Monday, May 17, 2010

Inspirations: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

“[I]f one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours”.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History, p. 184

“He thou dost gaze on, pierced by the triple stake,
Counselled the Pharisees ’twas expedient
One man should suffer for the people’s sake.

Naked, transverse, barring the road’s extent,
He lies; and all who pass, with all their load
Must tread him down; such is his punishment.

In this same ditch lie stretched in this same mode
His father-in-law, and all the Sanhedrin
Whose counsel sowed for the Jews the seed of blood.”

Then I saw Virgil stand and marvel at him
Thus racked for ever on the shameful cross
In the everlasting exile.

Dante, Hell, canto 23, lines 115-26, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers

I read Dante as an undergraduate, in the Penguin translation by Dorothy L. Sayers, who is better known as the writer of a series of detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but was also an accomplished scholar. She not only translated Dante for the Penguin Classics series, but also the early-medieval French chanson, The Song of Roland.

The Sayers translation of Dante is aggressively odd, because, rather than writing in idiomatic English, she used conscious archaisms. It’s not quite cod-Shakespearian, but ‘dost’ and ‘twas’ were verging on the ridiculous even in 1949, when ‘Hell’ (as the first volume was bluntly translated) was first published. The odd locutions were further exaggerated by tortuous syntax, which was the result of Sayers’ ambitious (some would say foolhardy) decision to retain the terza rima structure and stress patterns of the original verse as far as was possible in English.

Terza rima is an Italian verse form of great elegance, which uses the rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC DED etc. I always think of this interlocking structure in visual terms as being like a dovetail joint in woodwork. Rhymes are ubiquitous in Italian poetry, which is one of the reasons why English poets have always felt obliged to use them, i.e. because of the influence of Italian models like the sonnet, and in spite of native Anglo-Saxon precedents that were instead based on alliteration and assonance, but – for technical reasons it would be tedious to explain here – it is actually much more difficult to find rhymes in English than it is in Italian. In an epic work like Dante's, this is a serious problem, and one that becomes progressively more difficult for a translator to resolve satisfactorily.

Thus Sayers’ sets herself an impossible task, in the pursuit of which she frequently ties herself up in lexical knots, but, even so, I find her translation more compelling than most of the modern editions, which abandon the attempt and therefore inevitably render the verse as elevated prose. Sayers’ translation instead treats the text as something alien, something fundamentally other, that can only be expressed in English via a series of violent and artificial transformations (a pity she never had a go at Ovid). Some of it is truly risible, like her decision to render the sections of Provencal dialect as Scots brogue, but even there, you have to admire her chutzpah.

The crowning glory of the Sayers translation is not, however, the verse itself, but the extensive commentary, which takes up as much space as the poetry. Sayers has a great advantage over other editions here, in that she was a committed Christian who took all the theology very seriously, as, if not necessarily the literal truth, then certainly an essential truth, which is inseparable from the allegorical cast of mind that informs The Divine Comedy. In the Introduction to Hell, Sayers quotes Dante’s own explanation of allegorical interpretation.

The meaning of this work [The Divine Comedy] is not simple ... for we obtain one meaning from the letter of it, and another from that which the letter signifies; and the first is called literal, but the other allegorical or mystical. And to make this matter of treatment clearer, it may be studied in the verse: “When Israel came out of Egypt and the House of Jacob from among a strange people, Judah was his sanctuary and Israel his dominion”. For if we regard the letter alone, what is set before us is the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, we are shown the conversion of the soul from the grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical, we are shown the departure of the holy soul from the thraldom of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may all be called in general allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical.

The subject of the whole work, then, taken merely in the literal sense is “the state of the soul after death straightforwardly affirmed”, for the development of the whole work hinges on and about that. But if, indeed, the work is taken allegorically, its subject is: “Man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of his free choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing Justice” (quoted in Hell, ‘Introduction’, pp. 14-15).

(The last term in this schema, ‘analogical’, means using the literal event to figure a spiritual reality, or sometimes more specifically a truth relating to the fate of the soul after death.)

In the 1949 Penguin edition, the translation and the commentary are two sides of the same effort of interpretation, in which re-enactment is both the enabling technique and the goal, an endeavour to which Sayers is willing to commit herself, because, for the most part, she shares (or believes herself to share) Dante’s presuppositions and beliefs.

Sayers applies Dante’s four-part interpretative schema to the passage quoted above, which describes the fate meted out in hell to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who decided to seek Christ’s execution, who is crucified eternally (the same punishment he wished upon Christ). He is also laid on the ground to be trod underfoot by the Hypocrites, whose step is heavy indeed, since they are all wearing lead cloaks. (Such efficiency is common in the moral economy of Hell, where, for example, the Profligates run through the Wood of the Suicides, pursued eternally by black dogs, and in fleeing, they tear the branches from the bleeding trees in which the souls of the Suicides are imprisoned.) With regard to Caiaphas, Sayers explains:

This image lends itself peculiarly well to Dante’s fourfold system of interpretation ... (1) Literal: the punishment of Caiaphas after death; (2) Allegorical: the condition of the Jews in this world, being identified with the Image they rejected and the suffering they inflicted – “crucified for ever in the eternal exile”; (3) Moral: the condition in this life of the man who sacrifices his inner truth to expediency (e.g. his true vocation to money-making, or his true love to a political alliance), and to whom the rejected good becomes at once a heaven from which he is exiled and a rack on which he suffers; (4) Anagogical: the state, here and hereafter, of the soul which rejects God, and which can know God only as wrath and terror, while at the same time it suffers the agony of eternal separation from God, who is its only true good (Hell, p. 217).

I have only read through The Divine Comedy once, and only in Sayers’ translation (although I can at least claim to have read all of it, i.e. I did struggle through the Purgatory and Paradise after Hell). Several passages and images from it have remained with me, but, with all due respect to Dante, it is through the force of Sayers’ imagination that his original lives for me. It is the relationship between the translation and the commentary that is truly compelling. It is her effort to understand, and to communicate that understanding, which moves me as much as anything in the poem itself.

Sayers’ relationship with Dante is therefore quite different to the relationship between Eric Newton and Tintoretto, as I described it in a recent post. She proves that it is possible to collaborate with someone who has been dead for hundreds of years (something I also tried to do in Pistols! Treason! Murder!).

As a postscript, I might also mention two artistic ‘collaborations’ with Dante: the first is a series of watercolours by William Blake, to which I may dedicate a subsequent post; the second is another edition of the Inferno, now long since out of print, which was both translated and illustrated by the artist Tom Phillips, whose work in A Humument is also an important precedent for some of the features of Five Wounds.


herepog2 said...

I found this review valuable in its appreciation of what Sayers accomplished. However, I regret that there is not one reference in this review to Charles Williams, and his The Figure of Beatrice, which work inspired Sayers to study Italian in order to translate Danteś work.

Jonathan Walker said...

So sorry this comment inadvertently entered moderation hell! It's probably not much consolation, nearly two years later, but Charles Williams (and particularly Descent into Hell and All Hallows Eve) is the major inspiration for my new novel, Brethren.