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Purgatorio: A New Verse Translation (English and Italian Edition) Hardcover – March 28, 2000

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In the foreword to his version of the Purgatorio, W.S. Merwin dwells on the quasi-insuperable hurdles that any translator of Dante must face. Choosing just a single line from the first canticle, he asks: "How could that, then, really be translated? It could not, of course." This makes Dante's masterpiece sound like the literary equivalent of Mission: Impossible ("Your mission, Mr. Merwin, should you choose to accept it...") Happily, however, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet decided to give it a try. He spent several years wrestling with Dante's inexhaustible tercets, and rather than applying himself to the fire-and-brimstone-scented thrills of the Inferno, Merwin turned to the middle and most humane portion of the entire work: Purgatorio. It's here, in a kind of spiritual halfway house between heaven and hell, that the poem reaches a peak of tenderness and regret--and rises quite literally from the dead.

Merwin's version must be measured against a good many predecessors, from John Ciardi's reader-friendly approach to Allen Mandelbaum's free-versifying to Charles Singleton's prosaic trot. How does this Purgatorio stack up? Very decently indeed. Merwin is something of a strict constructionist, who wants to hew as closely as possible to the syntax and sound of the original Italian. Yet he's no Nabokovian naysayer, slapping himself on the wrist every time he deviates from Dante's text, and he's wisely thrown the rhymes overboard. That leaves him with enough flexibility to echo some of the poem's loveliest effects:

A sweet air that within itself was
unvarying struck me on the forehead,
a stroke no rougher than a gentle breeze,

at which the trembling branches all together
bent at once in that direction where
the holy mountain casts its first shadow,

without ever leaning over so far from
the upright as to make the small birds stop
the practice of their art in the treetops...

Merwin also does a good job capturing Dante's asperity, including his near-proverbial response to a rebuke from main squeeze Beatrice in Canto XXX: "As a mother may seem harsh to her child, / she seemed to me, because the flavor / of raw pity when tasted is bitter." There are moments, of course, when the translator's taste for literalism gets him in trouble. When, for example, Dante is surrounded by a crowd of souls in the second canto, who are astonished to see one of the living among them, he describes them as "quasi oblïando d'ire a farsi belle." A difficult phrase to translate, yes, but Merwin's solution--"forgetting, it seemed, to go and see to their own beauty"--makes it sound as though they're late for an appointment at the hairdresser's. Still, these are minor flaws in a major and often marvelous piece of work. Can we look forward to a paradisiacal follow-up? --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

Forty years of producing highly reliable renderings of French and Spanish poetry and drama have culminated in what is bound to be hailed as Merwin's grandest translational accomplishment. Following on the heels of last year's The River Sound and the verse-novel The Folding Cliffs comes this deft and smooth interpretation of Dante's "second kingdom in which the human spirit is made clean/ and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven." It is only fitting that a poet so absorbed in environmental concerns engage this most earthen section of the Commedia, with its suffering characters and unkind landscape bringing into view sharpened images of ancient and medieval political, moral and erotic life. At the book's center, love's visionary force is revealed in the simplest declarative tone: "Neither Creator nor creature ever," Virgil instructs the wandering pilgrim, "was without love, my son, whether/ natural or of the mind, and you know this." Virgil's steady tutelage reaches its pinnacle in canto 22, where Statius quotes his messianic eclogue and Dante-as-poet absorbs lessons about writing poetry by overhearing their talk. Soon after his guide's dramatic departure, Dante's focus on nature gives way to the transcendent Beatrice. At its best, Merwin's characteristically open-ended syntax allows him to capture the charged encounter's troubling, if not terribly visceral, effects: "so I broke under that heavy burden,/ with tears and sighs out of me pouring,/ and my voice collapsed as it was leaving." This translation is something of a companion volume to Robert Pinsky's Inferno in the many ways it supercedes in elegance those of Singleton and Sinclair, which had been the last century's standards. (Apr.) FYI: Also in April, Copper Canyon will issue The First Four Books of Poems by Merwin, which includes his 1952 Yale Younger Poets volume, A Mask for Janus ($16 256p ISBN 1-55659-139-X).
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 359 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (March 28, 2000)
  • Language: English, Italian
  • ISBN-10: 0375409211
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375409219
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By David Messmer on January 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
One of the greatest literary tragedies is that so many readers believe that the Divine Comedy, or that even Dante himself, is no more than the Inferno. Such ignorance leads to a vast reading public who have never experienced the most immediately human section of the Comedy: the Purgatorio. Unlike Inferno, which is full of characters whom we either revile or pity, Purgatorio introduces us to spirits who, like most of us, try to do the right thing, but aren't always successful. If we look down upon the shades in Hell, we identify with the shades in Purgatory, and it is in this understanding that the Purgatorio gains its beauty. An absolute must read for anyone with any interest in literature, history, theology, spirituality, philosophy, psychiatry, or beauty.
As for Merwin's translation, he has managed to take a giant step in solving the problem that I mentioned above. His translation does justice to the original not only in its accuracy, but in its poetry, which is so important to Dante's works. I have read two other translations of Purgatorio (Mandelbaum and Ciardi), and this is, by far, the most readable and the most engaging of the three. Merwin captures the hopeful but unfilled tone of the poem with considerable grace while still maintaining the structural and thematic tension that are crucial to an understanding of Dante's works. As for the scholarly aspects of the work, scholastics, clearly, were not Merwin's intent. His explanatory notes are minimal (which is preferable to Mandelbaum's copious, and sometimes condescending glosses) and the foreword is more an exploration of the art of translation than of Dante's work. Not that this is a bad thing.
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18 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on April 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I will confess that I haven't had a chance to read Merwin's entire translation of Dante's _Purgatorio_, though I have read about a third to this point. I will say, though, that I have read his Forward, and I found it to be one of the more moving testaments to the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual impact that the _Commedia_ has had on readers, poets and non-poets alike, through the ages. There isn't much new information for the Dante scholar--Merwin acknowledges that his notes are largely based on Singleton's--but this is a translation written out of love, not necessarily scholarship. This is Merwin's editon for the lover of both poets and poetry
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful By I X Key on August 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I think the reason the Inferno is the most popular canzone of Dante's Divine Comedy is just that it's where to start with Dante's amazing incredible eternal epic. Also the Inferno has more shoot-em-up sort of action than the other 2, Purgatorio & Paradiso. Purgatory is of such poetic brilliance; it's full of poetic philosophy from Dante's critical genius, & beautiful scenes, interesting spirits -- a feeling wholly different from the grimness of the Inferno. & W. S. Merwin too is brilliant & masterful enough for a repartee with the medieval guru. Merwin is a poet & translator whose verbal & syntactical decisions you can trust. He renders Purgatorio with great exciting faithfulness to Dante's original language, with mellifluous music, with merit worthy of the high praise this has gotten from Robert Pinsky, Harold Bloom, & others. The Comedy is notoriously difficult to translate, & this is one of the best translations of Purgatorio into English ever, I'm sure.
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