BOOK REVIEW / A grand tour in the circles of hell: Ian Thomson considers the history of Dante's masterpiece and a lively new translation

Dante? What the hell. It was the medieval world that insisted on infernal retribution, not ours. In the Divine Comedy - Dante's three-part journey through the inferno, purgatory and paradise - we imagine the state of souls after death. Some are boiled alive in brimstone, others glow with a heavenly grace.

The belief in eternal punishment probably strikes most people today as superstitious hocus-pocus. If the Divine Comedy speaks to our present condition, it is not because we are moved by the terror of the Christian revelation, or the threat of being barbecued in the seventh circle of hell for making too much money. Dante's 600-year- old poem remains one of the essential books of mankind despite our distance from medieval theology. As James Joyce proclaimed: 'I love Dante as much as the Bible. He is my spiritual food, the rest is ballast'.

Some still miss the whiff of sulphur, however, and fear that our public and private morality has gone to the devil without it. Only 22 months ago the Education Secretary, John Patten, subjected readers of the Spectator to this Dantean blast of hellfire: 'Dwindling belief in redemption and damnation has led to loss of fear of the eternal consequences of goodness and badness . . . The loss of that fear (eternal damnation) has meant a critical motive has been lost to young people when they decide whether to try to be good citizens or criminals.' Hell's bells] Our Education Secretary may or may not be man enough for damnation, but his remarks would be familiar to the Victorian reader of Dante.

In Victorian times Dante was a popular quarry for translators. John Ruskin hailed him 'the central intellect of the world' and his stupendous greatness was celebrated at Bible classes throughout the Empire. Civil servants, clergymen, barristers; they all had a go at Dante. That their translations were mostly dreadful (the crystalline cantos of Dante converted into galumphing fustian) scarcely mattered. There was a message for contemporary society in the Divine Comedy which these worthies saw it as their duty to convey. What happens to sinful love-cheats? To those who commit adultery? Look no further than the fifth canto of Hell (in part one of the Divine Comedy), where Paolo and Francesca are twisting in a black whirlpool without hope. If there was anyone who could take us back to the basics of damnation, it was Dante Alighieri from Florence.

So Dante became the saddest and most serious of poets, his trilogy translated with an austere literalism that ignored the vulgar energy of the original. Numerous Jesuit editions of Dante were crudely and thoroughly censored; and Victorian translators must have agonised, to say the least, over the scene from Hell (canto 21) where a military commander makes a trumpet of his arse by breaking musical wind. The Reverend Henry Boyd translated Dante's farts as 'loud Aeolian fifes' after the Greek god of wind. When William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch was prosecuted for obscenity in 1965 (the notorious 'talking asshole' chapter), Dante was cited in its defence.

The Victorians turned not only Dante into a paragon of moral sobriety, but also the flame of his life: Beatrice Portinari. Not much is known about Beatrice, only that she died at Florence in 1290 and drove Dante to distraction. In the Divine Comedy itself, Beatrice is Divine Grace; she appears before the speechless Dante as a veiled woman in robes the colour of a 'living flame'. This was poetry enough. But the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood worshipped Beatrice as a blessed dewey-eyed damsel, tender as a marshmallow.

Though bowdlerised, the Divine Comedy became a Victorian bestseller. The only other post-classical work of comparable bulk translated on the same scale was Goethe's Faust. Longfellow and Carlyle (not Thomas Carlyle) gave the most successful versions of Dante, and made him a commercial proposition. But they both marred the original with their awful Latinate locutions and stilted choice of words; it was like drinking flat champagne.

Who put the fizz back into the Florentine? None other than Dorothy L Sayers, the detective novelist. Many who buy the Penguin Dante (published between 1949 and 1962) are surprised to find that the translator is the same Sayers who created the dandified sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter's private collection of printed Dantes is certainly worth investigation; from Whose Body, we understand that it 'includes, besides the famous Aldine octavo of 1502, the Naples folio of 1477'. This bibliographic pedantry - fetishism, almost - squares with Sayers' own private obsession. The last 13 years of her life were devoted to a translation of Dante; and it was a wonderfully spirited version, mingling modern and archaic expressions, a sour wit curdling those honeyed hymns to Beatrice.

