Over the last few days I've been re-reading some Dante, in part because I've been kicking around the idea that Tennyson wrote his Maud on Dantean lines (you can read the post that resulted from that kickage here). Since my Italian is molto molto rudimentale, that has meant pulling up the online Divina Commedia, opening my English translations, and picking my way awkwardly through. Those translations happen (through no very carefully planned-out strategy) to be: the Dorothy L Sayers version of the whole poem, Robin Kirkpatrick's more recent and not-at-all-bad Penguin Inferno, and Clive James's 2014 rendering.
Pausing only to note what a great title "Penguin Inferno" would be for a major motion picture, I'll go on to:
I've always liked reading Clive James's prose. His writing provokes in me a mixture of delight and professional envy at his technical chops—writing good comic prose is really hard to do, and James writes truly excellent comic prose. His poetry has always seemed to me a lesser achievement, although writing poetry is clearly something that matters to him immensely. Still, I've read a lot of it (the poetry I mean), and acknowledging that comedy isn't the function of most of his verse, I have found some things to admire in some of it. So when his Dante translation came out in paperback a few months ago, I treated myself and bought the book.
I can't say I've been able to read the whole thing, straight through, which, I think, is what the book would like me to do. Not for want of trying, either. But I've had some long stretches with it. So far I'm struck mostly by a kind of mismatch between the stated aims, in the nifty preface, and the actual verse. I feel boorish saying so, actually, since the preface makes very plain that the whole, huge enterprise of Englishing, or Australianing, the Divine Comedy is all bound up with James's wife, an academic Dante specialist, and a woman James is very open about having repeatedly wronged. The two are separated now, and James is dying, which makes him offering-up this undertaking to her rather moving. And what he says about the difficulty of rendering the original is persuasive. He recalls his wife, from their courtship days, taking through some of the many patterns in Dante's writing:
One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:This is a simple but wonderfully telling point. James goes on to note how often English translations, by straining for the rhymes at the end of their lines (rhyme being so much harder in English than in Italian) butcher the echt Dantean tone. 'Dante isn’t thinking of rhyme,’ James says, ‘which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.’ He adds:
We read that day for delightShe read it in Italian.
About Lancelot, how love bound him.
Noi leggevam quel giorno per delittoAfter the sound “-letto” end the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within.
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.
Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.I like the thought of this last sentiment very much; and it sets us up to look for this internalised dynamic in James's actual verse. But to turn to the actual poetry is ... look, see, here're the opening lines of the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vitaAnd here's Clive:
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
At the mid-point of the path through life, I foundThose first three lines, including that choppy, wholly monosyllablic opening line 'at the mid point of the path through life I found' (that's an almost robotic stretch of English) read like somebody stumbling instead of somebody getting into their stride. I query the merit in starting a broadly iambic verse epic with two trochees (AT the MID point) followed by a hurrying-to-catch-up anapest (ofthe PATH), starting to settle with two iambs before interrupting the patter with another trochee (LOST in). By the time the reader gets into the swing of things by lines 4, 5 and 6 she can hardly look back on the opening without feeling its awkwardness. Add to that the inversion in lines 7-8, a tic that jars in what is otherwise a confident contemporaneity of vocabulary and syntax: what's wrong with 'so bad, that death would be worse by only a degree'? Apart from the rhyme, of course. And the rhyme is not very deftly handled here. I don't mean the replacement of the terza rima with quatrains: that's a legitimate tactical decision made by the poet. I'm talking about the greetings-card tweeness of rhyming 'degree' with 'eventualee'. Fiddlededee.
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It lead to good things too, eventually.
I would also say that going back to the Dorothy L Sayers version has re-impressed me with how solid an achievement that old warhorse is. I note this in the understanding that Sayer's Dante is not very highly regarded, although maybe I'm wrong about that. The worst one can say of it is that it is unashamed of archaism: 'thee' and 'thou' are awkwardly sore-thumb English renderings of the perfectly ordinary Italian tu, and sometimes Sayers indulges in old-school idioms and inversions of idiomatic syntax in ways that must have been distracting even in the 1950s and which are actively wincing nowadays.
Breathe in me [Apollo], breathe, and from my bosom driveThat aside, her verse is mostly very effective. Here's the famous opening of Paradiso 2:
Music like thine, when thou didst long ago
The limbs of Marsyas from their scabbard rive. [Sayers, Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, 1:19-21]
O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,And here's what Sayers makes of it (her Paradise was completed and edited by Barbara Reynolds after her death, but the impression given in the preface is that the lion's share of the finished work is still Sayers's):
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,
tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.
L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.
O you that follow in light cockle shells,The only wrong-step here (and, really, I'm being supercritical in saying so) is that 'light' as a modifier of 'cockle-shells' is a touch ambiguous between flimsiness and illumination—are these sailors following in frail cockle-shells or sailing their cockle shells to follow the light?—a consideration that has more weight than it might otherwise given how important actual and spiritual light is for Dante's paradise. Otherwise it's perfectly decent verse; even somewhat better that decent. The way she plays with the internal near-rhyme of 'shells' and 'sails' in that first terzo (not to mention the 'cockle'/'carving'/'course' alliteration) reproduces some of the musical inscape James notes in the introduction to his edition I quote above. And here's James's version of those lines, from that very edition:
For the song's sake, as my ship sails before,
Carving her course and singing as she sails
Turn back and seek the safety of the shore;
Tempt not the deep, lest, losing unawares
Me and yourselves, you come to port no more.
Oceans as yet undared my vessel dares;
Apollo steers, Minerva lends the breeze,
And the nine Muses point me to the Bears.
