Dante (montage)

the Supreme Poet


[Italian and English versions as indicated below]

Caron ferrying across to Hell

The Inferno structure - click to enlarge
III Edizione IntraText

Purgatorio Structure - click to enlarge
Edizione Online Altervista

Paradiso Structure - click to enlarge
The best website on the Sommo Poeta, in Italian - contains everything!
Il miglior sito dantesco italiano: contiene tutto!

Dante in Paradise - Print by G Dore
Two editions (recommended!) in several excellent formats by The Online Library of Liberty

Hellish battles -Print by G Dore
INFERNO (English)

Map of Hell
PARADISO (English)

Map of Heaven

Map of Purgatory - click to enlarge
as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), himself a poet; Henry Francis Cary (December 6, 1772 - August 14, 1844),an English author and translator; and Charles Eliot Norton (November 16, 1827 - October 21, 1908), an American scholar and man of letters.

William Blake's Inferno - Whirlwind of Lovers
combines a traditional approach to the study of Dante's Comedy with new techniques of compiling and consulting data, images, and sound.

Mayhem by BoschDanteworlds
An integrated multimedia journey--combining artistic images, textual commentary, and audio recordings--through the three realms of the afterlife (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise) presented in
Dante's Divine Comedy.
Hosted by the University of Texas at Austin.

~Some critical appraisals...


Dante AlighieriWith Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri forms the diptych of the greatest literary figures ever to grace humanity. T.S. Eliot said: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third.”

Dante (the real first name was Durante, Dante is a sort of nickname) was born in Florence in May or June 1265, from a low-aristocracy family (not very wealthy) of the guelfo party. The poet himself will become a white guelfo. In about 1285 he married Gemma di Manetto Donati, who will give him three children.

Dante’s first studies were mainly in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, literature and theology. He was a disciple of Brunetto Latini, who strongly influenced Dante’s cultural growth. In his youth, he was a Stilnovo poet and had many friends among the other members of the Stilnovo Poetical School (especially Guido Cavalcanti). After the death of Bice di Folco Portinari (platonically loved by Dante, who mentioned her in his work with the name of Beatrice) Dante began studying philosophy and theology in depth, also attending some sort of cultural associations in Florence (the Studia) which provided lessons mainly about Aristotle and St. Thomas.

To begin a political career, Dante joined a Medical Corporation in 1295. In the following five years, his career grew quickly, and culminated in his becoming a priore (a sort of governor) in 1300. But in Florence the contrasts between white and black guelfi became harder and serious internal struggles began. Dante had to make some hard-line political decisions: he decided to oppose pope Bonifacio VIII’s expansion policy (supported by the blacks), taking a stand against the pontiff’s temporal interference. But the blacks, with the support of Carlo di Valois (a French prince) won against the whites. Dante, defeated, was strongly accused, even of fraud. He was sentenced to pay a fine and to serve a two-years exile; but he didn’t pay the fine and so was sentenced to death.

From this moment on, Dante roamed many Italian courts never again to return to Florence: he stayed under the protection of Bartolomeo della Scala in Verona in 1303. In 1306 he moved to Lunigiana (a Tuscan region), then to Poppi and to Lucca. In 1313 he went back to Verona where he stayed till 1319. In the same year, he moved to Ravenna, to the court of Guido Novello da Polenta. He died there, in 1321. He was buried in San Pier Maggiore’s Church where his tomb is still nowadays.

The Divina Commedia (Italian for "divine comedy") is Dante’s masterpiece and is the best literal expression of medieval culture, as well as one of the world’s works of genius. The original title (the one Dante gave to it) was simply Commedia. Giovanni Boccaccio suggested adding the adjective Divina ("divine") in order both to explain the kind of content and to celebrate the greatness and beauty of the work.

The word Commedia indicates the literary genre of the work: Dante himself explains, in his XIII epistle (addressed to Cangrande della Scala, duke of Verona) that a commedia is a work representing a story with a happy ending (opposite to tragedia, Italian for "tragedy", an episode which ends badly): in fact, Dante’s Commedia ends well, since the protagonist meets God. The commedia genre is also characterized by a varied content and style.

