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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)
First Chapter or Excerpt
CANTO I   Dante finds himself astray in a dark Wood, where he spends a night of great misery. He says that death is hardly more bitter, than it is to recall what he suffered there; but that be will tell the fearful things be saw, in order that be may also tell bow be found guidance, and first began to discern the real causes of all misery. He comes to a Hill; and seeing its summit already bright with the rays of the Sun, be begins to ascend it. The way to it looks quite deserted. He is met by a beautiful Leopard, which keeps distracting his attention from the Hill, and makes him turn back several times. The hour of the morning, the season, and the gay outward aspect of that animal, give him good hopes at first; but he is driven down and terrified by a Lion and a She-wolf. Virgilcomes to his aid, and tells him that the Wolf lets none pass her way, but entangles and slays everyone that tries to get up the mountain by the road on which she stands. He says a time will come when a swift and strong Greyhound shall clear the earth of her, and chase her into Hell. And he offers to conduct Dante by another road; to show him the eternal roots of misery and of joy, and leave him with a higher guide that will lead him up to Heaven.   IN THE middle of the journey of our life1 I came to myself in a dark wood2 where the straight way was lost.   Ah! how hard a think it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!   So bitter is it, that scarcely more is death: but to treat of the good that I there found, I will relate the other things that I discerned.   I cannot rightly tell how I entered it, so full of sleep was I about the moment that I left the true way.   But after I had reached the foot of a Hill3 there, where that valley ended, which had pierced my heart with fear, I looked up and saw its shoulders already clothed with the rays of the Planet4 that leads men straight on every road.   Then the fear was somewhat calmed, which had continued in the lake of my heart the night that I passed so piteously.   And as he, who with panting breath has escaped from the deep sea to the shore, turns to the dangerous water and gazes: so my mind, which still was fleeing, turned back to see the pass that no one ever left alive.   After I had rested my wearied body a short while, I took the way again along the desert strand, so that the right foot always was the lower.5   And behold, almost at the commencement of the steep, a Leopard,6 light and very nimble, which was covered with spotted hair.   And it went not from before my face; nay, so impeded my way, that I had often turned to go back.   The time was at the beginning of the morning; and the sun was mounting up with those stars,7 which were with him when Divine Love first moved those fair things: so that the hour of time and the sweet season caused me to have good hope of that animal with the gay skin; yet not so, but that I feared at the sight, which appeared to me, of a Lion.8   He seemed coming upon me with head erect, and furious hunger; so that the air seemed to have fear thereat; and a She-wolf,9 that looked full of all cravings in her leanness; and has ere now made many live in sorrow.   She brought such heaviness upon me with the terror of her aspect, that I lost the hope of ascending.   And as one who is eager in gaining, and, when the time arrives that makes him lose, weeps and afflicts himself in all his thoughts: such that restless beast made me, which coming against me, by little and little drove me back to where the Sun is silent.   Whilst I was rushing downwards, there appeared before myeyes one10 who seemed hoarse from long silence.   When I saw him in the great desert, I cried: "Have pity on me, whate'er thou be, whether shade or veritable man!"   He answered me: "Not man, a man I once was; and my parents were Lombards, and both of Mantua by country.   I was born sub Julio,11 though it was late; and lived at Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying Gods.   A poet I was; and sang of that just son of Anchises, who' carne from Troy after proud Ilium was burnt.12   But thou, why returnest thou to such disquiet? why ascendest not the delectable mountain, which is the beginning and the cause of all gladness?"   "Art thou then that Virgil, and that fountain which pours abroad so rich a stream of speech?" I answered him, with bashful front.   "O glory, and light of other poets! May the long zeal avail me, and the great love, that made me search thy volume.   Thou art my master and my author; thou alone art he fromwhom I took the good style that hath done me honour.   See the beast from which I turned back; help me from her, thou famous sage; for she makes my veins and pulses tremble."   "Thou must take another road," he answered, when he saw me weeping, "if thou desirest to escape from this wild place: because this beast, for which thou criest, lets not men pass her way; but so entangles that sheslays them; and has a nature so perverse and vicious, that she never satiates her craving appetite; and after feeding, she is hungrier than before.   The animals to which she weds herself are many;13 and will yet be more, until the Greyhound14 comes, that will make her die with pain.   He will not feed on land or pelf, but on wisdom, and love, and manfulness; and his nation shall be between Feltro and Feltro.   He shall be the salvation of that low15 Italy, for which Camilla the virgin, Euryalus, and Turnus, and Nisus, died of wounds;16 he shall chase her through every city, till he have put her into Hell again; from which envy first set her loose.   Wherefore I think and discern this for thy best, that thou follow me; and I will be thy guide, and lead thee hence through an eternal place,17 where thou shalt hear the hopeless shrieks, shalt see the ancient spirits in pain, so that each calls for a second death;18 and then thou shalt see those who are contented in the fire:19 for they hope to come, whensoever it be, amongst the blessed; then to these, ifthou desirest to ascend, there shall be a spirit20 worthier than I to guide thee; with her will I leave thee at my parting: for that Emperor 'who reigns above, because I was rebellious to his law, wills not that I come into his city.21   In all parts he rules and there holds sway; there is hiscity, and his high seat: O happy whom he chooses for it!"   And I to him: "Poet, I beseech thee by that God whom thou knowest not: in order that I may 'escape this ill and worse, lead me where thou now hast said, so that I may see the Gate of St. Peter,22 and those whom thou makest so sad."   Then he moved; and I kept on behind him.   * See "Note on Dante's Hell" and "The Chronology of the Inferno," at pp. 3 and 6.   1. The Vision takes place at Eastertide of the year 1300, that is to say, when Dante was thirty-five years old. C f. Psalms xc. 10: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten." See also Convito iv: "Where the top of this arch of life may be, it is difficult to know.... I believe that in the perfectly natural man, it is at the thirty-fifth year."   2. C f. Convito iv: " ... the adolescent who enters into the Wood of Error of this life would not know how to keep to the good path jf it were not pointed out to him by his elders." Politically: the wood stands for the troubled state of Italy in Dante's time.   3. The "holy Hill" of the Bible; Bunyan's "Delectable Mountains."   4. Planet, thesun, which was a planet according to the Ptolemaic system. Dante speaks elsewhere ( Conv. iv) of the "spiritual Sun, which is God."   5. Anyone who is ascending a hill, and whose left foot is always the lower, must be bearing to the right.   6. Worldly Pleasure; politically: Florence.   7. According to tradition, the sun was in Aries at the time of the Creation.   8. Ambition; politically: the Royal House of France.   9. Avarice; politically: the Papal See. The three beasts are obviously taken from Jeremiah v. 6.   10. Virgil, who stands for Wordly Wisdom, and is Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory (see Gardner, pp. 87, 88). hoarse, perhaps because the study of Virgil had been long neglected.   11. Virgil was born at Andes, near Mantua, in the year 70 B.C. When Caesar was murdered (44 B.C.), Virgil had not yet written his great poem, so that he did not enjoy Caesar's patronage.   12. In the Æneid.   13. An allusion to the Papal alliances.   14. The Greyhound is usually explained as Can Grande della Scala (1290-1329), whose "nation" (or, perhaps better, "birthplace") was Verona, between Feltre in Venetia and Montefeltro in Romagna, and who became a great Ghibelline leader. C f. Par. xvii. This is, on the whole, the most satisfactory interpretation, though the claims of several other personages (notably Uguccione della Faggiuola and Pope Benedict XI) have been advanced. In any case it is as well to bear in mind that Dante rested his hopes of Italy's deliverance on various persons in the course of his life.   15. Either "low-lying" or "humble." If the latter be correct, the epithet is, of course, applied sarcastically.   16. All these personages occur in the Æneid.   17. Hell.   18. C f. Revelation xx. 14.   19. The souls in Purgatory.   20. Beatrice, or Heavenly Wisdom, will guide Dante through Paradise. No student of Dante should omit to read the Vita Nuova, in which the poet tells the story of his youthful love (see also Gardner, pp. 8, 9, and 87, 88).   21. Virgil's position is among the virtuous pagans in Limbo (see Canto iv).   22. The gate of Purgatory ( Purg. ix). The Angel at this gate has charge of the two keys of St. Peter.  Excerpted from The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso by Dante Alighieri All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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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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