You sailors in your little boats that trailThat's just ... off, I think. Prolix (ten and a half lines to do nine lines' work), with wrongfooting enjambments and odd phrasing. There's the weirdness of a sailor navigating by a 'store' of stars. Who talks like that? Apart, that is, from poets desperate for a rhyme with 'before'? And why lose the specific detail of Dante's named constellations Ursa Major and Minor? Beyond that: 'you are trailing my singing ship because so keen to hear' is really not very idiomatic English (to hear what?), 'By now it might be time for you to sail/Back' is slack and chatty, and crunches pointlessly over its enjambment; 'steering clear' is inappropriately ambiguous between 'setting a clear path into ocean open' and 'avoiding something', and 'Minerva breathes', whilst sticking close to Minerva spira, doesn't convey that what Minerva is breathing is the breeze that fills the sail, and leaves us with the shadowy sense of Minerva sitting belowdecks somewhere, wheezing. Plus 'the nine/Muses' throws out the prosody so sharply it's almost like the verse twists its ankle at that point.
My singing ship because so keen to hear,
By now it might be time for you to sail
Back till you see your shoreline reappear,
For here the sea is deep, and if you lose
My leading light just once, then steering clear
Might bring bewilderment. So you must choose—
Be warned, this sea was never sailed before.
Minerva breathes, Apollo steers, the nine
Muses will navigate me by the store
Another example, again from the Paradiso, since that's the part I've been reading the most, lately. In Canto 14, Dante rises above the sphere of the sun into the sphere of Mars. The canto's opening simile, quite famous, is also quite tricky to put clearly into English:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centroSayers/Reynolds go with:
movesi l’acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch’è percosso fuori o dentro:
ne la mia mente fé sùbito caso
questo ch’io dico, sì come si tacque
la glorïosa vita di Tommaso,
per la similitudine che nacque
del suo parlare e di quel di Beatrice,
a cui sì cominciar, dopo lui, piacque: [Paradiso, 14:1-9]
Water in a round bowl makes ripples glideA bit clumsy, that 'instanter' (for the rhyme), and rather creaky with the 'tis' and 'twixt' and the wrenching of what would work much more effectively as 'it seemed to enter like an apt simile'. But it gets the image across. James:
Centre to rim, or back from rim to centre,
As from within 'tis jarred, or from outside.
This image dropped into my mind instanter
When Thomas' glorious life had said his say;
Like an apt simile it seemed to enter
In likeness of the verbal interplay
'Twixt Beatrice and him; for she, as suited,
Her pleasure, thus took up her cue straightway:
The water moves from rim to centre whenThat's just a muddle. 'But from within—the other way about' is worthy of The Stuffed Owl, and its just hard to get a sense from this of who's banging which bowl and why. I don't want to give the impression I'm doing whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is, so one last instance. On to Mars:
A round container is struck from without.
The water moves, when it is struck again—
But from within—the other way about,
Centre to rim. This proof from science fell
Into my mind the instant that the soul,
So glorious, of Thomas, ceased to tell
His story, because Beatrice took the role
Of speaker, and was pleased to follow thus:
Ben m’accors’ io ch’io era più levato,Sayers/Reynolds:
per l’affocato riso de la stella,
che mi parea più roggio che l’usato.
Con tutto ’l core e con quella favella
ch’è una in tutti, a Dio feci olocausto,
qual conveniesi a la grazia novella.
E non er’ anco del mio petto essausto
l’ardor del sacrificio, ch’io conobbi
esso litare stato accetto e fausto;
ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi
m’apparvero splendor dentro a due raggi,
ch’io dissi: «O Elïòs che sì li addobbi!». [Paradiso 14, 85-96]
That I'd been lifted up I saw by this:So that last word is not much of a rhyme, and there's a stiffness here and there in this version. James: 'I saw myself moved'
The warm smile of the star, whose burning ball
Seemed ruddier to me than his custom is.
With my whole heart, and in that tongue which all
Men share, I made burnt-offering to the Lord,
Such as to this new grace was suitable,
And ere the sacrificial fire had soared
Forth of my breast, I knew my prayer had sped
Accepted and found favourable accord;
For such bright splendours, and so ruby-red
Within two rays appeared, "O Eloi,"
I cried, "that giv'st them thus the accolade!"
Up to a plane exalted even more,I'll stop there. Fourteen lines for twelve lines' work; some padding ('not held aloof/But fully yielded' doubles up its point not because Dante does, but because James needs an -oof rhyme). Rose-coloured works in Italian (and French) for pinky-red, but not in English, where roses (as Lewis Carroll knew) might just as easily be white; and 'more rose-coloured than before/It now seemed' is a pointless and therefore distracting inversion of the natural word order. 'The spill/Of splendour was so shimmering because/Of two beams ...' starts well, but pisses it all away in its last four words: that clunking 'because'! That what-are-we-doing-woodwork-now? double beam!
Of whose high ranking I was given proof
By Mars. More rose-coloured than before
It now seemed. With my heart not held aloof,
But fully yielded, I employed the tongue--
Befitting all the loving care and grace
That lit the favours I was now among--
Of one and all when making, in that place,
The burning sacrifice to God, and still
It burned my breast though I knew it was
Accepted, and propitious. For the spill
Of splendour was so shimmering because
Of two beams, and so roseate, I said,
"Divine Sun, that so glorifies this!" As ...
The most damning thing about this Jamesian Dante is that, unlike his smooth onflowing prose, it really doesn't lend itself to long bouts of reading. It clogs and turns about and stalls, or at least that's how I have found it.