Dante, it seems, did not know Greek; but he had Virgil at his side.


The Mantuan had conscientiously and studiously designed his own Aeneid as a sequel to the Iliad and would have been chagrined to realise that his own, but not Homer’s, epic was available to Dante in the land of their birth. But in conjecturing a fitting end for Ulysses, Dante drew on the imagery of James’s letter in the New Testament.


According to David H Higgins, whose detailed notes accompany CH Sisson’s excellent translation of the Divine Comedy,[1] Dante knew the texts of the Iliad and Odyssey only


fragmentarily in quotation or glosses in Latin authors. Dante knew no Greek, and no MSS of the epics were known in the West early in the fourteenth century. Dante’s esteem of Homer is based solely on his reputation as reported in later classical authors. (p. 509)


As sometimes happens with translation, the spirit and nobility of a work leap across a chasm, not only of language, but of an absent text. This particular torch is important to the relay that is often observed to be central to the progressive character of European literature. Thus Homer is complemented and extended by Virgil, who – virtuous pagan – is adopted by Dante in early Renaissance Italy as a guide, psychopomp and emblem of human reason.


That Christian rationalism has seldom been so beset as in the Nazi era of Auschwitz. And no cry more piteous has been heard than in Primo Levi’s account, in chapter 11 of If This Is A Man,[2] of his reconstruction from memory of the ending of Inferno Canto XXVI for the benefit of Jean (or Pikolo), his twenty-four year old Alsatian companion, who


although he continued his secret individual struggle against death … did not neglect his human relationships […] (p. 137)


In the context of a first lesson in Italian, commenced immediately because


the important thing is not to lose time, not to waste this hour (p. 139)


‘Primo’ (as he is known in the camp) begins with the Canto on Ulysses! Pikolo shows his mettle (he is a survivor) by continuing to listen attentively, to wait, to suggest words, even when Levi struggles to tell him


about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today … (p. 143)


The soup queue, which they must enter to bring back a 100 pound canister of cabbage and turnip soup supported on two poles for their colleagues in the Kommando, is forgotten:


It is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this … before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again […] (p. 142)


Here the injured and perjured spirit of Europe cries, and is heard, through the medium of fastidious care for a text, the details of which, though many elude the memory of this man, a chemist who never thought of himself as a writer before he entered Auschwitz, come to seem, in the moment of telling, enormously significant:


“I set forth” [misi me] is not je me mis [Levi is trying both to remember Dante’s old Italian and to convey it in modern French to Pikolo], it is much stronger and more audacious, it is a chain which has been broken, it is throwing oneself on the other side of a barrier, we know the impulse well. (p. 140)


And as with every textual detail recounted, the meaning’s relevance to their situation explodes with the force of revelation.





This textual force arises from a tradition, a channel of living inspiration, a world of ideal exemplars – of veracity, of clarity, even of mission, the task of the writer being to bear witness, to fulfil a national or divine purpose of the highest kind (the founding of Rome, the dispensing of eternal justice, of surviving the death camp in order to convey faithfully the intrinsic detail of the experience).


In addition to the vicissitudes of memory, which seem fatally to imperil the reconstruction of the Canto in the brief window of opportunity, as Primo and the Pikolo are


swept by the fierce rhythm of the Lager (p. 138 )


there is, for us as well as for Pikolo, the problem of linguistic access. Medieval Italian seems a special study, possibly requiring a lifetime; in this case, is there any English version which may be preferred?


Laurence Binyon (1933-43) and Dorothy Sayers (1949-62) have both ventured verse translations into English, which are highly regarded, but to which I do not have access. There are others, too, by John Sinclair (1939-46), John Ciardi (1954), Allen Mandelbaum (1980-82) and Mark Musa (1971), also unknown to me.


The internet provides[3] a verse translation by Henry F. Cary[4] (1892) which we may examine, choosing as specimen a pleasing extended simile (lines 27-35 or thereabouts) which compares the poet’s coming upon the eighth chasm of the eighth circle to a countryman’s view, at dusk, of glow-worms below in the valley where he has been working. Cary has this:


As in that season, when the sun least veils       

His face that lightens all, what time the fly        

Gives way to the shrill gnat, the peasant then,   

Upon some cliff reclined, beneath him sees

Fire-flies innumerous spangling o’er the vale,     

Vineyard or tilth, where his day-labor lies;         

With flames so numberless throughout its space           

Shone the eighth chasm, apparent, when the depth       

Was to my view exposed.


