Monday, June 30, 2008

Words of Iron

"We must also be prepared, while we are reading Dante, to accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other come right on the night. We must try to believe that man's will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity. For The Divine Comedy is the drama of the soul's choice. It is not a fairy-story, but a great Christian allegory, deriving its power from the terror and splendour of the Christian revelation. Clear, hard thought went to its making; its beauty is of that solid and indestructible sort that is built upon a framework of nobly proportioned bones. If we ignore the theological structure, and merely browse about in it for detached purple passages and poetic bits and pieces, we shall be disappointed, and never see the architectural grandeur of the poem as a whole. People who tackle Dante in this superficial way seldom get beyond the picturesque squallors of the Inferno. This is as though we were to judge a great city after a few days spent underground among the cellars and sewers; it would not be surprising if we were to report only an impression of sordidness, suffocation, rats, fetor, and gloom. But the grim substructure is only there for the sake of the city whose walls and spires stand up and take the morning; it is for the vision of God in the Paradiso that all the rest of the allegory exists." ---Dorothy L. Sayers, from the Introduction to The Divine Comedy I: Hell.

Dorothy L. Sayers published her translation of Hell in 1949; she followed with Purgatory, but died before fully translating Paradise. It was finished by her good friend Barbara Reynolds.

When I was in high school we did read The Inferno, as John Ciardi halfway translated the title. Ciardi's translation and notes were written as a poet; Sayers' were written as a poet and a Christian, and I cannot help but think that hers is superior. It reads as clearer and more to the point, and, if I can use the term, snappier. I need to get the other two volumes of Sayers' translation. Years after high school I tracked down Ciardi's other two volumes and read them; I need to compare both works in their entirety.

1 comment:

AlanDP said...

I have a version of Inferno translated by John D. Sinclair. Got it at the college book store when I was in Abilene, but never read it. I think I would rather try a version translated by Sayers.