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ART. III. NEW TRANSLATIONS OF THE "VITA NUOVA."
1. The New Life of Dante.
An Essay with Translations. By CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. Riverside Press: H. O. Houghton & Co. Cambridge. 1859.
2. The Early Italian Poets, from Ciullo d'Alcamo to Dante Alighieri, (1100-1200-1300,) in the Original Metres; together with Dante's Vita Nuova. Translated by D. G. ROSSETTI. London: Smith, Elder, & Co. 1861.
3. The Vita Nuova of Dante, translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by THEODORE MARTIN. London: Parker, Son, and Bourne. 1862.
It is a happy chance in letters, when the same subject of thought, object of study, work of illustration, commends itself to several scholars at the same time. A full treatment is the result, and it is pleasant to see how different minds approach the same thing. We congratulate ourselves that, in the case of the Vita Nuova, this happy chance has engaged three so competent as Mr. Norton, Mr. Rossetti, and Mr. Martin. The book has not always had treatment so comprehensive of its meaning and scope, and so sympathetic with its spirit.
All who can, of course, read the original. It gives a pleasure unlike that of any other book. It is a thing by itself, singular as Dante himself is in history and in literature, and so is the pleasure it gives. The poet's seclusion and remoteness from the common way are marked as strongly in the peculiar, unique charm of the Vita Nuova, with its exquisite blending of sweetness, tenderness, and truth, as in that sublime impulse, which, with full intellectual satisfaction and spiritual inspiration, is the proper gift of the Divina Commedia. This charm, singular, like the little book and the author of it, is fully caught only from the original. Something of its delicate quality passes in a version. Yet they to whom the direct way is closed may well be felicitated in having such entrances open to the enchanted region and its delights as the volumes whose titles are here given.
We hold, with Don Quixote, that in general a translation
is "like viewing a piece of tapestry on the wrong side, where, though the figures are distinguishable, yet there are so many ends and threads, that the beauty and exactness of the work are obscured, and not so advantageously discerned as on the right side of the hangings." In a work worth translating there are niceties of expression, a delicacy of character, some fineness of make, which can no more be transferred than the volatile breath of flowers can all be seized by ever so cunning a distilment. The curious Eastern may put a whole rosegarden into a flasket, but the subtile fragrance of a single fresh rose is worth more than all he has kept. This hovering, fine scent, like the soul of the flower, eludes him with all his art. The version, be it ever so good, comes short of the original. The colors are blurred, the forms are confused, which were so glowing and so clear. If it is literal, it is bald and meagre. If it is free, it is loose and incorrect. For the most part, it is but a makeshift for the benefit of those who cannot otherwise read the work. And at the best, when it is a labor of love, and done with the success which follows hearty admiration and sympathy, some beauty or strength departs in the process. The translator finds some felicity of manner, some tenderness of feeling, some refinement of thought, some vigor of imagination, which escapes him, some quality intrinsic, and, as it were, spiritual to the work, which cannot be conveyed, though it be caught.
The wise-mad knight's comparison is a good one. But we have had too much reason to thank translators, to quite go with him when he says, further, that translation is "a barren employment, which can show wit or mastery of style no more than copying a piece of writing from a precedent." With these excellent versions from Dante before us, the wholesale denunciation appears to be of his folly rather than of his wit. It were ungracious to call translation a barren employment, when we have just proved what pleasure and noble instruction it may furnish. Surely, it will be fruitful of honor also to the translators. Their work is, to be sure, not addressed The best book of the three, being privately seem to admit this, perhaps to claim the Like the original, the versions may not draw
to the many. printed, would privilege of it.
the general attention. But their audience is sure, of the number of those judicious whose judgment, whether for praise or censure, outweighs a whole theatre of others. It is chosen of those
"amanti di pregio, Che sanno con prudenza Amor seguire."
We put Mr. Norton's name first, because we esteem his book before the others. Yet they are of signal excellence, and worthy to stand with the best. Mr. Rossetti's is a simple translation, without comment. It is faithful, and betokens an artist and poet-mind in its author, accordant with the great poet's whose work he renders. Still, we would rather place Mr. Norton's book in the hands of one unable to read the original. For the portions translated are just those which are of most importance, while the place of the parts left out is more than supplied, to a complete understanding of this singular work, by the running explanation and comment, and the appended notes. Mr. Martin, like Mr. Rossetti, translates the whole, but gives, besides, a full Introduction, and many notes. The same ease, felicity, and faithfulness which mark his Horace mark this version, and his Preface and notes prove that he has gone beneath the letter, and entered into the spirit in which Dante wrote. Mr. Norton's treatment, however, is in closer sympathy with the poet's passion and its varying moods. The shifting phases of that vital experience, the motive of so much that he was and did afterward, are noted with a more delicate sense of their intellectual and spiritual bearing. There is a charm of style, besides, which reflects the matchless refinement of the style of the Vita Nuova itself. And, throughout, the work shows a delicacy of comprehension kindred with the "white, celestial thought" which it illustrates.
