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Poetry of Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy - Appendix

APPENDIX


SIX SONNETS ON DANTE'S DIVINE COMEDY
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (1807-1882)


I

Oft have I seen at some cathedral door
  A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,
  Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
  Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'er;
  Far off the noises of the world retreat;
  The loud vociferations of the street
  Become an undistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter here from day to day,
  And leave my burden at this minster gate,
  Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
  To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
  While the eternal ages watch and wait.


II

How strange the sculptures that adorn these towers!
  This crowd of statues, in whose folded sleeves
  Birds build their nests; while canopied with leaves
  Parvis and portal bloom like trellised bowers,
And the vast minster seems a cross of flowers!
  But fiends and dragons on the gargoyled eaves
  Watch the dead Christ between the living thieves,
  And, underneath, the traitor Judas lowers!
Ah! from what agonies of heart and brain,
  What exultations trampling on despair,
  What tenderness, what tears, what hate of wrong,
What passionate outcry of a soul in pain,
  Uprose this poem of the earth and air,
  This mediaeval miracle of song!


III

I enter, and I see thee in the gloom
  Of the long aisles, O poet saturnine!
  And strive to make my steps keep pace with thine.
  The air is filled with some unknown perfume;
The congregation of the dead make room
  For thee to pass; the votive tapers shine;
  Like rooks that haunt Ravenna's groves of pine,
  The hovering echoes fly from tomb to tomb.
From the confessionals I hear arise
  Rehearsals of forgotten tragedies,
  And lamentations from the crypts below
And then a voice celestial that begins
  With the pathetic words, "Although your sins
  As scarlet be," and ends with "as the snow."


IV

With snow-white veil, and garments as of flame,
  She stands before thee, who so long ago
  Filled thy young heart with passion and the woe
  From which thy song in all its splendors came;
And while with stern rebuke she speaks thy name,
  The ice about thy heart melts as the snow
  On mountain heights, and in swift overflow
  Comes gushing from thy lips in sobs of shame.
Thou makest full confession; and a gleam
  As of the dawn on some dark forest cast,
  Seems on thy lifted forehead to increase;
Lethe and Eunoe--the remembered dream
  And the forgotten sorrow--bring at last
  That perfect pardon which is perfect peace.


V

I Lift mine eyes, and all the windows blaze
  With forms of saints and holy men who died,
  Here martyred and hereafter glorified;
  And the great Rose upon its leaves displays
Christ's Triumph, and the angelic roundelays,
  With splendor upon splendor multiplied;
  And Beatrice again at Dante's side
  No more rebukes, but smiles her words of praise.
And then the organ sounds, and unseen choirs
  Sing the old Latin hymns of peace and love
  And benedictions of the Holy Ghost;
And the melodious bells among the spires
  O'er all the house-tops and through heaven above
  Proclaim the elevation of the Host!


VI

O star of morning and of liberty!
  O bringer of the light, whose splendor shines
  Above the darkness of the Apennines,
  Forerunner of the day that is to be!
The voices of the city and the sea,
  The voices of the mountains and the pines,
  Repeat thy song, till the familiar lines
  Are footpaths for the thought of Italy!
Thy fame is blown abroad from all the heights,
  Through all the nations; and a sound is heard,
  As of a mighty wind, and men devout,
Strangers of Rome, and the new proselytes,
  In their own language hear thy wondrous word,
  And many are amazed and many doubt.


POSTSCRIPT


     'Ich habe unter meinen Papieren ein Blatt gefunden,
     wo ich die Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne.'
        (Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1829 March 23)

I found Dante in a bar.  The Poet had indeed lost the True Way to be found reduced to party chatter in a Capitol Hill basement, but I had found him at last.  I must have been drinking in the Dark Tavern of Error, for I did not even realize I had begun the dolorous path followed by many since the Poet's journey of A.D. 1300.  Actually no one spoke a word about Dante or his Divine Comedy, rather I heard a second-hand Goethe call architecture "frozen music."  Soon I took my second step through the gate to a people lost; this time on a more respectable occasion--a lecture at the Catholic University of America.  Clio, the muse of history, must have been aiding Prof. Schumacher that evening, because it sustained my full three-hour attention, even after I had just presented an all-night project.  There I heard of a most astonishing Italian translation of 'la Divina Commedia' di Dante Alighieri.  An Italian architect, Giuseppi Terragni, had translated the Comedy into the 'Danteum,' a projected stone and glass monument to Poet and Poem near the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome.

