Keeping Up With Dante

The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography, 1782-1900

by Gilbert F. Cunningham
Barnes & Noble, 206 pp., $6.75

Dante into English

by William J. De Sua
University of North Carolina, 138 pp., $3.50

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Text with Translation in the Metre of the Original)

by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth
Harvard, 795 pp., $8.95

Dante, A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by John Freccero
Prentice Hall, 182 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Essays on Dante

edited by Mark Musa
Indiana, 206 pp., $2.45 (paper)

The Mind of Dante

edited by U. Limentani
Cambridge, 199 pp., $5.00

Dante Alighieri, His Life and Works

by Paget Toynbee, edited with an Introduction by Charles S. Singleton
Harper Torchbooks, 316 pp., $1.95

Dante

by Thomas G. Bergin
Orion, 326 pp., $6.50

A Concordance to the Divine Comedy

Edited for the Dante Society of America by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, by Thomas Goddard Bergin, Associate Editor, Anthony J. De Vito
Harvard (Belknap Press), 636 pp., $17.50

About sixteen years ago the late Erich Auerbach told me that the current output of writing on Dante in all languages had reached such a point that no man could keep up with it, even if he devoted full time to the job. The flood has not diminished, and 1965, the seventh centenary of Dante’s birth, brought a new crest. The books briefly described below are only a sampling of recent works in English, but taken together they give some idea of the Dante cult in our time. I have arranged them in groups according to the intentions of the authors.

Both Cunningham and De Sua propose to give an account of all the translations into English, but Cunningham takes us only from 1782, when the first translation of the Inferno appeared, to 1900, and promises a second volume to bring his study up to date. His book is a revised Ph.D. dissertation, concerned mostly with the facts, including the facts of the translators’ biographies. De Sua on the other hand is interested in the technical problems of translation, and in the widely different qualities of the English versions as an index of the changing taste in poetry during the last hundred and fifty years; and he brings the story down to the present. He has very just things to say about Bickersteth’s version in terza rima, which was begun fifty years ago, and now appears in its final form in this very handsome edition. Bickersteth, as De Sua says, was untouched by Pound’s and Eliot’s revolution in taste, and so his language “still retains echoes of Victorian banalities”—which is putting it mildly. Bickersteth does this with the first tercet:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I woke to find me astray in a dark wood,
confused by ways with the straight way at strife.

In Sinclair’s accurate prose version (Oxford Press) it goes this way:

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

The prose is not only an excellent trot; it is also, to my ear, much more poetic than the verse; and in general verse translations are more fun for the translator than they are for the reader. But the statistics are impressive: there have been eighty-one translations into English since 1782, no less than forty-two of which have appeared since 1900.

The two collections edited respectively by Freccero and Musa are intended to provide “the best in contemporary critical opinion” on Dante, as the dustcover of Freccero’s book puts it. They consist of well-known essays by well-known writers, except for the contributions of the two editors, and Thomas G. Bergin’s cheerful and fluent account of the Topography and Demography of the Inferno, which was written especially for the Musa book. Samples of the work of two essential writers on Dante, Erich Auerbach and Charles S. Singleton, appear in both collections. But …

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