Fifty years ago, I was a guest at the baptism of a friend’s son in the ancient church of a Tuscan hamlet. It was Easter, and lambing season. A Sardinian shepherd who tended the flocks of a local landowner came to pay his respects to the new parents. He was a wild-looking man with matted hair whose harsh dialect was hard to understand. Among our party was a beauty of fifteen, an artist’s daughter, and the shepherd took such a fancy to her that he asked for her hand. The girl’s father politely declined, and the shepherd, to show that he had no hard feelings, offered us a lamb for our Paschal dinner. My friends were penniless bohemians, so the gift was welcome. It came, however, with a condition: we had to watch the lamb being slaughtered.
The blood sacrifice took place after the baptism. That morning, the baby’s godfather, an expatriate writer, had caused a stir in the church, since none of the villagers, most of them farmers, had ever seen a Black man in person. Some tried to touch his hands, to see if the color would rub off; there was a sense of awe among them, as if one of the Magi had come to visit. Toward the end of the ceremony, the moment came for the sponsors to “renounce Satan and . . . all his seductions of sin and evil.” The godfather had been raised in a pious community, and he entered into the spirit of this one. His own experience of malevolence had taught him, as he wrote, that life “is not moral.” Yet he stood gravely at the font and vowed, “Rinuncio.”
I thought of those scenes last spring when I began reading three new translations of Purgatory, being published to coincide with the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, at fifty-six, in September of 1321. The speech of the hamlet had primed my ear for the poet’s tongue. “Di che potenza vieni?” an old farmer had asked the godfather: “From what power dost thou come?” Purgatory, like the other two canticles of what Dante called his “sacred” epic, Inferno and Paradise, takes place during Easter week in 1300. In Canto I, the pilgrim and his cicerone, Virgil, emerge from Hell and arrive at the mountain “of that second kingdom where the human spirit purges itself to become worthy of Heaven.” Dante’s body, still clad in its flesh, inspires marvel among the shades because it casts a shadow. They mob him with questions: From where has he come?
Dante was a good companion for the pandemic, a dark wood from which the escape route remains uncertain. The plagues he describes are still with us: of sectarian violence, and of the greed for power that corrupts a regime. His medieval theology isn’t much consolation to a modern nonbeliever, yet his art and its truths feel more necessary than ever: that greater love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil may be understood as a sin against love, and that a soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish without first plumbing it.
An underworld where spirits migrate after death has always been part of humankind’s imagination. Nearly every culture, including the most ancient, has a name for it: Diyu, Naraka, Sheol, Tartarus, Hades. But there is no Purgatory in the Bible, or in Protestantism, or in Eastern Orthodoxy. In current Catholic dogma, it is a state of being rather than an actual realm between Hell and Heaven: an inner fire in the conscience of sinners that refines their impurities.
The concept of Purgatory was relatively new when Dante was born; it came into currency in the twelfth century, perhaps among French theologians. This invention of a liminal space where sinners who had repented but still had work to do on their souls was a great consolation to the faithful. It was also a boon for the Church. By the late Middle Ages, you could shorten your detention by years, centuries, or even millennia by paying a hefty sum to a “pardoner,” like Chaucer’s pilgrim. A popular ditty captured the cynicism this practice inspired: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs.”
Before Dante, though, the notion of Purgatory was an empty lot waiting for a visionary developer. His blueprint is an invention of exquisite specificity. A ziggurat-like mountain ringed with seven terraces, one for each of the cardinal sins, rises from the sea in the Southern Hemisphere, opposite the globe from Jerusalem, with the Earthly Paradise at its summit. According to Dante, this mountain was formed by the impact of Satan’s fall to Earth. His descent brought grief to the children of Eve—those “seductions of sin and evil” that every godparent must renounce. But it also created a stairway to Heaven.
Dante’s conception of Purgatory is remarkably like a wilderness boot camp. Its terrain is forbidding—more like an alp than like a Tuscan hillside. Each of the rugged terraces is a setting for group therapy, where supernatural counsellors dispense tough love. Their charges are sinners, yet not incorrigibles: they all embraced Jesus as their savior. But, before dying, they harmed others and themselves, so their spirits need reëducation. They will graduate to the Earthly Paradise, and eventually to Heaven, after however much time it takes them to transcend their mortal failings by owning them.
