“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”
— Talking Heads
Open up a secondhand copy of the entire Divine Comedy. Its first section might be dog-eared and marred, but I bet that as pages turn, those pages become brighter and cleaner. Translations of Inferno not to mention Dan Brown’s yarn, abound. Purgatorio sells less, and has garnered only W.S. Merwin’s fine version as a recent contribution. By the time readers reach Paradiso, as far as I know, the shelf stands empty of an English-language poet’s stand-alone presentation for that final, very elevated, cantica. Up there, Paradise lets a lot of us down. Talking Heads envisioned: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” The band plays “my favorite song” endlessly, the guests leave the party at the same time, the kiss ends only to start all over. Everything we dreamed of comes true, on repeat. This rarified Paradiso hovers high; many who plunge into Inferno never breathe in its heady atmosphere.
On Christmas Eve, 2007, Robert Baird asked in Slate, “Why doesn’t anyone read Dante’s Paradiso?” Baird recounts that in the Inferno, we stand beside Dante as he plays God. We play off the poet’s irony. We see who Dante damns, even if at least one particular sad soul had still been alive on Good Friday, 1300. That dawn, pilgrim Dante begins the journey poet Dante narrates as a Commedia. It’s a tale with a happy ending, but those who retreat down the circles into deeper hells will never find out why. Stubbornly, many prefer to watch Dante play God. The poet exacts retribution on those who have wronged him. He writes as an exile, under a threat of death by fire if he returned home to Florence.
His enemies join those he damns from the past and his present. A clever and cruel judge, assuming God’s justice as his own, he sentences his foes. Dante dramatizes the “natural law” of contrapasso (“suffer the opposite”). This theological process ingeniously makes every punishment fit the crime, by a complementary or opposing action. Dante’s contempt chills at hell’s bottom as he passes Satan’s posterior; in all three cantiche, his revenge boils over. Inferno makes for a harrowing downhill slide before it upends, and tilts upward to light. Its many translations, recently by poets Robert Pinsky, Ciaran Carson, and Mary Jo Bang, attest to the appeal of Dante’s first 34 cantos. As Bang told an interviewer, “Translating this poem was like doing an almost endless crossword puzzle of exactly the right level of difficulty (“An American in Dante’s Inferno“, by E.C. Belli, Cirdumference Mag.org). It was demanding, but not impossible. Once I decided to single-mindedly devote myself to it for a number of years, it became a rare, intense, and slightly terrifying kind of fun—a bit like being on a roller coaster just as it drops from the high point.” Hell, we agree, thrills.
All those Infernos tempt us to forget Dante meant us to struggle on to our heavenly reward. He started his foray into the dark wood. But he never intended for himself or us to stop and sink forever with three-headed Satan immured in ice, where hell freezes over. Dante calls on us, to stay by his side as he ascends.Purgatorio demands repentance. Paradiso awaits penitents as cleansed souls, accepted by saints. Justice endures in his heaven, infused by love. The hatreds Dante the poet and the pilgrim both dramatize so vividly will dissolve. Ecstasy lifts up all spirits. As Dante reaches his destination, he and we learn our limits. Baird observes: “Once we follow him to heaven, it’s we who lack the inside information, we who stand on the wrong end of the irony. Previously we judged hell; now heaven judges us.” Dante himself grows as a poet and a pilgrim, in two decades spent refining these verses.
Dante as pilgrim must abandon his own confidence. He must assume his own submission to God’s plan. After climbing Mount Purgatory to the Earthly Paradise, Dante the poet must also capitulate. He, like all humans in his depiction, must bow to a higher power reigning in an eternal realm. There God, not a mortal creator, directs the circles and welcomes the saved. By the way, Dante bent the rules at the gates, slipping in virtuous pagans to the luxury boxes now and then. The other eternal realm, Inferno, filled with those Dante consigned. He sentenced at least one inhabitant there before God could pass judgment on that miscreant still alive–in body, but no longer possessing a soul. The time-tied transitional state of Purgatorio enabled progress by souls cleansed of sin so as to enter the Beatific Vision. Even if Dante populates Paradiso with his own characters, these have been approved by divine sanction. Here, this great epic soars, and bursts.
So goes the received wisdom. You can find it repeated by many seeking solace and inspiration. But part three, like a blockbuster’s second sequel, disappoints quite a few in the audience today. Maybe it always did. In his lifetime, the Inferno made Dante’s reputation; the Florentine exile’s darkened countenance, passersby gossiped, came from his sooty travails down under. Paradiso, by definition, transcends in form and content the contempt and torment percolating in previous verses. It adds the calmer confidence asserted by Purgatorio‘s sufferers, as they inched toward mystical reward.
Accompanying these souls as they reach the goal Dante insisted is ours, too, we as readers return after the summit of the earthly mountain of purgation (pushed up from Satan’s fall from heaven) to a second eternal state in part three. But chastened by pride, we may hesitate to take pleasure from the sight of the damned. We are humbled by Dante’s progress from aghast observer of the low life in Satan’s grasp to penitent participant as a sinner marked for rehabilitation. It’s a long climb up out of hell into the light. Beatific stasis beckoned, as a repetition of heavenly joy appealed to readers with often grim lives. His audience may accept Dante’s dramatization of sin, penitence, and purification through “confirmation bias” directed by faith or by critical consensus, agreeing that those Dante whom castigates merit God’s damnation. Those Dante acclaims earn purification. But, under divine, endless scrutiny, is this Paradiso less a haven than an eternal Panopticon?
What Did Don Draper Do?
Rod Dreher asked a year ago at the American Conservative, ““Can an atheist really get Dante?” Denying a non-believer can, Dreher cites an expert on otherworldly visions and afterlife accounts, Carol Zaleski. She not only gives a shout-out to Mad Men‘s Don Draper, as he opens John Ciardi’s paperback translation in Hawai’i, but she sums up its challenge. “If Draper reads beyond the Inferno, what will he make of the promise of salvation, the joy of the penitents, the beatific vision?”
