The Divine Comedy: A New Verse Translation by Clive Jamesby Dante Alighieri, Clive James (Translator)
“Under James’s uncanny touch, seven long centuries drop away, and the great poem is startlingly fresh and new.”Stephen GreenblattThe Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James’s translationdecades in the makinggives us the entire epic as a single, coherent, and compulsively readable lyric poem. For
“Under James’s uncanny touch, seven long centuries drop away, and the great poem is startlingly fresh and new.”Stephen GreenblattThe Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James’s translationdecades in the makinggives us the entire epic as a single, coherent, and compulsively readable lyric poem. For the first time ever in an English translation, James makes the bold choice of switching from the terza rima composition of the original Italiana measure that strains in Englishto the quatrain. The result is “rhymed English stanzas that convey the music of Dante’s triple rhymes” (Edward Mendelson). James’s translation reproduces the same wonderful momentum of the original Italian that propels the reader along the pilgrim’s path from Hell to Heaven, from despair to revelation.
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The Divine Comedy
By Dante Alighieri
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2010 Paul J. Contino
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHalfway along the road of this our life I woke to find myself in a wood so dark That straight and honest ways were gone, and light Was lost. O, how hard to tell the harsh Horror of that wild and brutal forest! The very thought brings back a fear so stark That bitter death itself seems not much worse. But let me tell the rest of what I met with, So the good I found is well and truly rehearsed. I cannot say exactly how my steps Were led there, for when I left the one true road I was filled with sleep, heavy as a man can get. But once I'd reached the foot of a hill which rose, Steep, just at the end of that valley, fear Of which had penetrated my heart, I saw That high above its shoulders there appeared Rays of light from the star that lights the one And only road for every man on earth. And then the fear that, all night long, had run Painful across my heart, full as a lake, Began to subside a bit, as when someone Pauses, panting, having just escaped From the great depth of the sea to the safety of shore, And stands staring back at dangerous waves— Just so my mind, still fleeing as before, Turned round, gazing back at a narrow passage Living man had never traveled. Worn And weary, my body needed the brief advantage Of rest, but then I walked on along a barren Slope, my right foot always lower. At the edge Of the hill I meant to climb, I suddenly saw A light-footed leopard, quick and very agile, Its shaggy hide spotted all over, tawny. And there it stayed. I kept trying to scrabble By, but it always moved itself right In my face, blocking the way so I could not pass. I despaired. Then came the early morning light, The sun was climbing toward those other things Which had been with him when all those beautiful, bright, And shining bodies were set in motion by the stirring Of heavenly love, and I felt hopeful about The gay-skinned beast, knowing the time and seeing The great sweetness of the season. I had not counted On the sudden terror I knew, seeing all At once that now a lion had come bounding In sight. He seemed to be coming toward me, his jaws Open, his head held high, impelled by a hunger So wild that even the air shrank from his claws. And then came a she-wolf, ribs showing under Her hide, appearing lean and starved, a beast Who devoured greedy souls as her rightful plunder— The very sight of whom, so woeful, so bleak, Filled me with heavy fear, and I lost all hope Of ever ascending that towering, sunlit peak. Much like someone satisfied to grope His way to success, but when he starts to lose Afflicts his mind with tears and bitter thoughts, Just so that ever-pacing beast kept wounding Me, little by little driving me back To where the sun grew silent, its light refused. As I descended lower, a man attracted My glance, appearing right in front of my face, Seeming so loathe to speak that he might have lacked The power. Seeing him there in that barren place I cried: "Have mercy on me, whatever you are, Only a ghost or, better, one of my race." He answered: "No longer a man, forever barred From your life. My parents were both Lombards, given Life in Mantua, under northern stars. "I was born late in Julius' reign, and lived In Rome when good Augustus ruled, in the days Of those lying pagan gods, who promised false gifts. "I was a poet, and I sang Aeneas' praise, Anchises' son, who sailed to Rome when proud And powerful Troy was lost in leaping flames. "But you, why were you drawn to this dreary, foul Wasteland? Why not ascend the delectable mountain, Where happiness both starts and ends?" "Now "I know you—Virgil, forever generous fountain Pouring forth a mighty stream of speech!" Thus I answered, with a bashful countenance: "O honored guiding star of poets, reached And relished by many long hours of devotion and love, Studying from your books the lessons you teach! "You are my Master, my source and treasure trove, You alone from whom I acquired the full And beautiful style that brings me glory above "Most men. See that beast. I ran while I