Dante’s literal models in his writing the Commedia, were the Bible and the VI canto of Virgil’s Aeneid. There's also a certain influence by some Ciceronian works. Basically, Dante modified Virgil’s pagan vision of after-life, according it to the religious dogmas of the Bible. Moreover, he used Aristotle’s physical vision of Universe and Thomistic philosophy. The result is a typical medieval vision of the cosmos, mainly based on religious ideals, but considering also classical culture.

Generally speaking, the Commedia is an eschatological adventure. In other words, it’s the description of Dante’s travel through the three transmundane kingdoms: Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso). During this imaginary journey, Dante tries to describe the situation of the human souls after their deaths.

It’s difficult to summarize in a few sentences the general plot of the Commedia: in fact, the topics are various and changes many times. The unifying elements are the constant presence of some protagonists and the theme of the travel. The whole journey can be also seen as a moral and religious conversion of the protagonist, Dante, symbolizing the conversion of the whole mankind: the result of this conversion is the rejection of sin and a life tensed towards God and eternal bliss.

The protagonists of this travel are three, above all. The first one is Dante himself, symbol of the whole mankind. The second one is Virgil, symbol of human reason. He’s Dante’s guide through Inferno and Purgatorio. The third is Beatrice, a woman loved by Dante during his life. In the Commedia, she’s the symbol of God’s love which can help the man to be saved. She guides Dante through Paradiso.

Analysing the first line of the poem and the lines 112-114 of Inferno’s XXI canto, we can understand the year in which Dante sets the poem. The journey begins in 1300, on Good Friday, and lasts seven days. Dante has chosen this year because it’s a crucial year for him, for Florence and for the whole World. For him, because in this year he becomes priore: this political position will be the cause of his exile. For Florence, since in this year the struggles between whites and blacks becomes harder and bloody. For the World, since it’s the year of the first jubilee, wanted by pope Bonifacio VIII. The jubilee is a universal call to moral conversion, just like the Commedia is an artistical representation of every man’s conversion.

The poem is divided into three books, each one representing a kingdom: Inferno (see the links page for links to more info about it), Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each book is composed by 33 cantos, except for the Inferno, which has 34 cantos (the first is a general introduction to the whole poem). So, the Commedia is composed by 100 cantos. The cantos are composed by triplets, rhyming with an ABABCBC... scheme (rima concatenata). Each verse is 11 syllables long. This uniformity and well-organized structure represent the structure of God’s Trinity and reveal the strong religious culture of the author.

The Commedia can be read on different levels of meaning. Dante himself says that his work has more than one meaning (polisignificante): see the XIII epistle and the Convivio, II, I, where the poet lists four levels of meaning: the literal one, the metaphorical one, the moral one and the anagogical one.

Dante’s main purpose in writing the Commedia was to preach the necessity of a moral and religious renew for everybody, in order to get ready for the after-life and to ascend to Heaven, eternally saved. Dante acts as a prophet who speak in behalf of God to the whole mankind. In this sense, he’s strongly medieval and his poem is the higher expression of this culture. In a wider, more universal sense, this is one of the highest achievement in Western literature: a poet genius reaching for the divine.


Merwin's book cover

In the introduction to his Purgatorio, poet Merwin states: "A translation is made for the general reader of its own time and language, a person who, it is presumed, cannot read, or is certainly not on familiar terms with, the original, and may scarcely know it except by reputation."

Why then has Merwin chosen to translate Dante's language into verse? Something Seamus Heaney has written of Yeats in his contribution to The Poets' Dante is helpful here: "When poets turn to the great masters of the past, they turn to an image of their own creation, one which is likely to be a reflection of their own imaginative needs, their own artistic inclinations and procedures." Heaney's observation could certainly be applied to Merwin's Purgatorio. Though his Dante lacks the formal power of Robert Pinsky's Inferno (with its bracing quality of saltwater or eau-de-vie), his gently bending courtliness nicely accords with the Purgatorio's "better waters." His sonority (Merwin has a perfect ear for vowels and soft consonants) has the limpid sweetness of spring water. Full of that "dolce color, sereno aspetto" for which Dante strived, lines such as "the tender color of Oriental sapphire/that was gathering in the serene countenance/of the clear sky all the way to the horizon" display the translator's self-described quest for "clarity", as well as a determination to avoid at all costs seeming "gnarled, impacted," or "stunted".

