Dante: An English Perspective



Dante has been one of those undercurrents, a kind of basso continuo, in my life since I first encountered him forty years ago.  When I lived in Alessandria in the late 70s, I was fortunate in having a friend, and later flat-mate, Ezio Quarantelli, who proposed that I study the Divina Commedia with him in return for assistance with a variety of classical English authors and poets.  Ezio was a student of Archaeology at the Università di Torino and currently is Direttore Editorial of Lindau srl.  What follows is a very limited and very personal take on those sections of l’Inferno which particularly fascinated me. I hope to trace lines from the Italian reader to the English reader as well as those from the medieval way of thinking to the modern way of thinking.

Right at the beginning, I felt a jolt of recognition when I read the inscription which stands guard at the entrance to Hell, especially the last line  thereof:

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate’.

(Canto 3;9)

(Abandon hope, all you who enter here.)

Somehow this was a bridge from the culture of the age of Dante to mine – that there should be adages so familiar in my own language buried deep in what, to me, was still a very foreign and challenging classical work.

But there were other far more significant adages which sent my tutor, Ezio, into raptures but which generally puzzle the English reader. They were as essential to him as the air he breathed and his face would take on an ecstatic expression as he declaimed them. The effect of the words was so powerful as to shake his body and to induce an atmosphere of awe and reverence into our studies:

Vuolsi così colà dove si puote
Ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare».

(Canto 3; 95-96)

These words are not easy to translate, in my view.  Various translators have produced translations:
This is willed where what is willed can be done, so ask no more/ It is so willed where will and power are one, and ask no more

Even the Italians themselves have attempted to explain the words in an easy-to-understand, humorous gloss:
Virgilio manda a fanculo Caronte che fa troppe domande.
(Virgil tells Charon to go fuck himself because he’s asking too many questions.)

But, for me, none of the English translations capture the resonance or the weight of the original.  Ultimately, the power of these words, so poignant for Italians,  cannot be conveyed in English.
This invocation occurs first of all in Canto 3; 95-96 and is repeated in exactly the same words in Canto 5; 23-24.

In both cases it is addressed to the resident denizens of the underworld, Charon and Minos, respectively. Later, in Canto 7; 10-12, a variation of these words is addressed by Virgil (Dante’s guide) to Pluto. All three of these characters are the sort of Sonderkommando of Hell.

Non è sanza cagion l’andare al cupo:
Vuolsi ne l’alto, là dove Michele
Fé la vendetta del superbo strupo».

(Our going into the darkness is not without reason:
it has been ordained from above, up there where Michael
fought back against the Rebellion of the Angels.)

As we progressed through the cantos of the Inferno, I gradually began to form an idea as to why Dante had conceived his great work.  There is the popular understanding that, wounded as he was by his exile, he wished to take revenge on several of his enemies by casting them down into Hell. He also has a special grudge against various popes and clergy who were condemned by Dante’s party in Florence, the White Guelphs. They were castigated for being worldly and avaricious.  This is all quite understandable. What is less easy to explain is the way he treats some individuals, who seem to have led unexceptional lives, with such severity while, on the other hand, appearing to sympathise with others who have undoubtedly been guilty of unpardonable sin.

The first group he encounters after passing through the gates to Hell are the ignavi, the worthless.  As Virgil describes them to Dante:
…. coloro
che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.

(Canto 3; 35-36)

(….those who lived without infamy and without praise.)

Dante seems to be particularly harsh in his condemnation of this group who, after all, must represent the bulk of humanity. Here is the description of their condition:

Rispuose: «Dicerolti molto breve.

Questi non hanno speranza di morte,
E la lor cieca vita è tanto bassa,
Che ’nvidïosi son d’ogne altra sorte.

Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
Misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa».

(Canto 3; 45-51)

(“This,” he then answered, “briefly I shall tell.
Death, their supreme desire, these souls cannot
hope for; and so degraded is their blind life,
that they envy every other lot.
No memory of these the world shall find;
mercy and justice hold them in disdain:
say nothing more, but look – then leave behind.)

It is difficult to explain why Dante should have been so utterly insensitive to this group. Nor can I explain satisfactorily why they should have been condemned to such a horrible fate. Certainly the image of this great stream of souls, waving banners and pursued, naked by stinging insects, has haunted me since I first read it:

Questi sciaurati, che mai non fur vivi,
Erano ignudi e stimolati molto
Da mosconi e da vespe ch’eran ivi.

Elle rigavan lor di sangue il volto,
Che, mischiato di lagrime, a’ lor piedi
Da fastidiosi vermi era ricolto

(Canto 3; 64-69)

(These wretches who had never been alive
ran naked, stimulated by the prick
of flies, and hornets swarming from the hive.
Blood streaked their countenances, clotting thick
till, mixed with tears, it trickled to their feet,
where nauseating worms could take their pick.)

