[Draft of contribution to Electronic Bulletin of Dante Society of North America]
Canto XII of Purgatorio inhabits the terrace of the Proud, where Dante the Pilgrim purges what might be Dante the Poet’s chief sin. Like the rest of Purgatorio, the events of this Canto interweave outer symbolic spectacle and inner spiritual drama. The center of the spectacle in Canto XII is a striking series of images hewn into the very stones of the Purgatorial mount, combining Classical and Biblical stories in a powerful symbolic narrative of superbia – Pride – the first of the seven cardinal sins. Dante famously uses an acrostic, a popular device of medieval Latin and vernacular poetry, to link these images of pride together so as to spell out V-O-M, short for uomo – “Man” in Italian – embodying in the most literal way the stories’ moral symbolism and this most characteristically human of sins. I will look here at Dante’s study of pride in Canto XII and how his acrostic of Man is rendered in English verse by three translators – Ciardi, Mandelbaum and Esolin.
Since we are in Purgatory, of course, sin punished is also sin transcended and redeemed. Dante’s Purgatorial symbolism shows us how the aspirations of human pride parody and corrupt the deepest and most truly human of aspirations – for God. In Dante’s late medieval Christian theology, such aspirations lead from the grave of the earthly Man, Adam, to the perfected and redeemed Man embodied in the risen Christ, whose story pervades the Easter-time setting of Purgatorio.
The Canto opens with Dante and the shade of Oderisi of Gubbio plodding side by side, “like oxen at the plow.” Virgil, always a step ahead of his companion, psychologically at least, abruptly tells Dante to lift up his head and move forward. The “sweet teacher” now tells his pupil, in Esolin’s pointed rendering, to:
“Come and leave the man 4
For here it's well that each should speed his boat
With wings and oars as quickly as he can.”
Instead, Virgil urges him to:
“Come, turn your eyes and look upon the road. 13
It will be well for you to soothe the way,
Seeing the bed on which you plant your soles.”
It’s a strange bed, and a strange kind of soothing. But Virgil is not being ironic: this is the paradoxical truth of Purgatory, where struggle soothes and painful truths brings rest. The tragedy of all of human history now unrolls before Dante, from the fall of Satan to the fall of
The significance of having the word UOM or “Man” woven into very verbal fabric of a narrative on human pride is profound. While to modern tastes acrostics may seem a mechanical device, they are found in the most serious medieval poetry, providing both a source of structural invention and a hidden key to unlock a work’s meaning. The word “Man” running through these tercets is like a half-obscured title on a statue, declaring: This is where man’s pride can lead. But also (since we are in Purgatory): This is an aspect of fallen man that must be overcome for true, spiritual humanity to appear. As Pontius Pilate says of the mocked and scourged Jesus in his crown of thorns: Ecce Homo – “Behold the Man”.
Like Dante’s other symbolic uses of poetic technique, such as his terza rima, this acrostic has posed a challenge to translators, and most have avoided rendering it directly. John Ciardi (in his 1957 version) was the first English translator to attempt this – deftly transposing Dante’s U-O-M to the three letter English equivalent, M-A-N. Here’s his version of the opening tercet in the series, describing the fall of Lucifer.
Mark there, on one side, him who had been given 25
A nobler form than any other creature.
He plunged like lightning from the
For comparison, here is Singleton’s 1973 prose translation:
“I saw, on the one side, him who was created nobler than any other creature fall as lightning from heaven.”
Dante’s first person past tense, “I saw” or vedea, is rendered by Ciardi as the imperative verb “Mark”. Dante’s three O’s become three “Ah”s (“Ah mad Arachne!”), and “it showed” or Mostrava, becomes “Now see” (“Now see Alcmaeon, there on the hard pavement”).
Ciardi’s syntactic shift from the first person past of “I saw” to the imperative of “Mark” is not just a random grammatical choice. It radically changes how we relate to the poetry. Instead of our viewing the scene through the narrator’s eyes, the narrator – sounding more like Virgil than Dante – commands us to note the image and the lesson it bears. Ciardi might well cite Dante’s own freedom in rendering Virgil and other Latin poets as a model for his bold gesture here. But while his changed wording lends dramatic immediacy, Ciardi sacrifices a haunting quality of the original -- the sense that Dante is not just looking at a picture, but watching the events of history unroll before his eyes.