Set in three-line stanzas, Merwin's loosely latticed structure gives only the vaguest sense of the tightly woven Italian. It has no fixed metrical pattern, no rhyme scheme. Instead, with nothing of the obligatory flight plan of terza rima, his unfettered song seems carried upon "the plumage /of great desire," the loft at end of lines being supplied by occasional soft rhymes (clean/heaven; am/time; more/air) with an assonantal effect. Whereas Pinsky's prosody in the Inferno primarily relied on consonantal end rhyme, Merwin works through vowel gradations inside his lines. With Merwin's habit of liberal runover, these interior assonantal rhymes gain force and significance. A beautiful section from Canto XVI illustrates this quality of subtly shifting sounds:

To a greater power and a better nature
you are subject in your freedom, which creates
in you the mind which is not in the heavens' care.
So if the present world strays from its course,
the cause is in you; look for it in yourself
and I will be a true scout for you now in this.

Enjambment across periods ("To course on better waters the little/boat of my wit," as an early example) increases as the poem proceeds; the sentences "loosen" as the poet progresses up Mount Purgatory; and "the way" moves closer and closer to cadenced prose. As Merwin prosodically acknowledges fewer end stops or pauses, there comes less interference with natural word order: "As one who goes ahead, escorting / others, comes to a stop at finding/something strange ...," that is, Merwin is freed to approach something very close to spoken English. This prosody's "lightening" of effort has a revelatory effect: "'Truly from now on my words will be/as simple as they will have to be/if they are to be clear to your rude vision.'"

Merwin's poetics here suggest that his idea of Paradise is the promise of an easy read. For while he is extremely intelligent, Merwin's intellect is not scholarly; he is at times suspicious of, if not openly hostile to, erudition. This is almost exactly contrary to the attitude of Dante, whose fiercely intellectual temperament is paired with a daunting learning. There is none of Merwin's distrust of skill or dexterity in Dante; his sweetness is always undercut by the stringency of technique. He could even be said to worship structural difficulty, for the justice of form is a manifestation of the divine mind.

This love of difficulty is essential to the aesthetic of the Provencal lyric. And the way Dante's Provencal lines at the close of Canto XXVI, written as though spoken from the mouth of Arnaut Daniel, are worked so flawlessly into the Italian's terza rima demonstrate something of his verse's close relation to the lyric tradition of Arnaut:

El comincio liberamente a dire:
"Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire ...

Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que nos guida al som de l'escalina,
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!"

Poi s'ascose nel foco che li affina.

Sheer technical effort (here, the employment of rhyme in two languages) is demonstration of the "valour" which is needed to climb up Mount Purgatory. Merwin translates these lines as:

Freely he began to speak to me:
"Your courteous question gives such pleasure to me
that I will not and cannot conceal myself from you ...

Now I beg you by that power
that is leading you to the top of the stair,
while there is time remember how I suffer!"

Then hid himself in the fire that refines them.

Valor, however, is not really "power". Within the context of troubadour verse, "valour" is a talent, ability, or strength. It's also a quality of character (something like "virtue") found in God, Beatrice, and Dante's soul. A key concept in troubadour cosmology, valor is extremely hard to translate into a single word. Yet Merwin, having familiarity with living Occitan, should certainly know better than to follow the use of "power," for that suggests a theological force emanating only from God which leads Dante toward Beatrice. Instead, Dante's extraordinary skill--writing of Arnaut in the forms of Arnaut's own Provencal--is itself a demonstration of valor. Effort is the way the poet shows his love.

