L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse

The opening of Paradiso Canto 2, in the Longfellow translation.

O Ye, who in some pretty little boat,
Eager to listen, have been following
Behind my ship, that singing sails along,

Turn back to look again upon your shores;
Do not put out to sea, lest peradventure,
In losing me, you might yourselves be lost.

The sea I sail has never yet been passed;
Minerva breathes, and pilots me Apollo,
And Muses nine point out to me the Bears.

Ye other few who have the neck uplifted
Betimes to th’ bread of Angels upon which
One liveth here and grows not sated by it,

Well may you launch upon the deep salt-sea
Your vessel, keeping still my wake before you
Upon the water that grows smooth again.

Those glorious ones who unto Colchos passed
Were not so wonder-struck as you shall be,
When Jason they beheld a ploughman made!

O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.

Voialtri pochi che drizzaste il collo
per tempo al pan de li angeli, del quale
vivesi qui ma non sen vien satollo,

metter potete ben per l’alto sale
vostro navigio, servando mio solco
dinanzi a l’acqua che ritorna equale.

Que’ glorïosi che passaro al Colco
non s’ammiraron come voi farete,
quando Iasón vider fatto bifolco.



Quick! quick! so that the time may not be lost by little love!

From Salvador Dali’s series of woodblock prints for the Commedia. This is Purgatory XVIII, the terrace of the slothful. I liked it less than others at first (Inferno 1 and Purgatory 2 are my favorites) but it has grown on me over time.

But taken from me was this drowsiness
Suddenly by a people, that behind
Our backs already had come round to us.

And as, of old, Ismenus and Asopus
Beside them saw at night the rush and throng,
If but the Thebans were in need of Bacchus,

So they along that circle curve their step,
From what I saw of those approaching us,
Who by good-will and righteous love are ridden.

Full soon they were upon us, because running
Moved onward all that mighty multitude,
And two in the advance cried out, lamenting,

“Mary in haste unto the mountain ran,
And Caesar, that he might subdue Ilerda,
Thrust at Marseilles, and then ran into Spain.”

“Quick! quick! so that the time may not be lost
By little love!” forthwith the others cried,
“For ardour in well-doing freshens grace!”

Ma questa sonnolenza mi fu tolta
subitamente da gente che dopo
le nostre spalle a noi era già volta.

E quale Ismeno già vide e Asopo
lungo di sé di notte furia e calca,
pur che i Teban di Bacco avesser uopo,

cotal per quel giron suo passo falca,
per quel ch’io vidi di color, venendo,
cui buon volere e giusto amor cavalca.

Tosto fur sovr’ a noi, perché correndo
si movea tutta quella turba magna;
e due dinanzi gridavan piangendo:

“Maria corse con fretta a la montagna;
e Cesare, per soggiogare Ilerda,
punse Marsilia e poi corse in Ispagna.”

“Ratto, ratto, che ‘l tempo non si perda
per poco amor,” gridavan li altri appresso,
“che studio di ben far grazia rinverda.”


Qui si ribatte il mal tardato remo

From Purgatorio 17 (84-90 and 124-132). I would expect to spend most of my time on the terrace of the slothful.

“Say, my sweet Father, what delinquency
Is purged here in the circle where we are?
Although our feet may pause, pause not thy speech.”

And he to me: “The love of good, remiss
In what it should have done, is here restored;
Here plied again the ill-slackened oar;*

But still more openly to understand,
Turn unto me thy mind, and thou shalt gather
Some profitable fruit from our delay.
……
This threefold love [of the proud, the envious, and the wrathful] is wept for down below;
  Now of the other will I have thee hear,
  That runneth after good with measure faulty.

Each one confusedly a good conceives
  Wherein the mind may rest, and longeth for it;
  Therefore to overtake it each one strives.

If languid love to look on this attract you,
  Or in attaining unto it, this cornice,**
  After just penitence, torments you for it.

“Dolce mio padre, dì, quale offensione
si purga qui nel giro dove semo?
Se i piè si stanno, non stea tuo sermone.”

Ed elli a me: “L’amor del bene, scemo
del suo dover, quiritta si ristora;
qui si ribatte il mal tardato remo.

Ma perché più aperto intendi ancora,
volgi la mente a me, e prenderai
alcun buon frutto di nostra dimora.”
…….
Questo triforme amor qua giù di sotto
si piange: or vo’ che tu de l’altro intende,
che corre al ben con ordine corrotto.

Ciascun confusamente un bene apprende
nel qual si queti l’animo, e disira;
per che di giugner lui ciascun contende.

