Clive James Democratises the Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri, translated by Clive James

Picador, 2013, 544 pages, $32.99

Those of us who can’t read Dante in the original know, or ought to know, that we are missing one of literature’s main events. The calibre of Dante’s fans, and the extravagance of their admiration, put the matter beyond doubt. Edmund Wilson called him the greatest poet of all time. T.S. Eliot put him up there with Shakespeare. Michelangelo put him next to God.

There has never been a definitive English translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it seems safe to say there never will be. The translation that excels on some levels is bound to fall short on others; so much goes on in Dante’s Italian that the English language simply isn’t up to catching all of it at once. You don’t even need to speak Italian to grasp this. You only need to know how the language sounds. Listen to this line, which clinches the fifth canto of the Inferno: “E caddi come corpo morte cade.” Literally: “And [I] fell as a dead body falls.” You can hear the magic of that sentence even through the language barrier. Every word of it chimes, in at least one way, with almost every other one.

What is a translator to do about getting such effects into rugged, unmusical English? How do you catch the sound without losing the sense? How do you catch the sense without losing the sound? It must feel like playing the piano in a pair of oven mitts. Edmund Wilson spoke of the “perfection” of the Comedy’s execution. Right from the start the translator must abandon all hope of perfection, and instead knuckle down to a series of painful trade-offs and compromises. Prose or poetry? Rhyming verse or blank? John Ciardi, who translated the Comedy between 1954 and 1970, said that his aim was to produce “the best possible failure”.

Clive James, who has written a lucid new rhyming version of the Comedy, feels that a translator who dodges the challenge of replicating Dante’s sound will be perpetrating the worst failure of all. “In the original,” he argues in his introduction, “some of the meaning was in the sound.” So a formal verse translation, for James, it has to be. But what kind of verse translation? The Divine Comedy is written in terza rima, or “third rhyme”: aba, bcb, cdc, and so on. Readers of Italian will tell you that this scheme is integral to the Comedy’s music and momentum. But terza rima is notoriously hard to pull off in English, which is not nearly as rhyme-rich as Italian is. In English the third rhyme can’t consistently be found without a lot of effort, and the effort will tend to show. There have been translations in terza rima in the past—Dorothy L. Sayers’s is the most prominent—but none has been universally hailed as satisfactory. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that terza rima makes, in English, a fittingly Dantesque sound. Robert Pinsky, who translated the Inferno in 1994, pointed out that any English poem motored by triple rhymes will tend to sound dangerously like a limerick, or like Gilbert and Sullivan. Pinsky’s solution was to use a muted terza rima built around approximate rhymes instead of strict ones. (A typical triad from Pinsky’s translation is sleep/stop/up.)

Clive James’s answer is to rhyme in twos instead of threes. His Comedy is composed in quatrains whose lines end in solid masculine rhymes. On occasion—when it can be done unobtrusively—he expands his abab pattern to accommodate a third rhyme. The resulting verse is musical, but it’s also robust and flexible—which it has to be, if it’s going to take on the narrative duties of an epic that will escort us down through the pit of hell, then through the cleansing fires of purgatory, and finally up through the sky to heaven.

This is how James’s Comedy starts:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found

Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way

Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound

I still make shows how hard it is to say

How harsh and bitter that place felt to me …

A couple of reviewers have pointed out that James has invented that “keening sound”: in the original, the speaker utters no sound here at all. But the third line is as good a place as any for the James translation to nail its colours to the mast—to declare what it is and what it is not. It is not, by its author’s own admission, an attempt to echo the text of the original line by line. It is a remake, not a frame-by-frame restoration. It is a poet’s attempt to write a flowing, harmonious version of the Comedy in English.   

That is an ambitious project, and it is bound to entail some divergence from the original text. But the compensations of James’s approach are immediately apparent in those fluent opening lines. His Comedy sounds, straight away, like a poem in its own right. It doesn’t sound like a translation. In that important sense it keeps faith with the original, which didn’t sound like a translation either. There are different ways of making Dante sound like Dante, and reproducing exactly the words he wrote is only one of them. James, from the start, stakes most of his chips on achieving what might be called big-picture fidelity. Above everything else, he wants to echo Dante at the level of tone. Plenty of earlier translators have stuck closer to Dante’s wording, but some of them have done so at the cost of sounding awkward, even clumsy. For James, that cost is too much to pay.   

