Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Poetry of Paradise

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Poetry of Paradise

Article excerpt


Reviewed by David Yezzi

WITH THE PUBLICATION of Paradiso, Robert and Jean Hollander have completed their landmark translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, begun with the Inferno in 2000 and followed by Purgatorio in 2003.

Reading translations is like seeing through a glass darkly, with the original growing dimmer as the translation ages. Fortunately, Dante's Comedy has been rendered by scores of successive English translators, each offering a new glimpse into the original. Charles Singleton gave an estimable prose version, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed a sublime but woolly verse rendition. John Ciardi's Comedy wears the unmistakable stamp of New Criticism, and Allen Mandelbaum's Everyman edition is handy but hefty as a single volume. Robert Pinsky's Inferno sounds a lot like Robert Pinsky, while the expertly tuned lines of C.H. Sisson's Dante are now largely forgotten.

With winsome modesty, the Hollanders acknowledge the difficulty of their situation: A fine translation must be deeply knowing but not pedantic, surefooted but not obtrusive, beautiful but not vain-in other words, a lot like Dante's beloved Beatrice, who leads him from purgatory through paradise. The Hollanders have been true to Dante in their fashion. They explain that without attempting to make the poem "sound better than the original allows," they hope to establish "a helpful bridge to the untranslatable magnificence of Dante's poem."

In this they have succeeded admirably, and the easy elegance of their translation, with the Italian on the facing pages, will arguably make theirs the definitive text for some time to come. Their commentary is copious but always pellucid, even as the reader is sped along by the clean, colloquial gusto of their blank-verse tercets. Granted, we lose the cascading flow of Dante's terza rirna, but the triple rhymes of the 100-canto, 14,233-line Italian exceed the powers of rhyme-poor English, and attempts to preserve the original form typically wrench the diction and syntax.

Still, Paradiso presents a particular problem for translators, for readers have always preferred the earlier books-as though Dante has ended his epic with a whimper. The poet's hell teams with hideous scenes and fantastic contrapasso punishments, and even his purgatory reads like a fast-moving potboiler compared to his heaven. Readers who give up on Paradiso have a point

It's just not a very good one. Hell is where the action is, no doubt. Who could forget the saga of Paolo and Francesca's steamy liaison or their eternal sorrow as they circle on the whirlwind? And what of Count Ugolino's horrible and immortal tale of eating the corpses of his children? And I began, / already blind, to grope over their bodies, / and for two days called to them, though they were dead. / Then fasting had more power than grief. (A stomach-turning bit of euphemism, that.) Then there is Ulysses, who sails off to his death, and there are the moaning trees in the wood of the suicides. These are Dante's greatest hits, for good reason: The drama, the visceral quality of the metaphors, the "harsh and rasping" language in which they are rendered-all contribute to the impact of the first book and, to a fair extent the second as well.

But all three books-mapping the poet's pilgrimage from hell, up Mount Purgatory, and into the empyrean-retain a distinct worldliness, quite different from other medieval poetry. Indeed, Dante's Comedy was not dubbed Divine until two centuries after its composition in the early 1300s. In one of literature's greatest linguistic leaps, Dante wrote his epic in Italian rather than Latin, thus promoting the vernacular over the language of Church and culture. And in one of literature's greatest leaps, Dante set his poem almost entirely in the afterlife. At the same time, however, he let the people, places, and internecine struggles of his native Florence penetrate and inform his account of universal justice. …

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