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The divine comedy
1995
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Author Notes
Born Dante Alighieri in the spring of 1265 in Florence, Italy, he was known familiarly as Dante. His family was noble, but not wealthy, and Dante received the education accorded to gentlemen, studying poetry, philosophy, and theology. <p> His first major work was Il Vita Nuova, The New Life. This brief collection of 31 poems, held together by a narrative sequence, celebrates the virtue and honor of Beatrice, Dante's ideal of beauty and purity. Beatrice was modeled after Bice di Folco Portinari, a beautiful woman Dante had met when he was nine years old and had worshipped from afar in spite of his own arranged marriage to Gemma Donati. Il Vita Nuova has a secure place in literary history: its vernacular language and mix of poetry with prose were new; and it serves as an introduction to Dante's masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice figures prominently. <p> The Divine Comedy is Dante's vision of the afterlife, broken into a trilogy of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Dante is given a guided tour of hell and purgatory by Virgil, the pagan Roman poet whom Dante greatly admired and imitated, and of heaven by Beatrice. The Inferno shows the souls who have been condemned to eternal torment, and included here are not only mythical and historical evil-doers, but Dante's enemies. The Purgatory reveals how souls who are not irreversibly sinful learn to be good through a spiritual purification. And The Paradise depicts further development of the just as they approach God. The Divine Comedy has been influential from Dante's day into modern times. The poem has endured not just because of its beauty and significance, but also because of its richness and piety as well as its occasionally humorous and vulgar treatment of the afterlife. <p> In addition to his writing, Dante was active in politics. In 1302, after two years as a priore, or governor of Florence, he was exiled because of his support for the white guelfi, a moderate political party of which he was a member. After extensive travels, he stayed in Ravenna in 1319, completing The Divine Comedy there, until his death in 1321. <p> (Bowker Author Biography)
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  New York Times Review

THE perfect translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy" remains one of literature's holiest grails. Some translators have captured facets of the poem's magic, but always at a cost: Charles Singleton conveys Dante's erudition but flattens his poetry; John Ciardi recreates his music but takes mammoth liberties with the original; and John Sinclair's "thees" and "thous" date his otherwise deft rendering. If the translator's task is "to liberate the language imprisoned in a work," as Walter Benjamin writes, then few literary strongholds come as heavily fortified as "The Divine Comedy." Written in Dante's native Tuscan instead of the more prestigious Latin, the poem and its earthy idiom, copious allusions and otherworldy precision burden translators, especially in rhyme-poor English, which struggles to match the momentum of Dante's terza rima and internal rhymes. No wonder that Dante's latest translator, the eminent Australian poet and critic Clive James, feared his task would be "thankless." Seeking to preserve Dante's "infinitely variable rhythmic pulse," James makes an inspired metrical choice. His quatrain uses enjambment and unobtrusive rhymes to transmit the cadence of Dante's terza rima without lapsing into singsong: At the mid-point of the path through life, I found Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound I still make shows how hard it is to say How harsh and bitter that place felt to me. . . . Yet James fails to approximate Dante's talent for compression. He inserts a "keening sound" that diverges from the original, and elsewhere adds explanatory material in the translation itself to avoid the need for notes. I applaud his wish to release Dante from the scholarly excess that can transform his work into a medieval Who's Who. But by expanding Dante's concentrated original, James often dulls its effect, as we see when Francesca introduces herself in the celebrated canto of the lustful: "Born where the Po descends to the seashore / To meet its followers and rest content, / I was a beauty." Dante's Francesca doesn't actually dwell on her good looks here - as a modest lady of high social standing, she wouldn't dare. And she doesn't need to, because in Dante's Italian we feel her appeal, one suggested by her graceful words and fatal charm (when meeting Dante she calls him an animal grazïoso, "gracious being"; she has him at hello). Too often in "Hell" James trusts neither Dante's power of suggestion nor the reader's ability to take a hint, as he shackles the poem with asides and explanations that obstruct its celebrated flow. Some of the more dramatic moments in James's "Hell" disappoint because his translations are not literal enough. In Canto 27, the fraudulent counselor Guido da Montefeltro delivers the most famous (and perhaps the only famous) triple subjunctive in literary history when debating whether to speak to Dante. To convey the sinuous logic and rhetorical tricks of the brilliant but devious Guido, the translation should capture the winding syntax of Dante's grammatical construction with its hissing "s" sounds for the Italian subjunctive (credesse, fosse, tornasse). Instead, James's stiff version falls flat: "If I thought now to afford / An answer to one bound to breathe the air / Again in the fair world, this flame would stand / With no more movement." Accurate, eloquent even; but not incisive or diabolical enough for lines so memorable that T.S. Eliot included them as the epigraph to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Allen Mandelbaum's version from 1980 reproduces the interlaced hypotheticals that make Dante's lines stand out: "If I thought my reply were meant for one / who ever could return into the world, / this flame would stir no more." Surprisingly, James's translation picks up when Dante's verses slow down. The mellow and hopeful tone of "Purgatory," announced with an opening image of "the sweet clear tint of sapphire in the east," suits James's wistful and autumnal voice better than does the raw energy of "Hell." Virgil's parting words to Dante in Canto 27, which have brought a tear to the eye of many a classicist, reveal James's solemn and tasteful touch: . . . Of your soul I make you captain. Most blessed among men, Move on. You'll never hear from me again. James's no-nonsense clarity also goes a long way toward unpacking the conceptual complexities of "Heaven." Much of his success in the final canticle comes from his expert handling of Dante's internal rhymes. In "The Study of Poetry," Matthew Arnold praised Dante's "In la sua volontade è nostra pace" ("In His will is our peace") from "Paradiso" Canto 3 as a "simple, but perfect, single line," probably because of the lovely sonic links among the vowels in la sua volontade and nostra pace. James follows suit with similar syllabic pairings, ranging from the simple ("for what you will is now ill-willed") to the exotic ("Of all their folderol and overkill"). THE greatest virtue of James's translation is his gift for infusing poetry in the least likely places: the disquisitions on Christian doctrine. In Dante's age, theology was the queen of all intellectual disciplines, and the chief aim of "The Divine Comedy" is to create a song of Christian understanding. But centuries of Dante's readers have seen things otherwise. Victor Hugo even claimed that "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" were beyond human comprehension: "We no longer recognize ourselves in the angels; the human eye was perhaps not made for so much sun, and when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring." However compelling, this line of interpretation is misleading, and James shows us why. He expresses the staggering beauty of the upper cantos with calm and limpid language, as in this description of divine light: . . . In its depths I saw, packed tight. Bound in one book by love, all that is sent Abroad throughout the universe as leaves Torn out and scattered. Reading Dante in translation, and James's version in particular, can be as demanding as the climb up Mount Purgatory. The sheer number of characters and themes - each canto is a world in itself - merges with Dante's universe of secular and spiritual concerns to frighten away all but the most scholarly and literary, and the lack of notes in James's edition makes it hard for the nonspecialist to gain traction. It does not help that Dante's persona is as opaque as his poetry. Toward the end of his journey, he grants us a rare glimpse inside: "If ever it should come to pass that my / Long sacred poem - to which Heaven and Earth / For many years, twisting my life awry, / Have set their hand - should prove its proper worth. . . ." But just when we think we're starting to know him, he snaps back into character: the rest of the canto is a meditation on Christian hope. Despite these barriers to entry, James's austere volume achieves something remarkable: It lets Dante's poetry shine in all its brilliance even in those technical patches closer to Aquinas's syllogisms than to Virgil's hexameters. Eliot, James recalls, once said that the last cantos of "Paradiso" were as good as poetry gets. After an uneven start, James's translation reminds us just why. Joseph Luzzi, associate professor of Italian at Bard College, is the author of the forthcoming memoir "My Two Italies."
Summary
<p> The Divine Comedy , translated by Allen Mandelbaum, begins in a shadowed forest on Good Friday in the year 1300. It proceeds on a journey that, in its intense recreation of the depths and the heights of human experience, has become the key with which Western civilization has sought to unlock the mystery of its own identity.<br> <br> Mandelbaum's astonishingly Dantean translation, which captures so much of the life of the original, renders whole for us the masterpiece of that genius whom our greatest poets have recognized as a central model for all poets.<br> <br> This Everyman's edition-containing in one volume all three cantos, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso-includes an introduction by Nobel Prize--winning poet Eugenio Montale, a chronology, notes, and a bibliography. Also included are forty-two drawings selected from Botticelli's marvelous late-fifteenth-century series of illustrations.<br> <br> (Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)</p>
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