Happily Back in Hell: a literary mash-up of Dante, St. John of the Cross and Robert Frost
This may be a yawner for faithful readers, but every day I get at least a few hits on Polloplayer from souls in search of Divine Comedy details. More than likely these are desperate high school or college students up against a deadline who haven’t read the book, it’s too late to even get the SparkNotes and they are hoping for divine intervention in the form of a perfectly written and untraceable term paper. Instead they get chickens!
True to my New Year’s resolution, I cracked open the Inferno to begin a second reading on Sunday. Last time around, I read the Sayres translation; this time I started with Mandelbaum. I decided to compare it with the other versions the CE has given me, including a gorgeous limited edition copy of the Norton translation with designs by Boticelli. An embarrassment of riches!
Reading four translations at once is only a slight deja vu – each one has its own nuances and read simultaneously, they lend depth and breadth to the understanding of the work. Because this, my friends, is no comic book. The Divine Comedy will be found on any serious list of the best literature ever written, and for good reason. As I read the opening lines of Canto I for the second (and third, fourth, fifth time) I was struck with a completely new perception of the work. Here are the lines:
Bergin translation (1969):
“Midway along the journey of our life
I found myself within a gloomy wood
For the right pathway had been lost to view”
Hollander translation (2000):
“Midway in the journey of our life
I cam to myself in a dark wood
for the straight way was lost”
Mandelbaum translation (1980):
“When I had journeyed half of
our life’s way, I found myself within
a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that
does not stray”
Norton translation (1955):
“Midway upon the journey of our life I
found myself in a dark wood, where the right
way was lost”
As I read the subtly different shadings of these translations, especially the Hollander, which succinctly states “the straight way was lost”, it occurred to me that what Dante was describing might correctly be linked with the concept of The Dark Night of the Soul as described (a few hundred years after Dante’s time) by St. John of the Cross.
St. John of the Cross was a 16th century Spanish Carmelite monk whose master work continues to be widely read today. The simplest definition of the “dark night of the soul” is when one has lost his or her way and no comfort can be found, even in faith. Some claim that Christ endured such a time at Gethsemane. Most of us expeience periods of darkness and hopelessness in our lives, and if they occur with a crisis of or an absence of, faith, they can be crushing. Dante had been banished from Florence and was a wandering political exile, separated from the people and places he loved during the thirteen years he spent creating the Divine Comedy. It’s not a stretch to imagine that he experienced a “dark night of the soul” during this time.
At least one observer has made a connection between Dante’s presumed dark night of the soul in The Inferno and the decidedly more accessible Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost.
I don’t know who Tina Blue is, but she appears to know a thing or two about poetry. In her Internet article How Literary Allusion is Used in a Well-Known Poem by Robert Frost which can be found here she interprets Dante’s opening lines of the Inferno as being consistent with the “dark night of the soul” experience and also cannily observes that Frost pays homage to Dante’s terza rima meter with a similar rhyme scheme. Not everyone can or will undertake to read the Divine Comedy, but you can enjoy Frost’s poem right here:
Ms. Blue asserts that Frost had Dante and the “dark night of the soul” on his mind in the lines “He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow” According to Blue, Frost “means us to understand not only the woods’ human owner, but also at some level God, whose “house” (the church) is also in the village. She adds that “the speaker’s belief that the owner will not see him stopping to watch the snow fall in the woods subtly suggests that he has somehow fallen outside of God’s range of vision or concern”, which is precisely the condition of one experiencing a “dark night of the soul”.
It all folds up so neatly into a literary piece of origami! The Divine Comedy is woven so thoroughly through the fabric of literature through the centuries and is awash in Dante’s coruscating spiritual, political and historical, mythological and literary genius. And I believe it can be threaded backward as well as forward. I haven’t read St. John of the Cross’ work in its entirety, but in the excerpt that I’ve seen, he ties the condition to the seven deadly sins. In Canto I of the Inferno, as Dante struggles in his loss of the “straight way”, he encounters a leopard, the lion and the she-wolf, which represent three of those sins: lust, pride and avarice (extreme greed). This suggests to me that St. John of the Cross might have had a copy of The Inferno on his desk when he wrote The Dark Night of the Soul.
Entry filed under: Dante/Divine Comedy, Music/Art/Literature/Culture. Tags: Belgian Mille Fleur d'Uccle hen, Charles Eliot Norton limited edition Inferno 1955 Boticelli designs, Dante's Inferno, Dante's Inferno Hollander translation, Dante's Inferno Mandelbaum translation, Dark Night of the Soul, literature, Robert Frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, St. John of the Cross, The Divine Comedy.