In "Poetry Rising from the Dead" Merwin identifies Purgatory as a place of "reunions with poets, memories and projections of poets," and he remarks on the "several suggestive parallels" between the Odysseus passage in the Inferno's Canto XXVI and the same canto in the Purgatorio, wherein Dante encounters Arnaut Daniel. He writes, "When I was a student" the Inferno's Dante-Odysseus encounter "caught me by the hair." When he describes Ulysses as a modern figure who "attempt[s] to break out of the limitations of his own time and place by the exercise of intelligence and audacity alone," the flawed hero sounds a lot like his own mentor, Ezra Pound, the author of the Cantos. And when he admits that "translation of poetry is an enterprise that is always in certain respects impossible, and yet on occasion it has produced something new, something else, of value, and sometimes, on the other side of a sea change, it has brought up poetry again," again it's hard not to think of Pound. Surely the Dante-Arnaut meeting would also have particular resonance for Merwin, for not only was the Provencal master a fundamental element of the Poundian curriculum, but Dante's meeting with Arnaut is the source for the phrase "il miglior fabbro," with which T. S. Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to Pound.

Merwin only notes Pound's recommendation of Binyon's translation. According to "Mirroring the Commedia: An Appreciation of Laurence Binyon's Version," Robert Fitzgerald's contribution to The Poets' Dante, "[Pound] all but took a hand in the translation." Merwin takes a swipe at the Binyon; he says he found it "terribly tangled," yet Fitzgerald justifiably argues that "Pound could be wildly wrong about some things but not ... about a rendering of Dante in English verse." Though it was also admired by Auden, Binyon's translation is "peculiarly disregarded," Fitzgerald writes, yet it is the one "that most nearly reproduces the total quality of the original poem." Pound said of the piece, "I don't know of any that is more transparent in sense that reader sees the original through it. A translation that really has a critical value, i.e. enlightens one as to the nature of the original ... it is like a window with glass so polished that one is not aware of it, one has the impression of the open air."

The "tangled" quality that Merwin notes also irritated Pound at first, "but on reflection," says Fitzgerald, "he had come round to seeing that some of this was appropriate." Pound wrote, "The fact that this idiom, which was never spoken on sea or land, is NOT fit for use in the new poetry of 1933-34 does not mean that it is unfit for use in a translation of a poem produced in 1321." Binyon's Purgatorio begins:

Now hoisteth sail the pinnace of my wit
For better waters, and more smoothly flies
Since of a sea so cruel she is quit,

And of the second realm, which purifies
Man's spirit of its soilure, will I sing,
Where it becometh worthy of Paradise. :

Whatever one thinks of his inversions and archaisms, Binyon's subtle prosody in some way does manage to reproduce Dante's formal effects. As Fitzgerald beautifully explains, Binyon does not only re-create the triple rhymes of Dante's terza rima,:

it involved a more intimate correspondence. So far as English would permit, and in the decasyllabic line native to English, he had imitated the Dantean hendecasyllable, scanning by syllable rather than feet, but through systematic elisions achieving flexibility in syllable count.... But this was not all, either. By using fine distributions of weight and accent, he had contrived to avoid the beat of pentameters and to even out his stresses on the Italian model.

"The 'transparency' valued by Pound in Binyon's version was therefore a formal achievement," as Fitzgerald says. And even if one does not find his version aesthetically pleasing, Binyon's terza rima nevertheless contradicts Merwin's assertion that "verse conventions are to a large degree matter of effects, which depend on a familiarity that cannot, of course, be translated at all."

Merwin's disdain for the Binyon translation is not simply the rejection of its prosodic method; it is also a repudiation of Pound's instruction that a translator must attend to the original poem's sound and form. Merwin has attempted to purge his translation of Pound's influence. The result is that rather than revealing (as Fitzgerald put it) "te movement of the original composer's invention," his Purgatorio reflects the translator's poetics. Though he has written that "I have not come to use translation as a way of touching off writing that then became deliberately, specially, or ostentatiously my own," formally speaking, his assurances belie the actual nature of his accomplishment. Rather than creating a window through which one can see something of Dante's movement, Merwin's translation mirrors his own style.

