My Dantean memorization journey

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This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy

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Beginning on 8 September, Baylor Honors College, in conjunction with five other schools, will kick off 100 Days of Dante. The objective is to read one canto a day, until finishing on 17 April (the Catholic and Protestant Easter). Though I just reread the Commedia earlier this year, in the Mark Musa translation, I’m really excited to begin all over again.

I got the much-lauded Durling-Martinez translation of Inferno, which is dual-language and has excellent essays and notes. Though I’m pissed that less than 24 hours after I ordered it, the price dropped by five dollars, to $9.95, and I was unable to be refunded despite it not having shipped yet! I’m keeping an eagle eye on the price of Purgatorio and Paradiso. They’re extraordinarily, unacceptably, ridiculously high ($24 and $33), but if they sink to $15 or lower, I’m jumping on them.

If they remain high, I’ll get the Allen Mandelbaum translation for the other two canticles. That’s another edition I’m really eager to read for myself. I really like what I’ve heard of it so far.

So why should everyone, regardless of religion, read the Commedia?

1. It’s one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Right up there with Shakespeare, The Decameron, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Tale of Genji, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Aeneid, Don Quixote, and any other work of classic world literature.

2. You can read it a hundred times and still discover something new each time. This isn’t a one and done book. There are so many delicious layers and nuances, you can’t discern or digest them all with a single reading.

3. It’s a priceless compendium of Medieval history, politics, and religion, as well as Classical Antiquity. There are also a lot of astronomical, geographical, and mathematical references and calculations. This truly was a continuation of Dante’s discontinued encyclopedia Il Convivio. Without Dante serving as the historian of record for many of these people, particularly the women, even hardcore Medieval history scholars wouldn’t know or care about them.

4. Despite being over 700 years old, it feels so modern and relevant, not like a book tied entirely to the Middle Ages. Yes, there are many other great works of Medieval literature with forward-thinking characters (e.g., the awesome Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, many of the women in my belovèd Decameron). However, they ultimately belong to the world in which they were created.

5. The teacher and student relationship between Dante and Virgil is a joy to read and watch developing.

6. The use of language is nothing short of genius. Terza rima is so complex, even in a language with a plethora of rhyming words. Dante had to think so many steps ahead to ensure he stuck to that rhyme scheme through 14,233 lines and found the right words to end each line on. There are also times when he uses repetition of certain letters to evoke things like running water and dried, snarling tree branches.

7. The poetry gets more and more beautiful as the work wears on. Yes, many people do find it more difficult to comprehend or care about as theology comes more and more to the forefront, but don’t let that scare you away from the beautiful language. This is one of many reasons you should read the Commedia in Italian, even if you don’t have fluency!

8. Who hasn’t had an unrequited love like Dante had for Beatrice? Almost everyone can relate to that feeling of longing and grieving for a lost love.

9. There are lots of funny moments to lighten the intense mood.

10. Though most of the souls Dante encounters are men, he also meets a number of women, and they’re no shrinking violets. He gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and contrary to the prevailing attitudes of his day, his sympathies lie with victims of domestic violence, not their abusers. And you have to love how he flips the trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man. Beatrice is the one who saves him.

11. Many of the lessons Dante learns along the way can easily apply to every reader. Yes, he primarily intended it as a story of his redemption and spiritual awakening, but you can find parallels to things in your own faith or life if you don’t share his exact beliefs. It’s just like how Shakespeare’s stories translate so well to other eras and cultures; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood.

12. It’s one of those works of literature which has massively influenced society. So many books, plays, poems, films, TV shows, video games, songs, musical compositions, and works of art directly reference it, were inspired by it, and/or depict events from it. My own Journey Through a Dark Forest and each of its four volumes got their titles from the famous opening lines!

13. It’s jam-packed with drama, beauty, intensity, power, and emotion.

14. His views on religious minorities and gay men are lightyears ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.

15. Many times throughout life, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly, overwhelmed by hopelessness and despairing of ever escaping. And just like Dante, sometimes we have to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before we can begin slowly rising up to happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and get back on track with our life. We also can’t do it alone, and need our own Virgil and Beatrice to help and guide us.

And don’t forget to find a translation that works for you, read it carefully instead of mindlessly powering through, and take advantage of extratextual sources.

A Medieval-style rap battle and a stone woman

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Between about 1283–1308, according to the estimations of scholars, Dante wrote about 102 poems, called the Rime (rhymes). While there are 109 transcribed at the Princeton Dante Project, some of the ones included were written to Dante as part of a poetic correspondence. Among these are three poems by his childhood buddy Forese Donati, seen above behind the rock.

Numbering LXXIII–LXXVIII (73–78) and written between about 1293–96, these are a really fun portion of the Supreme Poet’s literary canon. So many people can only think of him as someone who was very serious all the time, with no lighthearted concerns. Yet in these playfully insulting canzone, the Medieval version of a rap battle, Dante emerges as a fun young man with a great sense of humour.