Se lento amore a lui veder vi tira
o a lui acquistar, questa cornice,
dopo giusto penter, ve ne martira.


*For il mal tardato remo I replace Longfellow’s ‘ill-belated’ with Singleton’s ‘ill-slackened’.

** Singleton’s rendering is clearer here – “If lukewarm love draws you to see it or gain it”

Guardate che ‘l venir sù non vi nòi

From Purgatorio 9.76-93, with the Longfellow translation. I have a soft spot for Threshold Guardians in myth.

vidi una porta, e tre gradi di sotto
per gire ad essa, di color diversi,
e un portier ch’ancor non facea motto.

E come l’occhio più e più v’apersi,
vidil seder sovra ‘l grado sovrano,
tal ne la faccia ch’io non lo soffersi;

e una spada nuda avëa in mano,
che reflettëa i raggi sì ver’ noi,
ch’io dirizzava spesso il viso in vano.

“Dite costinci: che volete voi?”
cominciò elli a dire, “ov’ è la scorta?
Guardate che ‘l venir sù non vi nòi.”

“Donna del ciel, di queste cose accorta,”
rispuose ‘l mio maestro a lui, “pur dianzi
ne disse: ‘Andate là: quivi è la porta.’”

“Ed ella i passi vostri in bene avanzi,”
ricominciò il cortese portinaio:
“Venite dunque a’ nostri gradi innanzi.”

I saw a portal, and three stairs beneath,
Diverse in colour, to go up to it,
And a gate-keeper, who yet spake no word.

And as I opened more and more mine eyes,
I saw him seated on the highest stair,
Such in the face that I endured it not.

And in his hand he had a naked sword,
Which so reflected back the sunbeams tow’rds us,
That oft in vain I lifted up mine eyes.

“Tell it from where you are, what is’t you wish?”
Began he to exclaim; “where is the escort?
Take heed your coming hither harm you not!”

“A Lady of Heaven, with these things conversant,”
My Master answered him, “but even now
Said to us, ‘Thither go; there is the portal.'”

“And may she speed your footsteps in all good,”
Again began the courteous doorkeeper;*
“Come forward then unto these stairs of ours.”

*I’ve touched up Longfellow’s poorly aging ‘courteous janitor’

For it is always one and the same beauty that binds and trammels me

A very Proustian sentiment in a sonnet of Cino da Pistoia‘s – explaining his apparent inconstancy. Rime CXV in the Barbi edition with the Boyde and Foster translation:

Dante, ever since harsh exile made me a wanderer from my birthplace and put a distance between me and the most exquisite beauty that ever the infinite Beauty fashioned, I have gone grieving about the world, a poor wretch disdained by death; but when I’ve found near me any beauty like to that one, I’ve said it was this one that wounded my heart. Nor – though I expect no help – have I ever left those first pitiless arms from which a well-grounded despair releases me: for it is always one and the same beauty that binds and trammels me; and this perforce delights me in whatever is like it in beauty in many different women.

Poi ch’i’ fu’, Dante, dal mio natal sito
fatto per greve essilio pellegrino
e lontanato dal piacer più fino
che mai formasse il Piacer infinito,

io son piangendo per lo mondo gito
sdegnato del morir come meschino,
e s’ho trovato a lui simil vicino,
dett’ho che questi m’ha lo cor ferito.

Né da le prime braccia dispietate,
onde ’l fermato disperar m’assolve,
son mosso perch’aiuto non aspetti;

ch’un piacer sempre me lega ed involve,
il qual conven che a simil di beltate
in molte donne sparte mi diletti.

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron

Spiralling associative chains, beginning with the Sybil to Aeneas (6.135):

Quod si tantus amor menti, si tanta cupido est,
bis Stygios innare lacus, bis nigra videre
Tartara, et insano iuvat indulgere labori,
accipe, quae peragenda prius.

In Ahl’s Oxford Classics:

Yet, if there’s love so strong in your mind, so mighty a passion
Twice to float over the Stygian lakes, twice gaze upon deep black
Tartarus, if it’s your pleasure to wanton in labours of madness,
Grasp what you must do first.

And moving to Gerard de Nerval’s El Desdichado:

Je suis le ténébreux,- le Veuf, – l’inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé
Porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phoebus ?…. Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J’ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la Sirène…

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

And in the Penguin Selected Writings translation by Richard Sieburth:

I am the man of gloom – the widower – the unconsoled, the prince of Aquitaine, his tower in ruins: My sole star is dead – and my constellated lute bears the Black Sun of Melancholia.

