by George Holmes.
Oxford, 104 pp., £95, April 1980, 0 19 287504 3
Show More
The Divine Comedy: A New Verse Translation 
by C.H. Sisson.
Carcanet, 455 pp., £8.95, April 1980, 9780856352737
Show More
Show More

No one, except perhaps Proust, has been able to express such a sense of totally unexpected joy as Dante, and what most often brings joy flooding through his body is the chance meeting with a revered ancestor or teacher. ‘O sanguis meus, O superinfusa gratia Dei,’ Cacciaguida greets him in Paradise, and Dante, turning in puzzlement to Beatrice, feels that ‘I had touched the limit both of my beatitude and of my paradise.’ Then, he tells us, the spirit continues to speak, and it is ‘a joy to hearing and to sight.’ Many hours before, deep down in the pit of Hell, another meeting had taken place, following a very similar pattern:

Eyed in this way by this company,
I was recognised by one of them, who seized me
By the edge of my cloak, and cried: ‘How marvellous!’

And, when he had stretched out his arm to me,
I fixed my eyes upon his scorched appearance
So that his burnt face should not prevent

The recognition of him by my intellect;
And, bending my face towards his,

I answered him: ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’*

Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?’ – the poetry leaps as does the pilgrim Dante’s heart at the sight of his old teacher, even here, in the burning valleys of Hell. It is because the contact between them is so immediate and so strong, so uncluttered by doubts or second thoughts, that the last image of the canto, so often quoted out of context, achieves its power:

Then he turned back, and seemed to be one of those
Who, at Verona, run for the green cloth,
Through the open country; and he seemed to be the one
Who wins the race, and not the one who loses.

But of course it is in the meeting with a greater master than Brunetto could ever be that we learn most fully why Dante attached so much importance to this aspect of life. It will be remembered that Dante, having come to in the dark wood, emerges and tries to climb a great mountain towards the sun, only to be pushed back by three beasts. ‘While I was ruining down to the depth,’ he says, using one of those frightening Dantesque words which combine the moral and physical inextricably, rovinava, ‘there appeared before me one who seemed faint through long silence.’ It is Virgil, who is faint (or hoarse) because he has been silent for 13 centuries. But at this point Dante does not know who he is and it is an important principle of this poem that we do not forestall the narrator with our prior knowledge, for the way the encounter unfolds between them is of crucial importance:

When I saw that fellow in the great desert,
I cried out to him: ‘Have pity on me,
Whatever you are, shadow or definite man.’

The figure answers, ‘No, not a living man, though once I was,’ and proceeds to explain that his parents were Lombards and that he himself was born under Julius Caesar and lived in Rome under the good Augustus ‘at the time of the false and lying gods’. Only after he has said this does he go on to explain what he did in life: ‘I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned.’ At this point Dante can contain himself no longer:

Are you then that Virgil and that fountain
Which pours forth so rich a stream of speech ...

O glory and light of other poets!
May the long study avail me, and the great love
That made me search your volume.

You are my master and my author;
You alone are he from whom I took
The good style that has done me honour.

It is fitting that Virgil should see himself clearly, and in the harsh light of eternity the facts, in descending order of importance, are as he presents them: that he was born under the false and lying gods, which accounts for his sad place in Hell; and then that what he did in his life was to sing of a just man who escaped from a proud city (thus preparing the way for that other just man who would topple the proud city of the Caesars and erect his own in heaven). He was, of course, the supreme poet of antiquity, but for him, at this point, that is irrelevant – it would make no difference if he had been the most minor of scribblers. However, it is also right that for Dante it should make a difference, and it is right that he should gasp with wonder and delight: ‘Or se’tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte/che spandi di parlar si largo fiume?... Tu se’lo mio maestro e’l mio autore.’

What exactly is the meaning of that last phrase? ‘My author’ – the one who made me, as well as my special writer. As the Commedia unfolds, we come to see how these two meanings interfuse and how, quite simply, without Virgil, Dante would not have been himself, for it is Virgil who allowed him to find his own voice.

This is the real mystery of ‘influence’. This is what past masters, if they are true masters, have to teach those who follow them. This is what drew Eliot to Dante when he, too, was lost in a strange land and without a voice of his own, able only to mimic brilliantly the voices of others. When Virgil and Dante approach the summit of Mount Purgatory they meet a new figure, Statius, who, like Dante, has also found his voice through Virgil. Not knowing who the two pilgrims are, he recounts his life:

I sang of Thebes, then of the great Achilles;
But fell by the wayside with the second load.

The seeds of my ardour were the sparks
Which emanated from the divine flame
By which more than a thousand have been set alight;

I speak of the Aeneid, which was at once
Mother and nurse to me in poetry;
Without which I should have been worth almost nothing.

