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Dante and His Readers

Fiona Sampson’s review of Clive James’s new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a somewhat slapdash piece of work. For instance, she writes that “According to James, most English translations fail to bring across the assonant and alliterative interplay of Dante’s original, because they are busy with the almost impossible task of reproducing its terza rima, the chain-link rhyme scheme.” In fact, James does not say this — I’ve read his Introduction to his translation — because no major translator since Dorothy Sayers has even tried to reproduce Dante’s terza rima fully. (Even Laurence Binyon’s translation, the best-known one immediately preceding Sayers, doesn’t stick with terza rima consistently — in citing him as an example Sampson ends up quoting a passage that departs from Dante’s original scheme, though she doesn’t notice this.)

So in rendering Dante’s verse more flexibly, James is just doing what the poet’s English translators have been doing for the past fifty years — though I don’t know of anyone else who has adopted his preferred solution of writing in rhymed quatrains. If I were translating Dante I wouldn’t try to force rhyme-poor English into terza rima — one look at the indignities Sayers inflicts on Dante and English alike ought to cure anyone of that temptation — but I would insist on keeping the tercets, in order to acknowledge that the number three is the absolutely foundational structural principle of the whole Divine Comedy. That James is willing to dispense with that suggests a certain deafness to Dante’s theological concerns.

But the main point I want to emphasize here stems from another error that Sampson makes, an extremely common one, even among highly literate and well-educated people. Here’s the relevant quote:

Divine reckoning is not only necessary; it is both inescapable and precise. Deceivers, in the eighth circle of hell, are put into ten subdivisions, including seducers, flatterers, hypocrites and false counsellors. The imagination of medieval Christendom was often highly literal, as well as visual, in this way. The concentric circles Dante pictured in the afterlife also appear widely elsewhere over the next few centuries – in Vasari’s designs for the frescoes in the dome of Florence’s cathedral, or the “doom” window of the Church of St Mary in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Christendom’s world-view was equally hierarchical. Dante was formed by a culture in which where you were to a large extent defined what you were. To write the Comedy in exile must have been a tremendous act of individuation.

Almost all of these easy and familiar assumptions about Dante’s mind and culture are wrong, but wrongest of all is the idea that anything in the Divine Comedy is “literal.” It is truly extraordinary how many people assume that in the Inferno Dante is painting a picture of what he thinks Hell is really like, even though the allegorical character of the narrative is shouted from the first lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

(That’s Robert and Jean Hollander’s rendering.)

If you don’t think the cammin is literal or the selva oscura is literal — and surely you do not make that mistake — why would you think the depiction of Hell later in the poem is literal?

On even brief reflection it becomes obvious that to treat Dante’s Hell as a literal depiction of anything is a mistake. Just consider this: each sinner is located in a circle of Hell devoted to punishing a single sin. But no one is guilty of only one sin. Well, then, perhaps each person is punished according to his or her most serious sin? No, that’s not it: we meet Dido in the Second Circle among the Lustful, not in the Seventh among the Suicides.

In fact, Dante is not at all interested in placing persons (or as he would see them, ex-persons) in their proper places in the afterlife, nor is he interested in speculating on the precise nature of the sufferings of the damned: he is, rather, interested in exploring the nature of sin. The topic of the Inferno is not Hell but sin, for the Pilgrim must understand what sin is so he can renounce it, and thereby begin to find a way out of that dark, dark wood.

So Dante’s imagination is not, pace Fiona Sampson, “literal” at all. It is symbolically rich and immensely nuanced. The literal-mindedness belongs to many of his modern readers.

I’ll post more on Dante later. He’s fun to think and write about.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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