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Morghen’s Dante Alighieri in Melville’s copy of Cary’s translation of The Divine Comedy

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MBB 2.2. Frontispiece in Herman Melville’s copy of Dante Alighieri, The Vision; or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, tr. the Rev. Henry Francis Cary, New edition, corrected. London: Bohn, 1847.

Melville’s copy of Cary’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy was unknown until 1985, when William Reese bought it at an auction and made it available to scholars. In 1993 Lea Newman reproduced the above frontispiece to Carey’s edition in her essay on Melville’s annotations in that edition (see my headnote to Flaxman’s Dante, Newman 313; see also Berthold, fig. 5). Neither the frontispiece nor the book itself indicates the artist or engraver who created the image of Dante and the book he is holding.

The original engraver was Raphael Morghen, who created this portrait of Dante after a drawing by Stefano Tofanelli in Florence in 1803 for an edition of The Divine Comedy. That publication was part of a project on the “Fathers of Italian Language and Poetry” that also included works by Ariosto, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Tasso. During the seventeenth century Dante had been “less read than Petrarch, Tasso, or Ariosto” and “in the eighteenth century he was almost entirely universally neglected,” but the publication of The Divine Comedy in the “Fathers of Italian Language Poetry” series launched a revival of Dante’s writing in Italy and throughout Western Europe (Halsey, no. 45, pp. 39-40). The 1847 edition of the Carey translation, reproducing the same engraving by Morghen, was to do the same for Dante’s writing in the United States.

Immediately below the name Dante Alighieri on Melville’s copy of the frontispiece is a fragment of a poem about Dante that was cut out of an 1841 Boston newspaper and attached there, possibly by Melville himself. The poetic fragment addresses, appropriately, Dante’s image (“this counterfeit”).

[See] from this counterfeit of him
        Whom Arno shall remember long,
How stern of lineament, how grim,
        The father was of Tuscan song.
There but the burning sense of wrong
        Perpetual care and scorn abide;
Small friendship for the lordly throng,
        Distrust of all the world beside.

The above lines (which mistakenly printed “Sees” rather than “See,”) are the opening stanza of the poem “On a Bust of Dante” by Thomas William Parsons, who in the 1840s was the first American to translate a substantial portion of Dante’s Inferno. After the Civil War, Parsons translated the entire Inferno and part of the Purgatory. Parsons was born in the same month as Melville (August 1819) and died one year after he died (September 1892).

In 1900, Edward Stedman, who with his son Arthur had been among Melville’s small circle of friends and admirers before his death, published the complete text of Parsons’s “On a Bust of Dante” in his American Anthology, 1787-1900. That poem was the first of twelve poems by Parsons in the anthology, and it followed immediately after six poems by Melville himself. Four of the Melville poems were from Battle Pieces and two from John Marr (Stedman, 235-37 and 237-42). In this context, “On a Bust of Dante” can also be read as a tribute to Melville as the Stedmans had known him in the last decade of his life. In the words Parsons wrote of Dante, Melville himself was “stern of lineament,” leading a life “unsullied still, though still severe,” the living equivalent of “a marble man of many woes.” In the last stanza of the Parsons poem in the 1900 anthology, Dante, that “poor old exile, sad and lone,” has become “Latium’s other Virgil now”:

Before his name the nations bow;
His words are parcel of mankind,
Deep in whose hearts, as on his brow,
The marks have sunk of Dante’s mind. (Stedman 237-38)

Melville’s mind had sunk deep in the heart of Edward Stedman, who not only admired the poems from Battle Pieces and John Marr he reprinted in his American Anthology, but who was one of the very few Americans in 1900 who considered Moby-Dick “an American classic” (Sealts, Early Lives, 40-49)

Edmund Stedman’s son Arthur, whose admiring, heartfelt account of “Herman Melville’s Funeral” appeared in the New York Daily Tribune on October 10, 1891, was especially enamored of Typee. He was one of the few Americans who knew that Melville was not only “a great reader” but “was much interested in collecting engravings of the old masters, having a large library and a fine assortment of prints, those of Claude being his favorite.” The range of Melville’s collection is shown by the portraits he acquired of Machiavelli, Tasso, and Ariosto, three of Dante’s great Italian literary successors, those of Tasso and Ariosto having originally been engraved by Morghen for the “Fathers of Italian Language” series (see CAT 103, 104, and 105). For a detailed examination of Edward and Arthur Stedman as editors, friends, and advocates of Melville and his work, see Sealts, Early Lives, 20-24, 47-64, and 99-116.

It would not be until the middle of the twentieth century, with the publication of the Hendrick’s House editions of the Collected Poems in 1947 and Clarel in 1960, that Melville’s poetry would begin to receive sustained critical attention. In 1955, Thomas Johnson published the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, beginning the revival that would eventually bring her to the absolute forefront of American poets. Edward Stedman had included no less than 20 Dickinson in his 1900 anthology. One of these was “God made a little gentian,” a short poem about a flower that “tried to be a rose / And failed,” yet is able to ask in the poem’s last line (even though “frosts were her condition”), “‘Creator! Shall I bloom’” (Stedman 321-2; Johnson no. 442).