Translation: Forese sucks in bed, and doesn’t even sleep with his wife that often either.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings.

I love how this fun exchange of jestingly insulting one another’s shortcomings ends with Forese essentially saying, “Let’s call the whole thing off and go down to the pub for a drink.”

These are the kinds of poems which should be used to introduce young people to Dante. So many teachers immediately throw students into the deep end with the densest, most sophisticated and advanced masterworks instead of gradually easing them in with poems and stories that are more lightweight and easier to understand.

A lot of negative first impressions stay with people for years, sometimes forever, and they have no interest in trying to read a book or author again with more mature eyes, nor to check out less intense works. The damage is already done, and you get clowns who leave simplistic, childish 1-star reviews bashing a book because they were forced to read it in school and decided they hated it.

Then we have a whole other cycle of poems painting Dante in a much different light than his popular image—the Rime Petrose (Stone Rhymes), written around 1296. Scholars haven’t figured out if Petra, the woman they’re dedicated to, were an actual woman, a fictional creation, or mere symbolism.

Whomever this Petra may be, Dante’s feelings for her are the cardinal opposite of his feelings for Beatrice. This is no courtly love or tender longing for an immaculate dream denied to him by Fate. There are images and desires in these poems that are quite erotic, sadomasochistic even.

Petra is called the Stone Woman for good reason—her heart is as hard and unrelenting as stone. Indeed, the word petra is used over and over again in these poems, even when describing other things.

Rhyme CIII (103), which closes the cycle, has the most unrelenting language of all. It opens with the line “I want to be as harsh in my speech as this fair stone is in her behaviour,” and only gets stronger from there.

Check out the closing stanzas:

“Once I’d taken in my hand the fair locks
which have become my whip and lash, seizing them
before terce I’d pass through vespers with them
and the evening bell: and I’d not show pity
or courtesy, Oh no, I’d be like a bear at play.
And though Love whips me with them now, I would
take my revenge more than a thousandfold.
Still more, I’d gaze into those eyes
whence come the sparks that inflame my heart,
which is dead within me; I’d gaze into them
close and fixedly, to revenge myself on her
for fleeing from me as she does: and then
with love I would make our peace.

“Song, go straight to that
woman who has wounded my heart and robs me
of what I most hunger for, and drive an arrow
through her heart: for great honour
is gained through taking revenge.”

Obviously, this is in no way representative of Dante’s normal oeuvre or way of expressing himself, but it does show he wasn’t all high-minded philosopher, serious writer, and romantic lover. He’s essentially telling Petra, to quote the chorus of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer,” “I want to fuck you like an animal.” Those have got to be the most violently, explicitly erotic lines he ever wrote!

You can peruse all the Rime at the Princeton Dante Project, under the Minor Works linked to on the far left. They’re all worth reading, and help to paint a fuller picture of the Supreme Poet.

How Il Convivio became La Commedia

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Il Convivio (The Banquet) is an unfinished book Dante wrote from about 1304–07. Its title refers to the banquet of human knowledge contained within, which he intended as an encyclopedia similar to those written by his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Trésor and Tesoretto. The first part serves as a general intro, and the next three parts each have a long poem followed by a commentary or allegorical interpretation serving as a jumping-board for many different subjects—astronomy, politics, linguistics, history, science, mathematics, nobility, virtues, philosophy, theology, love.

Unless we miraculously discover Dante’s original notes for The Divine Comedy with dates, and/or a secondary paper trail such as letters or journal entries, we’ll probably never know when exactly he began composing his magnum opus. However, some scholars believe he may have been working on it as early as 1304, or even started it before his exile and resumed writing after a Good Samaritan reunited him with those precious pages.

Thus, he may have at one point been writing Il Convivio and La Commedia simultaneously.

Obviously, Dante ultimately abandoned Il Convivio to focus solely upon his magnum opus. Yet this unfinished book wasn’t written in vain, since many of the ideas expressed therein found their way into the Commedia. Not only that, the Commedia is in many ways an extension of Il Convivio. If it were just an ordinary epic poem about the afterlife and Dante’s spiritual reformation, it wouldn’t be peppered with so many historical figures, astronomical calculations, geographical references, or philosophical and theological points!

Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida degli Elisei, the poem’s fifth-most recurring character after Statius, appears from Cantos XV–XVIII of Paradiso and merits 550 lines. During his lengthy addresses to his descendant, he entreats Dante to be brave and reveal the whole truth, however unflattering, about well-known people. By only including people of renown, he’ll ensure lasting fame and power for himself and his poem.

Think about it. Would the poem have had the same impact if everyone Dante met were Guido and Gianna Nobody down the street, or purely fictional characters? It was easier for his audience to grasp all these deeper lessons precisely because he used real people everyone knew, both contemporaries and important historical figures. Besides, Dante always presents this as a real story, and many people absolutely believed him. (I’m inclined to believe he may have experienced at least some of these things in dreams or intense visions.)

