Professionally trained Dante scholars—I am one of them—believe we have special access to The Divine Comedy’s deeper layers of meaning, yet judged by Dante’s criteria, we are self-deceived. In Inferno 9, Dante challenges his audience with a direct address:
You readers, who are of sound mind and memory,
Pay attention to the lessons woven into the fabric
Of these strange poetic lines.
Who among the members of the Dante Society believes in good faith that he or she possesses the “sound mind” that Dante appeals to here? No one reconstructed the Christian doctrines that supposedly underlie the Comedy’s veils of allegory more piously than the great American Dante scholar Charles Singleton. Yet Singleton was an agnostic who took his own life, and one hopes for his sake that he was right when he declared, “The fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction.” If the poem contains an arcane truth that is predicated on faith—not only in the medieval Christian God but also in Dante’s version of history, with its Holy Roman Emperors and all—then none of us will ever gain full access to it.
Fortunately the Comedy does not require such a passport for entry. Its reception over the centuries confirms that it gives itself without prejudice to “Presbyterians and Pagans alike,” to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville, himself a great Dante enthusiast. Despite a glut of English translations (well over a hundred, by my count), new versions of the entire poem or individual canticles continue to appear in rapid succession—six in the last decade alone.
In 2004 the visual artist Sandow Birk illustrated a demotic version that sets the Comedy in contemporary American urban landscapes. In 2005 the Eternal Kool Project released a rap album called The Inferno Rap, based on Henry Francis Cary’s 1806 translation. Gary Panter’s 2006 punk-pop graphic novel Jimbo’s Inferno was followed in 2009 by the popular video game Dante’s Inferno. Roberto Benigni’s long-running comedy routine “Tutto Dante” continues to draw huge audiences, and, oblivious to it all, the industry of Dante studies churns out ever more scholarly articles, monographs, and academic conferences.
In Dan Brown’s new thriller, Inferno, Dante’s first canticle holds the clues to a global bioterrorist plot that threatens humanity. If nothing else, the novel lends evidence to what its protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon, declares in his lecture to the Dante Society in Vienna, namely that “no single work of writing, art, music, or literature has inspired more tributes, imitations, variations, and annotations than The Divine Comedy.” (Like everything else in this astonishingly bad novel, Langdon’s lecture lacks verisimilitude. Delivered in a great hall to over two thousand people who gasp, sigh, or murmur at every commonplace remark, it serves as a narrative ploy to convey rudimentary information about Dante to the uninformed reader.)
The mystery of The Divine Comedy has little to do with the encoded games of hide-and-seek that Brown plays with readers in his best-selling mystery thriller. It has to do instead with the poem’s staying power. How is it possible—after so many centuries of manhandling by commentators, translators, and imitators, after so much use and abuse, selling and soliciting—that the Comedy still has not finished saying what it has to say, giving what it has to give, or withholding what it has to withhold? What is the source of its boundless generosity?
It takes Charles Baudelaire to help us understand how a work of art can offer itself to everyone and belong finally to no one. “What is art?” he asks in one of the first notes of Mon coeur mis à nu. His answer: “prostitution,” by which he means indiscriminate giving of the self. The artwork’s prostitution is “sacred,” not profane, for it offers itself freely. Thus art has an essential bond with love, which shares with art the “need to go outside of oneself.” “All love is prostitution,” writes Baudelaire. In that respect both art and love partake of the self-surpassing generosity through which God gives himself to the world: “The most prostituted being of all, the being par excellence, is God, since he is the supreme friend of every individual, since he is the common, inexhaustible reservoir of love.”
One reason why The Divine Comedy remains the most generous work in literary history is because it brings together these three phenomena—God, love, and art—in a first-person story where they flow into and out of one another promiscuously, such that it is impossible finally to distinguish between the Comedy’s art and “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Even if one knows nothing about the Christian theology that structures the poem, the love that keeps it moving sweeps the reader up along with it.
In its architectural weight and grandeur The Divine Comedy appears to modern readers as a great Gothic cathedral made of solid verse. One has a sense that, a thousand years from now, its nine circles of Hell and nine heavenly spheres will still be there, while our diminutive modern society, with its fleeting concerns and anxieties, will have long disappeared. Yet strange as it may seem, this monumental poem has one overriding, all-consuming vocation, namely to probe, understand, and represent the nature of motion in its spiritual and cosmic manifestations.
