Canto or Won’t-o?

There is no more certain kiss of death than the New Year’s Resolution, is there?

You hang that fresh calendar on the wall and envision the New You in the New Year. Yeah, right. Three weeks later you’re back in the recliner with the Doritos and a Toblerone bar the size of a sledge hammer.

So I was smart this year. My only resolution for 2012 was to re-read Dante’s Inferno. What I didn’t realize was that it might take me the entire year to do it. I am a sad and sorry twelve cantos and seven circles into Hell, which is just slightly more than a third of the way through. Kind of helps me channel Dante, who, in Canto I, was “midway through the journey” of his life.

Re-post of an illustration by Botticelli from the Norton translation, Canto I, where Dante “astray in the woods”, is hindered by the three beasts

What is wrong here? Is it laziness? Lack of motivation? In my defense, I am slowed down by reading four translations at once. I’ve got a treasure-trove of Dante: the paperback Mandelbaum translation, the Thomas Bergin translation with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, the Charles Eliot Norton translation with Botticelli illustrations and the Hollander translation. Essentially, I’m reading four books at once, which simply quadruples the pleasures of Hell.

re-post of Leonard Baskin’s illustration of Canto I’s leopard in the Bergin translation

Each translation is a revelation unto itself, but the Hollander translation nails it every time. By far the most cogent and, dare I say, humorous, take on this cook’s tour of Hell, the Hollanders make the most sense and manage their subject with the greatest delicacy. Once of my favorite notes of theirs is their explanation of the parentage of the Minotaur in Canto XII:

Leonard Baskin’s illustration of the Minotaur in Canto XII of the Bergin translation

“half man and half bull, conceived by the sexually venturesome Pasiphae (wife of Minos, king of Crete) with a bull, when she placed herself in a wooden replica of a cow in order to enjoy a bovine embrace” (italics mine)

Haha! And we think reality television is at the limit of human depravity!

Jean and Robert Hollander (image from

The Hollanders seem to be content in obscurity, because, beyond the Dante Project at Princeton, which is apparently run by Dr. Hollander (he has to be a Ph.D., right?) I can’t find much yakkety-yak about them on the web. They are awesome, though. They use five words to everyone else’s ten and they make everything crystal clear, which is not all that easy when you’re traversing Hell. Hands down, the Hollander edition is your best choice for reading Dante. I read the Dorothy Sayres edition last time around and became rather attached to her, but I’m now  100% Team Hollander.

Other than Canto XI, which is a real snoozer, it has been a wild ride and I encourage all of you – yes, I know this is not summer beach reading, but it’s worth it! – to delve into Dante. Although I do recommend that you not approach it bass-ackwards like me: I have not yet read The Aeneid, which really should be a pre-requisite to The Divine Comedy. Go there first, and if you do, get the Fagles translation.

If you’re going to read The Aeneid, get this translation

I have a lot of admiration for those poor high-schoolers who are speed-reading (or Spark-reading) their way through the Inferno while I laze around, reading a Canto here and there.  I think I’ve just talked myself into picking up the pace. Canto XIII here I come…

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
This entry was posted in Dante/Divine Comedy, Music/Art/Literature/Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Canto or Won’t-o?

  1. Katherine says:

    And this is exactly why resolutions should not be made the day after a night spent whooping it up, drinking bottles of champagne.

  2. Katherine says:

    Good to know: Florence condemned Dante to exile but after he became revered and died, they regretted it and wanted his body buried in the city. Even though it never happened, there’s still a tomb there, empty, with the engraved epithet: “Honour the most exalted poet.” Note to self: remember to honor while the people are still around….

  3. won’t be me any time soon, but I admire the challenge!

  4. Katherine says:

    I’m with Angela – I think the closest we’ll get to a Divine Comedy in this household is re-watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

  5. dizzyguy says:

    CE (NOT Dizzyguy). The Dante is a daunting undertaking for sure, and anyone taking it on is to be admired. My head hurts every time I walk past the dining room table and see all of those translations spread out at once. Go Chicken Lady! However, the illustration of Dante “astray in the woods” and hindered by the three beast is obviously just yours truly paying the price of not opening the cans of “Fancy Feast” quick enough to suit Dizzy, Dodger, and especially, Rosey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s