This is Miltonic – contrived with the mechanical model of Latin quantitative verse in mind – but, unlike Milton, relatively inert, even pedantic:


what time … [and] then


resolutely compacted to the metre, just as ‘innumerous’ must be devised to avoid the extra syllable of ‘innumerable’. This is the fabric of Wardour Street English, inkhorn words, even fustian. ‘Spangling’ carries peculiarly the wrong association – of decorative artificiality. Moreover


when the sun least veils 

His face that lightens all


requires some decoding, possibly recourse to a note (which is not supplied).


Another verse translation, undertaken with a “poetic rather than pedantic” approach, shows that even faithful versifying can be readable, that is, can flow:


The view

Beneath us was an empty depth, wherethrough

Lights moved, abundant as the fireflies are

At even, when the gnats succeed the flies.

A myriad gleams the labourer sees who lies

Above them, resting, while the vale below

Already darkens to the night, – he toiled

From dawn to store the ripened grapes, or till

The roots around, and on the shadowing hill

Reclines and gazes down the vale.[5]


This succeeds, though, at the cost of suppressing the elaborate reference to summer.


The greatness of Dante having been lost by straining through Cary’s sieve, we turn to the contemporary Sisson:


As the countryman, who is resting on a hill,

At the season when he who lights up the world

Hides his face from us for the shortest time,


When flies give way to gnats, sees in the valley

Thousands of glow-worms, perhaps in the very place

Where he has worked at harvest or at plough;


There were as many flames there glittering

In the eighth cleft, which I perceived,

As soon as I arrived where I could see the bottom.[6]


It is clear, now, that Dante’s nested parentheses (“at the season when … he who”) are going to cause difficulty to any translator and reader, but


At the season when he who lights up the world

Hides his face from us for the shortest time,


is graced by a note:


i.e. during the summer, when the days are longer than the nights. (p. 543)


This hurdle over, we find the agreeable colloquialism of the last line, and metrical overflow of


Thousands of glow-worms, perhaps in the very place


(devices both of which make for readability over the course of many pages), more than matched by a return of classical brio in:


There were as many flames there glittering


The contemporary fashion in verse translation for rough carpentry may be accepted in the present case, but it is a delicate balance. In passing, it may be noted that Seamus Heaney, who has acknowledged the soaring figure of Dante in his own inspiration, even writing ‘Station Island’[7] within the “big acoustic” of the Divine Comedy, has twice included his translations of sections of the ‘Inferno’ in his own books.[8] The later of these, a version of Canto III, lines 82-129, ends


And they are eager to go across the river

Because Divine Justice goads them with its spur

So that their fear is turned into desire.


No good spirits ever pass this way

And therefore, if Charon objects to you,

You should understand well what his words imply […] (p. 113)


– thus confirming, in spite of serious urgency, some sense that, as regards any main verse line, the departures rather outnumber the returns.


Sisson, then, bridges the considerable gap between verse probity and prose readability, a modern achievement that may make him a preferred contemporary Dante.


Less modern, but with its own vivacity, is the Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed version,[9] so-called because three pairs of hands translated the three parts of the Comedy. With the ‘Inferno’ we are concerned with the work of John Aitken Carlyle. The same passage is given as:


As many fireflies as the peasant who is resting on the hill – at the time when he who lightens the world hides his face from us,[10]

when the fly yields to the gnat – sees down along the valley there perchance where he gathers grapes and tills:

with flames thus numerous the eighth chasm was all gleaming, as I perceived, so soon as I came to where the bottom showed itself. (p. 139)


Here the syntax of the argument is stretched further, necessitating the “thus numerous” to pick up the thread of the fireflies, introduced early. But we may admire the immediacy of “where the bottom shows itself” and “where he [the peasant] gathers grapes and tills”. This cheerful pithiness of diction is sustained, agreeably to the modern reader: Ulysses and his companions, swathed in fire, soon appear moving “along the gullet of the fosse”.


If the modern trend in verse translation is to eschew manicured lines and forms imposed from a tradition alien to the Divine Comedy, then this kind of springy and mineral-rich prose is likely to hold the frail attention of the interested, but fatigable, contemporary reader, in all probability a student.


There is finally, an older version long held in special regard by connoisseurs, the prose translation by Charles Eliot Norton.[11] This was reviewed in the early 1920s in the following terms:


[…] a prose translation, and, needless to say, a faithful one. Compared with a prose masterpiece like Andrew Lang’s version of Theocritus, it seems rather dry, and wanting in such rhythmic beauty as is well within the reach of prose. Here the austerity of Dante seems to have fused with the austerity of the Norton stock to produce something more austere than either. Norton’s version holds its own, however, with other prose versions of Dante.[12]


But Norton was writing somewhat in the shadow of Longfellow’s own verse translation of Dante and perhaps in a spirit of quiet dissidence. Let us make the same comparison:


As many as the fireflies which, in the season when he that brightens the world keeps his face least hidden from us, the rustic, who is resting on the hillside what time the fly yields to the gnat, sees down in the valley, perhaps there where he makes his vintage and ploughs ― with so many flames all the eighth pit was gleaming, as I perceived so soon as I was there where the bottom became apparent. [13]


Here the laws of elegant prose, rather than of regular verse, are being observed. Once again the quantitative figure (“As many … with so many”) has to be picked up after an interval occasioned by those nesting parentheses, but by now we may attribute this equally to the elaborateness of Dante and the fidelity of the translator. Otherwise the version is faultless and might well satisfy even the eagle-eyed Robert Graves, pitiless exposer of unclear prose.[14]





The criterion, then, for a translation of Dante in any age – because each new failure reveals unfamiliar faces of a turning planet – is: does it enable the trembling entry of the new reader into the world of Dante? The new reader, like Pikolo, needs to understand unmistakably the meaning of this work, the concern with salvation and judgement, with cosmos and order, in an older language; with valid living and existential truth, in a newer one.


History is the motor of culture, as tradition is of literature. In an age of relativism and officially sponsored amnesia, there is always denial of this obvious truth. But against all the odds, new questioners are born who wish to possess the cultural world they find themselves in – and wish to possess themselves.


In Europe, this sequence of defining epics – masterworks – begins perhaps with the lyric sweep of Homer, is crystallised further in the noble polity of Virgil and flowers through Christianity and the judicious passions of Dante, her greatest poet. Thus we look, as if down a telescope, from Levi to Dante, to Virgil and finally to Homer. The segments cohere, they obey an invisible sequence, they subdue the gulfs of time and interpret the inner values of a civilisation.


At its weakest this tradition gathers dust like a geranium in a museum, slumbering on the sill of yawning scholarship; but it is not its weakest that concerns us. Like a resilient nervous system, whose power is revealed only in extremity, the European tradition throws off fleshly veils of aestheticism when survival itself is threatened, when the succession becomes Homer, Virgil, Dante … and Primo Levi.


Dante leads Ulysses and his crew through the Pillars of Hercules and out towards Atlantis where, after a further five months of voyaging past the forbidden limits, they reach the imposingly dark mountain isle of Purgatory. Here, in a storm, the ship with all lives is lost, as “it pleased another [i.e. God] it should [be]”. This is an invented, but fitting, death for Ulysses, one of the


corrupt advisers, guilty of misapplying their intellectual powers, [who] are similarly guilty of the abuse of eloquence.[15]


Levi writes:


[…] the sun is already high, midday is near. I am in a hurry, a terrible hurry […] (p. 141)


He continues:


As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am. (p. 141)


Has all this urgency to communicate and remember, to recover, through exact text, the fountain of European spirituality in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable, been in vain? Perhaps, says Levi,


perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he [Pikolo] has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders. (pp. 141-2)


Thus are Dante’s words, variably translated, given a meaning and urgency that might have surprised Dante or Virgil, but would not have surprised those sinners writhing eternally in their fires in the eighth circle of that other hell.


30th August 2003

[1] Dante, The Divine Comedy, a new verse translation by CH Sisson; Manchester: Carcanet, 1980.

[2] Levi, P, If This Is A Man, tr. Stuart Woolf. London: Folio Society, 2000.

[4] Published originally by P.F. Collier & Son Company, New York, 1909–14.

[5] S Fowler Wright, Inferno (1928). Available at: http://www.sfw.org/books/inferno.html

[6] op. cit., p. 155.

[7] The middle of three sections, itself ‘Station Island’, in the 1984 collection Station Island (London: Faber).

[8] ‘Ugolino’ in Field Work (1979) and ‘The Crossing’ in Seeing Things (1991); both Faber.

[9] New York: Random House (Modern Library Editions), 1932, 1950.

[10] This is footnoted thus: “In the summer-time, when the days are longest.”

[11] Originally Houghton Mifflin, 1891-2; reprinted as no. 21 in ‘Great Books of the Western World’, ed. Hutchins, RM. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

[12] Lounsbury, T.R. In The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 volumes (1907-1921), vol. 18, part 3, section 25 (Scholars), subsection 45: ‘Writers upon art; Charles Eliot Norton’.

[13] Britannica edition, p. 38.

[14] Graves, R. and Hodge, A. The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook For Writers Of English Prose. London: Jonathan Cape, 1943.

[15] Higgins’ note to Sisson’s translation, op. cit., p. 543.