Dante’s sequence of images ends powerfully with a tercet that incorporates all three letters and all three words of the acrostic, describing the greatest historical example of human pride, the fall of
Now see your hollow shell upon that stone.
Ciardi the poet is at engagingly work here, but his lyricism obscures the blunt mixture of sorrow and divine contempt in the original Italian. To quote Singleton’s prose version again:
Allan Mandelbaum, a more recent translator (1983) is also a poet like Ciardi, and also works inventively to preserve some of Dante’s poetic structure. His approach focuses less on the rigid Italian rhyme scheme and more on Dante’s play of formal and vernacular diction and line to line syntactic flow. Mandelbaum for his part doesn’t try to reproduce Dante’s acrostic in Canto XII, translating the tercets more literally with “I saw”, “O”, and “It showed”. Looking again at the first and the last tercets in Dante’s parade of Pride, we can see how – while lacking some of Ciardi’s music – he better approximates Dante’s stately sentence flow from line to line of verse
I saw, to one side of the path, one who 25
had been created nobler than all other
beings, falling lightning-like from Heaven.
The description of the fall of
O Ilium, your effigy in stone-
it showed you there so squalid, so cast down!
Mandelbaum shows us proud
The Purgatorio’s most recent translator, Esolin, returns to Ciardi’s formalism while preserving some of the rhythmic fidelity of Mandelbaum. He also renders the acrostic with M-A-N, though with a slight change of wording, translating Vedea again as “Mark…”, the exclamatory O as “Alas” (vs. Ciardi’s “Ah”), and the Mostrava lines starting with “Now…” but with more varied phrasing than Ciardi’s. As Esolin notes in his “Introduction”, he avoids Ciardi’s strict rhyme scheme, favoring rhyme or near rhyme only when available without too much strain – such as in the opening tercet of this passage:
Mark, on this side, the one whom the Most High 25
Created as the noblest of his creatures—
And see him fall like lightning from the sky.
Having embraced the imperative mood in the first line, he continues it in the final one (“see him fall like lightning from the sky”), preserving the sense of history passing before our eyes that Ciardi lost. Here, as in many other instances, Esolin does better than either predecessor in conveying not just the literal sense but the poetry and the pathos of Dante’s stony anthology of sin.
He is not always so felicitous, however. In his rendering of the fall of
Mark Troy, in gutted palaces and ash. 61
Now show you for a thing of scorn, and trash!
Ultimately, of course, both translators and readers of Dante are in the same boat as Dante himself, as he tries to convey in human language the more than human realities of spiritual life. Whether reading in English or in Italian, we have to lift our vision to grasp symbols and meanings that are beyond any “master of pen or stylus”, as Dante describes this walk of sculpted images. Even in Dante’s Italian, the acrostic of UOM is partially hidden, a kind of riddle that has to be glimpsed and deciphered by the attentive reader. In the Commedia, one must always look beyond the images of the otherworld, even beyond their function as metaphor, to grasp their real significance – as the poet now goes on to illustrate. The Canto ends the way it began, with Virgil telling Dante to turn away from the sights of sin, and “lift up your head./ The time is past for walking so intent” (77). Compared to the start, Dante is now more able to see and understand for himself, but his mind and vision are not yet completely free:
More of the mountain had we gone about 73
and far more of the sun’s race was now spent
than could my mind believe, all bound in thought,
Feeling humbled, but unexpectedly rewarded for his piety, Dante looks up to see an angel rushing towards him and his companion – rather their having to move towards it. Virgil tells Dante:
“With reverence dress your face and bearing now, 82
that he may please to let us climb beyond—
and think, this day may never dawn again”
We might say that what Virgil asks Dante to present, in his own “face and bearing”, is the authentic image of a humbled, redeemed humanity – not Man in history as we’ve seen sculpted on stone, or the title MAN inscribed in a poet’s ingenious acrostic, but mere man facing himself and the prospect of salvation. Which is not to say the Purgatorio is beyond wordplay even here. We see this vividly at the end of the Canto, when the same angel beats its wings over Dante’s forehead, removing the first of the seven P’s (for peccati, “sins”) that both scar and adorn the poet’s face, like another crown of thorns. Dante, it turns out, is nothing less than a living acrostic himself.