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Purgatorio
Dante Alighieri (translated by W. S. Merwin)
Alfred A. Knopf, $30 (cloth)

by Brett Foster

Today's poet-translators tend to envision themselves as characters in revelatory narratives of their own devising, heroes whose devotion to ancient writers and original works leads them in quest of something "true and essential." In the introduction to his Beowulf, Seamus Heaney discusses his identification with Old English, which he traces back to his days at university when he realized that the Old English tholian (to suffer) was in essence the same word that "older and less educated people would have used in the country where [he] grew up."

W. S. Merwin offers no such Damascan linguistic recognition when introducing his new translation of Dante's Purgatorio, though one nevertheless senses that he enjoys the autobiographical thread he weaves. Speaking of his "first inchmeal reading" of the Divina Commedia, he remembers carrying individual volumes of the poem in his pocket, and recounts an evening thirty years earlier, riding the Tube in London three stops past his destination as he read Purgatorio's canto V. The young poet's devotion toward his miglior fabbro may be most profoundly expressed by the older Merwin in his explanation of Dante's sources. Virgil's meditations on love, he explains, come from Aristotle, whom he could have known, and Aquinas, "whose work he [Virgil] could have only encountered posthumously somewhere between his own day and Dante's." Merwin does not speak of Aquinas's influence on Dante the author, who has placed the ideas in his character Virgil's mouth, nor does he matter-of-factly say that Virgil of course never read Aquinas and then allow readers to make their own anachronistic winks toward the poem. Instead, he speaks of the Roman poet as he exists in the Commedia, an homage recalling Charles Singleton's memorable praise of Dante's powers of poetic realism: "[the] fiction is that the fiction is not a fiction."

This creative devotion helps explain why word of this new Purgatorio has spread so quickly among readers of contemporary American poetry, even more so than among more traditional dantisti. Merwin has spread a good many words since his first book, A Mask for Janus, won the Yale Younger Poet's Prize in 1952; he has published eighteen subsequent volumes of poetry and as many translated editions. From El Cid to Euripides, Chanson de Roland to Jean Follain, Latin to Russian to Japanese, his translator's oeuvre suggests an intrepid quality as well as a scrutinizing sympathy, both necessary in undertaking the second of the Commedia's three cantiche. Often thought to be the least considered and the most difficult to consider well, Purgatorio proves arduous for readers easily wowed by Inferno's mesmerizing punishments. In his forward, Merwin concedes that many readers upon hearing "Dante" think of one work, the Commedia, "its subject a journey through hell," an admission that shrewdly necessitates a Purgatorio aimed at a general audience. Dante biographer Michele Barbi describes the largely American contribution to Dante studies, "intelligent and continuous work of popularization," which is precisely what Merwin offers here. Barbi's phrase refers to a growing attention to concerns beyond the theological and philosophical objectives of high medieval scholarship—e.g., was Dante a Thomist or a follower of Joachim of Fiore? Does a "Franciscan" spirit preside over Paradiso? Borrowing the Horatian pairing of sweetness and utility, Longfellow and subsequent others elevated Dante's universal poetic achievement, and this new breadth—combined with the expansion an allegorical reading makes possible—easily transformed the poet's persona into an Everyman, his journey providing numerous lessons for all readers. Merwin renders the poem's terza rima clearly, often taking pains to clarify a strange word or difficult passage, while still maintaining a fidelity to the original, translating line for line and straying only when stricter English syntax makes reversed clauses more desirable. At its best, this care in translating captures the "extraordinary loftiness" that Coluccio Salutati praised in his fellow Florentine as the Trecento drew to a close. Beatrice's upbraiding of Dante in canto XXX suggests the severity of the "alto fato di Dio" that the pilgrim must undergo:

   "Dante, because Virgil leaves you, do
not weep yet, do not weep even yet, for you
still have another sword that you must weep for."

Merwin smartly retains the emotion-heightening repetition, as he nearly always does. The technique abounds in Purgatorio, culminating in its conclusion, where hard-won renewal peals three times:

rifatto si come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda, [emphasis mine]

He does not hesitate, however, to overgo the original for ornament's sake in English, adjusting the line breaks, as above, or elsewhere emphasizing repetition that the original does not, as when Virgil explains the benefits of purgatorial kindness upon entering the Third Terrace: "the more / good there is for each one, the more / charity is burning in that cloister." Whereas Dante imbeds his "piu … piu" within the lines, the translation's lines end on the parallel of "more."

Merwin's handling of the poet Arnaut Daniel's speech, which concludes canto XXVI, represents the difficult balance between popularization and fidelity. Dante strikingly allows the other poet to speak in his native Provencal, the very words echoing one of the most famous Troubadour poems, perhaps the first sestina ever written. Merwin very naturally chooses to render this speech in English, settling for a discreet footnote explaining the original's shift in language. It is a wise choice, suited for the spirit of this edition, but obviously the decision sacrifices both the visual and aural reverence of Dante's moving accommodation. Fortunately, this complex problem is the translator's exception: the following single line that records Daniel's departure, "Then hid himself in the fire that refines them," which Merwin makes slightly more terse by omitting the subject, ends canto XXVI on a spare yet magnificent note.

