April 2,1998

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The 19th-century poet idolized his Italian namesake, and imitated him

Two Dantes compared in Lahey Lecture

by Sylvain-Jacques

Jerome J. McGann gave Concordians a double dose of Dante during a recent lecture on Dante Alighieri and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poets separated by language, sensibility and more than 500 years. About 75 people braved an early spring snowstorm to attend McGann's talk, held at the Bryan building on March 19 as Concordia's annual Lahey Lecture in Literature.

McGann, who is John Stewart Dodge Professor at the University of Virginia, is a distinguished scholar specializing in 19th and 20th century literature, from the English Romantics to contemporary poets. He is best known for the half-dozen books he has written on the historical and critical exactitude of literary texts, including A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism.

He has also collaborated on such mammoth projects as a multi-volume Oxford University Press edition of Byron and a "shorter" 1,100-page version for the Oxford Authors series. He is a poet himself, and serves on the editorial board of 25 scholarly journals and publishing series.

He has studied Rossetti's work for 30 years, and is currently preparing an edition of The Writing and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a flexible hypertext format called the Rossetti Archives.

Rossetti, an English poet and painter (1828-1882), was haunted by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante Rossetti considered the great early-Renaissance poet his model.

In his talk, McGann examined several Rossetti translations, like that of Vita Nuova, and original texts. He found that the poet did not merely translate, he recreated Dante Alighieri's works in his own poetic style, refashioning several works from the first to the second person. "This alteration was major," McGann said, since it cancelled out the personal perspective of the text. The resulting shift gives the impression that "the poem has assumed its own identity."

A better way to describe Rossetti's translations, McGann said, would be to call them "imitations." The translations "seem an act of extreme linguistic devotion, as resolute and cultic as ritual performance." By imitating, rather than producing, equivalent works, he gained status, becoming "the inventor of a style that would have an overwhelming influence on the next generation of poets."

The two Dantes, McGann said, also shared philosophical and stylistic similarities. "Both felt love was at once an ideal and a physical experience," and "strove for a style that would reconstruct feelings and other [intangible] realities, like spiritual presences, into an objective of purely linguistic condition."

Another parallel between the poets, McGann said, was their creation of "screen ladies" in their love sonnets, which were masks for the real object of their literary affections. "Disguises and double meanings," he added, were common to their works. And the poets did not always have specific speakers; the author was not always the "voice" or person identified as speaking in the poem.

However, Rossetti's translations of his idol's works have not been unanimously appreciated by literary critics, who point to Rossetti's narrow range, over-literariness and an over-dependence on easily won aural effects. "A gulf," McGann conceded, "seemed to separate Rossetti's erotic style from the conceptual rigours of [Alighieri's] work."

But McGann disagrees with these criticisms, saying that "modernism changed the way people look at poetry." He favours critics who said Rossetti's work, although erotic, could be better described as sensuous brooding. "Rossetti made explicit what [Alighieri] hinted at. He was an important and neglected writer."

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