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.

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

 

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

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition