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Great Poems

Marvelous Poets: Dante. . and more on Marvell [by David Lehman]

DanteThere is something cold and terrifying about Dante. Of the three books composing his "Divine Comedy," the most compelling has always been the "Inferno," which Dante envisioned in painstaking detail down to the last punishment meted out to a Florentine enemy or rival. Justice, not love, reigns supreme where the entering souls are told to "abandon all hope." True, the architect of the medieval afterlife fell in love with Beatrice at first sight. But she was nine years old at the time. In Emerson's words, Dante was "a man to put in a museum, but not in your house." Now along comes Harriet Rubin's "Dante in Love" (Simon & Schuster, 274 pages, $23.95) to challenge this piece of received wisdom. It is a nice irony that Dante, the most precise and measured of poets, so systematic and controlled, should provoke an ecstatic mash note disguised as literary criticism slash self‑help.

How did Dante become Dante? And how can the reader follow suit and become "a great crafter too, whom life's losses do not undermine, but inspire?" Rubin promises that the tale of the poet's nineteen‑year exile from war‑riven Florence starting in 1302 will provide a model for the reader's own journey of spiritual self‑realization. Not everyone will find it germane that Dante "was born a Gemini," though I have a weakness myself for astrology (which in Dante's day "was psychology," Rubin helpfully explains) and regret that she did not go further and reveal his rising sign.

Whatever its defects, this over‑the‑top encomium does at least quote Dante, and there you can't go wrong. Rubin doesn't stick to one translation but democratically samples five of them. Here's the opening of "The Inferno" as rendered in 2002 by the Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson (whom Rubin quotes): "Halfway through the story of my life / I came to in a gloomy wood, because / I'd wandered off the path, away from the light." That's a far cry from the 1976 prose translation of Charles Singleton (not quoted by Rubin): "Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost." I prefer the straightforward prose version, which aims to give the plain sense of the original and doesn't strain for poetic effect.

You can spend an enjoyable summer comparing translations. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1865‑67), which the poet James Merrill admired intensely, holds up remarkably well. (Here's how Longfellow handles the opening of "The Inferno": "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.") In 1949 Dorothy Sayers, better known as the creator of master sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, duplicated the original's notoriously difficult "terza rima" pattern, which requires lines one and three of every three‑line stanza to rhyme with the second line of the subsequent stanza. (It's much harder to do this in English than in Italian.) John Ciardi's 1954 version, which less ambitiously rhymes lines one and three of each stanza and leaves it at that, succeeds nevertheless in conveying the feel of Dante's verse structure. Allen Mandelbaum (1980) opts for blank verse, which reads well, while Robert Pinsky (1994) favors off‑rhyme. Both are among the more notable attempts to create a contemporary American equivalent to Dante's rich vernacular measure.

Why does Dante attract so many translators? Because of the challenge and because, though difficult, it is not impossible. ("The Inferno" is in this way unlike Goethe's "Faust," which no one has satisfactorily translated.) Why do the versions of Dante differ so dramatically? Perhaps because the translators tend to be poets themselves.

Andrew MarvellAndrew Marvell (1621‑1678) has been called "the greatest minor poet in the English language." There's plenty of competition for this curious distinction, but the case for Marvell is strong, especially if you like ambiguity and elegance in equal measure. Marvell happens to be one of the great mystery men of English letters. He had a gift for foreign languages, was an avid fencer, and lived a shadowy life on the continent that led to speculation that he was a spy or double agent. For twenty years he served as a member of parliament. He did not produce a large amount of poetry, but what he wrote was, as Spencer Tracey said of Katharine Hepburn's anatomy, "cherce," as becomes abundantly clear reading "Marvell" in the new Everyman's Library Pocket Poets edition (ed. Peter Washington, 256 pages, $ 12.50).

Probably Marvell's most famous poem is "To His Coy Mistress." Never was a declaration of lust less passionate and more logical, like a brilliantly witty logical brief. The poem employs a carpe diem (seize the day) argument. We won't be young forever, so let us make merry while we can. But Marvell develops the argument as one would a syllogism. He begins with wild hyperbole. If we had "world enough and time," he would woo the maiden "ten years before the flood" and not mind if she should turn him down until the second coming.

But with the inevitable "but," the tone changes drastically: "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near." Marvell assures the lady that someday "worms will try / that long‑preserv'd virginity"of hers, and closes this part of the poem with a sarcastic couplet for the ages: "The grave's a fine and private place, / But none I think do there embrace." T. S. Eliot liked the poem's concluding image – the lovers rolled into a ball – so much that he lifted it for "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

When Oliver Cromwell returned to England after subjugating Ireland in 1650, Marvell greeted him with "An Horatian Ode" that set some sort of record for ambiguity. This stately, grave ode can be read as straightforward praise of the conquering hero who had beheaded King Charles I and would, as the poem predicts, go on to suppress the Scots. But subtle critics have propounded the opposite interpretation, contending that the ode has a secret royalist agenda and is deeply critical of Cromwell. And so this mid‑seventeenth‑century poem became a perfect object lesson in mid‑twentieth‑century literary criticism.

Read Marvell's "The Garden" for his double vision of paradise lost and paradox gained. Perhaps the best recent gloss on another Marvell masterpiece, "The Definition of Love," is Greg Mottola's 1994 movie "The Daytrippers," which pivots around a wife's discovery of a note in her husband's pocket with these lines on it: "Therefore the love which us doth bind, / But fate so enviously debars, / Is the conjunction of the mind, / And opposition of the stars." What do the lines mean in their marital situation? Are they code? The rest of the movie is the working out of a riddle: what kind of love is it that is "begotten by despair / Upon impossibility"?

Written for Bloomberg, May 26, 2004.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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