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From “Divina Commedia”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Oft have I seen at some cathedral door
A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'er;
Far off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
Become an undistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter here from day to day,
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.

On one level, this sonnet is a beautiful reflection on cathedrals. Longfellow wonderfully evokes an experience we’ve all had at some point—that feeling of stepping out of a hot, noisy world into the cool and quiet of a cathedral.
Longfellow describes how a laborer—an ordinary working person, not unlike us—comes into the cathedral. He first sets down his burden—literally, and figuratively, too—then kneels and prays his “paternoster.” “Paternoster” is “Our Father” in Latin, but the word also refers to the rosary. As he prays, the “loud vociferations of the street / Become an indistinguishable roar.” The noise and the business of the street are momentarily set aside in this place of calm: the grand, quiet house of God.
But Longfellow is not really talking about cathedrals. In the second part of the sonnet, he says “I enter here from day to day, / And leave my burden at this minster gate.” The cathedral Longfellow is talking about is a cathedral of poetry: Dante’s Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy. Longfellow spent many years translating Dante’s masterpiece—in fact, his translation of Dante’s masterpiece is perhaps his masterpiece! Each day, Longfellow says, he takes up the Divine Comedy as though he is entering a cathedral—with reverence, “kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray.” And something happens: the noise of the world fades, in the presence of something eternal.
Entering the cathedral of Dante’s thought is not an escape from “the time disconsolate,” a soundproof box where all the troubles of the world can be forgotten. That is not the purpose of a cathedral or of Dante’s work! Rather, in this holy space, the many competing voices fade, so that we can become aware of something, someone, who transcends time. Here, “the eternal ages watch and wait.”
Dante died on September 14, 1321, which means that this year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. This anniversary offers us an opportunity to discover or rediscover, the genius of Dante. There is so much more to the Divine Comedy than the tortured souls of the Inferno! The poem describes a journey, through hell to Purgatory and all the circles of heaven. The poem is full of references to people Dante knew – friends and enemies in 14th-century Florence. But the poem is also timeless, packed with splendid poetry and unforgettable imagery. Above all, the poem is imbued with the poet’s ardent faith in God’s redeeming plan for humanity.
Dante is special. No other poet has been so honored by the Church. Pope Paul VI wrote, “There may be some who ask why the Catholic Church… is so concerned to cultivate the memory and celebrate the glory of the Florentine poet. Our response is easy: …Dante is ours! Ours… for he radiated love for Christ; ours, because he loved the Church deeply and sang her glories,” even as he also “spoke scathingly of more than one Pope.”
In a recent letter marking this 700th anniversary of the poet’s death, Pope Francis urges all to rediscover Dante as a figure with particular resonance for our own day. “At this particular moment in history, overclouded by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future, the figure of Dante, prophet of hope and witness to the human desire for happiness, can still provide us with words and examples that encourage us on our journey. Dante can help us to advance with serenity and courage on the pilgrimage of life and faith that each of us is called to make, until our hearts find true peace and true joy, until we arrive at the ultimate goal of all humanity: The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”
Dante’s Divine Comedy is not easy. But it is well worth the effort—a literary masterpiece that is also a work of true devotion. As Longfellow describes so well, it is a poem with the scope, the dignity, and the holiness of a great cathedral.



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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303