Dante’s Purgatorio

Poetry review – PURGATORIO: Edmund Prestwich looks at a new translation by DM Black

Dante Alighieri, 
translated by D. M. Black and with a preface by Robert Pogue Harrison
New York Review Books
ISBN 978-1-68137-605-9
488 pp

People who haven’t read Dante will find D. M. Black’s translation of Purgatorio a revelation. Those who know the Commedia already will find it a valuable addition to established versions.

The first thing to say is how vividly readable it is. Here’s how it starts:

     To run through better waters now the little
ship of my talent here must lift her sails
and put behind her that so cruel sea;
     and I will sing now of a second kingdom
where the human spirit undergoes purgation
and makes itself fit for the ascent to Heaven.

By way of comparison, here are the same lines in Jean and Robert Hollander’s translation, published by Anchor Books:

To run its course through smoother water
the small bark of my wit now hoists its sail,
leaving that cruel sea behind.

Now I shall sing the second kingdom,
there where the soul of man is cleansed,
made worthy to ascend to Heaven.

What’s immediately obvious is how much more propulsive Black’s version is. His syntax doesn’t pause at line endings, it catapults us over them. This is in keeping with his emphasis on the soul’s active participation in the purgatorial process – not ‘is made’ but ‘makes itself’. In his note on the translation Black writes ‘I set myself the goal of getting as close as possible to the movement of Dante’s thought’, and ‘I have aimed more to imitate Dante’s continually onward-moving energy, both narrative and intellectual, than to imitate local sound effects’ (my italics).

He succeeds amply, throughout the book.

Readers will know that the Commedia is constructed in three sections or ‘cantiche’ (‘cantica’ in the singular) – Inferno, describing the hero’s descent into Hell under the guidance of the Roman poet Virgil, Purgatorio, describing his climb up the mountain of Purgatory on the other side of the earth, and Paradiso, describing his ascent through the various heavens to a final radiant vision of God. Though they’re parts of one amazingly unified whole – the Russian poet Mandelstam (in ‘Conversation about Dante’, translated by Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link) described the Commedia as a whole as a single crystal, a ‘thirteen-thousand-faceted form’– in some ways they’re very different, each rich in its own imaginative satisfactions. Clearly, it’s best to read the work as a whole, starting at the beginning. What often seems to happen, though, is that people read Inferno and get no further. I would suggest that if one is going to read only one cantica it’s emotionally far more satisfying to read Purgatorio than Inferno, and that Black’s translation would be excellent for the purpose. It’s true that Inferno is a work of extreme, wrenching dramatic power, and contains some of the Commedia’s most memorable episodes. It’s there that readers will find the peculiar sublimity of tragedy – episodes provoking intense pity and fear, leaving the sense of an irreconcilable conflict of values or sympathies rather than a satisfied sense of justice in operation. Vast though Dante’s hell is, though, it’s a place of darkness, claustrophobia, and, for everyone except Dante and Virgil themselves, of static, grinding hopelessness, spiritual aridity and hatred, where people are locked in their own worst selves without possibility of change or development and are cut off for eternity from any kind of goodness or love. (It is true that Paolo and Francesca may seem an exception but although they’re tied to each other for eternity, what strikes me in the way Dante presents them is that there’s absolutely no sign that the love that brought them together has survived in hell or brought them anything but enduring misery.) But hell is a place to be left behind, a negative prelude to the positive journey undertaken in the following cantiche. Purgatorio, in contrast, is above all a place of change and development, of active journeying up the mountain, not only for Dante himself but for all the souls he meets after he’s crossed the threshold into purgatory proper. (Beatrice herself is an exception, of course. Although Dante meets her in the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, her own journey is complete and she is already enthroned in Heaven proper.)

Both first time readers plunging directly into Black’s Purgatorio and general readers who already know the Commedia reasonably well will find his annotation ample and clear without threatening to drown text in context. Moreover, he adds a stimulating and refreshing slant drawn from his own experience as a professional psychoanalyst. He writes in the Introduction, ‘what drew me initially to translate Purgatorio was a realization that Dante had achieved in his allegory a remarkably “psychological” way of thinking: a way of conveying conflict and development in the “soul” with quite extraordinary sensitivity.’ This emphatically doesn’t mean that he sees Dante’s characters as examples in a dance of bloodless psychoanalytic categories, however. Instead, it involves a heightened sensitivity to how their individual, concrete humanity shines through their allegorical purposes.