Yet fin'amors calls for a distillation, a more intense experience. For all its lovely qualities, Merwin's Purgatorio is diluted Dante. An unsettled quality lingers. Having tasted the forgetful waters of Lethe, Merwin achieves a kind of self-reflective stylistic quintessence; but having not yet tasted restorative Eunoe, a depth of meaning remains left out. Just as an acknowledgment of Pound is missing from Merwin's "Poetry Rising from the Dead," what is physically there in the poetry of the Commedia has not been made fully corporeal in his translation. And just as Dante shows divided feelings about those neither-damned-nor-saved souls (among them his tearfully abandoned teacher Virgil) condemned to Limbo, Merwin himself appears torn between his youthful admirations and the parameters of his mature poetry's self-created orthodoxy.

~Some book reviews...


by Zygmunt G Baranski


Baranski's book coverOne of the most wonderful things about this volume in Italian (pity it's never been translated into English) is not so much what Zygmunt Baranski says but how he says it. This is not to suggest that DANTE E I SEGNI ("Dante and the Signs") is in any way lacking in content of import; quite the opposite. It is, however, Baranski's marvellously poetic writing style that allows the reader to become gradually enveloped by his text, to slide effortlessly into its pages, becoming more and more convinced with the passage of each chapter as to the strength and indeed, the rightness of Baranski's arguments. Certainly, the arguments he puts forth would be strong even if expressed less eloquently but it is Baranski's ability to write convincingly about Dante's signs, that allows us to read them as Baranski believes they should be read.

This is no small task. As the author himself points out in the first chapter, if we ate to study Dante's intellectual development, we must first learn to read with his eyes, considering the kind of texts he truly had in front of him, leaving aside those books that we would have him read. Only then can we truly trace and comprehend the intellectual journey that engendered the semiology of the Commedia and only then can we decipher the code within which its deepest significance may lie. Baranski's book, therefore, is essentially bipartite. On one level it educates the reader in terms of those books that Dante read, retracing the steps of his intellectual formation. In this respect, Baranski suggests that even before we consider such things as Dante's Aristotelian thought, his Neo-Platonism, or even his mysticism, we must look further back and consider Dante first as a reader and product of the medieval epistemological tradition.

On another level, Baranski's book is a gloss on the dantesque product of this tradition; an expurgation of Dante's signs that makes reference to and relies on the very traditions that Baranski proposes ate at the root of Dante's most prevalent signifying scheme. Here is where Baranski is perhaps at his best. While his explication of the various tests and traditions that informed Dante's thought was cogent and eminently readable, here, where he takes us through the semiotics of Dante's great poem is where he is at his most persuasive. In the latter part of the book, he glides seemingly effortlessly through Dante's use of allegory, his adoption of biblical symbolism and his use of his other writing projects to bolster the arguments presented in the Commedia. Here, in these chapters Baranski dissects the way in which Dante has, layer by layer, infused the Commedia with significance culled first from biblical imagery and then from various commentaries on those images. The process is a complicated one and, as Baranski notes, it raises the obvious question as to why Dante, in a poem intended to save the world would adopt such a difficult signifying scheme. Baranski suggests, however, that a satisfactory resolution of this issue as well as other difficult issues raised by the Commedia, requires us to recognize that, at its most fundamental, the ideology of the great poem hinges on the symbolic tradition of the Middle Ages.

By the time Baranski concludes that Dante, intellectually, was much closer to the symbolic exegetical tradition than he was to the philosophical--rational tradition, the observation seems almost trite, so effectively has Baranski presented his thesis. But the reader is not fooled by the elegant simplicity of the explanation. The simplicity of Baranski's conclusion stands merely as a testament to the strong likelihood of its truth. Baranski's finding is clearly the product of painstakingly detailed research and years of Dante study as evidenced by the copious notes that accompany the text and his obvious familiarity with all aspects of Dante's work. So well has Baranski traced and described all of the possible steps, twists and turns on Dante's intellectual iter, that the reader, by the end of the journey, feels similarly educated and is, therefore, intellectually prepared for the reading that Baranski urges. DANTE E I SEGNI should indeed become one of the canons of Dante studies as it proposes and supports a reading of Dante and of the Commedia in particular, that sheds new light on the often dense and misunderstood semiological aspects of this quintessentially medieval masterpiece.



