This new version of Dante’s Inferno, by an internationally famous Dante scholar and his wife, the poet Jean Hollander, is accompanied by a detailed, brilliant commentary that is itself worth the price of the volume. The publisher’s claim on the dust cover—“The introduction, notes, and commentary on the poem cannot be matched for their depth of learning and usefulness for the lay reader”—is for once fully justified.The translation began as Professor Hollander’s attempt to modernize the archaic English of John Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation for the Princeton Dante Project.[*] His wife happened to look at his manuscript over his shoulder and asked, “What is it? It’s awful,” and, when told, pronounced it “unsayable.” She took it away and returned it in two days with a version of the first canto; it was the beginning of a collaboration, not always harmonious, that produced the Inferno and has since almost finished a version of the Purgatorio scheduled for publication in 2002.

This new translation invites comparison with its distinguished predecessor, Robert Pinsky’s Inferno of 1994. Both versions print the Italian text on the left-hand facing page, and both preserve the tercet form of the original. But in other respects they differ widely. Here, for example, are the two versions of Francesca’s reply to Dante’s request for an account of how she fell in love with Paolo, a moment that led to their deaths at the hands of her husband and their eternal punishment in the second circle of Inferno, the circle of the lustful who let passion overcome their reason. First the Hollanders:

One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
We were alone, without the least misgiving.
More than once that reading made our eyes meet
and drained the color from our faces.
Still, it was a single instant overcame us:
When we read how the longed-for smile
was kissed by so renowned a lover, this man,
who never shall be parted from me,
all trembling, kissed me on my mouth.
A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.
That day we read in it no further.

And here is Pinsky:

One day, for pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:
Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.
Sometimes at what we read our glances joined,
Looking from the book each to each other’s eyes,
And then the color in our faces drained.
But one particular moment alone it was
Defeated us:
the longed-for smile, it said,
was kissed by that most noble lover: at this,
This one, who now will never leave my side,
Kissed my mouth, trembling. A Galeotto, that book!
And so was he who wrote it; that day we read
No further.

Comparison with the Italian shows that the Hollanders faithfully reproduce the arrangement of the text in tercets—no crossing over from one to the next—and even in line, so that the reader trying to follow the Italian has no trouble locating in the English the place that will give needed help or confirm a guess. And the lines are indeed “sayable”; they show the refining touch of a poet’s hand. But they make no attempt to reproduce two important features of Dante’s technique: line length and rhyme scheme. Every one of the lines of this enormous poem is, in pronunciation, exactly eleven syllables long, and the Hollanders’ line length is variable. Though its norm is the standard English pentameter, one finds lines as short as “I was so full of sleep” and as long as “such favor to him, considering who and what he was.”

As for rhyme, the Hollanders dispense with it completely, making no attempt to reproduce the terza rima that Dante invented for his poem, a rhyming system that gives the Commedia its insistent forward drive. Pinsky’s lines are not hendecasyllabic but they have a consistent length, that of the English pentameter, and as for terza rima he has found a new and successful expedient—the use of consonantal rhyme, a favorite Yeatsian resource which enables him to “supply an audible scaffold of English terza rima, a scaffold that does not distort the English sentence, or draw excessively on the reaches of the English lexicon.” On the other hand his translation, as he admits, is not a “line-for-line, nor tercet-for-tercet”; it uses enjambment freely and crossing from tercet to tercet.

These differences stem from the different objectives of the translators. Pinsky’s translator’s note begins:

I have tried to make an Inferno in English that stays true to the nature of English, and that conveys the meaning of the Italian as accurately as possible, in lines of terza rima that will suggest some of the force and suppleness of Dante’s form. Above all, I have tried to translate a poem: in passages where my English is not literal, I hope that it is faithful to the spirit.

Pinsky has in mind readers with little Italian or none at all; he addresses a wide audience. Hollander, speaking for himself and his wife, is thinking of readers who will at least attempt to read the original:


We have tried to bring Dante in-to our English without being led into the temptation of making the translation sound better than the original allows. The result may be judged by all who know him in his own idiom. This is not Dante, but an approximation of what he might authorize had he been looking over our shoulders, listening to our at times ferocious arguments.