Zaleski quotes the very same tagline I was going to include at this point. It comes by way of Prue Shaw, concluding her preface to a deft thematic introduction issued this spring in paperback, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Shaw translates, as Zaleski phrases it via Dreher’s column, “one possible answer with a line from a sonnet on Dante by the ardently anti-Christian Italian poet Giosuè Carducci: ‘Muor Giove, e l’inno del poeta resta‘ (‘Jove dies, and the poet’s hymn remains’).” Shaw does not credit Carducci, and she substitutes “God” for “Jove”. This adds intrigue, for Shaw tries to explain Dante to us, even as her translation abandons the Roman deity of Carducci’s original cited by Zaleski and substitutes its Christian replacement. Many readers of our generation emulate Don Draper, having lost Dante’s connections to Christianity or perhaps to any such deity.
Shaw reminds us how Dante damned his nemesis, Pope Boniface. Dante excoriated those who rushed in, during the first flush of capitalism and global markets as the bankers and merchants took control. As he phrased it, his age watched the rush of la gente nuova e i subiti guadagni (“the new people and the instant profits”). During his career, Dante hedged his bets between the papacy and its imperial rival. Losing, he despised clerical despots as bitterly as he did tyrants among the rapacious Florentines who expelled Dante. As we set aside theological discourse, Dreher’s preferences recede. This may displease critics attached to Dante’s Catholic origins, but in her presentation of his themes, Shaw emphasizes a secular context. This reminds contemporary readers, who may expect a poem full of piety, how Dante fumed as often as he praised. He perfected his epic to work through what post-Mad Men shrinks might call his “issues”. Self-improvement looms large. As poet and as pilgrim, these two Dantes long for perfection.
Shaw has taught Dante for decades at Cambridge, but as a forthright Australian, she cuts through whatever gloss or gunk obscures our view of his text. She guides us through thematic chapters rather than a chronological commentary through the Commedia or a critical biography introducing us to the highlights of his life. The results can be challenging, But if you can keep the Guelphs from the Ghibellines straight — and Shaw makes sure we do — this study may reward those new to Dante, or those, like myself, looking for a broader overview of his career, and his influences. It goes deeper than what common translations can provide by line-by-line annotation. While Guy P. Raffa’s primer presents a useful commentary to allusions and characters through study questions and cross-referenced glossary (excerpted at his Danteworlds website), that will satisfy beginning students. As a topical treatment which departs from canto-by-canto presentation, and which investigates Dante’s epic within its historical and cultural origins, Shaw gives us the guide inquiring readers need.
After half a century of scrutiny, Shaw knows every facet of the poet’s considerable erudition. She charts his complicated political entanglements (we are reminded he faced torture and death for his allegiance). She elucidates the dramatic achievement that made the vernacular, after the poet experimented with Tuscan dialect and added many more neologisms, the standard for the emerging language of Italian. Many regional variations proliferated. None, as Shaw shows, endured as long as Dante’s own (at least in print), as he asserted in typically arrogant form. He concocted a show-off comparison to flaunt his native Florentine expertise. This linguistic and poetic confidence, increasing as Dante took on more challenging models after 1300, produced over 13,000 lines, as a hundred masterful cantos.
Reading Dante progresses by chapters on friendship, power, his life, love, time, numbers, and words. I found to my surprise those on time and numbers as engrossing as those on love and words. Shaw sharpens her gaze when delving into the textual acumen that displays Dante’s talents at their best. You come away convinced that the more Dante took on — the journey down to hell, up past purgatory, and to the Beatific Vision and that surpassing expression itself on a human plane — the more he rose to the occasion and found language worthy of the subject, certainly a topic meant to humble anyone.
A few highlights from Shaw’s take on Dante: he’s a “good Catholic but an independent thinker”, and humanity’s place in the cosmos and the individual’s place in society occupy his center stage. His journey downward and upward is also “the story of becoming capable of writing the poem about the journey”. In examining the unexpected presence of public nonbelievers in medieval Florence, condemned to suffer infernally, she notes Dante’s typical symmetry, the punishments he often invents that match or invert the crime perpetrated above on earth. “Those who thought life ended in the grave are destined to spend eternity in a tomb.” Ponder this, and Dreher’s question rises again, nagging us.
However, Shaw’s Commedia isn’t a political tract any more than it is a sermon, for she promotes Dante’s primary concern within the “power of words” to chastise his contemporaries and to correct the many flaws of his troubled city and a compromised Church. The vanity of Pope Boniface VIII gains special note. His massive statue as a memorial — shown in one of the helpful illustrations throughout this volume (although on a Kindle I had to enlarge many to make out their detail, as in the delicate Sandro Botticelli line drawings of the cantos) — finds few admirers today. Shaw contrasts his monument with a statue of Dante she glimpsed in New York City, behind Central Park’s shrubbery. Elsewhere she refers to Catholic schoolgirls in ’50s Sydney, UN sanctions, and Siena vs. Florence soccer taunts. She connects the controversies of Dante’s era, often as political bickering which feels distant from our concerns, by revealing an exiled poet who strives to fix his society’s woes by honest poetic craft. Shaw wants to broaden the approaches through which contemporary readers meet Dante.
His masterpiece may appear arcane. Shaw notes how it’s “not an account of a dream” as were other visions of the time, “but of something that happened when the poet woke up” at the start of the cantos. We are charmed by some of those whom Dante and Virgil meet in hell, but the moral scrutiny persists. Bold Ulysses or seduced Francesca may inspire our sympathy. We must stay wary. Dante presents an alert ethical strategy that keeps ambiguity alive along with dispassionate judgment, reflecting divine justice despite human frailty. Ulysses erred by his foolhardiness, Francesca by her refusal to account for her actions. God runs this non-stop show.
The epic spirals down into earth, where Satan burrowed after he fell from heaven, only to claw itself up the slope of the soil displaced from the center of the earth, as purgatory carries Dante to its summit. Since the cantos end with the heavenly light, language must stop trying to capture this scene at Paradiso‘s limit. In Shaw’s phrasing, it’s a poignant “dream that one cannot recall on waking” which “leaves a trace of the emotions experienced in it. Snow melting in sunlight retains a faint tracing of an imprint on it. The oracles of the Sibyl are lost on the winds that blow away the pages they were written on.”
Thus, referring to dazzling images employed by Dante as Paradiso culminates, Shaw leaves us with our own wonder at Dante’s bold ambition and the courage taken to record his frank revulsion against abundant clerical, personal, and political corruption around him. He also undertakes a redemptive task. He makes his everyday language, enhanced by his talent and coinages, capable of taking on the next world, along with this one. From Here to Eternity is her aptly chosen subtitle.
Supplemented by notes and a very extensive bibliography, told in scholarly but engaging language, Shaw’s survey of Dante should reward anyone wanting to learn more about him and his times. She makes a strong case for his linguistic range and his dogged ambition. One will close her own book likely convinced that Dante’s legacy deserves to sustain its lofty power.
The Right Way Blurred
If a newcomer shuts Shaw’s book and then vows to enter the Comedy, where does he or she turn? How do we savor Dante’s eloquence in English? The barrier looms higher as fewer study Italian and fewer turn to the classics. An Irish scholar who teaches Joyce in Rome told me how he has given up assigning A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Today’s students lack background in Catholicism. They cannot follow that novel’s Thomistic speculation. Most probably belittle its Dantesque sermon scaring the hell out of, or into, Stephen Dedalus. Generation gaps widen as we leap into Dante’s more archaic, more densely Catholic epic. However, after eight centuries, the speed of scholarship accelerates. Shaw tallies an article a day is added to the heap of 50,000 publications on the poet. Newcomers long to approach the Commedia. They search for the best interpreter to fill in for Dante, as readers join Virgil, Beatrice, St. Bernard, and the hundreds who crowd around them in unending terror or triumph.
Footnotes, translations, introductions accumulate. Even a few years after the first publication of this poem, Italian commentaries proliferated, attesting to the demands this work makes on everyone. Its famous opening plunges us per una selva oscura, “through a dark wood”. We join a pilgrim who admits that in such despair and gloom “the right way was blurred” as if lost to him, la diritta via era smarrita. Right away, word choice flickers in Italian. I think of “smeared” as a faint cognate, while “blurred” gets ghosted in this gloomy forest, shadowed within the usual rendition of “lost”. Similarly, per presents a translation of “through” as a more exact equivalent to the common English version of “in”. La diritta via nudges some Dantes into translation as off “the straight way”. Other Dantes roam away from “the right road”. Already, the second and third lines reveal the range of how we hear Dante’s singular voice.
Dante forces us to think, and this text expects that we adapt to its pace, unpredictable yet methodical.
As this poem grows, it slows. As A.N. Wilson suggests in his Dante in Love (2011), “months” might be profitably spent pondering Paradiso, a few lines at a time. But most of us dash into hell, need notes, get confused, and wander off Dante’s path, somewhere up that purgatorial slope. Fewer trudge on, for passion or duty. When I first faced the Comedy, I had to race through it, It was one week’s reading assignment, in a college class on the big classics. I remember sitting late in a deserted library, losing the plot amidst my own dark wood, shadowed well before the middle of my life’s way by thickets of medieval erudition.
Back then, Allen Mandelbaum’s translation (1980-1986; also online, text only, via Digital Dante at Columbia University) of all three cantiche, now far more commonly chosen in America, was still in progress. So, I studied the edition prepared by the once-popular poet John Ciardi. This once-ubiquitous version dominated the postwar period for Don Draper, as well as my own curriculum. Ciardi’s 1954-1970 “dummy terza rima” version tried to keep in rhyme-deficient English the concatenation that hooks you in, to tug you forward in the Italian. James Merrill compares Dante’s innovative scheme to a walk upon the water. In The Poet’s Dante (eds. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff, 2001), Merrill proclaims: “No verse form moves so wonderfully. Each tercet’s first and third line rhyme with the middle one of the preceding set, and enclose the new rhyme sound of the next, the way a scull outstrips the twin, already dissolving oarstrokes that propel it. As rhymes interlock throughout a canto, so do incidents and images throughout the poem.” A steady Italian flow eludes our vernacular channeling. Ciardi tried to repeat the beat of this end-rhyme, but he admits no English version can.
I don’t think Ciardi holds up very well, as Americanized discourse. But in his notes, Ciardi tries to answer questions beginners like me have long asked. J.T. Barbarese defends Ciardi against not only Mandelbaum’s version but two subsequent translations of the Inferno. The first is by Elio Zappulla and the second is from today’s leading contender to Mandelbaum. This up-and-comer has emerged between 2000 and 2007, as three bilingual volumes by Professor Robert Hollander (visit his Princeton Dante Project, with his translation and notes shared with commentaries and other texts) crafted into efficient verse by his wife, the poet Jean.
Preparing for a this-world trek, I decided to carry along the Commedia. I had dabbled in the first two parts since college, but I kept ducking out before Paradiso. Therefore, I had to select a complete version. For elegance and portability, I lingered over Mandelbaum in an elegant Everyman’s Library reprint (1995, graced with some of Botticelli’s drawings). But I debated the translator’s choices when I compared the Italian from his three-volume set on my home shelf with his English verse. Prue Shaw’s study lauds Hollander, alongside the more literal prose translation (1996-2011) for the Commedia from Robert Durling with notes by Ronald Martinez. They provide a well-annotated edition with supplemental essays on key topics. But they are too big to tote. I tried an e-book, even if losing the ability to have a bilingual text with facing Italian (a feature Mandelbaum, Hollander, and Durling all offer, and one which I encourage for any reader, as no single edition satisfies curiosity).
