I’m specifically talking about the Dorothy L. Sayers translation here. In her preface, Sayers notes that this is the most loved of the Divine Comedy‘s canticles. It is the most human, many commentators say, since it alone takes place within the realm of the temporal, on earth. Its spirits, suffering but hopeful, penitent but genial, seem so much more “realistic” than the frenziedly static images of sin in Hell, even though these shades undergo purging tortures not a little infernal, from the literal burning of the lustful to the sewn-shut eyelids of the envious. There is a tone of “we’re all fellow sufferers here” similar to the fellowship that can develop on a bus or a job. There is much philosophical verse: Virgil on love, Marco Lombardo on free will, and others. It doesn’t bother me—there are more painful ways to learn about theology. The long-awaited appearance of a Beatrice full of maternal “stern pity” amid a pageant so allegorically intricate that Sayers must sometimes admit ignorance is as memorable a moment as I’ve encountered in western narrative, if obscurely dismaying to the modern mind. This is a poet’s canticle, full of poets and other artists, and striking disquisitions on art. Beckett’s Belacqua is here, and Browning’s Sordello, and a couple of lines from The Waste Land. The Troubadours are honored in the appearance of the Provencal-speaking Arnaut Daniel from out the lust-purging fire.* A strange poem, more mature than the Inferno, of more obvious relevance to the purgatory of earthly life.
About Sayers: so far she’s the only Dante for me. She keeps the terza rima, supposedly an impossible feat in English, and also works mostly in iambic pentameter, or at least a five-beat line. While this occasionally leads her into some unpersuasive rhyming and some near-doggerel, it gives it the velocity the poem is supposed to have in Italian due to the frequency of the rhymes, and makes it sound almost like a real English poem, maybe not a world masterpiece, but at its best comparable to Tennyson or the Rossettis. I greatly prefer this to the recent translations in prosy free or blank verse that sound like something published in the New Yorker, the wry self-embarrassed tones of contemporary poetry, as if it all had to be read aloud by Bill Murray. I also find Sayers’s extensive notes useful—she is a believer and expounds the theology from the inside, in lucid terms; it’s like a course in medieval thought. Some people complain about this approach—in part because she simply explains the logic of why, for instance, from this POV sodomy is a sin or non-Christians have to be in Hell very dispassionately and without apology; but I would rather understand Dante than have his unsurprisingly medieval social views pointlessly denounced by the translator.
Her introduction to the Purgatorio, written in the mid-1950s, is especially interesting as she argues at length from an Anglo-Catholic perspective against a Freudian interpretation of Beatrice as “mother-imago” and also against a Romantic appropriation of Beatrice to “the eternal feminine,” or Jungian anima archetype; both psychoanalysis and Romanticism she identifies as revivals of magical and gnostic thinking, which to her mind ought to have been superseded by the rational supernaturalism of Catholic doctrine, in which the ultimate truth is always incarnate, so that Christ was man and God at once and Beatrice both a real woman and a God-bearing image. This conviction leads her, in the case of Beatrice, to articulate a fascinating Christian feminist perspective now mostly absent from intellectual and political dialogue except as a certain “common sense” (“feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings”) that necessarily has to disavow its origin in Christianity’s historical defeat of the gods and, yes, goddesses:
In Dante’s case there is no possible doubt about it: the redemption is in the personal love. I do not, in fact, find in his work any vestiges of “Ewig-Weiblich” mystique: there is the one Lady, there are a number of subsidiary ladies: but of mere Feminist as a power for good or evil there is no more trace than in the Gospels. Further, I am not convinced about the “woman reader”. I think that, as I have indicated before, the average woman of intelligence is fairly ready to believe in the value of a personal relationship, but the idea of a peculiar mana attached to femaleness as such, deriving as it does from primitive fertility-cults and nature-magic, is likely to strike her as either nonsensical or repellent.
*Sayers ingeniously and disastrously renders his Provencal dialogue as “Border Scots” on the theory that its relation to English is similar to Provencal’s relation to Italian. That’s as may be, but it comes off as silly, as if Bobbie Burns had wandered into the poem.