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Above: “Dante and Statius Sleeping with Virgil Watching,” ink on tracing paper, after William Blake’s illustrations to the Divine Commedy, by John Linnell. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale).
What a thrill to learn that the New York Review of Books published a new translation of Dante’s “Purgatory” earlier this year!
The excellent English rendering by poet D.M. Black fills a much bemoaned lacuna: while the “Inferno” has been translated countless times, often by leading poets, the “Purgatory” and “Paradise” have too often been relegated to seemingly hermetic English-language versions nearly impenetrable for the layperson of Dantean hermeneutics. This is owed in part to the challenges of translating the Purgatory and Paradise where Dante elevates the register of his language. It’s also owed to the fact that the Inferno, with all its blood and guts, has always been the most accessible and appealing to the greater reading public.
The drawing above, traced from William Blake’s illustration from the 27th canto of the Purgatory, shows Dante and the Roman poet Statius sleeping as Dante’s guide, Virgil, looks on. As they ascend the rings of Mount Purgatory, Virgil relies on Statius, a Christian, to explain “eternal truth[s]” of Christian theology that Virgil is unable to comprehend or explicate because of his pre-Christian status.
In the passage below, gleaned from the 25th canto, Statius explains to Dante how an embryo is transformed from a living being into a being with a soul.
In order to help Dante understand this miracle of G-d, Statius makes an analogy with how the heat of the sun transforms grape must into wine. It’s a powerful passage that, for reasons abundantly apparent, is of great interest to me.
I’m overjoyed to share the lines, transcribed here. But please check out the new translation, published on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.
Open your heart now to the truth that follows:
and learn that in the embryo, as soon as
the brain’s articulation is completed,
to it, and joyfully, the Prime Mover [G-d] turns,
and in his joy at Nature’s handiwork
breathes a new breath into it full of power,
which takes what it finds active there and draws it
into its substance, creating a single soul
to live and feel and center on itself.
To make what I am saying less surprising,
think of the heat of the sun, that turns to wine
when joined with the juice the generous vine produces.
I’ll be discussing these lines, and acclaimed actor Edoardo Ballerini will be reciting them, on a Zoom call this Friday evening. Click here to learn more.