The final canticle of the Divine Comedy is not only an episodic story, the culmination of an epic journey, but also a struggle to understand God's justice and the order of the cosmos, forged in a series of moments of contemplation of the divine will, as we watch, listen and learn, sometimes with great difficulty, in the avatar of Dante the pilgrim, a man obviously over his head in experiencing such celestial mysteries. Each canto, each tercet, brings to Dante and to the reader a new moment of spiritual self-confrontation, ever new with each new reading, ever resonant with each reflection. And all throughout, Christian history glows resplendently. When we hear Thomas praise Francis or Bonaventure praise Dominic, these founders, wedded to Poverty and Faith respectively, come alive again in all the energy, rectitude, and humility in which they once lived and were apprehended by the Christian tradition. But the pleasures of the Paradiso differ distinctly form those of the other two canticles. Unlike the crowd-pleasing, visceral and eviscerating Inferno, the Paradiso is not exactly a page-turner in which we eagerly anticipate which engine of the cosmos will rotate toward us next. It's rather a quiet journey that demands we slow down, think, and feel before attempting to assimilate higher wisdom, more divine geometry, choreography, and optic theory, and before we meet more of the heroes from the Christian canon, cherishing their divine placement (Look how high Augustine made it. Great to see Joachim of Fiore!, etc.). Lombardo's and Cornish's book, as a book, is engineered to inspire and facilitate this sort of reading, with ample access to the language, ingenuity, creativity and care that Dante summons as he attempted, as far as a poet ever could, to express God's justice and His grace. This is a great classroom text, joining the noble orders of Durling and Hollander as a tremendously useful parallel-text edition for students, general readers, and anyone at any level studying Dante. Scores of great translations exist--Ciardi, Sayers, Mandelbaum, Musa--but the parallel texts serve best in the modern multicultural classroom where multilingual and monolingual speakers alike can directly engage with the majestic text. I have been teaching Dante for 25 years in a historically Hispanic institution and always cherished such parallel texts, because my bilingual students hear the roots of their own linguistic cultures in the Italian and experience both joy and empowerment in doing so.
Lombardo (using the Petrocchi Italian edition) translates into free verse tercets with no attempt to replicate Dante's terza rima (wisely, considering the decidedly mixed results of the Pinsky translation) but at the end of each canto, in a very effective adornment, he uses rhyme to signal the dramatic end of a particular episode. He does try to model the syllable count, employing 9-12 for Dante's steady 11, and he renders the three accented beats he hears in each of Dante's lines, thus preserving some aspects of rhythm. He further seeks to preserve Dante's tone, diction, and famous range of registers. Dante can write in a homey, familiar style in all the canticles of the Commedia, not just when sparring with degenerates in Hell. For those reading in close parallel Lombardo sometimes inverts the lines in a tercet because modern English syntax demands a different sequence of expression than we find in Italian, but he avoids that happening too frequently, so that one can go back-and-forth and compare line for line most of the time.
Lombardo in his Translator's Preface (xxix) says that his translation of the Inferno has been accused of sounding something like the dialogue in a Scorsese movie (an occupational hazard this reviewer knows well). And there are in fact some Scorsese-esque moments even here in paradise, such as when Charles Martel lists various illustrious figures born to great destiny during a discussion of how both birth and divine influence play a part in shaping human destiny: "So one is born a Solon, another Xerxes, / one Melchizedek, and another the one / who flew through the air and lost his son" (81: VIII 124-126), lines directly modeled on the Wizard's rundown of human vocational differences to Travis in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Reading the poem here and now in the 21st century, not in the 14th, we need an idiom recognizable from our own set of dramatic texts and mythologies, and we need to comprehend Dante's free range across rhetorical registers. It works perfectly.
Further, Dante, a mere mortal who deems himself not really up to the task of recounting matters so ethereal, struggles to comprehend the great vision he's been granted. The translation accordingly attends to the complexities of what Dante sees, so we experience his confusion and slow reasoning as our own. The nearly opening lines state clearly that Dante doubts (kind of) how he's going to write all this down:
I was in the heaven that most receives
His light, and I saw things that no one who
comes down from there can know how to tell. (3:I.4-6)
Flat, honest, human and direct in both languages. Among a thousand gems, that is, moments when the translation just nails the moment in mood, diction, tone and or register, I would note some favorites. Lombardo keenly preserves, for example, the triple negation (non, non, non) used to positive effect in Bonaventure's praise of St. Dominic:
Neither to dispense two or three out of six
nor for his chance at the next vacancy,
nor for tithes, that belong to God's poor,
No, he appealed for the privilege of combating
the errant world...(119:XII.91-94)
Lombardo is also sensitive to Dante's repetition, as seen with the name of Christ (which, by the way, Lombardo notes only rhymes with itself in Italian):
Dominic he was called, and I speak of him
as that field laborer, chosen by Christ
to help Him in cultivating His garden.
