Dante: The Di­vine Com­edy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SEA­SON six of the hit tele­vi­sion se­ries Mad Men opens with Don Draper re­lax­ing pool­side in Hawaii, cock­tail and cur­rent wife at hand. If only par­adise were that sim­ple: his hol­i­day read­ing is Dante’s In­ferno. He re­cites, in voiceover, John Ciardi’s 1954 trans­la­tion of the fa­mous open­ing: Mid­way in our life’s jour­ney, I went astray From the straight road and woke to find


Alone in a dark wood.

No need to guess in which di­rec­tion Don’s mid-life jour­ney is headed: the only way out of par­adise is down.

Dante’s own ex­tended mid-life cri­sis is one of the glo­ries of world lit­er­a­ture, and the glory of Ital­ian lit­er­a­ture. It bears an even more sem­i­nal re­la­tion­ship to Ital­ian than Shake­speare’s work does to English: be­sides its for­ma­tive id­ioms and myth-mak­ing, the fact that mod­ern Ital­ian is based on the Tus­can di­alect is the re­sult of Dante’s Floren­tine ori­gins.

I re­mem­ber hear­ing a vis­it­ing Dante scholar some years ago at the Mil­dura Writ­ers Fes­ti­val. The rows were filled with Cal­abrian mi­grants who had come in from the or­chards and vine­yards to lis­ten to that beau­ti­ful Tus­can po­etry. No sur­prise there, per­haps: the Com­edy is also one of the great po­ems of ex­ile. Dante had been ban­ished from Florence at the time he wrote it; he would never re­turn. It was a pe­riod of in­tense self-scru­tiny and reeval­u­a­tion. How to find his way out of the dark wood of him­self?

Slowly and con­fus­edly, at first. Guided for the first half of his pil­grim­age by the Ro­man poet Vir­gil and for the sec­ond by his beloved Beatrice, our limited nar­ra­tor, Dante him­self, will grow less limited with each step of his jour­ney and each story he hears.

The Com­edy is pos­si­bly the most trans­lated epic in world lit­er­a­ture — es­pe­cially the pacy, ac­tion-packed road movie that is the In­ferno. Some trans­la­tors ven­ture no fur­ther, per­haps be­cause the tough­est tests of their craft — their own cir­cles of hell — are the two later books.

In all three, the first headache is what to do with Dante’s famed terza rima: his three-lined Trans­lated by Clive James Pi­cador Po­etry, 526pp, $32.99 stan­zas, or ter­cets, with their echo­ing en­drhymes of aba, bcb, cdc. Word-rich English has vastly more syn­onyms for any given word than Ital­ian, but Ital­ian has five or six times more rhyming pos­si­bil­i­ties, given that al­most all words end in vow­els.

Dante’s mu­si­cal ef­fects are so ubiq­ui­tous that they seem sub­lim­i­nal, and ef­fort­less. Amer­i­can Dante scholar Rachel Ja­coff puts it nicely: ‘‘ With its seam­less blend of for­ward mo­tion and back­wards glance, the verse form has the nearly com­pul­sive en­ergy of a waltz rhythm.’’

English po­ets have used the form with var­ied suc­cess. By­ron’s trans­la­tion of the Francesca da Ri­mini frag­ment in In­ferno V starts nicely but quickly be­comes tongue twisted by the de­mands of the form, even if (By­ron be­ing By­ron, and the great poet of kissing) the de­layed kiss of the lovers is still sexy. Shel­ley’s Ode to the West Wind per­haps of­fers a bet­ter sense of the flow­ing move­ment of the form.

Robert Pin­sky’s 1995 trans­la­tion of the In­ferno of­fers an English ver­sion of terza rima, us­ing half and quar­ter rhymes. His mu­sic flows beau­ti­fully; thus, from the top, once more, with feel­ing: Mid­way through our life’s jour­ney, I found

my­self In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell About those woods is hard — so tan­gled and

rough And sav­age that think­ing of it now, I feel The old fear stir­ring: death is hardly more

bit­ter. And yet, to treat the good I found there as


I’ll tell what I saw . . .

