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Atheist Clive James' hymn to God


Dante's Divine Comedy translated by Clive JamesRumours of his death are greatly exaggerated, but Clive James has since 2010 made a public art of dying. He has been suffering for some time an advanced stage of terminal leukemia and emphysema. Breathing is difficult and he saves his energy for his writing. Public appearances are rare. Faced with mortality in extremis the poet-critic stays in his adopted home of England, regretting he may never visit Australia again.

It is in this intense moment of re-evaluation of life, especially his own, that we read James' new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Possibly no great poem is so immersed in the connections between our life here and now with life after death.

Dante lived an existence in Florentine politics and might today be little more than a historical footnote, but exiled in midlife to Ravenna, he transformed that trauma into a living testament about the worlds he knew: the worlds of action and contemplation, the classical and medieval worlds conjoined. James translates the opening:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me ...

Some translators abandon all hope of getting perfect terza rima (an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme) in English, opting for non-rhyme or half-rhyme. It seems James decided to translate into quatrains back in the 1960s. This was a momentous decision because he was locked into doing the whole thing in four-line verses and could not go back. His determination is admirable, though his belief in the quatrain less so.

A commonplace about Dante is that the form he invented works to his advantage. Terza rima is propulsive, it creates its own energy because it is a permanently open system. The quatrain is not propulsive in this way. The energy exists within the box of four lines and for it to be successful in a long poem, virtually every post has to be a winner. It is a closed circuit, dependent for its effect on the end rhymes and the gist of the syntax.

Terza rima is a natural in Italian language because of the preponderance of vowel endings that cause lovely endless resoundings. Quatrains are perfect in English because of the massive variety of words available to make excellent surprise endings.

The American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began his translation of Dante to deal with the trauma of losing his wife in a house fire. James' earliest encounters with Dante are not recorded, but his wife is a Dante scholar at Cambridge. This goes some way to explain his close attention to Dante during their marriage. The translation is a conjugal love letter and undoubtedly a meeting of minds. She knows the stuff and he has the end-rhymes. The conversations must have been scintillating, both informative and entertaining, like Dante himself.

And Dante's big stage-show of characters, all with their own sins and graces, is simpatico to someone who ran TV shows where everyone was up for scrutiny, the target of witty one-liners. One of those late night shows was called The Late Clive James, itself a Dantesque joke, where a person who is alive presents himself as someone who is at the same time over there interviewing people on the other side.

Today we are blessed, unless we feel we are cursed, by more English versions of Dante than ever. The Irish poets Ciaran Carson and Seamus Heaney found in Inferno a code for describing the Troubles in the North. The Americans seem to deliver a fresh version every other year, of which the Hollander & Hollander is among the smoothest, as well as having the best commentary, detailed but restrained.

W.S. Merwin's version of Purgatorio is one of my favourites, with its subtle cadences and personal voice. Englishman C. H. Sisson's divides opinion, with its plain language. As does James', for other reasons.

A delight of Dante is how he says so much in so little. English speakers learn Italian today just to access Dante, with one of the rewards being his streamline flow. Heaney called it the 'bright container of the terza rima.' James' strangest decision was to include footnotes inside the text. Great literature often looks strange on first encounter and only time will tell if this device makes or breaks his version, but it certainly makes it anomalous.

Age brings reflection on our past and doubtless James today has brief time in which to consider his considerable experience and those who peopled it, whether alive or in books. Dante did the same and poured the results into a turbulent, entrancing poem. This translation serves as a landmark in his unique Audenesque poetic career and will become a clue as to how to read much of his other writing.

But two elements of the present situation could be seen as Dante-like contrapasso in real life. The first is the impression circulated in the media that James now lives estranged from the woman who inspired him to translate Dante in the first place. And the second, that an avowed atheist produces the best poetry in Paradiso. Others I have talked with say the same, the translation gets better as it goes, perhaps because he eventually hit his straps. As proof, and to conclude, here are the opening lines of Paradiso, the start of a hymn about God:

He moves all things. His glory penetrates
The universe, and here it shines the more
And there the less, and of these various states
The one where I was gets more light. I saw,
There in the Empyrean, things which he
Who comes back down from it has not the strength
Or knowledge to record, for memory
Can't follow intellect through the same length
Of journey, as it goes deep to come near
What it desires. But all I could retain
As treasure in my mind will now appear
In this song.



Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Clive James, Dante, Divine Comedy



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Existing comments

Thanks for this perceptive review. I love James' translation even though, probably through my own ignorance, I've never been a fan of his till this. I'm certainly not equipped to distinguish the relative virtues of the terza and the quatrain ... for me James' DC has just been a bloody ripper to read. Actually, not read - this is a text that pricks one to deliver out loud - an urge I'm sure Dante (and James) would be pleased to have brought on. So I've found myself chanting the same lines over and over till I discover what balances the rhythm and meaning, (hoping no-one else is around), rarely without a pleasant surprise. There's a bard in every human that is aroused through these versions. Re. men/women relationships and Dante: we should not forget that the future U.S. president Calvin Coolidge - "silent Cal" - translated the Purgatorio during his courtship of future wife Grace Goodhue. Ah, those were the days!

