Academic journal article Antipodes

Comedic Cohesion: Clive James's New Verse Translation of the Divine Comedy

Academic journal article Antipodes

Comedic Cohesion: Clive James's New Verse Translation of the Divine Comedy

Article excerpt

Comedic Cohesion: Clive James's New Verse Translation of The Divine Comedy dante. The Divine Comedy. trans. Clive James. new York: Liveright. 2013. 527 pp. isBn 978-0-87140-448-0

Clive James's new translation of dante's The Divine Comedy is-in the wake particularly of his Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007), which em- braces in capacious catholicity now tacitus, now tony Curtis, and that book's intellec- tually comedic "prequel" Cultural Cohesion (2013)-brisk, bracing, and irreverent. the grand caprice of Cultural Amnesia and Cultural Cohesion shares the caveat-cum-diktat of James's introduction to his Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008-"in a culture going weak with forgetfulness, to be memorable should be the aim" (27). that was James's message tout court in Cultural Amnesia, his essayistic encyclopedia of a raid against con- temporary culture's forgetfulness of its inheritance. now James has continued that raid, not by tell but by show, in his Commedia: this is memorable James, and should en- dure, for the contemporary english-speaking world, as most memorable dante in per- fect cultural cohesion with James's own prosodic reticulations against cultural amnesia.

Readers of James's poetry will know well that, from 1958, he has shown a mirth- ful propensity for the joy of the slant rhyme in a manner that is, yes, brisk and brac- ing. But in James's Commedia, a preponderance of slant rhymes not infrequently contorted into enjambment uninvited by dante's own syntax, alas makes for some- times ponderous going. this is no philologist's cri de coeur of mine, but too often James's slant rhymes are too clever by half.

James plunges into dante with quatrains in such shapes as abab or augment- ed into ababa or ababab: he foregoes terza rima for workmanlike quatrains whose rhythms allure straightway. so "A sea of trouble came to troy in ships" (Inferno 81; 29) and fueled-and/or was fueled by?-"the fire started when he [paris] kissed her lips" (Inferno 83; 29). such rhyme's reciprocity as this is what we've come to love about James throughout his fifty-plus years of poetic output.

But some of James's slant rhymes, so often zigzagging betwixt and between so many liberally enjambed quatrains, can gravel: some of those rhymes are super- f luous at best, supercilious at worst. the tongue-twister James makes of Inferno XX.122-24 defeats me (98):

Asdente, toothless soothsayer. said sooth

He'd sooner now have foregone, like his teeth,

And made more shoes, his trade, and only truth.

James has always made a point of poetry said, poetry speaking: indeed, in the introduc- tion to Opal Sunset, James singles out Larkin's poems as "compulsorily sayable," adding that "it was [Larkin's] profusion of sayable poems that made him a poet" (19). Apply- ing James's own sound logic about sayable poetry, just how does one say the verses just quoted? or take the following lines from Inferno XV.93-94: "What Fortune wishes, i am ready for. / Your forecast is not the one i haven't heard" (75). the next two verses jar in a different way: "Let Fortune turn its wheel at will, and more: / Let the hick hack with his mattock" (75). it was shelley who spoke of dante's music as "a chaos of inharmonious barbarisms"; James at times renders the inharmonious too barbaric.

it is in his verse-shaping, his artful enjambments, his bathetic-meets-pathetic canto endings and canto beginnings where James most excels. Witness the conso- nance of sound, sense, and meter at Inferno Vi.32-39 (32):

[. . .] no matter where i turned

Were the tormented. this was Circle three,

And here there was no fire, and nothing burned.

instead, a dark cold rain falls heavily


James's tense-choices are brilliant: "turned" is almost imperfective, hovering be- tween the habitual and the inceptive; "tormented", meanwhile, is something of a stative perfect, yet somehow habitual, too, conjoined as it is with "Were"-yet also pivoting on the aoristic aspect of sudden, startled scrutiny. …

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