Yeah, that’s the ninth circle, man

So desperate were the editors of Dante in English to make Dante relevant to today’s readers that they, in Helen Vendler’s view, ended up being “false to the spirit of the author.”

Does your recollection of the Paradiso portray Dante ‘mute and about to weep before Beatrice and the encircling blessed, harrowed with embarrassment, like a man who convivially declares “My shout!” and then finds he has forgotten his wallet’? Remembering the entrance to the infernal city, would you say that ‘having made the tricky entrance into the city of Dis, Virgil rests — to take the weightlessness off his feet a while’? Would you, in commenting on the hideous episode in which Ugolino and his sons are starved to death in an ‘orribile torre’, remark that ‘a tower is a Mr Big’? Can we infer that Dante’s use of the word tencione makes ‘the spectacle of the proud’ seem a ‘game like one of those “how many elephants are hidden in this picture?” teasers’? And when we hear Virgil say to Dante ‘Che pense?’, would you render it as ‘What’s on your mind?’ Still less, when Beatrice, after cataloguing Dante’s transgressions in the Purgatorio, asks him ‘Che pense?’, would you say: ‘She waits only a moment before snapping “Che pense?”‘ Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew? And when remarking on the paradox of time passing in the eternity of Hell, would we feel that ‘it could rightly be said: “If you’re passing through it, it ain’t hell”‘?

There is desperation behind such a manner — the terror that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang.


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