The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky

The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky

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This widely praised version of Dante's masterpiece, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets, is more idiomatic and approachable than its many predecessors. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Pinsky employs slant rhyme and near rhyme to preserve Dante's terza rima form without distorting the flow of English idiom. The result is a clear and vigorous translation that is also unique, student-friendly, and faithful to the original: "A brilliant success," as Bernard Knox wrote in The New York Review of Books.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374524524
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/30/1996
Edition description: Bilingual edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 95,381
Product dimensions: 5.59(w) x 8.03(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

A former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University and has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

The Inferno of Dante

By Robert Pinsky, Michael Mazur

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1994 Farrar, Straus and Giroux
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-52531-6


when I came to stop Below a hill that marked one end of the valley That had pierced my heart with terror, I looked up

Toward the crest and saw its shoulders already Mantled in rays of that bright planet that shows The road to everyone, whatever our journey.



    Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
    In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
    About those woods is hard — so tangled and rough

    And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
    The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
    And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

    I'll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
    I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
    Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

    Off the true path. But when I came to stop
    Below a hill that marked one end of the valley
    That had pierced my heart with terror, I looked up

    Toward the crest and saw its shoulders already
    Mantled in rays of that bright planet that shows
    The road to everyone, whatever our journey.

    Then I could feel the terror begin to ease
    That churned in my heart's lake all through the night.
    As one still panting, ashore from dangerous seas,

    Looks back at the deep he has escaped, my thought
    Returned, still fleeing, to regard that grim defile
    That never left any alive who stayed in it.

    After I had rested my weary body awhile
    I started again across the wilderness,
    My left foot always lower on the hill,

    And suddenly — a leopard, near the place
    The way grew steep: lithe, spotted, quick of foot.
    Blocking the path, she stayed before my face

    And more than once she made me turn about
    To go back down. It was early morning still,
    The fair sun rising with the stars attending it

    As when Divine Love set those beautiful
    Lights into motion at creation's dawn,
    And the time of day and season combined to fill

    My heart with hope of that beast with festive skin —
    But not so much that the next sight wasn't fearful:
    A lion came at me, his head high as he ran,

    Roaring with hunger so the air appeared to tremble.
    Then, a grim she-wolf — whose leanness seemed to compress
    All the world's cravings, that had made miserable

    Such multitudes; she put such heaviness
    Into my spirit, I lost hope of the crest.
    Like someone eager to win, who tested by loss

    Surrenders to gloom and weeps, so did that beast
    Make me feel, as harrying toward me at a lope
    She forced me back toward where the sun is lost.

    While I was ruining myself back down to the deep,
    Someone appeared — one who seemed nearly to fade
    As though from long silence. I cried to his human shape

    In that great wasteland: "Living man or shade,
    Have pity and help me, whichever you may be!"
    "No living man, though once I was," he replied.

    "My parents both were Mantuans from Lombardy,
    And I was born sub Julio, the latter end.
    I lived in good Augustus's Rome, in the day

    Of the false gods who lied. A poet, I hymned
    Anchises' noble son, who came from Troy
    When superb Ilium in its pride was burned.

    But you — why go back down to such misery?
    Why not ascend the delightful mountain, source
    And principle that causes every joy?"

    "Then are you Virgil? Are you the font that pours
    So overwhelming a river of human speech?"
    I answered, shamefaced. "The glory and light are yours,

    That poets follow — may the love that made me search
    Your book in patient study avail me, Master!
    You are my guide and author, whose verses teach

    The graceful style whose model has done me honor.
    See this beast driving me backward — help me resist,
    For she makes all my veins and pulses shudder."

    "A different path from this one would be best
    For you to find your way from this feral place,"
    He answered, seeing how I wept. "This beast,

    The cause of your complaint, lets no one pass
    Her way — but harries all to death. Her nature
    Is so malign and vicious she cannot appease

    Her voracity, for feeding makes her hungrier.
    Many are the beasts she mates: there will be more,
    Until the Hound comes who will give this creature

    A painful death. Not nourished by earthly fare,
    He will be fed by wisdom, goodness and love.
    Born between Feltro and Feltro, he shall restore

    Low Italy, as Nisus fought to achieve.
    And Turnus, Euryalus, Camilla the maiden —
    All dead from wounds in war. He will remove

    This lean wolf, hunting her through every region
    Till he has thrust her back to Hell's abyss
    Where Envy first dispatched her on her mission.

