Monday, 30 April 2018

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!..a guide to Dante

The three parts of the Divine Comedy – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso - are an expression of faith undertaken to the glory of God, and a demonstration of the use to which God's gifts can be put.

The poem's religious scope is matched by its influence. It is as important as its lineal ancestor, Virgil's epic Aeneid, which transports Homeric characters to Italy and thus to the founding of Rome. Whereas Virgil lent legitimacy to the Emperor Augustus, Dante, working in exile, offered a corrective to the many errors of the church, serving God rather than the corrupted secular power of Rome. It would be hard for a poem to be more culturally significant, and such a role and status would be unimaginable now. As Seamus Heaney remarked, Dante seems to be writing "on official paper".
Such is Dante's greatness that the dying-away of the Catholic theology he dramatises in the Divine Comedy does nothing to diminish his attraction for poets, translators and other readers. As Shakespeare is to drama, so Dante is to poetry: a star shedding light everywhere. Of the poem's three parts, the Inferno is the most popular. Hell seems of particular interest in an unbelieving age, perhaps because it offers a structure in which to contemplate folly – and also contains the most interesting characters. In comparison, the road to paradise can seem less compelling. Clive James seeks to correct this imbalance.
Translators approaching Dante must make some formal decisions at the outset. Will they try to reproduce the poem's terza rima, the ever-moving ABABCBCDC etc rhyming tercets? Eleven syllables? Iambic pentameter, rhymed or unrhymed? Free verse? What of the poem's decorum, its dignity, its presiding tones? How to make a version neither anachronistically modern nor fake-medieval? And will there be line - or at any rate stanza- equivalence between the original and the translation?
Clive James comes to the Comedy with two important attributes: many years' study of the poem, and an impressively accomplished verse technique. That technique has sometimes outgunned his own poems, as if he has needed a greater sense of friction with his material. In scale and difficulty, the Comedy presents a suitable challenge, and hearteningly it is sound as much as sense that concerns him.
James writes in iambic pentameter, with full masculine rhymes throughout, and in rhyming quatrains rather than tercets. And he takes the further liberty, implied by this decision, of adding length to the original. For example, the 136 lines of Inferno Canto I become 173. He argues the case for this in his introduction: why should historical obscurities forbid the reader? People have probably been hanged for less. The reader who reads Dante is also capable of reading notes, or we are doomed.
The actual results include interesting interpolations but perhaps shed less new light than James supposes. In a note on the translation, Dennis Looney, scholar of Italian adds, "Anyone comparing this translation with the original may wonder at times why Dante didn't do this himself." Anyone? Speak for yourself. Looney seems to have no idea how poems are written. Dante wrote the poem the imagination gave him to write. Clive James's good friend, the late Peter Porter, greatly disliked Dante's world, but he would have roared with laughter at this barmy displacement of art by convenience. Not for the first time, Randall Jarrell's anecdote of the pig turning up at a bacon-judging competition comes to mind: what, the pig was asked, could it possibly know about bacon?
James, on the other hand, is a bacon expert. He can muster the powerful plainness which is so important to Dante, as when he turns on Florence, the birthplace that betrayed him: "Florence, rejoice! For you are grown so great/ Your wings beat proudly over land and sea,/ And even Hell proclaims your rich estate." The rhyme is exact, bitter and widely resonant. James also successfully negotiates the nightmarishly vivid set-piece where men and snakes are transformed into each other. He is emboldened to take a tonal risk at the end of Ulysses's account of his last, forbidden voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules: "Three times the waters led/ Us in a circle. Fourth time, out of luck./ Stern high. Bow low, we went in. Overhead/ Somebody closed the sea, and we were dead."
Whatever the reservations about the addition of material elsewhere, these episodes are compelling as the verse versions of scholars often fail to be, because James keeps the poem as poem uppermost. It's no use if the English version doesn't move and ring like a poem. The best of James's translation has a propulsive, urgent energy that finds a clear course through Dante's extended similes and his equally extended history lessons.
There are problems, though. He is too fond of verb contractions and of the merely contemporary phrase - "top-down", "This isn't real", "Heads up", "cosy perks", and so on, which recall the glib facetiousness of some of his other work. At times too – and James is by no means alone here – the control of tone, idiom and sentence structure slips, and from speakable English we move into the special purgatorial zone of translatorese.
Translators also like the Inferno because it's full of objects, places and physical activity. By the time Dante is guided by Beatrice into Paradiso, the poem is fully airborne and the poet has to deal with a series of minutely-described visions composed of light, colour and space, where history, theology and cosmology meet and are assumed into the final sight of the pulsing rose in which the Creator's love timelessly embodies itself.
Here the particular and the general, past, present and future, mystery and revelation, free will and fate, are resolved in the permanent fact of divine attention and, in TS Eliot's phrase, "the fire and the rose are one". James handles the challenge with urgency and conviction: what is "Bound in one book by love" holds the imagination as more than a distant report. He closes with a beautiful diminuendo that seeks to magnify all it cannot express: "now, just like a wheel/ That spins so evenly it measures time/ By space, the deepest wish that I could feel/ And all my will, were turning with the love/ That moves the sun and all the stars above."
Sean O'Brien's poetry collections have won the Forward Prize (three times) and the TS Eliot Prize