What seems to be true is that Dante has only contempt for those who committed no actual sins but sometimes a corresponding sympathy for certain individuals who were undoubtedly culpable and who were cast down into much lower and more painful punishment.  One is reminded of Milton’s sympathy for Satan in Paradise Lost. He gives Satan the human attributes of regret and remorse:

Sometimes towards Eden which now in his view
Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad ….

(Paradise Lost; Book IV, 27-28)

The first example of Dante’s sympathy crops up in Canto 5.  Francesca da Rimini was a noblewoman who was married off against her will to the deformed Signore di Rimini, Gianciotto Malatesta by her father Guido da Polenta, Signore di Ravenna. They had one child, but she was deeply attracted to Gianciotto’s younger brother, Paolo, to whom she had originally expected to be married. He was, by now, married and had two children. Francesca and Paolo started an affair but were discovered by Francesca’s father who put them both to death for adultery.  Dante recounts how their affair was prompted by reading the tale of Sir Lancelot together:

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
Di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;

(Canto 5; 127-128)

(….  One day for our delight we read
of Lancelot, how him love thrall’d. )

This section of Canto 5 crystallises so many of the ambiguities and contradictions of the Divina Commedia.  The work purports to scale the heights of morality and yet, here is Dante demonstrating deep sympathy for a pair of adulterers caught in flagrante and killed. We cannot escape the heartfelt feeling expressed in:

«Oh lasso,
Quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio
Menò costoro al doloroso passo!».

(Canto 5; 112-114)

by what sweet thoughts, what fond desire
Must they at length to that ill pass have reach’d!”)

And having heard the whole story, Dante recalls that he felt:

…. sì che di pietade
Io venni men così com’ io morisse.

E caddi come corpo morto cade.

(Canto 5; 140-142)

( ……heartstruck
I through compassion fainting, seem’d not far
From death, and like a corpse fell to the ground.)

How can we square this with his complete indifference to the ‘ignavi’?

There are other lines in this section which take the narrative in an almost humorous direction.  Francesca’s words when describing the manner of her death and that of her lover are almost tongue-in-cheek:

Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
Prese costui de la bella persona
Che mi fu tolta; e ’l modo ancor m’offende.

(Canto 5; 102)

(Love, that in gentle heart is quickly learnt,
Entangled him by that fair form, from me
Ta’en in such cruel sort, as grieves me still)

In other words:
It really pissed me off having my head cut off like that!

…Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:
Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante».

(Canto 5; 137-138)

(“… The book and writer both
Were love’s purveyors.  In its leaves that day
We read no more.”)

Or perhaps he was saying, with a touch of ‘English Humour’:
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to finish the book that day!

But beneath this ‘humour’ is a very serious intent. According to one very plausible commentator (M. Marcazzan; Il canto quinto dell’Inferno, in Lectura Dantis Scaligera, Firenze, Le Monnier, 1961), the book the lovers were reading was the intermediary for their love in that it concealed the origin of their love; pure lust.  In the same way as Galehaut encouraged Lancelot to kiss Guinevere, the book was the instigator of their adultery. Francesca turns on the book and its author as being the root cause of their guilt. Francesca does not excuse her sin; she justifies it instinctively.  This instinct is inherent in all The Damned. They attempt to rehabilitate themselves in human judgement almost as if trying to make allies of their fellow humans in their futile rebellion against the immovable divine justice (just as Satan does in Milton’s Paradise Lost). Francesca justifies herself precisely because she does not repent. (She didn’t get a chance to repent!) This justification has to be understood as the eternal excuse of the unrepentant sinners to be found throughout the infernal world.

There is, in these lines, another example of almost impenetrable language which recalls “Vuolsi così cola ….”. Francesca says:

Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
(Canto 5; 103)

(Love has to be returned with love. Love does not permit the person who is loved not to return it with love.)
This is a difficult concept to grasp and does not readily lend itself to interpretation, in my view.

Other lines, however, span history and seem likely to reappear as long as mankind exists:

«Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Ne la miseria;…”

(Canto 5; 121-123)

(There is no greater sorrow
than remembering happiness
in times of sadness)

seems almost eternal. It may have first appeared, back in time, in the fifth century:
In omni adversitate fortunae felicissimum genus est infortunii fuisse felicem.

(Boethius 477- 527 AD; ‎The Consolation of Philosophy II, 4)

Going forward in time, the words feature in the work of Tchaikovsky in Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32. a symphonic poem composed in1876 and in several of his other later works.

Alfred de Musset used almost exactly the same words in his poem, Le Saule:

Il n’est pire douleur
Qu’un souvenir heureux dans les jours de malheur.

