Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. Clive James (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2013)
He did what any decent hero must:
Set sail. (Inferno, Canto 1), p. 5
Reading the Divine Comedy of Dante (c. 1265-1321) is to embark on a timeless, dazzling and possibly life-changing journey. It is deeply reassuring, ever relevant, and an epic of hope. It starts in darkness but ends in light, with Dante’s lapidary and even laconic style spelling things out in simple words:
And as it sounded, so it looked: all bad. (Inferno, Canto 4), p. 21
Stern high, bow low, we went in. Overhead
Somebody closed the sea, and we were dead. (Inferno, Canto 26), p. 128
That said, the end is never in question, and yet despite knowing it has a ‘happy ending’, you still want to walk with Dante every step:
That leads back out to where the world is bright.
No need for rest. We bore an easy load:
The task of getting back to the sweet light. (Inferno, Canto 34), p. 171
Osip Mandelstam pointed out the importance of walking in the Divine Comedy, linking it to the act of thinking and to the art of poetry:
The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the breathing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. (Mandelstam, ‘Conversation about Dante’, pp. 106-07).
Here you can hear the rhythm of a comfortable walk in the line describing it. I liked this quotation so much that I used it as an interview question, asking people to recall a walk they had enjoyed with someone where the walking and the talking were perfectly synchronised. Feel free to send me your own description:
The going did not slow the talk, the talk
Slowed not the going. (Purgatory, Canto 24), p. 295
In the past, having occasionally read a translation of a Great Work and not found it that great, I’ve wondered if it was a question of finding the right translation, which may of course mean simply the one which unlocks the work for you as an individual. I’ve therefore learned to persist if the first reading of something that has entranced generations fails to entrance me.
On this score, Clive James’ entrance-lation had the right combination to click open the door to Dante. This is not the first time I have read the Divine Comedy, but it could just as well be, and his translation has woven it into the fabric of my world view, rendering it richer and more hopeful. He appears to work some metrical alchemy by not trying to shoe-horn English into Italian rhythms, but rather transmuting them into more natural quatrains.
The result is that I was transported through this pithy, cadenced and ever brightening tour of the universe. James brings to the fore the timelessness, and therefore the eternal timeliness, of the poem. It is a guide to our times because it is a guide to the human journey, individually and collectively. I found myself sending snippets to a friend because they resonated with current events; this future-proof aspect to Dante was noticed by Mandelstam in his essay on Dante:
It is unthinkable to read the cantos of Dante without aiming them in the direction of the present day. They were made for that. They are missiles capturing the future. They demand commentary in the futurum … the anatomy of Dante’s eye, so naturally adjusted for one thing only: the revelation of the structure of the future. Dante had the visual accommodation of birds of prey, unsuited to focusing at short range: too large was the field in which he hunted. (Mandelstam, ‘Conversation on Dante’, pp. 137-38)
Incidentally, Seamus Heaney, in praising Mandelstam’s essay, used similes I believe apply even more to James’ rendition, which is:
… to bring him (ie Dante) from the pantheon back to the palate; he makes our mouth water to read him. He possesses the poem as a musician possesses the score, both as a whole structure and as a sequence of delicious sounds. (Heaney, Finders Keepers, p. 177)
I liked also James’ own account of how he views his pharaonic project:
Dante the traveller, at the apex of heaven, looks into the source of creation and sees the imprint of a human face. The Divine Comedy is the precursor of the whole of modern history, and I hope this translation conveys enough of its model to show that he forecast the whole story in a single song: a song of lights. The joy of discovery is what drives the poem. p. xxi
Phew. James also mentions ‘Dante’s sense of economy. No poet, not even Shakespeare, could say quite so much so quickly’ (p. xix). I noted the comment before having read the work. Coming back to it, I see dozens of examples. Want a definition of misery?
Instead, a dark cold rain falls heavily
Forever. (Inferno, Canto 6), p. 32
Or an assault of fear?
… for wings, though quick, are not the same
As terror. (Inferno, Canto 22), p. 107
Or further examples below. The first you can use if you feel someone is wasting your time, and the second concerns the differences between two sisters, summed up in a nutshell.
Name your sponsor. Speak.
Or do I look as if I’m made of time? (Purgatory, Canto 9), p. 219
But there you are, that’s me:
I like to do, she likes to understand. (Purgatory, Canto 27), p. 313
Dante repeatedly praises Virgil, his patient and compassionate guide to a sometimes terrifying journey, who responds to his needs where reasonable:
“The answer to a fair
Request should be the silent deed.” (Inferno, Canto 24), p. 116
Dante clearly believes he owes everything to Virgil as his equally venerated guide to writing, and I believe in the idea of learning by heart as a means to learn to write:
Through learning you by heart I learned to write. (Inferno, Canto 1), p. 6
I was also struck by Dante’s summary of Virgil as a writer, which I believe describes Dante himself more accurately (he would demur):
The man who wrote the book / On quests and questions, doubts and destiny. (Inferno, Canto 4), p. 21
With precise instructions available on the way:
Your tale in writing? Make sure that you give
Unhidden, all the details of the tree. (Purgatory, Canto 33), p. 342
The secret of surprise
Lies in a framework that we recognise. (Paradise, Canto 17), p. 441
One of the prime qualities of the Divine Comedy is its robustness and exuberance, perhaps lost through a veil of time-hushed reverence – Mandelstam noted that the biggest obstacle to understanding Dante was Dante’s fame.
