“Under James’s uncanny touch, seven long centuries drop away, and the great poem is startlingly fresh and new.”—Stephen Greenblatt
The Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James’s translation—decades in the making—gives us the entire epic as a single, coherent, and compulsively readable lyric poem. For the first time ever in an English translation, James makes the bold choice of switching from the terza rima composition of the original Italian—a measure that strains in English—to the quatrain. The result is “rhymed English stanzas that convey the music of Dante’s triple rhymes” (Edward Mendelson). James’s translation reproduces the same wonderful momentum of the original Italian that propels the reader along the pilgrim’s path from Hell to Heaven, from despair to revelation.
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.