Dante learns a lesson from Virgil, and that lesson is about motion and poetry. Robert Pogue Harrison writes , that he learns “what it means to write a poem whose narrative not only moves but has movement as its prime directive. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas mobilizes the Trojan refugees and leads them across the Mediterranean, by way of Carthage, to a new land, where the Trojan legacy, by providential decree, will one day be reborn in the city of Rome. In Virgil’s Aeneid Aeneas is, like his people, weary, full of sorrows, and prone to depression, yet he is compelled by the gods to continue the journey until he arrives at the mouth of the Tiber River. On several occasions the Trojans are tempted to put down their oars and settle down, yet the gods keep them on the go until they arrive at their appointed destination.”

Pogue suggests that both The Aeneid and the Comedy move along as poem and journey “through multiple mechanisms, including its highly dynamic rhyme scheme of interlocking tercets ( terza rima , as it’s known in Italian), as well as its narrative drama. Mary Jo Bang preserves the tercet form without attempting to reproduce Dante’s rhyme scheme. Being an excellent poet in her own right, she succeeds in giving the Inferno ’s narrative drama an energetic idiom that gets the poem moving, and at times even dancing, on the page.”

Of the two recent translations of the poem, Pogue thinks one succeeds in capturing this vitality, the other doesn’t.

The one that works is Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno: A New Translation : “Since Bang aims for a resolutely contemporary translation of the Inferno , she often employs devices that will cause squeamish scholars and purists to gasp. She frequently echoes literary works that postdate the Comedy by centuries (for example in Canto IV: ‘Let us go, then, you and I . . . . ); she incorporates myriad references to pop music and contemporary culture (Canto VIII: ‘An Ultimate Aero couldn’t pass through air any faster/than the little skiff’); and she does not shy away from anachronistic images (in Inferno 27 she refers to the ‘strobe-light motion’ that Guido da Montefeltro’s flame makes when his soul speaks to Dante through its flickering tip). She commits several unforced errors along the way, to be sure, yet she hits many more winners in the overall count. The result is one of the most readable and enjoyable versions of the Inferno of our time.”

Pogue doesn’t think that Clive James’s does ( The Divine Comedy ): “His decision to dispense with explanatory notes altogether and to lift the relevant information ‘out of the basement and put . . . it on display in the text’ comes at a high price with minimal payoff, not only because it obliges him to import into the body of the poem much material that does not properly belong there, but because it invariably blunts the narrative impact of the original. In theory James understands that The Divine Comedy is all about movement (‘Dante has a thousand tricks . . . to keep things moving’), yet in practice his translation tends to obstruct what he calls the ‘mutually reinforcing balance of tempo and texture.’”

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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