After Dante: Poets in Purgatory, edited by Nick Havely with Bernard O’Donoghue
(Arc Publications, 2021). $19.95, 459 pages.; Purgatorio: Dante Alighieri, translated by D.M. Black, Preface by Robert Pogue Harrison (New York Review of Books, 2021). £17.99, 288 pages.
The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death came in 2021 and two new versions of his Purgatorio show clearly why his poetry is still read. These are profound translations, reaching below the surface of their original to reclaim or remake key truths that keep it current. Each is radical in a different way. While the translators have clearly studied previous versions and scholarly editions, their marked difference of approach echoes Dante’s own articulation of what he was concerned to do. As outlined by David Black in his Introduction (p. xiii), quoting from Dante’s prose Convivio: "The goodness and the beauty of every act of speech are separate and distinct from one another; for the goodness is in the meaning and the beauty is in the pleasing ordering of the words; and both are delightful, although goodness is particularly so."
Black will follow Dante in foregrounding goodness and meaning, and focusing on Dante as a deeply psychological thinker before that discipline had been invented. Havely and his team of translators are drawn forward more by beauty, one might say, and by a shared creative endeavour towards the most pleasing ordering of the words and voices encountered on Dante’s journey through Purgatory. Black provides a parallel Italian text, allowing the clarity of his poetic lines to be checked against the original; Havely’s admirable orchestration of twenty main translators, the majority of them working within the original’s terza rima form, is presented as a continuation of the poetic influence of the Purgatorio through the centuries: from Chaucer and the Pearl poet, through Donne, Marvell and Shelley (whose unfinished translation of Canto 28 is worked in and completed here) and into modern times with T.S. Eliot, W. S. Merwin and Seamus Heaney.
The title of Havely’s Introduction, ‘Resurrecting Dead Poetry’ (p. 11) hints at the depth of his literary scholarship but not at its liveliness. The idea of resurrection aligns this version with the original’s key themes of pilgrimage, atonement and community. Emerging from the Inferno, "Dante’s journey will now be a reconstructive pilgrimage. It will explore the forms of penance rather than those of punishment, and the nature of community rather than that of conflict, enacting the purposeful ‘movement of the spirit’ […] with migrant souls winding up the terraces of a mountain, not trapped down in the vicious circles of Hell’s hollowness. Escaping the travesties of creation […] the Purgatorio will also frequently portray forms of community – human and divine – and amongst its communities whose members often address each other as ‘brother’ there will be a fraternity of poets."
Matching Dante’s emphasis, Nick Havely and Bernard O’Donoghue have brought together a broad community of male and female voices, and of ‘Englishes’ too, including American and West Indian, Scottish and Australian. Their harmonies and discords of discourse and style become part of the humanity which readers respond to in the Purgatorio. The focus on earthly time in the poem, with constant reminders of its daily signals of dawn and dusk across different time zones and hemispheres (What time is it now in Jerusalem or Naples?) is also human. This journey is a tight one. From the pilgrim-Dante’s emergence from Hell with his guide Virgil on Easter Sunday morning, to the moment when he reaches the Earthly Paradise and his vision of Beatrice whom he had thought long-lost, a mere three nights will pass. This constraint creates a moral and rhythmical need for forward progress. The poet-Dante’s choice of the interlocking tercets of terza rima (rhyming aba, bcb, cdc etc.) is the perfect form for this onward pacing, and is also a marked feature of this version. More than half the translators here choose to meet it mainly or in full, despite its inherent difficulties in English which lacks the multiplicity of rhyming words available in Italian. And they do so with remarkable panache.
Dante is being educated on this journey, with Virgil as his mentor and father-figure. Translation may itself be a kind of learning, an allegory of creation – we may arrive, by the practice of our own skills, closer to the mystery of another poet’s inspiration. Havely seems the perfect teacher for this group of twenty poets, in his lively yet scholarly guidance and his ability to keep the overall context in mind. This includes presenting new sets of poems and translations in the Prelude and Postscript, from Dante’s contemporaries and from ours. So we take our places eagerly in his classroom, confident that there will be something new to discover today. There is evidence of group decision-making, and each translator will generally be given two or three Cantos to work on at a stretch, so that his or her individual voice has room to breathe.
