Everything went wrong for the bamboo this year, then everything went right. A three-month drought was broken, then smashed, the warmth returned, expected animal attacks didn’t occur. Very high winds could still bring disappointment, but it’s all looking great. Visitors marvel at the new culms, but, curiously, it’s a boring time for the grower: the grove loses so much leaf that it becomes like light scrub. It’s only when the canopy grows back and the new culms add even deeper shade that you get your grove back. Of course, watching those culms lengthen by the hour is not too shabby.
Talking in the last post about Dante. I recently had a big Dante moment.
I’d decided to read all the Commedia during a stay in Siena a few months back. Kind of thing you do on a cultural break. In spite of good intentions, I usually stop at Paradiso, and did so again this time. Can’t get into the Aristotelian theories, theology tutorials with major saints, seating arrangements for Heaven etc. Sorry. (Some of the greatest slabs of verse are contained in the Paradiso, so I read those a lot. Am I off the hook?)
Before discussing my Moment, a further word about finding an entry point to Dante. I mentioned that an old copy of the Divine Comedy first drew my interest because of the Doré illustrations. Something else that gave me a taste was an Faber anthology piece I can no longer find. It was Laurence Binyon’s rhyming (in terza rima!) translation of the conclusion of Canto 27, Purgatorio. The episode relates Virgil’s farewell to Dante before the latter enters the garden of the Earthly Paradise, there to encounter Beatrice. You can say “sublime” too often…but not about the concluding cantos of the Purgatorio. No human utterance goes higher. But I gush!
The point is that Binyon’s translation of these lines had a certain sound. Through a curtain of inverted, antiquated English, a colossal music was audible. I did not have ask what it was.
Binyon is now among the least fashionable of Dante’s translators, for the obvious reason that a rendering of the Comedy into English triple rhyme must involve much inversion, archasim and general wrenching.
Yet consider alternatives. When a new translation is announced, it will no doubt be by some poet-in-leafy-residence type with plenty of academic cred, but also a bit of “edge”. Our translator may even have an ear-ring, a motorbike, or a taste for sky-diving. There’ll be talk of “vibrancy”, “fresh-minting”, “new currency”, “vernacular”, “aural subtlety”…and it all will have a point. Dante didn’t write in archaic language, there was no Quaker talk, no thee-and-thou stuff. Italian is rhyme-rich, so there are few awkward wrenchings and inversions. But our much heralded new translation, for all its worthy qualities and relevance to a new generation of readers etc, will be flat. Flat as a lizard drinking.
The problems of rendering Dante into English have been discussed so long and hard that there’s no need for my own amateurish account here. Yet I’ll say this. The most respected versions, whether verse, free verse or prose, come nowhere near to sounding like the real deal. To restate: who misses the sound of Dante, misses too much.
Binyon is probably not worth the effort for all the reasons above and more. Yet that one passage, for all its clunkiness, made a precious sound: the sound of Dante Alighieri. Providential nudge just for me? Binyon in form that day? Never mind. I had a hook in to Dante. You run with these things.
So, as I was saying…
A few months back, I was riding along in a bus between Siena and Florence, doing my daily read, and came to this passage:
Our two poets come to the deep central pit of hell, and Dante imagines that there are towers rising from its edges. In fact they are giants, visible from the waist up, punished for their rebellion against Jove, though one of them, Nimrod, is biblical. (Dante often ditches prissy theology for these pagan horror shows.)
Of course, the image needs extending, so, in a famous passage, he compares the appearance of the giants to the towers of Monteriggioni, a castle-town built by the Sienese to help keep out the hated Florentines.
So, I look up from my book to check out the scenery…and there it is!
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