When he does leave the darkness and hatreds of Hell behind, Dante finds himself in a place of light and love. Although he and Virgil come to Purgatory at night, climbing out of the earth to ‘see the stars again’, as the last words of Inferno put it, this night seems almost another day:

     Now the sweet color of the eastern sky,
a sapphire gathered in the depth of air,
flawlessly pure, from zenith to horizon,
     allowed my gaze once more to feed delightedly,
and I came out from that dead atmosphere
that had afflicted both my heart and eyes.
     The beautiful planet that gives strength to love
filled all the lovely Orient with smiling,
veiling the Fishes who were in her train.

In this strangely luminous night he sees four stars ‘unseen by any save the primal people’ – Adam and Eve – because we lost the Southern Hemisphere when they were expelled from Eden. When the guardian of the Mountain of Purgatory appears, the light of those stars falls on him as brightly as the sun. As Dante and Virgil climb the mountain, meeting many vividly presented people and hearing their stories, they pass through stages of purgation which on an abstract level can be seen as a ritual progression, accompanied by appropriate liturgical songs, but which Black’s notes help us see more clearly as processes of psychic healing. At night there can be no onward movement, but even then the atmosphere is peaceful and protected, not threatening. In this atmosphere of continuously benign mutual interest and support among souls who are all saved, are now incapable of committing evil and are all on the same path to God, there’s little room for actual conflict in the ‘present’ of the narrative. But the poem doesn’t go soft – Dante makes us shiver with horror and experience psychic tension not only by reminding us of the evils and sufferings of life in this world but by incorporating them into the experience of Purgatory in a way vividly expressed by Black’s translation. Seeing the souls of the envious, for example, Dante shrinks from the suffering that will cure them of their disease;

     I think no man who walks the earth could be
so hard of heart compassion would not pierce him
to see the sight I saw as I approached them.

Sitting against the cliff face,

     They were like the blind and destitute who stand
in line at pardons, begging what they need,
and each resting his head upon his neighbour.

Their eyes are sewn shut with iron wire and Dante feels it’s indecent to look at these people who can’t look back. The emotional disturbance he feels at the sight is an example of the kind of inner conflict that remains for him and is part of his own process of psychic or spiritual growth as he climbs the mountain.

However, the most powerful, most poignant episodes of inner conflict come near the end. They relate to what for me is the emotional heart of the whole cantica, the parent-child relation between Dante and Virgil.

Dante’s journey begins at the start of Inferno when he finds himself lost in a dark wood and threatened by three terrifying allegorical beasts. He is saved by the appearance of Virgil’s soul. Virgil tells Dante that he himself is condemned to the outermost circle of hell where the souls of virtuous pagans must remain in sorrow and yearning for eternity because in their lives they lacked faith in Christ. However, he was visited by a weeping spirit from heaven, Dante’s dead beloved, Beatrice, who implored him to save Dante by bringing him down through Hell and up through Purgatory. She is asking him to give Dante something he himself can never have. The relationship between Dante and Virgil is developed with great sensitivity throughout Inferno and with particular and increasing tenderness in Purgatorio. It’s at the very heart of this great story. I think its absence from Paradiso is why I find Paradiso less moving than Purgatorio, for all the blazing power of its culmination. For me, the ending of their partnership is the true narrative climax of Purgatorio. It develops over four cantos.

First, on the terrace of lust, Dante himself must pass through fire after speaking to the souls of revered elder poets who address him from the flames. His terror when an angel calls him to be burned reminds us of two dreadful death penalties in the Florence of his time – burial alive for assassins, burning alive for a range of criminals (Dante himself, when exiled, was sentenced to be burned alive if he returned):

		“You go no farther, holy spirits,
unless the fire first bites you! Enter it!
Do not be deaf to what you will hear sung.”
     He spoke thus to us as our steps approached him,
and I became, as I made out his meaning, 
like someone forced alive into his grave.
     I leaned toward him with my hands beseeching,
staring at the fire and vividly recalling
human bodies burning I had seen before.

