I recently decided to read The Divine Comedy and am now being stalked by Dante. Well, not really, of course. It is more accurate to say his visage is popping up here and there.
It all started with the arrival of Fine Books & Collections’ summer issue in my mailbox. The Divine Comedy has been on my to read list for decades and when Dante showed up on the cover, I knew it was time. The Willa Cather article was also exciting to see. Will there be an issue five centuries in the future with the title, “Six Centuries of Cather’s _____”? Who will fill the “150 Years of ____” slot? Will there even been magazines or paper or the English alphabet that far into the future? But I digress.
Literally seconds after putting down the magazine, I looked at Instagram and my friend Colleen had just posted a Dante related photo from Italy where she was traveling. I commented and we quickly decided to do a buddy read. We have both read some bits of the work in the past, but not the whole shebang. If you’d like to buddy read with us, we plan to start in August.
Two weeks ago I ran into Dante at The Old Manse in Concord, MA. Goethe was also there. The Old Manse is the historic Emerson home that Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne lived in for a few years as newly weds. I toured the house with Emily, my Book Cougars cohost, as part of a day of Hawthorne-related biblio-adventuring for our Scarlet Summer.
I could never be a landlord
The tour, conduced by actor and romance author Mary Beth Bass, was fantastic. A highlight for me was seeing — in person — the written etchings that Sophia and Nathaniel made in glass window panes using her diamond. I thought this was so romantic when I first heard about it in my 20s.
While this act of coupledom is now a permanent part of literary history, back then — and this is my thought, not the official position of The Old Manse management — it was an act of vandalism. Think about it. The Hawthornes were renters. Renters who didn’t pay their rent. Can you imagine being the owner of the house, walking through after you’ve just evicted tenants and seeing that expensive damage? I wonder if there’s documentation about the owner’s reaction or consequences for the Hawthornes.
Obviously, my younger romantic self is at odds with my middle-aged home-owning self.
And then the other day, Dante gazed at me from the facade of the Scranton Memorial Library in Madison, CT. I’ve seen him there before, but stopped to say hello before I walked in to pick up a book on hold. (The book: Semicolon by Cecelia Watson.)
I wonder where Dante will pop up next.
Colleen and I both did a little research and decided to read different translations. We might end up dipping into several translations, but she’s going to start with a dual language edition (Italian/English) that she kept from her college days. I don’t speak a lick of Italian, unless the word pizza counts, and have decided to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation because:
- I read this article that proclaims it is still a good translation.
- I read The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl years ago which is a literary mystery novel set during the time when Longfellow was translating the poem. There’s a killer on the loose who models their murders after scenes in Inferno. (The Divine Comedy has three sections, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.)
- I dig the 19th century American lit connection. Longfellow was a big deal back then, and as a professor of modern languages, he was well versed in Italian. As a poet, he also understood poetry.
Longfellow’s translation is available for free digitally at Project Gutenberg, but I’ve decided to go with a physical book. My relationship with my ereader is currently a bit strained. Emily and I speculate on a recent Book Cougars episode that this might be due to it being summer. You know, the joy of summertime reading — holding a book as the pages flutter from the occasional breeze as you read outside, the pages getting gnarly from your sweaty hands, sunscreen, watermelon.
I went to Barnes & Noble to look at their Collectible Edition of Longfellow’s translation which also includes Gustave Dorés’ legendary illustrations. The type and page layout are pleasing to the eye. There are no notes in this edition, which is okay for my purposes. Similar to how I read Ulysses earlier this summer, I am going to try to read the text without a lot of secondary resources. We’ll see how that goes.
Okay, I am ending this post to go outside and read. But first let me ask: if you’ve read The Divine Comedy do you have any advice for this newbie?