John Scott

title.none: Durling, Divine Comedy (Scott)

identifier.other: baj9928.9812.009 98.12.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Scott, The University of Western Australia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Robert M. Durling, ed., Robert Turner, illustr. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. New York: Oxford University Press (Trade), 1997. Pp. xviii, 654. $12.95. ISBN: ISBN 0195087445.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.12.09

Robert M. Durling, ed., Robert Turner, illustr. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. New York: Oxford University Press (Trade), 1997. Pp. xviii, 654. $12.95. ISBN: ISBN 0195087445.

Reviewed by:

John Scott
The University of Western Australia

The partnership between Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez, which in 1990 produced the outstanding and exciting study of Dante's Petrose lyrics (Time and the Crystal [Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press]), now provides students of Dante with an indispensable translation and guide to the Inferno. I must emphasize the fact that I am reviewing the paperback edition, in which some misprints and minor errors have already been eliminated.

First, the overall impression: this is a volume worth its weight in gold but sold at a bargain price. It offers the reader the only viable format for a translation, however skilfull: namely, the translator's rendering of Dante's verse, accompanied by the original text (which follows in the main the revised Petrocchi text, published in 1994) on the facing page. Robert Durling has purposefully provided a prose translation as literal as possible, so that readers with even a minimal knowledge of Italian (or another Romance language) can piece together the interlocking jigsaw. Each canto is followed by copious notes, which are then supplemented by Additional Notes (pp. 551-83) on leading issues: Autobiography in the Divine Comedy; The Body Analogy, 1; The Old Man of Crete; Dante and Brunetto Latini; Dante and Homosexuality; Geryon's Spiral Flight; Boniface's Church; Dante and the Classical Soothsayers; Autobiography in Cantos 21-23; Time and the Thief (Cantos 24-25); Ulysses' Last Voyage; The Poetry of Schism; The Body Analogy, 2: The Metaphorics of Fraud; Dante's Political Giants; Ugolino; Christ in Hell. Textual variants (pp. 585-86) and a copious bibliography (pp. 587-609) are followed by invaluable indices (pp. 611-54). Maps (Italy, ca. 1300; Romagna and Tuscany; The Celestial Sphere and the Zodiac; The Structure of Dante's Hell) and Figures (e.g., Fortune and Her Wheel, A Fist Making the "Fig", The Walls of Monteriggione) all contribute to the abundance of information and help available.

The Introduction is a miracle of compression, highlighting the "epoch-making importance of a journey to the other world claimed by a layman and politically active private individual" (p. 50). This may be illustrated in part by one of the opening remarks:

Dante's ultimate subject might be described as the ways the great cosmic and historical drama of God's creation of the world, man's fall, and humanity's redemption from sin is visible in history and in his own personal experience; his experience is always conceived as firmly located in place (Florence and the Italy of his day) and time (the late thirteenth century). More than any other major European poem, the Comedy is a detailed commentary on the political, economic, and social developments of its author's times. (p. 3)The poem's topicality is well diagnosed as in part due to its powerful analysis of the nature of greed-motivated fraud, which Dante identified as a major social problem -- the great moral and spiritual issues remain, though few today would wish to inhabit the cosmos Dante supposed was the theater of human action. (p. 4) A compact, meaty account is given of Dante's times, life and works, describing the enormous demographic and economic expansion, accompanied by violent social conflicts, that overtook Florence during the poet's childhood and early adulthood. The studies of Charles Davis and others are well distilled, and mention is made of the possibility that Dante came into contact with Remigio de' Girolami at Santa Maria Novella and the Franciscan firebrand, Peter John Olivi at Santa Croce; equally important are the likely contacts with the Aristotelian centre at Bologna during the 1280s. In the account of Dante's writings, due importance is accorded to the milestone signified by the rime petrose, which -- as Durling and Martinez argued so cogently in 1990 -- served "as a principal proving ground for the work that still lay in the future" (12). Their importance in Dante's stylistic development is even greater, if we are now to exclude the exchange of scurrilous sonnets known as the tenzone with Forese Donati (Ruggero Stefanini, "Tenzone si' e tenzone no", Lectura Dantis 18-19 [1996], pp. 111-28 and Mauro Cursietti, La falsa tenzone di Dante con Forese Donati. Anzio: De Rubeis, 1995). As we are told on p. 15, "Dante's poem could have taken the form that it did at few other moments in history. For Dante came to maturity when the most sweeping and exciting intellectual revolution of the Middle Ages [Aristotelianism] had just crested. Dante was the heir and product of this intellectual ferment."

