Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Highest Comedy” first appeared in the October 2006 issue of Touchstone.
reviewed by R. V. Young
With the publication of Paradise, Anthony Esolen brings to completion his translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia or The Divine Comedy, begun with the Inferno (2002) and Purgatory (2003). As I maintained in my review of these volumes, Dante is among the handful of the greatest authors of world literature, and his Commedia is in many ways at the heart of Western culture because both its poetic excellence and its Christian vision are indisputable.
A new translation is, therefore, an event of great moment for Christian readers. Esolen’s rendering of Dante’s great poem is both accurate and readable; his introduction, notes, and commentary are thorough, accessible, and learned; and his approach to Dante’s poetry and Catholicism is sympathetic and traditional. That the publisher of this translation is well known and highly respected is an added bonus.
The completion of Esolen’s labors is thus an occasion for rejoicing, because it means that many students will learn about Dante and medieval Christendom from a gifted poet and scholar who not only respects the Christian vision of the Commedia, but regards it as superior to contemporary secular materialism. (Esolen, who teaches English at Providence College, is a senior editor of this magazine.)
The format of Paradise is the same as that of the Inferno and Purgatory. The original Italian and the English translation are printed on facing pages. Short notes explaining terms and identifying the significance of characters are placed at the foot of the page, so that a student can continue reading with minimum delay.
Longer, more reflective discussions of doctrinal matters, historical issues, and philosophical problems are found in a commentary at the end of the volume, along with appendices containing excerpts from additional primary sources: other works by Dante, Eucharistic hymns by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun,” and sermons on the Blessed Virgin by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Gustave Doré’s perennially engaging illustrations are again included. The principal difference comes in the length of the introductions: Purgatory’s introduction is about five pages longer than the Inferno’s; the introduction to Paradise is twenty pages longer than the latter.
It is hardly surprising that the last canticle of the Commedia should require a lengthier introduction. In assessing the commonplace claim “that the Paradise is the most medieval of the three canticles,” Esolen concedes that it “is the least accessible of the three to the modern reader,” but he immediately adds, “it was also the least accessible to the medieval reader.”
Like us, medieval men and women found it easier to imagine Hell, or even Purgatory, than Heaven. What is more, their imaginings of Heaven were as likely to be as inadequate as ours, based on the illusory longings of our corrupt and feeble nature rather than the majestic goodness of God, which involves a love wholly compatible with his severe justice.
Paradise, and hence the great poem as a whole, famously concludes with the poet submitting his will fully to “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” The Love here evoked is, however, the same as the “Primal Love” that joined with “Divine Omnipotence,” moved by “Justice,” and “Highest Wisdom” in the construction of Hell.
As Professor Esolen points out in his introduction, when we think about God in the twenty-first century, we wish to reduce “the almighty Creator of the universe to an easily manipulable force, to a tool, like a stock or a stone.” Our medieval ancestors suffered the same temptations, even if they had more abundant means of resistance.
Readers of any era may well experience surprise, even discomfort, at certain features of Dante’s depiction of Heaven, especially its insistence on the continuing concern among the blessed souls for justice on earth.
Justinian denounces the corruption of both Guelphs and Ghibellines in Dante’s native Florence; Beatrice expounds the justice of God’s vengeance on the Jews for the death of Christ; and Charles Martel of Anjou laments the degeneracy of the nobility. St. Thomas Aquinas vigorously condemns the corruption of contemporary Dominicans, St. Bonaventure of the Franciscans, St. Benedict of the Benedictines, and St. Peter of the papacy.
Paradise also dwells at length upon the fate of the virtuous heathen, presenting the Emperor Trajan and Ripheus (an obscure Trojan character from the Aeneid) among the saved, but not such figures as Plato, Aristotle, and—most striking—Virgil. “O predestination, how remote/ your root is from those sights that cannot see/ the fullness of the primal cause!” Similarly surprising are the saints’ contentment with the different levels of blessedness among them and the poem’s insistence on the incompleteness of the beatitude even of the souls of the saints until they are reunited with their glorified bodies at Judgment Day.
Esolen is especially successful in his introduction and commentary in placing these issues in their appropriate doctrinal and historical contexts. He expatiates with great insight and wit on the knotty relationship of God’s justice and mercy, which so often seems an affront to human notions of fairness.
In his view, Dante, like Chesterton, recognized that Christianity is more of a story than a philosophy. Complaints about God’s apparent injustice usually take as their premise an ideal, abstract realm rather than the concrete reality actually inhabited by human beings: “to require mathematical equality as a precondition for justice is incompatible with a created, material universe in which interesting things happen.”
He then illustrates this notion with the analogy of a baseball game played by athletes with identical talents in identical circumstances: not only would the game be dull, the players would be unlovable. Hence, he concludes, “God did not create a philosophy. He created, as Dante saw, a comedy.”
I should single out for particular praise, in an introduction that is excellent throughout, his exposition of the importance of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which does not, in my experience, receive due attention from preachers and catechists nowadays.
In the “Translator’s Note” we are reminded that this version of the Commedia deploys blank verse with irregular rhymes, prudently refraining from a consistent effort to duplicate in English Dante’s rhyme scheme of terza rima (aba, bcb, and so on through each canto). Esolen does point out, however, that rhyme is more common in Paradise than in Purgatory, which offered considerably more rhyme than the austerely worded Inferno.
One example must suffice to show how this works. The soul of Thomas Aquinas is admonishing rash, ill-informed judgment:
This is a rare occasion when Esolen has matched the terza rima, and it has required the introduction of terms not in the Italian. St. Thomas, for instance, does not call such a fool an “ass,” and passo would more readily be rendered “step” here, or perhaps “passage,” than “pass.”
Nevertheless, these departures from strict adherence to the Italian original are justified. They do not change the central meaning of the passage in any significant way; in fact, it is enhanced by the epigrammatic quality of the rhymes, which underscore the satirical tone of St. Thomas’s discourse. Esolen consistently makes good choices like this in his translation.
A Liberal Education
I close this review with the same plea that closed my earlier review of the Inferno and Purgatory: get this book into the hands of student readers—your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, godsons and goddaughters, and, if you are a teacher, your students. Every person with even the slightest pretense to literary cultivation should have more than a secondhand acquaintance with Dante’s Commedia, and Anthony Esolen’s version is in every way the best available.
He is sensitive to the variety and surprise of the poem, such things as “the stunning ending of Canto Ten, with its delicate evocations of simple village life, the gears of the church clock ringing the bells and lifting the hearts of those who hear them from afar,” and this critical perspicacity is manifest in the quality of his translation. The introductions to all three volumes are admirable, but the introduction to Paradise is a masterpiece of literary interpretation.
A student who learns Dante from this edition will have a grasp not only of Dante, but of the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, and through them understand Christian truths now neglected, ignored, or forgotten. Esolen thus provides in his translation and commentary the foundation of a liberal education and offers an antidote to the triviality and raw propagandizing that too often pass for education in secondary schools and universities.
R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Boydell & Brewer), and he is currently at work on a book on Shakespeare and on a translation and critical edition of the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius?s De Constantia. He and his wife, who are parishioners at St. Joseph?s Catholic Church in Raleigh, have five grown children and eight grandchildren.
“Highest Comedy” first appeared in the October 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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