In this edition, Stanley Appelbaum performs what can be called a line-by-line translation of the Commedia. In other words, each canto is reproduced in English with a canto of the exact number of lines of poetry, and each verse of Dante's original is rendered by the corresponding verse in English. In certain instances, the translator needs to transpose the meaning of the Italian verse to the subsequent line in English. However, as a rule, the English mirrors, as it were, the Italian masterpiece. Appelbaum succeeds in producing a readable translation of the Divine Comedy, rendering its meaning into clear English with no attempt to reproduce Dante's rhymes, meter, or poetry. Aside from the fact that Appelbaum's verses correspond almost absolutely to Dante's, his translation could virtually be mistaken for a straight prose translation of the work. For instance, the opening tercet of the first canto of Purgatorio reads: "To travel better waters, the little boat / of my intellect hoists its sails, / leaving behind a sea so cruel" (115). As the example makes clear, Appelbaum does not retain the hendecasyllabic form nor the rhymes of the original. His emphasis, rather, is on the clarity of thought behind Dante's language, but not in imitating the language itself.

Appelbaum's sensible translation represents the strong point of this volume. Other aspects of the edition are more problematic, however. For example, while Appelbaum strives to make each verse in English mirror that in Italian, the volume does not provide the numbers of the lines in either the text or translation. With that omission, the edition harms its own marketability; it would be difficult for an instructor to teach such a text in a classroom. Each page contains roughly thirty lines of poetry--either in Italian or in English--so pinpointing for the students the verses under discussion would prove quite confusing.

The volume contains an introduction that covers briefly Dante's life and works. However, the introduction is too sketchy to be of utility for a lay reader. Indeed, it helps to have already read the Commedia to make sense of the introduction, for detailed terminology and concepts are treated as if everyday language. For instance, it talks about the top five circles of hell being dedicated to the "incontinent" (x). Yet the introduction does not clarify the theological meaning of incontinence, leaving the uninitiated to wonder if people with bladder- and bowel-control problems will find themselves spending an unpleasant eternity. At another point, the translator describes thus the organization of Purgatory: "[t]he faults of those residing on the first three terraces may be summed up as love of an improper object; of those on the fourth, insufficiently vigorous love; of those of the fifth through seventh, excessively vigorous love" (xi). But, again, Appelbaum does not explain further what the proper and improper objects of love are, nor what it means to have insufficiently or excessively vigorous love of those objects. The introduction explicates in three short paragraphs the complex topographies of hell and of purgatory, and the circles of heaven, with no assistance of a diagram or a schema. Instead, the novice reader faces complicated explanations such as the following: "Moving down the well of giants, one arrives at the frozen lake of Cocytus, the four-zoned ninth circle of traitors, in the extremely narrow center of which is huge Lucifer and the three men he eternally punishes" (x). The translator does not elaborate on what the four zones of the ninth circle are, nor the identities of the three men tortured by Satan. The examples cited above are not exceptional but instead are indicative of the style in which the entire introduction is written.

The problems of the introduction could be overlooked if the entire text had been presented within the volume. But as the title makes clear, this edition does not reproduce the entire Commedia. Instead, it contains only a third of it, thirty-three cantos spread throughout all three cantiche. Those thirty-three cantos are presented unabridged so that their unity can be preserved. Yet the other sixty-seven cantos are replaced with paragraph-length summaries that briefly cover the action therein. Sadly, the summaries are written in the same confusing manner as the introduction. And in a few instances, the summaries are inaccurate. For example, the edition boils down the action of canto VIII of Inferno as follows: "As the travelers are rowed across [the Styx], the spirit of Filippo Argenti, a wrathful Florentine, bobs up from the swamp and embraces Dante, who is anything but compassionate" (35). Yet, Filippo Argenti does not embrace Dante. At best, Argenti can be said to extend his arms toward the boat containing the pilgrim (vv. 40-41) in a gesture that seems distant from a friendly hug. Appelbaum seems to confuse the subsequent actions of Virgil (vv. 43-45) with those of Filippo. In another instance, Appelbaum describes Dante's bafflement in canto III of Purgatorio: "Dante, seeing his own shadow but not Vergil's, is afraid that he has been deserted, but his guide appears and reassures him [...]" (122). The translator's language makes it sound as though Virgil does indeed leave Dante alone for some time but eventually rejoins him. In truth, Virgil never abandons Dante's side; Dante misinterprets the fact that he casts a shadow but Virgil does not. The fact that the summaries contain inaccurate or misleading language only exacerbates the negative impression left by the weak introduction. Scholars, students, and lay-readers will have no way to correct for the mistaken ideas given by the introduction and the summaries since Dante's actual words, or their translations, are not provided.

In sum, while the English rendition of the Divine Comedy is fine when supplied, the volume as a whole might have been better packaged, although I recognise the difficulty of providing a "selected Dante" for the general public: I give it 5 stars anyway, because with Dante you cannot afford any less...



Hollander's Book coverThis is one of three volumes of texts, translations, notes, and other pedagogical materials which constitute a distillation of Professor Robert Hollander's many years of teaching Dante at Princeton. Over nearly four decades, his course on the Comedy has become such an institution for generations of students there that it has even been reprised as part of the university's annual reunion celebrations. Though it gets first billing in the books' titles, the translation of the poem's three canticles into English--produced in collaboration with Hollander's wife, the poet Jean Hollander--is only one part of the Hollanders' project to provide as broad an audience as possible with a reliable guide to the reading of Dante's poem in the original. As evidence of this, and in an unusual act of generosity for copyright holders, much of what is found in these volumes, plus other material as well, has been made available in electronic form at the Princeton Dante Project website where anyone can read the Hollanders' work for free. This site also contains audios of readings of the poem in Italian by Professor Lino Pertile which provide English-language readers unsure of the pronunciation of a particular word in Dante's text--or even of how the original sounds at all--with a sense of the oral dimension of Dante's work.

Each of the Hollanders' volumes of Dante's poem features the Italian text of the canticle in Petrocchi's edition with the English translation on facing pages. At the beginning of the Inferno, there is a brief introduction to Dante and his poem aimed at the general reader. In this introduction, Hollander stresses the originality, fierce independence, even contrarian nature of Dante's attitude to his material (of his depiction of Beatrice, for example, Hollander notes that Dante, "knows that what he is proposing is out of bounds," xvii). But the principal thrust of Hollander's presentation of the man and his work is to insist that Dante's is a poem of great relevance to life today written by someone who, if not exactly like most people living right now, has nevertheless much of importance to say to, for example, undergraduates in North America in the twenty-first century. We may add 'undergraduates everywhere'.

Hollander provides some of the usual help to these readers. There are maps of the topography of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise as well as a tabular description of events in Inferno with names of the rivers and of the monsters that characterize that region. Each volume has two indexes, one to names and places mentioned in the poem, the second an "Index of Subjects Treated in Notes." In the latter, in the Inferno volume, one can fred references to "speech" ("garbled," "least present in a canto," "most present in a canto"), while for all canticles there is a reference to different kinds of "similes" ("comparing a thing to itself," "describing mental experience," etc. for Purgatorio). At the end of each volume, a "List of Works Cited" provides complete biographical information for the scholarly works mentioned in the notes. Though these references, in general, are to the most recent opinions about the poem, the notes also make use of earlier commentaries (from Jacopo Alighieri's of 1322 to that by Pasquini-Quaglio of 1982, with nineteen of these from before 1600). For the complete texts of such often hard to find commentaries, Hollander refers the reader to the database collected in the Dartmouth Dante Project, also available on-line at an address he provides. As this "outsourcing" of his scholarly resources makes clear, the Doubleday volumes are only one part of a complex of collectively produced philological and historical tools that Hollander is proposing to information age readers who are often as comfortable in front of a TV monitor as they are perusing the printed page.

