I've read Anthony Esolen's excellent translation of the Divine Comedy twice, ten years apart. Without question, it is the best long poem (and probably the best work of fiction) I've ever read. Soon I'll be teaching the Comedy to my students in Indonesia, and I plan to use Esolen, but I've decided to explore the poem through other translations. It's an exciting project because there are many English translations; in this regard the Comedy is matched only by Homer and the Bible.

Clive James published his translation in 2014. Its most noteworthy feature is an unorthodox stanza structure: frequently-enjambed quatrains of iambic pentamer, riming abab, cdcd, etc. Sometimes he extends the stanza to five or six lines (ababa or ababab). Each canto concludes with a couplet, like Shakespeare's sonnets. Despite the occasional glory, I don't care for this decision. The quatrains are not marked on the pages of my Kindle edition, and are not always easy to hear. In any case, heavily-enjambed quatrains are harder to hold in the mind than Esolen's mostly end-stopped tercets. (Esolen is also less dedicated to rime. I didn't bother to count, but according to Esolen's prefaces, the rimes increase from Inferno to Purgatorio, and again from Purgatorio to Paradiso.)

A second novelty in James's edition is the complete absence of footnotes; instead of cluttering up the margins with glosses (dreadful on Kindles) and extending the page count with appendices and back matter, James incorporates external data directly into the verse. This makes for longer cantos, usually no more than an extra 20 or 30 lines, but overall a quicker read, since the conscientious reader needn't pause for asterisked notes and explanations. This strategy is unsatisfactory, too, because James doesn't add nearly enough material.

I'm sorry to report the poetry itself is uneven. Consider the good but disappointing version of the revelation of Virgil's identity to Statius, who has been praising Virgil's poetry without realizing that his master stands before him.

He bent down to embrace my Teacher's feet,
But Virgil said "Brother, it's just no use.
You are a shade and it's a shade you meet."
And Statius, rising, said "My one excuse
Is my great love for you, its burning heat.
I clean forgot, because I felt so much,
That shades are here to see, but not to touch." (James, Pur. 21)

This is the end of a canto of rich dramatic irony, but the couplet deflates the drama; the finality of the final two lines feels like the conclusion of an argument rather than a moment of breathless wonder. Contrast the fluidity and rush of Esolen:

Already he had fallen to his knees
    to clasp my Teacher's feet, who said, "No, brother;
    you are a shade, and it's a shade you see."
Rising, he said, "Now you can tell how great
    is the love for you which burns in me,
    when I forget our emptiness, and treat
Shadows as if they had solidity." (Esolen, ibid.)

For a similar problem, contrast the two translations' treatment of Adam's final lines in Paradiso 26.

Some of James's couplets are appropriate to the circumstances. And occasionally his quatrains are enchanting, theology in song:

The Force that makes our bodies fit to bear
Torments of heat and cold has secret ways
Of which we cannot hope to be aware,
And he’s a fool who thinks our reason can
Trace all the paths one substance takes in three
Persons, for they are infinite. Mere Man!
The quia, the mere fact, is bound to be... (Pur. 3)

There are several major factual blunders. In Purgatory 25, James confuses Averroes and Aristotle. I'm touchy when it comes to Aristotle's reputation, so this one bothers me a lot. In Paradiso 32, James places Aquinas in the Celestial Rose instead of Francis. Odd.

My favorite cantos in James's translations are all from Paradiso: Justinian's song (Canto 6), the Eagle's eye (Canto 20) and the Sphere of the Fixed Stars (Cantos 23 through 27). I won't reread the entire thing, but I will revisit these passages.

Next up, Longfellow.

AuthorSeth Holler