B (After Dante)
(Carcanet Press, 2021)
The coincidence of the publication of the 2019 Seamus Heaney Poetry Prize winner Ned Denny’s translation B (After Dante) of Dante’s Divina Commedia, and the 700th year since the poet’s death in the autumn of 1321, proves suitably momentous. Coincidental, because Denny embarked on his “long labour” when he was 40, “nel mezzo del cammin” (di nostra vita), six years ago, with no thought of the anniversary; and long before the appropriately medieval and infernal plague conditions in which it has been published, Dante having died of malaria.
T.S. Eliot described Dante as “the greatest religious poet,” his masterpiece the Divine Comedy expressing “everything in the way of emotion, between depravity’s despair and the beatific vision, that man is capable of experiencing.”There are translations galore, but when Denny, in an admirably clear preface, describes his “interpretation and portrayal of the Commedia” as taking “the form of another poem,” it is not a cop out but true to the original. A Nobel laureate, Eugenio Montale, wrote that English translations cook up Dante in their own way and have been right to do so. Dante made a new poem inspired by the Aeneid, Book 6 of which has its author Virgil descend into the underworld guided by the Sybil. In Dante’s similar journey, his initial guide is Virgil, his poetic forebear. But instead of Virgil’s Latin, he dared to use everyday speech to make his poem understandable to more than an educated elite; and he set it in the present—even the concept of Purgatory only officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church during his lifetime. Use of the vernacular has immortalized him as “father” of the Italian language, his example soon establishing vernacular literature as the norm across Europe.
Denny re-titles his Commedia ‘B’, renaming Dante’s three books for emphasis: Blaze (Inferno), Bathe (Purgatorio), Bliss (Paradiso), which from the outset trumps other translators’ attempts to update. Refusal to observe poetic precedent is compounded by his new minting every line. The result is compelling. In form, too, Denny provides a scriptural yet ‘living equivalent’ to Dante’s spiritually numerological original at the outset of the Renaissance, when the universal perfection of mathematics, bridging the old world and the new, substantiated the divine order of Creation. Each of B’s 100 stanzas is printed as a block, six rhyming couplets long with a breadth of roughly 12 words, recalling the duodecimal “foursquare” dimensions and details of the radiant “holy Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God” (Revelation: 21:10). Line lengths vary, but each stanza has 144 syllables, celebrating the 144,000 “redeemed from the earth” and singing “a new song” before “the throne of God” (Revelation: 14, 1-5); and “the hours in the six days of Creation (and thus the end and beginning of sacred time)” (Genesis 1:31, 2:1-2). Denny links each canto with a single opening and closing line, giving a round total of 11,000 lines. The book is dedicated to “The Maestro,” in acknowledgment of the appearance of Christ as Dante’s divine—therefore upper-case—Maestro in Paradiso/Bliss, evoking the Logos as the supreme ‘conductor’ of the Creation.
In the 2017 anthology To Hell and Back of 70 modern (post 1782) English translations of the Inferno, which includes Denny among 18 post-2000 translators, he is alone in honoring the original with such spiritual fidelity—a vital distinction in the secular present. The majority, including Dorothy Sayers in her well-regarded version, opt for Dante’s original terza rima. For many this can prove a limitation, whereas Denny’s syllabic counting offers him the freedom to ride the rhythm, and rhyme his couplets with wit and even humor, such as God with thud.
Having declared his revitalizing intentions by renaming the book titles, Denny’s new minting begins with the famous opening lines. In Longfellow’s famous 1867 translation, these are:
Midway upon the journey of life
I found myself within a forest dark
Denny’s version opens with a single line:
In the midst of the stroll of this life that some call good
I came to my senses in a corpse-hued wood,
Having strayed from or abandoned the righteous way.
His modernity is plain spoken but never jars:
…and not merely this, but golf-ball hail
suspending in ice the dregs of a shithouse pail
thundered down onto the miasma of the ground. (Blaze, 6:1)
Contemporary allusions can be seamlessly discreet:
Scattered like daytrippers across the gentle plain
again I drew near to my faithful companion,
without whose stern guidance how would I have followed –
or even have discerned – the long and winding road? (Bathe, 3:1)
As his preface explains, ‘B’ stands as a cipher for the Commedia’s all-encompassing association: from Beatrice, too obvious to list, to Bella, Dante’s mother, ‘who died when he was young, and the bell that calls the sleeping mind to God’. The above shows B is also for the Beatles.
The Inferno is usually as far as modern readers of the Commedia get, satisfying a taste for sensationalism made more essential as daily life speeds up and attention spans shorten. But while Blaze is suitably hellish, Denny’s Bathe and Bliss prove just as compelling for the refreshment of revision; and not just of Dante, as this reworking of a natural wonder, the singing ascent of the skylark—inspiration of some of the most popular English poems—shows. With typical novelty he marvels at the bird’s no less dramatic silent descent:
“Now he witnesses God’s grace in ways your straying
Earth cannot comprehend, although even he
Can only see so far into that infinity.”
Like a lark that climbs a pale blue heaven, at first
singing then silent as if brimful with the last
wild phrase – too mysterious even for itself –
so seemed to me that mark or imprint of the Self.
The eternal joy through whose fathomless desire
we come in good time to be what we really are; (Bliss: 20, 5)
Virgil cannot lead Dante into the Paradise promised by the resurrected Christ, because he was a Roman pre-Christian pagan. It is Dante’s second guide, the beatific Beatrice, promise of divinity but in earthly reality the object of his courtly, undefiled, love (in real life he only saw her twice), who guides him from Bathe (Purgatory) into Bliss (Paradise) where, in Denny’s fine and final words, intellect, will, and every desire are held by the Love that moves the sun and untold stars.
B is spectacular confirmation of the talent revealed in Ned Denny’s prize-winning first collection, Unearthly Toys.