The Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri. It is completed in 1320, a year before his death in 1321. The Book is divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise).
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.