Dante's work combines facets of the dream-vision, journeys to the other world, philosophical allegory, classical epic, mythology and medieval encyclopedias: "an even more fundamental parallel links the form of the Summae of Alexander of Hales and Aquinas, and no doubt others, and of the Comedy: the order of subjects discussed is explicitly conceived as a procession from God, through the creatures and man, then back to God via the mediation of human will and the Incarnation" (p. 17). Further essential ingredients were provided by the Aeneid and the Bible: "Dante viewed Vergil's poem as a work that embraced the whole cosmos and all of history", although his own Christian epic went far beyond that scope in embracing both this world and the world beyond, so that "Such breadth and variety can be matched within a single book only by the Bible" (p. 18). The Introduction ends with a useful note on Dante's use of the hendecasyllable and terza rima in the Comedy.

As indicated above, "The translation is in prose, as literal as possible, following as closely as practicable the syntax of the original; there is no padding, such as one finds in most verse translations. . . . Dante is never bland: his vocabulary and syntax push at the limits of the language in virtually every line; there must be some tension, some strain, in any translation that respects the original. . . . Latin words and phrases are left untranslated and are explained in the notes; they add an important dimension" (p. v). A new paragraph signals the beginning of a new terzina -- a healthy reminder that the original is in verse, while reflecting the poet's occasional use of emphatic enjambment between the basic terzina units. All in all, the translation is designed "to direct the reader's attention over to the original" (ibid.).

There is of course a price to be paid for these laudable intentions: e.g., 2.31 (N.B. all references are to the Inferno, unless otherwise stated), the straightforward Italian concision of "Ma io, perche' venirvi?" is maintained as "But I, why come there?", when normal English usage would add some "padding": "But why should I come there?". Ciacco's reference to life on earth as "la vita serena" (6.51) is somewhat incongruously rendered as "my sunny life." The way the pilgrim expresses his desire to see his enemy Filippo Argenti ducked in the infernal broth (8.52-3) probably corresponds to "Master, I would dearly love to see him ducked", rather than "Master, much would I desire to see him ducked." 13.81, "chiedi a lui, se piu' ti piace": Virgil gives Dante leave to ask for further information, if he wants to know more, not a generic "ask him what you will". 19.104: in the pilgrim's diatribe against the simoniac popes, "your avarice afflicts [=corrupts, attrista] the world." 24.15: "and drives the little sheep forth to pasture": the effort to translate the diminutive form pecorelle into English seems somewhat clumsy and unnecessary (cf. 2.127, where fioretti does not mean "little flowers" but simply "flowers" collectively). Again, the literal translation of "di che pianger suoli?" (33.42) as "about what do you usually weep?" lacks the force of the original: "what DOES make you weep?" 30.47: the meaning is "it is not less than half a mile across", not "is no less than one [mile] across." Finally, it may be that the problem of sexist language led to the translation of Hercules' warning as "so that one should not go further" (26.109), whereas "l'uom" in the original has the strength of "so that man should not venture beyond" -- with the generic meaning of the Latin "homo" that "man" once possessed in English.

