by dante alighieri
translated by clive james
liveright, 560 pages, $29.95
For me, the appearance of Dan Brown’s newest Robert Langdon novel, its dust jacket adorned with Dante’s flinty profile and a misappropriated title, poses a purely historical question: Has there ever been another case anywhere in the annals of the printed word of a literary figure as majestically imposing as Dante—or of a work as monumental as the Inferno—featuring as the central “motif” (or theme, or plot device, or MacGuffin, or whatever) in a book by a writer as ineffably horrid as Brown? (It seems unlikely, by several orders of statistical magnitude.)
Another question it prompts, and one probably of more immediate cultural concern, is whether Dante today can command the attention of even a vanishingly minuscule fraction of the readers that Brown can summon from the four quarters of the wind with a single inept metaphor. (Here too, I suppose, the answer is obvious.)
One should not worry, of course. The flame of Dante’s greatness will continue to shine out, quietly but persistently, through our current Dark Ages and long into the future, while the nerve-wracking fluorescent glare of Brown’s celebrity will turn pink and finally fade away whenever its mercury is exhausted. At least we have to believe that, as long as some vestige of civilization remains, readers will continue to return to The Divine Comedy for its astonishing imaginative scope, its moral and spiritual passion, its lyrical genius, and so on.
The few valid complaints against it, such as they are, will consistently recur: that the ghastly solidity of Dante’s imagined hells often seems so much more absorbing than those shimmering saints floating in his pale, impalpable heavens; that by the end dull theological discourses have largely crowded out the gripping personal narratives that had carried the poem all the way up from the dark wood of Dante’s midlife wanderings to the terrestrial paradise where Beatrice was waiting for him; that Dante’s final description of the Trinity encircled by the celestial rose conjures up an image about as engrossing as what one might see in a kaleidoscope bought on a boardwalk. But the poem will never lose its hold on the discerning.
All of which being said, it is nevertheless the case that the full power of the Comedy lies beyond the grasp of the great majority of readers, for two simple reasons: Most must rely on inadequate translations, and very few indeed possess the specialized knowledge necessary to make sense of Dante’s innumerable personal, political, historical, and theological allusions. Regarding the former problem, only so much can be done. No translator can ever satisfactorily render a poem of genius into another tongue.
In English, there are now far more versions of the Comedy than can easily be recalled, ranging in tone from the torpid fustian of Cary and Longfellow to the ostentatious virtuosity of Laurence Binyon to the fluent plainness of C. H. Sisson. None of them can do more than adumbrate, often only very wanly, the glittering concision and constantly varying music of Dante’s Tuscan.
Regarding the latter problem, the solution established over the past several decades is that of the critical apparatus. The standard form of recent editions of the Comedy includes the original text in facing counterpoint to its translation, as well as an enormous number of footnotes or endnotes explaining every obscure reference to ancient metaphysics, medieval Italian politics, Dante’s biography, and whatever else the modern reader is unlikely already to know much about.
It is a somewhat awkward arrangement, but largely necessary. Even the very best recent renderings of the poem, such as that of the Hollanders or that of Anthony Esolen, require the reader to clamber over these critical barricades to get to the verse itself, and then still invite the eyes of the deficient linguist to flit back and forth between the original and translated texts.
The result, inevitably, is one of (for want of a better word) deceleration. This is something of a pity. Much of the immediate poetic power of the Comedy lies in its unrelenting rapidity: the continuous stream of imagery, the compulsive movement of the narrative, and above all the unarrested coursing of the poetry itself, which perfectly unites consummate economy of language and overflowing fullness of aesthetic effect. For the most part, the books we read when we set out to read Dante are all immensely longer than the glorious book that Dante actually wrote. It is difficult properly to appreciate the grace, force, and agility of a great dancer when one can watch his dance only in slow motion, interspersed with numerous stills.
Clive James’ new translation of the Comedy is an attempt to reverse the effect of the now standard critical editions. James has returned to the older model of English translations and has produced not another text consisting largely in Talmudic layerings and annotations, but a poem in English written upon the pattern of the original, meant to be taken in as a single continuous experience of an unfolding narrative: no halts, shifts in modality, or epicyclic reversions; no dizzying descents into the Dis of the critical apparatus or rapturous ascents to the unadulterated vision of the pure Italian text. It is a noble aspiration, if nothing else; and in many places it is a success.