Well did he seem a messenger of Christ
and His servant (117: XII.70-74).
There is no need to find synonyms for "Christ." Beatrice, as is right and just, receives glorifying care whenever her name appears, as here where Lombardo translates the tercet beginning È Bëatrice quell ache sí scorge:
It was all Beatrice, who leads from what is good
to what is even better, and so suddenly
that her action cannot be measured in time (95: XII.37-39).
All Beatrice indeed. Dante's verses are often ingenious, with suspended syntax, paradoxical reasoning, and complicated phrasing, because one of the major themes of the entire Commedia is misconception, misunderstanding, paradox and the need to think more deeply about what one has seen and to reconsider questions and re-evaluate statements made and things observed. The poem recounts Dante's experience of struggling to learn and to express--not just the glorious architectonics of heaven--so not everything in the narrative is spoken with pristine, gem-like beauty. Lombardo preserves the struggle and the wonderment that Dante, and we too, have in trying to figure it all out.
Cornish's notes to each canto, judicious and hyper-clear, are in the back of the book, supporting undistracted reading. The notes guide and mentor the reader, reinforcing what we just read and providing historical information or identification of figures and concepts. They also contain some bibliographic references but not too many, as the volume is not mainly designed to facilitate research papers but to reinforce the meaning of the text. They contain, however, generous references and quotations from Dante's other works, including On Monarchy and the Banquet, and of course the Inferno and Purgatory, plus references to Aquinas and other authors whom Dante draws from at critical moments. A reader is more likely to be inspired to read these primary medieval texts than to start hunting down modern critical essays. But a bibliographic note, adapted from Lombardo's translation of the other canticles, provides a short overview of the major publications and journals that facilitate critical study. Cornish also provides occasional, well-chosen references to the early commentators, famed for their corpus of critical glosses that made Dante an instant classic, so modern readers get some taste of early reception. The end notes sometimes offer alternate translations or alert the reader to Lombardo's decision to translate a particular term a particular way, also noticing at times words that Dante has invented.
Cornish begins each canto with an overview of the characters and content, and uses key words in the original Italian to introduce major terms and concepts. Her introduction is particularly warm and welcoming, emphasizing the themes of knowledge and most of all love that animate Dante's journey and his relationship with Beatrice. The entire apparatus forged by Cornish breaks down many barriers to reading Dante, in part by directly addressing the traditional preference for the Inferno. As a teacher she writes to students to encourage and to demystify in familiar terms, with clever quotations from Huck Finn and illuminating quotations from Brunetto Latini, Aquinas, Plato, Alan of Lille and from Dante's other works, drawing into focus the grand and varied ambitions of the Paradiso while never sounding pedantic. One could build a course on Dante out of her economic survey of the liberal arts authors she nimbly weaves into the discussion of cosmology, justice, order, and heaven, a place, she says with Dorothy, generally considered "somewhere over the rainbow." After the Introduction a spatial map with an elegant rose and spread sheet of canto, location, class of the blessed, and major characters helps readers to chart their personal journey upward. The book ends with a handy "Index of the Blessed."
This publication will help ensure that new generations of readers are welcomed into this unique and ineffable journey. I look forward to teaching it as soon as possible. One should never underestimate how timely and important are the many themes that one encounters in the Paradiso, such as the experiences of the holy women in the early cantos who were forced into marriage and away from their monastic vows, a stunning episode that explores human and particular female agency in shaping one's own personal and spiritual destiny. Also the depictions of equity, equality, and diversity in heaven will be of great interest to modern readers concerned with social order and social justice. What fascinating class discussions can arise from contemplating the medieval and the modern--and the divine and earthly--urges for justice! Such questions help keep Dante alive and relevant at a time when many teachers fear for the future of the Humanities. To this labor of preserving the past and its great Humanist writers, Lombardo and Cornish have contributed mightily.