    Therefore I judge it best that you should choose
    To follow me, and I will be your guide
    Away from here and through an eternal place:

    To hear the cries of despair, and to behold
    Ancient tormented spirits as they lament
    In chorus the second death they must abide.

    Then you shall see those souls who are content
    To dwell in fire because they hope some day
    To join the blessed: toward whom, if your ascent

    Continues, your guide will be one worthier than I —
    When I must leave you, you will be with her.
    For the Emperor who governs from on high

    Wills I not enter His city, where none may appear
    Who lived like me in rebellion to His law.
    His empire is everything and everywhere,

    But that is His kingdom, His city, His seat of awe.
    Happy is the soul He chooses for that place!"
    I: "Poet, please — by the God you did not know —

    Help me escape this evil that I face,
    And worse. Lead me to witness what you have said,
    Saint Peter's gate, and the multitude of woes —"

    Then he set out, and I followed where he led.


    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
    mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
    che la diritta via era smarrita.
    Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
    esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
    che nel pensier rinova la paura!
    Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
    ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
    dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
    Io non so ben ridir com' i' v'intrai,
    tant' era pien di sonno a quel punto
    che la verace via abbandonai.
    Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
    là dove terminava quella valle
    che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
    guardai in alto e vidi le sue spalle
    vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
    che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
    Allor fu la paura un poco queta,
    che nel lago del cor m'era durata
    la notte ch'i' passai con tanta pieta.
    E come quei che con lena affannata,
    uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
    si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,
    così l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,
    si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
    che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
    Poi ch'èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
    ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
    sì che 'l piè fermo sempre era 'l più basso.
    Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l'erta,
    una lonza leggera e presta molto,
    che di pel macolato era coverta;
    e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,
    anzi 'mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
    ch'i' fui per ritornar più volte vòlto.
    Temp' era dal principio del mattino,
    e 'l sol montava 'n sù con quelle stelle
    ch'eran con lui quando l'amor divino
    mosse di prima quelle cose belle;
    sì ch'a bene sperar m'era cagione
    di quella fiera a la gaetta pelle
    l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;
    ma non sì che paura non mi desse
    la vista che m'apparve d'un leone.
    Questi parea che contra me venisse
    con la test' alta e con rabbiosa fame,
    sì che parea che l'aere ne tremesse.
    Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
    sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza,
    e molte genti fé già viver grame,
    questa mi porse tanto di gravezza
    con la paura ch'uscia di sua vista,
    ch'io perdei la speranza de l'altezza.
    E qual è quei che volontieri acquista,
    e giugne 'l tempo che perder lo face,
    che 'n tutti suoi pensier piange e s'attrista;
    tal mi fece la bestia sanza pace,
    che, venendomi 'ncontro, a poco a poco
    mi ripigneva là dove 'l sol tace.
    Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco,
    dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
    chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
    Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
    «Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
    «qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
    Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
    e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
    mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
    Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,
    e vissi a Roma sotto 'l buono Augusto
    nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
    Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
    figliuol d'Anchise che venne di Troia,
    poi che 'l superbo Ilïón fu combusto.
    Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
    perché non sali il dilettoso monte
    ch'è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?».
    «Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
    che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?»,
    rispuos' io lui con vergognosa fronte.
    «O de li altri poeti onore e lume,
    vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
    che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
    Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,
    tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
    lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.
    Vedi la bestia per cu' io mi volsi;
    aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
    ch'ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi».
    «A te convien tenere altro vïaggio»,
    rispuose, poi che lagrimar mi vide,
    «se vuo' campar d'esto loco selvaggio;
    ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
    non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
    ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;
    e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
    che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
    e dopo 'l pasto ha più fame che pria.
    Molti son li animali a cui s'ammoglia,
    e più saranno ancora, infin che 'l veltro
    verrà, che la farà morir con doglia.
    Questi non ciberà terra né peltro,
    ma sapïenza, amore e virtute,
    e sua nazion sarà tra feltro e feltro.
    Di quella umile Italia fia salute
    per cui morì la vergine Cammilla,
    Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.
    Questi la caccerà per ogne villa,
    fin che l'avrà rimessa ne lo 'nferno,
    là onde 'nvidia prima dipartilla.
    Ond' io per lo tuo me' penso e discerno
    che tu mi segui, e io sarò tua guida,
    e trarrotti di qui per loco etterno;
    ove udirai le disperate strida,
    vedrai li antichi spiriti dolenti,
    che la seconda morte ciascun grida;
    e vederai color che son contenti
    nel foco, perché speran di venire
    quando che sia a le beate genti.
    A le quai poi se tu vorrai salire,
    anima fia a ciò più di me degna:
    con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire;
    ché quello imperador che là sù regna,
    perch' i' fu' ribellante a la sua legge,
    non vuol che 'n sua città per me si vegna.
    In tutte parti impera e quivi regge;
    quivi è la sua città e l'alto seggio:
    oh felice colui cu' ivi elegge!».
    E io a lui: «Poeta, io ti richeggio
    per quello Dio che tu non conoscesti,
    acciò ch'io fugga questo male e peggio,
    che tu mi meni là dov'or dicesti,
    sì ch'io veggia la porta di san Pietro
    e color cui tu fai cotanto mesti».
    Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro.


