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I am reading a translation of Dante’s Inferno made by Cary in 1805. Here I cite the translator’s text for the opening of Canto I:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct; and e’en to tell​
It were no easy task, how savage wild​
That forest, how robust and rough its growth
Which to remember only, my dismay​
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.​

​ I cannot understand why the translator uses were when he says:

  1. and e’en to tell / It were no easy task

Instead of using this version with was:

  1. and e’en to tell / It was no easy task

Can anyone tell me why he used were there? Is the subject of were really both the forest and its growth, which is why it is plural not singular for it?

Can anyone paraphrase this sentence?​

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This is an archaic use of the subjunctive. It may have been somewhat archaic even 200 years ago. It means

to tell it would be no easy task.

If he had written

to tell it was no easy task,

it would mean that he had already told it (which he hasn't; he's explaining it's savage and wild beyond his powers of description).

And if he had written

Gone from the path direct; and e’en to tell​
It would be no easy task, how savage wild​

the line wouldn't scan properly.

From a different translation, which I think is somewhat more literal in this passage:

Oh what it was is a hard thing to say,
so overgrown with things savage, harsh and raw.
The thought renews the fear in me today!

  • Thank you very much for your reply. I have another doubt about this passage: are savage and wild the adjective of forest and the conjunction and is omitted or wild is a noun? – Andrea May 4 at 15:12
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    @Andrea I take wild not as a noun here but as an adjective. A paraphrasal might be “how savage and wild that forest” for “how savage[ly] wild that forest”. It’s worth scanning Dante’s actual line in the original Tuscan/Italian, which ran “esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte”. The only noun in that is the word selva meaning forest, and all three words following it are adjectives modifying it (they agree in number and gender), and so which translated literally is something along the lines of “this savage and harsh and strong forest” or “this wild and rough and stern forest”. – tchrist May 4 at 16:38

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