Nick Havely and Bernard O’Donoghue, eds., After Dante: Poets in Purgatory – review

After Dante: Poets in Purgatory is both a presentation of the whole Purgatorio section of Dante’s Commedia, and an anthology of sixteen poets’ different approaches to carrying it across into English. Only two really wrench it into new contexts but, as the word ‘after’ indicates, all approach the task as poets making poetry, allowing themselves more inventive freedom than, say, Robert Durling or Jean Hollander in their parallel text translations. For readers who already know the Purgatorio, or the whole Commedia, I think the diversity of the different poets’ approaches will make for richly varying interest. For those who don’t, Nick Havely’s general introduction and the clear annotation of individual cantos give useful contexts. However, I do think that first time readers looking for a consistent imaginative approach to the whole might be better going to something like D. M. Black’s fine Purgatorio, published last year in the NYRB Classics series.

What I find absorbing in the Commedia, apart from the visionary aspects that flower most fully at the climax of the Paradiso, is the clarity of Dante’s imagery, the clarity and power of his narrative, both in the overarching story and in the smaller narratives it contains, and the vividness, sensitivity and depth of his rendering of character. The translators and adaptors who most succeed, in my book, are those who best carry across some or all of these qualities and capture the haunting play of emotion that flows from them. It’s interesting to see which formal and stylistic approaches seem most useful in doing this.

One very obvious contrast is between the registers adopted by different poets. Mary Jo Bang, translating Cantos 1, 4 and 5, writes like this:

Heading over waters getting better all the time
my mind’s little skiff now lifts its sails
letting go of the oh-so-bitter sea behind it.

The next realm, the second I’ll sing,
is here where the human spirit gets purified
and made fit for the stairway to heaven.

Here’s where the kiss of life restores the reign
of poetry – O true-blue Muses, I’m yours –
and where Calliope jumps up just long enough

to sing backup with the same bold notes
that knocked the poor magpie girls into knowing
their audacity would never be pardoned.

In contrast, Angela Leighton, translating Cantos 9, 10 and 11, adopts a formal, rhetorically elevated style:

Dawn, the mistress of Tithonus ever old,
already paling on the eastern border,
had slipped the arms of her sweet lover.

Her forehead glittered with gemstones, shaped
like the starry Scorpion, that cruel-cold beast
that lashes everyone with its stinging tail.

The night that comes on hour by hour
had climbed the first two steps where we stood,
a third was already shadowed by its wing,

when I, my old-Adam’s nature upon me,
overcome by sleep, sank down on the grass
just where all five of us had come to sit.

Different styles will appeal to different readers. Some will find themselves drawn in by the swiftness and lightness of Bang’s approach, and feel that touches like ‘sing backup’ make Dante’s archaic text less alien than they might otherwise find it. Others – including me – will find her style positively jarring in anachronisms like ‘The gorgeous planet that says yes to love / was turning the east into a total glitter fest’ and find that the swiftness itself elides detail. The statelier pace of Angela Leighton’s translation brings detail to vivid life, both in terms of how pictures are allowed to unfold in the mind and of her richly expressive phonetic texture. Of course she’s no more just transmitting Dante’s literal meanings than Bang is. ‘Slipped the arms’ is a brilliantly inventive rendering of ‘fuor de le braccia’, which literally means simply ‘outside the arms’.

Neither Leighton nor Bang rhyme. A fundamental decision for every translator of the Commedia is how closely to echo the structure of the original on two different levels. One involves rhyme. Each canto unfolds in tercets (groups of three lines) in which the first line rhymes with the third and the second with the first and third lines of the following tercet: ABA BCB CDC and so on. The other is the relation between line and stanza on the one hand and units of sense and syntax on the other. Dante tends to harmonise units of sense and syntax with those of line and stanza. This gives solidity to the small units, encouraging the reader to pause over them and making it easier to absorb them as discrete elements of meaning at the same time as the rhyming structure creates a rolling continuity through the canto as a whole. This harmonising of smaller and larger pulsations is one of the beauties of the Commedia in Italian. Generally speaking, I found that the translations that gave me most pleasure were the ones that did most successfully capture this effect. However, because full rhyming is much more difficult in English than in Italian, and therefore makes a louder impact when it does occur, they followed the rhyme scheme with varying degrees of strictness, and sometimes didn’t follow it at all.

Eschewing regular rhyme doesn’t weaken Leighton’s cantos because in them we still feel line or stanza divisions and meaning pulsing together. However, although I greatly enjoyed both the vivid graphic detail and the clarity of syntax in Bernard O’Donoghue’s versions of Cantos 2, 6 and 7, I felt they lacked a rhythmic shape that would have crystallised impressions more definitely:

The spirits who had spotted by my breathing
that I was still alive, were so astonished
that they all turned pale; and just the way

a crowd will gather to hear the latest news
from a messenger carrying the olive branch,
and no-one cares if they trample on each other,

so these spirits, blessed though they all were,
jostled for a good view of my face,
distracted from their path towards perfection.

Although rhyme isn’t necessary to giving this rhythmic shape it does help, at least when deployed with inventiveness and sensitivity and softened by half rhyme. Canto 26 is one of the outstanding episodes in the Purgatorio and the Singaporean poet Alvin Pang presents it brilliantly. Here, Dante sees the souls of the lustful in the circle of fire and talks to the poets Guido Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel. There’s a sinewy vitality to Pang’s syntax that both maintains momentum over line endings and allows the unforgettable images within the lines to emerge distinctly:

there, coming from the opposite direction
down the middle of that fiery road, new
figures had appeared. I stared in fascination

as the spirits in each group (as if on cue)
exchanged brief kisses, then with no time to lose
for a lengthier welcome, immediately withdrew;

they looked like ants, who in their teeming queues
would touch faces briefly upon meeting
as if to ask for directions or the latest news.

Once the spirits were done with their friendly greeting,
each shouted out a phrase as loud and as best
they could before moving on, their cries competing:

‘Sodom and Gomorrah!’ roared the newcomers. The rest
bellowed in response: Pasiphae enters the cow to
lure the bull into charging her lust!’

Like a flight of cranes parting ways – some veering to
the Riphaean heights, others to the desert,
avoiding either the sun’s heat or the highland cold – so

both groups of spirits broke off and moved apart

Part of the pleasure of this is the sheer joy of those images of the natural world, like flashes of a David Attenborough programme, and part is the heightening contrast between their grounded reality and the weirdness of the Purgatorial scene at this point, when all the spirits except Dante and his two companions, Virgil and Statius, are walking in flames so hot that when Dante does have to cross them he says he would have thrown himself into boiling glass to escape their burning. Perhaps even more important, though, the energy and mutual courtesy of these spirits reflect their spiritual state and the stage they’ve reached in their purgatorial progress. The verse moves swiftly and lightly because that’s what the spirits do. They’re nearly touching their goal, they’re full of hope on the final circuit of the purgatorial mountain, and as Virgil told Dante at a lower level, souls become lighter and move more easily the higher they climb, shedding weights of sin on every circuit.

Although there are many memorable individual lines scattered through this book, Pang created what is to my mind the loveliest, referring to Guinizelli as the father of Dante’s generation of poets ‘that ply love’s sweet and supple prosody’. And though I can’t say he succeeds in replicating the extraordinarily moving effect of Dante’s giving a speech in Occitanian to the Provençal Arnaut Daniel, his description of Daniel’s disappearance is a little masterstroke of allusion. Dante writes ‘poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina’ – ‘then he hid himself in the fire that refines them’ – a line famously quoted by Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’. Translating this as ‘And with that he faded into the purifying fire’ Pang evokes the disappearance of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ at the end of the Dantean second part of Section II of ‘Little Gidding’, in which Eliot himself pays homage to past masters: ‘He left me with a kind of valediction, / And faded on the blowing of the horn.’

For me, the single most powerful episode in the Purgatorio comes in Canto 30. This is when Dante finally, almost beyond hope, meets the long-dead, glorified Beatrice, the love of his youth, whose soul has sent Virgil to save him by guiding him through Hell and Purgatory. Incredulous and overwhelmed, he turns to Virgil like a frightened child running to his mother but finds that Virgil has vanished. As a pagan, Virgil can go no further. So much of the moment’s emotional power rides on the rich and subtle development of Dante’s relationship with Virgil through the Inferno and the previous twenty-nine cantos of the Purgatorio, and on the momentousness of this point of transition in the architecture of the Commedia as a whole, that it can’t be meaningfully represented by quotation, but Draycott’s clear, vivid translation effectively bears the weight that rests on it.

The two poets who most radically reinterpret the original are Lorna Goodison, the recent Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and John Kinsella. Goodison relocates Canto 12 to the West Indies, not only by sprinkling her version with Jamaican dialect and remaking the characters in its inset stories into West Indian figures but by rewriting the Angel’s words to Dante to refer to the abiding legacy of slavery. She writes well – most brilliantly in the description of the morning star as ‘bright / and suffused with trembling radiance’ – and I would have liked to read a whole Purgatorio rewritten in this way. On the scale of a single canto, the rewriting seemed a mere taster to a project that as far as I know hasn’t been written yet. It might well be different for someone more steeped in Caribbean culture and history, but I felt that the ideas gestured towards in the five tercets in question needed more extensive development to come fully alive.

Kinsella rewrites Canto 32 – an admittedly tedious allegory of the corruption of the church – in a froth of polemical jargon that my brain refused to translate into anything meaningful. In fairness I should give a sample, so that those to whom Kinsella’s language does speak can disregard my opinion:

And with Eve-blame stimulated by the forest, himself
over herself like shelf fungus, the angel-music
suppressing serpents and denying her the rights of self.

And as time plays distance so it plays the politics
of measurement – the arrow in triplicate
is the spatiality of Beatrice’s aeronautics.

And caught in the gender binary with the constellate
Adamic, they oscillate about the tree
whose limbs have been shaved of leaves and florets.

Altogether, I’m delighted to add this book to my Dante shelf, and would recommend it to others,  particularly those who already know the Commedia, whether in the original or in translation.

After Dante: Poets in Purgatory edited by Nick Havely and Bernard O’Donoghue. £19.99.  Arc Publications. ISBN: 978 1908376 76 3 (pbk)

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to repost this review, published online in The High Window.





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