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.
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.)