Daily Archives: July 3, 2014

Seamless verse: terza rima and a close equivalent

Dante’s Comedy is written in terza rima — that is, a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc ded efe … yzy z. One very appealing feature of terza rima is that each tercet is linked by rhyme to both the tercet before and the one after, making it possible to write an entire canto — arbitrarily long — which is one seamless whole, impossible to break into smaller units which can stand alone in terms of rhyme.

Unfortunately, terza rima just isn’t workable in English, at least not for long poems. It requires that every line of the poem rhyme with two other lines, and in a rhyme-poor language like English that is just too stringent a requirement (though of course it works fine in Italian). Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s terza rima translation of Dante has made me even more sure of this. Too many forced and awkward rhymes, too many near-rhyme compromises. Many of the “rhymes” (like rhyming — no joke — here, singular, and far!) don’t even register as rhymes at all unless the reader is actively paying attention to the rhyme scheme, and in the end the effect is simply not that of reading rhymed verse. I know Sayers is operating under the additional constraint of having to write English terza rima which is a translation of Italian terza rima, but I think even writing original verse using this rhyme scheme would be unworkable in English, unless it were very short.

Structurally, terza rima is like a chain, every link of which has the shape of a figure-eight. The easiest way of adapting it to a rhyme-poor language like English, then, is to simplify it to a chain with ordinary circular links, eliminating the need for triple rhymes. I experimented a bit with this scheme when I was a teenager, before I knew anything about Dante, and I called it “snake rhyme” because it could be used to produce an arbitrarily long, indivisible poem.

terza rima

As an experiment, I tried rendering the beginning of the Inferno in “snake rhyme.” The main disadvantage of snake rhyme, as opposed to terza rima, is that every line is separated from its rhyme by two intervening lines, making the rhymes less obvious. I tried to ameliorate this by shortening the lines to four feet each — that makes for 32 syllables per quatrain, very close to Dante’s 33 per tercet. I’m not sure how successful the result is.

I have no intention of finishing this “translation” (if one can even use that word for a version which takes so many liberties, and whose author is ignorant of Italian); it was just an experiment. But I thought I’d share it for what it’s worth.


My life’s long journey halfway through,
I found myself within a wood
So dark my path was lost to view.

How hard it is to speak of how
that forest was — so dark! — and should
I call it back to mind, I know
fresh fear would kindle even now.

Such bitter fear — like death it stings! —
Yet good I found there, too, and so,
That you may understand that good,
I’ll shy not from the darker things.

How came I to be lost so deep
Within that dense and savage wood?
When lost I the true path? Who knows?
I was so very full of sleep.

But, stumbling through that murky maze,
I came to where a mountain rose
Up from that valley thick with vines
and tangled brush. I dared to raise

My eyes and saw its slopes aglow,
Lit by that Planet bright which shines
On all men’s paths and with its light
Directs them in the way to go.

With this my heart began to take
Fresh courage — for throughout the night,
A squirming terror vile and black
Had lurked within my bosom’s lake.

But now, like one who, safe ashore,
Still gasping from the swim, looks back
To see the churning waves which he
Survived — against all odds — once more,

So I, though in my heart still fleeing,
Looked back. I was the first to see
The other side of that dread vale:
None else had lived to do the seeing.

Awhile I rested in that sun,
Then stirred again and moved to scale
The lonely slope, and as I went
My firm foot was the lower one.

There on the lower slopes I spied,
Not far from where the hill’s ascent
Began — a leopard! — lithe of limb
And covered with a spotted hide.

Wherever then I turned my face
Or made to move, I spotted him.
All ways he blocked, till back I turned,
Retreating to my starting place.

But it was spring, and early morn,
And in its native Aries burned
The Sun, with those same stars attendant
It rose with when the world was born,

On that first morning when the Love
Divine first moved those things resplendent,
So that the season and the hour —
And, too, that dappled beast above

Me on the path — seemed cause for hope
but hope, alas, had not the power
To steel me for what happened next:
I saw a lion on the slope!

. . .

(If you want to know what happens next, read Dante.)



Filed under Literature, Poetry, Translation

For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

On the lowest terrace of Ante-Purgatory — that is, the lowest possible level for a soul whose ultimate destiny is salvation — Dante and Virgil meet Manfred of Sicily. According to the (perhaps unjust) accounts by which the poet Dante knew him, Manfred had been a moral monster, excommunicated by the Church and denied Christian burial. Among other enormities, he had allegedly murdered his own father, brother, and two nephews, and attempted the murder of a third nephew. In other words, he would ordinarily have been condemned to the very lowest Circle of Hell, to the realm of Caïna, as one guilty of treachery against his own kin.

Manfred, however, repented at the moment of death — or perhaps it was not even repentance in the usual sense of confession and contrition. He says simply “I gave myself back” (io mi rendei) to God.

After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.

My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.

. . .

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return — as long as hope shows something green.

— Purgatorio iii. 118-23, 133-35 (Mandelbaum trans.)

The choice of words is highly significant: not “as long as he repents” or “as long as he dies with the name of Jesus on his lips” or anything like that, but “as long as hope shows something green” (mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde)Manfred died in the hope of salvation, and it was that — rather than repentance per se — which saved him.

(Contrast Dante’s Manfred with Byron’s character of the same name. The abbot implores the dying Manfred to “Give thy prayers to heaven —  / Pray — albeit in thought, — but die not thus,” but Manfred, having spurned the fiends, spurns God as well. His last words, as the abbot begs him again to make “but yet one prayer,” are “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.”)

Manfred, the lowest of the saved, makes an interesting contrast with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans, the highest of the damned. The latter are “punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — and, as discussed in my previous post, one possible interpretation is that the “sin” for which the virtuous pagans are punished is also a lack of hope. Lacking the Christian revelation, they hoped for nothing higher than the Elysian Fields, and so that is all they receive. “I am Virgil,” the poet says later, in purgatory, “and I am deprived of Heaven for no fault other than my lack of faith.” Dante certainly seems to be portraying hope as the one deciding factor in the soul’s destiny. With it, even Manfred is salvable; without it, even Virgil is damned. That hope is the key distinction between purgatory and hell — between the suffering which saves and the suffering which does not — is reinforced by the inscription over the gates of hell, ending in the famous line “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

Having noticed this, I now find an emphasis on hope jumping out at me from many different parts of the Comedy. It is mentioned again and again in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante confronts the three beasts. The leopard “gave me good cause for hopefulness,” but “hope was hardly able to prevent the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” Then, when the she-wolf appears, “I abandoned hope of ever climbing up that mountain slope.” And of course every cantica ends in the word “stars” — a traditional symbol of hope.


I am not yet ready to comment on Dante’s ideas regarding hope — I want to go through the whole Comedy again and spend some time digesting it — but I just wanted to point out an aspect of Dante that I had never noticed before.


Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature