A review of Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

Reviewed by Bob Williams

by Dante Alighieri
translated and annotated by Jean and Robert Hollander
2007, ISBN 978-385-50678-6, $40.00, 915 pages

Translators obviously live on hope and will continue to translate great books until someone gets them right. In this case, we have not only a new translation but also the mother of all annotations. The translator is Jean Hollander and the annotator is her husband Robert Hollander. She will soon have published her third collection of poems and he has taught Dante for forty-two years and is Professor of European Literature Emeritus at Princeton and the founding director of both the Dartmouth and Princeton Dante Projects.

The annotations first: they will tell you everything but they are so inclusive and compact that you may find it difficult to find and disentangle the bit of information that you need. I read the whole of the notes to the first canto and thereafter – deciding that life was too short to luxuriate in all that Robert provided – only consulted notes when absolutely necessary and often went to other, more succinct, sources.

There are transparent writers whom we can read without aids but Dante is not one of them. He deals with the history of his time and we don’t know much about that history. However, it is, of course, the quarrels of factions and we can relate to this. But he has theological preoccupations that seldom speak to us with the same insistence as they did to Dante. In fact they whisper to us more than they speak. We read Dante for his vivid grasp of men and women and for the breadth of his vision.

Enthusiasm for Dante is not universal, especially among the French. Anatole France made sly fun of Dante’s Commedia and Voltaire wrote about it with only moderate interest and stressed its difficulties, observing of attempts to elucidate Dante’s text, “there have been commentators, that may be an additional reason why he is little comprehended.”

Paradiso has special problems. There is less action than there is in the previous two parts and more talk, much of it theological and almost as much political. Dante makes what he can in the business of moving from sphere to sphere, but the logic of Paradiso makes this almost seamlessly smooth. It is not in heaven as it is on earth so far as conflict is concerned and the surroundings and the inhabitants of heaven are, well, ethereal. Certainly when Erich Auerbach in his study of narrative strategies (Mimesis) chose his example from Dante, it was from the Inferno (Canto X) and not from Paradiso. For all those who have read <>Inferno, fewer have read Purgatorio, and fewer still have read Paradiso.

Jean Hollander gives up, as have several translators, the effort to reproduce the terza rima of the original. Terza rima is a rhyme scheme of three line stanzas in which the first and third lines rhyme and the middle line gives the rhyme sound for the first and third lines of the following stanza. In this edition the Italian faces the English page so the reader can measure the extent of the difference. Terza rima is not adaptable to English in a long work and an attempt to duplicate the original can seldom be achieved without difficulty and often clumsiness. When it works, the effect is brilliant. Here, for example, is how Laurence Binyon translates a passage from Canto XIII of Inferno. (It is the circle of the suicides and Pier dell Vigne describes how in life he had reacted to an unjust accusation.)

My soul into disdainful temper thrust,

thinking by death to escape the world’s disdain,

made me, the just, unto myself unjust.

The original is:

L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto

credendo col morir fuggir disdegno

inguisto fece me contra per guisto.

But Binyon does not always hit the target so happily and on its merits there is much to say in praise of Hollander’s translation. She sometimes is so faithful to her original as to present the reader with some tortured English as when she translates a demand for empathy as “I would not wait your question/If I in-you’d me as you in-me’d you.”

But she brings out what I believe to be Dante’s strong point, elegance. Apparent throughout the poem are his transitions by way of sensitive perceptions of weather and daylight to refinements of thought and feeling that are precise and arresting. In this very special area Dante has no competition.

Up to Canto XV Dante has kept us alive with the fineness of his perceptions and his ability to sustain and convey to us the ecstasy of his experience, but in Canto XV he meets an ancestor, Cacciaguida. The warmth between them will color all that went before as well as all that is to come. That it occupies the center of this part of the poem is too striking for accident.

After Cacciaguida, Dante encounters the celestial eagle. The eagle is composed of individual spirits in a choreographed ensemble. He submits to interrogation by St Peter and in his catechetical examination it is curious that Dante ascribes his faith to scripture and makes no mention of the Church. The discussions now are less theological and more spiritual or they relate to the visions before Dante as he enters God’s court. It is important to see that although the adjustments in the tone of the narrative are slight, they are significant and provide a variety of which the reader will seldom consciously be aware. The changes are subtle like those in music and, just as a listener does not need to know the details of the changes to respond, the reader need not need to know how Dante adjusts his vision and that of the reader to wider and more potent images.

The emotional climax arrives in the opening lines of Canto XXXI.

In form, then, of a luminous white rose

I saw the saintly soldiery that Christ,

with His own blood, took as His bride.

Dante here transcends limits and enters a world where only a handful of the creative have been at home. Even unbelievers can make of this rose a defense against disaster and suffering.

To read Paradiso by itself is a novel experience and well worth the special attention that it requires. This translation is exceptional and among so many stands out as particularly splendid and true.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places