For many students of Dante, Purgatory is the Divine Comedy’s central canticle poetically, philosophically, and psychologically. It is, as one of its best translators, the poet W. S. Merwin, noted, the only one that “happens on the earth, as our lives do. . . . Here the times of day recur with all the sensations and associations that the hours bring with them, the hours of the world we are living as we read.” And here, too, he reflects, there is “hope, as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.”
The Dante we meet in the first lines of Inferno is a middle-aged man who wakes after a night of terrors to find himself in the wilderness. How did he get there? The Republic of Florence was his crucible. He was born in 1265, under the sign of Gemini. According to a recent biographer, the Italian scholar Marco Santagata, he believed that his natal horoscope had destined him for glory as both a poet and a messiah who would save the world. There was little in his background to justify such grandiosity. Santagata calls Dante’s father, Alighiero, “a small-time moneylender.” His mother, Bella, came from a wealthier family. Both parents were respectable citizens, though not members of the élite. Their son’s pretensions to nobility weren’t warranted by his birth.
Dante was the youngest of his parents’ children, and he was possibly just a toddler when his mother died. His father died when Dante was about ten. The boy suffered from poor health and bad eyesight. The fits and visions that his works allude to may have been caused by epilepsy. Yet his intellect seems always to have been exceptional. However Dante was educated (likely in a plebeian public school, according to Santagata), he mastered Latin and became “a great epistolographer”—a composer of artful letters, official and private. When he waded into his city’s roiling politics, that talent anchored his career.
Florence was a hub of banking and the wool trade. By the late twelve-hundreds, two rival parties, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, had been fighting for nearly a century to dominate its government. The Guelfs were allied with the Pope, the Ghibellines with the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1289, the Ghibellines were defeated in a decisive battle at Campaldino. But the victors then splintered into two factions—the White Guelfs, with whom Dante sided, and the Black Guelfs, his sworn enemies.
Dante fought in the cavalry at Campaldino, and war must have given him a foretaste of Hell. But then he went back to civilian life, becoming a nova in Florence’s literary firmament. He made princely friends who admired his poetry. Among them was another of Italy’s greatest poets, Guido Cavalcanti, although Dante wouldn’t spare his father from damnation for heresy.
By 1295, Dante had finished “Vita Nuova,” a stylized autobiography. Its author is a self-absorbed youth with the leisure to moon after an aloof woman. He knows he’s a genius and can’t help showing off. Passages of prose alternate with sonnets and canzoni on the theme of love, but the author doesn’t trust us to understand them. His didactic self-commentary has been hailed as the birth of metatextuality, though it also seems to mark the advent of mansplaining. The “Vita,” Dante tells us, in the penultimate chapter, is addressed to a female readership (one presumably unversed in poetics). “It is to the ladies that I speak,” he writes.
Several ladies elicit Dante’s gallantry in the “Vita,” but only one, Beatrice, inspires his adoration. Her probable model was Beatrice di Folco Portinari. Her father and husband were rich Florentine bankers; she died in her early twenties. Details of her life are scarce, and Dante doesn’t supply many. Their families may have been neighbors. Her father’s testament left her fifty florins. Dante claims that he was first smitten with Beatrice as a nine-year-old; she was a few months younger and dressed fetchingly in crimson. At that moment, he “began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected.” He next catches sight of her at eighteen, now “dressed in pure white,” and when she greets him he feels he is experiencing “the very summit of bliss.” That night, he dreams of her asleep, “naked except for a crimson cloth,” in the arms of a “lordly man.” The man wakes her, holding a blazing heart—Dante’s—and compels her to eat it, which she does “unsurely.”
There are, regrettably, no more naked bodies or scenes of erotic cannibalism in the “Vita”—it’s all courtly love from here on. Dante chronicles his brief encounters with Beatrice on the street or in church (today, one might say that he stalked her), fainting with joy if she acknowledges him and plunging into depression after a snub. He mourns her untimely death abjectly. But not long afterward his head is turned by another lady, “gracious, beautiful, young, and wise.” Why not console himself, he reasons, “after so much tribulation”?
Cartoon by Kate Curtis
This “other woman” of the “Vita” was not the girl to whom Dante had been betrothed when he was not quite twelve, and whom he had married as a young man. His lawful wife was Gemma Donati. Her family was nobler and richer than the Alighieris, and they led the Black Guelfs. He mentions several of his wife’s relatives in the Comedy. (One, the virtuous Piccarda, whose odious brother tore her from a convent and forced her to marry, greets him in Paradise; another, Forese, a friend of his youth, is a glutton in Purgatory.) But he never acknowledged Gemma’s existence in any of his works. One would like to think that Dante ghosted her out of discretion—she was beholden to his persecutors. Perhaps, though, the rueful shade of Ulysses hits upon the real reason in Inferno:
Neither tenderness for my son,
Nor duty to my old father,
Nor the debt of love I owed Penelope,
To make her happy, could compete
With my ardor to know the world,
And all things human, base and noble.
If Gemma was Dante’s Penelope, Beatrice was his Athena—the divine protectress of his odyssey. And the final chapter of the “Vita” announces a future joint enterprise. The guilty swain vows to atone for his betrayal by writing of Beatrice “what has never been said of another woman.”
In 1301, the White Guelfs sent Dante to Rome on a mission to secure the Pope’s support for their cause. But while he was away from Florence the Black Guelfs seized power. They banished Dante in absentia and confiscated his property; he would burn at the stake should he ever return. He never did, even in 1315, when the city offered to commute his sentence if he repented publicly. Exile was preferable to abasement for a man of his temperament, which was reported to be vain and contentious. After leaving Purgatory’s terrace of pride, he worries that he’ll be remanded there after death.
Dante spent the last nineteen years of his working life as an itinerant diplomat and secretary for the lords of northern Italy. The poem that he called, simply, the “Comedy” (a Venetian edition of 1555 added the adjective “Divine,” and it stuck) is the work of an embittered asylum seeker. Its profoundest lesson may be that love’s wellspring is forgiveness. Yet Dante never forgave Florence. Even in Paradise, he can’t resist a swipe at his fellow-citizens. They are “little brats who swat away their nurse’s breast though they’re dying of hunger.”
The Comedy is both an epic road trip indebted to Homer and a medieval pilgrimage, though it is also a landmark in Western literature: one of its first masterpieces in a Romance vernacular. Dante’s art heralds the beginning of the Renaissance for the same reason that Giotto’s does. The two great Florentines were contemporaries, and they may have been friends, despite a disparity of class. According to legend, the painter spent his boyhood as a shepherd. (He would have known how to butcher a lamb.) They both inherited an allegorical tradition, and their themes are faithful to its doctrine, yet their protagonists are radically human. A fresco on the walls of Florence’s Podestà Chapel, attributed to Giotto, represents the saved in Paradise. Among them is a young man presumed to be Dante, holding a book. He is dressed sumptuously in red, with an aquiline profile and a steely gaze. Dante celebrates Giotto’s fame, somewhat sarcastically, in the eleventh canto of Purgatory. A lust for fame was one of his own failings.
As the narrator of the Comedy and its central persona, Dante wrestles with his fellow-feeling for sinners condemned to torments that he has invented. Nowhere is the tension between his orthodoxy and his nascent humanism more acute than in Canto XV of Inferno, when a shade with features scorched by the flames clutches at the poet’s hem. “Brunetto, master, you are here?” Dante cries out, palpably shocked.
Brunetto Latini, a Florentine poet and statesman, had been Dante’s mentor after his parents’ deaths. He has been condemned to the Seventh Circle for practicing the vice of sodomy, about which, apparently, he was unrepentant. But the tenderness both men express, and their mourning for what they have lost in each other—a father and a son—is in its way a heretical rebuke to the implacable order that forbids their reunion in Heaven. “If all that I ask were fulfilled,” Dante says, “you wouldn’t be an outcast from human nature.”
Virgil, who died two decades before Christ’s coming, is also excluded from Heaven, yet he bears that sorrow stoically. He tells Dante that it’s a presumption to question divine justice, even when it seems unfair, and to confuse “piety” with “pity” (the same word in Italian, pietà). Salvation, Dante will discover, requires the surrender of precisely that attribute to which he is most attached as an artist, a lover, and a man: his ego.
As Dante and Virgil make their arduous circuit of Purgatory’s terraces, they ask directions from the shades, who share their stories and explain their penances. Like birds of prey being tamed by a falconer, the envious have their eyes sewn shut. The gluttons are mortified by starvation amid tormenting aromas. The lustful must pass through a wall of flames. The proud stagger beneath a sack of boulders, and the slothful atone with manic activity. But Dante is an embed, rather than a mere tourist. A sword-wielding angel scarifies his brow with seven letters—“P”s, for peccato, or sin. Once he understands a sin humbly and viscerally, he ascends to the next terrace, and a “P” is erased. Fear and exhaustion sometimes tempt him with dejection, but, Virgil tells him,
This mountain’s nature
Is to seem steepest from below;
The climb is less painful the higher you go.
Finally, in the Earthly Paradise situated at Purgatory’s summit, Dante reunites with Beatrice. She has descended from her place in Heaven, near the Virgin Mary’s, not to welcome but to confront him:
. . . In your desires for me,
Which led you to love the good
Beyond which one can’t aspire,
What ruts or chains in the road
Forced you to ditch any hope
And what bribes or lures
In others’ eyes enticed you
To dally so idly there?
“Answer me!” she commands, as Dante cowers mutely. He compares himself to a naughty little boy being scolded.
No one has told Beatrice that, according to St. Paul, women are forbidden to teach men. She chastises Dante with a pontifical authority that few members of her sex would have then dared to vaunt. In her perfect beauty and wisdom, she explains, she embodies God’s love, so Dante’s fickleness toward her is ingratitude to the Creator. His repentance ultimately wins her absolution and consummates their love story.
But, for all her endearing feistiness, Beatrice is uniquely implausible among Dante’s major characters. She’s an abstract mouthpiece for her creator’s philosophy who lacks her own vital substance. (The Virgin Mary, by comparison, is a relatable woman who has labored and suffered.) In that respect, the poet’s otherwise incomparable powers of imagination slight Beatrice and us.
Even as a figment, however, Dante’s Beatrice has an enduring prestige as the object of a man’s ardent longing. Did her halo of romance tantalize the poet’s daughter? Dante and Gemma had at least three children. Two of their sons were among the Comedy’s first commentators. The boys’ younger sister, Antonia, became a nun in Ravenna, where Dante died and is buried in a splendid tomb. She is said to have taken the name Suor Beatrice. The poignancy of that detail haunts me. Antonia was a baby when her father was exiled, so she grew up without knowing him—yearning, it would seem, to be worthy of the love that he had vowed so publicly to an ideal woman.
Since Dante’s death, more than a hundred writers in English have produced a version of the Comedy in part or whole or have channelled it into their own work. It’s a roll call of the big guns: Chaucer, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Longfellow, Swinburne, and the Brownings, to name a few. Dante inspired Pound and Eliot to write some of the twentieth century’s finest poetry. He was also a Virgil to Beckett, Joyce, Yeats, Auden, Robert Lowell, and the Nobelists Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney. Robin Kirkpatrick, a Cambridge don, did a masterly translation for Penguin Classics. But two of my favorites are Dorothy L. Sayers, the crime novelist, and C. H. Sisson, a civil servant, like Dante, whose modernist tercets capture the Comedy’s austere intensity. (“I think Sisson / Got it, don’t you?” his friend Donald Davie wrote. “Plain Dante, plain as a board / And if flat, flat. The abhorrent, the abhorred / Ask to be uttered plainly.”)
That saga of translation resembles the slopes not so much of Mount Purgatory as of Mt. Everest, littered with the debris of the climbers who have attempted to summit, some coming closer than others. But reaching Dante’s Heaven by following faithfully in his footsteps isn’t possible in English, which lacks the luxuriance of rhyme native to Italian. The epic’s terza rima is a propulsive schema of three-line stanzas in a chain-linked pattern (aba, bcb, cdc) that Dante invented. It acts as a vessel—in the sense not only of a container but of a conveyance for the narrator’s passage toward sublimity. (James Merrill compared the schema’s momentum to the motion of oars.) His words and music are inextricable.
Many readers don’t get farther with Dante than Inferno, for obvious reasons: depravity is a more compelling subject than virtue, as you discover when you reach Paradise. Inferno’s denizens are our familiars—we meet their avatars every day. It’s a place, as Merwin put it, where “the self and its despair [are] forever inseparable,” a predicament we think of as modern, perhaps because it suggests the claustrophobia of narcissism.
Translators have also preferred Inferno: its tableaux of carnage are so thrillingly obscene. In a famous passage, Dante meets Muhammad in the “bedlam” of the Eighth Circle, where the sowers of discord get their comeuppance. (Muhammad’s “sin” was to have lured his followers away from the true church. Dante was a fierce critic of the papacy but a militant defender of Catholic theology.)
I never saw a barrel burst apart,
Having sprung a hoop or slipped a stave,
Like that man split down to where we fart,
His guts between his legs, his body splayed,
Its organs hanging out, among them that foul sac
Which turns to shit all that we eat.
As I beheld this gore he looked at me
And even wider tore his breast apart
“See how I spread myself,” said he.
Evil is never banal in Dante’s depiction. Nor are the traitors, counterfeiters, rabble-rousers, thieves, hypocrites, corrupt pols, charlatans, flatterers, pimps, blasphemers, usurers, sodomites, suicides, plunderers, murderers, heretics, spendthrifts, melancholics, gluttons, sex addicts, or, at the threshold of Hell, those apathetic souls whose sin was ingratitude for the life force they were born with. Each one is indelibly individual. Yet, if Dante can show a bodhisattva’s compassion for the sufferings he has devised, he is also susceptible to that most human of guilty pleasures: Schadenfreude. At every opportunity on his journey to beatitude, he settles a score.
For Dante’s septicentennial, however, the latest crew of translators has chosen to assault Mount Purgatory. They include the American poet and professor Mary Jo Bang; the Scottish poet and psychoanalyst D. M. Black; and the sixteen contributors to a new anthology, “After Dante: Poets in Purgatory,” edited by Nick Havely, a prolific Dante scholar, with Bernard O’Donoghue, an eminent authority on medieval literature. Perhaps it’s Purgatory’s moment because, in an era of cataclysmic strife, weather, and unreason, hope is as precious as it is scarce. But, before one asks how they measure up, one has to wonder why they would try to.
In my own pilgrimage through Dante, it was revealing to see how many of the passages I underlined evoked the angst of a first draft—
I am conquered here by my defeat
In satisfying what my theme demands
More so than all before me in whatever genre.
—or the ephemeral elation of achieving what Dante calls “significando”:
I am one who pays close heed
When love inspires me, then as bidden
I proceed inwardly making meaning.
It was a solace to me that the greatest of poets was often stymied, overwhelmed, or speechless. Even with the muses’ help, he writes, in Paradise, “I’d still not reach one-thousandth of the truth.” It isn’t surprising, then, that the Comedy has been translated for seven hundred years. It’s a writer’s bible.
It’s also an old mansion that invites renovation. Mary Jo Bang was discouraged, she tells us in an introduction, by the “elevated register” of previous versions, because it was “a continually distracting reminder of the fact that the poem was written in a long-ago era.” Her Purgatory is a retranslation—she doesn’t speak Italian. In places, though, her terse syntax generates lines that glide with the grace of a scull:
“I’m going to leave you alone with this avocado, and you can either eat it right away and have an underripe avocado or wait a little while and have a completely rotten avocado.”
Cartoon by Meredith Southard
The curtain over the real is so thin
The light makes certain you can see within.
But I’m leaving out the first sentence of that tercet:
Here, Reader, keep your eye on the prize.
Bang’s remedy for elevation is philistinism. She almost jealously disrupts our immersion in Dante, and the poem’s unity, by bombing the text with jokey anachronisms. These “contemporizing moments,” as she calls them, include allusions to baseball, Candy Land, Wall Street, hustlers, Houdini, animation, “West Side Story,” and the Little Red Hen. Where Dante’s poetry doesn’t suffice, Bang throws in some of Shakespeare’s. She also samples, among others, Amy Winehouse, Allen Ginsberg, and Elton John.
Although Bang’s license is extreme, every translator of Dante makes some compromise with the original. (Any passages from the Comedy otherwise uncredited here are mine.) You haggle with the Italian in every line. How much of the poetry will you concede for semantic fidelity? How much fidelity for the music or the form? How far can you go in modernizing the tropes? As the editors of “After Dante” suggest in their introduction, answering such questions may require the collective bargaining of a “community.” In fact, the Comedy itself is one. As Dante and Virgil make their way toward Paradise, they speak with or evoke the spirit of poets whose craft they revere—their “singing-masters,” in Yeats’s phrase.
The Comedy’s community of translators isn’t unlike a monastery, where the spiritual ambitions of the ordained vie (even as Dante’s did) with their profession of humility. The title “After Dante” alerts us to those conflicts, and the polyphony of its voices may be more instructive than their harmonies.
There are too many fine translations here to cite. But in braving Canto XVIII, in which Virgil enlightens Dante on the nature of love, Jonathan Galassi smoothly turns a lock that others have forced. Lorna Goodison, a former poet laureate of Jamaica, summons the landscape and speech of her island to powerful effect. At the end of Canto XII, where a chastened Dante leaves the terrace of pride, she imagines the loads of rocks that bow the backs of its penitents as the burdens of her own people,
who do not notice that they
still bear the weight of slavery days on their heads
A. E. Stallings finesses Canto III in terza rima. Her diction captures a quality of Dante’s sentences that Erich Auerbach marvelled at in 1929, when he called them as “simple as the lines of a primer . . . which pierce the heart”:
And just as, from the fold, come sheep—
first one, then two, then three; the flock
stand meek, and faces earthward keep,
and if one walks, the rest will walk;
and when he stops, huddle in place,
meek, mild, not knowing why they balk
That passage reminded me of the Sardinian shepherd, coaxing a ewe and her suckling from the flock. He chose a lamb with a fleece of pure white and was careful not to bloody it. (He could sell the fleece later, he explained, to line a cradle.) The mother followed mutely and trustingly until he slit the lamb’s throat. Then, with heart-piercing bleats, she charged us.
D. M. Black’s Purgatory is the most satisfying complete translation since Merwin’s. Black is a South African-born Scot who has studied Eastern religions, taught philosophy and literature, and published seven collections of his own poetry. He has practiced psychoanalysis in London, and he was drawn to the Comedy, he writes in an illuminating introduction, partly because he reads it as “a sort of gigantic encyclopedia of human motives” which examines the nature of psychic conflict. Black admits that Dante wouldn’t have read his poem that way, since his “ultimate concern is with Christian ‘salvation,’ ” and not “with understanding what impedes someone from living a fulfilling life.” Yet that, I suspect, is exactly why Dante still speaks to us. The afflictions that Freud baptized “the psychopathology of everyday life,” and that Dante calls “the senseless cares of mortals,” are sins against love; like Satan, they dupe an individual into rejecting, perverting, violating, or despairing of it.
The Comedy is a morality tale designed, in part, to scare its readers straight, not to free them from their hangups. But in Purgatory Dante describes a process—slow and arduous, like analysis—of unriddling the mysteries of self-sabotage. As Beatrice puts it to him:
From dread and shame I want you
To evolve, so you no longer speak
As in a dream.
In his commentary on the poem, Black likens the terraces where the penitents “go round and round” to the “circling thoughts of those who can’t let go of the past.” That describes most of history. There seems to be no escape from our worst natures; it would take a miracle no deity has ever wrought.
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” James Baldwin wrote, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” But Dante (here in Black’s thoughtful rendering) invites us to believe that we can banish our demons, alone and together, if we resist unconsciousness:
As a man dismayed who turns to face the facts
changes his fear to trust in his own strength
when to his eyes the truth has been uncovered
So I changed; and when my leader saw me freed
from those anxieties, up by the rampart
he moved, and I behind him, toward the height. ♦