So warns the inscription on the gates of the inferno, the first realm of Dante Alighieri’s celebrated work, now known as the Divine Comedy. “La Commedia”, as Dante originally named it, is an imaginary journey through the three realms of the afterlife: inferno (hell), purgatorio (purgatory) and paradiso (heaven).

Dante and Beatrice see the Empyrean at the end of their journey to heaven. Gustave Doré & Kalki
It might not sound all that funny, but Dante called his epic poem a comedy because, unlike tragedies that begin on a high note and end tragically, comedies begin badly but end well. The poem indeed ends well, with the protagonist, also named Dante, reaching his desired destination – heaven – a place of beauty and calm, light and ultimate good. Conversely, the inferno is dark, morose and inhabited by irredeemable sinners.
Dante wrote the comedy during his exile from Florence between 1302 and his death in 1321. It is the first significant text written in the Italian vernacular and is written in terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme invented by the author.

Further reading: Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey

Dante set the beginning of the story on Holy Thursday, 1300, when he was 35-years-old. He alludes to being “middle aged” in the opening lines of the poem:
Halfway through our life’s journey
I woke to find myself within a dark wood
because I had strayed from the correct path.
Oh how hard it is to describe
how harsh and tough that savage wood was
The very thought of it renews the fear!

To hell, and back again

At the beginning of Inferno, Dante alludes to the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelation. In a dark wood, three menacing beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf - respectively symbolising lust, pride and greed - prevent Dante from climbing a mountain.

William Blake, Dante running from the three beasts, 1824-1827. Wikimedia
As Dante despairs, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears, announcing that he has been sent to guide him. They must first descend into hell, a cone-shaped crater that was caused by the fall of Lucifer.
Before beginning the journey, and in keeping with the classical epic tradition, Dante invokes the goddesses known as muses to inspire him, something he will do at the beginning of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Dante and Virgil must pass through nine circles of hell, in which the punishments increase in severity to match the gravity of the vices being punished. In the first circle are mythological and historical characters who died before Christianity was founded and were therefore not initiated through baptism. Lingering here are noble and virtuous characters – like Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Cicero, and Ovid.

