© 14th century Dante Alighieri, translated 2004 by Anthony Esolen
544 pages, including appendices and notes
Seven years ago I descended into hell with Dante and his guide, Virgil, and after that arduous descent into a valley of desolation and misery, I have spent this Lent on the rise – climbing Mount Purgatory, that sheer ascension with trails that straighten those who remained bent on Earth, but who were not so low as to sink into Hell. As Dante traveled with Virgil, so did I travel with Anthony Esolen, a man with a magisterial command of classical western literature, whose appendices and notes make this an invaluable translation of the original. If the suffering in the Inferno was punitive, forcing the damned to bear the final consequence of their actions — not only ultimate alienation from God, but the full force of the sins themselves — the suffering on Mount Purgatory is redemptive. The slothful run, for instance, to shed their habits of indifference and inactivity to that which matters, and the prideful carry stones and contemplate beautiful sculptures depicting humility. The lower, more serious levels (closer to hell!) are for those who committed sins of the soul, and the higher for those who merely indulged in sins of the flesh like gluttony. This is a wondrous work, saturated with beauty and cosmology, and the star-filled air is frequently filled with song and prayer as pilgrims make their way upward towards paradise. Dante and the reader are immersed in drama of the cosmos at all times, the stars illumining his path and carrying mythic importance. Some of this has a direct connection to the stars we see above, but there are other wonders in the sky that Dante witnesses which remain invisible to we mortals: other times, there is an expansion of what we see, so that the Seven Sisters constellation also represents apostles of the church. We’re not just stargazing and listening to songs of the penitent, though, as the poem is filled with debate and discussion: Dante learns about the origins of Hell’s pit and purgatory’s slopes, and about the causes of sin on Earth — stemming from misdirected love, as Rod Dreher elaborated on in his How Dante Can Save Your Life. We love the wrong things, or love good things the wrong way, making idols of ourselves, of others. As with his translation of Inferno, Esolen here translates Dante into blank verse, prioritizing Dante’s original meanings at the cost of rhymes — though not at the cost of rhythm. The text is split, with the Italian original on the left page and Esolen’s translation on the right: in addition to direct footnotes important for understanding some of Dante’s allusions, Esolen also includes an ample notes section, as well as appendices that connect Dante’s writing to medieval theology and compare it against other lyric poetry at the time. His footnotes are especially useful, because Dante’s poem is itself saturated with allusion, often oblique — not so much Italian politics this time, as we saw in Inferno, but in the western mythos , from classical to Christian, including always-salient medieval astrology. This is a beautiful work and a superb translation.
Our journey continues beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing into Eastertide with Paradiso!
History Unplugged interview with Esolen on translating the Commedia
Inferno, Dante. Trans. Anthony Esolen
How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher
Selections from How Dante Can Save Your Life
I’ve attempted to read Purgatorio years ago, and failed. I think it’s due more to the wrong translation (I think it’s Longfellow’s) and edition (I read from Kindle, without notes). I’ve learned since, and picked Ciardi’s translation. Now I just need to find the courage to read it! :))
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