’s divisibility into terzine. For these reasons I cannot but feel that blank verse would be the medium that Dante himself would use, were he writing the same poem in English now, to say nothing of what he would do, were he translating it into that language.

This blank verse must, however, be loyal to itself and to its own laws, and must not take any such liberties with them as too many manufacturers of “vers libres,” so-called, seem to think proof against the charge of license. In other words, a blank verse line cannot be made by applying scissors to indifferent prose. Again, in some such use of blank verse as that suggested, it will no longer be necessary to pad or truncate the words or thought of the original poem, since two lines and a fraction, or four lines, as the case may be, can be made to represent with due spiritual loyalty the poetical matter of the three lines of the Italian terzina.

Feeling, then, that blank verse is not merely the best, but the only organically satisfactory, medium afforded by the English language for a translation of the Divine Comedy, I have aimed, in using it, at being loyal, first to the spiritual tone and thought, next to the words, and last of all to the syllables and line dimensions of the Italian text, believing with the poet Spenser that the poem’s soul, if caught to any extent, will somehow make itself a body out of whatever natural material it be afforded; but that, contrariwise, the most perfect imitation of a former body, such as has been achieved in a Dante translation by using feminine rhymes having the same vowel as in the original, will not reproduce the spirit. Aiming ever at keeping the reader’s attention from being unnaturally diverted, I have tried to avoid the use of any word whose archaic nature would draw an attention to itself, not drawn to its Italian counterpart. I have furthermore striven to keep myself free from all organic omissions or additions, however sorely tempted by actual indolence, or fancied inspiration, in the hope that a faithful translation, expressed in the best English and in the best blank verse at my command, would ultimately enable me to render with some success the homely directness and familiarity, the strength and beauty, the satire, pathos, and even the sublimity, of the ever varying component parts of the Italian poem; and that the latter, if placed on guard, as it were, on the opposite page, as I am grateful for having it placed, would serve as an ever present criterion of its English portrait, and also prove a persuasive to the reader of the translation to render himself more and more familiar with the compelling harmonies of its model’s soul and form. Accurate and sympathetic reproduction of its author’s thoughts and moods, good English, and good verse have, therefore, been the triune aim of my long continued work on the poem’s every line and poetic unit, with what result the reader and student must be the ultimate judge, no one realizing more than I how far any achievement is likely to be from its inspiring ideal.

The Italian text is that of the Vandelli edition of 1914, with such changes in individual words, spelling, and punctuation as, in my judgment, seemed warranted in themselves, and justified by having been adopted by one or more of such accredited Italian editors of the poem as Torraca, Casini, Passerini, or, in some instances, by our American Dantist, Dr. Grandgent. In very few cases only have I risked erring heretically on the side of radical boldness in adopting a rejected variant which seemed more Dante-like, or more consistent with its immediate or more remote context, than that of the textus receptus. On the other hand, several temptations to make Dante say in my translation something in a given place that was truer, stronger, more beautiful, or more refined, than what was strictly warranted by the words he there used and by their context, have been sternly, though at times regretfully, resisted. On the English page the reader will see that in the vast majority of cases I have found it possible to have three lines of blank verse match the three lines of each opposite terzina without disloyalty to the interests of either. Where this seemed impossible or undesirable, simple typographical devices have been adopted, to keep up the useful parallelism to the eye, without detriment to the flow or metrical integrity of the English verse. Again, in the translation the subject matter has been helped, I trust, by being divided into paragraphs, with the object of making the dialogue clearer, as well as of isolating and framing independent gems of thought, feeling or description. A temperate use of capitals has been made in printing both texts with a similar aim. In dealing with the title Maestro, as applied to Virgil by Dante, I have replaced the usual translation, Master, by that of Teacher, which more correctly and unambiguously distinguishes his function as an instructor from that of lord, leader, or guide. In the translation of individual words — idiomatic phrases having been rendered as far as possible by idiomatic equivalents — while careful to reproduce Dante’s quaint choices, when illuminating, I have not always thought it a part of loyalty to reproduce obscurities, when obviously due, in spite of his reported claim to the contrary, to the tyrannical exigencies of his rhymes; for though the latter may never have led him to say what he did not wish to say, they often forced him to say it less clearly. The grave accent has been used for all purposes in the Italian text, except that of marking a closed o or e, and in the English, to facilitate the pronunciation of proper nouns, or the rhythmic reading of the verse; while a free use has been made of the apostrophe, as one way of rendering the frequently colloquial style of the Italian, and in such embarrassing cases as that of see’st when pronounced as one syllable. In the hope of publishing before long a fourth volume containing a running commentary on the poem, all notes have been omitted from the pages of the translation, what seemed indispensable being inserted in the Interpretative Analysis, which will explain itself.

Coming now to the question of indebtedness, apart from what I personally owe to the happy accident of my Italian birth and early familiarity with both Italian and English, and from what every Dante scholar consciously or unconsciously owes to the high lights, old and new, of the vast and rich body of Dante literature; as well as apart from that deeper spiritual indebtedness which could only find adequate expression in the simple Italian words of my dedication; I wish here to express my special gratitude to Dr. Harry L. Koopman, Librarian of Brown University, for the uncounted hours of his valuable time, the long continued and ever increasing sympathy, the convincing praise and persuasive disapproval, without which I might have had to advance too often not only “silent, alone, and unaccompanied,” but unquickened and unchecked; as well as to one who was my pupil when I began this work, and has ever since been my friend, Mr. Henry D. Sharpe, of Providence, for the liberal generosity which enabled me to spend an unhampered year in Florence, in the atmosphere of Dante scholars, whose scientific zeal for the letter of Dante’s text never blurs their Latin vision of the poem’s spirit, or of its national and world significance. Among the latter, Dr. Guido Biagi of the Laurentian Library, and Count Giuseppe Lando Passerini, editor of the Giornale Dantesco, are here most gratefully remembered for courtesies, encouragement, and help extended to me during my stay in Florence.

Finally, before closing a preface to what I hope will prove to have, under the present circumstances of the world, something more than merely a scholarly import, I cannot forego the opportunity of recording the intense joy with which, as an American who, born in Rome and brought up in Florence, lived to become a lover not only of Dante the Poet, but also of Dante the Patriot, I appreciate the full significance of its date. Nineteen hundred and seventeen will be remembered as the year in which, under the inspiring moral leadership of a Veltro-like, democratic King, Italy, robed in the symbolic colors of Beatrice, was about to attain that complete national unification and redemption of her people, of which Dante was, as he still is, the creative Poet-prophet, and one of whose results will be that, in Dante’s oft quoted words, Quarnaro’s gulf will again “bound Italia, and her border bathe;” and also as the year in which, in virtual alliance with America, she made her marvelous Latin contribution toward the universal attainment and preservation of that Liberty, personal, national and international, “for whose sake death did not prove bitter” to her sons on land or sea, or in the air, or even upon the snow clad sister summits of those Alps, “which o’er the Tyrol lock out Germany” from what has ever been the imperial garden of a World Culture, which, like its fairest single flower, Dante’s Commedia, is not only scientific, but human and divine.

Courtney Langdon.


The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

THROUGH the following notes of an Analysis which has been made as brief as possible, with due regard to the needs of the general reader of the translation, there runs an Interpretation for which, as a whole, its author is alone responsible. While all notes of a linguistic or historical character are based upon the researches of the most accredited scholars in the field, others, which progressively develop the Interpretation, are based rather upon the belief that for the non-professional reader — the reader who belongs to the great class of honnêtes gens, for whom French literary men proudly claim that they prefer to write — it is far more important to try to show what a great work of art means, or can self-consistently be seen to mean, now, than what it may seem to have meant to its author’s contemporaries, or even to the author himself, when viewed from afar in the dim and dry light of time-hampered research. Its permanent truth and beauty, and their present-day suggestions, being after all what is most valuable and enjoyable in such a poem as the Divine Comedy, it should be remembered that spiritual truth is seedlike, and grows, and therefore increases and deepens in significance with the progress made in spiritual appreciation by the ages which in turn receive it. Even great poets build better than they consciously know, and better, certainly, than their outclassed contemporaries are aware of; hence it would seem to be no part of loyalty to insist that the inspirations of a supreme poet’s genius shall be narrowed down in meaning to the relatively little which a later century can intellectually learn from the painful limitations of the age from which he had to procure their clothing. Let the reader, then, separate, if he must, what seems scholarly in these fragmentary and purposely succinct notes from what their writer, who confesses to be more concerned with the poem’s flowers and their implications than with its roots and sources, claims is only a self-consistent, personal interpretation, which at least may spur those that cannot accept it in parts, or as a whole, to realize the value of drawing from the poet’s inexhaustibly fertile suggestions an edifying interpretation of their own, and, in their own way, of “heeding carefully the teaching which lies hidden beneath the veil of the poet’s mysterious lines.”

Since, then, linguistic, historical and geographical notes to a poem are a necessary evil, and only justified by the ordinary reader’s natural unfamiliarity with its illustrative allusions, they have not been forced upon his attention any more than need be. For a similar reason almost all references to authorities or sources, as well as all linguistic notes to the Italian text, have been relegated to the pages of the prospective Commentary, in which an attempt will be made to show what Dante did not get from any of his “sources,” and what few of his commentators, and then only sporadically, got from him. As to the Interpretation of the teaching, instead of being formulated in an Introduction, which “would have vainly boasted” of vying, in their method, with the Introduction and Arguments of Dr. Grandgent’s Dante, it will be found to follow step by step the natural evolution of the poem’s thought. It is, therefore, suggested that the corresponding part of what follows be read by those who do not claim to be Dante scholars between a first and a second reading of each canto’s translation; a reference to the line-numbers on the Italian page will guide the reader to the answers furnished to all questions that will probably be asked, while those in the Analysis will lead its more leisurely students to the lines of the text upon which comment is made.

Of this progressive Interpretation the fundamental contentions are: that Dante, while frequently drawing illustrations of his teaching from his own personal experience, is throughout the poem making himself a representative of Man in general as he is brought face to face with those universal moral, and spiritual problems of life, which change only in their intellectual clothing from age to age, from race to race, and even from man to man; that spiritually sin and virtue are, respectively, their own all-sufficient punishment and reward; that what in the letter of the allegorical story is said of the fate of individuals is to be taken only as illustrative of the significance of states of moral and spiritual consciousness; that neither Hell, Purgatory nor Heaven are places, but states of which all men can at any time have experience; that the moment of physical death has no special eternal significance, except in so far as it symbolizes those critical spiritual moments when man’s spirit is eclipsed by entering the shadow of the Wrath of God, or swims into the ken of His Love; that Eternity is something infinitely more, and other, than endless astronomic time; and that, finally, the Divine Comedy, while very significant as a supreme Italian, Catholic, Scholastic and fourteenth-century work of art, has an import for all men and for all ages which breaks through the bonds of the language, theology, philosophy and times which gave it form, far more victoriously and often than is generally realized — an import which can be grasped only by emphasizing the high-water marks of its insight into Reality, and by never letting its teaching’s spirit drop to the level of its avowedly hampered letter, whose latent spiritual significance needs translation into terms of twentieth century appreciation far more than its Italian does into English.

To help bring into clearer light these eternal spiritual aspects of the world’s greatest single poem is the object of this translation, and especially of its accompanying interpretative notes.


ONE of the compensations for the obvious disadvantage of publishing the several volumes of a work like the present consecutively, is that the author is thereby given a chance to correct and improve what is still unprinted, in the light of whatever adverse or commendatory criticism he may have received in each interval. In a preface to his second volume he can look back upon his first objectively, and, while gratefully answering the criticisms and implied questions of his private and public reviewers, profit by them in what remains.

The linguistic and poetical features of this translation must stand or fall with the explanation and justification given with probably dangerous frankness in the Preface to the Inferno; but on the subject of Blank Verse I feel that, since a reminding word or so may be useful to some, as well as due to myself, it will not be thought impertinent by other readers. Since unrelated, however, to Interpretation, the special subject of this Preface, it is printed at the end of the notes in this volume.

Those who shall have read at all carefully the strictly interpretative parts of my notes to the Inferno and its sister canticles, which I hope will not be neglected as merely obiter dicta, will probably have seen that my object differs from that mainly aimed at by interpreters of the Divine Comedy, in that it attempts to liberate Dante’s spiritual teaching from the zeal of his ultra theological and ecclesiastical friends, and save it from the silence of the poem’s ultra philological and historical admirers. Now, since I attach much more importance to what shall be thought of the expository parts of my notes, and of the Commentary I hope to build upon them, than I do to any appraisal of the translation of the poem they try to explain, I want to make that object as clear as I can, and justify it, if possible. In so doing I shall develop what was merely suggested in the introduction to the Interpretative Analysis of the Inferno, to which I refer my readers.

Since I am undertaking to find out what the poem can mean, or could consistently be shown to mean, to those who are living now, I have not concerned myself especially with what it must have seemed to mean six hundred years ago, when, still fresh from Dante’s mind and pen, its words and pictures were, so to speak, far more vernacular to his age, than they can possibly be to ours. Furthermore, being interested in the Divine Comedy only incidentally as a philological and historical document, and only secondarily as a work of art worthy of being studied for its architectural structure, and its linguistic and literary qualities — all of which were intended by Dante to serve merely as alluring and retaining means to a far higher end — my constant aim has been to study and teach it as one of the greatest monuments of Man’s creative spirit and of his intuition into the moral and spiritual laws of eternal reality.

Nearly all the commentaries, however, which I have read have practically treated the Divine Comedy, either as a gloriously imagined and safely orthodox, poetic compendium and depository of the tenets of Catholic theology, which it was the commentator’s or annotator’s proud duty and pleasure to expound and defend; or else, as almost exclusively, and certainly primarily, a great linguistic and historical relic of mediaeval art and philosophy, inexhaustible as a mine to be exploited by expert researchers in the manifold field of Florentine, Italian and European civilization and culture. The latter commentators, however, by their silence as to the philosophic truth and poetic beauty of its matter, deal with it, furthermore, as a work whose unmistakable teachings were so obviously out of harmony with, or contrary to, modern scientific knowledge and the beliefs of sincere educated men, that any scholarly interest in it must necessarily limit itself to ascertaining the meaning of more or less obsolete words, to tracing out the external historic sources of its ideas and art-forms, and to formulating their relation to the quaint but long exploded beliefs of a remote and alien age. Consultation of such works has often led me to wonder what Dante would think of the alternative uses, Hebraizing or Philistine, ecclesiastically partisan or genealogically scientific, to which his great emancipating and spiritual Vision had been almost universally put by his undoubtedly sincere and laborious ecclesiastical and philological students. Since, therefore, my attitude toward the poem is neither of these, I must, to make my position clear, ask permission to be fearlessly personal, in the hope of being thought to be speaking to a large extent vicariously.

Though I have no ecclesiastical or theological prepossessions, I nevertheless hold firmly to the belief that the world is essentially spiritual in its fundamental nature, by which I mean that it partakes of the nature of what each of us knows intuitionally as consciousness. I consequently hold that men are not solely, or even primarily, mortal bodies and intellects, of which it cannot, of course, be possibly proved or disproved that they have souls; but, rather, that in reality they are souls, or immortal spirits, growing from unthinkable beginnings to unimaginable ends, and initially, but only temporarily, provided with such bodies and intellects as may be necessary, through contact with determined matter, for the attainment of individuality and the development of free self-determining personality.

This belief has led me, as I think it should the many who in one way or another share it with me, to look upon the world’s greatest poets as primarily prophets and seers, destined to tower permanently above the greatest of their fellow men, however intellectual, because of their exceptionally broad and sympathetic familiarity with human nature, and especially because of their intuitive knowledge of the constitution and laws of the spiritual world, which, I must believe, are potentially as open to the eyes of the human soul, as those of the material world, which is the inviolable domain of science, are to the eyes of sense when interpreted by that mastering intellect of man which is exclusively attuned to matter.

Assuming, therefore, this attitude toward such supreme spiritually human, and poetically creative geniuses as Jesus, Dante and Shakespeare are generally conceded to be in their several kinds and degrees (without prejudice, of course, to Jesus’ special claims), how can one help realizing that, since these seers were forced to express themselves through the best current intellectual ideas and literary forms afforded by their day and land, those ideas and forms ought not to be allowed, when no longer expressive, to keep men from seeing the light they were intended to reveal. A thinker or poet, to be sure, can only to a limited extent rise above the intellectual high-water mark of his age; and yet I believe it to be nevertheless true that spiritually his soul may achieve an insight into human nature and its relation to universal life, which, because the intuitions of a highly developed consciousness are undefinably and inexplicably basal, will defy the revolutions of man’s intellectual fashions, and no more grow old than really seem new, however soon the fair letter in which that insight trustingly arrayed itself on its first appearance, may become antiquated, and cease to be vitally expressive of its informing spirit. Believing this, I hold that one cannot get at the vital truth which lies at the heart of a great work of human thought and art, unless one begin by believing sympathetically in its author’s spirit and purpose, and then, in the revealing light of that sympathy and belief, and of one’s own inner experience, study the printed text of what he uttered or wrote. If, further, one would know whether or not Dante’s or any poet’s spiritual teaching is true, let his soul do what, in its field, his intellect does, give it the test of experience. Let him live it. The laboratory method is as obligatory in the spiritual, as it is in the material field, and one who does not use it cannot speak with any other authority than that of a scribe, for he will not personally know that of which he is speaking.

Whatever useful purpose, for example, the scientific, or so-called higher, criticism of the New Testament may have served, the spiritual criticism which, when it comes, will prove to be the highest, and most illuminating, will certainly take some such point of view as that taken by Browning’s supreme creation, the childlike Pompilia of The Ring and the Book, when, commenting on one of Jesus’ intuitive sayings, she exclaims: “Oh how right that is, how like Jesus Christ to say that!” Not having learned to misjudge the mind of its author by reducing his insight to the average level reached by a compromise between spiritually unequal, and often conflicting, texts, whose authenticity and significance had been determined by merely intellectual criteria, or by study of their relation to what others had said before, Pompilia appraised the validity and significance of the text by her own insight into the nature of its author, attained by loving and intuitive meditation on the highest sun-lit peaks of his reported thought, whence only its manifold panorama could be adequately seen. And so should it be with Dante; and with Shakespeare, too, though the latter, for all his wonderful breadth of vision, did not attempt to fathom the depths or soar to the heights which were within the former’s spiritual reach. In the spiritual, though not in the material world, a whole, when seen from above is greater than is the sum of its broken parts when seen from below, for somewhat the same reason that the sun can better explain a plant’s flowers than can the soil that feeds its roots.

The Kingdom of Reality, moreover — so its arch-seers keep reporting to us from age to age — is “like unto” this and that; but while a few with eyes to see perceive the life-giving truth in their picture-like parables, and are quickened by them even intellectually; others, like those Greeks and Jews to whom the intuitions of original Christianity were but foolishness and a stumbling-block, sadly fail to understand; and quickly lowering their eyes to a level from which the life-giving spirit can be but dimly perceived, if at all, unconsciously inaugurate another age-long reign of the intellectually interesting, and aesthetically pleasing, but spiritually killing, letter.

To interpret the Divine Comedy, therefore, for one at least who holds the above more or less “mystical” belief, consists in trying to read it, as it were, through the eyes of its author’s soul, and in harmony with his evident and expressed intention, rather than through those of the well meaning theologians and philologians into whose hands his message all too quickly fell, because he had to draw upon their soon antiquated intellectual conceptions, for lack of the illustrative material with which the accumulated achievements of a later age’s more familiar thought would surely have equipped his eagerly receptive and catholic genius, had he been living then. Not Dante, therefore, the fourteenth-century scholastic Catholic, who, Virgil-like, knew almost all there was then to be known; nor yet Dante, the Florentine mystic poet, and patriot, who was, alas, ignorant of nearly everything that men most boast of knowing now; but Dante, the arch-spirit, whose inmost self is revealed to his fellow men for all time in the increasingly convincing portraits he painted of the smiling and happy Beatrice, “whose lovely eyes see everything” in the well nigh blinding vision of eternity and God — that is the entrancing object at which, with the help of those who (like Bp. Carpenter in “The Spiritual Message of Dante”) have done the same with neither partisanship nor derogation, I have tried to look as keenly and unflinchingly as possible, when asking myself the vital inner meaning of each little or great teaching progressively met in the living pictures of the poem, of which she, and not any institution, theology, or other abstraction, is the spiritually concrete heroine.

In doing this I have at any rate gained one thing for myself, which has gone far to assure me that I was at least moving in the right direction. I have come to know that every positive belief that is, or has been, held by any free believer, is worthy of the soul’s respect, because it is sure to contain at least a nucleus of warm truth that can be reached by any one who has the patience and courage to break through the progressively misrepresenting crust of the words, forms and conceptions which harden around it as they cool. To break through this veil of thickening light in Dante’s case, is at times relatively easy, as he once said it was; and again so hard, as he must often have feared it would prove, that one almost despairs of success; but never will one regret the attempt, for if earnestly and increasingly made, it will not fail to repay one with the joy incident to all inward and upward flights.

Gratefully leaving, then, to some the praiseworthy work of expounding the Divine Comedy as paramountly a cathedral-like monument of Catholicism, and to others the equally valuable task of searching its pages for those philological and historical facts, without accurate knowledge of which all ulterior understanding of the poem might be jeopardized, I have tried to let the labors of others in these fields clear my way and that of my readers to what I know is more broadly and lastingly valuable than either — a little more insight into the free intuitions of one who was so keen-sighted a spirit, that through his eyes it is possible for us to see some of that eternal reality which will ultimately be found in accord with, since basal to, the best apprehended truths dear to our times. Sub specie aeternitatis, from the eternal point of view, is, therefore, the phrase I want (provided ‘eternity’ be taken to mean spiritual reality), and therewith I will end this lame justification of an ambitious attempt to thread the rich, though cool, warp of the scholarly notes to the poem whose matter I owe to others, with the limited, but warm, woof of ideas inspired by a loving belief in Dante’s inspiration, and illustrated by what little intuitive imagination, reading, and experience of life I may have had to contribute.

In closing I must, however, return to the question of my indebtedness, because of the delight received from three recent books: Bp. Carpenter’s lectures already referred to, Mr. C. A. Dinsmore’s Life of Dante Alighieri, and Prof. C. H. Grandgent’s The Ladies of Dante’s Lyrics, all lasting gifts, and also because of an acknowledgment not yet recorded, since purposely saved for this volume. Whatever criticism the literary part of the book may have received, I know of nothing but praise for the beautiful and dignified work of the Press which is bringing it out; for even the least laudatory of my reviewers acknowledged that the Inferno was “a handsome specimen of American typography.” But no one knows but I to how great an extent what may have proved worth while in the author’s contribution in its finally printed form, is due to the patience of the publishers; and for this, as well as for the courtesy, interest and useful suggestions by which it was accompanied, I wish to express my thanks to Mr. C. Chester Lane, the Director of the Harvard University Press, and to his assistants.

But what of Dante’s Italy meanwhile? Since I dated the Preface to the Inferno much has happened in that youthfully ancient land to her everlasting glory; but because, alas, the full measure of America’s gratitude to her is still waiting upon a sadly delayed appreciation of what is due to her unsurpassed, and in many ways peerless, contribution to the victory of Freedom and Civilization, I am more than ever glad of the fact that, on hearing the news of the disaster of Caporetto, I at once wrote to have the date of the Inferno’s preface changed from September to October 28, when all seemed dark from both a moral and a military point of view; and on the same day composed the sonnet at the head of the volume, as a twofold act of faith in the Stella d’Italia, the Genius of the Italian people. And, because of that faith, I am sure that, when at last Italy’s legions celebrate their victory over their country’s age-long enemy and over themselves, and march through Rome’s Via Sacra to her Capitol, to “crown again the brow of Dante,” that Genius will prompt them to remember, as I know all Dante’s American lovers will, that, though in his body the Prophet of Italy’s Unity and sovereign Independence died in mid-September 1321, six centuries ago, he himself “on high Olympus triumphs, happy already in the crown he wears.”

Courtney Langdon.




A SEPARATELY published translation or interpretation of the Divine Comedy’s last part is obliged to face one of the strangest facts in the history of great literature. The Paradiso is the least known and the least understood, and consequently the least likely to be read of the three Canticles of the “Sacred Poem.” And yet for all genuine Dante lovers it is what, from the point of view of art, it ought to be, the crown of the whole prophetic work, the last glorious part “for which the first was made.” In fact, it was because of this that its author, following in mediaeval fashion the usage of antiquity, called his poem a Comedy, and not a Tragedy. Though beginning unhappily in Hell, it ends happily in the joy of Heaven.

This relative, if not positive, unpopularity of the Paradiso has been variously accounted for. Professor Grandgent’s statement that “of the three parts of the Commedia, the Purgatorio seems to a twentieth-century reader most modern, the Paradiso most mediaeval,” might find a brief explanation in the predominance of so-called practical interests and beliefs in our brilliant but essentially superficial age. Loving his struggling life on the earth’s surface as never before, and absorbed by his intellectual conquest of matter, the modern man, as such, merely patronizes a visionary spiritual Heaven. Believing in material evolution and progress on earth, he unconsciously sees something of himself and of his age in the illustrations afforded by the lifelike topography of the Purgatorio, but very little in the suggestions of the crude mediaeval geology and astrology of the Inferno and Paradiso, with whose apparently static and everlasting damnation and perfection he has, and very rightly, but little sympathy.