And to have lived back there when Virgil was alive,
I would consent readily to an extra year
Of banishment before I am released.

Virgil motions to Dante to be silent, but Statius has already caught the beginnings of a smile on his face, and asks Dante to explain the reason. When Statius learns who it is he has been speaking to,

Already he was stooping to embrace the feet
Of my teacher, but the latter said: ‘Do not,
Brother, for you are a shadow and so am I.’

And he, rising, ‘Now you can understand
The quantity of love which warms me to you,
When I put out of mind our vanity,
Treating shadows as if they were solid things.’

In 1917, an unknown American poet living in England brought out his first volume of poetry, a collection full of ironic echoes of the past and quotations from past masters, not one of which could be taken at its face value; indeed, it was difficult to know where the face or the value of the collection lay; the only thing that was clear was that a major poet had arrived and the Romantic era was over. The title page of the volume carried a dedication in French and English and an epigraph in Italian: ‘For Jean Verdenal, 1889–1915, mort aux Dardanelles’, followed by those lines of Statius to Virgil:

                                 la quantitate
comprender de l’amor ch’a te mi scalda,
quand’io dismento nostra vanitate,
trattando l’ombre come cosa salda.

The effect is quite extraordinary. These lines, in another language, written by another poet, spoken by a third poet about a fourth, come through with a heartbreaking directness – the only direct and ‘sincere’ lines in the whole of Prufrock and Other Observations.

We can, I think, assent to the mystery without feeling any need to fathom it. But it is this quality above all others, I am convinced, which brought Eliot to Dante and kept him there all his life – Dante’s profound understanding of the nature of the encounter between past and present, self and other, which cannot be explained in terms of influence or style but only in terms of the whole person. Our relation to the masters we choose from the past – or who seem to choose us – is partly our relation to our fathers, partly to our mothers. Throughout the Commedia, interestingly enough, it is Virgil who seems to assume the role of mother, even at one point carrying Dante on his hip as peasant mothers still do, while it is Beatrice who assumes the fearsome but no less essential fatherly role, rebuking Dante for his irresponsibility and lack of steadfastness.

George Holmes is a distinguished medieval historian, and his little book on Dante for the OUP ‘Past Masters’ series is a serious and sensible piece of work. But in another sense it is a scandal. No one reading it would ever imagine that Dante might be for him what he was for Eliot, what Virgil was for Dante. As John Dunn pointed out in an earlier number of the London Review of Books, this new series has never really asked itself what a past master might be, and the title seems merely to be an excuse to peddle yet more secondary works in an already overloaded market.

Holmes, in typical historian’s fashion, first bows to the ‘beauties’ of a literary work and then gets down to the serious business of telling us what is ‘important’ about it. The following passage is, alas, typical: ‘The Comedy is the most carefully wrought and the most precisely and intricately symmetrical of great literary works ... But for the reader who attempts to go beyond the exterior enjoyment of this magnificent artifice to understand its meaning and its relation to Dante’s ideas, it presents an ocean of problems.’ Holmes’s method is to try and trace the changes in Dante’s ‘ideas’ in the course of his writing the Comedy, showing how different the three cantiche are in their assumptions and interests, and how closely the changes coincide with the changing political situation. This is quite interesting to the person who already knows and loves the poem, but what it does is break it up and destroy the complex set of relations Dante has established within it, to reduce it, in the end, to little more than an ill-organised encyclopedia. This is very much how scholars like Screech and Frame treat Rabelais, but I have never seen it so ruthlessly applied to Dante. What it does is to ensure that hardly anyone will ever go from the essay to the poem, though quite a few will no doubt feel, having read it, that they now know what Dante is ‘about’.

We respond to Eliot’s essay on Dante because we feel that Eliot himself is responding to Dante, that the encounter has been central to his life. Anyone who sets out to translate Dante must also have experienced some such emotion, for the road is long and the frustrations are bound to be great, and mere industriousness could hardly keep him going. To judge by his introduction, C.H. Sisson is armed, if not with love for Dante, at least with great confidence in his own abilities. Dismissing the efforts of Binyon and Dorothy Sayers (‘it is not any language, though nearest, no doubt, to the quotha and forsooth of Victorian knightly romanticism’), he insists that for him the problem ‘presents itself ...in an entirely concrete form’. The translator, as he sees it, ‘is not looking for a critical adjective which will describe how he views the matter or how he will perform; he will be fumbling for a few lines which convince him that he can go on, and in some sort say what his poet says. That may sound a modest requirement; the rigour of it depends on the degree of rigour the translator is accustomed to exercise in relation to his own writing.’ On the evidence of this, Sisson does not exercise much rigour in his own writing. His translation is so unsatisfactory, so clumsy and careless, that at times one might almost suppose that it was a rough draft snatched from his hand by an over-eager publisher.