This surely underlines the centrality of Dante to European works of art throughout the centuries. Dante, for all his deep intellectualism, remains a poet of the first order. These lines must be some of the most beautiful ever written:

Quali colombe dal disio chiamate
Con l’ali alzate e ferme al dolce nido
Vegnon per l’aere, dal voler portate;

(Canto 5; 82-84)

(As doves by fond desire invited,
on wide wings and firm, to their sweet nest returning home,
cleave the air, wafted by their will along;)

The other central figure in L’Inferno, for the Italian reader, has to be Ulysses.  In some way, perhaps, both Italians and English alike may have difficulty in understanding Dante’s treatment of him. Like Francesca da Rimini, Ulysses seems to induce in Dante a special sympathy and interest. And yet he has been cast down by Dante into the eighth bolgia of the eighth circle of hell. His sin – to attempt to return to Eden. Ulysses personifies Human Reason which scorns limits and rebels against divine decree. It is for this reason that his ship is destroyed and he is cast down almost as low as you can go into Hell. Dante is not familiar with Homer’s Odyssey. The final voyage of Homer, which is described in Canto 26, is entirely his invention.

All the characters of classical antiquity, real, semi-mythical or mythical were excluded from divine grace, including Virgil. But the majority of them were accorded some hope of redemption, being placed either in Limbo or in Purgatory. In Limbo there are classical writers from antiquity, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan and Greek and Roman philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Seneca and Aristotle.  Virgil and his contemporary, Cato are resident souls in Purgatory.

Ulysses is clearly singled out for his part in the Sack of Troy but there seems to be a clue to other reasons why Ulysses should be punished. The lines:

Né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
Del vecchio padre, né ’l debito amore
Lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,

Vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore
Ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto
E de li vizi umani e del valore;

(Canto 26; 94-99)

(Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue.)

express the lack of concern for his family, a cardinal sin in the Italian context.  Not only does his quest invite divine disapproval; even Ulysses himself describes it as il folle volo, (the foolish voyage)  but he is also defective on the human level.

Despite all this, Ulysses is clearly held in awe and wonder by both Dante and Virgil. This suggests that Dante, though steeped in medieval morality, feels the pull of Renaissance thought. I have already discussed how disapproving Dante and his party were of the papacy and the corruption of church officials. Together with Petrarch and Boccaccio, Dante created the modern Italian language as well as a completely new approach to literature which had, at its heart, humanism. Dante is considered to be the first to use the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, known as terza rima. The artists Giotto  and Cimabue were almost exactly contemporary with Dante and their art revolutionised the depiction of the human form.

Ulysses is, then, given the role of breaking the bounds. He is clear that he has a responsibility to move humanity to a new level. He tells his men:

“O frati”, dissi, “che per cento milia
Perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
A questa tanto picciola vigilia

D’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
Non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,

(Canto 26; 112-116)

(“O brothers!”  I began, “who to the west
Through perils without number now have reach’d,
To this the short remaining watch, that yet
Our senses have to wake, refuse not proof…)

Or perhaps it could be glossed as, You’ve come so far; surely you’re going to carry on.
Then come the words which carry all the weight of the Early Renaissance quest for truth:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.

(Canto 26; 118-120)

(Call to mind from whence we sprang:
Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes
But virtue to pursue and knowledge high.”)

As in the realm of morality when Dante challenges (medieval) convention in his treatment of the romance of Francesca, here is Dante challenging all forms of restriction on thought and feeling.  And yet, just as Francesca is killed and cast down into hell, so, in his turn, Ulysses is drowned and condemned to the depths of Hell.  But in both cases, there is ample evidence that Dante considers himself to be standing on the cusp of a completely new way of looking at the world.  Just as Francesca influences Tchaikovsky and Alfred de Musset, ‘Ulysses’ is chosen as the title for Joyce’s ground-breaking modernist novel.

Hard though it is to penetrate Dante’s writing, even for born and bred Italians, I consider myself fortunate to have been inducted into his mysteries.  The experience of reading Dante is literally life-changing.  When I consider how much effort scholars have put into analysing the Divina Commedia and still not come up with definitive explanations, I realise that in my lifetime I will not even scratch the surface. It is like the technicians who labour away at designing and building small components of space vehicles conscious that they will not live long enough to see the fruits of that vehicle’s exploration.  We are Ulysses.

The lengthy translations of L’Inferno are taken from:

  • www.owleyes.org
  • Dante’s Inferno, a New Translation in Terza Rima: Robert M. Torrance, Xlibris Corporation, 27 Jul 2011
  • Divina Commedia: Dante Alighieri: Newton Compton editori: 2016

The picture is an illustration by Gustave Doré from Wikimedia Commons.