Thursday, May 21, 2015




Alasdair Gray


Like many young, ambitious authors I wished to write an epic because I had learned it was both the largest way of telling a good story and, if successful, would last a long time because a nation would feel it spoke for them. My teacher in this matter was Tillyard in his book The English Epic and Its Background. He said Dante’s Comedy was the greatest epic since those of Homer and Virgil, besides being the first in a modern language when only scholars and clergy were able to read Greek and Latin. I was a monoglot whose access to foreign literature was only possible through translation.       Over the years I read the Comedy in several translations though not steadily. Like perhaps a majority of readers I read Inferno from start to finish but only dipped into Purgatory and Paradise. Most of us prefer stories about sinners, especially if we think them worse than ourselves. But by visiting his visions, even in snatches, I began to glimpse the scale of his truly encyclopaedic achievement. It equally presents the religion, philosophy, politics, poetry and science of Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian Europe as a historical, Catholic continuity. Dante’s Catholicism was not a faith in which good believers could relax and feel at home before death claimed them. He viewed it as Karl Marx viewed Communism: as a perpetual struggle. Hence Dante’s continual denunciation of the papacy for its claims to earthly wealth and property. His Comedy was too popular and convincing to be banned as heretical as was his political writing till near the end of the 19th century.
         And the stronger my fascination with his visions became, the less content I grew with the translations through which I glimpsed them. Every translation disturbed me by using words which, though found in every good English dictionary, people chiefly use when quoting poetry or prose from much earlier times than their own, or using forms of words they would never use in their everyday speech. They did so in efforts to give all Dante’s meanings as accurately as possible, while suggesting something of his rhythm and rhyme. A note at the end of this book explains what I gained as a schoolboy from fragments of Dante in the English of Tennyson, Eliot and Auden, but on a Sunday afternoon, 29th October 2012, I wrote in a notebook the first two verses of his Comedy in Italian, then their 1805 translation by the Reverend H.F. Cary, the 1854 by Frederick Pollock, the 1886 by Longfellow, the 1932 by Melville Anderson, the 1949 by Dorothy Sayers and the 1953 by John Ciardi. Then I began writing my paraphrase, probably because I had written over 20 books, mostly fiction, had no ideas for more, and could imagine no better exercise for my verbal imagination. From then until 20th May 2015 writing this paraphrase became my favourite occupation. Other jobs seemed more urgent because I had promised to do them. This was more satisfying because only I wanted it, though of course I hoped it might one day please others.
All English dictionaries agree that to paraphrase something is to tell it in other words. By this definition all translations must be paraphrases, but this paraphrase of Dante’s Comedy is not a conscientious translation like the six I have named above or three others I have read since: Chiaron Carson’s version of The Inferno, John Sinclair’s prose version of all three books and also Clive James’ rhyming one. The internet notes there have been at least 120 English translations of Dante; every year or two one or two others are published in English speaking nations, and I am sure nearly every one is truer to Dante’s sense than my paraphrase.
This is because I have cut out all I could not put into my own speech without sounding complicated or pretentious. Dear reader, I promise this is no hint that Dante’s speech in the Comedy is ever complicated or pretentious. I believe the Italian scholars who tell me his language is always as direct and to the point as the speech of Shakespeare or Burns. But his language is lyrical, mellifluent Italian, as old fashioned to modern Italian ears as the speech of Chaucer and Henryson is to ours. So by retelling the Comedy in my everyday abrupt north British language I have inevitably cut it down to the range of my own intelligence, which is certainly less than his, but more equal to your own, so more easy to understand.
         An example of my abruptness is in the pronunciation of the heroine’s name. In Italy Beatrice is pronounced with four syllables; Bee-a-trich-ay is a poor approximation to the beautiful sound. In English it is usually said with two syllables: Bee-tris, almost rhyming with mattress. In my version it is a three syllable name: Bee-a-tris, which in the 14th line of Paradise, Chapter 7, allows a pleasant pun emphasising Dante’s original meaning.

