“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?”
Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso--the three fates of the deceased become the three pillars of an epic poem. The Divine Comedy, written by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth century, is considered the foremost work in Italian literature. The journey begins with Dante’s descent into the depths of Hell where he witnesses those eternally separated from God. Then he climbs the mountain of Purgatory where Christian souls undergo final purification, before finally touring the celestial circles of Heaven where he is filled with the image of God. An allegorical work, the comedy is representative of the soul’s journey towards God. Influential for seven centuries, this classic is a must have for lovers of great literature.
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.