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I am reading The Divine Comedy (Longfellow Translation), and ran into a sentence:

[Not very far as yet our way had gone
 This side the summit], when I saw a fire
 That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.
         (Inferno, Canto IV, lines 67-69)

The bracketed part - I suppose it means something like "we have not gone very far...", but I can't make out how it works in terms of grammar. One would think there needs to be some kind of preposition between the side and the summit. Then again, this is older writing and I am aware that older writing is different.

So how could I make sense of this line?


Not sure if it helps, but another translation (Cary) of the same lines goes as follows:

...We were not far
 On this side from the summit, when I kenn'd
 A flame, that o'er the darken'd hemisphere
 Prevailing shin'd. 

Thank you!

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  • Uh, it's poetic. And ancient.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 23, 2019 at 22:14
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    Longfellow's translation is intentionally Italianate, that is, meant to reflect something of the original language. This essay is illuminating: "How to Read Dante in the 21st Century". The point being, much of Longfellow's translation is not written in grammatical, or typical English.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 23, 2019 at 22:23
  • Yes, in standard Modern English -- and, I suspect, in standard 19th century English -- we would use a preposition or two in this clause. I'll explain this line of poetry to you if you explain this one to me: ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the mome raths outgrabe. Dec 23, 2019 at 22:42
  • @MikeGraham Not really a fair comparison, though. Those lines are from Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, which is an example of 'nonsense verse', 'humorous or whimsical verse that differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation' (Britannica). Longfellow definitely didn't intend to turn (nor have others thought he turned) Inferno into a species of non-allegorical whimsy! Dec 24, 2019 at 17:13

1 Answer 1

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In Ovid Unseens: Practice Passages for Latin Verse Translation and Comprehension we read that

As common as omitted verbs are omitted prepositions. Poets frequently miss these little words out altogether and rely on the reader to understand them.

That's a comment about Latin poetry. But it is easy to imagine that some 19th century translators would use that device in their work.

Discussion

The original text is

Non era lunga ancor la nostra via
di qua dal sonno, quand' io vidi un foco
ch'emisperio di tenebre vincia.

Google translate1 renders it as

Our way was not yet long
this way from sleep, when I saw a fire
that the hemisphere of darkness wins.

1Well, not quite google translate on its own. In the original, I replaced the archaic word emisperio by its contemporary variant emisfero (see here). A better way to phrase that line is probably that overcame a hemisphere of darkness, like here.

One commentary says this about that line:

The reading sonno (here 'sleep') has been much debated over the centuries. For a summarizing description of that debate see Mazzoni (“Saggio di un nuovo commento alla Divina Commedia: il Canto IV dell'Inferno,” Studi Danteschi 42 [1965]), pp. 119-20. Most modern editors accept sonno, and take the resulting expression to be a case of poetic compression: 'not far from sleep' = 'not far from the place where I had slept.'

So Longfellow has taken quite a bit of liberty with the translation of that line. He uses a similar construction in two other places:

And the Guide said to me: “He wakes no more
This side the sound of the angelic trumpet;
(Canto 6)

and

Down at the bottom were the sinners naked;
This side the middle came they facing us,
Beyond it, with us, but with greater steps;
(Canto 18)

The omission of preposition is not unheard of in 19th century English poetry. Here is a commentary on Robert Browning that makes a note of that.

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  • Thank you! I knew that prepositions were sometimes omitted in languages where nouns were declined, but never imagined it happened in 19th century English.
    – silmaril
    Dec 24, 2019 at 0:49
  • @silmaril Well, in poetic 19th century English, in verse by (or translated by) possibly only a few poets. Dec 24, 2019 at 2:26

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