Since Dorothy L Sayers, Dante has had more English-speaking readers in the last 40 years than the preceeding six and a quarter centuries. Trimmed of the Victorian distortions, Dante is a rousing read. His journey to salvation in the Divine Comedy involves a descent to the centre of the earth, which is also the bottom of hell (medieval cartographists must have located this limbo somewhere in Australia); then follows a thorny climb to the summit of Mount Purgatory where Dante reaches the celestial sight of Beatrice and the mystical revelation of God in Paradise.

The Divine Comedy has passed like a runner's baton from generation to generation, changed and enriched. We can read it as an intoxicating adventure story, as a simple love story, as the story of anyone who sets out in search of salvation in this life. Primo Levi relates in If This is a Man how he struggled at Auschwitz to remember lines spoken by Dante's Ulysses:

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance

Your mettle was not made; you were made men,

To follow after knowledge and excellence.

In the hell of Auschwitz - 'anus of the world' - this is one of the greatest hymns to literature and the human spirit ever written. For Primo Levi, Dante's poem was the first great step from Gothic darkness to the light of Renaissance humanism.

One inferno is enough, you might think. But here we have another translation of Dante's Hell (Chatto, pounds 14.99). Steve Ellis, a Senior Lecturer in English at Birmingham University, believes that the sulphurous poem has never been adequately translated; even Sayers has dated. If Dante is still a bit of a dodo, an endangered species from the groves of academe, part of the blame must lie with T S Eliot (says Ellis). In 1929 Eliot published an influential pamphlet that championed Dante as the highest expression of Christian civilisation.

The Florentine encouraged Eliot in his conviction that modern man is mired in a spiritual no man's land; but, like the Victorians, he ignored the less elevated aspects of Dante's poem. The vituperative satire, the vulgar burlesque, the harsh and grating rhymes - Eliot would have little of this. It was the austerity of Dante that appealed, the sour old lemon who bemoaned, from his lofty vantage point, the pain of living. 'I had not thought death had undone so many' we read of those rush-hour commuters in The Waste Land.

This new translation of Hell is a million miles from the Dante passed down to us by Eliot. It is a creative transformation. Energetic, racy, rude and lyrical, the version is above all demotic; words like 'tart', 'bonce', 'shite' and 'crap like this' move easily with the grain of Dante's speech, and sustain the stabbing beat of the original. Steve Ellis has wisely dispensed with Dante's terza rima - a fiendish triple rhyme - and used a very effective free verse instead.

There's just one problem. Ellis almost wrecks the package with his rendering of the famous opening line - 'Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura' - as 'Halfway through our trek in life / I found myself in this dark wood'. Afrikaans for travel by ox-wagon, 'trek' also conjures an image of sports shoes. This is all wrong: we should enter the poem in a magical way. Dante is alone in a supernatural forest at nightfall, a pilgrim who has lost his way in mid-life. Virgil, sent by Beatrice, is about to show him hell. The Longfellow translation begins: 'Midway upon the journey of our life. . .' 'Journey' is a huge improvement.

The rest of Hell is a terrible delight. The further we climb down through inferno the more it seems that Dante was blessed with a mean disposition. Adulterers, prostitutes ('that tart Cleopatra'), homosexuals and all non-Christians (including the Prophet Mohammed) are banished to eternal damnation. Dante held politicians in particularly low esteem - colossal humbugs who had ruined his native Florence with their new money and slippery double-standards.

Nietzsche was wrong, though, to slander Dante as a hyena making verses among the tombs. The poet did more than simply put his mates in paradise and his foes in limbo. 'We must also be prepared to find Dante simple, homely, humorous, tender and bubbling over with ecstasy', enthused Dorothy L Sayers. Italian literature begins and ends with Dante; he is the great patriarch of modern letters. Buy this translation by Professor Ellis and spend a damn good season in hell.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'