Publisher: Random House (Modern Library Edition)
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
It is always good news when a contemporary translation of Dante is published, but it is a time to cheer when the translation is not only highly readable, but also vigorous and beautiful. Anthony Esolen has accomplished this feat. Of Italian background and a poet himself, Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, R.I. A couple of years ago he published a verse translation of Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and made that Renaissance work on the First Crusade accessible to modern readers (it was reviewed in the Oct. 2001 NOR). Now Esolen has done the same for this great medieval work, the Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy). Inferno and Purgatorio have now been published, and the last volume, Paradiso, is soon to be released. Dante is undoubtedly the greatest religious poet Christianity has ever produced, and one of a handful of great epic poets of all time. After serving as magistrate in Florence during a time of political turmoil, he was banished for life in 1301, at age 36, on trumped-up charges. An ordeal like this would have broken a lesser man, but lifelong exile became the crucible in which Dante achieved immortal glory as a poet. He composed his Divine Comedy during those twenty years and finished it just before he died. The work is a masterpiece that every student of literature, but especially every Catholic, should know. Esolen’s translation makes this task easy and pleasant. At a time when we are surrounded by the meretricious “beauty” of the Culture of Death, we need Dante to inspire us anew with the authentic, sublime beauty of the Culture of Life. Esolen observes that Dante is “a supremely dramatic poet” because he believes “in the meaning of things” and sees everything in our lives as having “eternal consequences.”
In the Inferno, the poet invites us to ponder the tragedy of sin as we descend into a funnel-shaped hole and visit the damned in nine concentric circles. As Esolen puts it in his Introduction, “The Inferno is not, finally, a poem about wickedness and punishment, but about beauty and love: the terrible beauty of God which should arouse in man the most ardent love, and the ruin of beauty which the soul becomes when it turns that love elsewhere. That love, that longing for beauty, pulses all through the Comedy.” In a series of vivid, sensational encounters, Dante meets a number of the damned: He starts with those who would not use their free will to resist unlawful physical urges, and he ends with those who premeditated ice-cold treacheries. The Inferno is worth more than most contemporary books on ethics because it makes us ponder the gravity of mortal sin. Also, Purgatorio is worth more than legions of contemporary self-help books because it shows us how to climb out of the defeat of sin. As Esolen writes in the Introduction to Purgatorio: “To accept one’s own helplessness, throwing oneself upon the mercy of God, is to embrace the virtue most fundamental to Purgatory, and the virtue that makes one like a child again…. That virtue is humility. It is a paradox that humility should be a prerequisite for our regaining our freedom.”
Esolen notes that “there is not a single fact of human experience, from the lowly to the sublime, that cannot find a place in the Comedy.” Someone who has never come face to face with authentic, embodied Christianity in all its glory can find it here at last in the Divine Comedy. As befits one whose God became man and left us tangible Sacraments, Dante is fully enfleshed. He teaches us that man needs not only “food, shelter, and clothing,” but also friendship, family, society, and “the fruits of the intellect, such as music, poetry, conversation.” All of experience is incarnational in Dante: “Far from fleeing the body or attenuating it into abstraction, Dante sees other bodies where we would see only legal fictions — for instance, the body of the family and the body of the state. Our own bodies have to do with those bodies. That is why Dante uses the body to punish those who sow discord in the body — and with a real sword, not with some abstract and fussy ‘division’!… But our bodies are also the vehicles of salvation. That, too, is necessary and is one of the lessons of the enfleshing of Christ.” Dante seeks Paradise in the end, which will be opened to him through “the spiritual nourishment provided by means of a wafer.”
Esolen’s translation is beautifully honed. Take the fifth Canto, where Dante and Virgil visit those damned for lust. These men and women arrive “lashed and scourged in the black air,” just as they were whipped in life by unlawful passions. They arrive like “a flock of starlings winter-beaten,” and are “trailing cries of woe/Shades blown our way by the great battling winds.” Later in the Canto, the poet speaks to Francesca, a woman whose story he had heard years ago in Florence. She was killed by her husband while committing adultery with his brother. Dante asks her how she fell into mortal sin, and she answers in these exquisite lines:
But if so great a longing
to know about the first root
of our love
then I will tell you, speaking
through my tears.
One day we two were
reading for delight
About how love had
we were alone and innocent
No cause to fear. And as we
read, at times
We went pale, as we caught
each other’s glance,
But we were conquered by
one point alone.
For when we read that the
accepted such a gentle
this man, whom nothing
will divide from me,
Trembled to place his lips
upon my mouth.
A pander was that author,
and his book!
That day we did not read
The above passage gives a taste of the beauty and vigor of this translation. There is a forward thrust that makes it hard to stop reading. Even if one is familiar with other versions, this one will be found uniquely engaging.
In another recent verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Doubleday, 2000), by Robert and Jean Hollander, the above lines do not have such a strong forward movement. Compare lines four to seven of the above passage with this Hollander version: “One day, to pass the time in pleasure,/we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him./We were alone, without the least misgiving.” And compare the last two lines of Esolen’s passage with this Hollander version: “A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it./That day we read in it no further.” This one is not quite so graceful or easy to read as Esolen’s.
In the 34th Canto, the last one in the Inferno, Dante and Virgil approach Satan himself. Esolen translates the passage deftly as follows: “The emperor of the reign of misery/from his chest up emerges from the ice.” The Hollander version has: “The emperor of the woeful kingdom/rose from the ice below his breast.” Surely “reign of misery” has a more contemporary feel to it than “woeful kingdom.” College students and ordinary readers are more likely to take to Esolen’s earthy language, rhythmic lines, and melodic phrasing.
In this new edition, Dante’s poem appears in Italian on the left page, with Esolen’s translation on the right. This is useful not only for those who read Italian, but also for those who want to observe Dante’s elaborate interlocking rhyme scheme. Esolen decided not to try to replicate Dante’s rhyme scheme, and rightly so, because English has far fewer rhyming words than Italian. As he explains, it would have compromised “either meaning or music” to have preserved that intricate rhyme scheme. But Esolen has not dispensed with rhyme altogether, nor does he write without meter. He has chosen, as he says, a “meter capable of hinting now and again” at the “sublimity” of the original, namely the English iambic-pentameter line of Shakespeare and Milton.
Esolen puts only a few, necessary notes at the bottom of each page, and saves the rest of his annotations for the end of the book. This is an excellent idea because the poem isn’t interrupted here as in some other translations, where we are faced with lengthy notes at the end of each Canto, and feel obliged to read details about Italian politics of the 1300s before moving on. In this version, Dante’s Comedy flows swiftly and unimpeded, like a great river.
Esolen’s translation is a labor of love beautifully accomplished and deserving of many kudos.
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