Pin­sky also sprin­kles the Dan­tean in­ter­nal rhymes and as­so­nances nicely: the last bell-like echo of ‘‘ tell’’ af­ter the end-rhymes of ‘‘ tell’’ and ‘‘ feel’’ and ‘‘ well’’, the frica­tive kiss of ‘‘ feel’’ and ‘‘ fear’’.

Pin­sky’s In­ferno is a mas­ter­piece of po­etic com­pres­sion, but he leaves plenty of de­tail on the cut­ting-room floor. Must mean­ing al­ways be sac­ri­ficed for mu­sic in trans­la­tions, or vice versa? In the half-dozen English ver­sions of the Com­edy I’ve read — and prob­a­bly the hun­dreds I haven’t — some­thing is usu­ally lost, even if some­thing is gained. Most English trans­la­tors pre­fer to use Mil­tonic blank verse as their struc­tural tem­plate, which makes sense: Par­adise Lost is the near­est thing we have to the Com­edy.

Which­ever rhyth­mic choice is made, var­i­ous cir­cles of trans­la­tion hell re­main, with plenty of trans­la­tors stuck in them. Longfel­low for­goes the use of An­glo-Saxon ver­nac­u­lar for what he takes as the La­tinisms of Ital­ian. Dorothy Say­ers’s Pen­guin Classics ver­sion sac­ri­fices po­etry for textual fidelity and of­ten sounds stodgy. Charles Sin­gle­ton’s schol­arly edi­tion uses prose that is of­ten po­etic — plus foot­notes that are longer than the poem. Don Draper’s Ciardi? It flows beau­ti­fully, if at times thinly, and has use­fully con­cise foot­notes.

Foot­notes are a prob­lem in their own right. How are we to read them? Be­fore? Dur­ing? Af­ter? They are a huge im­ped­i­ment to the flow, but of­ten nec­es­sary. The thick, al­lu­sive tex­ture of the Com­edy de­pends on a shared 13th-cen­tury cul­tural in­her­i­tance. This means the Bi­ble, of course, par­tic­u­larly Rev­e­la­tions and the books of ex­ile. Vir­gil’s Aeneid, the Tro­jan Ex­o­dus. Then there are the philoso­phers, from the Greeks — Aris­to­tle above all — to the Chris­tians. With­out St Au­gus­tine, the sense of the Com­edy as Dante’s own spir­i­tual au­to­bi­og­ra­phy would be im­pos­si­ble. So much to cram in, so few can­tos.

Which leaves Clive James’s new trans­la­tion where? James has im­pres­sive cre­den­tials for the job; you might call them a per­fect skill-set. He is a poet of great tech­ni­cal dex­ter­ity, his writ­ings range ef­fort­lessly across the reg­is­ters from the ver­nac­u­lar to the philo­soph­i­cal to the comic, and his eru­di­tion can surely chan­nel a 13-cen­tury con­scious­ness bet­ter than most.

He also has a life­time’s love of the Com­edy, much of it owed to his wife Prue Shaw, a for­mi­da­ble Dante scholar, who first won his heart (he tells us in his pref­ace) by read­ing the Francesca da Ri­mini pas­sage with him. It’s a nice re­gres­sion: James and his fu­ture wife fall­ing in love while read­ing about Paolo and Francesca fall­ing in love while read­ing about Lancelot and Guin­e­vere fall­ing in love. To bowd­lerise Sa­muel Gold­wyn, there is only one plot, the de­layed kiss, and James’s tim­ing is as good as By­ron’s.

I’d sug­gest im­per­ti­nently James has an­other, pow­er­fully per­sonal cre­den­tial. His feel­ing for Dante is surely given ex­tra force by his own present predica­ment: ex­iled by ill­ness from his home­land — the sub­ject of many re­cent fine po­ems — and lost in the un­cer­tain woods of that ill­ness.

For­mal­i­ties first. How do you solve a prob­lem such as terza rima? James comes up with a rad­i­cally orig­i­nal idea: he chooses

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