In such a co-operative enterprise it seems invidious to select a few poets for praise, but I was struck by the confident terza rima of A.E. Stallings, Michael O’Neill, Andrew Fitzsimons, Patrick Worsnip and John Kinsella (I will return to the latter’s version of Canto 32, demonstrating how radical a traditional form can be made). Here is Stallings in Canto 3 (ll. 46 ff.) evoking the pilgrim-Dante’s onward journey and Virgil’s role in encouraging him towards maturity:
We came to the foot of the mountain now,
a cliff to climb so steep and sheer,
the nimblest legs would not know how.
Compared to this, the most austere
Ligurian cliff-face, in the end,
would seem a stairway, easy clear
‘Which side’s best – who can apprehend –
to scale it?’ Virgil stayed his pace,
‘so one with no wings may ascend?’
And while he stood with lowered face,
and in his mind, he mulled the way,
I looked around the rocky place.
There is also variation and experiment within the tercet form. Steve Ellis finds a clipped energy in short clear lines and monosyllables to convey the poem’s moral urgency. Colin Donati employs older Scots words to bring an almost medieval earthy note to the journey, matching the spirits who encounter Dante and are often awed that his body, casting a shadow, must still belong to the earth below. Jane Draycott uses terza rima lite and a longer line to convey a sense of expansion as the pilgrim-Dante nears the end of his journey and meets the revelation that is the spirit of Beatrice; and Patrick Worsnip’s sustains that expansion into the final Canto 33, combining terza rima with iambic pentameter.
Set between Draycott and Worsnip comes the most radical translation of all. John Kinsella has retitled Canto 32 as ‘Terror of Capital and Dante’s Purgatorio 32’. The contrast is initially shocking and may well have readers reaching for the original Italian or wishing for D.M. Black’s parallel text. This version at first sight appears tendentious, a riff on Dante from a 21st-century activist perspective:
And as time plays distance so it plays the politics
of measurement – the arrow in triplicate
is the spatiality of Beatrice’s aeronautics
And caught in the gender binary with the constellate
Adamic, they oscillate about the tree
whose limbs have been shaved of leaves and florets. (Canto 32: ll. 34-9)
Compare it with David Black’s closer version:
Perhaps we had moved through something like the distance
you’d measure by three firings of an arrow
when Beatrice descended from the chariot.
All murmured (as I sensed) the name of ‘Adam!’ –
then gathered round a tree that had been stripped
of every leaf and twig on every branch.
Elsewhere in Kinsella ‘the bird of Jupiter’ becomes ‘a camouflaged drone / called Jove’; or a starving vixen on the attack becomes ‘a Fox that had been fed on depleted uranium bullets’. How odd. And then suddenly we realise that he has found a way of evoking the near despair expressed by Dante in this Canto’s grotesque tableau of a corrupt Church undermining the very moral and spiritual growth to which it provides sole access. Civil warfare between Roman papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, with the social cataclysm of Reformation wars to follow, finds a newly urgent equivalence in the climate destruction of our time, as global capitalism depletes the globe it claims to serve.
Both these books of translation end in a reflective commentary. Havely’s is appropriately poetic, with very beautiful and powerful translations by himself and Peter Hainsworth. Here are Dante’s poems on the impact of the living Beatrice, together with works in a range of forms by poets who influenced him, or who are referenced in the Purgatorio: Guido Cavalcanti, Bonagiunta da Luca, Giacomo da Lentini, Guido Guinizelli, Fra Guittone, Arnaut Daniel and Cino da Pistoia. This earthly gathering of artistic talents balances the ethereal Beatrice whom we and Dante have just encountered at the end of his pilgrimage. The evident scholarship and creativity combined here are a fitting farewell to the teacher’s voice that has guided us to this point.