But even to those, who love the Paradiso as it deserves to be loved, in spite of its antiquated cosmogony and intellectualistic and dogmatic theology, each separate part of the Divine Comedy makes almost as different an appeal, as if the exclusive and unrelated subjects of each were Satan, Man, and God.

The appeal of the Inferno is the grim strength of its fearless portrayal of that inexorable moral Law in whose God even “devils believe and tremble.” The horrid fascination of its dark etchings of the nature and results of sin may possibly account for the relatively greater popularity which for so many has associated its author’s name exclusively with Hell. Its thrills are the sensational surface thrills of terror, morbidity and pain.

The appeal of the Purgatorio’s more familiar world, whose days are diversified by lights and shades and colors drawn from sea and land and sky, whose dawns and evening twilights are infinitely charming, and whose nights are “quieted by hope” and happy dreams, is its winning struggle for freedom, its ever increasing beauty, and the veiled apotheosis of man’s soul in its last canto.

Quite other than either of these is the dazzling, but discriminating, appeal of Dante’s matchless Paradiso, of whose conclusion a Lowell could say that “nothing in all poetry approaches” its “imaginative grandeur.” The distinct appeal of the Paradiso is its pervading and ever intenser sublimity, which renders invisible its ether-like strength, and veils the ultra-violet hues of its spiritual beauty from all who have not attuned their inner hearing and vision to the ever developing overtones of its love, and to the splendor of its ever dawning light. Its thrills are those that stir subconscious depths. Here, however, the reader, who has left behind him the outer, as well as the under world of life, is warned by the poet himself not to go on, unless very differently prepared than before, to follow closely in the spiritual wake of his fearless leader’s aëroplane. Materialists and the merely intellectual are not bidden to this spirit feast.

What, then, is the task of the translator of the words of Dante’s wonderful third canticle, if he would also be its interpreter, or the translator of the buds, as well as of the full blown flowers, of its creative original thought? If, under the very jealous eyes of the original Italian text, which frowns at a translation made poetical at its expense, he has tried to better his previous efforts to achieve a metrical version at once accurate and readable; and if, in the trust that poetical results will follow, he has fused the simplest English words he can find, in verse for whose rhythm he has patiently listened, he must next prepare to reap the prophetic harvest of intuitions far deeper and subtler than any he had met before.

Furthermore, he must take to himself a much more serious warning than that which Dante gives to those who would merely be his readers. For, to try to interpret the Paradiso otherwise than by laboriously illucidating the well nigh worn out historical, philosophical and theological media of its pregnant intuitions, will call rather for the daring imagination of a child, than for the timid, though entrenched, learning of a scholar. The latter, as such, can do little more than correct, or find new references to “sources,” and quote “authorities,” in the uninspiring hope of doing in a possibly better way what had been often done well, though futilely, before. The child in him, on the other hand, subconsciously knowing why it was that he was set in his elders’ midst, and being spiritually hard to please, will insist upon creating out of the dust of dogmas what his soul desires, if what is offered to his credulity by the static scholarship of the past be not enough to sate his craving for dynamic belief.

Many an interpreter has doubtlessly been praised or blamed, by being told that his interpretations were due to his reading “between the lines” what Dante’s or some other poet’s words may have possibly suggested to him, but what the poet himself certainly neither thought, nor meant to teach. Yes, should have been his answer, you have stated it correctly, “between the lines.” For, if by the “meaning” of Dante’s words one refer, beyond their literal equivalent in English, to their living or creative, and not to their dead, or atrophied, significance, where else shall one look for it, than apart from, though still in close proximity to, the words to which was left the hard task of expressing and of transmitting that meaning’s spirit? Or are we never to learn that the spiritual meaning of poetry lies in the greatest thought it can consistently be helped to create, rather than in the mere words of the less developed thought, however great, which dropped it as the living seed of its dying self?

Our age being predominantly, if not despotically, scientific and historical, men are more apt to inquire as to the provenience of an idea and its authoritatively accepted position in intellectual society, than as to its intrinsic merit and spiritual legitimacy. An independent interpreter will, therefore, have to share with others in being asked that very old Gospel question which is susceptible of being adapted to endless secondary occasions: “By what authority” sayest “thou these things?”

Not caring to add myself unnecessarily to the already sufficient number of competent theological and philological scribes who limit their function as interpreters to quoting accurately from well “documented” sources, and from orthodoxly authoritative expositions of Dante’s teaching, I think that a brief discussion of authority in the field of great poetical literature is fairly in order here. Indeed, what could be a better place for it than the preface to the Canticle of the Divine Comedy which, far more than the other two, has tempted its interpreter to present views which might very plausibly be accused of forgetting a proper regard for the too prevalent dogmatic lack of personal opinion on the part of Dante scholars?