So, I chose a Penguin Classic (2006-2007) for my Kindle, by Robin Kirkpatrick. Chastened or bemused as I am by the reprint of Kirkpatrick’s first volume with its cover blurb: “Read the original Inferno and search for the secrets to Dan Brown’s Inferno“, I liked his attempt to keep the breath and the rush of Dante. His enjambment and his alliteration defy easy imitation, but Kirkpatrick attempts to capture Dante’s control as he downshifts and accelerates. No translation suffices, as Dante changed Italian itself to manipulate its contractions and elisions in ways English cannot; he coined many new words, as he pushed its limits and enriched its vocabulary.
Happily, the Italian provided in Hollander and Kirkpatrick enables a reader, online or in print, to leap back and forth. Still, Kindle cannot deliver the near-simultaneous scanning of a face-to-face pagination. This has enticed a few readers to do as Jorge Luis Borges did commuting on a Buenos Aires tram. He read a canto in English, and then tried to follow through the original, even if he admitted “I only know the Italian Dante taught me.” The more one compares any translation with this original, no matter one’s fluency, the more the pulse of Dante’s rhythms thrums. When one hears the Italian spoken (as linked on the Princeton site to the recital by Lino Pertile) and sees the original lines presented next to Hollander’s online translation or one in print, (or awkwardly adjacent in an e-book), the hendecasyllabic 11-syllable meter Dante pioneered carries the reader as listener into an immersive experience no English words can measure.
Italian syntax and meaning in this inventive line scheme shrink and stretch. English lacks this flexibility. Our poetry tends to favor (as Prue Shaw alludes to) the heartbeat parallel of long-short iambs in pentameter, ten syllables which march along with the time it takes between inhalation and exhalation. While venerable, this default English lyrical line does not match that of Dante. So, this may spur you towards the original text, easily found online and in print. Informed readers may start to play act as translators.
This regimen encourages you to listen to at least an echo of the original meter and melodies. One must choose: as with Mandelbaum’s edition, Penguin’s whole Comedy is published as three separate paperbacks bilingually, or as a single volume in English only, and with truncated introductions but the same endnotes. Kirkpatrick remains and may remain a runner-up compared to Mandelbaum and the Hollanders’ head’s start in classrooms and bookstores. But this British professor pays attention to the pauses and the stop-start, digress-resume, detour-return patterns of the original stanzas. He may opt for both rather than one. Most Inferno translators, as the pilgrim faces that first dark wood, deliver this verb as either “I found myself” or “I came to”. For mi ritrovai in line two, Kirkpatrick combines the two options into “I came around and found myself”. Instead of choosing “lost” for smarrita , he gives us “blurred and lost”. Maybe not perfect, but it opens up the meaning if at the cost of concision. English may need more words, lacking the limber, supple, nimble Italian Dante invented. Having glanced at these translations, having skimmed the cosmic arc of Dante’s epic, let us eavesdrop on two debates.
Theology Set to Music
The first debate revolves around how poets and scholars nowadays can reproduce Dante’s intentions. Mandelbaum strives to catch in Dante’s rhythms the “drumming” of a march uphill. Hollander follows a similarly melodic beat when he sums up Paradiso as “theology set to music”. Dante himself in his treatise on translating into the vernacular,De Vulgari Eloquentia, defined poetry as “a rhetorical art set to music”. We need time to hear its Scholastic diction and mystical proprieties. When a reader “makes haste slowly” (as in the Latin tag festina lente), and consults a bilingual edition such as Mandelbaum, Hollander, Kirkpatrick, Durling, Mark Musa, or Anthony Esolen provide, the time taken pays off. You may find slow spots and languid scenes as the poem progresses, but also many moments to mull over and lines to revisit. Nevertheless, Clive James, as the most recent translator, reckons in our impatient century that many may never bother to learn Italian.
He offers his own effort, rhyming in iambic pentameter, as the best we can do in English. He therefore fills out his verses with definitions and explanations. James tries to avoid footnotes. But this decision can divert the power coiled within Dante’s meter. As James reminds us, Dante discharges this force deep in his concentrated lines, not only at their end-rhymes. Ciardi strained to convey this condensed dynamic. But to avoid a three-line compromise, and to let the English loosen into four-line patterns, James works himself ragged. He battled leukemia and emphysema as he translated this latest Dante.
Durling’s three thick volumes, in the 1996-2010 Oxford edition, with added notes by Martinez, and essays appended, invite readers ready to delve deeper into Dante’s erudition. This version of Paradisowinds up longer than the scholarly pair’s previous two installments, tangible proof of the needs puzzled audiences encounter as they figure out the toughest section of the hundred cantos. This supersedes prose versions by John Sinclair (1939-1946) and Charles Singleton (1975), which in turn had spurred the Hollanders to provide poetry rather than a prose “trot” or “crib” in their own edition. Yet, this can tempt readers towards versified alterations, which inevitably diminish Dante’s fidelity.
In his blog, Tom Parisi compares a few attempts in English to convey the opening lines from Inferno. You can look at these to get a sense of the task. You also get comfortable, or awed, as you contrast translations with the Italian, if you have mastered a Romance language. Some poets sneak into English some “padding”, as Durling sniffs. In prose that captures the message every three lines, but does not mirror it due to syntactical differences between Italian and English structure, Durling tries to stay brisk. But still, like the skilled rephrasings by Hollander, Mandelbaum, and those who wisely depart from a triple-rhyme scheme in English, it flips around Dante’s syntax. Anthony Esolen adapts a modified rhyme into blank verse. But he does not force the rhyme into his iambic pentameter. This compromise allows the mood to relax or tighten. In similar styles, Robert Pinsky or Ciaran Carson craft respectable, likable renditions in conversational meters. You, as I have, may find your shelf of translations increasing. Compare how a favorite classical opus may generate numerous recordings by different conductors. A classic studio album may spawn session tapes, acoustic sets, or demo versions.
