Further thoughts on teaching Dante

In yesterday’s article, I wrote of the importance of teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy in Catholic schools—both at high school and college level, and of the importance of teaching it well. I argued that it was a grievous error to teach only the Inferno to the exclusion of the other two books—and that it would be better to teach either of the other two books in preference to the Inferno if time permitted the teaching of one book only.

Furthermore, I suggested that selections from all three books would give a better idea and greater understanding of the majesty, scope, and integrity of the whole work than a concentration on one of the books to the exclusion of the other two.

The next pressing question is the edition which should be used as the set text.

It is another all too common mistake to believe that we are doing students a favour if we assign the cheapest edition of the work we’re studying. This is often not the case and is especially not the case where Dante is concerned. I would strongly recommend two editions of The Divine Comedy, either of which will serve well as an assigned text.

The first is the Dorothy Sayers translation (Penguin Classics), and the other is the more recent translation by Anthony Esolen (Modern Library Classics): Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise . A singular strength of the Sayers’ translation is its adherence to Dante’s original terza rima, the rhyme scheme that Dante invented for the poem. This verse stanza form, consisting of interlocking three-line stanzas connected in a single canto-length chain, is formally robust and conveys a cohesive strength to the very fabric of the work.

Something is lost when the terza rima is abandoned by translators—something integral to the poem. The problem is that it’s much easier to find words that rhyme in Italian than it is in English, making terza rima difficult to render from the one language to the other. In her determination to adhere to Dante’s formal rhyme scheme, Sayers sometimes compromises the quality of the verse.

It is for this reason, presumably, that Anthony Esolen, following the lead of most other translators of the Commedia, chooses to forsake terza rima in order to be more faithful to the qualitative rendering of the verse. Should his translation be selected instead of Sayers’, I would simply suggest that one sample of the Sayers’ translation be shown to the class as a means of illustrating the formal structure of the poem.

Another reason for my recommendation of these two particular editions is the quality of the explanatory notes. It is simply not possible for a modern reader to comprehend Dante’s work without frequent reference to the accompanying notes. The quality of such notes is, therefore, crucial. Especially important is the manner in which the notes conform with Dante’s Thomistic understanding of the cosmos and man’s place within it. Sayers is especially good at making this Thomistic connection. As for Esolen’s notes to his own translation, readers of this journal will be all too aware of his eloquence and the lucidity with which he writes.

Any diligent teacher who would like to do some further background reading, prior to teaching the Commedia, could do far worse than to consult The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Encounter with Dante by Barbara Reynolds (Kent State University Press, 1989). Reynolds was Sayers’ close friend. She finished Sayers’ translation of the Paradiso after Sayers had died in the midst of translating it. She is, therefore, uniquely placed to guide us into a deeper encounter with this greatest of poets.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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