A weaker bout of the Italian flu

Dante in English
November 11, 2005

After the Second World War, the Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler published an essay in which he criticised British intellectuals for their excessive adulation of French culture and said they were suffering from the French flu. The past half-century has seen a similar attitude to things Italian, including scooters, stylish sports cars, espresso, designer clothes and neo-realist films and directors, to name but a few. Dante did not figure greatly in this latest bout of Italian flu, but it was not always so.

During the Renaissance period in English history, lagging behind its Italian Renaissance models by more than a century, Italian art, architecture, gardens, fashions in clothes, music and literature were much admired and imitated. Writers and scholars read Dante, but they often criticised him for his choice of language. Following in the footsteps of Italian critics such as Pietro Bembo, they preferred Petrarch, and he was often imitated for his more elegant style. In spite of the popularity of Italian art and music, Italian writers then fell into disrepute and were almost completely neglected until the middle of the 18th century.

The revival of interest in Italian writing began with a book written by Giuseppe Baretti in 1753 titled Remarks on the Italian Language and Writers . This work, and others, fostered interest in writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Pulci, Boiardo and Ariosto, and this interest grew and flourished into the Romantic period.

Between the wars, and for some time after, Dante's Commedia was a recommended, if not required, text for those studying English in many universities here. The translation used was, in most cases, the pocket editions of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso , with Italian on the left-hand page and an English prose translation opposite, published in the Temple Classics series by J. M. Dent. It seems fairly certain that this interest stemmed from T.JS. Eliot's essay on Dante, published in 1920 in The Sacred Wood , in which he asserts: "There is no poet in any tongue - not even Latin or Greek - who stands so firmly as a model for all poets."

In most Italian studies of an author, there is usually a chapter, which follows the main survey and assessment of his work, on what Italians call la fortuna of the writer. By this term they mean the success, the popularity, or lack of it, that a writer has in later periods. This book gives a very good idea of the fortuna of Dante in England from the time of Chaucer to the present day - though it gets off to a shaky start on the first page with the assertion that Dante went to Paris during his exile from Florence, a notion supported by Villani and Boccaccio, but firmly discredited by Italian experts on Dante and, to his credit, by the author of Dante's Life in the introduction. It is an anthology of writers who have attempted to translate the whole, or part, of the Commedia and some of Dante's lyric poems, as well as of those who have retold an episode of the Commedia or merely inserted reminiscences, hints or quotations of Dante's in their own writings. These contacts with Dante are carefully pointed out by the editors.

For readers who know Italian and have read Dante in the original, the book will be of great interest, for they will be able to compare the quality of the translations with Dante's Italian text to see how different ages have understood Dante and what aspects of his work have touched them most. Those with no knowledge of Italian will hopefully enjoy this second-hand approach to Dante - the level of achievement among the translators is variable, with some writing near-doggerel and others producing worthy, readable work.

For example, the Reverend H. F. Cary's translation of the whole Commedia was read with pleasure and much praised by men such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Southey, but it is not read much nowadays. As the editor rightly points out, his tendency to use archaic forms gives the impression "that Dante wrote in an Italian that would have sounded 200 years old to his first readers". True, but the editor blots his copybook by continuing: "He didn't, he wrote and revelled in a sweet new style."

This term, dolce stil nuovo , can be applied only to the love poetry written by Dante and his contemporaries. These poems are written in quite a different style from that of the Commedia . Dante's great poem takes its name from its style.

Though the comedies of Plautus and the tragedies of Seneca were known to Dante, the terms comic and tragic had no theatrical connotations, but referred to different styles of writing. Writing in the tragic style meant using principally a repertory of noble, elevated, elegant words as, for example in the poems of the dolce stil nuovo school. The comic style, though embracing the same repertory, also admitted dialectal words, realistic language and low, earthy and downright vulgar terms as, for example when in Inferno Canto XXI the leader of the band of devils gives the signal for his troop to move off by farting: " Ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetta ."

Apart from being an anthology of writers in English who had read and admired Dante and left a trace of him in their own writings, the book has an introduction in two parts: the first Dante's Life and the second "an introduction to Dante in English, not an introduction to Dante-in-English ".

These introductions, particularly the latter, are not really what is needed by a person who wants to read Dante but who has no knowledge of him. The latter is very erudite, with numerous quotations from varied sources, and picks out points in the Commedia and analyses them, not always successfully. However, the basic preparation for understanding Dante, his historical, political, economic, sociological, philosophical and literary backgrounds, the reasons why he wrote the Commedia and for whom he wrote it, are not handled adequately.

Norman Clare was formerly lecturer in Italian, Birkbeck, University of London.

Dante in English

Editor - Edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 624
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 14 042388 5

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