Ezra Pound praised Laurence Binyon’s archaic attempt between 1933 and 1943. This with feminine rhymes and antiquated diction valiantly strives to come closer to the sensation of Italian as articulated. Binyon usually adapts triple rhymes in equivalent English. But he must distort syntax. Although I have barely sampled J. G. Nichols’ 2005 blend of end-rhyme with a sauntering meter, it strains to match Dante’s linear stride in clipped, declamatory English. At a clip, it moves better than Ciardi’s effort, let alone an older Penguin Classic by Dorothy Sayers, a doomed attempt at terza rima Coming from Belfast, Carson’s Hibernian English integrates a ballad tradition into a looser triple rhyme that, attesting to his considerable expertise in difficult meters, keeps spry and stays edgy.
I realize why the actual line of Dante cannot somehow be copied into English. We lack the formal-informal distinction for the second person. We don’t contract or elide as many words, even as we need more of them to fill in auxiliary forms and prepositions. Still, along with a few bystanders who find themselves compelled, in my mind I try to rephrase Dante’s original into a topsy-turvy English. I pore over bilingual translations and their annotations. I am no scholar, but this mental exertion helps us get closer. In 2010, on his blog, William James Tychonievich tested a few lines from Inferno, scoring 15 translations on fidelity to the original, albeit with a dictionary’s assistance.
Shaw affirms fidelity when she translates Dante’s passages in her book. (I did not know when I first began Reading Dante that she was the husband of Clive James. Re-reading her book, I wondered why Shaw never mentions him, given James praises her. His 2013 translation preceded her 2014 study. The intervening news of an old affair he had led to her tossing him out of their house in Cambridge.)
Giving up on an equivalent for the tercet of Dante, James opts for a fourth line, to avoid footnotes, and to give up on any expectation that Dante’s concision can be coupled with an English-language equivalent. T.S. Eliot proclaimed “Dante thought in terza rima.” James admits how after a career as a poet, he himself thinks in quatrains. But this attempt to ease the reader’s ride feels like a fourth wheel bolted on a tricycle. I sympathize with James, who like Seamus Heaney (see Paul Hurt’s explication), tries to translate Dante as a poet turned scholar, when few can combine these avocations into a supple performance. One way to produce sturdy but pliant verse, as poet-scholar pair the Hollanders prove, if no longer Shaw and James, might be for two Dantisti to pledge themselves in a long marriage.
Mark Musa opens The Portable Dante (2003, reducing the commentary from his own Penguin translations, here revised) dismissing the ornamentation and additions his fellow translators indulge. He prefers less excitement, the better to show off Dante’s conducting of its rhetorical crescendos. A.S. Kline’s prose translation presents an unadorned rendering free of any commentary, if downloadable (2004) in many formats. His paragraphs may represent as far as we distance ourselves from Dante’s poetry in English. Dante’s medium, a sinuous, febrile, packed triple pattern, remains charged and slippery. Yet, we wonder how Dante’s poetry can spring, in transcendent form, past limits of dutiful exchanges, the prosaic transcriptions, the everyday conversations we stick to. We puff up his verse.
An airier translation, to my surprise, floats smoothly. Musa might shove it aside as ostentatious, Durling might push it away as padded. But Robin Kirkpatrick, after teaching decades at Cambridge (did he and Shaw compete?), tosses his own triple-line three-book threat onto the tottering heap of divine (an honorific added by Dante’s admirer Boccaccio years later, appearing in print only in 1555) comedies. Like James, he strains to lift the delicate or pounding pulse out of Dante’s inner lines. He transfers this wriggling, elusive beat alive into our mechanism, as demotic, confident, wry, or tender English. Locked into three rather than James’ four lines, Kirkpatrick opts for dashes and asides to keep syntax inverted or exciting. He tries to sustain the breathless or rushing delivery Dante generates so steadily. Here are a couple of examples, which will then inform a critique about today’s reception of Paradiso.
“Whoever mourns to think that we here must die,/ to live our lives up there, has never seen/ the cool refreshment of the eternal shower.” Beatrice’s contented mood replaces the grunts of hell and fulfills the hopes of purgatory. She compares Paradiso 14’s circles to dancers “wheeling, drawn and pressed/ by keener happiness at certain points–/ exult in voice, their gestures quickening”. Kirkpatrick’s lighter tone replicates Dante’s, in a cantica filled with smiles and constant, of course, letizia e gioia, “gladness and joy”. This phrase wearies verbal reproduction, in Italian or in English, as happiness never stops.
Beatrice and her retinue share a giddy delight. Ethereal exaltation has been the goal of Dante from the dark wood on downward and then upward. It spurs on readers to keep pace beside him and his guides, first Virgil, and then Beatrice, as Dante’s ambitions draw on his audience. Both the poet and the reader must embrace the Christian paradigm as ultimate truth.
A few cantos later, this scene repeats, and a correction. “A smile– its light defeating me– she now/ addressed me: Turn around. Pay heed to him./ Heaven is found not only in my eyes.” This disjointed syntax mirrors the conversational patterns and interruptions frequently found in the original. It also conveys a sense of the imperative moods and blunt speech heard often in the Commedia. Beatrice warns the pilgrim that God rather her “lovely eyes” must beckon as the proper direction for his attention. Her “reflected view” reminds her beloved that he must turn away even from her, to enter the “eternal pleasure” her eyes share with the necessary and complete object of her affection, the presence who is God.
