Book Beat November 11 2000 (2)

We have before us an occasion once again to celebrate the most singular achievement of Dante’s Purgatorio, lately restored to preeminence by American poet W.S. Merwin in a fine verse translation. Whether taken as a companion piece to Robert Pinsky’s recent translation of the Inferno or alone for its own delights, this book represents a major move to forge our millennial connection to the Medieval period and, thus, to some of the foundations of our best literature.
If one has forgotten those first undergraduate encounters with Dante’s swirling imagery or his wry command of the Classical idiom, Merwin opens up the vast vistas of remote antiquity with a renewed sense of adventure and an unfailing sense of humor.
Certainly, one might reasonably object that his translation goes too far in making accessible the complexities of the Dantean world. Merwin chooses, for instance, not to use the familiar terza rima as a formal device; he preserves the triplets, but not the rhymes.
This could be disastrous in a lesser poet’s hands; but here it liberates the translation from bizarre syntactical constraints and permits Merwin to demonstrate his own considerable gifts for lyrical inflection while keeping Dante’s narrative always up front in the reader’s imagination, as in these lovely lines:
To course on better waters the little?
boat of my wit, that leaves behind her?
so cruel a sea, now raises her sails ?
and I will sing of that second ?
kingdom in which the human spirit is ?
made clean and becomes worthy to ?ascend to Heaven.
The fluid rhythms and harmonic structure of his lines are faithful to the Dantean intentions and generous to the American ear. If nothing else, Merwin has delivered a nice alternative to John Ciardi’s own more conventional but, nonetheless, exquisite treatment. Indeed, with this deeply textured and personal reading of the Purgatorio, Merwin makes his case for Dante’s evolving and immeasurable influence on the literature of our time: that a vernacular translation can sustain the force and stylistic grace of 700-year-old masterwork is evidence of an important shared aesthetic based on enduring principles of the Western world-view in which all things are possible and greatness, poetically inevitable.