The Medieval Review 11.12.12

Durling, Robert M. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri Volume 3: Paradiso. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 888. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-19-508742-0. . .

Reviewed by:

V. Stanley Benfell
Brigham Young University

It is obvious that Dante has for centuries been one of the great canonical poets of western, indeed of world, literature. But even with attacks on the traditional canon, over the last few decades Dante's stature has, if anything, increased while the critical attention devoted to him and his work has accelerated. One sign of his prominence is the proliferation of English translations of Dante, and of the Comedy in particular, over the last several years. Verse translations predominate; those by Mandelbaum, Musa, and the Hollanders are among the best known of complete translations. Some practicing poets have produced translations of individual canticles-- one thinks of Merwin's Purgatorio and Pinsky's Inferno. But this list only scratches the surface. Indeed, when I told a fellow medievalist that I was reviewing a new translation and commentary of the Paradiso, his response was, "oh, just what we need--another translation of Dante." But in fact, the final volume of this complete translation and commentary by Durling and Martinez is much anticipated and, in the view of this student of Dante, needed, as it will complete what is sure to become a standard English edition of the Comedy.

Durling and Martinez have been long at work on their three-volume translation and commentary, and Dante scholars in the English-speaking world know the first two volumes well. (The first volume, the Inferno, which was published in 1996, was reviewed very favorably in The Medieval Review in 1998. (See .html?sequence=1.) And for those familiar with the first two, a sufficient review of this final volume may be simply that it does not disappoint. But for those less familiar with the earlier volumes of this translation and commentary, further details are in order.

First, let's turn to the translation. Durling is well known for his prose renderings of Italian poetry (his volume of Petrarch's poetry, published as Petrarch's Lyric Poems by Harvard University Press in 1976, remains standard). The decision to translate a poetic text into prose involves certain tradeoffs. The greatest advantage is that it allows the translator the leeway to strive for a greater fidelity to the sense of the original than is usually possible for a translator who seeks to create an English poem and is thus constrained by the demands of meter and, perhaps, rhyme.

Durling's translation is accurate, most often scrupulously so. His accuracy even extends to one of the features of Dante's language that is most difficult to render into another language--his neologisms. There are neologisms in the previous canticles, but in the Paradiso they proliferate, as Dante stretches his language in an attempt to convey his transcendent vision. One example may help illustrate what is involved. At 28.39, the poet describes his vision of an infinitely small point that is nevertheless infinitely bright and that is surrounded by nine circles of light, a vision that symbolically represents the metaphysical reality of the universe. The poet notes that the first circle--that closest to the center point-- moves the most rapidly and has the "purest flame," because, "credo però che più di lei s'invera." Durling translates this line as follows: "I believe because it more fully entruths itself therein," which literally translates Dante's invented word, inverarsi. Mandelbaum certainly gets the sense right but normalizes Dante's language by rendering the line, "because it shares most deeply that point's truth." Durling's rendering is unquestionably the most faithful, but it does also result in some awkwardness.

In most cases, however, Durling avoids the clumsiness that attends a slavishly literal translation and attains fluidity and readability without sacrificing accuracy, and this is no small feat for Dante's poem, especially its final third. There are existing prose translations--most notably John Sinclair's, originally published over 60 years ago. (Charles Singleton's is quite close to Sinclair's.) But Durling's seems to me the most accurate without being less readable. In addition, Sinclair's translation often has an archaic flavor that Durling typically avoids. One of the advantages of Durling's translation is that it is accurate enough to allow those with a smattering of Italian, or with knowledge of another Romance language, to work with the translation and examine (and start reading) the original text, which is found on the facing page. The translation, then, will be particularly useful to advanced students and scholars from other fields who would like to read Dante in the original but need some help.

The facing-page Italian text is based on the edition of the poem edited by Giorgio Petrocchi, long the standard critical edition of the poem. There are a few textual variants in this new edition, which are detailed on pages 762-63. I took two cantos at random (11 and 24) and compared the Durling/Martinez text to Petrocchi's. I found, in addition to a number of differences in punctuation (in the discussion of textual variants, Durling notes that changes in punctuation, "where they do not affect the sense" are not noted), nine differences in spelling between the two cantos. It's possible that some of these differences are editorial (many of these readings are found in the manuscript tradition; others, such as "l'amasssero" at 11.114, are clearly typographical errors), but they are not listed as variants with the others. Of course, in a work that exceeds 800 pages, some mechanical errors inevitably creep in, and I have sent a list of the errors that I found to Professor Durling so that they may be corrected in future editions.

Now we turn to the commentary. Whereas Durling seems responsible for the translation, and he is given sole credit for the Introduction, the commentary is equally divided between Durling and Martinez, and they are careful to detail which scholar is responsible for which part of the commentary (signaled by initials in the Table of Contents). And while the attentive reader can discern some distinguishing interests between the two, the result is a unified commentary with a coherent view of the poem.

As in the previous volumes, the commentary for each canto follows the text and translation for that canto. It is organized by line numbers and is quite detailed, much more so than the commentaries attached to the recent translations mentioned above. In fact, the commentary usually exceeds the length of the text--a fairly typical practice in most Italian editions of Dante. To take one canto at random--canto 13 has eight pages of text and translation (four of each), while the commentary runs to ten pages. In addition, topics that require lengthier treatment and that prove relevant to more than one canto are given added space at the end of the commentary in the form of "additional notes," each of which is also credited to either Durling or Martinez. These, in fact, form brief articles, and they can stand on their own as excellent works of scholarship.