Do not look for the Danteum in the Eternal City.  In true Dantean form,
politics stood in the way of its construction in 1938.  Ironically this
literature-inspired building can itself most easily be found in book form.

Reading this book I remembered Goethe's quote about frozen music.  Did Terragni try to freeze Dante's medieval miracle of song?  Certainly a cold-poem seems artistically repulsive.  Unflattering comparisons to the lake of Cocytus spring to mind too.  While I cannot read Italian, I can read some German.  After locating the original quotation I discovered that 'frozen' is a problematic (though common) translation of Goethe's original 'erstarrte.'  The verb 'erstarren' more properly means 'to solidify' or 'to stiffen.'  This suggests a chemical reaction in which the art does not necessarily chill in the transformation.  Nor can simple thawing yield the original work.  Like a chemical reaction it requires an artistic catalyst, a muse.  Indeed the Danteum is not a physical translation of the Poem. Terragni thought it inappropriate to translate the Comedy literally into a non-literary work.  The Danteum would not be a stage set, rather Terragni generated his design from the Comedy's structure, not its finishes.

     The poem is divided into three canticles of thirty-three cantos
     each, plus one extra in the first, the Inferno, making a total of
     one hundred cantos.  Each canto is composed of three-line tercets,
     the first and third lines rhyme, the second line rhymes with the
     beginning of the next tercet, establishing a kind of overlap,
     reflected in the overlapping motif of the Danteum design.  Dante's
     realms are further subdivided: the Inferno is composed of nine
     levels, the vestibule makes a tenth.  Purgatory has seven
     terraces, plus two ledges in an ante-purgatory; adding these to
     the Earthly Paradise yields ten zones.  Paradise is composed of
     nine heavens; Empyrean makes the tenth.  In the Inferno, sinners
     are organized by three vices--Incontinence, Violence, and
     Fraud--and further subdivided by the seven deadly sins.  In
     Purgatory, penance is ordered on the basis of three types of
     natural love.  Paradise is organized on the basis of three types
     of Divine Love, and further subdivided according to the three
     theological and four cardinal virtues.
        (Thomas Schumacher, "The Danteum,"
         Princeton Architectural Press, 1993)

By translating the structure, Terragni could then layer the literal and the spiritual meanings of the Poem without allowing either to dominate.  These layers of meaning are native to the Divine Comedy as they are native to much medieval literature, although modern readers and tourists may not be so familiar with them.  They are literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.  I offer you St. Thomas of Aquinas' definition of these last three as they relate to Sacred Scripture:

     . . .this spiritual sense has a threefold division. . .so far as
     the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law,
     there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in
     Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types
     of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense.  But so far as
     they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the
     anagogical sense.    (Summa Theologica I, 1, 10)

Within the Danteum the Poet's meanings lurk in solid form.  An example: the Danteum design does have spaces literally associated with the Comedy--the Dark Wood of Error, Inferno, Purgatorio, and the Paradiso--but these spaces also relate among themselves spiritually.  Dante often highlights a virtue by first condemning its corruption.  Within Dante's system Justice is the greatest of the cardinal virtues; its corruption, Fraud, is the most contemptible of vices.  Because Dante saw the papacy as the most precious of sacred institutions, corrupt popes figure prominently among the damned in the Poet's Inferno.  In the Danteum the materiality of the worldly Dark Wood directly opposes the transcendence of the Paradiso.  In the realm of error every thought is lost and secular, while in heaven every soul's intent is directed toward God.  The shadowy Inferno of the Danteum mirrors the Purgatorio's illuminated ascent to heaven.  Purgatory embodies hope and growth where hell chases its own dark inertia.  Such is the cosmography shared by Terragni and Dante.

In this postscript I intend neither to fully examine the meaning nor the
plan of the Danteum, but rather to evince the power that art has acted as a catalyst to other artists.  The Danteum, a modern design inspired by a medieval poem, is but one example.  Dante's poem is filled with characters epitomizing the full range of vices and virtues of human personalities. Dante's characters come from his present and literature's past; they are mythological, biblical, classical, ancient, and medieval.  They, rather than Calliope and her sisters, were Dante's muses.