The opening of Inferno finds the pilgrim lost in a dark wood. We may debate the nature of this midlife crisis, or exactly what the wood represents in the poem’s allegory, yet one thing we know for sure is that Dante’s predicament takes the form of an impasse. The way is blocked. Until Virgil arrives on the scene, he is unable to move forward. The rest of the poem unfolds the long and circuitous process by which Dante is rescued from his immobilization.
To find oneself at a dead end in the midst of life—to discover suddenly that all ways of moving are closed off—is equivalent to a kind of death (“death is hardly more bitter,” Dante declares). Anyone who has experienced even mild forms of depression knows what the state of paralysis in Inferno 1 is all about. Depression brings things to an oppressive standstill; its objective correlative is a dark room and a bed, which can easily take on the feel of an alien forest. Of all the English translations known to me, Mary Jo Bang provides the most vivid, albeit not the most literal, version of the poem’s opening tercet:
Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.
If one is going to take liberties with the original, as both of the translations under review do, there should be a payoff. Here the payoff is a highly dynamic phrasing, with imagery and rhythms that intensify the sense of entrapment and disorientation. The first line retrieves the alliterations of m of Dante’s original (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ché la diritta via era smarrita). The subsequent alliterations of l give emphatic weight to the word “lost.” The heavy successive stresses on the first three syllables—“stopped mid-motion”—drive home the blockage under description. Suspending the first line after the word “middle”—in the very middle of the phrase—works magic as prosody. In the second line Bang finds an effective way to preserve Dante’s crucial conjoining of “our life” and the first-person singular (nostra vita/mi ritrovai).
Clive James gives us a much less dramatic version:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….
James omits the all-important pronoun “our,” and his smooth cadence does not suit the emotion of panic nearly as well as Bang’s staccato version. The only reason James tacks on “I found” to the first line, and then tacks on “the way” to the second, is for the sake of a rhyme (James decided to cast his translation in quatrains, and to rhyme them abab). James’s version continues:
The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
To interpolate a “keening sound” here is ludicrous, for at the start of the poem Dante has just returned from the luminous realm of Christian beatitude, so he would not “still” be wailing or shrieking with grief. The distortion seems a high price to pay for the sake of a rhyme.
The Divine Comedy is all about overcoming the paralysis that afflicts the pilgrim at the beginning of Inferno 1. His therapy takes the form of a journey that begins with the remarkable last line of that canto, where Dante, following his guide Virgil, sets out on his descent through Hell. The Italian states: “Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro.” Literally rendered: “Then he [Virgil] moved, and I followed behind him.” James fails to convey the filial piety contained in this image of Dante following the Roman poet: “And then he moved, and then I moved as well.” Mary Jo Bang, by contrast, gets it exactly right: “Then he set out, and I at his back.”
What did Dante learn from Virgil that made him eager to follow in his footsteps? He learned what it means to write a poem whose narrative not only moves but has movement as its prime directive. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas mobilizes the Trojan refugees and leads them across the Mediterranean, by way of Carthage, to a new land, where the Trojan legacy, by providential decree, will one day be reborn in the city of Rome. In Virgil’s Aeneid Aeneas is, like his people, weary, full of sorrows, and prone to depression, yet he is compelled by the gods to continue the journey until he arrives at the mouth of the Tiber River. On several occasions the Trojans are tempted to put down their oars and settle down, yet the gods keep them on the go until they arrive at their appointed destination.
Like The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy propels both the journey and the poem forward through multiple mechanisms, including its highly dynamic rhyme scheme of interlocking tercets (terza rima, as it’s known in Italian), as well as its narrative drama. Mary Jo Bang preserves the tercet form without attempting to reproduce Dante’s rhyme scheme. Being an excellent poet in her own right, she succeeds in giving the Inferno’s narrative drama an energetic idiom that gets the poem moving, and at times even dancing, on the page.
Since Bang aims for a resolutely contemporary translation of the Inferno, she often employs devices that will cause squeamish scholars and purists to gasp. She frequently echoes literary works that postdate the Comedy by centuries (for example in Canto IV: “Let us go, then, you and I….”); she incorporates myriad references to pop music and contemporary culture (Canto VIII: “An Ultimate Aero couldn’t pass through air any faster/than the little skiff”); and she does not shy away from anachronistic images (in Inferno 27 she refers to the “strobe-light motion” that Guido da Montefeltro’s flame makes when his soul speaks to Dante through its flickering tip). She commits several unforced errors along the way, to be sure, yet she hits many more winners in the overall count. The result is one of the most readable and enjoyable versions of the Inferno of our time. I stress “our time” because, as Bang herself acknowledges, her translation is “destined to become an artifact of its era,” while “the original poem will continue to exist.”