Stairway to Heaven


by Dante Alighieri, translated by Merwin W.S.
Knopf, 359 pp., $30.00

When I met Robert Pinsky, at the first meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, I congratulated him warmly on his splendid translation of the Inferno, which I had reviewed in these pages. I told him I looked forward with eager anticipation to his versions of the Purgatorio and Paradiso. He shook his head. He had spent too much time, he said, on the Inferno; he had neglected his own poetry and his responsibilities as Poet Laureate. He was leaving the rest of the poem to others.

In an interview published in The New York Times (which I read later) he gave a graphic account of his days and nights with Dante: “I called the translation a feat of metrical engineering and I worked obsessively. It’s the only writing I’ve ever done where it’s like reading yourself to sleep each night. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night—you know, one more tercet, one more tercet.”

The “feat of metrical engineering” which distinguishes his translation from all its predecessors and sent him to bed pen in hand was a novel solution of the problem facing all translators who tackle Dante’s Divina Commedia: to find an English equivalent of the terza rima, Dante’s innovative verse form: tercets in which the two outer lines of the first rhyme and the ending of the inner line rhymes with the two outer lines of the second, and so on until a single line, rhyming with the inner line of the preceding tercet, closes the canto. It is a system which imposes a forceful forward movement on the verse. But it is a difficult meter to handle in English. As one modern translator of the Inferno, John Ciardi, has pointed out, “It requires 1500 triple rhymes to render the Inferno, and even granted that many of these combinations can be used and re-used, English has no such resources of rhyme.” It has been used occasionally in English—Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” MacNeice’s “Autumn Sequel”—but it is one thing to compose your own poem in this demanding pattern and quite another to use it to translate with any degree of fidelity a long poem by somebody else. Most modern translators of Dante have, understandably, renounced any attempt to reproduce Dante’s rhyme pattern, though Ciardi offered a compromise: tercets in which the outer lines rhymed but the end of the inner line had no effect on the following tercet.

Pinsky’s solution was to make “a more flexible definition of rhyme…a fairly systematic norm that defines rhyme as the same consonant sounds—however much vowels may differ—at the ends of words,” a system that he says “happens to correspond to some preference of my own ear, a personal taste.” He also points out that the examples he gives as illustrations—swans/stones, gibe/club, faces/houses, flavor/quiver—come from poems of Yeats, “who is a master of such consonantal rhyming.”

W.S. Merwin, who now offers a verse translation of the Purgatorio, follows the example of so many of his predecessors: he makes no attempt to reproduce Dante’s constricting rhyme pattern, not even a partial attempt like Ciardi’s, about whose version of Inferno he says he has “reservations.” There are plenty of rhymes and half-rhymes in his version but they follow no consistent pattern. Merwin, however, is one of the finest of our poets, and also a skilled and sensitive translator—of Poema del Cid and La Chanson de Roland, to mention only two of his achievements in this field—and his

Purgatorio has a subtly cadenced music of its own. “At last the Purgatorio,” Robert Pinsky says of it, “can be read in English as a work of art…. W.S. Merwin’s gorgeous, accurate rendering is worthy of its great original.”

In a brilliant foreword Merwin speaks of his lifelong engagement with Dante. “I had been trying to read Dante, and reading about him, since I was a student, carrying one volume or another of the bilingual Temple Classics edition—pocket-sized books—with me wherever I went.” In the course of his obsessive reading (he once, riding the London tube reading Canto V of the Purgatorio, rode three stops past his destination) he thought deeply about the problem of translation. Attempts of his own, however, convinced him “that—beyond the ordinary and obvious impossibility of translating poetry or anything else—the translation of Dante had a dimension of impossibility of its own.” But when, in 1991, David Halpern invited him to translate two cantos for a version of the Inferno by various hands (Seamus Heaney did the opening cantos) he decided to try his hand. He chose Cantos XXVI and XXVII because XXVI contains the famous account of Dante’s meeting with the restless flame that is the soul of Ulysses, who tells the story of his final voyage: through the Straits of Gibraltar westward to “the world on the far side/of the sun, that has no people in it.” Ulysses and his crew finally sighted land—“a mountain appeared dark in the distance”—and rejoiced, but not for long, for a whirlwind came from the land and sent them to the bottom. The mountain was the Mount of Purgatory, the mass of earth heaved up from the surface when Lucifer fell from the heavens and punched a deep hole down to the center of the globe, where he remains fixed in the lowest depth of Hell, just below the traitors—Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.

That final voyage in the story of Odysseus,” Merwin points out, “is one of the links, within the ultimate metaphor of the poem, between the closed, immutable world of the Inferno and Mount Purgatory. It represents Odysseus’ attempt to break out of the limitations of his own time and place by the exercise of intelligence and audacity alone….” And Canto XXVI of the Inferno bears several suggestive parallels to the canto of the same number in the Purgatorio. In the latter once again there is fire, a ring of it encircling the mountain, and again with spirits in the flames. At the end of his foreword Merwin prints his version of the two cantos of the Inferno with his commentary.