No criticism without examples, as Nabokov said, so here goes. First, the general slackness of the language. ‘This flame would stay absolutely still’, for ‘would shake no more’; ‘and we left them in that awkward situation,’ for ‘thus embroiled’; ‘Your will is free, just, and as it should be,’ for ‘libero, dritto e sano e tuo arbitrio’ (why not ‘upright’?). This may be an attempt at a relaxed colloquial style, rather like Day Lewis’s version of the Aeneid, but it feels merely clumsy. There are, however, larger doubts about this translation. In Canto XXII of Paradiso Sisson has substituted ‘my heart’ for ‘your heart’, so that the passage makes no sense. He seems not to know the Italian expression for ‘to faint’, so translating ‘io venni men cosi com’ io morisse’ (‘I fainted as though I were dying’) as ‘I felt myself diminish ... ’ He adds clumsiness to mistranslation when he renders ‘cosi rotando, ciascuno il visaggio/drizzava a me, si che’n contraro il collo/faceva ai pie continuo viaggio’ (literally, as Singleton has it, ‘thus each, wheeling, directed his face on me so that his neck kept turning in a direction contrary to his feet’) as: ‘And so, as they ran round, they kept their faces/Turned all the time towards me, so that their necks/Were all the time in movement, like their feet.’

In this example, it is difficult to say if the awkwardness is due to deliberate choice or simple carelessness, for Sisson seems often to go out of his way to break up the symmetry of the poem, or to add symmetries of his own which the poem could well do without. Thus he doesn’t end the first canticle with the word ‘stars’ though it would have been easy to do so and he keeps that ending for the other two; while, on the other hand, in his description of the siren in Canto XIX of Purgatorio, he repeats the loose ‘washed out’ twice (she had ‘all her colour washed out’ and then the colour came back ‘to her washed-out face’) where Dante has scialba and smaritto. The most awkward instance occurs in Canto XXXI of Purgatorio, during the climactic encounter with Beatrice: Sisson repeats ‘my face’ three times where Dante has first ‘my face’, and then ‘my eye’.

And when my face was raised in her direction,
My face grasped the fact that the primal creatures ...

What does it mean to say: ‘my face grasped the fact’? If Dante had used that unnatural expression there would be some justification for it, however odd it might sound in English. But he doesn’t.

In the above examples, the English reader would at least be warned by the clumsiness that something was wrong with the translation. But there are occasions where Sisson has so translated key words that the entire poem is affected and no one who did not have the Italian to hand would be aware of it. Thus a central notion of the Inferno is that of contrapasso: the idea that a man’s punishment fits his sin. The English word ought to be something like ‘retribution’, but Sisson chooses ‘retaliation’, which suggests a vindictive god. This is perhaps how Sisson feels about Dante’s deity, but it distorts what Dante means us to understand. Much later, when Dante and Beatrice are flying through the heavens, she asks him to look down and he sees ‘il varco/folle d’Ulisse’ (‘the mad track of Ulysses’). This is one of those moments in the poem when the linear development is suddenly seen to be part of a spatial pattern too, and when what had seemed to be wholly disparate themes and distinct characters are seen to fit into complex relations of parallelism and opposition. Sisson throws it away by translating ‘the passage the demented Ulysses took’. But Ulysses was not demented – he was mad in the sense of being an overrcacher. The passage adds to the Aeneas/Ulysses, Dante/Ulysses contrasts, and binds Inferno and Paradiso together. By not thinking enough about the meaning of the whole poem when translating a specific phrase, Sisson erodes the entire fabric.

In Dante every word is important. The more one reads him, the more obvious it becomes that, however relaxed and ‘natural’ the style, meaning emerges out of the constant juxtaposition, sometimes many cantos apart, of key words and phrases, images and even figures. Sisson has thrown all this away, and given us in its stead a poem in a language that is roughly like what we might speak today. Yet he keeps to the three-line stanzas, though abandoning rhyme and precise metre, and for this we must be grateful, though perhaps to the publisher more than the translator. Those clean-looking little stanzas on the large white pages slow reading down and make us aware of this as a poem, with a different pace from prose. That is a big advantage.

Reading through Sisson’s translation and sampling a few others, I wondered again whether English could ever cope with Dante’s particular style. It’s so precise, so concrete, yet so unaggressive. Thus ‘la terra lagrimosa’at the start of the Inferno is a tearful or tear-soaked ground, not ‘the melancholy land’, as Sisson would have it; and ‘lascia pur grattar dov’e la rogna’ is rather ‘let them scratch where the itch is’ than ‘let them scratch wherever they may itch.’ Dante is always specific and physical, and it will not do to turn his nouns into verbs or to say: ‘this is the sort of thing he means.’ Sisson is partly aware of this physical aspect of Dante’s imagination and of its underlying violence, but his attempts to make his English correspondingly violent and harsh nearly always backfire. Thus in Inferno XXII we are told ‘That was brother Gomita,/The one from Gallura, a bucketful of cheats,’ but the original merely says ‘vasel d’ogne froda’ (‘a vessel of every fraud’). Again, as Dante finally leaves Saturn he hears a terrible noise: ‘It resembled nothing upon earth,’ writes Sisson, ‘Nor could I understand it; the roar flattened me.’ But the Italian is again effortlessly precise: ‘ne io lo’ntesi, si mi vinse il tuono’ (‘nor did I understand it, the thunder overcame me so’).

One can see what Sisson is trying to do here: he is attempting to give physical force to his language by substituting the physical ‘flattened me’ for the more generalised ‘overcame me’. At such moments he is going for the reverse effect of his usual drab style, and trying to write in the manner of Lowell and Heaney. And it is certainly true that these two poets have got much closer to Dante’s controlled violence than any other translator I know. Lowell renders the meeting with Brunetto Latini (which I gave above in Sisson’s translation): ‘Soon,/I saw a man whose eyes devoured me, saying,/“This is a miracle.” ’ And he captures wonderfully the end of Buonconte de Montefeltro: ‘flying on foot and splashing the field with blood’. Heaney too, in his version of Ugolino, works wonders with the English language:

We had already left him. I walked the ice
And saw two soldered in a frozen hole
On top of other, one’s skull capping the other’s,
Gnawing at him where the neck and head
Are grafted to the sweet fruit of the brain,
Like a famine victim at a loaf of bread
So the berserk Tydeus gnashed and fed
Upon the severed head of Menalippus
As if it were some spattered carnal melon

This is remarkable. And yet it’s not quite Dante either. The line of Purgatorio that Lowell renders so memorably is ‘fuggendo a piede e sanguinando il piano’ (‘fleeing on foot and bloodying the plain’). The parallel participles give an extra terror to the image, binding together aurally what is primarily an image of dispersal – of blood, of self, of an army: so that Dante can dispense with Lowell’s ‘splashing with blood’. Dante’s is not, as Eliot, perhaps over-impressed by Pound’s half-truths, argued, a visual imagination. Its miraculous quality comes from its being both aural and visual at once, with the two not simply reinforcing each other, but sometimes, as here, powerfully at odds. Similarly, Heaney’s image of ‘the sweet fruit of the brain’ is a brilliant solution, but Dante’s is ultimately more terrifying for being less immediately startling:

e come’l pan per fame si manduca,
cosi’l sovran li denti a l’alto pose
la’ve’l cervel s’aggiunge con la nuca ...

The quiet rhyme of manduca and nuca, picking up buca in the previous tercet, seems to make the cannibalism almost natural. We have no sense of Dante working up the scene to produce horror; it seems to simply exist, embedded in these words.

In his elegy for Lowell, Heaney movingly describes his friend and fellow-poet as ‘the master elegist/and welder of English’, and goes on to ask rhetorically, ‘what was not within your empery?’ answering:

You drank America
like the heart’s
iron vodka,

promulgating art’s
deliberate, peremptory
love and arrogance.

But is this not a very partial view of art, though one undoubtedly cultivated by Lowell? The artist as predator, as emperor, deliberate, peremptory and arrogant – this is certainly the posture that seems to have worked best for poets writing in English in the last twenty years, but its willed and wilful quality suggests a desperation which is incompatible with the greatest poetry.

With, for example, the poetry of Dante. For the wondrous thing about Dante is how unaggressive he is, how little we feel him to be asserting mastery over language, and yet how powerful he is. In a brilliant chapter of his book, Dante, Poet of the Secular World, Auerbach noted, many years ago, how much more striking are the first lines of sonnets by Dante’s older contemporaries, Guinizelli and Cavalcanti, than those of Dante’s own early attempts. But whereas the other two can only reiterate more and more frenziedly the effects of their openings, Dante’s sonnets flower with a magical inevitability until the last word arrives as the only possible and necessary conclusion. And in the Commedia this combination of art and nature, of form and subject-matter, is even more evident, with the terza rima holding the giant edifice together, and the words amore and tornare playing a central role: for only those supple enough to turn and return, through love, rather than violently trying to force their way forward, can be saved, only they can find their own voice, for

Per lor maladizion si non si perde
che non possa tornar l’etterno amore,
mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde.

(‘None is so lost that the eternal love can not return, so long as hope keeps aught of green.’)

Only Wordsworth, in a few great moments in The Prelude, found a way to combine pliancy and strength in the way Dante consistently does, and Wordsworth’s view of man does not allow him to deal with human love, the pleasures and pains of making and the mysteries of beneficial influence. Which is only another way of saying that if there is one master we need, now, that master is Dante.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences