Renowned critic and poet Clive James presents the crowning achievement of his career: a monumental translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James's new translation - his life's work and decades in the making - presents Dante's entire epic poem in a single song.
While many poets and translators have attempted to capture the full glory of The Divine Comedy in English, many have fallen short, according to Clive James. Victorian verse translations established an unfortunate tradition of reproducing the sprightly rhyming measures of Dante but at the same time betraying the strain on the translator's powers of invention. For Dante, the dramatic human stories of Hell were exciting, but the spiritual studies of Purgatory and the sublime panoramas of Heaven were no less so.
In this incantatory new translation, James - defying the convention by writing in quatrains - tackles these problems head-on and creates a striking and hugely accessible translation that gives us The Divine Comedy as a whole, unified, and dramatic work.
Do we really need yet another translation of Dante's world-famous journey through the three parts of the Catholic afterlife? We might, if the translator is both as eminent, and as skillful, as Clive James: the Australian-born, London-based TV personality, cultural critic, poet and memoirist (Opal Sunset) is one of the most recognizable writers in Britain. James's own poetry has been fluent, moving, sometimes funny, but it would not augur the kind of fire his Dante displays. Over decades (in part as an homage to his Dante-scholar wife, Prue Shaw), James has worked to turn Dante's Italian, with its signature three-part rhymes, into clean English pentameter quatrains, and to produce a Dante that could eschew footnotes, by incorporating everything modern readers needed to know into the verse from the mythological anti-heroes of Hell through the Florentine politics, medieval astronomy, and theology of Heaven. Sometimes these lines are sharply beautiful too: souls in Purgatory "had their eyelids stitched with iron wire/ Like untamed falcons." Even in Heaven, notoriously hard to animate, James keeps things clear and easy to follow, if at times pedestrian in his language: "I want to fill your bare mind with a blaze/ Of living light that sparkles in your eyes," says Dante's Beatrice, and if the individual phrases do not always sparkle, it is a wonder to see the light cast by the whole.