Dante meets Virgil x 10
Dante Alighieri turns 750 this year. He was born in Florence in 1265; the exact date of birth is unknown, but he mentions that it was under the astronomical sign Gemini, which puts him between 11 May and 11 June, so 1 June is the midpoint there, a symmetry which seems suitable for this poet. In his honor, today we have the passage from the opening of the Inferno in which he first encounters Virgil, who will be his guide through Hell and Purgatory (up to the point beyond which even virtuous pagans cannot go).
First comes the original Italian, then ten English-language versions, two of them in prose and eight in verse. Dante wrote his famous epic in terza rima, an interlocking set of rhymes making ever-present the mystic Trinitarian significance of the number three: aba bcb cdc and so forth. Italian is notably richer in rhymes than English, so finding an equivalent for this significant rhyme scheme is a famous challenge, and each translator has a different way of tackling it. Most try to use some version of the original, often relying on what we might call inexact rhymes in order to stay closer to the meaning as well as to avoid a jog-trot sound.
Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco,
dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
"Miserere di me," gridai a lui,
"qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!"
Rispuosemi: "Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
Nacqui sub Julio, ancor che fosse tardi,
e vissi a Roma sotto 'l buono Augusto
nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
figliuol d'Anchise che venne di Troia
poi che 'l superbo Ilïón fu combusto.
Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
Perché non sali il dilettoso monte
ch' è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?"
"Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?"
rispuos' io lui con vergognosa fronte.
"O de li altri poeti onore e lume,
vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,
tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore. . . . "
Dante, Inferno, Canto 1, ll 61 - 87
The Charles Singleton translation (1970). This is a prose translation meant to provide a helpful scholarly guide to the Italian, which is on the facing page. Each of the three books in this version of the Divine Comedy comes in two volumes; the first has Italian text and English prose translation, and the second has notes. (Most of these editions have notes of some sort explaining Dante's references; annotation has been considered essential to his work from its first appearance). I'm putting this translation first as a guide to what the Italian says, so you can see how the other translators work with it.
While I was ruining down to the depth there appeared before me one who seemed faint through long silence. When I saw him in that vast desert, I cried to him, "Have pity on me whatever you are, shade or living man!"
"No, not a living man, though once I was," he answered me, "and my parents were Lombards, both Mantuans by birth. I was born sub Julio, although late, and I lived at Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying gods. I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned. But you, why do you return to so much woe? Why do you not climb the delectable mountain, the source and cause of every happiness?"
"Are you, then, that Virgil, that fount which pours forth so broad a stream of speech?" I answered him, my brow covered with shame. "O glory and light of other poets, may the long study and the great love that have made me search your volume avail me! You are my master and my author. You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor. . . ."
The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation (1867). Dante was little known in (mostly Protestant) America when Longfellow, the writer of American epics, did his blank-verse translation:
While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
"Have pity on me," unto him I cried,
"Whiche'er thou art, or shade or real man!"
He answered me, "Not man; man once I was;
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.
Sub Julio was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A Poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.
But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb'st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?"
"Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
"O, of the other poets honor and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honor to me. . . ."
The Dorothy L. Sayers translation (1949):
Then, as I stumbled headlong down the track,
Sudden a form was there, which dumbly crossed
my path, as though grown voiceless from long lack
Of speech; and seeing it in that desert lost,
"Have pity on me!" I hailed it as I ran,
Whate'er thou art – or very man, or ghost!"
It spoke: "No man, although I once was man;
My parents' native land was Lombardy
And both my citizenship were Mantuan.
Sub Julio born, though late in time, was I,
And lived at Rome in good Augustus' days,
When the false gods were worshiped ignorantly.
Poet was I, and tuned my verse to praise
Anchises' righteous son, who sailed from Troy
When Ilium's pride fell ruined down ablaze.
But thou – oh, why run back where fears destroy
Peace? Why not climb the blissful mountain yonder,
The cause and first beginning of all joy?"
"Canst thou be Virgil? thou that fount of splendour
Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?"
Said I, and bowed my awe-struck head in wonder;
"O honour and light of poets all and each,
Now let my great love stead me – the bent brow
And long hours pondering all thy book can teach!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
From thee alone I learned the singing strain
The noble style, that does me honour now. . . ."
The John Ciardi translation (1954):
And as I fell to my soul's ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.
At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
"Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man." And it replied:
"Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred
in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises' noble son
who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you – why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy
which is the seat and first cause of man's bliss?"
"And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?" My voice grew tremulous:
"Glory and light of poets! Now may that zeal
and love's apprenticeship that I poured out
on your heroic verses serve me well!
For you are my true master and first author,
the sole maker from whom I drew the breath
of that sweet style whose measures have brought me honor. . . ."
The Allen Mandelbaum translation (1980):
While I retreated down to lower ground,
before my eyes there suddenly appeared
one who seemed faint because of the long silence.
When I saw him in that vast wilderness,
"Have pity on me," were the words I cried,
"Whatever you may be – a shade, a man."
He answered me: "Not man; I once was man.
Both of my parents came from Lombardy,
and both claimed Mantua as native city.
And I was born, though late, sub Julio,
and lived in Rome under the good Augustus –
the season of the false and lying gods.
I was a poet, and I sang the righteous
son of Anchises, who had come from Troy
when flames destroyed the pride of Ilium.