Dante was writing at the tail-end of the Middle Ages, when life and afterlife could be seen as vortices of suffering, when the brutality of hellish torments so vividly portrayed by him could be threatened, witnessed or experienced in the regularly deployed tortures of both state interrogation and church inquisition.
And yet there is a surprisingly modern sense of nurturing, loving, forgiving and guiding hands to help him on his way, like a stumbling child picked up by attentive, protective adults who nevertheless having righted him, encourage him to keep on walking. He seems buoyed, lifted, comforted first by the wise presence of Virgil, and then by more luminous and numinous beings.
“Much greater faults than yours are washed away
By much less shame,” my Master said. “Unload
Your heart of all grief… (Inferno, Canto 30), pp. 148-49
My confidence expands just as the sun
Unfolds the rose into its fullest bloom. (Paradise, Canto 22), p. 463
And this deft ushering of Dante from hell towards heaven is reflected in the poem’s language. As James puts it:
Appreciated on the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on. p. xiii
The imagery piles up brightness, sweetness, gentleness, fulfilment and sanity, quietly thrilling, subtly done.
Smiling with her face a sheer
Cascade of light. (Paradise, Canto 29), p. 499
Because they dreamed of this place. On their peak,
Parnassus, their minds filled with this one. Spring
Eternal. Human innocence. All speak
Of just such fruit, nectar in everything. (Purgatory, Canto 28), p. 319
And flowers the bee sips
Will be succeeded by good fruit, as they
Should be. Not now, but soon. Somehow. Some day. (Paradise, Canto 27), p. 493
James also points out that the exuberance of Dante is as much due to resilience as joy. Even in hell he finds hope.
Because time equals hope. (Inferno, Canto 23), p. 110
Dante registers his exuberance even in his most desperate moments. He doesn’t stop singing just because something dreadful is happening. What he says is: something dreadful is happening even as I sing. It’s an interplay of form and content: the most ambitious that any literary artist ever attempted. p. xviii
Note that ‘even as I sing’. It’s a reminder to take ourselves in hand when we witness dreadful things and they drag our spirit down into the dirt of despair: same as it ever was, nothing can be done, what difference can I make?
Living in an age of faith, often sword- or fire-enforced, Dante also allows for doubt and human frailty:
Doubt is like a shoot
Springing from truth. It is a natural urge. (Paradise, Canto 4), p. 386
Overwhelmed with such a flood
Of fact, our speech and memory can stand
Only so much. (Inferno, Canto 28), p. 134
Here I include a comment by Harold Bloom; although it changes register from poetic to critic, it provides context for that splendid statement of Blake’s:
Shakespeare and Dante are the center of the Canon because they excel all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy, and power of invention. It may be that all three endowments fuse in an ontological passion that is a capacity for joy, or what Blake meant by his Proverb of Hell: “Exuberance is beauty.” (Bloom, Western Canon, p. 46)
Which brings us to the simple fact, pointed out by James, that even when escaping from hell, or clambering out of purgatory, let alone when he reaches the high points of heaven:
Dante ends each book with the word “stars”. p. xxiv
And here they are, clustered together in a constellation of hope, the final one being surely a perfect culmination of life.
And up we went, he first, I second, to
The point where I could see an opening.
And it was there I saw, when I looked through,
A sight more wonderful than anything –
Some of the loveliness revealed to men
By Heaven. We could see the stars again. (Inferno, Canto 34), p. 171
Through the water spilled
By that spring, I was remade. Forth I fared,
A new plant with new leaves in a new time.
The stars were there, and I was set to climb. (Purgatory, Canto 33), p. 345
… but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above. (Paradise, Canto 33), p. 526
Note: in addition to praising Clive James’ translation, let me mention the illustrations of William Blake (1757-1827) who was about 200 years ahead of his time. Better known are the superbly stark black and white Gothic engravings of Gustave Doré, which must have shaped the mental imagery of the Divine Comedy in generations of readers. However, marvelous and iconic as they are, I feel that the dark lines and colour vacuum make them stronger when depicting hell and weaker on the heavenly front. Blake, in my view, is stronger in the realms of the sublime. See, to the left, versions of Dante featuring the illustrations of both artists – I’ve ordered the Blake one as a birthday present.
Blake, William, & Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Complete Drawings, trans. by Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander, Sebastian Schütze & Maria Antonietta Terzoli (eds.) (Taschen, 2017 & 2019).
Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon (London: Macmillan, 1995).
Doré, Gustave, & Dante Alighieri, The Doré Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dover Fine Art, 1976).
Heaney, Seamus, Finders Keepers: Selected prose 1971-2001 (London: Faber and Faber, 2003).
Mandelstam, Osip, ‘Conversation about Dante’, in Journey to Armenia & Conversation about Dante (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011), pp. 101-71.
Blake, William (1757-1827), ‘The Circle of the Traitors: Dante’s Foot Striking Bocca Degli Abati’ (1826-27), illustration for the Divine Comedy, engraving, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Canada
Blake, William, ‘Antaeus setting down Dante and Virgil in the Last Circle of Hell’, Google Art Project
Botticelli, Sandro (1445-1510), ‘Portrait of Dante’ (1495), Bodmer Foundation
Caetani, Michelangelo (1804-82) ‘The Divine Comedy described in six plates’ / ‘La materia della Divina commedia di Dante Alighieri dichiarata in VI tavole da Michelangelo Caetani’ (Montecassino: Monaci benedettini di Montecassino), Plate IV, Cornell University, Persuasive Cartography, The PJ Mode Collection.
Michelino, Domenico di (1417-91), ‘La Divina Commedia di Dante’ (1465), Florence Cathedral.