These final poems are a counterpoise to the four contemporary pieces in the Prelude. This reminds us that the community of poets stretches fore and aft, somewhat akin to the souls in Purgatory still in conversation with each other, and with surviving friends and family on earth. Time shifts to include disparate voices in a common chord, as Michael O’Neill in Canto 28 completes Shelley’s part-translation of it. The whole book is dedicated to O’Neill who died in 2018. His prelude poem points toward that miraculous place where original poet and translator meet, quoting from his version of Canto 21:
[…] where thought grew
into a dream whose substance had not vanished,
as if belief survived, as if, in fact, it flourished.
The design and production values of this volume are also aesthetically very pleasing, with a sense of space and clarity to match the imaginative reach of a great poet and his translators.
Reading David Black’s translation, I found myself drawn to his presence in the way the pilgrim-Dante is to Virgil’s. He is an astute and rational companion, working from long professional experience in psychotherapy to guide us through the challenges of life, as imagined in that ascent of Purgatory hill. We might say that he examines Dante’s allegorical method more adventurously than Havely does, taking nothing for granted but reframing it helpfully for an agnostic age. Allegorical writing and reading represented the medieval world to itself in multiple dimensions, subtly and simultaneously. An event could be understood literally as part of the narrative; or historically, as related to real-life personages; or morally, as an ethical lesson in human behaviour; or anagogically, as focused on a spiritual or mystical view of existence. The Greek word anagoge suggests a climb or an ascent, so tackling Purgatory is a perfect emblem of that.
Now Black brings that medieval cast of mind into the present, with no less concern for holistic human healing. The ‘soul’ in Dante, he suggests, is what we might now call the human mind, ever liable to diverse or conflicting motives and emotions. The Divine Comedy is a sort of encyclopedia of identities, and the moral and emotional education of the pilgrim-Dante becomes ours also. Allegory is recast in the light of a late-Freudian insight that the ego can retain residues of other egos encountered in life, which may reappear in dreams or unbidden thoughts. Currently, it also seems highly relevant that the poet-Dante wrote as a refugee in a time of civil war, under sentence of death if he should ever return to his native Florence. So the historical actuality is painfully present, pushing the poet towards the brink of psychological crisis. What is the meaning of life after almost everything has been lost?
Black is experienced in dealing with states of confusion, breakdown and recovery, and this perhaps is what engenders my feeling of trust in his translation. Some puzzling features are clarified through his professional perspective on, for example, the newly dead arriving in Purgatory in a state of confusion, so that it takes eight cantos before a proper ascent can begin. Throughout the journey there is a poetic focus on looking and discernment, and Black matches this with his emphasis on the precise workings of the mind. Dante’s allegorical characters are akin to the appearance of ‘people’ in our dreams representing individual shades of our own emotions. Also examined is the psychological experience of time, which appears to move at differing rates in different states of mind in the Purgatorio. The ‘seven deadly sins’ (of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust) on the seven terraces of the mountain which Dante must revisit are discussed as self-destructive or obsessive tendencies of human life, which must be admitted in order to be overcome. This is why the repentant spirits in Purgatory re-circle the terrace of their particular flaw – to relive it, to regress in order to be cured finally of its hold on them. But all of this is explained lightly and helpfully.
This translator is a poet as well as a therapist, of course, and the integrity of his translation is apparent in the detail of presentation and structure. Brief signposting precedes each canto to alert us to key elements to come. Our reading is enriched by the original text running parallel to his, as well as by Notes which recognise previous scholarship but are not afraid to add to it. In the interests of accuracy and in recognition of the differences between languages, Black has opted for an iambic pentameter line to present his version within the long tradition of British poetry, rather than trying to imitate the terza rima’s interlinked rhymes. Some of Havely’s team prove that this form is achievable in English, but with a sense of bravura, perhaps, that distracts from Dante’s purposeful clarity. The breath of the iambic can match the syntax of his original ideas here in a way that feels sincere rather than showy.
Yet the poetry is not lost. This is evident if we compare Black’s opening lines of Canto 1 with those of another traditional version, C. H. Sisson’s in Oxford World’s Classics. Here is Black:
To run through better waters now the little
ship of my talent here must lift her sails
and put behind her that so cruel sea;
and I will sing now of a second kingdom,
where the human spirit undergoes purgation
and makes itself fit for the ascent to heaven.