But why do you return to wretchedness?
Why not climb up the mountain of delight,
the origin and cause of every joy?"
And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?"
I answered him with shame upon my brow.
"O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.
You are my master and my author, you –
the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored. . . ."
Seamus Heaney, from Dante's Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets (1993):
While I was slipping back, about to sink
back to the depths, I caught sight of one
who seemed through a long silence indistinct.
When I saw him in that great waste land
I cried out to him, "Pity me,
whatever you are, shade or a living man."
He answered me, "No, not a living man
though I was once alive, and had Lombards
for parents, both of them Mantuan.
Although I was born sub Julio, my prime
was spent in the heyday of the false gods
when I lived in Rome, in good Augustus' time.
I was a poet, and I sang of that just son
of Anchises who came out of Troy
after the burning of proud Ilion.
But why do you face back into misery?
Why do you not keep on up the sweet hill,
the source and cause of all felicity?"
"Oh, are you then Virgil, are you the fountainhead
of that wide river of speech constantly brimming?"
I answered and for shame kept my head bowed.
"You are the light and glory of other poets.
O let it avail me now, the long devotion
that made me love your book and cleave to it.
You are my master, my authority.
I learned from you and from you alone
the illustrious style for which they honor me. . . ."
The Robert Pinsky translation (1994); this one has the Italian on the facing page:
While I was ruining myself back down to the deep,
Someone appeared – one who seemed nearly to fade
As though from long silence. I cried to his human shape
In that great wasteland: "Living man or shade,
Have pity and help me, whichever you may be!"
"No living man, though once I was," he replied,
"My parents both were Mantuans from Lombardy,
And I was born sub Julio, the latter end.
I lived in good Augustus's Rome, in the day
Of the false gods who lied. A poet, I hymned
Anchises' noble son, who came from Troy
When superb Ilium in its pride was burned.
But you – why go back down to such misery?
Why not ascend the delightful mountain, source
And principle that causes every joy?"
"Then are you Virgil? Are you the font that pours
So overwhelming a river of human speech?"
I answered, shamefaced. "The glory and light are yours,
That poets follow – may the love that made me search
your book in patient study avail me, Master!
You are my guide and author, whose verses teach
The graceful style whose model has done me honor. . . ."
The Robert Durling translation (1996); this is another prose version, meant as a guide through the Italian, which is on the facing page:
While I was falling down into a low place, before my eyes one had offered himself to me who through long silence seemed hoarse.
When I saw him in the great wilderness, "Miserere – on me," I cried to him, "whatever you may be, whether shade or true man!"
He replied: "No a man, I was formerly a man, and my parents were Lombards, Mantuans both by birth.
I was born sub Julio, though it was late, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus in the time of the false and lying gods.
I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy when proud Ilion was destroyed by fire.
But you, why do you return to so much suffering? why do you not climb the delightful mountain that is origin and cause of all joy?"
"Now are you that Virgil, that fountain which spreads forth so broad a river of speech?" I replied with shamefast brow.
"O honor and light of the other poets, let my long study and great love avail me, that has caused me to search through your volume.
You are my master and my author, you alone are he from whom I have taken the pleasing style that has won me honor. . . ."
The Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander translation (2000); this also has the Italian on the facing page:
While I was fleeing to a lower place,
before my eyes a figure showed,
faint, in the wide silence.
When I saw him in that vast desert,
"Have mercy on me, whatever you are,"
I cried, "whether shade or living man!"
He answered: "Not a man, though once I was.
My parents were from Lombardy –
Mantua was their homeland.
"I was born sub Julio, though late in his time,
and lived at Rome, under good Augustus
in an age of false and lying gods.
"I was a poet and I sang
the just son of Anchises come from Troy
after proud Ilium was put to flame.
"But you, why are you turning back to misery?
Why do you not climb the peak that gives delight,
origin and cause of every joy?
"Are you then Virgil, the fountainhead
that pours so full a stream of speech?"
I answered him, my head bent low in shame.
"O glory and light of all other poets,
let my long study and great love avail
that made me delve so deep into your volume.
"You are my teacher and my author.
You are the one from whom alone I took
the noble style that has brought me honor. . . ."
The Ciaran Carson translation (2002):
I too was driven by that lupine brute
to stagger back, as down a broken stair,
to where the sun becomes irresolute;
and in that lower place, a shape appeared
to glide across my vision, pale and mute
from long restraint. As through that wasteland weird
he skimmed, I cried: "O pity me, you shade,
or man! Whate'er you be, please make it clear!
"Not man, though formerly a man," he said.
"My parents, you must know, were Lombards true,
for both in Mantua were born and bred.
Under Julius I was born, and grew
to fame in Rome when good Augustus reigned,
and bogus pagan gods were all we knew.
I was a poet, and to some acclaim
I sang of bold Anchises' son, who sailed
from Troy when Ilium went up in flames.
But as for you, why have you left the trail?
Why look so down? Why don't you climb the Mount
of Joy, where every happy thing prevails?"
"Are you then Virgil, that superior fount
which spouts so generous a verbal brook?"
I bashfully replied to his account.
O you, to whom all other poets look!
may that long study and great love endure
which brought me first to delve into your book!"
You are my paragon, my favourite author –
you, the very one from whom I stole
the noble style that critics praise me for. . . ."