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This preface by Charles Lancelot Shadwell (1892) is part of the historical debate on the possibility of adapting foreign verses in English, be it Homer’s hexameter or, in this case, Dante’s terza rima. In order to reproduce the alignment of rhymes with syntactic pauses, Shadwell offers a translation based on the stanza of Marvell’s “Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” (1650).

After studying classics and law in Oxford, C.S. Shadwell spent most of his career in Oriel College, and was elected provost in 1905. His “experiment” in translating the Divine Comedy was his main literary production. 








THE difficulty, or rather the impossibility of adequately reproducing in any language the poetry of another, is one of the commonplaces of criticism and it has by no one been more forcibly stated than by Dante himself. “Nulla cosa”, he says, “per legame musaico armonizzata si puo della sua loquela in altra trasmutare sanza rompere tutta sua dolcezza e armonia” (Convito, i.7). The sweetness and music of a poem depend upon the conditions of its language; they cannot be transferred by mere imitation of the form of the original ; they can only be reproduced, if at all, by being conformed to the requirements of the new medium. The least literal of translations is that which follows the closest to the order of the words, the structure of the sentence, the arrangement of the period. The least harmonious of verse translations is that which is set to a foreign and unfamiliar metre.

In a prose translation, the task of representing the music of the original poem is not attempted, and the only problem is to give an exact equivalent for the matter and the language of the original. Translations of the Commedia of this kind have been published by Dr. Carlyle, by Mr. A.J. Butler, and Mr. C.E. Norton. In these, if an opinion may be offered, Dr; Carlyle’s version may claim to be the more literal, because of its greater boldness in substituting for modes of expression natural to the Italian language their appropriate English equivalents. But prose translation, even at its best, leaves half the problem unattempted ; the music, the cadences, of the poem are lost. Blank verse, such as Cary and Longfellow have given, is little better. No attempt is made to satisfy the ear with any effect corresponding to that produced by Dante’s recurring rimes; and in those parts of the poem where the matter is less elevated, and where the diction is simple, the absence of rime makes the translation tedious. To overcome this defect, and to reproduce for the English reader the form as well as the matter of the Commedia, Dante’s own meter, the terza rima, has been adopted by Mr. Cayley, by Dr. Plumptre, and, less exactly, by Mr; Ichabod Wright. But the terza rima in English, though, it succeeds in reproducing the rime, fails in two ways. In the first place, it is not an English metre: it has never been used by any English poet for original composition; its structure is unfamiliar; and the ear does not expect, and is not gratified by meeting with, the recurrent rimes. Secondly, the difficulty, always great, of finding three rimes suitable to the meaning, becomes much greater in translation; and it must frequently happen that the words which best reproduce the meaning have to be discarded in favour of weaker ones which fulfil the condition of the triple ending. The same causes necessitate the use of various forms of “padding”, of violent inversions and complications of grammatical structures, and of archaic and uncouth expressions employed without any justification in the original.

If English terza rima, which makes the closest attempt to reproduce both the matter and the form of the Commedia, is therefore unsuccessful, is any other form of rimed verse possible? In the translation here published, the metre chosen is that used by Andrew Marvell in his well-known Horatian Ode to Cromwell. This Ode is composed in stanzas, each stanza consisting of one pair of iambic eight-syllabled lines, and one pair of six-syllabled lines, thus:—

He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene,

But with keener eye

The axe’s edge did try ;

Nor called the gods with vulgar spite

To vindicate his helpless right,

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed.

The following are some of the considerations which suggested the employment of Marvell’s poem as a model for an English version of the Commedia.