This is not the only valuable addition provided for the reader. In Canto XXVI of the Purgatorio the only spirits Dante converses with are poets. They are among the repentant sinners who are atoning for their lust: what kind of lust is made clear when one group of them circling the mountain meets the other coming from the opposite direction. As they exchange brief kisses, “as friends,” one group shouts “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and the other, “Pasiphae enters the cow/ to make the young bull charge into her lust.” When Dante asks one of the spirits for an explanation he is told that the group the speaker is not part of is atoning for the sin that caused people at Caesar’s triumph to shout “Queen!”; his own group’s sin was ermafrodito—“performance as both sexes.”

When Dante learns that the name of his informant is Guido Guinizzelli, a poet from Bologna whom he regards as “my father and the father of others/ my betters and whoever has come to use/sweet graceful rhymes of love,” he offers his “whole self at once to his service” and, asked why, replies: “The sweet songs of yours/that so long as our present words endure/will make precious the ink in which they were written.” Readers who have never heard of Guinizzelli (and there may be more than a few) will be delighted to find, in Merwin’s commentary, a skillful translation of one of his love lyrics.

Guinizzelli, though pleased with Dante’s praise, points out, as he leaves, a figure close to him, whom he describes as “a better workman in the mother tongue”—miglior fabbro del parlar materno, the source of Eliot’s dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound. Dante asks him his name and receives an eight-line answer in Provençal, the mother tongue of Arnaut Daniel, perhaps the greatest of the troubadours, the poets of courtly love. “The rhymed and highly stylized poetry of the troubadours,” says Merwin in the foreword,

with its allegiance to music, the codes of the courts of love, the Hispano-Arabic assimilation of the philosophy of classical Greece, were essentials of the great Provençal civilization of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The secular splendor of that culture and its relative indifference to the tedious imperium of the Church were in the end (1209) barbarously and viciously ruined by the wave of political ruthlessness and deadly self-righteousness known as the Albigensian Crusade, one of the great atrocities of European history.

Arnaut’s eight lines, composed in Provençal by Dante, begin with the words: “I am Arnaut who weep and go singing.” It is an echo of one of the final lines—“I am Arnaut who gather the wind…”—of one of the most famous of Arnaut’s poems, thought to be the first sestina, which Merwin prints in his own translation in the commentary. After Arnaut’s reply the canto ends with a line that is one of the fragments the speaker in The Waste Land has shored against his ruins—Poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina (“then hid himself in the fire that refines them”).

There is one other passage for which Merwin provides a sample of a poet’s work: the encounter, in Canto VI, with Sordello, who, asked by Virgil for information about the way up the mountain, gave no answer “but asked to know our country and our station.” When Virgil, speaking for himself, answered “Mantuan—“ Sordello sprang toward him “saying ‘Oh Mantuan, I am Sordello,/from your own country’ and they embraced each other.” This contrast with the Italy Dante comes from, torn by strife between city and city, faction and faction, prompts Dante’s great indictment of his native land:

Oh slavish Italy, hostel of wretchedness,
ship with no pilot in the great tempest…
while those now living in you are forever
at war, and those whom one wall and one
moat enclose are gnawing on each other.

The indictment concludes with a surprising address to his native Florence (which has sentenced him to be burned alive if he ever returns) stating that “this digression…does not concern you/thanks to the good sense of your citizens.” It very soon becomes clear, however, that this exemption is bitterly ironical as he catalogs his city’s faults, especially its political instability, comparing it to a “sick woman never/still on her bed of down, turning over/and over to find some way not to suffer.” In his commentary Merwin offers a brilliant translation (from the Provençal) of a long poem by Sordello, which begins as an elegy for a much-admired friend and goes on to denounce the Pope of Rome, the Kings of France, England, Castille, Aragon, and Navarre, and the Counts of Toulouse and Provence for their cowardice, faithlessness, and indolence. Here, in Merwin’s version, are the first two of its five stanzas and its ending:


I mean to mourn Blacatz with this light song
sad and grieving at heart and with good reason
for in him I have lost lord and dear friend
and all things precious in his death have gone
so mortal is the loss my hope is done
and never can come back but in one fashion
let someone take his heart for the nobles to dine upon
who have no heart they will have enough heart then

Let him eat first who has most need of this
the emperor of Rome who wants to seize
Milan by force though he is in their eyes
beaten and ruined for all his German allies
and let the King of France then eat a piece
and get Castille back lost through his foolishness
though he eats only as his mother wishes
he is renowned for doing as she pleases…

The nobles wish me ill for what I have said well
let them know whose care for me is small
I care for them as little

Belh Restaur as long as your favor is with me
I never notice who else does not befriend me.