Sure, these aren’t household names to most modern people, unless they’re Medieval history scholars, but Dante’s original audience didn’t need any footnotes to know who they were or the details about their lives.

Additionally, his original audience was Italian. Of course he primarily used people from their native land and Classical Antiquity. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if the poem were peopled with Germans, Russians, Englishmen, Chinese, Turks, or Egyptians. In an era long before instant mass communications and easily-available translations, people knew more about their own backyards than the wider world.

Dante did intend his poem first and foremost as a religious instruction manual to help other people who lost the way just as he did. But many of the components don’t relate to theology at all. They’re in there to finish the encyclopedic job Il Convivio started and celebrate the banquet of all existing human knowledge.

Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

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Note: Many of these points can be tweaked to apply to foreign language works in general.

While I doubt many people learn another language simply to read one book, there really is no experience quite like reading a work in its original language. And if you’re a Dantista, be you autodidactic like I am or professionally trained with a Ph.D., odds are good you’ll want to read the Commedia in Italian. Who cares if it’s not widely seen as a “useful” language like Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Chinese? You should learn a language because you genuinely want to, other people’s opinions be damned.

However, one need not become fluent in Italian prior to reading or rereading the book, take formal classes, or do self-study. All one needs to do is get an edition with side-by-side Italian and English. Maybe you want to read each canto in English first, then Italian, or vice versa. Or do it tercet by tercet. Maybe even be bold and read the entire book in Italian first, or just listen to someone reading it in Italian.

This is what personally meaningful immersion is all about, something many foreign language teachers don’t understand. It’s easier to learn a language if one truly enjoys it instead of treating it like an obligatory academic requirement. While I studied Italian my senior year of high school, and studied the very similar Spanish for seven years, starting to read and memorize the Commedia in its original language has already begun working wonders on my language skills. I recognize verb forms and cognates, and can match Italian words with their English translations.

The more you immerse yourself in a language, the more you begin to naturally understand. After a certain point, you’ll rely less and less on the English side or looking words up. And then one day, you find yourself speaking, reading, and/or writing in that language as though you were always fluent.

Even the best translations will never be 100% accurate to the Italian original. E.g., Dante uses a lot of R sounds to evoke the feeling of dried, twisted tree branches in the Wood of the Suicides, and he uses many L sounds to evoke the running water near Geryon. It’s impossible to translate that into English without taking multiple linguistic liberties.

Another example is Canto XII of Purgatorio, where four tercets in a row start with the word Vedea (I saw), the next four start with the poetic one-letter word O (no translation needed!), and the next four start with Mostrava (showed, depicted, displayed). In many manuscripts until about the late 18th century, the letters U and V were printed or written interchangeably. Thus, Dante is spelling out the word uom (man, in the old-fashioned generic sense to refer to all humans).

Some translators have ambitiously risen to the challenge and spelt out MAN in English, with phrasing like “My eyes beheld,” “Ah,” and “Now was shown,” but again, that requires linguistic liberties. All translations (of any book or poem) do this to some degree, but it just looks and feels more impressive and emotional in the original.

When you have a side-by-side edition, it’s easier to discern when and where the translator took liberties, even if you’re not fluent in Italian. It’ll be obvious when entire big sections of lines are invented, when things are put in the wrong order, and when words are translated inaccurately. E.g., some translators translate the line “And like one with laboured breath” as “like a swimmer with laboured breath,” or simply as “And like a swimmer” in Canto I of Inferno.

I understand the reason for this, given the following lines where Dante compares himself to being released from the perilous waters of the deep to the shore, but again, it’s not helpful if you’re serious about learning Italian and having an accurate of a translation as possible.

Since starting my memorization journey in March, I feel much closer to Dante. He’s always been the only one of my fave writers who’s always felt like a dear, personal friend instead of just someone I deeply admire and/or would love to spend a few days talking with, but reading and learning his words in his native tongue made our suprarational connection even stronger.

When you read a book, story, poem, or play untranslated, you’re reading it exactly as the author wrote it, not someone else’s presentation of it in another language. So many words and phrases can’t be fully expressed in translation, and it just feels more emotional, evocative, expressive, beautiful, haunting, intense. Something is always lost in translation.

While you can understand many things and learn a lot of Italian from reading the original, it’s still in Medieval Florentine Tuscan, not modern standard Italian. Granted, modern Italian is strongly based upon Florentine Tuscan due to how many literary lights used it, but they’re not one and the same.

Open a new document, set the language to Italian, and type out a canto. You’ll see which words are flagged as misspellings and autocorrected, and which words pass recognition. Most of the differences aren’t that great, and if you already know Italian, you can figure out what a lot of the unfamiliar words mean based on context and similar spellings.

Basically, it’s equivalent to reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, with far fewer spelling differences.

Learning another language gives us a passport to another world. Who better to learn Italian with than the Supreme Poet?