Tag Archives: Dante Alighieri

One of My Favourite Poems (‘IF’ by R. Kipling)

Original post from 26/01/2007

The first time I read this poem, I was at school, and I remember well we were preparing to either a quiz or a matinee, so we had to learn an English poem by heart. I believe this was about 13-14 years ago. I also remember that at first I took it simply as a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and only much later – when I was already a student at the University – did I begin to realise that this poem means much more to me. Effectively, with another couple of poems and a few quotations, these lines summarise my approach to things in life.

I shall also give a link to the Russian translation of this poem, by Mikhail Lozinsky. As far as I am concerned, Lozinsky was one of the best ever Russian translators. At the turn of 1930-40s, battling a deadly illness, he had been working on the Russian translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Among his other translations, one of my favourite is definitely Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And, of course, Kipling’s If.

So, enjoy the poem, and if you have got any thoughts or memories about it, do post a comment about these. 🙂

(For Russian translation (“Заповедь”), please follow the link. The text comes after a poem by Coleridge).

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

A Sonnet (Edna St Vincent Millay)

We talk of taxes, and I call you friend;
Well, such we are, but well enough we know
How thick about us root, how rankly grow
Those subtle weeds no man has need to tend,
That flourish through neglect and soon must send
Perfume too sweet upon us and overthrow
Our steady senses, how such matters grow
We are aware, and how such matters end.
Yet shall be told no meagre passion here;
With lovers such as we forevermore
Isolde drinks the draught, and Guinevere
Receives the table’s ruin through her door,
Francesca, with the loud surf at her ear,
Lets fall the coloured book upon the floor.

Edna St Vincent Millay.

The poem tells about the nascence of passion and its possible perils. We know the forlorn stories of Tristan and Isolde and of Lancelot and Guinevere. Yet in fact, this sonnet has more to do with Dante’s Divine Comedy, than with the mentioned medieval romances.

At the end of Canto V, Dante is talking to Francesca da Rimini, who in about 1280 was married to Gian Ciotto (‘Lame’) Malatesta, signor of Rimini. Francesca gradually fell in love with Gian Ciotto’s younger brother, Paolo. Dante might even have known Paolo personally, which in turn may explain the inclusion of this tragic story in his opus. When Gian Ciotto found outabout the adultery, he had killed both lovers. This happened probably in 1286, and Dante’s seems to be the only contemporary mention of this episode.

This is the text:

115 Then I turned to them again to speak
116 and I began: ‘Francesca, your torments
117 make me weep for grief and pity,
118 ‘but tell me, in that season of sweet sighs,
119 how and by what signs did Love
120 acquaint you with your hesitant desires?’
121 And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
122 than to recall our time of joy
123 in wretchedness – and this your teacher knows.
124 ‘But if you feel such longing
125 To know the first root of our love,
126 I shall tell as one who weeps in telling.
127 ‘One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
128 we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
129 We were alone, without the least misgiving.
130 ‘More than once that reading made our eyes meet
131 and drained the colour from our faces.
132 Still, it was a single instant overcame us:
133 ‘When we read how the longed-for smile
134 was kissed by so renowned a lover, this man,
135 who never shall be parted from me,
136 ‘all trembling, kissed me on my mouth.
137 A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.
138 That day we read in it no further’ (Canto V)

What is obviously different, is the angle at which Dante and Millay looked at Francesca’s story. In The Divine Comedy, Francesca and Paolo had been put into the Second Circle of Inferno:

37 I understood that to such torment
38 the carnal sinners are condemned,
39 they who make reason subject to desire (Canto V)

Nevertheless, as Francesca later explains,

103 ‘Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving,
104 seized me so strongly with his charm that,
105 as you see, it has not left me yet’ (Ibid.)

It is this 103rd line that Millay seems to be taking as a starting point for her poem. Faithful to Love, the author actually invites ‘Francesca’ to ‘fall the coloured book upon the floor‘. Millay’s sonnet is almost a celebration of sudden passions, and the reference to a coloured book may be construed both in medieval and contemporary sense. The reference to Francesca da Rimini links a ‘coloured book‘ to an illuminated manuscript, which is exactly what Francesca and Paolo would have been reading at the end of the 13th c. But Millay’s poem was written in the 20th c., and, whether in 1280s or in 1920s, the lovers are to be brought together by a book that narrated a love story. Surely, there were a lot of coloured books of such kind in Millay’s days?

[The English text of The Divine Comedy is taken from Princeton Dante Project].