Francesca and Paolo, adulterers, Gustave Dore, circa 1860. Wikimedia
In the second circle, Dante is distraught by the cruelty of the punishment he observes. There, he encounters the souls of the lustful, including the legendary Tristan and Isolde and the historical Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo. Murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother, Giovanni Malatesta, these two souls drift aimlessly, their bodies fused together as punishment for adultery. They are joined for eternity, inverting the biblical prescription in Matthew that “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
In the remaining seven circles of hell, Dante and Virgil observe punishments that are so grisly that sinners are reduced to grotesque conditions. These inspired the frescoes depicting the final judgement day that the painter Giotto painted around the walls and ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
The writer Dante’s friend and compatriot, Giotto was commissioned to paint the inside of the chapel by the son of an infamous usurer that Dante identifies in the seventh circle of hell. There, men with moneybags hanging round their necks flick off flames, just as dogs shoo away insects in summer.
In the next, the circle of the fraudulent, Dante and Virgil encounter popes guilty of simony (or the selling of church services). Having inverted the moral order, they face an eternity buried upside down with their heads in the trenches. Only their legs can be seen from above, waving around frantically.

Ugolino and his sons. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1865-67. Wikimedia
In the ninth circle, the pilgrims see the Count Ugolino chomping on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the punishment for treachery. In reality Ugolino conspired against his party, the Ghibellines, to bring the opposing Guelfs to power. The Archbishop later betrayed and imprisoned Ugolino with his offspring, gradually starving them to death.
Finally the pilgrims arrive at the centre of the earth, where they must scale the hairy sides of Lucifer to be able to ascend to the surface of the earth to get to purgatory, where they must be cleaned of the stain of hell. At the entrance of purgatory, an angel inscribes the letter “P” on Dante’s forehead seven times with the tip of his sword, saying “Make sure you cleanse these wounds when you are inside”. Each “P” stands for piaghe (wounds) that form from peccati (sins). Dante must work off and cleanse away each of them in the seven terraces of purgatory. As he leaves each terrace repented, the angel brushes his forehead, removing one of the letters.

Further reading: In spite of their differences, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God

Renewed and purified, Dante is now disposed to rise to “the stars”. Drawing on the writings of Saint Augustine, a woman called Beatrice, who has taken over from Virgil and guides Dante through heaven, explains that God’s creations, exiled to earth, long to return to their place of origin. Dante and Beatrice ascend through several heavens, the moon, and the planets, to the Empyrean, the heaven of divine peace. Like Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso ends with a reference to the stars:
Here high fantasy lost its impulse but my will and desire were already propelled, as a wheel is equally moved by the love that moves the sun and other stars.



Dante through the ages

Early commentators focused on interpreting the work as an allegory for the life of Jesus. In his Life of Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, classified Dante as a prophet and his poem a prophecy. Humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) viewed the poem as a metaphor for the soul’s journey back to God, and Neapolitan political philosopher Giambatista Vico (1668-1744) saw the Divine Comedy as a product of its barbarous time and Dante as the historian of his age, labelling him the Tuscan Homer.
More recently the Divine Comedy has inspired many creative works including art, architecture, literature, music, radio, film, television, comics, animations, digital arts, computer games and even a papal encyclical, Deus caritas est (2006), which, according to Pope Benedict XVI was inspired by the final verse of Paradiso.
It is most often Dante’s Inferno, its graphic imagery and twisted characters, that has inspired litterateurs like Chaucer, Milton, Honoré de Balzac, Marx, Elliot, Forster, Beckett, Primo Levy and Borges.
Few films have incorporated the entire epic tale. The earliest silent films, in 1911 (L’Inferno) and 1924 (Dante’s Inferno), and the first motion picture in 1935 (also Dante’s Inferno) all focused on the creatures and events of the inferno.

Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips’s multi-award winning 1990 A TV Dante juxtaposes narration by John Gielgud, electronic images and sounds, with asides by experts, such as explanations of the three “beasts” by David Attenborough. A 2010 animation and 2012 documentary focus on the horror of the inferno, while another terrifying 2010 animation is based on a video game and departs considerably from the original.
Nor must the inferno be the focus to instil fear or terror. The film American Psycho is among 33 films with no connection to the Divine Comedy that contain, collectively, 64 occurrences of the iconic phrase at the gates of the inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” a phrase that still inspires dread and terror in the audience almost 700 years later.

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