Recently, in a dare to myself, I ordered Clive James’s translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
This iconic work of medieval literature has had an enormous influence on western literature, and has spawned an immense amount of scholarship, and been translated into English several times. When I began to study English literature at Sydney University, I avoided it, as I studied modern literature, which began with the Renaissance. Dante wrote this extended lyric poem in three cantos between the years of 1308 and 1321, when he died. Wikipedia lists 15 English translations, with Clive James’s 2013 one being the latest.
Why did I order this book I have avoided all my life? Somewhere, when I heard of James’s translation, I heard a little voice saying ‘you ought to read this.’ I had read Milton’s Paradise Lost when I did my second literature degree, though I confess I only skimmed through the later books (there are 12 books, and 4 books of Paradise Regain’d). But I was glad I had become acquainted with it, and I was inspired by Milton’s poetic vision of Hell and Satan. When I did my first degree, as a naive and ignorant 18-year-old, I knew Clive James; he was a year ahead of me, and I used to watch him hold court in the coffee shop at Sydney University, but was not one of his circle. I resisted his charisma and showmanship. When my sister-in-law, years later, gave me a copy of his Unreliable Memoirs, I didn’t read it, and gave it to a friend. I’m sure there was a big dose of envy in the way I’ve watched his career over the years; his scintillating columns in the Observer, his television shows, and his literary conversations with Peter Porter which I occasionally listened to on ABC Radio National. Under the judgement was a grudging admiration for his intellectual polish, his vast knowledge of literature and culture, and his wit.
So when I heard rave reviews of this translation, I decided to swallow my pride and buy the book. I’m glad I did, though I can’t say I now have more than a very superficial understanding of the complex allegorical world Dante created. James’s translation is admired for several reasons. One is his accomplishment in turning Dante’s terza rima into rhyming quatrains; his aim was to retain the textured detail of Dante’s poetry, as well as the momentum that ‘propels the reader along the pilgrim’s path from Hell to Heaven, from despair to revelation’ as the publisher’s blurb has it. Certainly, the narrative takes you with it, and I found myself turning the pages, even when the detailed accounts of tortures in Hell or visions of divine light in Heaven left me cold. The fact that it is in cantos, like mini-chapters, each about 5 pages long, makes it easy to keep going, to finish one more canto before you turn out the light. I noticed that I was hardly aware of the rhymes, because the rhythm of the lines carries you past them like ripples in the stream as your boat flows along with the current. So, for instance:
So we descended out of Circle One
To Circle Two: the less in measurement,
The greater in its sad cries fit to stun
The senses. Here, deciding who’ll be sent
To which reception, the Selector looms
Whose name is Minos. Horrible to see,
He’s worse to see in action.
(From Canto 5, Hell).
As you can see from this snippet, James is not afraid to make the language modern, often colloquial; no ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ here. He has even incorporated the scholarly apparatus of footnotes into the the poem proper, in a way that I find seamless.
On the minus side, for me, are the detailed accounts of various characters from medieval political and religious life, and Dante’s conversations with them, in his desire to know how they came to this place of torture. And I am too much of a dilettante in things of scholarship to be very interested in the medieval apparatus of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. In brief, it seems, the denizens of Hell are condemned to remain there, whereas those in Purgatory are purged and so made fit to ‘take the path to Heaven’. yet, I must also admit that I missed some sort of scholarly apparatus, perhaps in the form of a literary introduction that explains the philosophical and religious framework of the poem and speaks a little of its vast influence. I know you can get very good scholarly guides, but I wanted to be able to refer to one as I was reading, in one compendium.
Overall, my strongest impression is how much more interesting and lively Hell, and to a lesser extent, Purgatory, are than Heaven. Shades of Paradise Lost. And I guess, ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ (excuse no accents). We love the baddies, that’s what keeps us watching the crime dramas and reading crime fiction, and keeps the tabloids and the news going; relating all the sins of the world and the biographies of the sinners, from war crime, to corporate to low-life blood and guts. Goodness is boring. Don’t tell the ruler of Heaven.
Finally, a touching postscript to James’s translation is that it was his wife, Prue Shaw, a Dante scholar, who introduced him to Dante back in the 60s when he was at Cambridge. And now, fifty years later, here is the fruit of their love and his scholarship and poetic art. Sad because they are now separated, and he is ill, and perhaps has his own Purgatory to pilgrim through.