Mary Jo Bang's Dante
Writing about Mary Jo Bang's new translation of Dante's Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) in Vanity Fair, Elissa Schappell declares, "readers who once considered Dante's terza rima rhyme scheme and allusions to 14th-century Florentine politics as their own circle of pain will find Bang's free-verse approach, wit, and poetic pyrotechnics heavenly."
Below we present Bang's translation of the first Canto, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher (all of which can be enlarged with a click). The book party will be Friday, September 7, at 7:30 PM, at A Public Space (323 Dean Street, Brooklyn).
|Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Notes to Canto I
1–2. in the middle/Of what we call our life: The poem is set in the year 1300. Dante, having been born in 1265, would have been thirty-five years old—so, in the middle ("nel mezzo") of what was generally considered at the time to be a typical life span of seventy years. Commentators note that Dante doesn't say in the middle of his life but in the middle of our life ("nostra vita"). Charles Singleton, among others, points out that this gesture of inclusiveness immediately opens the poem up to being read allegorically (Inferno, 2:3–4).
32–51. I saw a leopard . . . a lion . . . a she-wolf, her frame so emaciated/Her body seemed defined by the cravings/That had caused so many to live in misery: There is a biblical history for this specific constellation of animals in Jeremiah 5:6: "Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evening shall spoil, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased." Robert Hollander provides a brief history of the various interpretations of this bestial trio, some moral and some political. He states that there is renewed support for the earliest formulation of lust, pride, and avarice. (Inferno, 16–17).
37–38. the sun rising with the stars/That were with it when the first clock started: Dante's journey begins on Good Friday. Some commentators argue that we are meant to read the date as March 23, which many in the medieval era considered to be the date Adam was created. (The Crucifixion was believed to have occurred on March 25. The Annunciation was thought to be March 25, nine months before Christmas.) Others have argued for April 8 as the poem's date, since Good Friday fell on that day in the year 1300. In either case, the sun would have been in Aries (March 21–April 20); since this period ushers in the growing season, it's the "hopeful" time of year.
39. The spring wound by the hand of a love supreme: A Love Supreme is a studio jazz album recorded by John Coltrane's quartet on September 9, 1964, and released the following year. The liner notes to A Love Supreme begin, "Dear Listener: All Praise Be To God To Whom All Praise Is Due. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; 'seek and ye shall find.' Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal." They go on to detail a personal Dantean struggle and end with, "May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain—it is all with God—in all ways forever. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. With love to all, I thank you, John Coltrane."
41. with his showy coat: Genesis 37:3 mentions that Jacob gives his son Joseph "a coat of many colors" (all biblical quotations are from the King James Bible); this interpretation of the Hebrew phrase kethoneth passim is, however, only one of several. Other translations include "a long coat with sleeves" and "a long coat with stripes" and, much more recently, an "amazing Technicolor coat" (in the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Similarly, the description of the animal's coat as "la gaetta pelle" in Dante's original Italian is open to interpretation; it has been variously translated as "gaudy fur," "beautiful skin," "gay skin," "sparkling hide," "spotted pelt," and, by C. B. Cayley, in Dante's Divine Comedy, as "comely-checkered skin."
52. Looking at her bitch-kitty face: "Bitch kitty" is a slang term that gestures to the fact that "[t]he thing referred to is very impressive, very difficult, very complicated, very sad, or in some way extraordinary." (Kipfer and Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang, 273). The other two animals cause fear, but this animal, who appears to stand for greed, is the one that provokes the wayfarer's sense of utter defeat. Dante will later refer to Plutus, the god of wealth, as "humanity's great enemy" (Canto VI, 115).
