Dante: The Divine Comedy
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