Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Three: Heaven, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)
I was about 12 when I first met the notion that heaven might be boring. I sneaked the Collected Plays of George Bernard Shaw from the good china cabinet1 to read Pygmalion, and progressed by way of Saint Joan (including its wonderful Preface) to Man and Superman before it occurred to my parents that Shaw might not be terribly age-appropriate. When a character in that last play (Don Juan, maybe?) argued that hell was preferable to heaven, my orthodox Catholic faith was robust enough to dismiss him as silly, but the fact that I remember it indicates that the idea struck a chord.
I mention this early adventure in transgressive reading because I suspect that if I’d read Dante’s Heaven at that age I wouldn’t have dismissed the idea so easily: Dante’s heaven, at least in Clive James’s translation, is boring. It’s like a prison where the lights are never turned off, except the inhabitants won’t shut about how happy they are.
In an exhilarating passage at the end of Canto 22, Dante looks down from his vantage point near Gemini in the zodiac and sees the earth:
______ And this paltry world we prize,
This little threshing floor where we have been
Always so fierce, was made plain from its hills
To river mouths, while I was wheeling there
With those eternal Twins. They turn like mills,
And I with them, the universe laid bare.
The thing is quite a bit of Heaven is preoccupied with just the kind of paltry fierceness that is put in perspective here, and I confess to not finding the subjects of that fierceness all that interesting. I can appreciate Dante’s magisterial erudition and his brilliant poetic skill (as filtered through Clive James’s translation). I have some grasp of the magnitude of his task – creating a literary Italian language, combining classical and Christian frames of reference, wrestling mediaeval scholastic philosophy and theology into elegant verse, exploring the relationship of earthly and divine love, inveighing against corruption in his contemporary church, giving lessons in church and secular history (some of which, impressive though it is, I wouldn’t want unleashed on the young without health warnings), writing fierce political polemic (and putting it in the mouths of blissful souls in heaven), combining elaborate doctrine with ecstatic visionary experience (though it looks to me as if the visionary experience is a laborious, almost geometric construct rather than the report of an actual vision, as in mystics like Julian of Norwich), all while spinning a yarn with enough fantastical invention to keep the less committed punters happy. The book would obviously reward extended study, but reading it as I did with minimal recourse to commentary was all too often like visiting a museum.
Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante’s guide. She’s a lot prettier (her eyes become more ineffably beautiful with each new level of heaven, culminating in Canto 30 in a breathtakingly wonderful declaration of the inadequacy of Dante’s words to describe them) but she’s also much more long-winded, and claims God’s authority for everything she says, not exactly a recipe for lively conversation. I imagine her lectures – and those of other garrulous blissful souls – were serious fun for Dante’s contemporaries, as poetic renderings of cool philosophy or science are these days; off the top of my head I think of Kathryn Lomer on sunflowers or Jennifer Maiden on the uses of liquid nitrogen. But 700 years later, these lectures are mostly to be endured rather than enjoyed, and where they are not politically barbed they are almost unbearably abstract.
Clive James’s introduction anticipates this response: ‘What kind of story,’ he asks, ‘has all the action in the first third [that is, in Hell], and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters?’ He answers his own question:
But the Divine Comedy isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated at the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on.
If that’s so, this translation is – perhaps inevitably – an honourable failure. I’m grateful to James for opting for readability, I love his mastery of the quatrain form, and I read whole passages aloud to my dog as we walked around Marrickville, just for the pleasure of hearing them, but suspect his awareness of his own mortality may have led him to rush things at times. I’m probably not the first to note that at 10:188-189 he has Christ adoring the Church, an error that wouldn’t have survived a Beta reader process.2
I did attempt to deal with my general discontent by paying close attention to a couple of the annoying passages. Here’s one (James 13:69–84; Dante 13:52–66):
———————————Of all truths, this is chief:
That which dies not and that which dies are there
As nothing but the splendour of our Sire’s
Idea, which, loving, he begets. Because
That living light – which, streaming from the fires
Of its bright source, is never, as it pours,
Detached from its first well, nor from the love
Which, with those two, makes three – collects its beams
Through its own goodness, mirrored there above
In nine angelic orders, without seams
Stitched into one forever, it descends
To earthly potencies from act to act,
Becoming such that all things have their ends
In brief contingency, the fleeting fact –
Things generated with, or without, seed –
Produced by movements of the heavens.
If that takes some untangling, it’s partly because Clive James has twisted the language a little to make it rhyme and scan. I looked up the original, and found that the phrase ‘Of all truths, this is chief’ isn’t in Dante, and seems to be there to rhyme with ‘belief’ a few lines earlier; where James has one long, convoluted sentence, ‘Because … heavens’, Dante has two; the confusing stitching metaphor is James’s. But the difficulty is mainly because (I think) the passage deals in mediaeval theology about the Holy Trinity and the nature of Creation. It may have been demanding on Dante’s contemporaries but for us (and I include people like me who have actually studied a bit of Scholastic philosophy), without serious study it will remain incomprehensible, and frankly I don’t care enough to find out. Whatever pizzazz it once had is pretty dead, at least to me. And that’s true of too much of the book as a whole.
The next book I plan to read is Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a translation of The Iliad that leaves out most of the original. Maybe someone should do something of the kind with Dante.
1 We didn’t have a lot of books in my childhood home, and only one or two were kept in the china cabinet – whether because they were particularly precious or to keep them away from young eyes I don’t know.
2 Clive James: ‘the Church, the Bride of Christ, will sing / Matins to its dear bridegroom, that he may /Adore her’. Dante: ‘la sposa di Dio surge / a mattinar lo sposo perché l’ami’. With my limited Italian, I read that literally as ‘the bride of Christ rises to sing matins to the groom because she loves him’. James seems to have been momentarily distracted from the meaning by the need to make his lines scan.