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).
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