Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Ne la miseria–Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
It’s been translated six ways from Sunday over the years. A few examples:
Oh! how grievous to relate
Past joys, and tread again the paths of fate–tr. Henry Boyd, 1802
There is no greater pain than to recall a happy time in wretchedness–tr. H.W. Longfellow, 1867
There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery–tr. Laurence Binyon, 1943
The bitterest woe of woes
Is to remember in our wretchedness
Old happy times–tr. Dorothy Sayers, 1949
My own rather literal translation (I don’t speak or read Italian, but I was–in my time–very good at Latin, so it’s not difficult) goes like this:
There is no greater grief than that of recalling times of happiness at times of misery
The lines are part of a conversation between Francesca de Rimini and the poet as he’s exploring the circles of Hell. She and her adulterous lover are not too far down, consigned to the second circle and shown blown about by the winds of lust and passion, whilst their murderer–Francesca’s crippled husband (tale as old as time: hello Lady Chatterley!)–must have been much lower down amongst the violent and the betrayers and murderers of kinfolk.
But is the underlying sentiment of the lines really true?
No, if you ask me. (I realize nobody has asked me, but I’m going to have my say anyway.)
Remembering past happy times never makes me more miserable, even when I’m at a low point in my life. Even when those happy past times involve those who’ve since died, or left, or done me wrong, or who–for whatever reason, on my part or theirs–are no longer in my life
Giving the happy times, and the happy memories, at least equal billing with the painful, reminds me of many of the writings of C.S. Lewis which are–perhaps–best condensed via one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands, in a conversation between Lewis (a marvelous Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Joy (a playing-against-type Debra Winger). None of it can be found, word-for-word, in any of Lewis’s writings, but the spirit captures him perfectly:
“The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”
Of course, the reverse is true as well. It’s all a part of the whole.
That’s what “makes it real.”
Once you realize that, there’s no need to grieve or regret the past, in matters great or small.
Dante Alighieri, Italian poet and philosopher, died 702 years ago today, on September 14, 1321. What a legacy.