Clive James: Dante: The Divine Comedy – A New Verse Translation

New York: Norton, 527pp.

There are many ways to read and inhabit Dante’s Commedia but most amateur readers, such as myself, find themselves oscillating between two opposed responses. On the one hand there is the magnificent narrative architecture whereby Dante’s journey, imagined to be undertaken at the age of 35 – that is, in the exact middle of a traditional life-span – is plotted against Christ’s Easter descent and rise. This is the epic component modelled overtly on Virgil except that the comparatively leisurely narrative of traditional epic is replaced by a tense, hurried progression hyper-organised by numerological, Christological and astrological symbolisms. On the other hand there is the poetic/dramatic element, the extraordinary portraits of souls met along the way, each sharply defined in ferociously expressive (in other words, poetic) language.

The tension between these two responses develops in predictable ways. When you begin, for example, the architecture seems, though impressive, alien and locked in a medieval world-view whereas the portraits of Francesca, Farinata, Ulysses, Buonconte, Arnaut Daniel and the rest are not of any specific age but for all time. But you know that Dante habitués will be smiling at your naivety and reminding you that the architecture itself is a thing of such beauty that when your abilities as a reader expand you will want to rejoice in its splendours and look down on those whose knowledge of the Commedia begins (and often ends) with an adulterous woman who, in telling the story of how she and her husband’s brother were pitchforked into an affair by reading a romance, is no more than a superficial romance-heroine herself. Dorothy Sayers has an acid comment about this level of reading Dante in the introduction to her translation of Purgatorio:

Let no one, therefore, get away with a condemnation – or for that matter a eulogy – of Dante on the mere strength of broiled Popes, disembowelled Schismatics, grotesque Demons, Count Ugolino, Francesca da Rimini, and the Voyage of Ulysses, even if backed up by an erotic mysticism borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, and the line “His will is our peace”, recollected from somebody’s sermon.

Unfortunately, what is a fruitful tension in a reader’s experience can be tilted towards a narrative of that reader’s growth in maturity. It can even be turned into a theme of the Commedia itself so that Dante at the outset of his descent into hell is as naïve as a beginning reader of his book, ready to shed tears at the fate of someone like Francesca. His spirit and intellect grow in the experience of his journey to the point where (to be a little facetious) he is able to listen to numbingly boring lectures by Virgil or Beatrice and despise his initial reactions of horror and pity for the damned and recognise the extent to which there is a certain morbid voyeurism behind these responses. I’ve always tried to resist both this privileging of the epic framework over the dramatic portraits and a reading of Dante which turns that privileging into one of the themes of the book in this way. I want to keep the admittedly crude notion of an anthology of unforgettable portraits (certainly comparable to a similar anthology of the characters of Shakespeare) as at least a possible mature reading option. Of course, the fundamental flaw in this reading is that Inferno is always going to be a lot more attractive than Paradiso because the number of portraits thins as the epic moves along and because, as everyone knows, saintliness is a lot more difficult to make interesting than sinfulness.

Clive James’s translation of Dante is an impressive achievement for a man best known as a brilliant reviewer and essayist and his recent illness must have been an additional burden given the size of the task. The Commedia is very long (it is deliberately laid out in 100 cantos, an introductory one and then three sets of 33 – all symbolic numbers) and is an immensely difficult work, especially in the long, analytical lectures of Virgil and Beatrice and Dante’s own expositions. Translating it must be a bit like running a marathon with, towards the end, a lot of nastily steep hills and descents. Of course James has the enviable advantage of being married to a lifelong Dante scholar (the book’s dedicatee) and he does bring some specific abilities to the job, not the least being what he once described in one of his television reviews as an interest in getting complex syntactical shapes into regular and complicated verse forms. Some of the innumerable existing verse translations opt for omitting the terza rima rhyming patterns of the original on the grounds that 14th century Tuscan is full of rhymes and English has very few; others do their best, resorting to weak rhymes.

James makes a crucial decision here. He replaces the terza rima (aba//bcb//cdc etc) with the most common English rhyming pattern, the quatrain. Here the end of a line only has to rhyme with one other word rather than two. This takes the rhyming pressure off; it also enables James to avoid the tendency that non-rhyming versions have of making Dante sound like English blank verse (at worst, like something out of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine). It’s an interesting tactic and none of the other English versions I can remember has used this technique. But it has one enormous problem: in translating three lines into four it adds substantially to the Commedia’s length though savings within lines mean that (according to my shaky mathematics) at about 16,240 lines it expands its original by only 14 per cent. There’s nothing wrong with expansion per se – I’d be happy if Dante’s great work went on for twice its length – but it loses those extraordinary moments of compression. Thus, perhaps the most famous, La Pia’s modest but intense description of her life at the end of Canto V of the Purgatorio, ‘Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma’ (‘Siena made me: The Maremma unmade me.’) comes out into the rather lugubrious ‘Siena made me. What Siena made / Was broken by Maremma.’ – ten words for the five of the original. Similarly, the unforgettable six-word description of Farinata, ‘com’ avesse l’inferno a gran dispitto’ (‘as if he had great contempt for hell’) opens out into ‘like one who only can despise / All Hell can do’. And so on.

