A hell of a ride

THE INFERNO OF DANTE: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky, Dent pounds 20

IT IS almost 700 years since Dante, exiled forever from his loved Florence, wrote the Commedia (it did not become divine until the 16th century). The first part, the Inferno, is set through Thursday night to early Sunday morning of Easter in 1300 and it tells of the poet's journey to the depths of Hell, guided by his mentor Virgil. The passage through the infernal circles is fraught with ambiguities. Dante the pilgrim, mortal and vulnerable, moved by pity and sorrow, is also Dante the narrator, recorder of moral justice and retribution, the irreversible torment of souls who chose sin.

Hell's depths offer the pilgrim spiritual attrition; through his vision of choice and consequence he will attain salvation. Every temptation is delineated; the narrowing infernal pit contains all the potential evil of the individual soul; it also represents a contemporary world without hope. It is the story of a chimerical, nightmare journey and it is an allegory of Christian revelation. Classical myths, medieval theology, the corrupt politics of the city state, the internecine strife of Guelf and Ghibelline, combine to create a background text dense with allusion and ironic hindsight. Like the pilgrim, we need a guide.

In this handsome volume with closely matched parallel texts, Robert Pinsky, a poet highly respected in the US, proposes a Dante for our times; this is a gallant and justifiable enterprise and one can only admire his energy and scholarship. The "eloquent vernacular" of the Commedia had a profound influence on the language of European literature; Dante addressed his audience in the living speech of his time and the faithful translator must do likewise. Already Dorothy Sayers's admirable rendering (Penguin Classics 1949) seems a trifle dated and tarnished.

There have been many translations in prose and assorted metrics, but Pinsky, like Sayers, has boldly ventured into terza rima. This is the form Dante created for his epic, a sequence of interlocking three-line stanzas with an intricate rhyme scheme - aba, bcb, cdc and so onwards. Even in Italian terza rima has been little used, apart from Petrarch and Boccaccio, and despite attempts in English by Wyatt, Byron, Browning, Auden and others, only Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" does real justice to its forward leaping movement, its enchanting fusion of sinuous power and fragile delicacy.

Pinsky claims that English just doesn't have enough rhymes; he is fearful of sounding funny or of being forced into tortuous, contrived sequences by the exigencies of his line endings. (Other poets have coped perfectly with the sad deficiencies of our enormously rich and beautiful language, but never mind that.) Accordingly, he has chosen to use oblique rhymes, consonantal or echoing, as employed rather differently by W B Yeats. Applied to terza rima this method doesn't always work too well, often involving him in the very contortions he had hoped to avoid and wrecking the urgent striving of the rhythm: "And at its end the sheet it's shrouded in / Is essence of nard and myrrh. As one who falls / and knows not how - if a demon pulled him down / or another blockage human life entails - ". Here the juxtaposition of "blockage" and "human" is a little unfortunate. Elsewhere we read "I found among those there for thieving / Five of your citizens, which carries shame / For me - and you gain no high honour thereby ". He is very partial to enjambement (as indeed was Dante). Sometimes this works to great effect - "Now I am where the noise of lamentation / comes at me in blasts of sorrow. I am where / All light is mute, with a bellowing like the ocean / Turbulent in a storm of warring winds" - but as often, more often, it is anticlimactic, weakening the force of a line end-stopped in the original.

There are other infelicities. Virgil, introducing himself, begins the first line of a stanza "Poeta fui", a proud statement which Pinsky moves into a mere aside, tucked towards the end of the line. The fallen angels "piovuti", "rained", from heaven are "spat / Like rain" for Pinsky. Not only is "spat" discordant and ugly, it introduces a secondary image. Dante's small flowers, bowed and closed in the night frost, are described as "shrunken" while the frost goes unremarked. Spirits are "crowded in a herd", hands are pawing. The wondrous word rimbombo is feebly translated as "noise" and all the onomatopoeia of this tercet is lost. "Quando la brina in su la terra assempra / L'imagine di sua sorella bianca" has a texture and a music absent from "when the hoarfrost mimes / the image of her white sister upon the ground". "Mimes" is not right for frost; besides it has too forced an air of doing its consonantal work with the line-endings before and after it, "beams" and "seems".

Pinsky is especially ill at ease with Dante's sudden bursts of the colloquial. "But let your conversation not be long / till you return I'll parley with this beast / so we may borrow his shoulders". Half a century ago Dorothy Sayers primly rendered a grand guignol moment: "He promptly made a bugle of his breech". Says Pinsky: "And the leader made a trumpet of his ass". Not much linguistic advancement there; and really that ass takes the biscuit.

Where Pinsky does excel is in passages of sombre simplicity. His inscription over the gates of hell is magnificent, the best I have seen. He handles the famous meeting with Paolo and Francesca with great delicacy, his language intense, melodious and anguished as the original, only stumbling at last over "Nessun maggio dolore ...". His birds are marvellous, too. "As winter starlings riding on their wings / form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer / foundering in the wind's rough buffetings / upward and downwards, driven here and there / with never ease from pain nor hope of rest / as chanting cranes will line a line in air / so I saw souls come uttering cries - wind tossed / and lofted by the storm". One can forgive much for those chanting cranes.

There are other fine passages, notably Ulysses' sorrowing apologia, and plenty of competent if unremarkable writing, slumping now and then into the deeply laboured. Nicole Pinsky supplies concise and lucid notes and Michael Mazur's doomy monotypes may or may not enhance one's reading. I could do without them.

The real and very great pleasure of this fresh translation derives from the parallel texts. With the assistance of a modest dictionary and very little Italian we may each make a Dante for our own time, wandering through the infernal circles, dazed by that extraordinary vision, the swoops from the supernal to grim farce, tenderness and pathos to brutality and inexorable retribution. The darkness of hell is shot with earthly images, a dog's teeth grinding on his bones, wet hands steaming in the winter air, a frog's snout surfacing on a pond, a tower swaying against passing clouds. And again and again the plangent cry of the dead: "Conforti la memoria mia". Remote we may be from Guelf and Ghibelline, but the Inferno remains immediate, poignant and ferocious, with places well appointed for us all. No one should miss this trip.

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn