Home » Reviews » Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, translated by D.M Black (New York Review of Books 2021)

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, translated by D.M Black (New York Review of Books 2021)

Reviewed by Caroline Maldonado

Easter morning. After descending through nine circles of Hell in Inferno, the first canticle of The Divine Comedy, Dante, together with Virgil, his guide and mentor, emerges on the shores of Mount Purgatory, and the first Canto of Purgatorio opens:


    To run through better waters now the little

ship of my talent here must lift her sails

and put behind her that so cruel sea;

   and I will sing now of a second kingdom

where the human spirit undergoes purgation

and makes itself fit for the ascent to Heaven.

   But here let my dead poem rise again,

O sacred Muses! for it’s you I serve…     Canto 1, lines 1-8


The second of three canticles in Dante’s great epic poem marks his passage up the mountain of Purgatory to reach the earthly paradise of Eden, before continuing towards the spiritual paradise of the final canticle, Paradiso.  After experiencing the blackness of Hell, Dante encounters the sensory experiences familiar to him from the living world, with colours and weather. On his journey he views a constantly changing landscape with its play of sunshine and shadow and he delights in it.  After suffering Hell’s permanent insomnia, he is allowed to sleep again for the three nights he spends on the mountain, and Purgatory is full of the sweet singing of souls praising the Lord.


Dante and Virgil reach Ante-Purgatory on the flat shore and the lower slopes of the mountain to find the terraces that lead horizontally up the mountain, each one preceded by steps to the next one in a circular movement upward towards the light, a symbol of God’s love.  Each terrace represents one of the deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust.  The most serious, Pride, is at the bottom.  The gatekeeper inscribes seven Ps on his forehead (one for each peccata) which Dante must wash off, or is brushed away by an angel’s wing, as he confronts his own sinfulness.  On their way he meets shades who have lost their lives and who suffer for their sins but, unlike the lost souls of Hell, can still be healed through repentance and re-directed away from self-love towards the common good. Among them Dante meets his friends and contemporaries as well as historical and classical figures. He has the opportunity to question their actions and the punishment they receive, each carefully matched to the nature of the sin so, for example, he finds the proud bent double by heavy boulders and the envious with their eyelids sewn together. The climb is hard, the path sometimes so narrow the shades must pass in single file, the drop beside them is steep and Dante and Virgil squeeze through narrow fractures in the rock to find the steps leading to the next level.  Gradually the journey becomes easier, Dante describes the sensation of lightness and warmth as they reach the higher terraces. The weather continues to change until, in the final cantos, the weather is no longer external but inside him. He has realised a more internalised state of being, ready to embrace the visionary.  It is a journey of constant transformation that is described in physical terms but is essentially a representation of Dante’s own growth in spiritual understanding.


Living in a war-riven country and prominent in politics as a White Guelf, he was banished from his city by the opposing dominant faction, the Black Guelfs. Some of the physical extremes he writes about, such as the purifying walk through fire towards the end of Purgatorio, have a spiritual dimension (in it, he is purged of the sin of lust) but they also reflect a reality where those who were politically on the wrong side, such as himself, faced death by fire in a public execution.  Still banished from his city, he died in 1321 and was buried in Ravenna, although Florence is still trying to reclaim his body. The corrupt governance of both church and state provides the background for many of the characters in this canticle. It ranges in time, from classical to the Middle Ages, and uses imagery and metaphor from both Catholic and classical traditions with the Roman poet, Virgil, representing the Aristotelian rationality of his own world.  Not having been baptised as a Christian, Virgil’s soul cannot be saved and he must remain in Limbo but, as guide and mentor, he provides a foil for some of Dante’s philosophical ideas, and loving, emotional support when Dante is confused or fearful.  That relationship is fundamental and the point where Dante turns to speak to his guide, forgetting that he is no longer with him and cannot follow him into heaven, inspires some of the most poignant lines in the Purgatorio.  Throughout the immense imaginative architecture of The Divine Comedy and particularly in this canticle, Dante explores some of the issues of greatest importance to him, the nature of free will and its limitations, the contradictions within human behaviour that hold us back from virtue and grace and our ability to improve ourselves and move towards the ultimate goal. That goal is divine Love, as represented by Beatrice, the young girl he fell in love with on a bridge in Florence.  


Purgatorio may appeal more directly to contemporary readers as it is a more ‘human’, less deterministic, space than either Inferno or Paradiso. It has time like ours, with a beginning and an end, and change is possible. Dante is less the observer, is more engaged, conversing with and expressing compassion for the souls he meets, some of whom were friends in life. They repented of their sins while still alive and for that reason are in Purgatory rather than in Hell, but they are dead and they marvel to meet him, who still lives.  He is deeply moved by their suffering and witnessing their nostalgia for their lost life and loved ones, can value his own more.


The Divine Comedy, as a great work of the imagination, has inspired other poets and artists through the ages in different forms, from Botticelli’s sketches in the fifteenth century to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings and poems in the nineteenth, and on.  So it’s not surprising that new translations regularly appear in English, brought to a contemporary readership in a fresh voice and contemporary idiom. In a short preface, Robert Pogue Harrison argues that now more than ever we need to read this one, with its themes of reconciliation, regeneration and re-direction, which are so necessary to us in our time of political and ecological crisis.  For what makes this version of particularly interest is the accompanying texts DM Black also provides to ‘translate’ the text for us in a meaningful way. The book is bilingual, 460 pages long and includes two prefaces, Pogue Harrison’s and a longer introduction by Black, plus several pages of notes after each canto and his long Afterword. The Divine Comedy can simply be enjoyed for the beauty of its language and thought and its intense imagery, but for a deeper understanding of its enormous range and complexity of ideas some assistance is needed even by Italian, let alone English readers. Any difficulty met by the contemporary English reader, particularly if approaching this work for the first time, will be with the references, mythological and historical, the associations connected to dreams and visions, and the theological allegory that is likely to be unfamiliar in our secular age.  


In his 46 page Afterword, ‘Dante as a Psychological Thinker’, Black reads Dante’s use of allegory, conveying the soul’s conflicts and growth, as a portrayal of the ‘divided mind’ that is explored in theories of psychoanalysis and neuroscience in our own day. He touches on the debates between scientists, such as the biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, with his purely rationalist view of our existence, and opponents who make a plea for allegory, whether in art or religion, as an essential means by which we can more intuitively comprehend and interact with the world.  He references the neuroscientist, Iain McGilchrist who, in The Master and his Emissary, demonstrates how the difference (and lack of integration) between the left and right hemispheres of the brain has shaped Western culture. Black argues:


Unlike abstract thought, the preferred mode of science, allegory is a sort of thinking that stays in touch with individuality and emotion; and like dream it doesn’t necessarily wear its meaning on its face. Nor need it have a single meaning.   Afterword, p.245


Dante tries to integrate contradictions, weighing the teachings of Aquinas and Christianity, with its concepts of commandment and sin, against Virgil’s Aristotelian teaching and the individual’s ability to make choices, particularly in relation to morality, virtuous action and the exercise of free will.  Being a psychoanalyst himself, as well as a poet and translator, Black’s interest in Dante’s text is in how a medieval poet, without the knowledge we have access to today, explored the same existential challenges we face and the same conflicts in human behaviour. Black shows how in Dante’s approach:


…the suffering in Purgatory is not so much an arbitrary punishment by an angry God as the psychological consequence of the way one has managed or failed to manage their motives. Dante agrees with psychoanalysis to this extent.   Afterword, p.236


Nonetheless Dante differs in that the psychological pain is not to be treated by a doctor but by repentance.  For Black, Christian salvation of the soul is seen in terms of the healing of the individual psyche and of our fractured relationship with our ecosystem. In this way, his Introduction, Notes and Afterword all play a role in the translation of this text, as well as how he uses language.  


In the introduction Black sets out the linguistic choices he has made.  He took the decision not to adopt Dante’s invented form of terza rima; this is a form made up of tercets with the first and third lines rhyming and the second line rhyming with the first and third lines of the following tercet, which gives the language a lyrical forward impulse through the narrative.  It’s a form difficult to sustain in English over many pages, mainly because of the relative paucity of rhyme in our language, and also the potential artificiality of the result and the inevitable distortion as lines are re-arranged so as to fit in the rhyming word. There are losses and gains with any translation and compromises have to be made as a translator transfers, through his or her own voice, the meaning, sound, variation and tone of the original. Each translator finds their own inspiration in Dante’s great work. Dorothy Sayers is said to have started her translation after reading the original Italian during air raid shelters during the 1940 air bombings.  The wars, corruption and exploitation that Dante describes so vividly in his Comedy seemed to her to mirror what was going on around her in the Second World War.  Her translation of Hell in 1949 was a best-seller, as was her Purgatory brought out by Penguin in 1955 and since then re-published until 1975.  Although much praised at the time, her translations, in which she did replicate terza rima in English, are still admired by some but considered mechanical by others. C.H Sisson, another translator who eschewed rhyme in favour of the ‘language of one’s day’ (as did John Dryden in the seventeenth century) described her attempt in the introduction to his 1980 version as ‘rather like a clown following a ballet dancer’; in his, Clive James wrote that ‘Sayers had simultaneously loaded her text with cliché and pumped it full of wind’!  Clive James chose a compromise in his 2013 Picador version of The Divine Comedy and used rhyming iambic quatrains throughout, in a version praised for its accessibility and lucidity.  


Black quickly concluded that using rhyme would have provided a ‘huge distraction’ and his version is written in blank verse, very close in other ways to the original lines, as it is in its movement and syntax.  Aiming to follow the texture and direction of Dante’s thought as closely as possible, he keeps to the syntax and grammatical structure of Dante’s sentences.  He also tries, when possible, to preserve the effect of Dante’s rhymed open vowels with feminine line endings.  His achievement here is to keep a flowing, modern-sounding speech, as well as the musicality of the original much of the time.  Dante wrote in the Tuscan vernacular in a tone that to this day sounds natural and colloquial in Italian but his theme also required him to vary those passages with others in a high register and Black captures their dignified tone well. He also introduces a particularly inventive translation into Scots, of a few lines that Dante wrote in Provencal, in the voice of Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour whose poetry had influenced him in his early verses. 


Dante is a protagonist but also a poet and is conscious of his two roles and his responsibility, as set out in these lines


    E io a lui: ‘’I’ mi son un che, quando

Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo

ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando’’.


translated by Black as:


    I answered him: ‘’I am someone who, when Love

breathes in me, pays attention and I go,

as he commands me inwardly, making meaning’’.    Canto XX1V, lines 52-54


The Latin etymology of the verb significare is from the Latin signum sign and ficare to fix – so to mark down, which was the meaning used in thirteenth century Italian. Black has used a more contemporary translation thus emphasising Dante’s search for meaning over, or at least equal to, that of his duty as a writer.


Dante chose a poet, Virgil, to be his guide but he also introduces into Purgatory other dead poets whom he loved, partly so as to praise and acknowledge them as his mentors. On the terrace of Lust, he encounters Provencal troubadour Arnaut Daniel, referred to earlier. On the same terrace he meets Guido Guinizelli, the father figure for the group of young poets who wrote in the new style of the dolce stil novo, which also included Dante and another poet Guido Cavalcanti (who was translated by Ezra Pound) who meets Dante on a different terrace.         


These lines illustrate the affection and humility he feels for his fellow-poets, that he could not always express immediately in words, as in this case where he sees Guinzelli:


…who was the father both

of me and of my betters, all who found

use for the sweet and gracious rhymes of love;

    and I was lost in thought, and neither heard

nor spoke, but for a long time stared at him…    Canto XXV1, lines 97-99


and when Guinizelli speaks:


‘’…tell me what reason causes you to show

such love for me in both your face and speech.’’

  I answered: ‘’Your sweet poems, which, as long

as modern usage lasts, would make one love

even the ink that they were written with!’’       Canto XXV11, lines 110-114


Through understanding and repentance each sin can have a positive side.  The sin of lust, considered here as an excessive form of love, can be forgiven when sexual desire leads to an understanding of transcendent love.  It appears to be the special sin of love poets and Arnaut Daniel, Guido Guinizelli, Dante, Virgil and Statius, another classical poet who leads him in the later stages, are all commanded by the Angel of Chastity to enter the purifying flames. Dante admits to another sin, that of Pride, when he claims that his own talent is greater than his teachers’, but he also recognises the value of self-confidence as a necessary spur for him to achieve his work.  It is through these contradictions and their resolutions that Black leads us, as translator, interpreter and guide, to the end of Purgatory, from where Dante will bathe in the river of Eunoe and then continue on his journey, in these beautiful lines:


    Io ritornai da la santissima onda

rifatto sì come piante novelle

rinovellate di novella fronda,

    puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.


    From that most holy of all rivers I

came back, and was remade like a new plant

that is renewed in its new foliage,

    purged now and ready to climb to the stars.   Canto XXX111, lines 142-145




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