No one familiar with James’s writings over the years can really doubt that he is an immensely talented, witty, intellectually voracious, readable, and (for the most part) judicious critic. He is also a novelist of some skill, and his memoirs (at least the first volume thereof) are splendid. And he is a genuinely accomplished poet.
He has also, unfortunately, been guilty of a great deal of dreadful dabbling in popular culture, and his career as a television “personality” in Britain has involved him in numerous projects over which posterity, if it has so much as a shred of mercy, will draw the thickest veils of oblivion; his 1993 series Fame in the Twentieth Century was often so molar-grindingly fatuous that to call it froth would be vastly to exaggerate its substantiality.
Still, when he is good he can be very good. The best of his poetry exhibits an admirable combination of deceptively unpretentious diction and tense lyric control. At times, it has something of the plain yet almost oracular plangency of his beloved Philip Larkin, and perhaps something of the dry but oddly evocative eloquence of Keith Thomas as well. And it may be only because he is an Australian expatriate living in England, but I think some of his poetry reminds me of Peter Porter’s. Whatever the case, he has an estimable gift. And, as he has demonstrated in such pieces as “Poem of the Year (1982),” he is quite adept at long verse forms.
His version of the Comedy is not mannered in the way the older Victorian renderings were, even if it betrays certain mannerisms that smack a little too much of James and too little of Dante, but it is written in a formally strict English verse. It is also, for the most part, quite fluid, uncluttered, and even lovely. James has elected—God bless him and his issue forever—not to attempt to reproduce Dante’s terza rima, a form that English simply does not possess a sufficient quantity of natural rhymes to sustain over extended periods. Instead he writes in quatrains, in iambic pentameter, at which he is an old practiced hand.
He also, however, takes liberties with the text, both larger and more numerous than he seems willing to own up to in his introduction. Principally, in order to avoid the delays created by long footnotes to the text, he has chosen to integrate much of the information that those notes would contain directly into the poem itself. He attempts to reduce these explanatory interpolations to their barest essentials—a few clipped phrases, sometimes only a few words—but they still have an inflationary effect on the narrative.
In his desire to produce a poem, rather than an ocean of critical commentary with a bit of poetry bobbing about like flotsam at its center, James has still managed to give us a book that is substantially longer than Dante’s original. The aim remains noble, but the execution is of rather mixed effect. Moreover, there is a certain capriciousness about James’ choices regarding which information to convey and which to omit. I suppose that there was simply too much that he might have said regarding who Beatrice was, so he decided not to say anything at all.
In the end, however, cavils aside, I think James’ Dante is a success, in precisely the terms he has dictated for himself. It is a long poem, and naturally it is not of uniform quality throughout; and since it is a translation it necessarily shows occasional signs of forced phrasing; and some of the easy unpretentiousness gets a little too easy and unpretentious for me. But for the most part the verse is delightful, its flowing diction often apparently effortless, its cleverness obvious but not flamboyant.
Needless to say, the scintillating beauty of Dante’s poetry cannot be magically reproduced in another language; but it is possible to create an occasionally analogous loveliness that serves, if nothing else, as a genuinely reverent tribute to the original. And this James achieves in many places. Take, for instance, this passage from his rendering of the Purgatorio:
A sweet unchanging air
Fondled my brow, the soft force
of a breeze
Bending the trembling boughs to
that point where
The mountain’s shadow first falls. At their ease
The boughs were swayed, and
still remained upright
Enough for all the little birds to
Out of the tree-tops where they
spent the night
And now turned their fine arts to
The morning hours, ecstatic in
Which gave an undertone to their
As, near Ravenna, the Sirocco
The air—one of the winds, in
Locked up by Aeolus—and the
Murmurs from branch to branch.
I suppose I could do without that last, somewhat needless amplification upon Dante’s quand’ Ëolo scilocco fuor discioglie, but I would still say that there is some real element of Dante’s music here: the union of terseness and delicacy, of simplicity and elegance. And, taken solely as English verse, it is very enjoyable. That is more than enough justification for including James’ Dante among one’s favored translations of the Comedy, and even of reading it through once or twice, just for the pleasure it affords. There will always be time for footnotes on other occasions.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer for First Things and author of The Devil and Pierre Gernet.