The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri. A translation into English prose by A. S. Kline. Published in entirety with index, commentary notes and illustrations by Gustave Doré.
The Divine Comedy is Dante's record of his visionary journey through the triple realms of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. This, the first 'epic' of which its author is the protagonist and his individual imaginings the content, weaves together the three threads of Classical and Christian history; contemporary Medieval politics and religion; and Dante's own inner life including his love for Beatrice, to create the most complex and highly structured long poem extant.
Through the depths of Hell in the Inferno, and upwards along the mountain of Purgatory in the Purgatorio, Dante is guided by Virgil, the great poet of the Classical Roman Empire, exploring, as he does so, the political, ethical and religious issues of his time. Dante in his own life, and in this epic, represents a 'party of one', desirous of purifying the Church on the one hand, and the Holy Roman Empire on the other, yet caught between those two great worldly powers, and turning to literature to make his voice heard.
From the summit of Purgatory, Dante ascends in the Paradiso, guided by Beatrice, into the celestial Paradise, where love, truth and beauty intertwine in his great vision of the Christian revelation. Yet the Commedia is essential reading not merely for Christians, poets, and historians, but for anyone struggling with issues of morality, the ethical framework of society, and the challenge of living the true life.
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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.