02 January, 2007

...as if confused by an excess of virtue

I want to present the beginning of Canto VIII from Dante's Purgatorio.

This passage contains some beautiful allusions, many of which are difficult to recognize today, even for devout Catholics. I find the last verse translated below especially intriguing. Dante apparently expected his readers to be familiar with them. See how many you can catch!

I'll go ahead and note that Te Lucis Ante is a chant that monks (and sometimes I) sing before going to bed. I wonder how well-known it was in Dante's day. It is a rather sweet hymn, so perhaps I will add it to the list of translations on this weblog. Translations are available elsewhere.

Era già l'ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e 'ntenerisce il core
lo dì c'han detto ai dolci amici addio;
It was now the hour
that changes sailors' desires,
and softens the hearts of those who have bid farewell to friends,
e che lo novo peregrin d'amore
punge, se ode squilla di lontano
che paia il giorno pianger che si more;
and that pricks the new pilgrim of love,
if he hears a far-off ringing
that sounds like the tears of a dying day;
quand'io incominciai a render vano
l'udire e a mirare una de l'alme
surta, che l'ascoltar chiedea con mano.
when I began to pay no heed to the chatter,
but to behold one of the risen souls,
who beckoned by her* hands that we listen.
Ella giunse e levò ambo le palme,
ficcando li occhi verso l'oriente,
come dicesse a Dio: "D'altro non calme."
She joined and raised both her palms,
fixing her eyes to the east,
as if she were saying to God, "Nothing else will calm me."
Te lucis ante sì devotamente
le uscio di bocca e con sì dolci note,
che fece me a me uscir di mente;
So devotedly did the Te Lucis Ante
float from her lips, and with such sweet notes,
that it lifted me out from my very mind,
e l'altre poi dolcemente e devote
seguitar lei per tutto l'inno intero,
avendo li occhi a le superne rote.
and the other [souls] sweetly and devotedly
followed her through the entire hymn,
setting their eyes on the celestial orb.
Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero,
ché 'l velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo che 'l trapassar dentro è leggero.
Dear reader, here sharpen your eyes to see the truth,
for the veil is now quite subtle,
and passing within it is certainly easy.
Io vidi quello essercito gentile
tacito poscia riguardare in sue
quasi aspettando, palido e umile;
I saw that noble assembly
then look quietly upwards
pale and humble, as if they awaited something;
e vidi uscir de l'alto e scender giue
due angeli con due spade affocate,
tronche e private de le punte sue.
and I saw emerge from on high and come down
two angels with two fiery swords
blunted and deprived of their blades.
Verdi come fogliette pur mo nate
erano in veste, che da verdi penne
percosse traean dietro e ventilate.
As green as newly budded leaves
was their vesture, rustled by the beating of green wings
and trailing behind them in the wind.
L'un poco sovra a noi a star si venne,
e l'altro scese in l'opposita sponda,
sì che la gente in mezzo si contenne.
One of them came to stand a little above us,
and the other descended onto the opposite bank,
placing the crowd between them.
Ben discernea in lor la testa bionda; ma ne la faccia l'occhio si smarria,
come virtù ch'a troppo si confonda.
We saw clearly their blonde heads;
but in gazing on their faces the eye lost its way,
as if confused by an excess of virtue.

*Although I transliterate faithfully Dante's use of the feminine, the Italian word alma is feminine, and can apply to men or women. So, the soul could have been a man. But, it doesn't matter, so who cares!

By the way, you can find Purgatorio both in English and in the original Florentine (not quite the same as modern Italian) at Project Gutenberg.

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