Patently, the quality of Dante’s tone that James most wants to snare is its naturalness. James’s poet speaks in a simple, conversational English. But he is always ready, when required, to shift register, and deliver a sudden lyrical burst: a little lower on the poem’s first page, he looks at the crest of a hill and sees “its shoulders edged with overspill” from the rising sun. Whether James’s Dante sounds like the real one is a question for the experts—who have so far, it has to be said, greeted this translation with almost universal enthusiasm. But like any translation, James’s book isn’t really aimed at the experts. It’s aimed at those of us who are locked out of the original by Dante’s Italian, and have long been shopping around for a congenial way in. Such readers will immediately hear, in James’s fresh and unforced English, a note that hasn’t always been struck by previous translators. Right from the start, this book has the texture of something you want to read.  

As well as clarity, the James translation has drive—a fundamental requirement in a poem that lasts for more than 500 pages. There are moments, especially late in the book, when you want to slow down and admire James’s local effects. But you’d never get to those moments if the verse didn’t do its main job first, which is to keep moving you forward. Above all, the poetry is there to tell a story, and James’s stanzas are put together in a way that makes it devilishly hard for you to break off reading. Notice that I was unable to quote his first quatrain without also quoting part of his next one. This will turn out to be a recurrent problem. The poem is strategically loaded with run-on lines, which keep flipping over into the next ones like the digits on a taxi meter. It’s a shame we don’t have a more poetic word for this technique than “enjambment”. But enjamber means “to stride”, and that is what James’s poem does. It strides, and so it should. The Comedy is a pilgrimage, a journey, and the narrator is always on the move:

I rested for a while,

And then resumed, along the empty slope,

My journey, in the standard crofter’s style,

Weight on the lower foot. Harder to cope

When things got steeper, and a mountain cat

With parti-coloured pelt, light on its feet,

In a trice was in my face and stayed like that …

This is from James’s second page, and already one is starting to get the hang of his narrator’s voice. The voice is authoritative but agile. It can gear-shift nimbly from the colloquial to the poetic and back again, sometimes in the space of a single line. Its basic tone is reassuringly vernacular: “Harder to cope / When things got steeper”. But when the action suddenly intensifies, so does the language. “Parti-coloured pelt” is a delicious phrase: the chime between part and pelt (and then light and feet) echoes the way that Dante’s original is strewn along the line with alliteration and half-rhymes. “In a trice” crams three syllables into a space where we expect to hear just two, so that we experience a sudden sense of crowding at the same moment the narrator does. And if “in a trice” strikes us as slightly old-fashioned, that effect is immediately undercut by the juxtaposition of the decidedly slangier “in my face”. The rhyme-clinching “and stayed like that” brings us all the way back to blunt English speech—indeed, to self-consciously blunt speech, as if the narrator wants to make up for the lushness of “parti-coloured pelt”.

Unaffected enough to begin with, James’s style gets even more strikingly immediate when the narrative switches to direct speech, as it often does. Here is James’s Virgil, laconically introducing himself to the poem’s speaker:  

“Caesar was getting on

When I was young. That’s Julius. A crime,

His death.”

Whether that sounds like the original is, once again, a question for the experts. I can only say that it sounds like no other translation on the market. Again it is clear where James’s priorities lie. He wants to bring the Comedy all the way over into idiomatic English; he wants to stress how close Dante’s language is to everyday speech. James is more than capable of opening the lyrical throttle when he considers it necessary—later on in the poem, he will deliver some of the most sumptuous stretches of poetry he has ever written. But for the most part he keeps his language lean and mean. He does everything he can to make his Dante sound modern, not medieval. After all, Dante sounded that way to his contemporaries: he wrote the Comedy in the dialect of his native Florence, at a time when the standard language for Italian epics was Church Latin. Dante wanted to be read by the common reader, and his English translators have always had licence to make the poem sound as bang up-to-date as they can. “The poem is written in a language that we speak now,” wrote John Freccero, introducing Pinsky’s translation, “no matter which language we speak.”

The language we speak now is prose, and James would far rather make his Dante sound like good prose than bad poetry. This policy comes tellingly into play at the start of his Inferno 2, when the poet, about to embark on the main business of his epic, formally calls on the aid of the Muses. Allen Mandelbaum, following the original closely, translates Dante’s famous invocation this way:

O Muses, o high genius, help me now;

O memory that set down what I saw …

Every pre-James translation I know of sounds more or less like that. There are three “O”s in the original, and the translators tend to keep them all in. James takes them all out. Instead, audaciously, he has this: 

My Muse, my schooled and proven gift, help me:

It’s now or never.