could. Help me flee her, O famous oracle. She makes my very veins and pulses tremble." "You'll have to take another road," he told me, Seeing how freely and frantically I wept, "To escape this wilderness of endless disorder, "Because this beast you complain of never lets Anyone pass her along this road, harassing And hindering them until she sees them dead, "Her nature being so malign and savage That she is never able to finish her feasting, Hungrier after she eats than before. Her passionate "Coupling breeds her with many other beasts, And will bring her even more until the Hound Arrives who will give her the painful death she needs. "He will not feed on any food found On earth, but only on wisdom, virtue, and love. His time will be announced, his birth crowned "In the stars. And he will bring salvation to humble Italy, for which the virgin Camilla, And Turnus, Euralyus, and Nisus all fell. "He'll hunt this beast in every hole she fills Until he buries her back in Hell, out From which hateful envy had freed her to kill. "And this is why I think you must allow Yourself to follow me, and I must guide And lead you across an eternal land, where crowds "Of desperate souls will constantly shriek and cry, And you will see the souls of the ancient dead In pain, wanting another chance to die, "And see the ones who burn in fire, content At the flames, because they hope their souls will survive And ascend to the blessed, though none of them knows when. "And then, if you still wish to reach the heights, A soul worthier than me, a far more fitting Escort, will lead you, and she will become your guide, "For that Emperor, dwelling on high (since I, when living, rejected His law), bars The gates of His heavenly city against me. Prince "Of all the universe, His throne stands there, And there He will rule forever, king and lord. O, how happy those He has chosen are!" And I replied: "Poet, I beg you, because Of that very God you've never known, in order That I can run from this evil, or those still worse, "Lead me away from this land, across its borders And into the realm you spoke of, where I will behold Saint Peter's gates and the burning souls you spoke of." He turned and started to walk, and I stayed close.
Chapter TwoAs daylight departed, heavy dark air was freeing Creatures living across the world from their weary, Laboring lives, and I was the only being On earth preparing myself for the endless, dreary Struggle, not only the path but the inner fears, Exactly as my mind will make them appear. O Muses, glorious powers, help me now! O memory, understanding, you who recorded Whatever I saw, reveal the breadth of your power! I began: "O poet, can I hope to go forward? Before I start, O guardian and guide, Have I the strength to climb a hill so harsh? "You say that Trojan Aeneas, while still alive In human, corruptible flesh, walked these immortal Paths with a full perceptive, sensuous mind. "A God of goodness would not close these portals To such a man, whose destiny would change The earth, father of Rome and the world's first ruler. "And he was chosen by Heaven itself to raise That city, and then that empire, which shone with the glory Of might and mind we know as Roman—a fame "Doubled when arms and art were blessed by the storied Heart of Paul, the Church's father, and this city Of war and thought became all history. "Aeneas had learned, in the underworld, new pity And pain, knowledge he carried under the sun And made both Italy and the papal shield, "Brought to Rome, and to all living men, By Saint Paul, who opened the way to holy faith, Preparing our only road to eternal salvation. "But me, why am I here? Who made this mistake? I'm no Aeneas; certainly, I'm no Paul. No one, including me, thinks me so weighty. "Taking another step on this dangerous road All I'll ever achieve, or reach, is folly. You're wiser than me: explain what I do not know." Like someone half regretting what once seemed knowledge, Intention shifted around by fresh ideas, Starting to throw all old ones overboard, I stood on that dark slope, pulled by feelings So murky they dissipated whatever I'd thought I knew, surrendering what once seemed real. "If I have understood what you've just told me," The ghost of that gracious, mighty poet replied, "Cowardice is overwhelming your soul, "A common weakness, swinging from side to side A man's clear vision of honor's noble way, As shapes and shadows deceive an animal's eyes. "To lift you out of this fear, let me say Just why I came to you, and what I was told That moved me, watching you so held at bay. "I stand with those whose future is still on hold, And a lady called to me, so blessed, so gracious That I offered to serve her, do whatever she ordered. "Her eyes outshone the stars in Heaven's great space; And then she told me, sweetly, gently, her speech As soft and lovely as her angelic face: "'O courteous Mantuan soul, whose fame has reached To every part of the world and will endure As long as earth itself, I come to speak "'For my friend (no friend to Fortune), who's now been rudely Blocked on his desert path, and cannot find His way, filled with so much fear he's surely "'Turning back, bewildered in heart and mind; Hearing what is said of him in Heaven I may have waited too long to set him right. "'Please go, and use your artful speech with him, And whatever else your craft has long since commanded, So he will be calmed, and I will be happy again. "'I am Beatrice, who sends you on this errand; I long to return to the place I've come from; love Is what has moved me, given me words for this plan. "'When I stand in front of my gracious Lord above, I'll often praise you to Him.' And then she paused And said no more, and I began my response: "'O lady of virtuous power, Heaven's laws, The only road by which we human beings Can rise above the moon that circles this globe, "'Everything you command so pleases me That obedience, already fulfilled, would be slow: You speak and I obey, and both are pleased. "'But how can you be sure that descent this low Is safe for a being like you, down in this dungeon, Far from spacious realms I know you long for?' "'Deep desire to know moves you so much,' She answered, 'that I will tell you, very briefly, Why I'm not afraid of a place so roughly "'Fashioned. Have fear for nothing that cannot be Of harm to what you are. What cannot hurt Creates no apprehension in creatures like me, "'Made by God, as I am, in His grace and virtue: Whatever you suffer here I do not feel In my heart, nor am I hurt by the fires that burn you. "'A noble lady in Heaven takes such pity On this blockaded man I want you to guide That unyielding heavenly law must bend and yield. "'She called Saint Lucy, brought her to her side, And said: "One of your faithful needs you now, And I commend him to you. Give him your aid." "'Saint Lucy, hating cruelty of all kinds, Rose and came to where I was at the moment, Sitting with ancient Rachel at my side, "'And said: "Beatrice—given God's grace, adorned With virtue—help the man who loved you so much, For your sake turning his back on the vulgar and low. "'"Can't you hear the pitiful cries he utters? Don't you see him fighting for his life, Overwhelmed by tides of deadly suffering?" "'No one on earth has ever taken advice So swiftly, protecting themselves or running away: Hearing those words, I dropped right through the skies, "'Left my blessed seat and immediately came To this place, trusting myself to your virtuous speech, Which honors you and those who hear what you say.' "Having made this explanation to me, Her shining eyes looked down, wet with tears, Which made me come to you even more quickly. "And so I came, eager to do her service; I liberated you from the wild she-beast Who blocked the shorter mountain road so fiercely. "So, now: what next? Why, why are you still seated Here, cowardly clutching fear in your heart? How can you not be bold, courageous, and free, "When three such blessed ladies from Heaven's court Are taking care of you, and you have been told In so many words what wonderful things are to come?" Like little flowers bent by nighttime cold, Closed against the frost, who quickly straighten Their stems and blossom again, in the sun's good warmth, I felt my drooping courage rise again, 130 And my heart began to beat so boldly that words Rushed to my tongue, I spoke like a just-freed man: "O the compassionate spirit who offered me help! And you, how kind you've been, how quickly obeying Truthful words she brought you, right from Heaven! "Your words have roused me, all my desire awakened Once more. Listening to you, I'm just as eager To go with you as I was the moment you came! "So on we go: I'll follow wherever you lead, Your intention is mine, we are one and the same." Those were my words. He was my Master, my teacher, And together we went the harshest, wildest way.
Chapter ThreeIt is through me you come to the city of sorrow, It is through me you reach eternal sadness, It is through me you join the forever-lost. Justice moved my makers' wondrous hands; I was made by Heaven's powers, holy, divine, Endless wisdom, primal love of man. Eternal existences preceded mine, And nothing more. I will exist forever. Give up all hope, until the end of time.
These words were written, dim and darkly etched, Above a gateway. I could not understand them. "Master," I said, "teach me the sense of this." He answered knowingly, as wise men can: "From this point on, abandon cowardice, All mistrust must die. This is the land "I told you we would come to, where you'd see Those men and women lost to the human mind And all its truthful work and useful reason." Then, quietly, he put his hand on mine, Turned and gave me a pleasant glance, and I Was comforted. He walked, I followed behind To that unknown place, where shrieks and desperate sighs, Weeping, and fervent moaning filled the starless Air; I could not keep myself from crying.
Excerpted from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri Copyright © 2010 by Paul J. Contino. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence to a family of minor nobility. He entered into Florentine politics in 1295, but he and his party were forced into exile in a hostile political climate in 1301. Taking asylum in Ravenna late in life, Dante completed his Divine Commedia, considered one of the most important works of Western literature, before his death in 1321.
Born in Australia, Clive James lives in Cambridge, England. He is the author of Unreliable Memoirs; a volume of selected poems, Opal Sunset; the best-selling Cultural Amnesia; and the translator of The Divine Comedy by Dante. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is an Officer of the Order of Australia and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
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