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100: THE HOLLANDER DANTE

July 19, 2014

#100:  THE HOLLANDER DANTE.  Some years ago a friend set me a challenge:  to find a translation of Dante as good as Robert Fitzgerald’s version of the Iliad.  I had read Louis Biancolli’s and John Ciardi’s translations when younger, and neither had really struck home; since then I’d sampled other versions as I’d run across them.  And since then translating Dante seems to have become poetry’s most popular indoor sport:  Allen Mandelbaum, Mark Musa, Robert Durling, C.H. Sisson, Burton Raffel, Mary Jo Bang, Robert Pinsky, W.S. Merwin and several others have all put their hands to it.  But I’d had the new edition by Robert and Jean Hollander recommended to me, and I’ve spent the last few weeks reading through it, excitedly, canto by canto:  it’s a remarkable accomplishment.  Robert Hollander is the scholar and linguist of the pair, and his voluminous notes are not only a brilliant and often necessary line-by-line guide to the complexity of the work but an impressive overview of the Dantean commentarial canon.  Jean Hollander is a poet and took on the versification:  she has wisely abandoned Dante’s famous terza rima and, following a loose iambic line, her diction and rhythm are convincing throughout.  She never pads; in the face of the multisyllabic Italian, she has no fear of the simple monosyllabic English word.  This is a version that can be read with enormous pleasure as poetry (I remember, reading Ciardi’s version, the uncomfortable feeling that I was getting more out of the notes than I was from the poem) as well as a path to the Italian original. 

      There are of course great difficulties with Dante—as great distances to travel as with Milton.  A good deal of this comes out of the scholastic Thomism that was the intellectual furnishing of Dante’s mind.  It was a systematic philosophy of tremendous complexity, and Dante’s poetry is an attempt to encompass—and is sometimes clogged by—the complexity, the philosophy and the system.  (He wasn’t alone in this—it’s been pointed out that Ulysses flounders in similar ways and from exactly similar intellectual sources.)  This extends to an obsessive knowledge of period Italian politics, which Dante assumes you share; he can be as baffling as this week’s issue of Private Eye for someone not up on British politics.  Here’s where Hollander’s notes are vital, but the effect can still be wildly incongruous; during one glorious, unearthly passage in the Paradiso, for instance, Dante can’t resist throwing a laurel to Henry the Seventh of Luxembourg.  (Remember him?  Sure you do.)  The more you know of Dante, the more this will come to seem part and parcel of him and of his day—Thomism was a philosophy of political man, of man in society, as well as of man and God.  What you also have to deal with in Dante is the sneaking impression that his work is in places a palimpsest of payback, informed by a memory like flypaper for personal affront.  Dante’s God, even well into the Paradiso, is always roaring after someone on the wrong side of Dante’s political tablet.  It’s a disconcerting and unseemly personal intrusion—a streak of graffiti on the lofty clouds.

        But with all that the great passages—from the sinister and black-lit passages in the Inferno through to the light-struck cantos of the Paradiso—are very much worth the effort.  Dante has always been called the master of many modes, from the guttural to the celestial, and so he is.  Long stretches of the Inferno capture the freezing terror of the subject as no other poet does—I was reminded of the experience of reading Macbeth as an adolescent, alone in July in my parents’ house, and feeling physically cold from it.  In the Purgatorio, the cries of the souls enduring their purgation reminded me more forcibly of the beauty of the notion of petitionary prayer than anything else I’ve ever read.  The Paradiso is universally acknowledged to be the most imperfect of the three parts as poetry; the imagining of heaven is by definition beyond the imagining.  But Dante, for all the head-butting and spillage of Thomist argumentation, gets you exquisitely and astonishingly far aloft—the protagonist is literally blinded by the light, and Dante’s verse comes near to equaling the feat.   When you get to the final cantos, and the structure, the parallelisms, the theology, the architecture of the poem fall into place, you have that sensation that the great, challenging works alone can give—the exercise of vision.

      Dante called his poem simply the Commedia; it was tradition that added the epithet that defines it for us, divina—the  Divine Comedy.  The volumes of Robert and Jean Hollander’s edition, published by Random House and Anchor Books, are Inferno (2000), Purgatorio (2003), and Paradiso (2007).

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