The Additional Notes in this volume include: "The Figure of Beatrice," "The Paradiso and the Monarchia," "The Primacy of the Intellect, the Sun, and the Circling Theologians," "Dante and the Liturgy," "The Religious Orders in the Paradiso," "The Threshold Cantos in the Comedy," "The Fate of Phaeton in the Comedy," "Circle--Cross--Eagle--Scales: Images in the Paradiso," "The Final Image," "The Neoplatonic Background," "Dante and Neoplatonism," "Dante's Astrology," "The Heavens and the Sciences: Convivio 2," and "The Paradiso as Alpha and Omega of the Comedy." Among these notes, Martinez's on Phaeton stands out as a masterful overview of the presence of that Ovidian figure within the poem and how he relates to Dante's pilgrim. Durling's note on "The Neoplatonic Background" is a model of concision and clarity. All of the notes are useful and merit careful attention.

For those familiar with the earlier work of Durling and Martinez (including the first two volumes in this series), the general interpretation offered in the commentary will come as no surprise. In Time and the Crystal, their earlier, valuable study on Dante's rime petrose (University of California Press, 1990; they refer repeatedly to this work in the commentary), we can already see the main outlines of their approach to the Comedy. For them, Dante's primary philosophical allegiance is to Neoplatonism, and they see Dante the pilgrim as making a Neoplatonic ascent throughout the Comedy. The Paradiso thus represents the culmination of Dante's philosophical as well as his religious quest. They further argue that a key, Neoplatonic influence on Dante and the poem (perhaps the key influence) is the sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and especially the poem "O Qui Perpetua," from book 3 metrum 9 of that work. They refer to this poem often, finding numerous parallels between it and passages in the Paradiso. They helpfully include the Latin text of the poem as well as Durling's translation and detailed commentary of it, on pages 686-94 of the edition, following canto 33. (It is immediately preceded by the text and translation of the Nicene Creed, which is accompanied by a brief explanatory note.)

The commentary proves to be extremely useful and illuminating, and it is filled with suggestive and perceptive readings. One of the highlights of the commentary for me was how frequently their appreciation of the poem comes through, as they are filled with wonder at Dante's extraordinary achievement, especially as the poem nears its completion. In discussing the opening of the poem's final canto, for example, Durling writes of how the canto's "preliminaries" serve to "intensify the reader's anticipation of the remarkable climax and culmination of the poem, which reaches a pitch of intensity unique in all literature" (668).

Of course, scholars differ in their interpretation of the Comedy, and I found a few places where I dissent from their readings. Most significantly, perhaps, I do not find that Neoplatonism explains as much of the poem as the commentary suggests, nor do I see references to "O Qui Perpetua" as often as the Durling and Martinez do. And indeed, it seems that this disagreement extends to our respective views of late medieval thought. Durling's note on "Dante and Neoplatonism" concludes that Dante's poem echoes many late medieval texts where "the outward clothing of Aristotelian terminology masks the more fundamental allegiance to the Platonic/Neoplatonic tradition" (749), which strikes me as overstated.

In a position that relates to their emphasis on Dante's Neoplatonism, the commentators argue that readers must not believe that Dante intends us to think that the pilgrim made a bodily ascent to the heavens, even if we treat such an ascent as part of the fiction of the poem. Durling makes the point emphatically in the Introduction. In discussing 1.73-75 (where the poet retrospectively wonders if, as he ascended, he "was solely that part of me which you [God] created last"), Durling writes: "This statement of the narrator should be taken as a characterization of the intensity of the pilgrim's imaginings; it is deeply misleading to suppose that Dante would claim, even in his fiction, a status superior to saint Paul" (16). Certainly there is a plausible case to be made here, but at times Durling and Martinez write as if it were the only viable interpretation. At one point in his commentary on the poem's final canto, for example, Durling writes that the Italian critic Chiavacci Leonardi "usefully reminds us that the pilgrim is seeing the blessed as if they had bodies (as Beatrice observes in 31.44-45): they are only appearances to his imagination" (672; emphasis Durling's). But the second point does not necessarily follow from the first. The pilgrim could be seeing the blessed as if they had bodies simply because they do not have bodies prior to the resurrection and their appearance has been accommodated to the pilgrim's mortal sight. Indeed, I wondered if Durling's insistence on the imaginative status of the poem does not occasionally influence his translation. He renders "fu viso a me cantare essa sustanza" (7. 4-5), for example, as "this substance seemed to me to sing," which would be more accurately translated as "was seen by me to sing."

But such disagreements are, when seen from the perspective of the achievement that this edition of Dante represents, minor quibbles. Durling and Martinez have through their three volumes given to English readers a lucid translation and a compelling commentary of one of the greatest poems in world literature. These are volumes I will return to many times, and it is difficult to believe that another English edition of the poem will supersede the usefulness and authority of this one any time soon. Dante scholars and medievalists in general owe a profound debt to Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez for this splendid accomplishment.