The difference in the audience addressed by the two translations is clear also from the commentary that accompanies the text. Nicole Pinsky’s notes “are intended for students and general readers. They have been written to approximate some of the literary and historical information Dante’s original audience might have had, and are certainly not an interpretive guide.” The book does, however, contain a brilliant foreword by John Freccero, the notable Dante scholar, which offers interpretation, and so do the brief commentaries by both Freccero and Pinsky that precede the notes to some of the cantos. Hollander’s notes, which cover almost four times as many pages as Pinsky’s, are almost entirely concerned with interpretation. They are a precious distillation of the product of thirty years of brilliant research, teaching, and writing, of profound study not only of Dante’s voluminous writings but also of the enormous scholarly literature they have generated.

Hollander is concerned especially with passages that seem to invite contrary interpretations, for though Dante’s dramatic and narrative skills may at first reading disguise the fact, such problems are many and various. One of them is presented by the passage quoted above in the two versions, the story of Francesca da Rimini. As he noted, she and her lover Paolo are in the second circle of Inferno, reserved for those who let their lustful passions overwhelm their reason. They are now creatures buffeted by fierce winds which will torment them for all eternity. When Dante’s call to them for a conversation gives them a momentary respite, Francesca replies to Dante’s request for their story in lines so graceful and charming that she wins the reader’s heart, as she does Dante’s. Her tale is one of love; amor is the opening word of three of her tercets, which also contain the words amato and amar. It was a love that brought about their deaths at the hands of her husband. Asked by Virgil for his reaction Dante pities them—“Oh,/how many sweet thoughts, what great desire,/have brought them to this woeful pass!”—and asks her to tell how they first fell in love, to which she gives the answer quoted above.

What, the reader may wonder, since the charms of Francesca’s two speeches no longer dazzle eye and ear, is going on here? This is the second circle of Hell, the place where unrepentant sinners are punished for all time. Why does Dante make Francesca so appealing? The mystery deepens when we realize, since Hollander points it out, that the real story of Paolo and Francesca is very different:

…Her adulterous conduct was a lot more calculated than Dante presents it (she and Paolo, also married, both had children and she had then been married for ten years). The fact is, however, that Dante’s version of the story makes her conduct seem about as understandable as possible, an effort on which the character herself spends her considerable resources of persuasion.

Hollander points out that Francesca’s “chief rhetorical strategy is to remove as much blame from herself as she is able, finding other forces at fault whenever possible (e.g., Paolo’s physical beauty, her despicable husband, the allure of a French romance).” Like all the sinners in Hell, she puts the best possible face on her conduct. But, as he admits, this canto is the cause of continuing debate. He characterizes the two sides as “Romantic readers” who “understandably tend to align themselves with the love that Francesca emblematizes and/or the pity that Dante exhibits” and the “moralizing ones with the firmness that an Augustinian reader would feel.” He himself is on the Augustinian side. He argues that

…it is pity itself that is here at fault…. Indeed, if we see that Francesca’s aim is precisely to gain Dante’s pity, and that she is successful in doing so, we perhaps ought to question his offering of it. Sympathy for the damned, in the Inferno, is nearly always and nearly certainly the sign of a wavering moral disposition.

Hollander stresses the fact that the fictional Dante of the Commedia has a lot to learn. His pity for Francesca stems from a lack of understanding of Giustizia, divine justice, the word that appeared in the inscription on Hell’s gate—Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore (“Justice moved my maker on high”). In the Francesca episode it is as if Virgil were testing Dante’s mettle; he encourages him in his desire to talk to Paolo and Francesca and after her first enchanting speech—three tercets, each beginning with the word amor—Virgil asks him: “What are your thoughts?”


Dante’s reaction to Francesca’s final speech, pity that overwhelms his senses so that he faints, is not the only example of his pity for sinners justly condemned to everlasting torment. In Canto XX he weeps when he sees the diviners, the false prophets, with their heads reversed, so that their tears “ran down their buttocks, down into the cleft.” But this time Virgil reproves him sharply. “Are you still witless as the rest?/Here piety lives when pity is quite dead.” By Canto XXXII Dante has learned his lesson; he pulls hard on the hair of the traitor Bocca degli Abati, who sits forever with his body encased in ice.