Merwin speaks of Dante's poetic speed, the "feeling of the evanescence of the moment," the quality that makes the Commedia seem, in Mandelstam's memorable image, "a carpet woven out of fluid." One of his methods of conveying this celerity is an increasing use of enjambment, and his admission that he translated the cantos roughly in order allows readers to witness the growing importance of capturing these quick rhythms. Merwin at first seems hesitant to enjamb lines at all, much less to do so strikingly by breaking up syntactic units in unusual ways. Thus, in canto I he alters his English meaning slightly in order to achieve a traditional break—"first / of the ministers …" whereas a strictly literal rendering would be "first / minister of those…." The lineation in the final cantos looks like a different poet's work. Here more ambitious enjambment leads to some brilliant effects. He fully achieves the speed he seeks in describing the procession in the Earthly Paradise, and Dante's first dizzying view of Beatrice in canto XXX reinforces this climax:

with awe and trembling in her presence,

   without more knowledge from the eyes, but by
an unseen force that was coming from her, I
felt the old love in its great power.

   And as soon as the high force beat upon my
sight, as it had pierced me before I
had yet emerged out of my childhood,

   I turned to the left with the confidence that
a little child shows, …

Merwin opts not to follow the terza rima strictly, or rather he rhymes so freely that he chooses not to speak of it. His many excellent slant rhymes (good/body, death/earth/heaven, everyone/once) also quickens the blank verse, making a full rhyme like flame/came feel like a thudding deceleration.

Equally halting, the ants simile in canto XXVI represents the occasional conflict between narrative clarity and structural exigency. Here Dante describes the shades of the lustful swiftly greeting each other as one ant nuzzles another. Merwin derives his version—"as in their dark company ant will touch / ant, muzzle to muzzle,"—from Singleton, to whom the current translator acknowledges a primary debt. Singleton describes s'ammusa with "muzzle," and Merwin tries to capture better the verb's reflexive quality with his doubling phrase, "muzzle to muzzle." Unfortunately, such clarity (if it is more clear) delays the line rhythmically, which undermines the entire simile; the verb indicates speed, a swift touch suitable to St. Paul's greeting of a holy kiss, but Merwin's exactitude has an opposite, drawn-out effect. Such wordiness sometimes arises from unnecessary verbiage—"in it" or "any longer" or "as you have done," often included, one suspects, to simply bide time and fill the pentameter. In fairness, they also suggest his penchant for prepositional phrases: benignamente is rendered as "in his kindness," fieramente as "in anger," 'l viso as "with my eyes." These preferences often serve to clarify, but a less deft handling leads to tercets like the following, their force buried under prepositions, pronouns and modals:

   After speech thus had been set free in her
she began to sing, so that it would have been
hard for me to have turned my mind from her.

These moments, however, are troublesome exceptions to this translator's demanding rule. In his forward, Merwin hopes that something new and valuable might arise from his endeavor, that translation "on the other side of a sea change" might bring up poetry again, converting Mt. Purgatory, "bruna / per la distanza," into a Seven Story Fountain. Such a hope is a kind of petitionary prayer often chanted by contemporary poet-translators, one that the current rendering consistently answers. Merwin speaks of being remote from Dante's theological views, but ascribes his devotion to "some authority of the imagination in the poetry." He would agree with Pirandello's declaration, then, that there is in Dante earth as well as heaven, and it is just this—the earth of Mt. Purgatory and the sky above it, causing "recognition and relief" after the descent of Inferno—that earn his enthusiasm and lead to his most sustained and beautiful passages.

Such praise will come as no surprise to longtime readers of Merwin's own poetry, who will be familiar with his gifts of natural description. A stanza from his poem, "Pastures," from Rain in the Trees (1988), appears in hindsight to be a prototype for his statement on theology and imagination in the Commedia:

I was taught the word
pasture as though
it came from the Bible
but I know it named something
with a real sky

He transports Dante's own natural perceptions with a sure hand, whether by his clear and easy-to-follow version of the extended simile in canto XXX, where the spring winds and the snow melting in the Apennines intricately simulate Dante's own hardened heart, now melting into sighs and tears, or in his attention to render well those details that give Purgatorio its physical veracity—as when Dante panics because he does not see Virgil's shadow. As the poem begins, we are standing on shore, Merwin says. "We are seeing the sky, our sky, the sky to which we wake in our days." In mantric fashion he is speaking of the "real sky" from "Pastures," with its children running among "mounds of rusting ferns," much like Dante walks along the stream in the Garden of Eden, keeping pace with Matelda on the opposite bank. In another poem, "Forgotten Streams" (from The Vixen, 1995), Merwin confronts the translator's timeless, but time-caused, obstacle: "we don't speak the same language / from one generation to another." But the language in which he recreates the spiraling path up Mt. Purgatory is sufficiently similar, and his version as a whole constitutes a marriage, appropriately enough, made just shy of heaven. •


Brett Foster studies Medieval and Renaissance literature at Yale University.

Originally published in the February/March 2001 issue of Boston Review



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