Near the end, language dissolves before the vision’s intensity. Dante sees in “its depths, this light, I saw, contained,/ bound up and gathered in a single book,/ the leaves that scatter though the universe”. His struggle to speak coherently before he finds this metaphor symbolizes the shift between the physical attempt to capture the fleeting moments left over after this divine encounter and the subject itself, the pinpointed center of all creation. Dante grasps one of the most poignant allusions in his poem. He testifies to the evanescence of any created thing. His epic merges into energy. Language longs to flow into, rather than melt away from, the power charging it: “So, too, in sunlight, snow will lose its seal,/ So, too, the oracles the Sibyl wrote/ on weightless leaves are lost upon the wind.” The poem nourishes the source from which it takes its own existence, as part of the divine plan for all.
Many nowadays remain less convinced that the latter parts of the Commedia stand, or rise, up so well. This opens up the second debate, as readers unable to condone Dante’s construction dismiss critical cant. After the lamentations of hell, the conversations among penitents soften the mood. The verse starts to match this. But, even among the emanations of the saved (for speech itself begins to give way to subtler transmissions), resentment of sin leads to gloating in heaven. Saintly triumph annoys many of us. For in our therapeutic mindset, we advocate healing and restoration rather than hatred and resignation. Dante’s souls, whether demoted or promoted, have to play forever by divine rules.
Eric Griffiths, co-editor of a British Penguin Classic, Dante in English (2005), defends high-low and oral-literate, medieval contraries within the epic as essential to its secular-religious blend. Dante’s audiences moved more easily from one extreme to the other than we do. He observes a nuance that has eluded many critics. “Dante may assent to all the official teaching, but only these unforeseeably various inflections in the staging of his conversations tell us which doctrines troubled or seized him or left him tepid.” Griffiths finds room for doubt between the lines.
Conservative scholar Alan Jacobs chides that modern readers err if they assume that Dante’s depictions of this otherworld are taken literally. He places Dante’s own struggle to overcome his sin with the challenge meted out to those who follow him up Mount Purgatory. In Christian terms, this demands that we recognize our flaws, repair relations with those we have harmed, and repent of such failings.
Increasingly, some of this new century’s readers react to this rarified praise as hot air. In this world and the next, they choose rehabilitation over damnation, where reconciliation rejects condemnation. To borrow Mark Doty’s title for his dissenting entry to the Hawkins and Jacoff anthology, dissenters wind up “rooting for the damned”. Doty resents Dante for “outing” his mentor, Brunetto Latini, by sentencing him to the infernal ring of “sodomites”. This term, however, as Durling and Martinez explain in a supplemental essay to their edition, escapes limitations we may apply from our own interpretation. Latini may have been put in his place for his conceit, or because medieval academics as a class were alleged to favor homosexuality. For Dante, Latini had mortally erred, in a way he thought secret. Still, in this fashion fitting into Griffiths’ pliant interpretative model, Dante manages to grant his poetic predecessor a degree of acclaim, even as he judges him for (a possibly private) sin.
Controversy continues about Latini’s placement in hell’s seventh circle. Today, many may be tempted to rescue some of Dante’s sinners via revisionist, inclusive explication. Anthony Esolen (translator, 2002-2005, aligning the poem within Catholic doctrine and medieval thought) defends its moral rigor: “The scene is built upon the foundations of eternal truths. If it does not matter what a man does, we cannot have this scene; if a man has no choice but to follow his impulses, we cannot have this scene. Only if we assume that what we choose really does have meaning, and that therefore the stakes of our actions are infinitely high, can we look with unspeakable disappointment and shock at the ruin of a Brunetto Latini.” In the Hawkins-Jacoff collection, among recent poets responding to Dante, only Rosanna Warren defends the Commedia in traditional Christian terms. Her colleagues confront Dante.
Doty’s fellow contributor Mary Blaine Campbell concurs. “Wrath, Order, Paradise” speaks up for skeptics and apostates, nonbelievers and humanists. “For there is no God, no Afterlife, no three-ring circus of fixed destinies on display. There is only the rhetorician, Dante, and his grand design — a design that includes a suffering subject through whom we can feel the horrors and injustices of Justice, and a thousand objects in whom we can see ourselves — truly dead, like specimens — from the perspective of Justice.” Campbell contrasts Dante’s fixation of his damned and his saved souls with Temple Grandin’s “humanely engineered abattoirs” where beasts are trapped. The slaughterhouses come out ahead. Who yearns for this fate, even if in cheap seats overlooking the Beatific Vision?
This consignment reminds me of bureaucratic regimens, of the “disenchantment” Max Weber attributes to the modern loss of faith. Weber’s “iron cage” relegates clerks, not clerics, to technological efficiency and rational calculation. Weber even equated this to “a polar night of icy darkness”, evoking Dante’s Satanic depths. Dante emerged into a nascent capitalism during the reign of troubled Catholicism. His infernal vision may anticipate what philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2007) charts as the loss of “porous” identity open to divine forces and its replacement by a “buffered”, self-contained atomization. Shut off from faith, individuals must rely on their own resources, or fall into doom. As Shaw reminds us, Dante lived when trade began to globalize. People faced their fate freer of state or clerical supervision, forcing them to make their own way, or to fail once they were supposedly liberated from social constraint. One image sticks in my mind. This scene situates Dante’s hellish predicaments within a familiar manifestation of control and compliance.
It’s one way we see walls all around us, within an environment you may work in as I do. As Foucault analyzed, technologies of discipline parallel those of punishment. We live under surveillance within a circular confinement, before the gaze of the Panopticon. Glancing back, I see how Inferno 18’s flatterers stay entrenched in their own excrement, immured in “uman(i) privadi“. Kirkpatrick’s translates this as “human cubicles”. Penned in, ranked in an abattoir below or filed to a bower of bliss above, Dante’s souls remain on perpetual lockdown. Those in purgatory move, edging up in one direction. But they too eventually will be assigned to their perches in the lofty tiers of a revolving arena. There, they will gaze forever upon the main attraction at center stage. Secular readers bristle, if salvation must be equated with status. Rewards remain as rigid for the saved as are penalties for those damned or penitent. Yet, as with Latini, Dante betrays sly sympathy for some whom he meets on his trek.
