A. S. Kline and the Soul of Dante: Anima, Sprito, Alma

Continuing to look at Statius’ description of human generation in the 25th Canto of Purgatory, it is interesting to note that A. S. Kline translates “anima” as “spirit” rather than “soul.” Either word can be defended as a translation choice. What is being described by Stazio is the “ensoulment” of the fetus.

The Roman poet follows the Aristotelian teaching that there is a vegetative, animal, and human “soul.” Here, Dante is borrowing from Aquinas rather than Galen for, as we saw in my previous blog post on this topic, Galen rejected the idea that plants had souls.

On the other hand, in Latin there is a distinction between “anima” (feminine) and “animus” (masculine), the later referring to the rational soul. Both can be translated as soul, but anima, which is the word Dante uses in the 18th stanza, is the word which Aquinas also used when writing of the “soul” of plants and animals.

Anima fatta la virtute attiva
qual d’una pianta, in tanto differente,
che questa è in via e quella è già a riva,

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 52-54

However, anima can also be used in the sense of “spirit” as translated by Kline, or perhaps even as “life-force.” The merit of choosing “spirit” over “soul” is that it helps maintain the distinction between plant and animal spirit/souls (which Aquinas taught were mortal) and human souls which are immortal according to Christian doctrine. It is, I think, another example of Kline’s evident passion for clarity of expression, and also a testament to the accuracy of his translation.

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I say “accuracy of his translation” because, although anima might be translated as soul, there is good reason NOT to translate it so, which becomes clear in the 25th stanza. First, here is Kline’s translation of that and the two preceding stanzas:

Open your mind to the truth which follows, and understand that as soon as the structure of the brain is complete in the embryo, the First Mover turns to it, delighting in such a work of nature, and breathes a new spirit into it, filled with virtue, that draws into its own substance what it finds already active, and forms a single soul, that lives and feels, and is conscious of itself.

Dante, Purgatory 25, 67-75, translated by A. S. Kline

Kline saves the word “soul” for the creation of the human soul in the embryo, and in doing so he is closely following Dante:

Apri a la verità che viene il petto;
e sappi che, sì tosto come al feto
l’articular del cerebro è perfetto,


lo motor primo a lui si volge lieto
sovra tant’ arte di natura, e spira
spirito novo, di vertù repleto,


che ciò che trova attivo quivi, tira
in sua sustanzia, e fassi un’alma sola,
che vive e sente e sé in sé rigira.

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 67-75

Dante progresses from anima (spirit, or “life-force”) to spirito novo (new spirit) to alma sola (single soul), using the literary word for soul, “alma.”

I think Kline has found the right balance in having “spirit” serve for both anima and spirito while reserving “soul” for the human “alma sola.”

I must say that I also enjoy Clive James rendering of this section as he translates “spirito novo” as a “potent inspiration,” which is itself and inspired and energetic choice:

But open up your breast now to the whole
Truth of this tricky matter. It’s like so:
No sooner does the structure of the brain
Get organised within the embryo
Than in comes the First Mover might and main,
Happy at nature’s work of art, and gives
A potent inspiration to it, which
Incorporates all that already lives
In there, and so a single soul made rich
By these two elements begins to thrive,
And feel, and think.

Dante, Purgatory 25, 67-75, translated by Clive James

DH