One of the greatest Pre-Rafaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was well-known for his adoration for Dante’s masterpiece. In his lifetime Rossetti illustrated The Divine Comedy many times, and certainly did not get past the Paolo and Francesca extract. His drawing (below) is an interesting reworking of a typically medieval combination of several temporal aspects of the story. On the left we see the lovers embracing each other at the moment when the book became their Galeotto; on the right we see their souls, entwined in the eternal embrace; and in the middle Dante and Virgil watch the souls’ flight. It is interesting to note Rossetti’s faithful following of Dante’s text (which manifests itself particularly in the figures of Dante and Virgil), but perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the faces of Paolo and Francesca potently remind one of Rossetti (left) and his beloved and model, Elizabeth Siddal (right).

Male Self-Portraits (Philip Scott Johnson)

A year ago I wrote about Women in Art, an artwork by the American digital artist Philip Scott Johnson (aka Eggman913). The artwork has taken the Internet by storm, producing a string of posts, analyses, and – alas – a few pirate versions, as well. Undoubtedly, though, this was one of the most creative works we’ve all seen, and, for one, it showed that all that social media stuff is not just for kids. It is a huge artistic and creative medium and milieu.

In the post in which I observed some obvious peculiarities of the way the Western art has portrayed women I also said:

“unless EggMan is already in the process of doing this, may we kindly ask him to make a film about men in Western art. This subject is no less beautiful, and the controversy that often surrounds it will only expand our perception of Beauty”.

I wrote this in May 2007. There was no communication between Philip and me, so you can imagine my surprise when I have just discovered that he actually produced a video on the subject. But – and this is what makes an artist what he/she is – he didn’t just make a morph of diverse and sundry male faces the Western artists painted over 500 years. This new video is about “500 Years of Male Self-Portraits in Western Art“.
Accompanied by Bach’s Bouree 1 and 2 from Suite for Solo Cello No. 3, this is a breathtaking study of Western vision of the artistic self throughout half a millennium. Opened and closed by the portraits of Leonardo and Picasso, respectively (the two men whose genius no-one seems to doubt), the sequence is visually stunning. Most importantly, however, the visual work penetrates deep into our thinking. It is by itself amazing to see how easily Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) diffuses into Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), or how deftly Jan van Eyck (1395-1441) blends into Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). But when you see Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) grey locks becoming Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) famous white crop of hair, the story takes a completely different turn.

And the story isn’t just about troubled geniuses, the great eccentrics, the talents that continue to inspire virtually everyone up until now. The story is once again about their vision of themselves, and in this respect this video by Philip is an even greater achievement than Women in Art. I wrote about the latter that it was possible to make it partly because the artists were looking at their females from the more or less same angle. Now to see that the artists painted themselves in the more or less same manner makes the difference.

And I can’t help but speak about the merge of Rembrandt and Andy Warhol once again. Even taken on its own, it manifests the continuity in artistic expression, on the one hand, and the impossibility to pin an individual (let alone an artist) down to a certain image, on the other. If we can diffuse a smiling Rembrandt into an intense Warhol, the whole process can be inverted, and we can see Warhol becoming Rembrandt. This means – as far as I am concerned, at least – that there is little difference between a troubled genius and a happy genius. Each of them is an ocean of experience, thoughts and emotions, and thankfully, we have artists like Philip Scott Johnson to let us observe this.

For the list of artists and to leave a comment for Philip, please visit the YouTube page for the video.

Lilies: Mapplethorpe and Rossetti

Between the hands, between the brows,
Between the lips of Love-Lily,
A spirit is born whose birth endows
My blood with fire to burn through me;
Who breathes upon my gazing eyes,
Who laughs and murmurs in mine ear,
At whose least touch my colour flies,
And whom my life grows faint to hear.
Within the voice, within the heart,
Within the mind of Love-Lily,
A spirit is born who lifts apart
His tremulous wings and looks at me;
Who on my mouth his finger lays,
And shows, while whispering lutes confer,
That Eden of Love’s watered ways
Whose winds and spirits worship her.

Brows, hands, and lips, heart, mind, and voice,
Kisses and words of Love-Lily,–
Oh! bid me with your joy rejoice
Till riotous longing rest in me!
Ah! let not hope be still distraught,
But find in her its gracious goal,
Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought
Nor Love her body from her soul.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For a while I had Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flowers in front of me, whenever I worked. I adore the calla lilies, and naturally I was more drawn to his photographs of these beautiful flowers. Then I remembered the poem Love-Lily by Dante Gabriel Rossetti… I took Mapplethorpe’s images from what feels like the whole of the Internet, and I can only say that I hope to work with them again in future.