Virgil persuades him into and through the agony, telling him the fire can hurt but not harm him and that his fear of it is the last thing keeping him from Beatrice. At this point we feel most acutely how much Virgil is the loving father and Dante the child – Virgil encourages him ‘smiling like one who persuades a small boy with an apple.’

Knowing what is to follow, my eyes flood every time I read the conclusion of the canto in any version, including Black’s own. Summing up his own role in the poem Virgil fixes his eyes on Dante’s and says

              “My son, you’ve seen now both the temporal
and the eternal fires, and you have reached
where I myself can now discern no further.
     I have brought you here by thoughtfulness and skill.
Henceforth let your own pleasure be your guide!
you have come beyond the steep and narrow pathways. 
     Now see the sun that shines upon your forehead!
now see the grass, the flowers, and the trees
that Earth here brings forth solely from herself.
     Until those lovely eyes come, and are joyful,
whose weeping caused me first to visit you,
you may sit down or walk about among them.
     No longer look to me for word or signal!
Your will is straight now, vigorous, and free:
it would be sin to act against its wisdom.
     You over yourself I therefore crown and miter.”

Dante’s spiritual healing has been completed: his will is aligned with the will of God and can only draw him towards the good. The ‘lovely eyes’ that Virgil refers to are the eyes of Beatrice.

In the next canto, Dante explores the grass, flowers and trees of this beautiful place. He meets a nymph who tells him about the river he must cross to begin the journey beyond Earthly Paradise into the heavenly one. She says that perhaps when they wrote about the Golden Age ancient poets were dreaming of this place. In a moment of shared joy, Dante turns to Virgil at this and sees that he is smiling. Again, however, when you know what’s to come, the joy is laced with pain. In the next canto a huge, fantastical allegorical pageant appears. And in the next, at last, we both see Beatrice and lose Virgil:

     beneath a white veil, bound about with olive,
a lady appeared to me, in a green mantle,
and clothed in color like the living flame.
     At which my spirit, that had not for so long
known in her presence that stupor and dismay
that used to overwhelm me and leave me trembling,
     without my eyes receiving further knowledge
but by the hidden force that came from her,
felt the great power again of former love.
     And I, as soon as that high virtue struck 
my sense – the same that had transfixed me, far
back in the past, when not yet out of boyhood –
     turned trustingly to my left, as a small child
runs blindly to his mother when he’s frightened,
or when something has happened that upsets him,
     to say to Virgil: “Less than a single dram
of blood remains in me that is not trembling!
I sense the presence of the ancient fire!”
     But Virgil had gone, leaving us deprived 
of himself – Virgil, my sweetest father, Virgil
to whom I gave myself for my salvation! –
     and all our ancient mother lost could not 
protect my cheeks, though washed in morning dew,
from turning dark again with tears and sorrow.

Virgil and Dante aren’t actual father and son but has anyone dramatized the power and the limits of the relations between parent and child more devastatingly? Allegorically the moment may represent the way revelation trumps reason but that’s not how it feels to the reader, or, I’d suggest, how it felt to Dante as he wrote. The quietness with which Virgil withdraws when his work is done is almost unbearable. So is the fact that the words in which Dante expresses his recognition of his long-lost love, ‘I sense the presence of the ancient fire’ – ‘conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma’ in the original – are themselves quoted from Virgil’s own writing. ‘All our ancient mother lost’, of course, means Eden – the Earthly Paradise that Dante has about him now.

I’m riding two horses in this review, talking about features of the imaginative power of Dante’s Purgatorio that should come through in any decent translation and also trying to suggest the particular merit of Black’s version. I hope my quotations from his text will themselves show the energy, bite and sensitivity of his language as narrative verse in English. In terms of the commentary, I’ve already suggested the special value of Black’s psychoanalytical training and human sensitivity in suggesting new perspectives on character and motive. When it comes to scholarly framing, if I was focusing on an individual passage in depth, I might go to the translations by Robert and Jean Hollander or by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez or to Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s Italian edition for more recherché historical and linguistic background. For continuous reading, though, I think Black’s translation strikes the ideal balance, giving ample context and commentary without overwhelming narrative momentum.