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!

Pippa’s idea of Hell is that hawk that keeps circling overhead

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!

Illustration from the 1955 Norton limited edition: Dante encounters the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf in Canto I (Polloplayer image)

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.

Written in the 1500’s this work is still sought out by seekers of Christian spirituality (Barnes and Noble image)

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.

Dante was banished from Florence during his lifetime, but a prominent statue of him stands there today. (image from molon.de)

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.

Robert Frost (image from loc.gov)

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:

(image from literarypiano.tumblr.com)

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”.

Susan Jeffurs illustration from the picture book version of Frost’s poem (image from literaryfictions.com)

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.

The leopard represents lust. Leonard Baskin illustration from the Bergin translation (Polloplayer image)

I know this may not be as exciting as the upcoming Super Bowl or whether Beyonce is or is not using a surrogate to carry her baby. But Dante makes my synapses sizzle in a way that can only be good for this cob-webbed brain. I can’t wait to tackle Canto II.

(image from ktpapas.tumblr.com)

For related posts on Dante and The Divine Comedy, there’s one here for the Paradiso or here for the Purgatorio and most recently on The Inferno, here. As you can tell, I’m no scholar, but I might just be Dante’s most avid fangirl.

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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4 Responses to Happily Back in Hell: a literary mash-up of Dante, St. John of the Cross and Robert Frost

  1. Katherine says:

    I’m very impressed. I say you’re less a fangirl and more a fantastic writer with great knowledge and insight.

    I remain humbled. I also remain, my normal, silly self and decided to see how Babelfish would translate the original Italian. Of course, to make it even more interesting, I had Babelfish translate it from Italian to French to Dutch to German to English. Here’s the new translation:

    On the average, the way of our life,
    one found the rights misdirected
    for a dark forest yet again

    Also, oddly, if you do my multicultural Babelfish translation of Frost’s title “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening”, one gets “Reservation by the Timbers in a White Afternoon.”

    What have I learned from this little experiment in wasting an afternoon (make that evening because apparently those words are synonymous – who knew?): Get a good translator and perhaps Babelfish should be renamed Babblefuss.

    • polloplayer says:

      I think Babelfish deserves its own post. I’d never heard of it until now. But it reminds me that Dorothy Sayres once said something along the lines of it being worth learning Italian just to read the Divine Comedy in the original. I guess Babelfish is not going to be our short-cut to that…

  2. Chicken Emperor says:

    I simply cannot understand any of this. And not only that, trying to do so gets me confused about what color of shoes Kim K was wearing yesterday on Rodeo Drive. So now I have to go back and research that all over again until I get it right. Could have been black patent leather, could have been faux tiger, could have been mary janes, could have been red pumps; but now I will never know!

  3. Pamela Gilbert says:

    This is ambitious stuff. Lots to digest….

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