The Divine Comedy translated by Clive James: Writing as reparation

Dante turned his non-relationship with Beatrice into a story of passionate significance in La Vita Nuova. Likewise, Clive James is paying tribute to his Dante scholar wife, from whom he is estranged.

Clive James with his daughter Claerwen James.
Comic-book hero: Clive James with his eldest daughter, the artist Claerwen James, in her Cambridge studio. Photograph: Paul Stuart/Camera Press.

The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri
Translated by Clive James
Picador, 560pp, £25

Around the millennium, I spent several years running writing projects in health and in social care. This seemed to me to be a socialrestorative activity, allowing people who had been institutionalised for a long time the authority of “their own words”. Writing, however, is not intrinsically therapeutic. If it changes things for the better, it does so in practical ways, as experience revealed or understanding shared. Yet, clearly, the impulse to write fiction or compose poetry is something more than practical. It’s an attempt to imagine how things might be, to invent an alternative. It is ultimately a pitting of will against circumstance; in Philip Larkin’s phrase, a “joyous shot at how things ought to be”. 

Dante Alighieri is the prime proponent of writing as reparation. In his late twenties, in La Vita Nuova(The New Life), he turned his non-relationship with Beatrice into a story of passionate significance. Towards the end of his life, exiled as a victim of political misfortune, he composed La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). This tripartite vision of ultimate justice is set in 1300, the midpoint of his “three score and ten” and his last full year in his home city, Florence. Although Dante didn’t start work on the poem until around 1308, it still faces towards that city as it embarks on its task of imaginative repair.
 
Former friends and enemies appear among the tortured souls in the Comedy’s hell; later, it is Beatrice who leads the narrator to paradise. Despite Dante’s opening – which Clive James’s new version renders: “At the midpoint of the path through life, I found/Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way/Ahead was blotted out” – this is not the story of a midlife crisis. The Romantic notion of literary selfexploration did not emerge for another five centuries. Instead, the Comedy is a schema of the kind of justice that is needed to trump human injustices. 
 
Divine reckoning is not only necessary; it is both inescapable and precise. Deceivers, in the eighth circle of hell, are put into ten subdivisions, including seducers, flatterers, hypocrites and false counsellors. The imagination of medieval Christendom was often highly literal, as well as visual, in this way. The concentric circles Dante pictured in the afterlife also appear widely elsewhere over the next few centuries – in Vasari’s designs for the frescoes in the dome of Florence’s cathedral, or the “doom” window of the Church of St Mary in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Christendom’s world-view was equally hierarchical. Dante was formed by a culture in which where you were to a large extent defined what you were. To write the Comedy in exile must have been a tremendous act of individuation.
 
Its hold on poets has remained strong. Percy Bysshe Shelley and T S Eliot both wrote the Comedyinto their verse. Those who have been lured into translating it include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Laurence Binyon, C H Sisson, Robert Pinsky and Sean O’Brien. Now, the polymath Clive James, writing from his own elective exile in London, has joined them. 
 
There are at least two dozen English translations of parts or the whole of The Divine Comedy in print today, their number suggesting there is something symbolic about the enterprise itself. James’s introduction tells us that, for him, an important part of this symbolic value is in paying tribute to his wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, from whom he has been publicly estranged.
 
Yet he also advances another reason for publishing this version. According to James, most English translations fail to bring across the assonant and alliterative interplay of Dante’s original, because they are busy with the almost impossible task of reproducing its terza rima, the chain-link rhyme scheme. He is right: the strengths of polyglot English are also its weakness when it comes to rhyme. The kind of music that is almost automatic in Italian is achieved only with invention – and sometimes evident strain – in English. Here, for example, is Binyon’s translation, published between 1933 and 1943, of the opening of the second canto of Inferno:
 
The day was going, and the darkened air
Was taking from its toil each animal
That is on the earth; I only, alone there,
Essayed to arm my spirit . . .
 
The old-fashioned tenor of this – “toil” and “essayed” scarcely belong to the era of the jet engine and nylon stockings – is exacerbated by Binyon’s counter-intuitive word order: “animal” has been placed at the rhyming line’s end because he has an “all” and a “recall” coming up. The ugly, near-tautological juxtaposition of “only, alone” that follows surely has to do with making the metre add up. James’s solution is to turn the tercets of the original into quatrains, usually rhyming A-BA- B. This is a more familiarly English form, long used in ballad storytelling. The challenge it sets the poet over the long structure is to equal terza rima’s propulsive mechanism.
 
James’s decision also makes his Comedy a third longer than the original. He uses this extra space to incorporate the contextual information Dante’s peers would have understood but for which today’s readers need footnotes. A passing reference to a Balkan king, for example, becomes: “. . . he/Of Serbia, who forged the means to call/A lead plug a Venetian ducat”. 
 
This, then, is a substantially “remastered”, if not exactly rewritten, Dante. James’s mission is to have us read the Comedy as poetry rather than as a historical text. To do this, he must not only solve problems of form and footnotes; he must create a coherent imaginative world, with its own atmosphere and tonal music. We must listen to the verse. Here is James’s translation of that second canto passage:
 
The day was dying, and the darkening air
Brought all the working world of
    living things
To rest. 
 
Alliteration clicks along these iambic lines, holding them in place. You can almost hear the clever mind tightening the bolts. By contrast, in 1994, the American formalist Robert Pinsky uses a slightly broader-brush, hymnal diction, with an attention to vowel sounds and half-line patterns that recalls Anglo- Saxon prosody:
 
Day was departing, and the darkening air
Called all earth’s creatures to their
evening quiet.
 
In 2006, Sean O’Brien clarifies and demys - tifies. His Inferno doesn’t rhyme but uses a blank verse metre that’s so fully digested and flexible that this Dante speaks with frank directness:
 
The day was fading now. The darkening air
Had summoned all the creatures of the earth
To rest after their labours. 
 
It seems that the old Italian proverb “Every choice is a renunciation” holds true in translation as in life. Each of these approaches has strengths. Each makes compromises to achieve those strengths.
 
Translations can show us what’s going on in an original. Their tragedy is that they can never re-create it. Perhaps the only truly conscientious approach to this extraordinary work is to have, alongside the Italian, a whole shelf-full of translations, each able to throw partial light on the text. A worthy member of any such library, James’s Comedy has the peculiar steadiness that comes from the wellbalanced quatrain and familiar pentameter line. As we read it, we may remember that his first love was poetry and reflect on the extent to which serious illness, such as the Australian has suffered recently, concentrates the mind and returns it to its lasting concerns. Not least for this reason, like Dante’s Virgil, James is a trustworthy poet-guide here as we explore once again the complexities of this multi-storied masterpiece. 
 
Fiona Sampson’s latest collection is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10). She is professor of poetry at Kingston University