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The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso) Paperback – May 27, 2003
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“Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them—there is no third.”—T.S. Eliot
“Ciardi has given us...a credible, passionate persona of the poet, stripped of the customary gauds of rhetoric and false decoration, strong and noble in utterance.”—Dudley Fitts
“A sensitive and perceptive translation…a spectacular achievement.”—Archibald MacLeish
“I think [Ciardi’s] version of Dante will be in many respects the best we have seen.”—John Crowe Ransom
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Italian
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The Comedy is a masterpiece of world literature, a work that should be read by all, but one that I had put off for quite some time due to the intimidating nature of its length and subject matter--worried, perhaps, that the famous "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" warning applied as much to the general reader of Dante as to the souls of the damned. Yet, thanks to Musa's help, I found the Comedy to be a pleasantly entertaining and enlightening work, and perhaps even more surprisingly, an exciting "page turner" as the classics go.
That said the electrifying Kirkpatrick translation, smooth here, driven by a lofty but clear blank verse there, is the only one that is formatted without the hassle of dealing with the Italian text intruding anywhere near the English-only reader. The Hollander, at least, separates the two texts (English and Italian), but everyone else feels the need to jam the Italian text into the English text at unfortunate intervals. Thus one might be sailing along in English only to be waylaid, before the Canto is even over, with more Italian text as if the average English reader of Dante would so veer. Worse the Italian intrusion is not side by side in comparison mode, but beneath, on top, and in the middle of the English flow creating a jumbled format that is, at best, annoying and, at worst, a disaster.
The magnificent Kirkpatrick translation, at least in this three in one work, loses the Italian altogether and drives home the English rendering with considerable force and word music. The notes are splendid with links ready and available for back and forth use and, as someone who has most of the translations of this work in hard copy and in e-book form (Yes, I even love Sandow Birk's funky, ultra-hip version), I can tell you that the excellent Kirkpatrick translation is now my Dante of choice in a superb, and now very worthy and crowded, field.
TS Eliot said that Dante and Shakespeare divided the Western poetry world between them with no third to sully their ranks. Reading Kirkpatrick's glorious rendering of this great poetical, theological, philosophical and just plain fun and quite naughty adventure--and an irrefragable Western pillar to boot--will show you why.
Every reader draws his own conclusions and opinions and they are probably all correct. In the context of John Ciardi's translation, it cannot be overstated how meticulous this translation actually is. The Divine Comedy is the `first of its kind' exposition of the Tuscan dialect that much later emerges as the consolidated `Italian' language. Dante's syntax, meanings and nearly everything linguistic are 21st century translationally imputed into this `first of its kind'. The debates for perfection can never be ended.
So, opinions? ... here's mine ...
The `Divine Comedy' is a relentless satirical, pseudo-theological exposition of super-epic length. Context and setting are everything. The 14th Century was perhaps the single most catastrophic century for historical Western humankind and so Dante relates his world as an observer to the human cataclysm erupting all around him day after stinking day. A first-time read of Dante ... without some historical perspective on time and place, will leave the reader confused and inevitably horribly bored. That Dante skewers his living `enemies' in some level of damnation's treadmill is the `commedia'. I might suggest this historical pre-read A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Some imagine there's theology here. Some even imagine Christianity might be defined here. That notion is unfortunately absurd and very unfortunately plays into some readers mind as `Christian' to confuse scriptural vs the imaginings of Dante's fantasy. Is Christianity defined by Tom Hanks in the DaVinci Code? Of course not. Dante's epic here is nightmare scary stuff intended to keep people awake at night ... an afterlife of eternally walking the treadmill to 'paradiso' is grim indeed. A chance error of Dante's perception of sin here or there and the treadmill of damnation-to-paradise is right there to snatch you. It's fun but it's not Christianity.
John Ciardi's annotation makes this translation entertaining. You will wear out Wikipedia searching for the story of the devilishly tormented and transitionally divine characters. These are generally obscure folks of no otherwise historical note then to be mentioned by Dante. Hypocrisy reigns supreme and the fundamental answers to the great 'unknowns' of the faith are dreamed up by Dante Alighieri and rendered here by Ciardi.
Enjoy the show!
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The paper weight and texture is also great.