(1) Next to the triple rime, perhaps the most important characteristic of Dante’s verse is the arrangement into stanzas. Each terzina is, as a general rule, complete in itself, and forms one paragraph or period. Occasionally, but rarely, the sentence runs on into the next terzina. Nothing could be more unlike the Commedia than the versification of Byron’s Prophecy of Dante, professing to be written in terza rima, but allowing the break between the sentences to occur at random, at any part of any verse. Now, the division into stanzas, on which Marvell’s metre is based, is, like Dante’s, generally coincident with a pause in the sentence, where necessary, from one stanza into another. In taking Marvell’s poem as a model, the translator finds a common principle of structure which more than compensates for the change of the metre. The terzine of Dante fall naturally into the compass of the English stanza. It is not like breaking up the Odyssey into the stanzas of the Faery Queen, or the Aeneid into the ballad metre of Marmion.

(2) The capacity of the two stanzas is nearly equal. Marvell’s four lines are slightly less in space than Dante’s three, twenty-eight syllables to thirty-three; but making allowance for the greater number of monosyllabic nouns and verbs in English, the room for expressing the same quantity of thought is about the same. And, if the whole English stanza can be put in the place of the Italian terzina, the translator has the great advantage of being able, where necessary, to rearrange the matter of the paragraph within the limits of the stanza, instead of being obliged, as the translator into blank verse or terza rima generally finds himself, to give an equivalent for the original line by line.

(3) The change in Marvell’s stanza from the eight-syllable to the six-syllable couplet is peculiarly well adapted for introducing a subordinate clause, a reflexion, a simile, an illustration, a parenthetic statement of any kind, which depends on the preceding principal sentence but which can be detached from it without injury. Such is frequently the use to which Dante puts the last line of a terzina. In the eighth canto of the Purgatorio this is the case in six out of the first nine terzine:—

Lo dì ch’ han detto ai dolci amici addio.

Che paia il giorno pianger che si muore.

Como dicesse a Dio : D’ altro non calme.

Avendo glo occhi alle superne ruote.

Quasi aspettando pallido ed umile.

Tronche et private delle punte sue.


Compare to Marvell :—


Removing from the wall

The corslet of the hall.

As if his highest plot

To plant the bergamot.


(4) Lastly, there is a resemblance between the language of the two poets. Marvell, like Dante, can produce great effects by the use of very simple and homely words. Compare the lines:—

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed ;




While round their armed bands

Did clap their bloody hands ;


with the following :—


Ma noi sem peregrin come voi siete.

A guisa di leon quando si posa.

On the other hand, they are alike in their employment, on occasions, of expressions outside the ordinary poetical vocabulary, as well as of images and ideas which belong to learning and science. There are many passages in the Commedia which may be compared with the following:—

Nature that hateth emptiness

Allows of penetration less,

           And therefore must make room

         Where greater spirits come.


or again with:—

            And to all states not free

               Shall climacteric be.

An apology ought perhaps to be offered, apart from the impatience of the translator to finish his task, for closing the present experiment at the end of the twenty-seventh canto of the Purgatorio. The concluding six cantos of the second Cantica constitute, from several points of view, a distinct section of the poem. They have nothing to do with the general allegory, the moral experience of the human soul, the process by which it can rise from earth to heaven. They do not even belong to the imaginary course of the purified soul after death. They earthly Paradise is a scene which is concerned solely with Dante’s personal story. Virgil disappears without a farewell. Statius is there but only in name: he takes no part in the action. No other souls are met with in their passage heavenward. The reconciliation of Dante with Beatrice, and the great pageant, revealing what was in store for the Church and the Empire, interrupt the course of the allegory; they form a personal episode, full of beauties of its own, but as distinct in thought and tone form the Purgatory proper, as that is from either of the two other divisions of the poem.

The translator owes his thanks to many friends, mostly members of the Oxford Dante Society, for help in various ways: to the late Dean of St. Paul’s, to Dr. Liddon, and Dr. Moore: to Mr. E. Poste, Mr. James Bryce, Mr. H.F. Tozer, and Mr. Earle, for constant assistance and advice: above all, to Mr. Walter Pater, whose contribution to this volume is only the last of many acts of kindness and encouragement without which the work would never have been completed.


Frewin Hall, Oxford.

9 Sept. 1892.

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