CARY’S DANTE. Illustrated with twelve Engravings from Flaxman’s designs from the last corrected London Edition. D. Appleton & Co. 200 Broadway; 1845.

THE LYRICAL POEMS OF DANTE, including the Vita Nueva and Convito, translated by CHARLES LVELL, A.M. London. W. Smith, 113 Fleet-street; 1845.

  Translating Dante is indeed a labor of love. It is one in which even a moderate degree of success is impossible. No great poet can be well translated. The form of his thought is inseparable from his thought. The births of his genius are perfect beings; body and soul are in such perfect harmony, that you cannot at all alter one, without veiling the other. The variation in cadence and modulation, even where the words are exactly rendered, takes, not only from the form of the thought, but from the thought itself, its most delicate charm.—Translations come to us as a message to the lover from the lady of his love, through the lips of a confidant or menial—we are obliged to imagine what was most vital in the original utterance.

  These difficulties, always insuperable, are accumulated a hundred fold in the case of Dante, both by the extraordinary depth and subtlety of his thought and his no less extraordinary power of concentrating its expression, till every verse is like a blade of thoroughly tempered steel. You might as well attempt to translate a glance of fire from the human eye into any other language—even music cannot do that.

  We think, then, that the use of Cary’s translation or any other can never be to diffuse a knowledge of Dante. This is not in its nature diffusible; he is one of those to whom others must draw near; he cannot be brought to them. He has no superficial charm to cheat the reader into a belief that he knows him, without entrance into the same sphere.

  These translations can be of use only to the translators, as a means of deliberate study of the original, or to others who are studying the original and wish to compare their own version of doubtful passages with that of an older disciple, highly qualified, both by devotion and mental development, for the study.

  We must say a few words as to the pedantic folly with which this study has been prosecuted in this country, and, we believe, in England. Not only the tragedies of Alfieri and the Faust of Goethe but the Divine Comedy of Dante—a work which it is not probable there are upon earth, at any one time, a hundred minds able to appreciate, are turned into school-books for little girls who have just left their hoops and dolls, and boys whose highest ambition it is to ride a horse that will run away, and brave the tutor in a college frolic.

  This is done from the idea, that in order to get acquainted with a foreign language, the student must read books that have attained the dignity of classics, and also which are ‘hard.’ Hard, indeed, it must be for the Muses to see their lyres thus turned into gridirons for preparation of a school-girl’s lunch; harder still for the younglings to be called to chew and digest thunderbolts in lieu of their natural bread and butter. Are there not “classics” enough which would not suffer by being put to such uses? In Greek, Homer is a book for a boy, must you give him Plato because it is harder? Is there no choice among the Latins? are all who wrote in the Latin tongue equally fit for the appreciation of sixteen Yankee years? In Italian have you not Tasso, Ariosto and other writers who have really a great deal that the immature mind can enjoy, without choking them with the stern politics of Alfieri, or piling upon a brain still soft, the mountainous meanings of Dante. Indeed, they are saved from suffering by the perfect ignorance of all meaning in which they leave these great authors, fancying, to their life-long misfortune, that they have read them. I have been reminded by the remarks of my young friends on these subjects, of the Irish peasant, who, having been educated on a book prepared for his use, called “Reading Made Easy,” blesses through life the kindness that taught him his “Radamadasy,” and of the child, who, hearing her father quote Horace, observed, “she thought Latin was even sillier than French.”

  No less pedantic is the style in which the grownup (in stature at least) undertake to become acquainted with Dante. They get the best Italian Dictionary, all the notes they can find, amounting in themselves to a library, for his countrymen have not been less external and benighted in their way of regarding him. Painfully they study through the book, seeking with anxious attention to know who Signor this is, and who was the cousin of Signora that, and whether any deep papal or anti-papal meaning was couched by Dante under the remark that such an one wore a great coat. A mind whose small chambers look yet smaller from being crowded with furniture from all parts of the world, bought by labor, not received from inheritance or won by love, asserts that he must understand Dante well, better than any other person probably, because he has studied him through in this way thirty or forty times. As well declare you have a better appreciation of Shakspeare than anyone else because you had identified the birth-place of Dame Quickly, or ascertained the church-yard where the ghost of the royal Dane hid from the sight of that far more celestial spirit, his son.