If I had to guess why James strips away Dante’s “O”s, and modernises the Muses to a single Muse, I’d hazard that he thinks those original effects sound off-puttingly florid today, but wouldn’t have sounded off-puttingly florid to Dante’s contemporaries. Dante made a point of not writing in a dead language, and the last thing James wants to do is translate him into a dead-sounding English. So the “O”s must go, for tactical reasons. At moments like this, James quite deliberately skimps on word-for-word accuracy in order to preserve his overall sound. He wants his language to have the informal, living feel of a dialect; he wants his Dante to have snap and pep. “It’s now or never”: a phrase like that sounds arresting in a seven-hundred-year-old classic, and it’s meant to.

In Cultural Amnesia, the culmination of his work as a critic, James suggested that those of us who speak English but not Italian could get some idea of Dante’s narrative tone by thinking of the poetry of Philip Larkin. In both cases, he said, the language is “unaffected”; there is no “climbing onto stilts”. If translations can be said to have a theme, that is the theme of James’s Comedy: keeping Dante down off the stilts. This applies even at the grammatical level. When James makes his Dante split an infinitive, or write “Narcissus was more credulous than me”, you can bet your life that he hasn’t momentarily lost his career-long grip on the laws of grammar. He is gently breaking the rules in order to keep things loose. He is letting his poetry make the same venial slips we routinely make in speech. Sometimes he lets his hair down startlingly far:  

Beatrice took Daniel’s place

When he guessed the bad dream and shrunk the span

Of Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath …

Shrunk rather than shrank? Surely that one crosses the line between the venial and the jarring, but perhaps it is a misprint. 


James’s critics have always claimed to detect a weird incompatibility between James the polymath and James the popular entertainer. In truth these two sides of his sensibility have always been connected, and have fed each other usefully: James’s finest literary essays, whose quality is doubted by no serious person, would be far less rich if he wasn’t a born showman as well as a formidable man of letters. The same combination of virtues fuels his Dante. James is a thoroughly devoted student of the poem, but he’s also a crowd-pleaser. He wants to blow the dust off Dante, or off our idea of Dante. He doesn’t break with decorum; he isn’t Baz Luhrmann. But he wants us to be unafraid of the Comedy: he doesn’t want us to think of it as a forbidding classic.

Accordingly, his version of the poem is entirely unbarnacled by the usual textual apparatus—it has no notes, no bibliography, no diagrams of Dante’s heaven or hell. Instead, James has taken the radical liberty of “uploading” all that explanatory material into the flow of his translation. With Dante, explanatory material is always going to be a vital requirement, unless you happen to be unusually conversant with, say, the Guelph–Ghibelline conflict in thirteenth-century Florence. But James doesn’t want us flipping restlessly between the poem and the paratext, the way we have generally been obliged to do. So he has hit on the perhaps heretical solution of versifying his notes. For example: Dante’s original makes reference to “him who made the great refusal”—and then moves on, without elaboration. In James’s translation the identity of the great refuser is spelt out, and we are offered a quick history lesson: 

Among them Celestine, of heart so faint

He made the Great Refusal. If he prized

The papal throne—and some call him a saint—

So much, he should have sat on it, and not

Left it to be usurped by Boniface,

Who ruined Florence …

Partly as a result of interpolations like this, James’s version of Inferno 3 runs to 171 lines, while Dante’s ran to 136. Textual purists will find James’s uploadings controversial. First-time readers might complain, on the other hand, that James uploads too little: in order to get the complete picture, the Dante virgin will almost certainly need to resort, sooner or later, to sources beyond James’s book. But all translators of Dante are to some extent politicians; they are engaged in the art of the possible, and they can’t please all the people all the time. Sometimes they probably can’t even please themselves. You can quibble with some of James’s decisions, but it’s hard to dislike the thrust of his politics, which are consistently democratic. He is the friend of the common reader. He wants to get as many of us as possible inside the tent.     

