Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
Oft have I seen, at some cathedral door,
A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o’er;
Far off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
Become an indistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter here from day to day,
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.
How strange the sculptures that adorn these towers!
This crowd of statues, in whose folded sleeves
Birds build their nests; while canopied with leaves
Parvis and portal bloom like trellised bowers,
And the vast minster seems a cross of flowers!
But fiends and dragons on the gargoyled eaves
Watch the dead Christ between the living thieves,
And, underneath, the traitor Judas lowers!
Ah! from what agonies heart and brain,
What exultations trampling on despair,
What tenderness, what tears, what hate of wrong,
What passionate outcry of a soul in pain,
Uprose the poem of earth and air,
This mediaeval miracle of song!
I enter, and I see thee in the gloom
Of the long aisles, O poet saturnine!
And strive to make my steps keep pace with thine.
The air is filled with some unknown perfume;
The congregation of the dead make room
For thee to pass; the votive tapers shine;
Like rooks that haunt Ravenna’s groves of pine
The hovering echos fly from tomb to tomb.
From the confessionals I hear arise
Rehearsals of forgotten tragedies,
And lamentations from the crypts below;
And then a voice celestial, that begins
With the pathetic words, “Although your sins
As scarlet be,” and ends with “As the snow.”
I lift mine eyes, and all the windows blaze
With forms of saints and holy men who died,
Here martyred and hereafter glorified;
And the great Rose upon its leaves displays
Christ’s Triumph, and the angelic roundelays,
With splendour upon splendour multiplied;
And Beatrice again at Dante’s side
No more rebukes, but smiles her words of praise.
And then the organ sounds, and unseen choirs
Sing the old Latin hymns of peace and love,
And benedictions of the Holy Ghost;
And the melodious bells among the spires
O’er all the house-tops and through heaven above
Proclaim the elevation of the Host!
O star of morning and of liberty!
O bringer of the light, whose splendour shines
Above the darkness of the Apennines,
Forerunner of the day that is to be!
The voices of the city and the sea,
The voices of the mountains and the pines,
Repeat the song until the familiar lines
Are footpaths for the thought of Italy!
Thy fame is blown abroad from all the heights,
Through all the nations,and a sound is heard,
As of a mighty wind, and men devout,
Strangers of Rome, and the new proselytes,
In their own language hear thy wondrous word,
And many are amazed and many doubt.
Dante Alighieri is entwined everywhere in Italy’s culture, He is their own Sommo Poeta. The American poet, Longfellow, was inspired by Dante when he came across the original Commedia in Rome in 1828. Totally entranced by the great poet, Longfellow set about translating the epic poem after he had lectured on Dante for many years at Harvard. He completed the task in 1867.
DANTE by R W B Lewis is a fascinating account of Dante’s life, including his exile from Florence and the years he spent writing the Commedia. I enjoyed this book so much, not least because the author quotes Dante’s Italian throughout. I have taught myself the language, because only then can one appreciate fully its poetic beauty.
See Previous Post: THE DANTE CLUB
Dante: “I have unjustly suffered punishment. I mean of exile and of poverty. After it was the pleasure of the citizens of that fairest and most famous daughter of Rome, Florence, to cast me out of her dearest bosom…I have wandered through almost every region to which the tongue of ours extends. A stranger, almost a beggar. “
Dante's Florence - Ancient Wall from Michelangelo Piazza. Photo: afcoory