  Oh! pain-staking friends, shut your books, clear your minds from artificial nonsense, and feel that only by spirit can spirit be discerned. Dante, like each other great one, took the stuff that lay around him and wove it to a garment of light. It is not by raveling that you will best appreciate its tissue or design. It is not by studying out the petty strifes or external relations of his time that you can become acquainted with the thought of Dante. To him these things were only soil in which to plant himself—figures by which to dramatize and evolve his ideas. Would you learn him, go listen in the forest of human passions to all the terrible voices he heard with a tormented but never to be deafened ear; go down into the hells where each excess that mars the harmony of nature is punished by the sinner finding no food except from his own harvest; pass through the purgatories of speculation, of struggling hope, and faith, never quite quenched, but smoldering often and long beneath the ashes. Soar if thou canst, but if thou canst not, clear thine eye to see this great eagle soar into the higher region where forms arrange themselves for stellar dance and spheral melody, and thought, with constantly accelerated motion, raises itself in a spiral which can end only in the heart of the Supreme.

  He who finds in himself no fitness to study Dante in this way should regard himself as in the position of a candidate for the ancient Mysteries when rejected as unfit for initiation. He should seek in other ways to purify, expand, and strengthen his being, and, when he feels that he is nobler and stronger, return and try again whether he is “grown up to it,” as the Germans say.

  “The difficulty is in the thoughts,” and this cannot be obviated by the most minute acquaintance with the history of the times. Comparison of one edition with another is of use, as a guard against obstructions through mistake. Still more useful will be the method recommended by Mr. Cary of comparing the Poet with himself; this belongs to the intellectual method, and is the way in which we study our intellectual friend.

  The versions of Cary and Lyell will be found of use to the student, if he wants to compare his ideas with those of accomplished fellow-students. The poems in the London book would aid much in a full appreciation of the Comedy; they ought to be read in the original, but copies are not easily to be met here, unless in the great libraries. The Vita Nuova is the noblest expression extant of the inward life of Love, the best preface and comment to every thing else that Dante did.

  ’Tis pity that the designs of Flaxman are so poorly re-produced in this American book. It would have been far better to have had it a little dearer, and thus better done. The designs of Flaxman were a really noble comment upon Dante, and might help to interpret him; we are sorry that those who can see only a few of them should see them so imperfectly. But, in some, as in that upon the meeting with Farinata, the expression cannot be destroyed, while one line of the original remains. The “lost portrait” we do not like as preface to the Divine Comedy. To that belongs our accustomed object of reverence, the head of Dante, such as the Florentine women saw him, when they thought his hair and beard were still singed, his face dark and sublime, with what he had seen below.

  Prefixed to the other book is a head “from a cast taken after death at Ravenna, A.D. 1321.” It has the grandeur which death sometimes puts on; the fullness of past life is there, but made sacred in eternity. It is also the only front view of Dante we have seen. It is not unworthy to mark the point

“When vigor failed the towering fantasy:
But yet the will rolled onward, like a wheel
In even motion by the love impelled
That moves the sun in Heaven and all the stars.”

  We ought to say in behalf of this publication that whosoever wants Cary’s version will rejoice, at last, to possess it in so fair and legible guise, as we do.

  Before leaving the Italians, we must mourn over the misprints of our homages to the great tragedian in Thursday’s paper. Our MS. being as illegible as if we were a great genius, we never complain of these errata, except when we are made to reverse our meaning on some vital point. We did not say that Alfieri was a perfect man in person, nor sundry other things that are there; but we do mourn at seeming to say of our friends, “Why they felt they care little, but what they felt they scarcely knew,” when in fact we asserted, “what they felt they surely knew.”

  In the article on China we had made this assertion of the Chinese music: “Like their poetry, the music is of the narrowest monotony”; in place of which stands this assertion: “Like true poetry, the music is of the narrowest monotony.” But we trust the most careless reader would not think the merely human mind capable of so original a remark, and will put this blasphemy to account of that little demon, who has so much to answer for in the sufferings of poor writers before they can get their thoughts to the eyes of their fellow creatures in print, that there seems scarcely a chance of his being redeemed as long as there is one in existence to accuse him.*

“Italy.” New-York Daily Tribune, 18 November 1845, p. 1.