When this Essay appeared, originally, in the "Atlantic Monthly" of 1859, we thought it memorable as being of far more than the transient worth of a common magazine article. We ran, perhaps, the risk of over-admiration, because it happened to have a special and uncommon interest for us. But we found it highly prized by skilled judgments, seldom at fault, which we always put before our own. Aside, then, from any personal liking, or fitness of the Essay to our thought and
study, we were sure it would have its place as a real contribution to the literature of a subject on which so much has been written that is foolish, strained, and unworthy. We took occasion in this Review* to quote Mr. Ruskin's praise of it, and to express the hope that it might one day be put into a shape better suiting its worth, than the scattered numbers of a magazine. The elegant book now before us answers that hope, and, with its valuable additions to the original papers, more than bears out that praise.
When Mr. Ruskin speaks of it as "tender and just," he touches, with that felicity of judgment and of phrase which belongs to him, the precise point of the excellence of it. It would not be so just, if it were a whit less tender. It would not be tender as it is, if it were any the less just. For the essence of justice lies in completeness of comprehension; and to understand fully comes only by the penetrative sympathy which is substantial tenderness. Of all books, the Vita Nuova suffers most from the rude handling of a cold and conceited treatment. The delicate Psyche of it will not bear the marring, destructive touch of coarse and ungentle fingers on her wings.
Mr. Ruskin's epithets exactly describe this Essay of his friend. It is tender by a refined apprehension which reaches the inmost of Dante's early mind and experience. It is tender by hearty and the word is significant appreciation of what the poet thought and felt and was in his time of young passion, in those years when he was dreaming the dreams, lifted in the transports, perplexed in the struggles, abased by the sorrows, of that affection which was at length to turn to peace, and be sanctified by the one last grief into the quietness of a spiritual, ideal love. It is just with the conscientiousness of insight, with the integrity of that imaginative sympathy which alone makes men or books wholly just. Being so tender and so just, it is not to exaggerate its worth to call it the last word on the "New Life" of Dante. It does not claim the distinction, and those wedded to some far-fetched theory may not allow it. For ourselves, it is the ottimo comento, the best
* Vide Christian Examiner for January, 1861.
elucidation of that fateful time of the poet's life, and of that intellectual and spiritual experience so prophetic of his great work.
To Mr. Norton, as to the more distinguished among the modern European scholars of Dante, the Vita Nuova is the proem to the Divina Commedia. "It contains," he says, "the first hint of the great poem itself, and furnishes for it a special, interior, imaginative introduction, without the knowledge of which it is not thoroughly to be understood." This is, beyond doubt, the true view. It commends itself at once to the simple, unperverted judgment. It is borne out by both the books, when they are not strained beyond their plain meaning, and not wrested from their pure poetic intent, to shore up a conceited and prosaic theory. If only they had been allowed to throw light on each other, what might have not been spared of the vanity and dulness of the commentators! But, from the Bible down, the critical folk have been ready with their notions, and have made the inspired text of good books a peg on which to hang their fancies. Never was book more overlaid with the stuff of comment for comment's sake than the "Divine Comedy." And the "New Life" has not escaped the fantastic tricks which theorizing likes to play. Dante wears his heart of fire on his sleeve, and the daws have pecked at it to the top of their bent. The fancifulness of commentators has been illustrated more than the book. Who has not heard good, dull people read a poem with tone and accent as if they had said in beginning, "This is verse; let us not, however, be taken in by the vanity of rhythm and musical flow, but turn it to good, set prose"? To read some of the comments on the Vita Nuova is to listen again to those good, dull people. It is a simple, charming, and most pathetic confession of true love, of joys and sorrows which true love brought with it, and of the inward change which true love worked. It was the change of consciousness, of intellect, affection, will, spirit, as if a new element entered into the nature, which every real experience, according to the measure of its vitality, works in every man, according to the measure of his sincerity. In a soul sincere like Dante's, working, as it did, through an experience which to the reality