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The Standard Edition of Dante
on July 6, 2010
I want to explore what makes for a good edition of a classic work such as this. First, of course, is the value of the translation itself. Dr. Esolen's is a superior translation to the others readily available, including that by John Ciardi. I have tried numerous times to read Ciardi's rendering, wanting very much to like it, but in the end I found his rhythm forced and his efforts even at approximate rhyme unsatisfying. Simply put, his lines do not flow. By contrast, Esolen's lines not only flow, but propel the reader onward through the narrative, which is no small feat given the many places throughout the rings of Hell and along the ascent of Mount Purgatory where that attention could stall.
This would be enough to commend the translation, but there is more that makes this Modern Library a superlative edition. His introduction does an extraordinary job of explaining what Purgatory is and is not. In so doing, he has provided an invaluable aid not only to the non-Catholic reader, but likely to the Catholic reader as well, who may not have the best understanding of this wonderful aspect of life after death. Yes, I say it is wonderful based on Esolen's introduction, but I shall leave the reasons for that until another post. For the moment I will conclude by saying that based on his introduction alone, one could not help but marvel at the love of God, desire that love ever more ardently, and see in the gift of Purgatory one more expression of that love.
For such a reasonably priced and slender book, Dr. Esolen manages to include the most helpful appendices and notes. Two appendices contain selections from Aquinas that give insight into Dante's theology. One includes samples of Medieval poetry by poets whom Dante encounters. A fourth appendix includes relevant selections from the Church Fathers on Purgatory, and a fifth presents the full text of various Latin songs and prayers in translation that are sung and prayed by the souls that Dante meets.
Finally, the notes for each canto are all, but only, what a reader needs. To annotate sufficiently the vast number of contemporary references that Dante makes, to say nothing of his ancient allusions, would be a daunting task. Dr. Esolen, however, has provided the reader with just what he needs to make sense of the poem without burdening him with superfluous facts.
As with his Inferno, Dr. Esolen has produced an outstanding edition of Purgatory. In many ways it is like having a university course in Dante in the pages of a book.