John Montague, review of The Inferno of Dante Alighieri, trans. Ciaran Carson, in The Irish Times (23 Nov. 2002 )

Details: John Montague, ‘A Towering inferno’, review of Ciaran Carson, The Inferno of Dante Alighieri: A New Translation (Granta), in The Irish Times (23 Nov. 2002 ) - available online [orig. access date unknown].


A popular view contends that contemporary literature has scant respect for tradition, yet a major poem of the distant past, The Divine Comedy, has had more influence on modern writing than all the theories of Surrealism, Marxism, Modernism and Post-Modernism combined. In his New Year Letter, a once fervent Leftist poet like W. H. Auden invokes the example of Dante:

That lean hard-bitten pioneer
Who spoiled a temporal career
And to the supernatural brought
His passion, senses, will and thought
By Amor rationalis led
Through the three kingdoms of the dead...

Yeats is mainly influenced by Dante as an example, when he speaks of how

Being mocked by Guido for his lecherous life,
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb that stair and eat that bitter bread,
He found that unpersuadablejustice, he found
The most exalted lady loved by man

Yeats is obviously making a connection between his own adoration for Maud Gonne and that of Dante for Beatrice, the courtly love poet drawn into the mesh of politics. And James Joyce modelled his life of conscious exile on that of Dante, declaring his own past a realm of the dead, so that, as God the artist, he could breath life into it. As for Beckett, by his own admission, he got stuck with Belacqua in the middle of the Purgatorio early on, and could be said never to have moved.

So when Granta maintains that this is ‘the first ever version of Dante by an Irish poet”, it is a bit disingenuous, for not only has Dante inspired and influenced the work of many Irish writers, he has also been translated by them, albeit in parvo. Heaney has grappled with Canto XXIII, where Ugolino devours his children in the Tower. And predictably enough, I have had a shot at the Paolo and Francesca episode for a special Dante issue of Agenda. And even in The Irish Times, Myles had a stab at the beginning of the Purgatorio, with hilarious results that no one could, or would, wish to rival: “I never go out - simply wouldn’t think of it - without a volume of Dante in my pressed bucket”.

But all these are limited efforts compared to Carson ’s rollicking version, which matches that of Robert Pinsky, the former American poet laureate, in approaching The Inferno as a dramatic narrative, emphasising pace as well as poetry. Carson does not pretend to be a Dante scholar, or even to know much Italian, although he has met some of the scholars coming home. And although his Belfast Catholic background probably gives him a belated insight into the mediaeval mind, he does not make much of the influence of Scholasticism; The Summa Theologica was probably a bedside book.for Dante. Carson contents himself with the catechism, which is probably right, since the increasingly top-heavy Catholic Church seems determined to implode.

Stately Yeats might not be pleased by the lack of emphasis on gyres, globes and circles, but what comes up in Carson ’s Dante is a rattling good yarn, full of horror, science fiction and love stories. The technical problem, of course, is the terza rima, which comes naturally to Italian, where everything seems to chime and rhyme. Approaching The Inferno from different traditions, Jewish and Irish, Pinsky and Carson fall on the same solution, half-rhyme and assonance. I have never heard Pinsky sing (although he toured the States with a dramatised version of his Inferno) but Carson, no mean musician, suggests in his Preface that he was striving for almost a ballad quality. He might be amused to learn that Myles felt Dante was bound to write dántaí.

It is hard to illustrate the quality of a translation, especially if it is based upon other translations. Even the famous first line of The Divine Comedy, “Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita ... - engenders problems. The scholarly Allen Mandelbaum recognises the imperative of translating “camin” as road or way or journey, in his version: “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way ...” Ciaran cuts across this, so that the opening might describe waking up with a hangover rather than seeing a vision. “Halfway through the story of my life / I came to in a gloomy wood ...” And how does the plural “nostra” become the singular “my”? On the other hand, any translator of Dante is haunted by previous, often splendid versions. As with Milton, many of Dante’s liveliest stories are in hell, and Carson does well by them. The plight of Paolo and Francesca is prefaced by one of Dante’s most moving images:

As starlings, when the evening draws in, assemble in tremendous seething flocks, so are these dark souls gathered by the wind. ... and closes with the anguished love scene between Francesca and her brother-in-law.

And while one half of this fond pair spoke
the other wept so much I fainted. All
of me was overwhelmed by that stroke
of pity; and I fell, as a dead body falls.

According to Gogarty, this last line was a favourite quotation of Joyce. Then there is the dazzling darkness of Canto XV, when we are in the Circle of the Violent and are pursuing the bank of a fiery river flowing through the burning plain. Against this smouldering background Dante meets a former poetic Master, Brunetto Latini. Since Brunetto canot pause, the two must walk across the plain if they are to converse, with Dante, the younger man, standing above Brunetto on the bank. A colloquy between Youth and Age is a familiar enough theme, but Dante gives it a unique, almost grotesque quality, evoking the chiarascuro of Caravaggio, yet the two men cross the plain almost like two lecturers crossing a University campus.

Fascinatingly, Brunetto speaks to Dante of the younger man’s “future fame”, using one of his homely similes, which Carson clearly delights in:

Your future fame will come to such a pass
both sides will hunger for a piece of you
but far beyond the goat will be the grass.

More than any other poet. Carson has put present-day Belfast on the poetic map and he describes walking through Belfast while translating these Cantos, sensing the turmoil of cities, as Dante had done. Eliot criticised Pound’s Hell Cantos because, he said, they describe an abstract hell, for “other people”. But one has a strong sense of the contemporary reference of much of Carson’s Inferno, the Circle of the Grafters, for example. Indeed we have no lack of candidates for Hell these days, from righteous clerics to craven politicians to greedy bankers. The marvellous arrogance of Dante is that, encouraged by Virgil and sanctioned by Bruneto within his own poem, he predicts the recogntion of his version of the divine vision. Althogh it would be a century before Boc[c]accio, univerally recognised as the father of modern Italian prose, came to vindicate him in their native Florence, which would have killed Dante and his sons had he ventured back during his lifetime. Boccaccio’s homage has also appeared in a welcome new translation.

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