I suggest that given Dante’s nuanced (more than certain critics may let on) dramatization of some of his sinners and saved, he may suggest a bit of sly subversion.
Careful readers expose these hints of discontent and compassion. Dante does not repeat every edict as if the received wisdom of his predecessors, Christian or pagan, political or mythological, when it comes to admitting some and refusing others into his portals of heaven and hell. Campbell avers that Dante may sneak slight wiggle room within his carceral construction. She asks: “Is the Comedy a cri de coeur, rather than an encyclopedia of the cosmos?”
In his scenes of defiance and refusal, may we discern Dante’s protests as well as his approval? William Blake opined about the creator of Paradise Lost: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Similarly, in Dante’s drama, Campbell hears a muffled plaint on behalf of those who suffer, who cannot bow down to a divine decree which exacts human submission. She castigates those who capitulate to the poem’s conventional approval. Yet, she cannot escape Dante’s relentless application of ideology. The epic’s contempt is shared by a Creator lacking (in her estimation, one shared by an increasing number of contemporary readers and critics) the compassion which Christians claim for their God who plays judge, jury, and executioner. Crying out against a static Paradiso and prison Inferno, Campbell hates this restriction. Even as a rebel, she avers that resistance is futile in Dante’s “finished, perfected world”.
By design, Dante meticulously mapped his otherworld, integrating astronomy and mathematics. “The heavens call you and circle around,/ showing you their eternal beauties,/ and still your eyes gaze at the ground./ So that He, who sees all, beats you!” H.R. Huse, in 1957, gets the gist of Virgil’s goad right. Dante steps out of line, going laterally towards his fellow poet rather than upward and onward. This snippet from Purgatorio 14 reveals the natural weakness and wandering instincts of humanity, and the demands imposed on any who must steer away from such diversion, to accept God’s gridlock. Nobody can elude the pursuit of justice. Recrimination may rise from hell, but retribution rules souls.
James Longenbach, a poet who reviewed the Hollanders’ version of Dante’s final cantica, agrees that in English, it may get worse rather than better. For a translator labors up the path that will drop away into perfection. Longenbach warns that “the absence of an English equivalent for the movement of Dante’s verse threatens to flatten the Paradiso — precisely because this part of the Commedia is dominated by ideas rather than characters who might help to move the verse along”. Within these elevated verses, the mystical atmosphere of ascent clouds our aesthetic attempts to depict a vision tangibly. Gustave Doré’s iconic illustrations (collected at The World of Dante demonstrate this difficulty. He engraved 75 for the Inferno, 45 for the Purgatorio, and 18 for the Paradiso.
Skeptics may not all bow to Dreher’s insistence, as he titles his self-help book-in-progress, that Dante Can Save Your Life. Nevertheless, alongside current interpreters as diverse as Shaw and Esolen, Wilson and Kirkpatrick, Dreher corrects the romantic sympathy readers have for the lovelorn adulterers Francesca and Paolo, vain Brunetto Latini, or tales of brave Ulysses, defying family and commonsense on one more adventure. Shaw sympathizes with revisionists, and she understands today’s rejection of Dante’s Thomistic grid. But as a critic, she implies we need to accept Dante on his own tough terms, acted out relentlessly in that contrapasso. She notes how those who refused to believe, after all, dug their own graves, for as all those damned, they stayed selfish until a bitter end.
This impasse between mercy, chosen by modern readers, and justice, imposed by medieval belief, impels us to grapple with Dante’s characters. He preaches his firm moral that, however ambitious and awesome the individual striving for perfection in this fallen realm, he or she falters before the divine plan’s power. A panoramic paradise Dante admits in vertiginous language that he cannot put into words is put into shapeshifting verse. Despite his “inexpressibility” theme, he invents transumanar as a verb: to pass beyond the human as admission to the realm above, which he enters as he commences Paradiso. By the end of his final vision, he retreats before its glory, unable to penetrate such intensity.
Elif Batuman, mingling with Dante fans and his descendants in Italy, reflected in 2011: “Truly, Google is like Dante’s afterworld: the celestial rose that reclaims and restores all things, placing them in their true positions; a many-tiered hierarchical world where nobody is lost and everyone is found, and where we have all already embarked upon eternal life, divested of our still-living bodies.” Her fresh analogy rivals Dante’s bold insights, depicting how readers reach into his verse to grasp relevant perspectives. Yet, I assert Batuman diminishes Dante’s power during her discussion of the search for his crypt and cadaver. She avers that this matters to moderns more than his message, at least by the less-read tercets of part three. She judges: “The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus in this world.”
Contrasting this reductive version of Dante’s triple vision as if only his cadaver or tomb matter, Clive James places us in proper perspective. We may expect fireworks, but after Inferno, intensity diminishes. Purgatorio, as James reminds us, and Robin Kirkpatrick expounds, converts the sinners’ punishments into pleasure, endured willingly as penance renews souls and prepares them for entry into Paradiso. This reveals the secular conversion of the Catholic model for our contemporary audience. A common ethical element endures. It replaces the emphasis in the opening portions on revenge and restores to its rightful place a heightened sense. The saved have chosen to join with the divine. Campbell’s disdain for this as reactionary Christian ethics perpetuating discrimination so far relegates her to a critical minority. However, I predict her opposition will gain adherents in this century, where the marginalized and the persecuted demand recognition among those deemed worthy.