And here is Sisson:
To run on better water now, the boat
Of my invention hoists its sails and leaves
Away to stern that cruel stretch of sea;
And I will sing of this second kingdom
In which the human spirit cures itself
And becomes fit to leap up into heaven.
Sisson’s boat seems to be running on water as fuel or else to be skimming the sea’s surface. Black’s ‘through better waters’ seems more nautical, and ‘the little / ship of my talent’ appears more shipshape then ‘the boat of my invention’. In ‘a second kingdom’ (still a mystery to be explored) Black’s ‘human spirit undergoes purgation’ in honest humility, whereas Sisson’s somehow ‘cures itself’, to leap like a superhero into heaven. Black’s more penitent pilgrim soul ‘makes itself fit for the ascent to heaven’, catching the theological reasoning behind the doctrinal invention of Purgatory: for if human souls are to be united with the divine, then atonement (at-one-ment) or alignment with a more advanced set of values must be arrived at through self-awareness and understanding, not coercion. The sails in Black’s ship accordingly ‘lift’ freely; Sisson’s sails are ‘hauled’ aloft by anonymous crew.
Mary Jo Bang’s version of Canto 1 in After Dante is so energetically involved in creating a different lexical atmosphere that direct comparison is not particularly helpful:
Heading over waters getting better all the time
my mind’s little skiff now lifts its sails,
letting go of the oh-so-bitter sea behind it.
The next realm, the second I’ll sing,
is where the human spirit gets purified
and made fit for the stairway to heaven.
That pop-song lyric of the final line soon has Calliope jumping up ‘to sing backup with the same bold notes …’ (l. 10). But the energy can’t be denied.
Not that David Black neglects experiment. For example, when at the end of Canto 26 the pilgrim-Dante meets Arnaut Daniel, the Provençal poet whom he acknowledged as a master, Daniel speaks to him in Old Provençal. Black translates this speech into Scots, with a nod to his own formative years as a young poet in Edinburgh, and the influence there of Robert Garioch, a senior poet in that language which, because of Scotland’s political history, can be both courtly and demotic. In After Dante, Alvin Pang works hard to achieve the beauty, fluency and brevity of Dante’s Daniel, with considerable success. But I like the boldness of Black’s Scots version.
He is not afraid to be radical in theology either. When Christ’s double nature as both human and divine is reflected in Beatrice’s eyes, this may also suggest a double nature in Beatrice and in us, echoing other world religions. Moving finally beyond the ethical development that is Virgil’s domain, the pilgrim-Dante enters into the interconnection and love that is the realm of Beatrice. Our earthly moral progress, the poet-Dante reminds us, has cosmological (‘eternal’) importance, and the vision of an Earthly Paradise must be linked to the harmonious balance between rational growth, nature and ecology. We might therefore consider that the emotional and spiritual healing evoked in the Purgatorio is more vital than ever in our time.
In this review I have chosen to emphasise the ‘goodness’ in Black’s and the ‘beauty’ in Havely’s version. But Dante’s progress in the Purgatorio is not dichotomous. In a real sense both the pilgrim- and the poet-Dante have come finally to a unification of art and mind. The final cantos arrive at a balance between the classical and rational moral perspective of Aristotle and Virgil, and the theological claim of Thomas Aquinas that the very purpose of reason is to recognise the good and to match one’s conduct to it. Dante had been drawn to both philosophies, and this great poem is a working out of that tension.
Goodness and truth are to be aligned with beauty too, in its aspects of harmony, coherence, balance. We fear reasoning that is incoherent and unbalanced in others, because we recognise its potential for destruction in ourselves. But we sometimes need the artist’s or the therapist’s help to apply that recognition to ourselves. To follow Dante’s progress and his self-recovery (of his true self) and to link both to our own lives, has been made possible again by the work of these remarkable contemporary poets and scholars. It is as if those 700 years had passed in the blink of an eye.