And keep us in there. To do that, James does everything in his power to keep the poem fizzingly alive at the verbal level, as well as at the level of incident. And everything in his power is, at this late stage of his career, a hell of a lot. James has always relished vivid language, no matter where he’s happened to find it: in Shakespeare, in the coffee-houses of fin-de-siècle Vienna, in the hard-bitten shop talk of sporting heroes and movie moguls, in popular songs, in the snappy dialogue of The West Wing or The Big Sleep. You can hear echoes of all these influences, high and low, in James’s Comedy: he may be the ideal man to evoke the texture of a poem renowned for its versatility and range. When Dante and Virgil encounter the hypocrites in Hell’s eighth circle, a fragment of an old Hollywood adage bobs up to give the moment extra zing:


… their sad faces, tired and worn

From faking a sincerity that fits

Their story … 

When Virgil talks up the lethality of the wolf named Avarice, he sounds like Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe: 

In a bad mood it can kill,

And it’s never in a good mood.

 And when the poem’s speaker stands on the rim of hell and looks down, he sounds like Hemingway talking through a cigar:

It was Hell.

And as it sounded, so it looked: all bad.

A canto later, when the tragic lovers Paolo and Francesca arrive on the scene, the language modulates appropriately. Francesca, narrating her own story, begins to sound like the Shakespeare of the sonnets:  

“And right then we lost the will—

For Love can will will’s loss, as well you know …”  

In a writer like James, such echoes don’t happen by accident. Nothing does. That is one of the pleasures of reading someone of his stature and savviness. There are no vocab malfunctions here; everything is deliberate. There is a river of blood that runs through Inferno 12; when James closes that canto by making a centaur walk “across the crimson tide”, you don’t have to wonder if he knows that Crimson Tide is the name of a movie starring Denzel Washington. Of course he does, and of course he’s dropping a sly reference to it. Famous phrases keep streaking across the poem’s firmament. “Their pride to have no prejudice”—that is James’s Virgil describing the denizens of hell’s antechamber. Elsewhere there is mention of “the shores / Of light”, and of “that journey to the end of night”. One is under no obligation to spot all these cheekily playful allusions. What matters is our general sense that this is a poem packed tight with charged language. James is a generous host, and he wants us to know we’re present at a linguistic feast.

Obtuse critics might complain that all this makes Dante sound a bit too much like Clive James. But we might want to consider a more radical possibility: the possibility that Dante sounded, in places, a bit like Clive James to begin with. Dante was nothing if not allusive: whole books have been written to tabulate and explain the Comedy’s cultural references. The poem is dense with dropped names: of Dante’s friends and enemies, of painters, writers, popes, philosophers.

Nor was Dante averse to mixing things up tonally—he was no stranger to the Jamesian trick of thrusting the earthy or all-too-human theme into the exalted context. In Inferno 21 there is a troupe of vulgar demons whose ringleader is named Barbariccia, which translates as “curly beard”. James’s version of this canto ends with this couplet:

He turned, bent down, and as he watched them pass

He hailed them with the trumpet of his arse.

The unwary reader might suppose that there is more James in this than Dante. But look to the original text: the trumpet (trombetta) is there to start with, and so is the vulgar word cul, for which the scholars deem “arse” the best English equivalent. Earlier in the poem there has been mention of the angel’s trumpet that will sound on judgment day. Barbariccia’s bugle blast is a profane travesty of it.

Dante himself, then, wasn’t above exploiting the comic possibilities of the radical tone-shift. This is a useful thing for the English reader to be reminded of, and in a way it took Clive James to remind us of it. No previous translator, as far as I can see, has managed to get quite as much out of the trombetta incident as James does. John Ciardi, being American, employs the crucially less earthy word “ass”. So does Robert Pinsky. Moreover, Pinsky’s reliance on approximate rhyme halves the word’s comic effect (he rhymes ass with grimace). Robert and Jean Hollander, who translated the Inferno in 2000, have: “and he had made a trumpet of his asshole”. That gets full marks for vulgarity; but unfortunately the Hollander version doesn’t rhyme at all, so the vulgarity isn’t redeemed by humour. The same goes for Mandelbaum’s non-rhyming translation. Going back to a more genteel age, Longfellow had: “And he had made a trumpet of his rump.” And Dorothy L. Sayers, least satisfactorily of all, had: “He promptly made a bugle of his breech.”

Surely James’s translation is the clear winner here. Yes, he has expanded a bit on the original, in which Dante does not make Barbariccia turn or bend down prior to sounding his infernal instrument. But James’s willingness to import words is not, we must remember, accidental or arbitrary. It’s a gambit that frees him up to deploy his complete kitbag of resources as a translator. And that kitbag—that peculiar swag of merits that has made it so tricky, over the years, for his critics to classify him—lets James attack this bawdy episode in an ideally resonant way. He is ready and able to be funny, for one thing. After long practice as a comic versifier, he can write an impeccably timed couplet when he needs to. Moreover, he speaks the language we speak now, whereas Longfellow and Sayers don’t. To be fair to them, they wrote at a time when the word “arse” would not do. But if “arse” wouldn’t do back then, “a bugle of his breech” will plainly not do now.

