Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Inferno: The Official Haiku* Review

*I lie, it's actually terza rima, but that title doesn't scan as well.

This summer I decided to resume my Remedial Lit Project by covering those classic authors of Western literature who didn't write in English. Sure, I hit Homer and Aeschylus and all those Greeks back in my college Great Books class, and I had great British literature coming out of my ears, but unless they were written in Spanish I didn't get much in the way of foreign-language classics. So last year, after boning up on American classics, I decided I really needed to broaden my basics.

First up is The Inferno by Dante Aligheri (1265-1321), the Italian poet considered one of the founders of Italian literature. His Divine Comedy, of which The Inferno is the first part, is considered one of the world's greatest epic poems. As you can probably tell from the title, The Inferno is Dante's portrait of hell, told via 34 cantos (aka chapters) of terza rima stanzas. (Terza rima=three-line stanzas, rhyme pattern aba / bcb / cdc / ded / efe / fgf / and so on and so on.) In tribute to the original verse, I offer my review in this poetic format:

So Dante takes a little tour of Hell
Sees devils, sinners, and the river Styx
Escapes above to Italy to tell

Of beasts and images that would transfix
The reader, were he not compelled to add
A ton of old Venetian politics.

So all in all, I'd say it's not half bad.

Even if you've never read Dante, you're probably familiar with some of the concepts he elaborates: the virtuous heathens of Limbo (including his guide, the Roman poet Virgil); the gluttons wading in a river of waste; the suicides transformed into thorny trees; the false prophets walking around with their heads on backwards. The torments he concocts for the many different kinds of sinners are both inventive and appropriate. It would be a very fascinating exploration of human sin, except almost all his examples were contemporary figures from his home city of Florence, from which he was exiled in his mid-thirties. I was forced to continually refer to the detailed notes, to figure out whether Ugolino was a Guelph or a Ghibelline, and if the former, whether he was a Black or White Guelph, and whether he was loyal or a turncoat, and ... you get the idea. It was a weird combination of familiar Greek mythology and alien Italian politics, and it was just hard to wrap my head around it.

Of course, I didn't read this in the original Italian. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the 2002 translation by the Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who not only reproduces the rhythm of the original (an approximation of iambic pentameter, the old "la-DAH la-DAH la-DAH la-DAH la-DAH"), he also gets the rhyme. This may mean that his translation is a bit loose in some places, but the sounds! Check out the beginning of Canto III, when Dante is reading the engraving above the portal to Hell:

"Through me, into the city full of woe
through me, the message of eternal pain;
through me, the passage where the lost souls go.

Justice moved my Maker in his high domain
Power Divine and Primal Love built me;
and Supreme Wisdom; I will aye remain.

Before me there was nothing made to be,
except eternity; eternal I shall endure;
all hope abandon, ye who go through me."

Zowie. The whole thing is full of similar instances of beautiful wordsmithing—and it's not all as high-falutin' as the above example, there are also some wonderfully earthy lines as well. If you're of a mind to check out Dante, I highly recommend this version.

1 comment: