Chris Smith is a co-author of The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings, and the author of Hit the Right Lick and That's the Stuff, respectively discographies of Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. He was a contributor to The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and translated Sebastian Danchin's Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B.B. King from French. He has contributed many articles and reviews to specialist blues journals, and his work has featured in essay collections published by academic presses from Switzerland to Mississippi. Chris is also a prolific author of LP and CD notes. Below he writes about Dante's Divine Comedy.
Chris Smith on The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
It's the summer of 1967. A compulsive reader since I could, I'm wandering around the not very good library of my not very good boarding school, desperate for something to fill the Limbo that stretches from A Levels to the end of term. My eye is caught by a Penguin Classic spine offering The Divine Comedy: Hell. The translator was Dorothy L. Sayers, but at 18 I'd heard vaguely of Dante, and not at all of Lord Peter Wimsey, so I had no prejudice against a translation by a mere writer of detective stories.
I'd like to be able to say that I began where Dante begins:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vitaand was swept away by the terza rima (ABA, BCB,... YZY, Z), guided by the shade of Virgil down the narrowing funnel of Hell and up the cornices of Mount Purgatory to the Earthly Paradise, to witness Dante's reunion with the blessed Beatrice, the woman he loved who became, for him, the God-bearing image; and from there into the circling spheres of Heaven and the Empyrean beyond, to the Beatific Vision that's the poem's climax.
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway this way of life we're bound upon
I woke to find my self in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone,
I was swept away, all right; the book I'd casually picked up was - appropriately - a revelation. I swiftly acquired my own copies of the Sayers versions of 'Hell', 'Purgatory' and 'Paradise' (whose last 13 cantos, to be parenthetically precise, were Englished by Barbara Reynolds after Sayers's death). For some years I regularly re-read the first two volumes, and made a start on the third, but - full and embarrassing disclosure - it's taken me 40 years, and the invitation to write this, to make it all the way through the poem's 100 cantos. Dante's Paradise is a place of light, where the souls of the blessed appear to him as still brighter lights, and much of their conversation is about Christian theology, although they also take a lively interest in the political and moral corruption of Europe. It was the absence of incident and the elevated discourse that between them made the final leg of the journey hard going for me, but I'm very glad to have made it at last, because Dante's Hell and his Purgatory exist - whether we're talking about poetic architecture or theology - to lead the reader to his Paradise.
The Divine Comedy is an allegory, as the poet explained to his patron, Can Grande della Scala:
The subject of the whole work, then, taken merely in the literal sense is 'the state of the soul after death straightforwardly affirmed', for the development of the whole work hinges on and about that. But if, indeed, the work is taken allegorically, its subject is: 'Man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of his free choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing Justice.'Dante further divides the allegorical meanings of the poem into three kinds, which needn't detain us here, except to note that they offer different and fruitful ways of approaching it. One of the many aspects of the Comedy that makes it such a pleasure to read is that, unlike Bunyan, whose Pilgrim encounters Giant Despair and Mr Worldly-Wiseman - personified abstractions - Dante meets, not Human Reason but Virgil, not Divine Grace but Beatrice, and not Forgery but Gianni Schicchi, having a much less amusing time in Hell than he does in Puccini's comic opera. Schicchi is pointed out in the tenth bowge (bolgia) of the eighth circle of Hell by another damned soul; I mention him because he's a 13th Century Florentine who stands a chance of being familiar; many of the shades Dante encounters in Death's three kingdoms owe most, and sometimes all their fame to his encounters with them.
That's one of the reasons that I was fortunate to encounter the Comedy in the Sayers version. Rather than canto 1, line 1, her Introduction to 'Hell' is where I started, and her (or for 'Paradise', Reynolds's) introductions and extensive notes are exemplary guides to Dante's life, his world, his political thinking, his cosmology, his theology and the allegorical significance of his images. I can best sum up the need for the wise and informative guidance they offer with a (forgivably, I trust) lengthy quotation from that very introduction:
We now begin to see the necessity for all the notes and explanations with which editors feel obliged to encumber the pages of Dante. To the fourteenth-century Italian, the personages of the Comedy were familiar. To identify them, and to appreciate the positions they occupy in the Three Kingdoms of the After-world, was to combine an understanding of the allegorical significance with the excitement of a chronique scandaleuse and the intellectual entertainment of solving one of the more enigmatical varieties of crossword puzzle. For us it is different. We do not know these people; nor indeed are we today quite so familiar with our classical authors, or even with our Bible, as a medieval poet might reasonably expect his public to be. Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante's model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, according to the religious and political convictions of the author, the following assortment of people - some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain ("him of the orchid"), Chamberlain ("him of the umbrella"), [Stewart Houston] Chamberlain, "Brides-in-the-Bath" Smith, "Galloper" Smith, Horatio Bottomley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerosse, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D. H.] Lawrence, "Butcher" Heydrich, W. G. Grace, Grace Darling, the Captain of the Jarvis Bay, the Sisters of Haworth, the Woodcutter of Hawarden, the Ladies of Llangollen, the Lady with the Lamp, the Lady-with-the-Lampshade-made-of-Human-Skin, Titus Oates, Captain Oates, Quisling, the Owner of "Hermit", the French Bluebeard, Bacon, Roger Bacon, Roger Fry, the Claimant, the Bishop of Zanzibar, Clarence Hatry, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Brown and Kennedy, the Dean of St Patrick's, the Dean of St Paul's, Dean Farrar, Fred Archer, Mrs Dyer, Lord George Sanger, Lord George Gordon, General Gordon, Ouida, William Joyce, James Joyce, "the Officer in the Tower", Peter the Painter, Jenkins "of the Ear", Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and "the Widow at Windsor". Let us further suppose that the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the constitution of UNO, the "theology of crisis", Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein. Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history. Would he not require a few notes, in order to savour the full pungency of the poet's pronouncements and thoroughly understand his attitude to the cosmic set-up?In the 60 years or so since that entertaining riff was written, some of its names and allusions have become as obscure as some of Dante's. QED, I think.
Sayers's introductions and notes are also, incidentally but probably not accidentally, fairly distinguished as Christian apologetics. This is probably the place to say that I am not a Christian ('non-observant atheist' is about right at the moment); but if Sayers did nothing else for me, she saved me from the notion that Christian doctrine is any of naïve, intellectually ramshackle, or psychologically implausible. As she herself observed:
To appreciate Dante, it is not, of course, necessary to believe what he believed, but it is, I think, necessary to understand what he believed, and to realise that it is a belief which a mature mind can take seriously.Her exposition of the doctrine of Purgatory is a model of its kind, for instance, and anyone who supposes that sinners are arbitrarily sent to Hell to be punished would do well to consider her comment that Hell 'is the condition to which the soul reduces itself by a stubborn determination to evil, and in which it suffers the torment of its own perversions'. (Incidentally, the answer to Norm's recent enquiry here about who decided Hell is eternal is that nobody had to. Excluding beliefs which involve reincarnation leading to eventual Nirvana, once we die we're outside the realm of time. This is true even if there is no Hell, and no life after death.)
There are many more things that could be said in praise of the Sayers version of Dante, but I'll confine myself to two. First, she is very adept at pointing to ways that the allegory may be interpreted on the political and social level. I don't mean to exclude Purgatory and Paradise from this level of understanding, but most obviously, Hell is a city, like the city-states that were the territorial units of Dante's Italy:
Lo buon maestro disse: 'Omai, figliuolo,In a paper on 'The City of Dis' (one of the illuminating essays included in three volumes republished by Wipf & Stock in 2006, under the rubric The Dante Papers Trilogy), Sayers writes that, pondering a problem of the geography of lower Hell while trying to write a note on it,
s'appressa la città c' ha nome Dite,
coi grave cittadin, col grande stuolo.'
... 'See, my son! It now draws nigh,'
Said my good lord, 'The city named of Dis,
With its sad citizens, its great company.'
'I quite suddenly saw a vision of the whole depth of the Abyss [as] a single, logical, coherent and inevitable process of corruption... I saw the whole lay-out of Hell as something actual and contemporary; something that one can see by looking into one's self, or into the pages of tomorrow's newspaper. I saw it, that is, as a judgement of fact, unaffected by its period, unaffected by its literary or dogmatic origins; and I recognised, at the same moment that the judgement was true.'The italics are mine, and I think she's right. 'Hell', as a portrait of a society in corruption has, excuse the pun, a hell of a lot to show and tell us about our own society. (It always gladdens my heart, even though I know it's unworthy of me, to know that Dante has a place prepared for spin doctors. It involves a great deal of shit.)
Second and last, like Dorothy Sayers in the Introduction to 'Hell', 'I ought to say a few words about the translation'. It seems the done thing these days to badmouth her efforts; A.N. Wilson, for one, makes a modest career out of doing so from time to time in The Daily Telegraph. This consensus seems to me to be overdone where it is not merely fashion-driven. (Let's charitably assume an absence of snobbish revulsion at the thought of the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey applying her mind to Dante.)
The chief fault of any translation, of course, lies in its not being the original, and the problem is all the more acute when we're talking about what I happily agree with A.N. Wilson is the greatest poem ever written. The answer to that is to read Dante in Italian, with a prose crib on the facing page. (John D. Sinclair's three volumes, published by Oxford, can scarcely be bettered.)
Pending that, and whatever its faults, among the numerous virtues of the Sayers version is that it captures the headlong narrative drive of the story at the literal level. Much of her success in this regard stems from her decision to stick with terza rima, despite the difficulty of finding enough rhymes in English; these days, blank verse seems to be favoured, wrongly in my judgement. She also brings out the humour that Dante-revering Victorians could not bring themselves to detect, and deals adroitly with Dante's fondness for puns, and with problems like Arnaut Daniel, speaking Provençal on the Cornice of Lust. (She puts him into Border Scots.) Sayers also vividly conveys the physical disgustingness of Hell, the beauty of the vistas of sea and sky on Mount Purgatory, and something of the bliss of the blessed in Paradise. Her papers on translating Dante, and on verse translation in general, show that she was thoughtful, conscientious and concerned to convey both the meanings and the poetry of the original. This is not the place, even if I had the ability, to compare her versions with the many other fine, and less fine translations that are available; I do, though, want to affirm the impact that those versions had on me.