These are the opening lines of what I have already mentioned is my favourite book, one of the greatest of all human works, the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not by behaviour, as he says in a letter to his patron. There is almost unbelievable richness awaiting exploration in these three lines, the first tercet of thousands. My plan is to work through the poem, slowly (admittedly not always a slowly as this week; not all the lines are quite so rich), a Sunday at a time.
Here are three translations. The first, by Dorothy L. Sayers:Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Vigorous, one might say, and it keeps Dante’s rhyme scheme; perhaps not the greatest of English poetry, but then again it has other merits, including the circumstantial fact that Miss Sayers started her translation while crouching in an air raid shelter during the London Blitz, armed only with her knowledge of Old French and medieval Latin.
Then, there is Allen Mandelbaum:When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray…
This is perhaps of more poetic merit, and certainly a much used version.
And finally, the scholar’s friend, Charles S. Singleton’s prose rendition:
Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
I don’t plan on providing a comprehensive analysis of the different translations — this is something I should like to do one day, perhaps next summer — but I would like to point out the influence a translator can have, sometimes very subtly indeed, on our comprehension of, even our entry-point into, a text.
We begin with our narrator in the middle of his life: that is, in the year 1300, when Dante was 35 — that being half of the biblically-sanctioned life expectancy. This may come as a surprisingly long life expectancy for those who are under the impression that the average life expectancy of people only surpassed that of koi carp in the twentieth century, but remember: the average is low because of war, disease, childbirth, natural disaster versus our better health care, not because human nature has changed in seven hundred years. We find out the specific time of year later.
The cammin di nostra vita is the path of our life; it is definitely ours, not mine, here. Dante is speaking of the common life of man, the road we all take; or is he? He narrows his subject in the next line, with an intensely reflexive (and reflective) mi ritrovai: “I found myself,” almost “I returned to myself”; I discovered myself in a dark wood, where the right way, the direct way, the straight road, was lost.
A cammino is a path, a track, a route; via is the highway, the road, and it has overtones of the biblical via who is also light and life, who will be found at the conclusion of this indirect way there — but I get ahead of myself, three full canticles, one hundred cantos, fourteen thousand and twenty-odd lines ahead of Dante.
Dante finds himself: very well. But what does per una selva oscura mean? “I found myself in a dark wood,” write the translators, but per means “through,” not “in.” The selva oscura has a long and venerable history behind it; it is not just any obscure, dark, frightening wood. Silva (the Latin; the Greek word is hyle) goes back a thousand years and more before Dante, to Calcidius’ Latin translation of and commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, and means more than the forest, more than the wood of trees; it means also the wood of the trees, and by extension the “wood” that makes up reality: matter. Truly, it is oscura: obscure, dark, but also unintelligible, not recognized, disguised; ignoble, mean, low; secret. Modern cosmologists have found out the dark wood again; it is where we all find ourselves, and through which we find ourselves, for we are material beings.
It is the dark wood of Virgil’s Aeneid, VI.179ff:
itur in antiquam silvam, stabula alta ferrarum: he went into the ancient wood, the deep stables of wild beasts . . .
In Virgil this is the dark wood that will be found to lead into the underworld; it is also the wood that contains the golden bough that will permit Aeneas safe egress from the land of the dead.
It is “tam immensa silva plena insidiarum et periculorum,” the dark wood full of snares and dangers in Augustine’s Confessions X.35, echoing a yet older and darker path into darkness, from Proverbs 2:13-14, where it describes those who do not listen to wisdom, do not follow the path of God:
qui relinquunt iter rectum,
et ambulant per vias tenebrosas;
qui lætantur cum malefecerint,
et exsultant in rebus pessimis
Who leave the paths of uprightness, to walk in the ways of darkness;
Who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frowardness of the wicked . . .
The dark wood: matter. Sin. Error. This is where Dante begins, in darkness, in the midpoint of his life, in the dark wood that leads to the underworld, to iniquity, to the falling-away from the good of the human. Yet it is through this dark wood that Dante comes to find himself.In the middle of the journey of our life, I returned to myself through a dark wood, where the right way was lost.
How this happens is the story of the poem: it is, after all, a comedy.