         Also, Guelphs and Ghibellines are the main political parties Dante mentions because they contended for power in his homeland, Florence, and other states. Guelphs sometimes represented merchant families and Ghibellines the more aristocratic families of landowners. This difference was often confused by intermarriage, and alliances with foreign states, and by new popes changing sides. The difference was most often between what has been called new and old money, so I call Guelph Whig, Ghibelline Tory, the equally interchangeable equivalents in English.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


CHAPTER 33: Prayer and Answer

“O Virgin Mother, daughter of your son!
            Lowly, yet raised higher than anyone!
            goal of all human striving, you are she                  3

ennobling humanity, because He
            who made mankind chose to be made by you.
            The love that was rekindled in your womb            6

had warmth enough to let this Heaven bloom
            in endless peace where you are now our sun
            always at height of noon. To the souls here           9

you are incarnate charity, to those on earth
            a well of living hope. Lady so great
            that those seeking Grace without your aid            12

may as well aspire to fly without wings.
            Your kindness not only aids those who ask;
            sometimes it anticipates our prayer.                     15

Your mercy, pity, generosity
            unite in all the good that people need.
            This man was sent up from the depths of Hell,    18

seeing the lives of spirits, one by one,
            and now he begs your kindness for the strength
            to bear salvation’s last enlightenment.                  21

I never sought that vision for myself
            yet join my plea with his to strengthen it.
            I pray you, clean his sight off mortal stains          24

making his vision fit for such delight,
and afterwards I pray that you will keep
his heart pure – curb his human appetite.              27

Many more Heavenly souls share in this
prayer of mine, including Beatrice.”
The eyes God loved and his son reverenced         30

fixed on the supplicant and plainly showed
she loved devoted prayer, then she looked
to the fixed point of light that only she                33

could penetrate with undimmed eye. By now
I had reached the end of all desire,
did not want another thing, but Bernard              36

with a smile told me to look up. I did
            and found my sight, now purified, entered
the lofty beam which is the one true light.           39

and from that time I parted company
with memory and speech. It seemed a dream
of passion that remains when dreamers wake     42

yet can’t recall visions inspiring them.
            That has become my state. Only a few
sweet drops stayed in my memory of it.             45

The rest is lost as tears are lost in rain
            or thaw washes away footsteps in snow.
            O light supreme, more than conceivable            48

by mortal mind, grant mine again some part
            of what you let me see, and give my tongue
            some power to leave a gleam of glory                51

for my readers yet to come. Please give back
            a little to my memory, lending
            these words force to convey your victory.         54

So piercing was the splendour of that ray
            I am convinced that had I looked away
            even an instant, it had blinded me,                     57

but I sustained it till my looking reached
            the central goodness. Bless abounding Grace!
            You let me dare to face infinite light                 60

so long that my whole mind was lost in You!
            The scattered pages of the universe
            were in that deepness, with its substances,        63

its accidents, connections, unified
            and bound by love into a single book.
            God by His light creates complexity,                66

yet all appeared one good grand simple shape
            in writing which I feel my joy expand!
            One moment gazing on that light seemed more  69

than the twenty five centuries of years
            since Argonauts launched the first sailing ship.
I could not look elsewhere. Exactly there           72
I saw the objects of all will. What is
            outside it is defective: all within
            perfectly made. Dear reader, know these words  75

tell even less of what I can recall
            than if my infant tongue still sucked a breast.
            The living light remained the same, but I            78

began to change. My strengthened sight saw more,
            for in the profound clear ground of light
            appeared three circles, different colours,              81

the same size. Two reflected each other
            as rainbows do, the third took fire from them.
            This blethering, alas, cannot convey                    84

what things I saw in that Eternal Light
            fulfilling, knowing, loving its sweet self
            in one reflecting, circling Trinity,                       87

