Everyone agrees that The Divine Comedy is wonderful. Just a shaft of song from the spirits in paradise, a phrase or two of Marco of Lombardy in purgatory explaining the birth of the soul, or even one of the squirts of desperate rage from one of the souls in hell, makes everything else seem small and distant. It’s extremely hard, though, to describe the exact mixture of qualities that makes it wonderful. In the first half of the 20th century the Commedia was often regarded as a classic with a philosophical core – Thomistic, Aristotelian, Virgilian – that enabled it to speak for the entire civilisation of Europe. The critics who saw the poem in this solemn light, particularly T.S. Eliot and E.R. Curtius, had obvious reasons for wanting to believe in a southern European classic which was supranational and religious. To these conservatively inclined modernists Dante’s theological and political vision was the ultimate antidote to Führer-worship and doodlebugs, providing a direct link between Christianity and the civilisation of ancient Rome.
The intellectual substructure of Dante’s poem is indeed part of what makes it wonderful. It matters that he is attempting to take the imperialism of Virgil’s Aeneid and give it an Aristotelian and Catholic intellectual foundation (otherworldly Catholic rather than papal bulls and bells). It matters too that he has a systematic understanding of the cardinal and theological virtues, and their corresponding vices, around which he can shape his imagined progress through hell and purgatory to heaven. These larger structures give perspective to individual episodes within the Commedia, and bring to the poem its peculiar kind of irony. Because he is writing within a larger structure of judgment and salvation Dante can present mortal passions fully and often indulgently while at the same time intimating that they are just shadows of the vast creative love that moves the sun and the other stars. In hell he sees his poetic master Brunetto Latini, who is below him in one of the circles of the pit along with a band of sodomites who are endlessly fleeing to avoid flakes of fire. Because Dante is above the ditch he has to look down on his master, so he bends over to listen to him ‘like one who walks with reverence’. That physical gesture gives expression to Dante’s genuine reverence for Brunetto, but it is the fact of his master’s damnation and the ruthless geography of hell that generate his need to bend. The poem as a whole lets you simultaneously inhabit human affections and put them in their place.
Dante’s philosophy and theology give an underlying pattern to his universe, a structuring dance beneath the music of the lines, but the really great moments in Dante are surprises: when a voice bursts out of a tree, or when a pope, head-first in a hole with his feet on fire, yells out, ‘Already here,/Boniface?’ when he thinks that Dante and Virgil are the next corrupt pontiff to arrive in hell. Dante was not just a serene philosopher. He was also an angry partisan. He wrote the Commedia while exiled from Florence and when he had both personal and intellectual scores to settle. He had come to believe that government by a Holy Roman Emperor was the only solution to Italy’s troubles, and those troubles included a worldly and avaricious church. His disappointment at the failure of Florence makes his poem a snarl of rage as well as a hymn of heavenly love. Those who betray, and particularly those who betray imperial ideals, are given viciously biting punishments. He gives Satan three mouths so that in the deepest centre of hell he can chew for eternity on Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar, as well as on Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. The miracle of the poem is the way that Dante’s eccentric and violently held opinions seem themselves to be subjected to the large-scale irony of his cosmic vision. They – like the passion Dante the wayfarer feels for Francesca da Rimini, condemned to hell for having her head turned by reading mildly smutty romances, or the wonder that Ulysses’ description of his curiosity and voyages elicits in his listeners – are fully registered but also positioned within a larger picture of the world. The Commedia is epic rewritten in the key of autobiography and satire, and the widening of the poem at its end is partly the product of Dante trying to transcend his own imprisoning obsessions.