In the night of the tomb, you who consoled me, give me back Posilipo and the Italian sea, the flower that so pleased my desolate heart, and the arbour where the vine and the rose are entwined.

Am I Amor or Phoebus? … Lusignan or Biron? My brow still burns from the kiss of the queen; I have dreamed in the grotto where the siren swims …

And I have twice victorious crossed the Acheron: Modulating on Orpheus’ lyre now the sighs of the saint, now the fairy’s cry.

And back to the beginning, a Homeric hapax from Odyssey 12.21, Circe to Odysseus:

σχέτλιοι, οἳ ζώοντες ὑπήλθετε δῶμ᾽ Ἀίδαο,
δισθανέες, ὅτε τ᾽ ἄλλοι ἅπαξ θνῄσκουσ᾽ ἄνθρωποι.

Unwearying, you who alive go down to the house of Hades,
twice-dying, when other men die once.

Closing with an unrelated echo from Dante, Inferno 24 4. Which commentaries tell me is also a hapax suggested by Jude’s (12) ‘arbores…. bis mortuae’ (trees twice dead).

e l’ombre, che parean cose rimorte,
per le fosse de li occhi ammirazione
traean di me, di mio vivere accorte.

And the Longfellow translation:

And shadows, that appeared things doubly dead,
From out the sepulchres of their eyes betrayed
Wonder at me, aware that I was living.



Un dì si venne a me Malinconia

Sonnet 41 (or LXXII) of Dante, first in the Foster and Boyde Oxford edition of Dante’s Lyric Poetry

One day Melancholy came to me and said: ‘I want to
stay with you awhile’; and it seemed to me she brought
Sorrow and Wrath with her as companions. And I said:
‘Be off! Away with you!’ But she answered like a Greek:
and while she continued speaking with me, perfectly at her
ease, I looked and saw Love drawing near, dressed in
a new black cloak, with a hat on his head, and weeping
real tears. And I said to him: ‘What’s the matter, poor
fellow?’ And he replied: ‘I’m troubled and sad, for our
lady is dying, dear brother.’

And Richard Lansing in the more recent University of Toronto Dante’s Lyric Poetry:

Once Melancholy came to me and said
“I plan to stay with you a little while”;
and it appeared to me she’d brought along
both Sorrow and Distress for company.
I said to her, “Away with you, be gone!”
But like a Greek she answered haughtily
and while she spoke to me with perfect ease,
I looked and saw the Love was drawing near,
attired in brand-new clothing that was black,
and wearing on his head a hat as well,
and he was truly weeping real tears.
I said to him: “What troubles you, poor man?”
And he replied: “I mourn and feel deep pain
because our lady, brother, lies near death.”

And now the Italian – the Societa Dantesca Italiana text:

Un dì si venne a me Malinconia
e disse: “Io voglio un poco stare teco”;
e parve a me ch’ella menasse seco
Dolore e Ira per sua compagnia.

E io le dissi: “Partiti, va via”;
ed ella mi rispose come un greco:
e ragionando a grande agio meco,
guardai e vidi Amore, che venia

vestito di novo d’un drappo nero,
e nel suo capo portava un cappello;
e certo lacrimava pur di vero.

Ed eo li dissi: “Che hai, cattivello?”.
Ed el rispose: “Eo ho guai e pensero,
ché nostra donna mor, dolce fratello”.

Pitiless memory, ever gazing back at the time that is past

The opening lines of Dante’s Rime L, text and translation from my (new) Foster and Boyde edition. The full work can be found here (Italian only).


La dispietata mente, che pur mira
di retro al tempo che se n’è andato,
da l’un dei lati mi combatte il core;
e ’l disio amoroso, che mi tira
ver lo dolce paese c’ho lasciato,
d’altra part’è con la forza d’Amore;

Pitiless memory, ever gazing back at the time that is past, assails my heart on the one side; on the other, with the power of Love, is the love-longing that draws me towards the dear place where I have left.

I have fantasized a magical work, a panel that is also a microcosm: Dante’s poem is that panel whose edges enclose the universe.

