No poem is as note-laden as Dante’s Comedy. The glosses are absolutely necessary, but as the TLS reviewer of Clive James’s recent The Divine Comedy observes, they can get in the way: “The trouble is that the supplementary material can be as off-putting as it is notionally helpful. How much about Thomas Aquinas, or the Donation of Constantine, or Guelfs and Ghibellines do you actually have to know? How many ambiguities do you have to have sorted out for you? Some bilingual editions include almost as much hard information and interpretative discussion as is de rigueur in Italian.”

James solves the problem by bringing the glosses into the text.

In Paradiso 10, he lists the main achievements of the theologians who speak in the text, though he compensates for the expansion of the text by excising some of the theologians. Despite including the notes in the text, “there is little sense . . . of Dante being dumbed down; particularly in doctrinal and polemical passages, there is a lot packed into long sentences that snake over strings of quatrains and acquire added syntactic complexity from the parenthetic glossing. At his best James balances complexity and forward impetus in a way no other contemporary version manages, probably achieving his best results with Purgatorio and Paradiso rather than Inferno .” James occasionally leaves the original behind, he “nearly always delivers a readily graspable sense which is one of the senses of the original. The downside is the loss of multiplicity of meaning and of textural richness.”

James solves the problem of translating Dante’s poetry by ignoring the original terza rima and writing “strongly rhythmic iambic pentameters in quatrains, with perfect rhymes (barring a few near misses) of the kind which James has always favoured in his own poetry.” The result is “a dusted-down, up-front Dante we haven’t seen before, a Dante who by and large speaks in forceful, modern English, give or take the occasional poeticism imposed by rhyme, who says what he means and who implicitly proclaims his readability.”

Dante is the least stuffy of epic poets, and James keeps that tone by giving names to devils (“Scumbag, Scallywag and Snotnose”) and using the phrase “get the collywobbles” to describe Dante’s reaction to Beatrice’s dressing down at the end of Purgatorio .

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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