“The Book I Read”
This excursion began with a Talking Heads lyric, so here’s another to wrap it up: “I’m living in the future/ I feel wonderful/ I’m tipping over backwards/ I’m so ambitious/ I’m looking back I’m/ Running a race and you’re the books I read”. So David Byrne warbles (half of “The Book I Read” is “Na na na na…na na na na na na na na”) as he strives to express the inexpressible, caught up in love and tripping over the temporal order. As with Dante, mismatch between the lyricist and the rhapsodist widens, and in this creative, elusive slippage, final verses emerge. In spite of a common “inexpressibility” theme.
A similar slippage in Dante’s meticulous otherworldly construction, 700 years after the Commedia, emerges among current readers. Many critics align secular sensibilities with Dante’s humanist strains. Even if these — opposition to clerical abuse, protests against capitalist hegemony, distrust of commercial abuse and personal treachery — might be a litany many who champion a liberal arts education or reading of the classic works are expected to agree with, protesting our era’s proscribed sins. This comedy’s method moves past tragedy and despair into security and bliss. The mind can channel the body, and desires can be tamed (at least in literature) so as to achieve aesthetic unity.
For many past readers, the example of Beatrice and her lessons of self-sacrifice have roused agreement. Giuseppe Mazzotta, in his Open Yale Course on “Dante in Translation”, lectures how Dante joined poets who believed that “love can become part of an intellectual experience and intellectual ascent. And knowledge only favors love, and love mobilizes the mind to go on thinking”. Samuel Beckett, who chortled “all I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante” in 1932, had by his deathbed in 1989 a copy of the Commedia. Dante ends one of his infernal cantos with flatulence, but from this earthy contempt, he brings his pilgrim into ethereal bliss. These verses have accompanied the lives of many thinkers, across a spectrum of convictions, from believers, skeptics, and those in-between. Dante’s power of love, as Wilson attests, can lure an agnostic back to belief, furthermore.
But as more recent poets in the Hawkins and Jacoff anthology respond with increasing impatience against Dante’s detached confidence, so Prue Shaw presents a poet with a more complicated message than simple affirmation of piety or subservient confidence in a divine plan. We may, like our forebears, seek in the Commedia our own prejudices or platitudes confirmed. The faithful themselves may find Dante’s cosmos disenchanted, compared to our universe with its dark matter and energies. Esolen speaks for this cohort: “Even those who profess the Christian faith live in a dead and silent world: religion has retreated into the foxholes of the heart and says nothing about the stars.” Those not professing drift farther from the beliefs, suppositions, and expectations those of firm (or firmer at least) faith cherish. If they pursue Dante’s epic past cantica one, they want to justify their exertion.
Others have preceded me in raising this issue. This is one reason why this review of Shaw’s book takes in so many responses and studies preceding, complimenting, and complicating her own. Consensus seems to be split. Those such as Shaw, and the poets in the Hawkins-Jacoff compilation, respond to a Dante in humanist terms. Esolen, Jacobs, and conservatives rally around a Christian application. How the Commedia is taught, therefore, depends on the predilection of the professor, who has many editions to choose from, and a range of translators with their own commentaries to guide readers. Those determined to read Dante outside of academia need the same guidance, to stay in step with him, and the search query “what is the best translation?” proliferates, as the editions themselves.
I did not find all 14,000-plus lines equally dazzling. But like a road trip, I rounded the corner on a routine itinerary and met a sudden flash of color, or an expanse of panoramic beauty. I keep returning to my translations, to look up a passage that caught my eye or confounded my mind. While Inferno remains most vivid, and Purgatorio becomes conversational, odd, and curious, Paradiso, for all its arcane lore, attempts to discern what we still labor to express in our place within our universe, or multiverses. It testifies to our own small time spent among expanding, eternal space.
For now, I will close with the article with which I began. Robert Baird’s wrap-up of his article (with its own appropriate hyperlinks) carries a relevant caution. “The idea of a heaven that stands in such uneasy tension with earth is what gives the Paradiso its dramatic power, but it is also what makes Paradiso so alien to our sensibilities. As Adam Kirsch argued
several years ago, contemporary writers like Alice Sebold and Mitch Albom treat heaven as essentially therapeutic, ‘a chance to get our inner lives right at last’.” We tend to treat the literature of the distant past as if totally relevant for us, easily translated for self-help and encouragement. Is this the only way the classics matter for an audience impatient with any text or argument not sold as relevant? In a riposte, Baird concludes: “The way these writers see heaven echoes the way they think about literature: Sebold says “…part of my work is motivated by wanting to give us all permission to feel what we feel and not judge ourselves so harshly for it’. For the same reasons that he looked to heaven for justice rather than therapy, Dante rejected this comforting view of literature. He wanted his poem to save your soul, not to salve it.”
As Paradiso glows, within the light, the poet tries to figure out the figure of the Trinity. It changes within a triple sphere of illumination and three colors. Dante tries to explain. Other translators smooth this out, but Kirkpatrick keeps it rough: “one single-showing forth/ (me, changing mutely) laboured me more near.” It’s the Trinity. Dante discerns “deep in itself, it seemed– as painted now,/ in those same hues– to show the human form./ At which my sight was set entirely there.” This is difficult.
I wonder, alongside the poet who looks into the source of all. Might Dante find in this dazzling circle not only the trinitarian second person of Christ but himself? The pilgrim looks back as the poet, as an observer perceiving the entire universe peering at him as if his own reflection. Here I find a hint of reconciliation of the secular with the Christian perspective. This humanist balance asserting the individual’s presence within the cosmic order may not reconcile rebels such as Doty or Campbell with the faithful such as Dreher and Zaleski. But reading Dante, these suggestions within the Commedia may compel readers to persevere. And to return to become re-readers, as I have.
This epic deserves our serious study and rewards our earnest searches. Believers, skeptics, seekers, and I reckon some atheists will keep reading Dante as they do Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Milton. Our worldviews evolve, so our models for comprehending meaning may not repeat those proclaimed by poets from the past. But from the past, we find models for guidance on how to ask and answer these big, ultimate questions. Our words may fail, but we keep writing, while wondering about our reward.