The other wonderful thing about Dante is his fantastical high-flying imagination. He rides the monster Geryon from one circle of hell to the next. In dreams he rides an eagle. He teleports from sphere to sphere in the Paradiso, sees the angelic intelligences clustering on every planet, and witnesses the souls of kings and emperors dancing as lights that draw the outline of an imperial eagle. He pushes the human imagination to its outer limits, but always anchors his desire to transcend what can be imagined by human minds with an exceptionally vivid realism. He has a serious fantasy writer’s grounded understanding of his own world, in which even magic needs physical and moral rules. Some of the loveliest moments in the poem evoke the wonder felt by souls who witness the breaking of what they thought were cosmic laws. The spirits in purgatory repeatedly marvel that Dante has a shadow. The rocks in hell give way under his unexpected physical weight. Dante himself wonders how he, a body, can be lifted to the stars, and Beatrice, his guide in paradise, repeatedly anticipates and develops his wonderings: why virtuous pagans can’t be saved, how souls without bodies can waste away in hunger. That power to evoke perceptual wonder goes along with an extraordinary visual sense. In purgatory a light on the horizon grows and gets closer, and then is seen to have wings: an angel. In hell a figure strides miraculously over the swamps, wiping the gross air away from his face, to open the gates of Dis. These are such amazing moments because Dante always thinks about how something would look from the place it is seen. To be able to do that as well as explain how the human experience of desire can be translated into love of the divine is miraculous. No English poet could do either of these things as well as Dante, and certainly no English poet (Milton was too stately to think in such gritty detail about how things looked) could do both. Dante is a crank, a methodical visionary and a close observer, as well as a philosopher-theologian and poet of Europe. If he were alive today he might be a writer of metaphysical SF, with a beard and high principles, who spends his evenings debugging freeware for Linux.
But the other great quality of Dante (distinguishing him from the average freeware debugger) is his phenomenal social tact. He does observe non-human things – cranes flying down the Nile, a baby stork flapping its wings as though it’s about to fly, frogs diving into the mud, pearls on a white forehead – but it’s in representing delicate human exchanges that he really excels. Silences, glances and stares are always in Dante eloquent acts, and he always suggests that within the conversations he is describing more is going on than is quite being said. The moment that best illustrates this (and it would be my poetical desert island disc for its great social delicacy) is when Dante and Virgil meet the poet Statius in purgatory. Statius explains who he is and tells Dante that Virgil’s Aeneid was mother and nurse to him. Virgil just looks at Dante to tell him to keep quiet, but Dante can’t stop himself giving his master’s identity away with a smile. Virgil conveys a thunder-blasted sadness throughout the poem because he knows he is a permanent exile from the love that makes the world. Dante is kind enough (for him a relationship with a poetic predecessor is a form of love) to allow his poetical master just a faint glint of pleasure at his fame, even though Virgil doesn’t overtly display that pleasure and even though Virgil and Statius are shades and so can’t embrace each other. The sensitivity on display in this episode shapes the whole experience of the Commedia. The relationship between Dante the wayfarer and the pagan poet Virgil, full of stated affection and unstated reservation, and between the perspective of Dante the character and the burningly loving violence of his creator, are all enabled by Dante’s greatest skill, which is to know when to leave the unknowable or the unsayable unsaid.
All this makes Dante exceptionally hard to translate. The immense gravity of the philosophical sections of the Commedia presents a huge challenge, both conceptually and linguistically, to English verse. The other kind of gravity in Dante’s writing – his concern with bodies, their weight, opacity and disposition – is so much easier to represent in English that it can take over the whole show. Indeed Dante began his life in English as a rather heavy poet. Chaucer in The House of Fame dreams the same dream as Dante in Purgatorio 9: that he is picked up by an eagle. But Chaucer is a heavy load, or ‘noyous for to carye’, as the garrulous English eagle complains. That self-effacing joke is typical of Chaucer, and it isn’t the only time he remarks on his chubbiness, but it may also express a kind of phonic national modesty. Italian is an easier language in which to fly than English. It has a higher frequency of liquid consonants, and rhymes come so easily that it’s sometimes difficult to stem their flow. The main translations of Dante into English came after Milton’s Paradise Lost and were affected, sometimes terminally, by the particular kind of stylistic gravity to which Milton aspired. Dante’s slangy anger is the commonest victim of translations that try to pitch him in a high Miltonic register, but it is rare to read any kind of translation of Dante without feeling that something major has been lost. There is certainly no complete English version that manages to do it all: to capture Dante’s delicacy, his violence, his irony, his ability to soar into the divine abstraction of desire, his combination of physical immediacy and metaphysical urgency, his material weight and his spiritual profundity.