73–75. I was a poet. I sang the song of the righteous son/Of Anchises, who came back by boat from Troy/After smug Ilium had been burned to black ash: Publius Vergilius Maro (70–19 BCE), known today as Virgil, was a Roman poet and the author of the Aeneid, the Eclogues, and the Georgics. In the Aeneid, Virgil relates the story of the Trojan War and the fall of Troy. The question of why Dante chose Virgil, a pre-Christian Roman poet, to be his guide through Hell has been much debated by Dantists. Hollander writes, "Virgil is the guide in Dante's poem because he served in that role in Dante's life. It was Virgil's Aeneid and not the works of Aristotle or of Aquinas which served as model for the poem; it was Virgil who, more than any other author, helped to make Dante Dante" (xxxv). In Dante: A Life, R. W. B. Lewis notes that because of Virgil's prediction in his fourth Eclogue of "a newborn child who shall rule the world and bring it peace" there was a medieval belief that "under divine inspiration, [Virgil] had foreseen the coming of Christ and the age of Christianity" (147).
77. the meringue-pie mountain: Gerard Manley Hopkins, "My Own Heart Let Me Have More Pity On":
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.
89–90. You, Mr. Übermensch, you Mr. Man/Of the World: Übermensch is a concept introduced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, first translated into English in 1896 by Alexander Tille. Tille translated Übermensch as "Beyond-Man." George Bernard Shaw later translated the term as "Superman" in his play Man and Superman, and the same term can be found in Thomas Common's translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Many later translators found the term "superman" reductive and have chosen to translate the word as "overman." In the most general sense, the term and concept allude to a moral authority that isn't dependent on the idea of a god. In spite of the fact that Nietzsche was critical of anti-Semitism and German nationalism, the Nazi regime appropriated the concept to support its notion of Aryan racial superiority.
"Man of the World" is a song composed by vocalist and lead guitarist Peter Green and recorded by the British-American rock band Fleetwood Mac; it first appeared as a single in 1969 and was later included on their 1971 Greatest Hits album.
93. only rock and the sandy road: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (5.331–332), "What the Thunder Said":
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road . . .
101–102. Until/The day the big dog arrives: Dante uses the word veltro ("hound" or "greyhound"); the identity and meaning of the veltro has long been debated by Dantists. Many believe that it refers to Can Francesco della Scala (1291–1329), a young nobleman and general who ruled Verona from 1311 to 1329. Better known by his nickname, Cangrande—from the phrase cane grande, meaning "big dog"—he was the leader of the Ghibelline faction in the north, and Dante's patron. Others argue that the veltro represents Jesus Christ and the Second Coming, and still others believe it expresses the hope for an ideal ruler. There are also those who argue for other historical personages (such as Henry VII of Luxembourg), or for an ideal leader—namely, a perfect pope.
105. He'll be born between two layers of felt: Virgil predicts the birth of the hound as falling "tra feltro e feltro" ("between felt and felt"), which has been variously interpreted as (1) a person born under the sign of Gemini—since the twins Castor and Pollux are often pictured wearing felt hats; (2) someone who lived and/or ruled between the northern Italian town of Feltre and the area called Montefeltro, in Romagna (namely, Cangrande—see note for 101–102); (3) a Florentine dressed in the kind of coarse cloth woven in Florence; (4) a mendicant monk who wears robes of coarse fabric; (5) someone dressed in rags, i.e., of a humble birth; and (6) Dante himself (Florentine and Gemini-born) and his Commedia. A more recent argument put forth by Barbara Reynolds in Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, is that "between felt and felt" refers to the sheets of felt that were used to absorb the water from new-made paper in the medieval era—in other words, "salvation" would come from following the "texts of canon and civil law" that were recorded on paper (118–120). In an 1889 letter to William Vernon, Dean Church writes: "The Veltro, I fear is hopeless: nothing better can be suggested than Can Grande. But Dante himself must come to explain tra Feltro e Feltro" (quoted in Vernon, Readings on the Inferno of Dante, 1:36–37).
107–108. For which the gallant Camilla/And three loyal boys died of their wounds: In the original text, Dante has Virgil mention by name four mythological characters from the Aeneid who all died fighting, on one side or the other, in the Trojan War; the "three loyal boys" are Euryalus, Turnus, and Nisus.
126. I'm smudged by Adam's ink and so must live in Limbo: Like all those Dante will meet in Limbo, Virgil suffers not from any personal sin but from Adam's curse, original sin. Therefore he's barred from entering Heaven by God's unbending law.
131. help me out of this Denmark: The fictional Denmark in William Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a place that seethes with grief, madness, duplicity, and revenge.