What, then, is authority? I would answer this question, which is the main subject of this preface, by saying that it is a power to win approval for a truth, which does not reside in the person of him who utters it, but in the dynamic persuasiveness of the truth it was given him to utter. An authoritative interpretation, therefore, is one which will be seen to be the natural flowering of the seed of truth latent in the thought interpreted, by readers or hearers who have kept their freedom to listen to their own minds and hearts.

As to the function of scholarship, if being “scholarly” in the field of creative literature consist in applying to the interpretation of works of intuitive imagination and art the methods properly and successfully used in the field of physical science and history, then some other term must be found for the openly avowed ambition of one who, if not exclusively, is far more interested in what is unique, vitally new and creative in a poet’s thought, than he is in what the latter shared with others, or in what he “owed” to his predecessors, or to the times in which he lived. “Sources,” then, and “authorities” could usefully be left, as their interesting specialty, to genealogically minded scholars who think it is more important to know where an idea came from, and by whom it had been accepted, than what its intrinsic value is, and to what further truth it can lead.

Science, in dealing with anything purely material or intellectual, very properly ignores what seems unique in it, or attempts to reduce it to intellectual terms by analyzing it into elements common to it and to other things or events in the past or present. In the spiritual field, however, by which I mean the field of intuition and imagination, which it is the function of poetry to express and enlarge, what is true in the field of scientific and historical facts ceases to apply. What is unique, new and germinal is here the main thing, everything else being properly viewed as its accessory outer case, and as interesting and valuable only as all well fitting and appropriate clothing is.

Now what is unique, new and creative cannot be explained at all by analysis or by an investigation of its sources in the past, but only by a sympathetic appreciation of its creative vitality in the present, the essential question being not what it originally meant, or was early thought to mean, but what it has grown to mean in the fuller light that can now be thrown upon it by the richer experience of man. What sayest thou that I mean? is the question which a real poet asks of his reader.

Of this truth I had an interesting illustration many years ago at Cornell University. Professor Corson, having elicited some doubt as to whether he had given a correct interpretation of one of Browning’s poems upon which he had been lecturing, settled the question by referring it to the poet whom he knew intimately. In due time the latter’s answer came from England, and was to the effect that, to tell the truth, he did not mean what Professor Corson thought he meant, when he wrote the poem, but that he was very glad to recognize the latter’s interpretation of his thought as its fuller meaning now. Similarly, if I may refer to a poem which I owe to Dante, what of the meaning of the verses I have set before this preface? I wrote them as an imaginative means of suggesting what I feel is the Paradiso’s supreme teaching, namely, the ultimate oneness of all spirit, and the infinitely close relation between the consciousness of man and the supra-consciousness of God. Now I myself know that these verses mean a great deal more to me now, than they did when I first sketched out their essential thought many years ago; and I also hope, whether or not their meaning will have grown for me, that they will come to mean whatever more they may be capable of meaning to any who hereafter shall apply their suggestions to their own richer spiritual circumstances or needs. As to whether they exactly express Dante’s thought, I cannot tell, as I cannot ask him yet; if, therefore, they have any value, it will be that of throwing a little light on what Dante’s poem can mean, not to ultra historical Dantists who insist that “Dante was wholly of his time,” but to those who will contribute their own loving imagination and spiritual experience to the illucidation of truth germs which make him “not of an age, but for all time.” So with my interpretation as a whole. I do not claim that it shows only what the Divine Comedy’s teaching meant for Dante, nor for Boccaccio, but for me, too, as a vicarious representative of many readers now, who are, of course, free to endorse, modify or reject any or all of my interpretations, but whom I cannot uphold in attributing a stationary significance to living and dynamic words, still winged for far higher flights of meaning than even this age’s eyes can see.

Of a jest Shakespeare said that its prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it. So is it, likewise, with all vital truth. Its worth lies in the creative imagination of him who can put it to use, and breed therewith other, if not fairer, truths. In the field of history of the purely scientific kind, “sources” must, of course, be consulted to make sure that statements about events are based upon actual facts, though even there it should not be forgotten that, as Rostand said, there is often more truth in a legend than in a document. But here the source, paradoxical as it may at first seem, is in the reader’s potential intuitive imagination, and is more apt to be found in unborn ears than in dead mouths. Hence, as in the case of art, it is the supreme duty of those who constitute themselves the guardians of the winged truth that lives and moves in great poetry, to see to it that it be not “made tongue-tied by authority” of the devitalizing static kind.

Having, therefore, done his duty to the avowedly necessary and useful philological parts of his interpretative work, what, then, is left for one who holds such views as those expressed above, but to recall Sir Philip Sydney’s words, and “look into his heart and write,” even though the result risk the danger of proving a comfort and an inspiration to himself alone?

Something like this, the present annotator has tried to accomplish in the sporadic and compressed notes to the Paradiso, which, with those of the Inferno and Purgatorio, are intended to illuminate the historical, and expand the spiritual, significance of individual words, lines and passages. Incidentally he hopes that these notes will also serve to interest the reader or student in the attitude to be assumed toward the Divine Comedy in the forthcoming Commentary, whose aim is to be a popularly readable, though serious, essay on the poem as a whole, and on Dante’s prophetic moral and spiritual message, if read not so much in the light thrown upon it by his age, as in that which can be thrown upon it by ours without making Dante’s insight other than it was.

