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The Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven

Dante Alighieri

Translated by Peter Dale

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Series: Poetica
Imprint: Anvil Press Poetry
Publisher: Carcanet Press
Available as:
Paperback (448 pages)
(Pub. Dec 1996)
£14.95 £13.45
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    from Hell: Canto 1

    Good Friday, 1300; Dante, thirty-five years old, finds himself lost in a dark wood, wondering how he strayed from the straight way. He spends a fearful night. Dawn lights on a hill toward which he heads, encouraged by the sun’s light. He finds his way barred by various wild animals: the leopard of lust, the lion of pride, the she-wolf of avarice. Retreating, he is met by the spirit of Vergil who  explains that there is no way past the she-wolf – though one is destined to come to drive her back to Hell. He offers to conduct Dante another way to safety through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Dante agrees to go.

    Along the journey of our life half way,
         I found myself again in a dark wood
         Wherein the straight road no longer lay.
    How hard it is to tell, make understood
         What a wild place it was, so dense, adverse
         That fear returns in thinking on that wood.
    It is so bitter death is hardly worse.
         But, for the good it was my chance to gain,
         The other things I saw there I’ll rehearse.
    – Yet still I cannot readily explain
         How I had entered it, so near to sleep
         I was, on losing that true way and plain.
    But, when I trod the rising of a steep,
         Toward the ending of that fearful vale
         Whose terror pierced into my heart so deep,
    I looked and saw the shoulder I’d to scale
         Arrayed already in that planet’s light
         Which leads men straight on every road they trail.
    And then my fear lulled somewhat from its height
         That on my heart’s sea gathered more and more
         Where I so piteously had passed the night.
    As one who has escaped from sea to shore
         With panting breath turns round to catch the sight
         Again of all the dangerous waves that roar,
    Exactly so, my mind, though still in flight,
         Turned itself round to see that defile where
         None had passed through alive before this night.

    Dante’s masterpiece is a foundation stone of European poetry. It was a profound influence on T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and in our own day has inspired Seamus Heaney. It is simple in style yet complex in its layers of meaning, episodic in manner yet architectonic in its over-arching vision. It is simultaneously a journey through life and a spiritual biography, a portrait of the internecine Italy of Dante’s time and a pilgrim’s progress through the tripartite afterworld of Catholic mythology. Paradoxically, it is also a devotional work and one of the strangest love poems ever written. It is without doubt one of the supreme works of world literature.

    Peter Dale has established a reputation as one of this country’s leading translators for his François Villon: Selected Poems, and more recently for his witty and accurate versions of Jules Laforgue. His great achievement here has been to produce a version of The Divine Comedy in modern English that echoes Dante’s ‘sweet new style’, while keeping to the poet’s demanding terza rima verse pattern. It is a reader’s edition – accurate, clear and compelling. It is also Peter Dale’s crowning achievement as a translator.

    Dante Alighieri
    Dante Alighieri was a major Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called Comedìa and later christened Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio, is widely considered the most important poem of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in the Italian language. He defied poetic convention by writing ... read more
    Peter Dale
    Peter Dale was born in Addleston, Surrey in 1938 and educated at St Peter’s College, Oxford. He worked as a secondary school teacher before becoming a freelance writer in 1993. He was co-editor of the poetry journal Agenda for many years. He is renowned for his translations from French (Corbière, Laforgue, ... read more
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