Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Divine Comedy

In 1997 I decided to read the Dante's The Divine Comedy . I studied it with three different versions of the translation: one was poetic, another a simple translation and the third had huge discussion and annotated sections. Was this part of some course I was studying? No, as usual I had taken it upon myself to study something other than what I was supposed to be working on. While working on it I thought it would be a good idea if I could recite some by heart. The first Canto of The Inferno was committed to memory via the method of pacing back and forth in my tiny "Ivory Tower" aka bedsit reciting aloud until I had it word perfect. If the people in the opposite tower where to have looked in and saw my pacing they would have thought I had a good reason to be living in government housing (albeit a very pleasant Canberra one with views of the War Memorial Dome and Captain Cook's Fountain in the distance over the leafy trees.)

To further the impression of it upon my brain I continued to recite the first Canto under my breath as I walked to Uni, this was about 35 minutes away at super walk speed and offer plenty of time for practice. This too must have looked a bit strange, if any one could have focused on me as I whooshed past in my black Bolivian hat, a concentrated stare on my face, with lips whispering in some arcane language. At any rate I was too busy to gawk at any potential gawkers.

For all that effort I recited the first Canto only twice before another person. One of those times, however, it was shared with some kangaroos. My friend and I while on pilgrimage up Mount Ainslie, had chosen our picnic spot by a wattle grove on the hillside, it turned out that the same spot was also the secret Kanga Klan's resting spot and the kangaroos that bounded in from all over the mountain stopped with some surprise to see us, uninvited guests, plonked down not some feet away from their pregnant females. I had been so caught up in the drama of the poem that I hadn't noticed all this and when finished my friend whispered with almost fear in his voice, "We have company". Four or five giant male grey kangaroos where standing bolt upright in a ring around us, for all appearances an interested audience. Never-the-less, once the performance was over I thought it might be best if we acted like well mannered guests and departed before we had out stayed our welcome...needless to say there was no encores.

I recently treated myself with a visit to Archive Fine books in Brisbane city. I love it there, walk in the door and suddenly you've left the consumer glitz and entered the quite sanctuary of old and rare books. What popped off the shelf in the first few minutes was two wonderful William Blake books - one of them William Blake's Watercolours of The Divine Comedy. The picture above is his version of The Stygian Lake with the Angry Sinners Fighting (Canto 7, The Inferno) is from the book I bought. Since William Blake is my favourite poet and artist this book is a real treasure for me. It's a beautiful folio size book with very good quality prints. There's not a lot of writing about it but this is mainly a picture book anyway, which doesn't bother me one bit.

I also got my current copy of The Divine Comedy from Archive Books some years back. I wanted the translation that had been the focus of my earlier devotion, which is by the Reverend Henry Francis Cary. My edition is very old, you can feel the typeface imprinted on the page and the pages are unevenly cut, there's and inscription on the inside dated Easter 1928 and it evidently belonged to a school at some point.

While I'm no longer word perfect on my recitation of Dante's Divine Comedy I'll leave you with a small slice of the Cary translation:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet, to discourse of what there good befel,
All else will I relate discover'd there.


shango said...

'All else will I relate discover'd there.'

What could this last line mean? I'm new to Blake.

Dont worry about gawkers, many people, as i observed, were doing similar things such as yourself.
That was my intro to how to study at Uni.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Excellent, Florence! You remembered you and I talked about 'The Divine Comedy' some time ago. I'll have to brave it sometime.

Florence said...

Shango, thanks for your comments :) Please feel welcome here.

As to the meaning of the line, its saying that he will discuss in the following poem those things that he feels will be of benefit for the reader to know about. More modern translations make this clear but I perfer the poetic styling of this old translation by Cary. Also, this is the first stansa of the first Canto of the Inferno by Dante not William Blake. I'm sure to do more on Blake at a later stage though.

And I'm relieved to hear I'm not alone on the study muttering behaviour too :D

JL! I was thinking about you when I found this book. I thought you would love it. xx

handmadelife said...

For me Blake is all about printmaking! So lovely to be reminded about the inspiration for those amazing works. I should read more I really should - Ramona

Jean-Luc Picard said...

The Cary translation is excellent; I don't want to read a modern translation that makes thing clearer. Cary's poetic translation looks more authentic.

W J Kington said...

Verse makes Kangaroos calmer, and gives them greater milk production! Or is that cows?

Blake seems to me to highlight a point in life that many people arrive at.

Oh, and don't I know you Shango?

Florence said...

JL, you might be interested to know that the Cary translation was first published in 1805/06. Its my fav :D

Mr Accordian, Verse can be comforting for all animals, I often make songs for my cat and she signals to me her approval :) Also, I realise that skim reading is de jour but really for the third time! The Divine Comedy is by Dante Alighieri(1265-1321) not William Blake (1757-1827). The illustration is by Blake of Dante's work.

..but aside for that, yes I agree with you and that is why the first Canto is most poignant.

Ramona, the other Blake book I bought that day was The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake by David Bindman, Thames and Hudson, 1986. I also have two stunning colour reproductions of Jerusalem: The Emmination of the Giant Albion and Songs of Innoccence and of Experience of his illuminated poetry. They are among my most precious books.


shango said...

Mr Accordian,

"Blake seems to me to highlight a point in life that many people arrive at."
Or did you mean Dante... - what is that "point in life" that many people arrive at?

Florence :- I couldnt see Peter Greenaway on your list of favourite film makes, but he did "A TV Dante" Cantos I-VIII. If youve seen this film; what comments can you make in relation to your interpretation of Dante's Divine comedy?
I think Mr Accordian might be interested in this as well..:-)

W J Kington said...

You are right Shango, Peter Greenaway is among my favourite film makers. Though I have not seen 'A TV Dante'. I thought maybe Dante was speaking about the feeling that one is off-track and that a mortal life is very short indeed.

rashbre said...

Great picture and stirring words. Look for that mountain with sunbeams and watch out for the friendly panther. And Hi today from Michele!

Catherine said...

I love the Blake illustration - this seems to be the most quoted passage of Dante, and I think it's because so many people relate to finding themselves in a dark wood midway through life's journey.
Michele sent me.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Although being a frequent visitor on my own, it's Michele that's sent me this time.

Love all your Dante work, as I said earlier.

sage said...

WOW, I'm impressed. I've read the inferno and parts of Purgatory and Paradise, but to memorize large sections of the work is amazing.

There are two nearby Christians colleges both start by Dutch settlers. One is named Calvin, the other is Hope. When they meet for a basketball game, Calvin puts a banner up over the entrance to their gym, "abandon Hope all ye who enter..."

It seems that Dante's work has become more popular in recent years.

Anyway, I'm here from Michele's and glad I stopped by. I'll have to look around some more.

Florence said...

Shango, I haven't seen the Peter Greenaway film you meantion so I couldn't comment. Though Mr Greenaway is undoubtably an excellent film maker his work is a little on the visceral side for me...though now that I think of it Dante's Inferno sounds perfect for him :)

Rashbre, Catherine and Sage, thanks for stopping by, your always welcome here.

I should say though that I haven't memorised "large sections" just one large section - canto 1 of the Inferno. The difficultly lies in the language of the Cary translation as one needs to be very careful with the word order and one has to work hard to find the right weighting and stress so as to bring forth the meaning to the listener.