Freccero, who writes the introductory note to Canto V in the Pinsky version, suggests a very different approach. He points out that all the other sinners in the second circle are “literary lovers drawn from the great tradition of ancient epic and medieval romance…all of whom died for love.” Francesca, in her first speech, describes her love “in the cliches of medieval literature: a unique and irresistible passion, kindled on sight, swept them to their death.” Francesca speaks of “love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart” and Dante in his early love poems “had insisted upon the inevitability of such love for those with ‘gentle hearts.'”

But in her second speech she “confesses [that] her love was neither spontaneous nor predestined. It was suggested by their reading of the romance of Lancelot.” This second speech, Freccero suggests, exposes the bad faith of claims to the spontaneousness and inevitability of such love. And the Francesca episode is also a “palinode, Dante’s second thoughts on his own theory of love and the gentle heart.” But he has created “one more heroine in love’s canon,” transforming “a provincial adulteress” into an equal of the company she keeps, of Helen of Troy and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The episode is “just as seductive as the literature against which it warns…. In spite of the moralizing intent of the story, its effect is to show Dante’s mastery of the genre he condemns.” In other words, his creative power as a dramatic artist has in this case overwhelmed his theological intent. He has made Francesca so winning a character ( “enticing” is Hollander’s word for her) that most readers, like the fictional Dante, feel sympathy and pity where they should not.

There is much to be said for this suggestion and it so happens that there is a fully documented example of such a phenomenon in the work of a modern poet and dramatist who in all other respects is as different from Dante as chalk is from cheese—Bertolt Brecht. His masterpiece, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, written in 1939, was first staged in 1941 in a Europe at war but in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. When Brecht read the drama critics and the reports of audience reaction he was appalled. “The bourgeois press,” he wrote, “spoke of a Niobe-tragedy” and “the overwhelming vital force of the mother animal” (erschütternde Lebenskraft des Muttertiers). He made some changes in the text to emphasize the fact that Courage made her living from the war, and, though she lost her three children to it, had learned nothing from what had happened and after her daughter’s death must, as she says, get back to business (muss wieder in’n Handel kommen).

Later, in 1949, in Communist East Berlin, when Brecht staged the play himself, Courage was played by his wife, Helene Weigel, a sterner figure than the captivating actress who had played it in Zurich and one who played the role as Brecht directed, even adding bits of stage business that emphasized her mercenary character. It was all to no avail; the leading critic saw Courage as “a human saint from the tribe of Niobe and the mater dolorosa, who defends the life to which she has given birth…with tooth and claw.” The authorities proposed that Brecht give Courage a final speech that would make his point clear, but though throughout his career as a dramatist he had welcomed suggestions and often acted on them, he made no changes.

When I first saw the play in Paris a long time ago, I had read it many times and also studied what Brecht had to say about it, but like the rest of the audience was swept away in the final scene by pity and admiration for Courage. And the same thing happened when, quite recently, I saw it in Washington at the Shakespeare Theatre. If Brecht did not want us to sympathize with Courage, why did he give her, just before her final exit, that heartbroken (and heartbreaking) lullaby she sings over the dead body of her daughter, the last of her children to die? Brecht’s instinct as a dramatist has prevailed over his idea of epic theater and his Marxist ideology, just as, perhaps, Dante’s poetic creativity has sabotaged his Catholic theology.

Francesca is of course not the only such problem. What are we to make of the figure of Ulysses, in Canto XXVI? A flickering tongue of flame in one of the deepest circles of Hell, he speaks of the fervor that was in him “to gain experience of the world/and learn about man’s vices, and his worth.” In his speech encouraging his men to push on past Gibraltar into the unknown Atlantic, he tells them ” do not deny yourselves the chance to know/ …the world where no one lives,” and then makes his famous pronouncement: “Consider how your souls were sown:/you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,/but to pursue virtue and knowledge.”