Sordello serves Virgil and Dante as a guide on their way up, identifying many of the souls that they meet, and is left behind when Dante, fast asleep on the ground, is taken up to the gate of Purgatory in the arms of Saint Lucy. But much later, in Canto XXI, Virgil and Dante are joined by another poet, who will stay with them all the way to Paradise. He is the Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius, who had died in 96 AD. He has been doing penance on the circle of the mountain where avarice is atoned for, but his sin was the opposite—wasteful extravagance. Readers new to Dante will wonder why Statius, a poet who wrote one epic poem about the sons of Oedipus and another, unfinished, about the youth of Achilles, is in Purgatory and not in Limbo with Virgil, but Statius explains it: he was a secret Christian. (There is of course no other evidence for this highly unlikely conversion than Dante’s statement, and even his assertion that the Roman emperor Domitian persecuted the Christians is based on late and partisan authority.) Statius, as he joins Dante and his guide on their way up, explains some of the features of Purgatory that puzzle Dante; he stays with them all the way to the meeting with Beatrice, who will usher them into Paradise, leaving Virgil behind, after they have been washed in the water of the river Lethe, which brings forgetfulness of sin, and the river Eunoè, that restores memory of good deeds.

From the most sacred waters I returned
remade in the way that trees are new,
made new again, when their leaves are new,
pure and ready to ascend to the stars.

The figures of the poets do for the Purgatorio what the figures of the great sinners—Farinata, who “seemed …to have great scorn for Hell,” Vanni Fucci, the self-confessed “beast” who makes the figs at God—do for the Inferno; they are, so to speak, dramatic protagonists in a huge cast of minor figures, many of whom have to be identified and explained in the commentary. The Purgatorio has many more such minor figures than its predecessor and in addition it has many passages of theological and philosophical discourse that often demand explanation. Charles Singleton’s Inferno commentary runs to 683 pages; that for the Purgatorio to 851. And in this respect Merwin’s book could stand improvement.

In Canto VII, for example, there are references, by name or description, in forty-one lines (94-134) to seventeen different people: the Emperor Rudolf, Ottokar, his son Wenceslas, “the one with the small nose,” “the one whose countenance shows him to be so kind,” “the plague of France,” “the one who looks so strong” (later identified as Peter), the one with the manly nose, the young man sitting behind him, James, Frederick, Constance, her husband, Beatrice, Margaret, Henry of England, and Marquis William. Singleton takes eleven pages to identify all these people and explain their significance; Merwin a little more than half a page. Only readers with an insatiable historical curiosity will read all of Singleton’s material but few will be satisfied with Merwin’s laconic “Henry I, king of Navarre 1270-74. Philip IV, the Fair, king of France 1285-1314. Pedro III, king of Aragon 1276-1285.” And he fails to identify the one with the small nose (a description which will surely send readers to the notes); it is Philip III of France.

But there are other puzzles in the text for which no solution is offered. At the very beginning of Dante’s climb up toward the gate of Purgatory, for example, he and Virgil meet “an old man all alone” who challenges them, questioning their right to come out of Hell. Dante recognizes him; he is Marcius Porcius Cato, the fervent opponent of Julius Caesar who in 46 BC, after the defeat of the republican army in North Africa, read Plato’s Phaedo and then took his own life. But what, the reader may well ask, is Cato doing here? Why is he not in the seventh circle of Hell with the suicides? Merwin gives an account of his life and death but no explanation for his presence and authority on the road to Purgatory. Singleton points out that elsewhere in his writings Dante, following Cicero and Lucan, praises Cato as a champion of liberty and in any case knew that Virgil, in his description of the pageant of Roman history on the shield of Aeneas, pictures Cato as lawgiver to the illustrious dead.*

Later on Virgil explains to Sordello that though he has come through all the circles of Hell, his home, so to speak, is Limbo, where he stays “with those who did not put on/the three holy virtues, and without sin/knew the others and kept to every one.” Not every reader will know that the three are the so-called “theological” virtues—faith, hope, and charity (which could only be “infused” in a human being after the birth of Christ)—and that the “others” are the four “cardinal” virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.

There are other places, too—I marked a round dozen—where a note would have helped a reader not possessed of a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the Latin poets, especially Virgil and Ovid. And there is one passage where a misprint, occurring not once but twice, may cause confusion. It is in the description (X. 66-72) of the sculptures that adorn the mountain wall beyond the gate of Purgatory where the angel had inscribed the letter P seven times on Dante’s forehead. One of the sculptures shows David dancing before the Ark of the Lord—“at that moment he was less and more than a king./Across from him, a sculpture in a window/of a great palace, Michael was looking on/like a malicious and sullen woman.” Those who do not know their Bible well will not realize that “Michael” really was a woman, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife. In the Latin of the Vulgate and in Dante’s lines her name is spelled Micòl, and in the King James Authorized version Michal. She later mocked David for dancing (in the words of the AV) “as one of the vain fellows who shamelessly uncovereth himself…” She should have kept her mouth shut; the Lord was not pleased. “And therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.”

All these defects are minor and can be corrected. We should be thankful for a fluent, eloquent, faithful translation of the Purgatorio that sweeps the reader along by its rhythmic skill all the way to the meeting with Beatrice and Dante’s entry into Paradise. And hope for a translator as gifted as Merwin to complete the Commedia, or, better still, that Merwin will do it himself.

  1. *

    Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, translated with a commentary by Charles Singleton (Princeton University Press, 1973), Vol. 2, Purgatorio, Part 2, Commentary, pp. 10-12.