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C. S. Lewis once wrote that we must read the classics “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” Yet the briefest contact with the work of, say, Homer suggests that this breeze is not always so refreshing. Last year, in a book entitled Memorial, the British poet Alice Oswald translated the sections of the Iliad that describe soldierly death — and chucked the rest of the epic. By stringing these passages together into a kind of martial rosary, Oswald encouraged a fresh reckoning with the Iliad’s fundamental and horrifying strangeness.

Dante’s Divine Comedy (Liveright, $29.95) is a harder poem to remix or redefine, if only because we need no reminder of its audacity: not many so-called creative writers have imagined themselves climbing over Satan’s hairy haunches and chatting with St. Peter within the same work. The Divine Comedy is at once an adventure story, a formidable chunk of theodicy, and a fourteenth-century Florentine’s attempt to liberate poetic language from the maximum-security prison of Latin. Dante wrote his three-part epic in a linked triplicate rhyme scheme, which he appears to have invented, called terza rima, English translations of which have, over the centuries, generated many vaguely nursery-rhymish Dantes. As Clive James, Dante’s newest translator, reminds us, rhyming is for an Italian poet, ancient or modern, “too easy . . . to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.”

Australian by birth and English by literary temperament, James is probably the only Dante translator in history to have reviewed a book by the romance novelist Judith Krantz. (His is also the only review of Krantz in The Oxford Book of Essays.) He is most famous in the United States for his criticism, but he’s also written excellent volumes of memoir, fiction, and poetry. (My British friends inform me that his BBC television documentaries are equally fine.) Italian was one of James’s early, formative linguistic loves; his wife, Prudence Shaw, is a Dante scholar.

In order to capture Dante’s essence in a language as “rhyme-starved” as English, James chose the rhyming quatrain, which allows him to bring out one of Dante’s strengths — poetry that doesn’t merely land on rhyme but, as James puts it, “rhymes all along the line.” The result, I am quite certain, is a translation that many academics and Dante experts will regard with suspicion. In a 1977 essay on Nabokov’s almost unreadably literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, James made a wise observation on the problem of expertise:

[I]t is doubtful whether anybody else inside or outside Russia knows as much about Pushkin; but you don’t have to know a thousandth as much to realize that Nabokov is no more reasonable on this subject than on any other.

James’s Dante is intended for the reasonable, merely intelligent reader looking for a complete, tonally representative, and somewhat free English translation of The Divine Comedy. Let us be thankful, then, that the resulting work is so hugely enjoyable.

One thing has long been clear about The Divine Comedy: the first book, typically known as Inferno but which James more bluntly calls Hell, is, by many spans and cubits, the best part. Guided by Virgil (condemned to Hell’s outermost circle because he “lived before?/?Belief was possible”), Dante wanders through Hell’s shadows, over its worm-ridden ground, and past bogs emanating a pustular stench. In Canto IV, Virgil and Dante pass by the souls of Hippocrates, Seneca, and Avicenna on their way from the first circle to the second:

I can’t speak fully of them all. My theme
Is vast, and drives me on so that the facts
Often exhaust my words. Again a team
Of two, we entered into cataracts
Of trembling air, all quietness left behind —
Where no light shines and all who see are blind.

One of the most famous sections of Hell sees Dante encounter his old Latin teacher Brunetto Latini, who has been cast fearfully deep, into the seventh circle, because of something Latini explains has vexed “clerics” and “great, famed scholars” alike — “all of them defiled?/?When living, by the one same sin.” (The near-universal consensus is that Latini is speaking here of homosexuality.) James renders Latini’s farewell to his bewildered student with a beautiful, angry dignity:

I can’t go further speaking the sad truth.
For see, a new cloud rises from the sand:
People I mustn’t meet will soon arrive.
My book, called Treasure, is at your command:
Read it. I ask no more. There, I’m alive.

After the gorgeously mixed registers of Hell — a gripping meditation on regret followed by a description of being chased by claw-footed Harpies — things become quite a bit more tranquil in Purgatory, a mountainous, surprisingly verdant realm that Dante places underneath Jerusalem. In this least-read section of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s work feels defiantly nonmystical, with many stanzas amounting to a parade of the poet’s naughty contemporaries lamenting both their deferred salvation and their lost homeland (“Slave Italy! Hostel of grief! Lost ship?/?Without a pilot in a storm!”). Nevertheless, the great passages, when they come, remain great indeed, as when Dante encounters the soul of a slain woman:

I am La Pia, murdered on
The orders of my husband; locked away
And dealt with so that he might, with me gone,
Marry again. He’s still up there today.
He knows about it, he who with his jewel
Pledged love, and faith, and wed me, and was cruel.

Just as superb is Virgil’s shattering farewell to Dante in Canto XXVII, the final lines of which out-Latini Latini: “Of your soul?/ I make you captain. Most blessed among men,?/ Move on. You’ll never hear from me again.”

At its best, reading Paradise feels like sticking your head directly into the Transfiguration of Christ. You are not always entirely certain what has happened, but the language is often as powerful as the unknowable white-hot reactor core of Christian theology: “For there the holy pleasure is diffused?/?Unchecked. Far from excluded, it pours through:?/?As we climbed higher, the more pure it grew.” This aspect of Dante’s vision can hardly succeed, as James acknowledges, “in an age without belief,” but even the most dogmatic sections of The Divine Comedy have, in this translation, a surprising tenderness. James allows us a valuable new glimpse into a supremely imaginative mind at work when thought and faith remained indivisible — before God, too, was forced from Paradise.

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