It sounds like a foreshadowing of things to come, of the voyages of Columbus, of the proud humanism embodied in Michelangelo’s David, of the scientific achievements of Galileo. Hollander speaks of the “vast bibliography of work devoted to Dante’s Ulysses” and gives samples of the widely different interpretations of Dante’s intent. The passage, he says, “has become a rallying cry of Romantics…from Tennyson to Primo Levi.” And he marshals the arguments against admiration for Ulysses: he is far down in Hell, in the eighth circle, reserved for the fraudulent. His desertion of his aged father, his son, and his wife who have waited twenty years for him shows that he is heartless; his summary of the result of his speech is a masterpiece of false modesty. “Ulysses is, in modern parlance, a con artist, and a good one, too. He has surely fooled a lot of people.” (Among them is Benedetto Croce.) There is much truth in this indictment (though it seems strange to label Primo Levi, a scientist and a survivor of Auschwitz, a Romantic) but the question remains: Why did Dante give to Ulysses, as he did to Francesca, one of the longest, the most moving, and the most memorable speeches in the Commedia? It looks like another case of artistic creativity blurring theological intention.

The problems posed by the charm of Francesca and the heroic eloquence of Ulysses are not the only ones deployed and discussed in Hollander’s brilliant introduction and his richly detailed commentary. For the student of Dante this book is not only an in-dispensable guide, it is also an intellectual feast. The last sentence of Hollander’s introduction invites the reader to “an invigorated journey through hell (not a bad place once you get used to it)” and the two Hollanders have made it a place one is reluctant to leave.


Dante is a fictional character in the poem, and in his overwhelming pity for Francesca, his terror when he has to mount the monster Geryon, his tears when he sees the hideously deformed bodies of the false prophets, he is a fictional creation of the real Dante Alighieri, who was born in Florence in 1265 and died of malaria in Ravenna in 1321. About this Dante and his real life we know much less than we would like to know. It is a subject explored by Robert Hollander in a volume of 222 pages of small print, Dante: A Life in Works, and by R.W.B. Lewis in 205 pages of larger print and fewer lines per page, Dante, a volume in the enterprising series of Penguin Lives that has already produced such attractive items as Garry Wills on Saint Augustine and Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse. Hollander’s qualifications need no mention; those of Lewis include his prize-winning and much-admired biography of Edith Wharton and long residence in and intimate acquaintance with Dante’s home town, on which he has written an engrossing book, The City of Florence.

Like the two translations of Inferno, these are two very different books, written with different readers in mind. Hollander’s, unsurprisingly, is the more scholarly and demanding. Its subtitle, A Life in Works, announces its program: a detailed evaluation of Dante’s progress as writer and thinker through analysis of his work, both poetry and prose, whether written in Italian or Latin.This is preceded by a four-page summary of the events of Dante’s life, dates followed by short entries. For example: “August–September 1321. Dante’s mission as ambassador to Venice; malarial fever on return; death during night of 13–14 September.” He begins with twenty-eight pages devoted to the Vita Nuova. It is a work unprecedented in form: a prose narrative built around a sequence of love poems (many of which were in circulation before the completion of the Vita). It is an account of his love for Beatrice Portinari, whom he first saw and fell in love with when he was near the end of his ninth year and she at the beginning of hers. For years he sat where he could gaze at her in church, but it was not until nine years later that, passing by on the street, she greeted him. No mention is made of the fact that both Beatrice and Dante were later married to spouses chosen by their fathers.

Dante remained passionately devoted to Beatrice, wrote love poems addressed (but not sent) to her, and saw her in strange dreams. She died in 1290 and at the end of the Vita he wrote that if his life is spared for a few more years he will “say of her what has never been said of any woman.” Hollander’s lucid and brilliant discussion of the problems presented by this enigmatic work is a joy to read, but he claims no certainty. It is a work, he says in his final paragraph, that “has found an audience for more than seven hundred years,” an audience which “consists of beings who disagree for the most part about what the text really means.”

Next comes an account of two long, but unfinished prose works—the Convivio, written in Italian and interspersed with poems like the Vita, and the De Vulgari Eloquentia, a defense of Italian as the proper medium for lyric verse, written in Latin. Hollander’s full treatment of these texts is especially welcome since translations of them are hard to find. And, though unfinished (the Latin book actually ends in the middle of a sentence, like the History of Thucydides), they are important. The Convivio, “a vast, encyclopedic enterprise,” is devoted to, among other things, philosophy and a defense of Italian prose as a medium for learned works, and the other treatise contains a fascinating account of Italian dialects. But the precious core of Hollander’s book is a series of thoughtful, enlightening essays on various aspects of the Commedia. These are masterly discussions of such vexed topics as the question of the role of allegory—his conclusion: “The poem does not call on the reader to see Virgil as Reason, Beatrice as Faith (or Revelation), Francesca as Lust, Farinata as Heresy. One may banish such abstractions from mind, unless Dante himself insists on them.”

Hollander has a brilliant chapter entitled “The Moral Situation of the Reader,” in which he comes back again to the problem of Francesca; his position is still Augustinian but he admits that Dante’s decision “to entrust us, his readers, with the responsibility for seizing on the details in the narratives by these sympathetic sinners in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths” was a “risky technique.” He has interesting chapters on Virgil—“that he should have been chosen to serve as guide in this most Christian of poems is something of a scandal”—early commentators explained him as allegorical. There is a chapter on Beatrice (who gives Dante a prodigious scolding for his infidelity when he meets her at last) and another, the longest, on politics, which discusses Dante’s attitude to Florence and his adoption of “an essentially Ghibelline view of Italy’s future course, in which the empire was the cornerstone,” a view explained at length in Dante’s final work, the Latin treatise De Monarchia.

R.W.B. Lewis announces, like Hollander, that his book is a “life based on the works,” but rather than discuss them separately, he draws on them to present a picture of Dante’s life as a young poet exchanging love poems with his peers, as an active participant in the battles, both political and military, of his native city—“his entire life was entangled with the history of Florence”—and of his life as an exile, after his political faction was defeated, when he learned, as his ancestor Cacciaguida tells him he will, how hard a road it is “to go down and up on someone else’s staircase,” lo scender a salir per altrui scale. But it was in exile that he conceived and created the poem that made him famous in his lifetime and forever, the Commedia, composed as he moved from Verona to Padova, Bologna, Lucca, Casentino, and back to Verona for his longest stay—between 1312 and 1328, where, comfortably provided for by a generous prince, he “revised the Inferno, wrote and revised the Purgatorio, and made considerable headway in the Paradiso.” His final home was Ravenna, where he died and was buried.

Lewis draws on his familiarity with Florence and its surroundings to locate Dante, Beatrice, and their families in the streets and churches they frequented; and he rounds out the usual picture of Dante’s life based on the Vita Nuova and the Commedia with information on his wife, Gemma Donati, their three sons, and a daughter. The wife and daughter finally joined him in Ravenna, where the daughter entered a convent, taking the name Beatrice.

In Canto XXV of the Paradiso Dante speaks lovingly of the possibility (and the hope) that the fame of his poem may perhaps lead to his return to “the fair sheep fold where” he “slept as a lamb.” In the spring of 1315, Lewis tells us, the Florentines, facing attack by a powerful warlord, decided to recall the exiles to help defend the city. They were offered “reentry and pardon, if they would pay a small sum on the huge fines levied against them and if they would appear as abject penitents, with naked feet and a rope around their necks, in the baptistery of San Giovanni.” Dante refused the offer in an indignant letter, and the city authorities, as the threatened attack on the city failed to materialize, confirmed his original death sentence and condemned his three sons to death by decapitation. Luckily for them, they were not in Florence.

But a century after his death the Florentines began agitating for the removal of his remains from the church of San Francesco in Ravenna and their return to Florence. In 1519 an emissary arrived in Ravenna with orders from the Pope to return his remains to Florence, where Michelangelo would design a tomb. But the crypt was empty; the Franciscan monks had spirited Dante away. They did the same thing in 1677 and this time the bones were lost until in 1865 some construction workers stumbled on them. Dante now rests in San Francesco, “in a dignified sepulchre created in 1485 by Pietro Lombardo and adorned with a bas-relief of the poet.”

This Issue

November 15, 2001