W.H. Auden, in New York Letter (1940), appointed Dante the first of his cultural judiciary:
So, when my name is called, I face,
Presiding coldly on my case,
That lean hard-bitten pioneer
Who spoiled a temporal career
And to the supernatural brought
His passion, senses, will and thought,
By Amor Rationalis led
Through the three kingdoms of the dead,
In concrete details saw the whole
Environment that keeps the soul,
And grasped in its complexity
The Catholic ecology,
Described the savage fauna he
In Malebolge's fissure found,
And fringe of blessed flora round
A juster nucleus than Rome,
Where love had its creative home.
Gravity and grace are the chief properties any translator would dearly wish to bring to the business of 'Englishing' Dante's great theological orrery of a poem. For while The Divine Comedy spans the dark backward and abysm of revealed time it possesses such resources of lyric intensity it can persuade us still that it is an account of a living act of (literal and moral) witness. Auden, intellectual gadfly as he was, much endorsed the theory of Christian redemption, finding consolation and intellectual subtlety in High Church ritualism, and the virtual cathedral of Thomist thought. Auden was a man in search of the Great Good Place – the City of God by any other name – so this shouldn't comes as any great surprise. The architecture of the Comedy might be forbidding to today's reader (the dead letter of doctrinal dispute hangs heavily over the work); but the predicament of the soul adrift – the drama of the lost - still can touch us. And how could it not? We're urgently pressed, too much of the time, to little effect, into negotiating the world and its cruelty. Dante, then, as spiritual navigator, his poem a throttling skyhook carrying him from the Pit to the starry heights.
In 'Conversation about Dante' the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam has given us an extraordinary critical tango with Dante, probably unsurpassed, certainly unorthodox:
If the halls of the Hermitage were suddenly to go mad, if the paintings of all the schools and great masters were suddenly to break loose from their nails, and merge with one another, intermingle and fill the air of the rooms with a Futurist roar and an agitated frenzy of color, we would then have something resembling Dante's Commedia.
T.S. Eliot claimed – hedging, somewhat - that a profound response to the poetry could just about precede any interest in the theology – the heavy stuff could come later. (The scholarly Dantean might still argue the merit of acquainting yourself with the background matter.) And Clive James would make much the same insistence: the language itself is the clew to the labyrinth, the poetry the existential dividend – the saving grace. Dante's Italian – even to the non-specialist – clearly gains from an extraordinary fluidity, and many of its special effects depend on qualities inherent in the language; and so out of reach of even the most ingenious translator. Fulsomely endowed in rhyme, the Italian vernacular permits a hummingbird-wing meshing and unmeshing of sound and meaning: even a glance at a line of the verse will tip off the alert reader that the most adroit translation necessarily, unwillingly subjects itself to a self-denying ordinance. So a decision faces the translator of the Comedy from the outset. Terza rima contributes to the velocity of the poetry but, with the odd distinguished exception, isn't much served by the genius of the English language, say. It manages to attain a forward thrust while casting an eye backwards. Each tercet holds within itself the stem-cell of the lead-rhyme in the next, generating the feeling that the verse-movement is also ascension. (Dorothy L Sayer's version fairly mangles the English while trying to preserve the formal physique of the Italian.) Narrative – one thing after another, a step at a time – fuses with exaltation – the soul's slow rise.
Clive James opts for something different, a technical choice that alters the tonalities and movement of the verse altogether. He plumps for rhyming quatrains, and what he loses in swift unencumbered elegance he gains in a kind of moral heft, a stateliness; James's is a Comedy meant to be taken as a reminder of the poem's cultural durability, that its currency and vitality are constants yet.
“The Divine Comedy is the precursor of the whole of modern history,” James writes, “and I hope this translation conveys enough of its model to show that [Dante] forecast the whole story in a single song: a song of lights.” The blood-boltered troughs of Hell are visionary glimpses of Treblinka and Kolyma, of the killing fields. The luminous geometry of the Paradiso, however, is a shot at pure aesthesis, the bodily self discarded in a perfection of music and light: trasumanar, indeed. Most recent translations of Dante have stuck to the Inferno, perhaps for its slaughterhouse melodrama, its raw physicality, its grounding in the world of political violence – more straightforwardly relevant to our modern sensibility. (Rolling news that stays news.) James's bid to muster his energies in rendering the three cantiche as a whole is a bold one, a worthy one, honouring Dante's intent. Eliot observed in writing of Dante: “The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings.”