Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Florence and the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy

There’s a grand old hotel facade in Florence that proclaims on a marble plaque that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the revered American poet, stayed in this place and called the piazza in front of it “the Mecca for the foreigners.” The plaque also notes that Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Roughly translated, the plaque reads:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

(1807 – 1882)

American Poet

A master in the neo-Latin language

Translator of the Divine Comedy

Among the Florentine palazzi

It was Here

In the Piazza that he called

“The Mecca of the foreigners”

 

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While most Americans are familiar with Longfellow from their high school literature classes, I bet there are many things about the poet that are not commonly known.

Longfellow was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, to an established New England family. His father, a prominent lawyer, expected his son would follow in his profession. Young Henry attended Portland Academy, a private school and then Bowdoin College, in Maine. Longfellow was an excellent student, showing proficiency in foreign languages.

Upon graduation, in 1825, he was offered a position to teach modern languages at Bowdoin, but on the condition that he first travel to Europe, at his own expense, to research the languages. He did so, touring Europe from 1826 through 1829. There he developed a lifelong love of the Old World civilizations and taught himself several languages. It must have been at that time that he stayed in the Florentine palazzo, upon which his visit is proudly announced on the plaque.

Upon his return from Europe, Longfellow married and began the teaching of modern languages at Bowdoin. Because the study of foreign languages was so new in America, Longfellow had to write his own textbooks.

In addition to teaching and writing textbooks, he published Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea, a collection of travel essays on his European experience. His outstanding work earned him a professorship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Before he began at Harvard, Longfellow and his wife traveled to northern Europe. Tragically, on this trip his wife, Mary, died in 1836 following a miscarriage. Devastated, Longfellow returned to the United States seeking solace. He turned to his writing, channeling his personal experiences into his work.

He soon published the romance novel Hyperion, where he unabashedly told of his unrequited love for Frances Appleton, whom he had met in Europe soon after his first wife died. After seven years, they married in 1843, and would go on to have six children.

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Above: Fanny Appleton Longfellow, with sons Charles and Ernest, circa 1849

Over the next 15 years, Longfellow would produce some of his best work such as Voices of the Night, a collection of poems including “Hymn to the Night” and “A Psalm of Life,” which gained him immediate popularity. Other publications followed such as Ballads and Other Poems, containing “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and the “Village Blacksmith.” During this time, Longfellow also taught full time at Harvard and directed the Modern Languages Department. Due to budget cuts, he covered many of the teaching positions himself.

Longfellow’s popularity grew, as did his collection of works. He wrote about a multitude of subjects: slavery in Poems on Slavery, literature of Europe in an anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe, and American Indians in The Song of Hiawatha. One of the early practitioners of self-marketing, Longfellow expanded his audience, becoming one of the best-selling authors in the world. He was able to retire from teaching and became the first self-supported American poet.

In the last 20 years of his life, Longfellow continued to enjoy fame with honors bestowed on him in Europe and America. Among the admirers of his work included Queen Victoria, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Prime Minister William Gladstone, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.

Unfortunately, Longfellow experienced more sorrow in his personal life. In 1861, a house fire killed his 2nd wife, Fanny, and that same year, the country was plunged into the Civil War. His young son, Charley, ran off to fight without his approval.

It was after his wife’s death that he immersed himself into the translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which was, by any reckoning, a monumental project.

Why, you might wonder, would he attempt this translation?

In fact, although “The Divine Comedy” is hailed today as a major work in the Western canon, it was not always so highly regarded. Although recognized as a masterpiece in the centuries immediately following its publication in 1320, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment, with some notable exceptions such as Vittorio Alfieri; Antoine de Rivarol, who translated the Inferno into French; and Giambattista Vico, who in the Scienza nuova and in the Giudizio su Dante inaugurated what would later become the romantic reappraisal of Dante, juxtaposing him to Homer.

The Comedy was “rediscovered” in the English-speaking world by William Blake – who illustrated several passages of the epic – and the Romantic writers of the 19th century.

Longfellow spent the several years following his 2nd wife’s death by translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. To aid him in perfecting the translation and reviewing proofs, he invited friends to meetings every Wednesday starting in 1864. The “Dante Club,” as it was called, regularly included William Dean Howells, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as other occasional guests.

In his celebrated translation, instead of attempting hendecasyllables, Longfellow used blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He followed Dante’s syntax when he could, and wrote compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.

The full three-volume translation, the first American translation, was published in the spring of 1867, though Longfellow continued to revise it. It went through four printings in its first year.

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The elite of the New World were already familiar with Dante from their travels to Italy as well as British translations of his work. But, owning a copy of Longfellow’s translation of Dante was a must for those Americans who identified with the highest Western culture.

Instead of attempting hendecasyllables, the American poet uses blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He follows Dante’s syntax when he can, and writes compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.

It was an amazing achievement.  Moreover, Longfellow’s translation has held up through the 150 years since it was published. A leading expert in the written word notes it as perhaps the best of the many subsequent translations of the work in English.

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You can read her blog post here:

https://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2016/03/is-longfellows-translation-of-dante-the-best-one-writer-makes-the-case/

In it, Professor Haven notes:

I have a number of translations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in my home – among them the translations of Charles Singleton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Dale, and others.

But perhaps the most neglected one is the battered volumes I found on ebay, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This overlooked translation finds a new champion in Joseph Luzzi, in “How to Read Dante in the 21st Century” in the online edition of The American Scholar:

… one of the few truly successful English translations comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor of Italian at Harvard and an acclaimed poet. He produced one of the first complete, and in many respects still the best, English translations of The Divine Comedy in 1867. It did not hurt that Longfellow had also experienced the kind of traumatic loss—the death of his young wife after her dress caught fire—that brought him closer to the melancholy spirit of Dante’s writing, shaped by the lacerating exile from his beloved Florence in 1302. Longfellow succeeded in capturing the original brilliance of Dante’s lines with a close, sometimes awkwardly literal translation that allows the Tuscan to shine through the English, as though this “foreign” veneer were merely a protective layer added over the still-visible source. The critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a great translation calls our attention to a work’s original language even when we don’t speak that foreign tongue. Such extreme faithfulness can make the language of the translation feel unnatural—as though the source were shaping the translation into its own alien image.

 

Another scholar recently recommends Longfellow’s translation as the best way to read Dante in the 21st century.

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You can read Mr. Luzzi’s essay here:

https://theamericanscholar.org/how-to-read-dante-in-the-21st-century/#.XbR2Mi2B0U1

See also: Longfellow’s Dante: Literary Achievement in a Transatlantic Culture of Print
by Patricia Roylance https://www.jstor.org/stable/41428522?read-now=1&seq=14#metadata_info_tab_contents

Or, you can read the translation for yourself.  Fortunately for us, in the 21st century you can read Longfellow’s translation online:

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy_(Longfellow_1867)

 

As for me, whenever I walk through the piazza that Longfellow is said to have named “the Mecca for the foreigners” I will remember the poet and his time in Florence.  I feel the same keen appreciation for this lovely space as he apparently did.

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One thought on “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Florence and the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy

  1. Pingback: Grand Hotel Minerva, Florence | get back, lauretta!

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