The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri and Clive James

Hardcover, 527 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $29.95 | purchase

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Title
The Divine Comedy
Author
Dante Alighieri and Clive James

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NPR Summary

Critic and poet Clive James' new translation of Dante's epic Divine Comedy leaves behind Dante's original terza rima rhyme scheme for quatrains, which James says avoids the strains of "rhyme-poor" English and creates a "nice, easily flowing rhythmic grid on which to mount the individual moments."

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Read An Excerpt: 'The Divine Comedy,' Translated By Clive James

Canto 5


So we descended out of Circle One

To Circle Two: the less in measurement,

The greater in its sad cries fit to stun

The senses. Here, deciding who'll be sent

To which reception, the Selector looms

Whose name is Minos. Horrible to see,

He's worse to see in action. Separate dooms

For separate deeds, betokened by how he

Runs rings around himself with his long tail,

So many turns for such and such a fault.

The tortured souls, confessing without fail,

Are thus assigned to that drawer in the vault

This connoisseur of turpitude may deem

Appropriate, while to his platform comes

Another load to share the same wild dream.

They watch his living bull-whip do its sums

Always for others, not for them. Not yet.

And then it's their turn, as they count the loops

That weigh the crimes they hoped he might forget—

And down they go, sad army, naked troops,

To find their level. "You that come to stay

At this unlucky lodge, watch where you tread

And whom you trust," Minos was moved to bray.

"The width of Hell's mouth doesn't mean the dead

Who get in ever get to go away."

My Leader spoke for me: "Shout till you drop:

His travel papers bear a sacred seal.

This thing is wanted where the moot points stop

And certainties begin. There's no appeal."

Here, after Limbo, as I had before,

I heard the countless outcries of lament

Combine to strike me as a constant roar.

This was a place where every light was spent.

It ranted as the sea does in a storm

That splits its own winds to go left or right,

Shrieking in all directions. Thus the form

Of the infernal tempest: day and night

The same, forever shapeless, without rest

It rends and roils the spirits with its force.

They are the smeared signs of how it is blessed:

Their cries can testify to its remorse.

And when they come to where the rocks are cracked

By background pressure, and a fissure gapes

Before them, then we hear the law attacked

That brought them to this pass so none escapes,

As all yell their complaints at that brute fact.

I understood this was the punishment

For carnal sinners, who let appetite

Rule reason, and who, once drawn, are now sent—

Like winter starlings by their wings in flight—

Across the bleak sky in a broad, thick flock:

Here, there, now up, now down, the winds dictate

Their track. Small hope of pausing to take stock

Of whether anguish might not soon abate

At least a little, and no hope at all

Of peace. And as the cranes sing when they fly,

In a long line attracting with their call

Our eyes to them as they move through the sky,

Just so I now saw souls borne on the wind

Trailing their cries of grief towards the spot

Where we stood. "Who are these? How have they sinned?"

I asked my Master. "Dare to tell me what

Dooms them to be so harshly disciplined."

"The first of those of whom you would have news

Was empress of many peoples." So explained

My Master. "Willing neither to refuse

Demands from her own lust, nor to be stained

By rules against it, she rewrote the law

To make praiseworthy what had been her vice

And vicious what was virtuous before.

Her name is Semiramis. More than twice

As bad as her hot blood was her incest:

She married her own son so they could rule

The Sultan's lands, Egypt and all the rest.

The next is Dido, Queen of Carthage, cruel

To the ashes of her husband when she slew

Herself because of love: not love for him,

But for Aeneas. Cleopatra, too—

That dark one there—desire led to a grim

Reckoning. Behold Helen, in whose name

A sea of trouble came to Troy in ships,

And Paris knew it was a sea of flame,

The fire that started when he kissed her lips.

And there's Tristan . . ." A thousand more at least

He named, the shades who left our life for love:

The gentle women of a time long ceased

To be, and all their cavaliers. Above

My head, the waves of fear closed and increased

Their turbulence, and I was almost lost.

Then I to him: "My Poet, I would speak

With those two—by the ill wind swept and tossed

As light as dead leaves on a mountain creek—

Who do not fly alone, but as a pair."

And he to me: "Call out, when they can hear,

In the name of love that leads them through the air,

And they will come to you." When they drew near

I spoke: "Tormented spirits, come to us,

If Someone Else does not forbid you to.

You fly for love, and love we should discuss,

Though it stir shades into a witch's brew."

And as when doves that long for their sweet nest

See it, and with their stiffened wings spread wide,

Moved only by desire come home to rest,

So these from Dido's squadron turned aside

And down through the malignant atmosphere

They came to us in an unerring glide,

So deeply had my summons to appear

Touched them. "O Being gracious and benign—

Visiting us in air whose darkness is

Tinged by the blood of all in our long line—

If the Emperor of the Universe in His

Great mercy were our friend, then we would pray

For your repose, because of your distress

At our sad fate. What you would have us say

Let's hear about, now that the wind blows less,

So we may speak before it howls once more."

So she began, he silent in assent.

"Born where the Po descends to the seashore

To meet its followers and rest content,

I was a beauty. Love, in gentle hearts,

Strikes quickly, and the fair form I once had

Before I cruelly lost it—by dark arts

That still offend me—quickly drove him mad.

Love pardons no one loved from Love, and I

Was drawn to him with what force you can see:

It still holds me beside him as we fly.

Love gave two lives one death for destiny.

As for who killed us, Cain will help him die."

Those stricken souls, through her we heard them speak:

And when I understood the full import

Of what was said, as if my neck grew weak

I hung my head. My Guide said: "Lost in thought?"

I was indeed. When I could breathe, I said:

"Alas, so many sweet shared thoughts and things

Brought them this fate they think unwarranted."

Thus I to him. To them: "Your sufferings,

Francesca, make me weep for grief and more.

But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighs,

In that first flush, how love made you both sure

Of what you half saw in each other's eyes."

And she to me: "Life brings no greater grief

Than happiness remembered in a time

Of sorrow; and he knows that well, your chief,

Who now walks in a world of dust and grime

When once he took bright laurels as his due.

But if to know the one true origin

Of our Love means so very much to you,

Then even as I weep I will begin.

Reading together one day for delight

Of Lancelot, caught up in Love's sweet snare,

We were alone, with no thought of what might

Occur to us, although we stopped to stare

Sometimes at what we read, and even paled.

But then the moment came we turned a page

And all our powers of resistance failed:

When we read of that great knight in a rage

To kiss the smile he so desired, Paolo,

This one so quiet now, made my mouth still—

Which, loosened by those words, had trembled so—

With his mouth. And right then we lost the will—

For Love can will will's loss, as well you know—

To read on. But let that man take a bow

Who wrote the book we called our Galahad,

The reason nothing can divide us now."

One spoke as if she almost might be glad,

The other wept as if forgetting how

To stop. And I? I fainted dead away,

And went down as if going down to stay.

Excerpted from The Divine Comedy by Dante, translated by Clive James. Copyright 2013 by Clive James. Used with the permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.