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Atheist Clive James' hymn to God

  • 10 June 2014

Rumours 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 foundMyself lost in a wood so dark, the wayAhead was blotted out. The keening soundI still make shows how hard it is to sayHow 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