Anthony Esolen has brilliantly translated the ancient Roman poet Lucretius and Torquato Tasso’s Christian epic on the Crusades, Jerusalem Liberated (both available from the Johns Hopkins University Press). But he has just published a new translation of Dante’s Inferno that should bring him even greater prestige. If there is any justice in the world of books, it will be the standard Dante in the classroom and the home library for some time to come.
Crisp and clear, Esolen’s version avoids two modern temptations: a slavish literalness to the Italian or a taking of liberties in the attempt to make this greatest of medieval poems aesthetically modern. He prepared his Inferno (Purgatory and Paradise are completed and on the way) partly because the Western civilization program at Providence College, where he teaches, could not find a good, affordable translation. So anyone who works through this volume will be exposed both to Dante and to the kind of approach to a great text currently being offered by one of the best Catholic culture programs in the country.
But Esolen’s Dante is not merely a classroom text or a pretext for Catholic pedagogy. It stands on its own merits, and one sign of just how great those merits are is that it has appeared in the prestigious Modern Library series (Random House, 2002). Bookstores are full of old and new translations of Dante, and anyone foolhardy enough to invest time and money in producing yet another version will have tough competition in the marketplace. But Esolen and his publishers do not have to worry. They have put down a good bet.
The sheer intelligence and verve Esolen brings to the task make him a contender against all comers. For instance, he knows what the true attractions of Dante are to every age: “Few poets have ever possessed a mind as analytical and painstaking as Dante’s, yet that is not what makes us read the Comedy.” Instead, Esolen says, it’s Dante’s spiritual striving to see and his “quick love” for everything noble and “quick disdain” for everything foul: “He carries his neck high, and he makes us ashamed of ourselves if we do not.”
Esolen’s judgment is all but faultless at every point. To begin with, he includes Dante’s Italian on facing pages and insists that, for those with the will and the gifts, it is the ultimate destination. Unlike other versions, his keeps the focus on the poetry of the Inferno, not by modernist stylistics meant to attract attention to the translator’s skills, but by helping the reader over major hurdles with occasional, very short notes at the foot of the page. More extensive commentary, beautifully crafted with a verve worthy of the subject, appears at the back of the book but are to be consulted only after the reader—”who should not interrupt poetry by thumbing back and forth from the text to the notes”—has first confronted Dante’s text in itself. Brief and well-selected passages from Dante’s other works, as well as from St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Boniface VIII, Virgil, the troubadours, and other medieval poems, appear in supplementary appendixes. Since Dante is too great a poet to be taken in by one or even many readings, this arrangement offers something for readers of all levels.
But in addition to his scholarly tact, Esolen is simply one of the most vigorous English translators of Dante—ever. Anyone who loves poetry or is interested in the development of Western culture will want to look at the whole of this version. But even small bits can give a sense of the energy present everywhere. For example, one of the most famous passages in all of Dante is the inscription over the gates of hell. Longfellow, who was no mean translator of Dante himself, begins:
Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.
There’s nothing wrong with this in the context, but anyone familiar with Dante’s Italian will feel a far drop-off from the lapidary lines that all begin, as Longfellow shows, “Per me si va…” In three sets of three rhymed lines, Dante conveys the foreboding of the entrance and the divine justice it represents. Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, made a modernist hash of this passage, even going so far as to lose the Trinitarian structure by condensing nine into seven-and-a-half lines.
Esolen simply leaves the competition behind here as elsewhere:
I am the way into the city of woe
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.
Justice caused my high architect to move:
Divine omnipotence created me,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me there were no created things
But those that last forever—as do I.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.
The “I am the way…” is not literal and is initially surprising to anyone who follows Dante translations, but repeated readings convince you that it works. And in his end note on this familiar passage, Esolen astutely points out that its most chilling feature is not the final loss of hope but “the simple signature of the architect…. How can Love fashion a realm of groaning and wailing, of utter agony and alienation?” His answer is that powerful love, unlike its pale contemporary counterparts, also includes justice and a respect for the free choices of human beings—and the consequences they entail.
But is all this merely of interest to medievalists and otherworldly antiquarians? In the introduction, Esolen argues that Dante invites us to view the whole cosmos as informed by the kind of Love he envisions. This is difficult for us given current cosmology: “Even those who profess the Christian faith live in a dead and silent world: religion has retreated into the foxholes of the heart and says nothing about the stars.” This presents a large cultural challenge for the modern intellectual. But Esolen identifies three things in Dante that we may transpose into a modern register: Things have an end. Things have meaning. Things are connected. If we pursue those in the right way, even among contemporary scientific notions, we may again glimpse the drama, significance, and sheer visionary sweep of Creation.
In his spare time, Esolen and his wife, Debra, are state coordinators of the Rhode Island homeschooling association. He also founded a men’s group on the Providence College campus to provide support for young guys without many other places to go for intellectual and personal support. And he is still a young man himself. The great Dante has found in Anthony Esolen not only a worthy translator and a keen mind but a kindred and generous spirit.