If the ‘four for three’ principle lets a lot of air out of the high-pressure original, it does open up other possibilities. One is the quite radical possibility of including a little explanatory material into the text itself. Dante requires a lot of background contextual work and in most translations this appears as footnotes or baroquely organised support material. James decided, as his says in his distinctive style in the introduction, on ‘lifting it out of the basement and putting it on display in the text’. This is a more radical practice than he makes it sound since it involves distorting the original to gain focus and readability. But though there are ethical issues here, the pay-off is often worth it. By the time we get to, say, Canto X of the Paradiso, in which the 12 doctors of the church form a sort of crown of lights around Dante, James’s bringing in the names of these luminaries means that you no longer have to read the thing with one eye on the footnotes or one thumb inside a separate volume of commentary. But freely improvising on, rather than translating, the inscription over the gates into Hell (though it goes some way towards illuminating the staggering – to us – paradox that Hell was created by the ‘primo amore’, the ‘primal love’) seems an ethically risky thing to do. And tonally it has a sort of chumminess (something that appears in other places in the translation, though James, in his introduction does speak of conveying an unacknowledged ‘lightness’ in Dante) that is utterly out of keeping with Dante’s austere inscription:


As a result of these choices, a reader such as myself, on the lookout for the memorable character or situation, fixed for ever in a brilliant line, is going to find this translation fairly unrewarding. There are times, even, when, in exasperation, you wonder whether James has any sensitivity at all to these great moments. Take the most obvious and most discussed of these moments, the conclusion of Francesca’s unforgettable speech in Canto V of the Inferno, where she speaks of the moment in which she and her brother-in-law Paolo, reading the story of the adulterous Lancelot and Guinevere in one of the romances popular from the thirteenth century on, fall into a sexual relationship. Singleton’s plain prose translation reads:

‘When we read how the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, this one, who shall never be parted from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote it; that day we read no farther in it.’

This becomes, in James’s version:

‘When we read of that great knight in a rage
To kiss the smile he so desired, Paolo,
This one so quiet now, made my mouth still -
Which, loosened by those words, had trembled so - 
With his mouth. And right then we lost the will - 
For Love can will will’s loss, as well you know - 
To read on. But let that man take a bow
Who wrote the book we called our Galahad,
The reason nothing can divide us now.’

This is a ‘version’ in the sense of being a free recreation which justifies its freedoms by the claim that it brings a contemporary reader as close as possible to the magic of the original. Though it retains Francesca’s distinctive mixture of suffering and sentimentality, the cost is very high. Gallehault simply gets omitted and is replaced by Galahad. One can imagine Francesca doing this – sentimentalising and eroticising the book that brought the lovers together – but we lose Dante’s pungent comment on the fashionable romances, a comment that can be expanded into a claim for the ethical culpability of texts and authors. Gallehault is the knight who brings Lancelot and Guinevere together acting as a go-between. He is, technically, a ‘pandar’, from Pandarus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but, presumably that is too arcane word to be used in the twenty-first century. It also slides over the emotional and dramatic climax of the scene when Francesca, never naming Paolo, refers to him as the one ‘who shall never be parted from me’. It seems a casual comment at first on the fact that these lovers are bound together in Hell beaten by the noxious winds of passion. As ones who have ‘subjected reason to desire’ they suffer an allegorically satisfying punishment: they got what they wanted. But hell isn’t so much a punishment as a representation of the state of their souls that will go on forever. The little word ‘never’, we suddenly realise, means exactly that – never, for all eternity.

I’m embarrassed to have dealt with such an obvious passage but examples could have been multiplied from the three canticles. The question remaining is: if we must sacrifice the best of the compressed dramatic quality of the Commedia in James’s version, is there anything – apart from the approachability involved in bringing material from the footnotes into the text – that this translation has to offer in recompense. Oddly enough, there is. I can’t think of any other translation so adept at conveying the narrative drive of Dante. James’s best passages are exactly those which the bad readers excoriated by Dorothy Sayers ignore, the passages between the great encounters. James reminds us, firstly, that these are not mere fill, passing the time (and space) until another group of sinners or saints can be encountered and, secondly, that this is a text driven on at great speed: Virgil is always hurrying on, one eye on the sky overhead, and the complex astronomical observations that readers tend to skip over are a continual reminder that precious time is passing. It’s a different Dante to the one I’m used to but a valid Dante nevertheless. It’s as though James wants to stress that this is a text which looks forward to Renaissance narrative rather than back to the sort of heraldic Middle Ages that we meet in the Earthly Paradise section of Purgatorio. This is, in other words, a Dante which will modulate into Ariosto and Tasso and thus, eventually, to someone like Spenser rather than a Dante which will turn up in the second section of Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’. On the cover of my version of James’s book, the Commedia is referred to as ‘this Renaissance masterpiece’. Since it seems so obviously of the high Middle Ages, I assumed that this was one of those embarrassing errors contributed by the publisher’s copy-writers but, in retrospect, it is probably a very deliberate and provocative description.

Published in Australian Poetry Journal, 3:2 (March, 2014), 73-77.