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.

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