Sunday, February 26, 2006


I'm a fan of epic poetry: the grand themes, the complicated narratives, the struggles of the heroes, and the imaginative descriptions of gods and mythic monsters. Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, Virgil’s AENEID, and Milton’s PARADISE LOST are three of my favorite poems.

Yet no one writes epic in the 21st century. It’s a dead form. Poets presumably study epic, but compose lyric and narrative poetry instead. The epic form doesn’t suit the casual mores of modern times, I suppose.

This is my year of reading THE DIVINE COMEDY, a long allegorical narrative poem. I found three translations of the INFERNO on our shelves: Robert Pinsky’s, Alan Mandelbaum’s, and John Ciardi’s. My original plan was to read Pinsky’s, the most contemporary, but after inspecting all three, I chose Alan Mandelbaum’s translation. The language is lucid and passionate, the images vivid and horrific. And the lines correspond exactly to the Italian.

Much as I admired the INFERNO, I can’t say I enjoyed my tour of hell. Dante had a grisly imagination, influenced by his knowledge of the works of Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, and St. Thomas Aquinas. The deeds of the sinners are often sinister, but the punishments are disproportionate. This is a 14th-century person’s vision of hell. In Canto 28, the Sowers of Scandal are perpetually wounded by a demon with a sword, and after healing, wounded again. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, walks maimed, split open, with his bowels hanging between his legs. His sin? Dante considered him a “sower of dissension.”

The last canto in Dante’s INFERNO describes Dis, or Lucifer, emperor of the king of hell, a three-faced monster with wings beneath each face, whose wings agitate cold winds that freeze Lake Cocytus. Dante is horrified.

O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then--I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
--vv. 22-27 of Canto 34, Alan Mandelbaum’s translation of INFERNO

I couldn’t wait to get out of hell. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when Virgil grabbed Dante and clambered over Lucifer’s body and got out of there.

I’m looking forward to PURGATORIO, in Dorothy Sayers’s translation.

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