So Clive James can’t be blamed for joining the ranks of the respectable failures. He has given us a Dante who is approachable and affable, and almost always readable, but who is unequivocally heavy rather than fluid or mellifluous. When James’s Dante is picked up by the Eagle in his dream he finds ‘In me had stayed/Something of Adam’s human weight, that brings/The need for sleep.’ Dante just has ‘di quell d’Adamo’ – something of Adam. As he mounts the steps to purgatory Dante seems
Far lighter than I was before. ‘What weight,’
I asked my Master, ‘has been shorn from me
That I so blithely go up through the gate,
Almost without an effort?’
That passage indicates where the heaviness of James’s Dante comes from. He has decided to replace Dante’s terza rima, which folds back on itself and uncoils, drawing you on like a thread of love, with rhyming quatrains. He also avoids feminine rhymes, which some translators from Italian favour as a means of extending English pentameter lines into hendecasyllables which might resemble Dante’s own. Both of these decisions are reasonable, but together they make his translation too reliant on monosyllabic rhymes to be able to soar. ‘Weight’ is a bad choice of rhyme word for a passage that is about growing lighter, and it leaves Dante seeming to trip over the heavy ‘gate’ of purgatory. When he later sees dancing ladies in the earthly paradise they too seem incongruously subject to gravity, and could indeed even be wearing clogs: they follow a ‘measure set by one who hopped and skipped/With three eyes in her head’.
James’s penchant for monosyllables is not all bad. It enables him to capture Dante’s moments of colloquial toughness. It also allows the speaking voices in the poem to ring out clearly. At the start of the poem Dante asks Virgil if he’s a shade or a man. Virgil clears the dust of 12 centuries in limbo from his throat, and James makes it sound as though he’s learning to speak again:
‘No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born
In Mantua. Both born there.’ That was how
His words emerged: as if with slow care torn,
Like pages of a book soaked shut by time,
From his clogged throat.
His Beatrice is also firm and direct: ‘I want to fill your bare mind with a blaze/Of living light that sparkles in your eyes.’ But he can overdo the plain-speaking. In paradise Matilda sounds a bit too much like a patronising schoolgirl when she says to Dante: ‘You’re new here. There are things you haven’t learned.’ Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida is also several shades too blokeish and backslapping: ‘Thus you do not ask me who/I am, or why I seem the gladdest soul/Of all this happy throng. Well, good for you.’ But alongside these distracting moments James also turns out some ravishing lines. The talking flame which is Guido da Montefeltro in hell is described as ‘a blurred voice at the apex of the blaze’, and when James allows himself to combine monosyllables with liquid consonants, as he does in the amorous tale of Paolo and Francesca, the result can be a tangled beauty: ‘For love can will will’s loss, as well you know.’ There is also a good snake in the grass in purgatory: ‘Through flowers and grass it slid/The vile streak.’