for as my eyes dwelled there I seemed to see
            a human form. Like the geometer
            battering his brain in vain to see how                 90

circle could be squared, I tried to think or feel
            how such an image could eternally
            persist in light. The wings of my fancy              93

could not fly so far until, in a flash,
            I saw desire and will resembled now
            a finely balanced wheel being turned by

love that moves the sun and every star.                          97


CHAPTER 32: The Rose’s Plan

Gazing upon the source of his delight
            my co-adorer kindly lectured me
            beginning with these holy words: “The wounds         3

of nails and spear that Mary ointmented
            and closed, derived from Eve the beautiful
            who sits below her feet. You will recall                      6

Eve opened them by eating of a fruit.
            In the third row below sits one you know –
            Beatrice; then Jewish mothers: Rachel,                       9

Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, also Ruth
            grandmamma of King David, sinner,
            singer of the penitential psalm.                                   12

After the Hebrew women’s seventh tier
            a separation starts. On the left side
            sit those who looked for Christ before his birth,         15

for they had faith in God’s Old Testament.
            On the right side are seats for those who know
            that Christ did come, some of them empty still.          18

Now look behind. On the side opposite
equal divisions reign. Facing our Heaven’s Queen
sits John the Baptist who prepared Christ’s way,  21                                                      

suffered the wilderness and martyrdom,
            then went to Hell before Christ set him free.
            Below him see Augustine, Benedict,                          24

Francis and others down to where we stand,
            but split between, as on the women’s side,
            good Jews and Christian men, who shall remain        27

until both sides are filled up equally.
Also see that halfway down this flower
a tier encircling us has those beneath                          30

whose merits did not win this place for them.
            Look and listen well. Their faces, voices
            tell they are souls of children who have died              33

before their innocence was tested by
            fighting to conquer sin, resist Hell’s snare.
            I see a doubt in you, striking you dumb.                     36

Let me untie the knot that binds your tongue.
            Chance accidents in Paradise, like thirst,
            hunger and suffering cannot exist.                               39

All that befalls souls here is fitting them
            surely as rings fit fingers, so accept
            God’s foresight and His Grace will give to all             42

their rightful place. Do not try to know more.
            Look on her face whose face is most like Christ’s.
            Only her brightness can enlarge your mind.”                45

From the first angels soaring in these heights
            I now saw gladness raining down on her.
            All that appeared before was not so full                       48

of such wonder and love. I seemed to see
            The Holy Dove descend, and hear the hymn
            Hail Mary, full of Grace, saw the wings spread,          51

heard on each side the divine court respond
            tunefully to the divine voice. Each face
            melodiously grew more glorious.                                 54

“O holy father whose great courtesy
            in guiding me removes you from your throne,
            which angel gazes so enchantedly                               57

upon the Virgin, he appears on fire?”
            I asked the saint. He answered, “He contains
            all gallantry an angel can, so brought                          60

Mary word she would bear the son of God.
            Attend again, for I will point out more
            nobilities in this most merciful                                     63

empire of the just. Upon either side
            of our Queen sit the twin roots of this rose.
            On her left is Adam, the first dad who                         66

tasted the bitter fruit, causing The Fall.
            All are engendered from his seed. Look right
            where sits the Kirk’s father and foundation,                69

who was given keys to this bonny bloom;
            beside him John, the prophet who foresaw
            the tribulations Christ’s Kirk had to face.                    72

Beside the other rests the great guide who
            led ungrateful tribes through the desert where
            he nourished them with manna from the skies.           75

But now time flies and soon your dream must end.
            Good tailors cut a coat according to
            the cloth available, so point your eyes                         78

toward the Primal Love. Look into His
            radiance deep as you can. In striving
            to advance you may, for lack of God’s Grace,            81

fall back. Pray hard for it. Salvation lies
            in prayer. Follow my words with love. Let
            nothing come between them and your heart.”                                        

He began his holy supplication.                                              84