Dante Still Sings… via John Ciardi

June 15, 2011

A terza rima review of a great translation of The Divine Comedy

Midway in life’s journey, my path unclear,
  I got ’round to Dante in fine translation
  by John Ciardi, translator senza peer.
Ciardi had a songsmith’s ear and keen appreciation
  for the lilting Italian that served Alighieri
  so well in narrating his trek of salvation —
a vernacular narration to more widely carry
  Dante’s Trinitarian faith, plus his fey
  socio-political commentary.
Many translations capture his content, and convey
  his visionary Catholic genius, unfurled
  so confidently; and some find the way
to paint the pictures that leave your toenails curled
  in Hell, then Purgatorio and Paradi-
  so, guided by Virgil through the otherworld.
But most others lack Dante’s harmony:
  thirty-three cantos, forty-some tercets each,
  all rhymed ABA BCB CDC DED —
a music unattainable in English speech
  with its polylingual roots and rhyme-poverty.
  Ciardi gives words and music, though the reach
is but ABA CDC EFE GHG —
  unweaving the master’s onrushing braid.
  Still, his translation fairly sings to me.
(You must also check out Ciaran Carson’s A-grade
  Inferno of Dante, in true terza rima,
  plus Pinsky’s prizewinner — neither of which I’d trade
for a dozen prose versions with their scheme o’
  tuneless literalism, like flightless birds,
  uplifting as George W. Bush’s FEMA —
but those two stray further from Dante’s words.)
  Dancing through the Boot in public squares and songs,
  the Commedia was for everyone, not just nerds —
Dante attacks human failure hammer-and-tongs,
  pounding pagan, papist, Paduan, Pisan,
  for subversion, treason, and ninety other wrongs.
He tours Hell’s tiers at the Easter season,
  listing sins and sinners by offense or by name;
  with unredeemed Virgil (symbol of Human Reason)
helping to ascribe the right degrees of blame,
  Dante settles scores, giving fiends a shove
  toward fearsome beasts, or pit, or eternal flame.
From Hell he climbs to Limbo, then to spheres above,
  from damnation to contingency to the last incline
  where the pious soul is saved by faith and love.
In due course, reading line and inter-line,
  we know of Dante’s losses, and the yang and yin
  of his love for Beatrice at the age of nine:
that’s when the sacred vision-songs begin,
  the haunting Christian triptych melodies
  that crack the heart and leave it cleansed of sin.
A master of so many varied harmonies,
  Dante sings of faith while revering science,
  juxtaposing marvelous antipodes
of a near-Shakespearean globe in keen alliance:
  the brain and heart, the soul and sex — undeterred
  opposites embraced in holy defiance.
T.S. Eliot believed, though it may sound absurd,
  that the literary world divides between
  Dante and Shakespeare — “and there is no third.”
Dante-era politics pitted merchant Ghibelline
  factions against the papist Guelphs in a fight
  for regions Roman, Venetian, Florentine.
The gifted Dante led a midlife bright
  with promise as a Guelph in Guelph-led Florence.
  But the triumphant Guelphs splintered Black versus White;
the blood of both ran in competing torrents;
  and while Dante, a White, was dispatched to the Pope
  the rival Blacks indicted him on false warrants.
To avoid the pyre he wanders homeless; his scope
  shifts from politics, to how great souls intersect
  in damnation, repentance and, sometimes, hope.
Poet-translator Ciardi feels high respect
  for the humble poet-narrator, and even more
  for the cathedral-poem and bold poet-architect.
Take Book 2, Canto 8, Line 34.
  Ciardi’s preface shows me and my son what weds
  translated content with music and with amor.
“Well did I discern the blondness of their heads
  but in their faces my eye was dazed
  like an overstimulated sense confounding itself.”
Ugh! My little boy gives a shrug, his eyes glazed.
  But at Ciardi’s re-re-vision, the nine-year-old
  perks up, his eyes alight, animated and amazed:
“I could see clearly that their hair was gold,
  but my eyes drew back bedazzled from their faces,
  defeated by more light than they could hold.”
Yes! We almost dance as Ciardi first replaces
  Dante’s words with gray verbatim, then adds streaks
  as brilliant as the original in some cases.
Dear Dantista friends: this verse homage took weeks,
  though at 99 lines it’s but two percent the size
  of just one of Alighieri’s three astounding peaks
that reach into the earth, and touch the skies,
  and, as Eliot asserted, rival the Bard’s
  gift to both transcend and universalize.
Both familiar and divine — think Venus, Mars —
  familiar and distant as the nighttime sky
  with its reassuring albeit unknown stars.

Jeff, Reader’s Services (In memory of Trudy Balch, another stellar translator)


Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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