However, as the reader will judge, these are trifling peccadillos or simply questions of individual taste. What really counts is the strength and subtlety of Robert Durling's translation overall. Take, for example, the splendid, taut rendering of the pilgrim's apostrophe to the corrupt popes (19.88ff.): I do not know if here I became too rash, but I replied to him in this meter: 'Ah, now tell me: /how much treasure did our Lord demand from Saint Peter, before he gave the keys into his keeping? Surely he asked only, 'Follow me.' / Neither Peter nor the others took from Matthias gold or silver, when he was chosen for the place lost by the wicked soul. / Therefore stay here, for you deserve your punishment; and be sure to keep your ill-gotten coin, which made you bold against Charles. / And were it not that I am forbidden by my reverence for the highest keys, which you held in happy life, / I would use still heavier words. . . . You have made gold and silver your god; and what difference is there between you and the idol-worshipper, except that he prays to one, and you to a hundred? On a different stylistic level, the tone of the Francesca episode is beautifully caught (5.112ff.): When I replied, I began: "Alas, how many sweet thoughts, how much yearning led them to the grievous pass!" / Then I turned back to them and spoke, and I began: "Francesca, your sufferings make me sad and piteous to tears./But tell me: in the time of your sweet sighs, by what and how did Love grant you to know your dangerous desires?" / And she to me: "There is no greater pain than to remember the happy time in wretchedness; and this your teacher knows. / But if you have so much desire to know the first root of our love, I will do as one who weeps and speaks.... [H]e, who will never be separated from me, / kissed my mouth all trembling. Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it: that day we read no further." Dante's polyphony is again rendered by the electrifying dialogue between the devils (21.100ff.): They pointed their prongs, and: "Want me to nudge him," one said to the other, "on the rump?" And they replied: "Yes, give it to him in the notch." But that demon who was parleying with my leader, turned swiftly about, saying, "Down, down, Tangle Head!" The commentary is at least as valuable as the translation. Notes are always well chosen and will be of immense help to students. They are based on the widest possible reading, drawing upon the best of Italian and Anglo-American contributions (while the work of such scholars as Pezard, Gmelin and Lotman are not ignored), as a glance at the index or the comprehensive bibliography will reveal. Especially remarkable is the fine sense of critical balance, which avoids the radical views of some modern scholars. One of many examples is the gloss to 15.55-6 ("If you follow your star, you cannot fail to reach a glorious port") on p. 241: "a glorious port: Dante uses the metaphor of the port in Convivio 4.12-18 as part of his discussion of human life as the soul's journey back to God (to 'glory'). Although many commentators take Brunetto's words to refer exclusively to earthly fame, there is no clear justification for so limiting their meaning. The complementary relation between astrological influence and grace is a major theme of the entire poem (see, e.g., 26.23-24)." Again, in commenting on "m'insegnavate come l'uom s'etterna" (15.85), Durling and Martinez rightly point out: "The pathos of Brunetto's situation is that of one who understood (and in his works asserted) Christian values but, because he did not 'chastise his body' (see lines 121-24, with note), forfeited eternity. Limiting line 56 to 85 exclusively to the quest for secular fame is an impoverishment of the episode" (p. 243). A similar depth of understanding is shown in the note on Dante's portrayal of Farinata as proud, rigid, self-absorbed, yet at the same time "suggesting that the Florentine vengefulness, decades after the man's death, was excessive. The dialogue that began with party animosity has moved toward some degree of mutual sympathy" (p. 167).

Whatever their religious background, students are ever more likely to need information such as that provided in the excellent note explaining what is meant by the "so-called Harrowing of Hell, narrated in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (third century A.D.). . . . good examples [of pictorial representations of Christ trampling the shattered gates of Hell and leading Adam at the head of a line of OT figures] are the apse mosaic at Torcello and the internal mosaic at San Marco in Venice" (p. 81). Throughout the commentary, one is struck by the rare precision of language, combined with a linguistic sensibility that will pay dividends for generations of readers: e.g., in the note to 27.119, "Note also the frequency in the canto of words involving the sound m, particularly in Guido's speech, but beginning with mugghio', line 7: they radiate from the mo of line 109 and the morto of line 112" (p. 430). Individual passages are always placed in the context of the whole: e.g., the note to the pilgrim's raised face and violent outburst against Florence with its "gente nuova e i subiti guadagni" (16.73-76) points out that "This is a striking instance of his gradual assumption of the role of a prophet, like a biblical one, directly addressing his contemporaries, especially his fellow Florentines, though several other cities are apostrophized, as well as Italy as a whole and numerous individuals. This gradually assumed prophetic role is represented as leading directly to the writing of the poem. See also 19.88-123, 25.10-15, 26.1-12, and 33.79-90, Purg. 6.76-151, and Par. 17.106-42" (p. 256). We find the obvious but telling observation that "if we count Geryon, more than half of the Inferno is devoted to fraud" (p. 269; 19-24), while the comments to 16.127-29, the third of the poet's seven apostrophes to the reader in the first cantica, judiciously point out that the fact "that the poet swears to what is obviously a fiction has excited comment that has not always been attentive to the nature of the 'truth' Dante claims for the figure of Geryon. . . . in this oath, and by naming his poem here [16.128, "this comedy"], close to the center of the Inferno, the poet is both asserting the importance of his analysis of fraud and problematizing the fictional-allegorical mode of the poem" (p. 258). The reader is then guided to Additional Note 13, with its insistence: "in the Malebolge, the question of the nature of language is ever-present. . . . Since language itself is always problematic, it is clear that such is the case for Dante's poetry as well: the relation between allegory and fraud is one of tension, and the issue is never far from the surface in the Comedy" (p. 577). Once again, a nice critical balance is achieved with exemplary concision.