Day was departing, and the darkening air Called all earth's creatures to their evening quiet While I alone was preparing as though for war

To struggle with my journey ...



    Day was departing, and the darkening air
    Called all earth's creatures to their evening quiet
    While I alone was preparing as though for war

    To struggle with my journey and with the spirit
    Of pity, which flawless memory will redraw:
    O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit

    Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw —
    Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.
    I commenced: "Poet, take my measure now:

    Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
    Through that deep passage where you would be my guide.
    You write of the journey Silvius's father

    Made to immortal realms although he stayed
    A mortal witness, in his corruptible body.
    That the Opponent of all evil bestowed

    Such favor on him befits him, chosen for glory
    By highest heaven to be the father of Rome
    And of Rome's empire — later established Holy,

    Seat of great Peter's heir. You say he came
    To that immortal world, and things he learned
    There led to the papal mantle — and triumph for him.

    Later, the Chosen Vessel too went and returned,
    Carrying confirmation of that faith
    Which opens the way with salvation at its end.

    But I — what cause, whose favor, could send me forth
    On such a voyage? I am no Aeneas or Paul:
    Not I nor others think me of such worth,

    And therefore I have my fears of playing the fool
    To embark on such a venture. You are wise:
    You know my meaning better than I can tell."

    And then, like one who unchooses his own choice
    And thinking again undoes what he has started,
    So I became: a nullifying unease

    Overcame my soul on that dark slope and voided
    The undertaking I had so quickly embraced.
    "If I understand," the generous shade retorted,

    "Cowardice grips your spirit — which can twist
    A man away from the noblest enterprise
    As a trick of vision startles a shying beast.


    Lo giorno se n'andava, e l'aere bruno
    toglieva li animai che sono in terra
    da le fatiche loro; e io sol uno
    m'apparecchiava a sostener la guerra
    sì del cammino e sì de la pietate,
    che ritrarrà la mente che non erra.
    O muse, o alto ingegno, or m'aiutate;
    o mente che scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi,
    qui si parrà la tua nobilitate.
    Io cominciai: «Poeta che mi guidi,
    guarda la mia virtù s'ell' è possente,
    prima ch'a l'alto passo tu mi fidi.
    Tu dici che di Silvïo il parente,
    corruttibile ancora, ad immortale
    secolo andò, e fu sensibilmente.
    Però, se l'avversario d'ogne male
    cortese i fu, pensando l'alto effetto
    ch'uscir dovea di lui, e 'l chi e 'l quale,
    non pare indegno ad omo d'intelletto;
    ch'e' fu de l'alma Roma e di suo impero
    ne l'empireo ciel per padre eletto:
    la quale e 'l quale, a voler dir lo vero,
    fu stabilita per lo loco santo
    u' siede il successor del maggior Piero.
    Per quest' andata onde li dai tu vanto,
    intese cose che furon cagione
    di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto.
    Andovvi poi lo Vas d'elezïone,
    per recarne conforto a quella fede
    ch'è principio a la via di salvazione.
    Ma io, perché venirvi? o chi 'l concede?
    Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono;
    me degno a ciò né io né altri 'l crede.
    Per che, se del venire io m'abbandono,
    temo che la venuta non sia folle.
    Se' savio; intendi me' ch'i' non ragiono».