HH | 06 June 2014  

Thank you for that encouragement to extend my woefully inadequate reading to try Dante. Maybe Clive James version.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 10 June 2014  

Philip, another scholarly and sensitive piece. Thankyou. As one of those English speakers who is learning Italian partly because he'd like to read Dante in the original, I was particularly glad to see your article today. I realised that reading him was a possibility a few years ago when, in Ravenna, we came upon an exhibition of Gustave Dore's illustrations and I found I could read much of Dante's text that was printed with them. I now have a reasonably fully annotated edition of the Divina Commedia (I eschewed the really enormous ones!) published by Newton Compton Editori with notes by Fallani and Zennnaro.and coming to grips with it will be my project this year when we stay on an olive farm outside Fiesole for a couple of months (Stratford-upon-Avon first stop though, where we'll see the two Henry 4s and The White Devil). I'll take a copy of your piece with me and think of you there. HH, I enjoyed your comment too - on 'our' olive farm I'll be miles from nearly everyone! Hope my wife can stand it.

Joe Castley | 10 June 2014  

Thank you for this. I also read aloud James' opening lines to 'Paradiso' and am now inspired to read his book and compare it to my old three volume translation. "Lost in translation" is a sad fact, and unsolvable: Edna St Vincent Millais' new poetry in her interpretation of Baudelaire's 'Flowers of Evil'; various attempts at Catullus' love poems; the Biblical re-workings; etc etc. Even when the translators are also poets, with or without footnotes, they can never capture another's genius, or completely convey their truths, philosophy, culture, or the nuances and magical sounds. Shall never forget a scholarly Italian reading aloud the original lines of 'The Divine Comedy' - really beautiful.

Annabel | 10 June 2014  

Thank you, Philip Harvey. You have persuaded me to go out and buy Clive James' book, which sounds indispensable (and, to put a copy of this fine ES essay in the flyleaf). I am ashamed to say i have never read the Divine Comedy in any translation (much less in Italian!). It sounds like I have a treat in store. .

tony kevin | 10 June 2014  

Thanks, a very enjoyable article. It is interesting that James has apparently been self-styled "dying" for 4 years; seems to me he has been very successfully LIVING, albeit with serious chronic disease, as so many people do. Good on him, and if he gets some inkling of the Divine, even better.

Eugene | 10 June 2014  

JC, thanks and all the very best! Just be careful: I've a friend who a few years back did his thesis on the keyboard composer Frescobaldi (d.1643). He had to learn Frescobaldi's Italian as a matter of course. It was the only Italian he knew! When he arrived in Italy to defend his thesis, he naturally asked directions...unfortunately in Frescobaldi's Italian: so something like "Sire, I would fain crave a boon: how mayest I be transported to yon inn?" &c. Took this veritable Rip van Winkle a while to work out what the quizzical responses were about! God bless you on the olive farm. (Sounds heavenly!) And in your reading too, TK.

HH | 10 June 2014  

Thank you for positive responses to the essay. A couple of bloggers are under the impression that I hold unreserved praise for Clive’s version of Dante. Actually, I regard his translation as a curate’s egg. Sometimes he strays quite seriously from the meaning of the Italian. At times we can see him stretching to meet the requirements of the scansion. That he chose to do all of Dante in the way he did tells us a lot about the scale of his own personal ambitions, not that that is a criticism, just an observation. Heaney stopped translating Inferno when he saw he was never going to get it right, the way he wanted. Clive is not possessed of the same self-questioning. I relate to HH’s enthusiasm for Clive’s version, all the same. I am still coming to terms with how the translation sounds, especially when he’s on a roll.. HH clearly feels that it coasts along, while for me there are some bumpy parts to the trip. What is arresting is how much it sounds like Clive’s natural voice. We can hear Clive reading a lot of this, inside the rhythm, especially in the asides and endings. It makes us see how much we are really hearing say Elizabeth Barrett Browning when we read aloud her versions of Dante: translators do have their own voices. By all means buy Clive’s version and get into it. If asked though which version a first reader might like to take up just to get a grip of Dante , I would say Hollander & Hollander, though Kirkpatrick’s Penguin version is highly accessible too. You need something that delivers both close meaning and feel. I am just discovering Singleton’s version (Oxford), which seems to be in the same bracket. Dorothy Sayers’ version is still superb at putting as much of the meaning as is possible into one sentence. Some of her English passages are copybook. She is always worth a re-visit, though today’s reader rarely relates to ‘thou doth’ language at length. If Clive uses ‘thou doth’ it’s for a joke, as we would expect of an Australian.

Philip Harvey | 11 June 2014  

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