Durling offers two Additional Notes, explaining and Illustrating a major theme first elaborated in 1981: the identification of the structure of Dante's Hell as analogous to that of the human body. The pilgrim's journey begins at what corresponds to the head and descends through increasing materiality to Satan, located at the anus or pit of Hell. Limbo is associated with the seat of memory, the rear ventricle of the human brain; the sin of lust is linked to the eyes and the brain's front ventricle; gluttony is obviously the sin of the gullet; the sullen are 'victims' of a disorder of the spleen; the walls of Dis mark the entrance to what corresponds to the human breast, seat of the sins of violence, while the circles of fraud correspond to the belly ("Seen from above, the Malebolge resembles a huge spider web, as well as being a kind of blocked distortion of the winding path of the intestines", p. 576). The poet's structured analogy is based on three things: first, "the traditional notion . . . of the body politic. . . . the classical idea of the body politic was adapted to the Church by Christian theologians, beginning with Saint Paul, for whom the Church -- that is, the community of believers (therefore of those saved) -- is the mystical body of Christ. . . . By a natural extension, then, the damned became seen as the members of the body of Satan, of which Satan is the [in this case, inverted] head. . . . The third basis is the traditional Platonic allegory of the underworld. . . . Dante continually associates sins with the misuse and/or malfunctioning of parts of the body" (553-54). Then, we witness yet again the masterly sense of balance: "Even in the Inferno, however, where the 'body of death' is at the center of attention, there is no simple identification of the body itself with evil. Attention is constantly directed to the ways in which sin distorts the body as well as the soul" (p. 555).

Ronald Martinez is equally convincing and perceptive in, e.g., his additional note on "Time and the Thief" (pp. 568-71), climaxing in the observation: The rivalry with Lucan and Ovid [cf. 25.94-100], in addition to recognizing the masterful precedence of these poets in accounting for time and process, is itself an instance of how poets are necessarily caught up in generation, how the poet's art, must Phoenix-like [cf. 24.106-111] renew the tradition as it is gnawed away by the 'envy of time' ( Met. 15.234.35). The poet, too, must be a kind of thief in order to renew the lineage of poetry. . . . But as a Christian poet Dante can also be a thief in the Christological sense and come not only to strive, imitate, and surpass, but also to judge. (p. 571) At a different level, in the celebrated metamorphoses of the thieves the presence here of five Florentines, three of them Black Guelfs and several from families who had converted to the Guelfs or to the Black faction, suggests that political transformation is thematized here as well. (p. 396) It would be difficult to find a better illustration of that unique synthesis of the human and divine, cultural and political, temporal and eternal, which we know as The Divine Comedy.

I can only hope that in this review I have been able to give some idea of the riches available. Mindful of what Dante tells his readers in Par. 10.25, I have brought you as far as I could: now it is up to you. And it is up to Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez to produce equally valid and valuable work on Dante's Purgatorio and Paradiso. When they have finished their great task, there will be nothing to match their achievement for English-reading students of Dante.