Friday poem: From The Divine Comedy

A poem from The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James.

18/06/2015
2 minutes to read

A poem from The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James.

Hell: Canto 1, lines 1 – 27

by Dante Alighieri, translated by Clive James

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me–
Merely to think of it renews the fear–
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It led to good things too, eventually,
But there and then I saw no sign of those,
And can't say even now how I had come
To be there, stunned and following my nose
Away from the straight path. And then, still numb
From pressure on the heart, still in a daze,
I stumbled on the threshold of a hill
Where trees no longer grew. Lifting my gaze,
I saw its shoulders edged with overspill
From our sure guide, the sun, whose soothing rays
At least a little melted what that night
Of dread had done to harden my heart's lake–
And like someone who crawls, half dead with fright,
Out of the sea, and breathes, and turns to take
A long look at the water, so my soul,
Still thinking of escape from the dark wood
I had escaped, looked back to see it whole,
The force field no one ever has withstood
And stayed alive.

Dante, The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James

“Finally, then, it will come down to what he can do with verse. The poet will be on his mettle. Part of his consolation, as he cudgels his brains through the long nights, is that Dante thought the same about himself.”

Clive James on the task of the poet who undertakes to translate The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

by Clive James

Book cover for 9781447244226

The Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James’s vivid translation – his life’s work and decades in the making – presents Dante’s entire epic poem in a single song.

While many poets and translators have attempted to capture the full glory of The Divine Comedy in English, many have fallen short. Victorian verse translations established an unfortunate tradition of reproducing the sprightly rhyming measures of Dante but at the same time betraying the strain on the translator’s powers of invention. For Dante, the dramatic human stories of Hell were exciting, but the spiritual studies of Purgatory and the sublime panoramas of Heaven were no less so.

In this incantatory translation, James – defying the convention by writing in quatrains – tackles these problems head-on and creates a striking and hugely accessible translation that gives us The Divine Comedy as a whole, unified, and dramatic work.