From the prologue to Nine Dantesque Essays in Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions:

Imagine, in an Oriental library, a panel painted many centuries ago. It may be Arabic, and we are told that all the legends of The Thousand and One Nights are represented on its surface; it may be Chinese, and we learn that it illustrates a novel that has hundreds or thousands of characters. In the tumult of its forms, one shape-a tree like an inverted cone; a group of mosques, vermilion in color, against an iron wall-catches our attention, and from there we move on to others. The day declines, the light is wearing thin, and as we go deeper into the carved surface we understand that there is nothing on earth that is not there. What was, is, and shall be, the history of past and future, the things I have had and those I will have, all of it awaits us somewhere in this serene labyrinth …. I have fantasized a magical work, a panel that is also a microcosm: Dante’s poem is that panel whose edges enclose the universe. Yet I believe that if we were able to read it in innocence (but that happiness is barred to us), its universality would not be the first thing we would notice, and still less its grandiose sublimity. We would, I believe, notice other, less overwhelming and far more delightful characteristics much sooner, perhaps first of all the one singled out by the British Danteans: the varied and felicitous invention of precise traits. In describing a man intertwined with a serpent, it is not enough for Dante to say that the man is being transformed into a serpent and the serpent into a man; he compares this mutual metamorphosis to a flame devouring a page, preceded by a reddish strip where whiteness dies but that is not yet black (Inferno XXV, 64). It is not enough for him to say that in the darkness of the seventh circle the damned must squint to see him; he compares them to men gazing at each other beneath a dim moon or to an old tailor threading a needle (Inferno XV, 19). It is not enough for him to say that the water in the depths of the universe has frozen; he adds that it looks like glass, not water (Inferno XXXII, 24) …. Such comparisons were in Macaulay’s mind when he declared, in opposition to Cary, that Milton’s “vague sublimity” and “magnificent generalities” moved him less than Dante’s specifics. Later, Ruskin (Modern Painters IV, XIV) also condemned Milton’s fog and uncertainty and approved of the strictly accurate topography by which Dante engineered his infernal plane. It is common knowledge that poets proceed by hyperbole: for Petrarch or for Gongora, every woman’s hair is gold and all water is crystal. This crude, mechanical alphabet of symbols corrupts the rigor of words and appears to arise from the indifference of an imperfect observation. Dante forbids himself this error; not one word in his book is unjustified.
The precision I have just noted is not a rhetorical artifice but an affirmation of the integrity, the plenitude, with which each incident of the poem has been imagined. The same may be said of the psychological traits which are at once so admirable and so modest. The poem is interwoven with such traits, of which I will cite a few. The souls destined for hell weep and blaspheme against God; then, when they step onto Charon’s bark, their fear changes to desire and an intolerable eagerness (Inferno III, 124). Dante hears from Virgil’s own lips that Virgil will never enter heaven; immediately he calls him “master” and “sir,” perhaps to show that this confession does not lessen his affection, perhaps because, knowing Virgil to be lost, he loves him all the more (Inferno IV, 39). In the black hurricane of the second circle, Dante wishes to learn the root of Paolo and Francesca’s love; Francesca tells him that the two loved each other without knowing it, “soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto” [we were alone, suspecting nothing] , and that their love was revealed to them by a casual reading. Virgil rails against proud spirits who aspire to encompass infinite divinity with mere reason; suddenly he bows his head and is silent, because one of those unfortunates is he (Purgatorio III, 34). On the rugged slope of Purgatory, the shade of Sordello the Mantuan inquires of Virgil’s shade as to its homeland; Virgil says Mantua; Sordello interrupts and embraces him (Purgatorio VI, 58). The novels of our own day follow mental processes with extravagant verbosity; Dante allows them to glimmer in an intention or a gesture.

Ex Libris #3 – Enciclopedia Dantesca

We all have dream books and this has long been one of mine. As I understand it, the notion of the current Enciclopedia Dantesca was born toward the end of the Second World War when the editor Umberto Bosco recognized the need for an update to the 1895 Enciclopedia Dantesca directed by Giovanni Andrea Scartazzini (digitized copies of which are available for view here). It took until 1965 – the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth – for the project to gain enough interest to be put into production. Work then proceeded and between 1970 and 1977 six total volumes were published. These were revised and reprinted in 1984 (the revision seems mostly to have been an expanded bibliography), and that revision was itself reprinted in a limited run luxury edition in 1996 (which is the one I’ve had out from my library for 6? years). Then in 2005 the enciclopedia saw another revision, this time adding bibliography for 1985-2005 and at least retouching the biography (I don’t have the 1996 volume at hand to compare so I can’t be sure the extent). This latest printing, distributed across an impressive 16 volumes, is now in my personal library – though homeless until I shift about some other books. There is an online version here that includes everything but volumes 1-4 – the texts, commentary, biography, and bibliographies – but it’s not quite the same.