Each canto in the three volumes is preceded by a helpful "outline" to the action, with subdivisions, different type fonts and other formatting devices for additional clarity. While these formal matters are important and the very lucid organization of these volumes is a large part of their considerable merit, the greatest contribution the Hollanders make to facilitating comprehension of Dante by English-speaking readers are Robert Hollander's excellent and copious notes. In them, Hollander is not only sharing his own private thoughts on the text after many years of careful study, he is also drawing on as many years of patient responses to student questions and even arguments about the poem. In many of the notes, you can almost see Professor Hollander interrupting his lecture to call on a student in the back of the room who has raised an insistent hand. In several, in fact, he credits his students, identifying them by name and Princeton class, for particularly helpful readings of passages that seem to require extra elucidation. As those who have read his books and essays about Dante know, Hollander has definite opinions about the controversies that have grown up about Dante's text. In these notes, however, he is careful to present all sides of contested matters and then either leave his readers to draw their own conclusions, or provide evidence for his personal views by reference to his longer and more detailed scholarly work elsewhere.

Deriving as in many cases they did from classroom discussions, some of these notes contain what certain readers may find unsettling--or at least unconventional--references to contemporary culture. In his exposition of the poem, Hollander tries to bring home what he is saying by reference not just to those Latin classics that Dante knew, the Bible, and the patristic tradition, but also to Samuel Beckett (Purg. 83), the Marx Brothers (Purg. 527), Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges (Purg. 213), hathand poker (Purg. 252), Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (Inf. 486), and behaviour at boozy New Year's Eve celebrations (speaking of Inferno XXXI, the note points out that in this canto "Virgil treats Nimrod like a drunk at a New Year's Eve party, telling him to give over attempts at speech and content himself with blowing his horn," Inferno 532).

Hollander's work here is clearly aimed--as Dorothy Sayers's had been for readers of an earlier day in the UK--at contemporary readers in the US today, whether these are devout Catholics versed in Thomistic theology, Protestants, Christian fundamentalists, Jews, Moslems, atheists, or skeptics with varying degrees of sympathy for Dante's endeavour. While the Doubleday volumes will be consulted profitably by other Dante scholars, their principal audience would seem to be non-specialist readers of goodwill but perhaps more modest cultural preparation who need some help if they are to make sense of Dante's accomplishment in the light of today's many competing and very different teleological systems.

The translation, which proceeds tercet-by-tercet and often line-by-line, should, I believe, be considered a kind of additional "note" to the poem rather than a competing text. While elegant and precise and eminently "sayable," in a way that Jean Hollander declared Sinclair's not to be when this husband and wife team began the project, this Englishing of Dante's words has not been conceived as a stand-alone work of are any more than Sinclair's or Singleton's (the acknowledged predecessors for their project) were. It is thus conceptually unlike such other translations of Dante as, to take two much-read works over the last century, those by Longfellow or Ciardi. For this reason, to compare--as other reviewers have done--what the Hollanders have done with other recent English versions of the poem is to miss the point of what they are up to. Their aim is not to compete with Dante, but to lead readers to the poem and from the poem to reflection on their own experience of the world today. This is why the books are called by their Italian titles and not "Hell", "Purgatory" and "Paradise".

What the Hollanders have done does not fail to suggest a certain sense of lacrimae rerum in the reader. Despite the considerable merit of their labours, theirs--like all translations-- must be seen as transitory, certain to be replaced by another commentary in a few years or a few decades whose readers who will find the references to Ford Coppola, homosexual "cruising," the Marx Brothers, and the rest merely quaint, when not in need of notes themselves. But for the moment--however fleeting this moment may be--this affable but responsible, erudite but flexible companion to Dante's poem is certainly the best available guide in English to the poem, especially for new, possibly young, reading pilgrims in need of a "Virgil" to help them on their way.

~Downloadable e-Book (criticism) TIME AND THE CRYSTAL - Studies in Dante's Rime Petrose by Robert M. Durling & Ronald L. Martinez

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