And here this preface might well close for the satisfied, all others being referred to the two previous prefaces and to notes in the fourth volume, which will try to meet criticisms of individual translations or interpretations.

To any, however, who may have been led to misunderstand my general position, I avail myself reluctantly of this opportunity of saying accumulatively that the only criticism I deprecate is that of not having done well, or exclusively, what I never proposed to do at all, or at least not exclusively, because it had been so well done before, namely, show what the Divine Comedy meant to Dante or his age; that I avow no disdain for the historical fact, even if I do feel that there are other kinds of facts about a great world poem which may be more important for us than what was its exact meaning six hundred years ago in the opinion of predominantly historical scholars now; that I have made no claim of reproducing in English Dante’s ‘curious felicities,’ since I do not believe that any translation has, or could have, done that, though I do think that my version might have been somewhat more poetical, had it been less accurate, and a little more accurate, had it been less rhythmical; that I never said that, if living now, Dante would judge many things differently, though I did say that he would be able to express his wonderful intuitions more fully, and in a way more easily apprehended by us; that I agree that the problem of literary interpretation concerns itself with what an author did teach when he lived, though I hasten to add that what he taught when living includes the more that his seed-bearing words and insight can consistently seem to teach, now that they have fallen into better soil than his age could afford them; and, finally, that to claim for my work in a first preface that it was “only a personal interpretation” of the poem’s “latent spiritual significance” coupled with the express warning that it should be separated from “scholarly” information based upon the authoritative work of others, would seem to be a sufficiently sincere avowal of its nature and purpose. Claiming, in short, that the Divine Comedy belongs exclusively neither to the Church nor to historical science, this interpretation, to quote in part from Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter, is simply an attempt to steer between “the misconceptions into which a rationalistic theology had plunged the Church,” and those into which dogmatic scientism is prone to plunge the study of literature, with the object of showing “the full significance of the Love in which Dante so profoundly believed.”

To those, however, who in studying Dante want to be on more “orthodox” ground than I can claim to stand on, if they have read Lowell’s Essay on Dante, in my opinion the greatest of all, I sincerely recommend Professor J. B. Fletcher’s excellent little book on the same poet, with only the “reservations” due to the difference in our points of view. It links the thought of Dante’s masterpiece to that of his previous more or less mystifying works so lucidly and consistently, brings the meaning of the dogmatic theology and complex symbolic system of the Divine Comedy down to 1321, so convincingly, and describes Dante’s art so brilliantly, and sympathetically that, for the purposes of my own Commentary, I could gratefully wish it had been much expanded.

And now, to follow the example set by the two previous prefaces, this one will also end with a final word about Dante’s Italy. A new era is undoubtedly opening up for her wonderful people who, having seen so many of the ages of civilization, may have begun this one by harking back to the wisdom of their dawn as a political entity. If Italy prove to be the first of modern nations to solve the vexed problem of the relation of labor and capital to each other, it will be because she will have applied to it the twenty-five century old fable of Menenius Agrippa, who persuaded the Roman plebeians to compromise for the state’s sake, by telling them the fable of the belly and the members. The despotism of a class is not to be feared in the mother-land of law and order. Nor has the utter defeat of Austria superannuated the old Italian cry “Fuori i Barbari!” for, in spite of hopes rendered futile by weakness, Europe’s Rome-born civilization is still menaced from the Teutonic and Scythian North-East. It may prove fortunate, therefore, that Italy has so largely achieved the strategic as well as the other aims referred to in the sonnet at the head of the Inferno, for nearly hers at last is the barrier-wall of those Alps, which Nature long ago assigned to her people, when she made Latin or Italian all the material, human and spiritual flora and fauna of the sunny valleys sloping eastward, southward and westward from their highest peaks. As to Italy’s Adriatic claims, as to Fiume, henceforth a “local habitation and a name” forever Italian in spirit, and as to d’Annunzio, what shall I say but vedremo, and pazienza? Shakespeare said of the strange performance witnessed by his cool-headed statesman, Theseus of Athens, that lunatics, lovers and poets, “of imagination all compact,” apprehended “more than cool reason ever comprehends.” And it was he, too, who went on to say in Hippolyta’s words: “But all the story of the night told over, and all their minds transfigured so together, more witnesseth than fancy’s images, and grows to something of great constancy.” So will it prove, I think, with Italy’s secular racial and national aspirations. The story of the Fiume trouble, inexplicable to us, is essentially a frontier story, which finds its explanation in “ancestral voices prophesying war.” We shall see it, and be glad to see it “grow,” for the good of all the West, “to something of great constancy.”

Meanwhile 1921 is Dante’s year in Italy; and from now on until after mid-September, who says one will largely say the other. May he more than ever be hers, and she his, and both the world’s, is the wish of every American lover of Dante, and mine, as I close this version of his joyously creative poem, by gratefully addressing to his spirit the words he addressed to Virgil’s at his poem’s inception:

O light and glory of the other poets,

let the long study, and the ardent love

which made me con thy book, avail me now!

Courtney Langdon.

Last modified April 13, 2016