Finally, James’s translation rhymes, and not by halves. And it is surely impossible to catch the spirit of these particular lines without rhyming: a literal prose translation of Dante’s mere words makes him sound, on this occasion, distinctly odder than any rhyming version does. In the original, Dante’s trombetta comes at the end of the line: it is a rhyme-word, answering the word stretta. It doesn’t come entirely out of the blue, in other words: it clinches a prepared-for effect. In a prose translation (or in an unrhymed verse translation) the sudden appearance of the trumpet, not to mention the asshole, is bound to strike the reader as a bit arbitrary. At this textual moment—and probably at a lot of other moments too—the most important thing a translation can do is remind you that the original was a poem. If it doesn’t, it will be selling Dante a long way short.

But it would be misleading to dwell on James’s handling of the Comedy’s low episodes. The most extraordinary thing about his translation is the way he tackles the poem’s transcendent moments. In recent years, in the shadow of serious illness, James has been writing the finest poetry of his life. But as good as his recent verse has been, nothing in it has quite prepared you for the magisterial highlights of his Comedy. Here is Count Ugolino, ruing his fate in Hell’s ninth circle: 

You’re cruel indeed

If you do not grieve, now you have in view

What my sad heart foresaw: and if you need

Worse things to make you weep, then when do you

Weep ever?

Lines like these are built to last. James has never struck quite such a note before: muscular but eloquent, the lapidary note. Spurred by his determination to catch Dante’s sound, he has pushed himself past his previously known limits as a poet. At certain moments he even pulls off the hardest trick of all. He evokes Dante’s ability to make language soar, and keep soaring, for pages at a stretch. English readers can encounter this freakish quality in Shakespeare and Joyce, who sometimes give you the impression that they could write brilliantly for as long as they wanted to, as if glorious sentences came out of them like tap-water. We’re told that Dante had the same knack, but we rarely see proof of it in a translation—for the very good reason that a translator, in order to conjure this quality up, needs to be a poet of startling accomplishment. But James has done it. He has managed, in places, to give us an idea of what Dante’s sustained excellence might really sound like. In Canto 28 of James’s Purgatory, the poet, roaming the forest of the Earthly Paradise, spots a beautiful young woman picking flowers on the far side of a river. The passage needs to be quoted at length, since its plenitude is central to its ravishing effect:

Then, when she

Was where the grassy edge was lapped and bathed

By the river’s lovely waves, she had the grace

To lift her eyes to me, and they were swathed

In light, poured from her lids to flood her face

With such a brilliance that I don’t believe

Venus herself gave out in her surprise

When Cupid let loose and could not retrieve

His accidental arrow as her eyes

Were on Adonis. While she stood upright

On the other bank, she smiled as she arranged

Her many colours, flowering at that height

With no seeds needed. We two were estranged

By just the distance that the stream was wide:

Three paces only. But the Hellespont—

Where Xerxes had to cross back with his pride

In ruins, and Leander, for his want

Of Hero, had to swim from side to side

From Sestos to Abydos—never got

More hatred than this pretty trickle earned

From me, who wished it gone, but it was not.

It isn’t just that the language is of the highest quality. It’s that the quality keeps on coming. Passages like this give you an idea of the splendour you’re missing out on. But they do that by bringing you closer to that splendour—by making you forget, for as long as they last, that you’re missing out on anything at all.

Maybe James’s translation will turn out to be a touchstone. That is a question for the long term. For the moment, one can safely say that he has written something that is sturdy, epic, and wonderfully various in its own right.  

For a couple of years now, James hasn’t been a well man. But he is still working, and it would be rash to start writing his obituary just yet. He keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat. A few years ago, it looked as though Cultural Amnesia was going to be the crowning achievement of his career. Then came a late outpouring of unprecedentedly rich and honest verse—which hasn’t yet stopped, and which has lent a lot of weight to James’s long-held belief that he is a poet first, and everything else second. And now we have his Dante. One is tempted to say that this will prove the biggest rabbit of all. But with Clive James, you never know.

David Free is an Australian critic and novelist. He has a literary blog at www.davidfree.net.

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