One of the temptations facing a translator of a poem that has a reputation as a classic is to make it sound like a famous work of English literature by lacing the translation with well-known quotations. Usually this is a bad idea, and sometimes it’s fatal. The literary allusions that James allows himself are sometimes timely. The music of Casella in purgatory will ‘refresh my soul with music for a while’, where the glance at Purcell and Dryden (‘music for a while/Shall all your cares beguile’) has an obvious point. But elsewhere little phrases from English literature seem just to bubble up from a stew of familiar quotations. James writes of the indifferent in hell that it is ‘their pride to have no prejudice’, where Dante just says that they lived with neither infamy nor praise. Aeneas is, like Wordsworth’s Chatterton, ‘that marvellous boy’, for no particular reason. Helen of Troy is made a Hamletical metaphorical mess ‘in whose name/A sea of trouble came to Troy in ships’. But the falsest note of all is when James has Dante puzzle over why virtue has left the earth: ‘Some say the fault is in our stars, and some/It’s in ourselves.’ Given that Dante consigned the historical Cassius to the deepest maw of hell it’s painfully wrong to make him sound so like Cassius in Julius Caesar, who says: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
James wants to make Dante an affable familiar ghost rather than a distant and difficult speculator, and usually where he strikes a false note it’s through an excess of chumminess rather than pretentiousness or carelessness. He takes the brave decision to incorporate glosses into the translation so that his readers don’t have to be told who someone is or what they did by means of a footnote. That’s usually a good thing. There’s no harm in being told explicitly that the leopard Dante meets in Canto 1 is in an allegory of lechery, for instance, or that it’s Nicholas III (whom Dante does not dignify by naming) whose flaming feet stick out of the stone in Inferno 19. But every so often one of the wires comes loose and James adds something that would have been better left out. Just occasionally he’s downright misleading. So the troubadour Folquet de Marseille confesses that he was overwhelmed with passion, like Dido ‘when it led her on to steal/Aeneas from his wife, and to betray her husband’. Aeneas’s wife, Creusa, is dead by the time Dido wins Aeneas, and so is her husband, Sychaeus. Dante describes Dido as ‘noiando e a Sicheo e a Creusa’ (wronging both Sychaeus and Creusa), which means that she wronged their spirits, and implies that love should continue after death. James turns her into a femme fatale.
He also extends us some rather overbroad winks as a reminder that we are reading a translation, and that translations always fall short of their original. Again there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this. It fits in with both the modesty with which James introduces his translation and the modesty of Dante himself. The later books of the Commedia are often presented as something like an imperfect translation of heaven, which mediate the unimaginable to human sight. James makes a reasonable job of a passage in which St Thomas Aquinas explains why mortal things tend to fall short of their divine originals:
If the wax
Were perfectly receptive and the force
Of Heaven could run truly on the tracks
Of its descent, the seal would match the source
In brightness, but there is a falling short
By nature always, as the artist’s craft
Comes from a trembling hand.
This might excuse any amount of falling short in a mere translation, in which the trembling hand of the translator will almost inevitably blur the outlines of an original. But the self-consciously fallible translator act can be overdone. When Dante quotes Latin phrases James tends to translate them into English and explicitly say ‘I translate’ or ‘If I may translate’. That self-consciousness about translation isn’t instantly or universally redemptive of all errors, and can generate problems of its own. James’s most flat-footed moment occurs in Purgatorio 30, when the angels sing Psalm 30 (Coverdale’s Psalm 31, ‘In thee oh lord have I put my trust’). Dante quotes the Latin to indicate that they sing the section of the psalm about God as a source of justice and comfort and that they stop at verse nine (‘e li angeli cantaro/di sùbito “In te, Domine, speravi”;/ma oltre “pedes meos” non passaro’). James turns this into ‘But they all stopped singing when/They’d done the first nine verses, and come to/The bit about the feet and the large rooms.’ He’s glancing at Coverdale’s translation (‘Thou hast not shut me up into the hand of the enemy but hast set my feet in a large room’), but it’s a disastrous tonal misjudgement. Dante has just been left by Virgil, and the whole of his world is about to dissolve before it broadens and blossoms into paradise. It isn’t the time to suggest that angels are tittering at a clumsy English translation of the psalms. Just after this passage Dante compares his breast to the snow that melts through itself and floods down from the mountains of Italy. Then he weeps. It isn’t hard to imagine why.