Excerpted from The Inferno of Dante by Robert Pinsky, Michael Mazur. Copyright © 1994 Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Foreword by John Freccero,
Translator's Note,
A Plan of Dante's Journey Through Hell,
I Canto I / Canto I,
II Canto II / Canto II,
III Canto III / Canto III,
IV Canto IV / Canto IV,
V Canto V / Canto V,
VI Canto VI / Canto VI,
VII Canto VII / Canto VII,
VIII Canto VIII / Canto VIII,
IX Canto IX / Canto IX,
X Canto X / Canto X,
XI Canto XI / Canto XI,
XII Canto XII / Canto XII,
XIII Canto XIII / Canto XIII,
XIV Canto XIV / Canto XIV,
XV Canto XV / Canto XV,
XVI Canto XVI / Canto XVI,
XVII Canto XVII / Canto XVII,
XIX Canto XIX / Canto XIX,
XX Canto XX / Canto XX,
XXI Canto XXI / Canto XXI,
XXII Canto XXII / Canto XXII,
XXIV Canto XXIV / Canto XXIV,
XXV Canto XXV / Canto XXV,
XXVI Canto XXVI / Canto XXVI,
XXIX Canto XXIX / Canto XXIX,
XXX Canto XXX / Canto XXX,
XXXI Canto XXXI / Canto XXXI,
Also by Robert Pinsky,
About the Author,

Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. Robert Pinsky has described the process of translation as "always a compromise," as "never complete," as "an activity in which you know you're going to fail." What do you think he means by this? Do you agree with his own assessment that his completed translation is "above all a poem" and "a work of metrical engineering?" Is the Inferno in English essentially a different poem from what it is in its original language? What aspects of the poem seem to you to be most "translatable?" Which least?

2. On its face, the Inferno dramatizes the medieval Christian belief in a literal Hell, where sinners are punished eternally for disobeying the moral law as understood by the Church, however sympathetically human they might otherwise be. Why, in spite of this stark vision, do you think the Inferno has remained compelling and vital—and even beloved—to so many twentieth-century readers? Do you think we respond to the poem differently than fourteenth-century readers did? How do the very different circumstances of contemporary Western culture influence our reading of the poem?

3. The pilgrim Dante's first meeting in Hell is with Francesca, whose moving account of how she is seduced, in part by literature, into an act of adultery has caused many readers to question why the poet renders her so compassionately. To what extent is Dante, then renowned in Florence for his courtly love poetry, implicating himself in her fall? Why might Francesca be the first to speak in Hell? Is there a difference between the way the pilgrim Dante responds to her tale and what the poet Dante intends? Why do you think this meeting comes first in the poem?

4. Though Dante is commonly thought of as a medieval poet, thirteenth-century Florence was a democracy and Dante's own political views stemmed from his allegiance to a faction of the Guelph party that advocated steadfast independence from both king and pope. In what ways might democratic ideals be said to manifest themselves in Dante's vision? How does the poet reconcile them with his belief in a rigorous and hierarchical Christian moral system? By having Brutus, Cassius, and Judas share the deepest pit in Hell, does Dante imply that crimes against the state are morally equivalent to the betrayal of Christ?

5. Do you see ways in which Dante's writing anticipates the Renaissance? What is Dante's attitude toward human reason (see especially Canto XXVI)? How do his ideas about art as embodied in the Commedia differ from predominant medieval and/or Renaissance attitudes?

6. The scholar John Freccero says in the Foreword, "There is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theorem is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution." In this view, whatever empathy the pilgrim (and the reader) feels for the sinners represents incomprehension of the Divine. In contrast, Alan Williamson has proposed in The American Poetry Review that "Dante [is] often at his strongest as a poet when his feelings seem to strain aggainst the limits of his system." In Canto XXXIII, for example, he chooses to dramatize not the sin that landed Count Ugolino in hell, but the tragic suffering of Ugolino's innocent children. What might account for this choice? If the poem was meant to illustrate an inflexible moral theology, why might Dante have chosen to tell Ugolino's story from a point of view that encourages empathy, when he could have chosen to have Ugolino speak instead of his own odious acts of betrayal? Do you agree that Dante's "feelings seem to strain against the limits of his system?" How do we know what the poet feels?

7. Dante seems to have written the Inferno in part to take revenge on his own enemies. What, in his own moral cosmology, are the implications of taking justice into his own hands in this way? Is there an appropriate Circle of Hell for such a sin? Why or why not?

8. Many twentieth-century readers have been interested almost exclusively in Hell—in the Inferno, the first section of the poem. What are some possible implications of reading the Inferno in contextual isolation from Purgatorio and Paradiso?

9. T.S. Eliot, among others, has asserted that the encounter with Satan in the last canto is anticlimactic. Do you think this is so? What might account for this? Do you think the poet was cognizant of it?

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