The Inferno of Dante

A new verse translation by Robert Pinsky.
Illustrated by Michael Mazur.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, 1995)

“Midway on our life’s journey,  I found myself
In dark woods,  the right road lost.  To tell
About those woods is hard — so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now,  I feel
The old fear stirring;  death is hardly more bitter.
And yet,  to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw…”

So begins Robert Pinsky‘s visionary new translation of Dante’s Inferno, the great fourteenth century Italian poem that traces the passage of a lost soul’s journey into Hell.

In the poem, Dante travels through the Underworld, guided by the ghost of Virgil and inspired by the angelic soul of his beloved Beatrice. He rushes past horror after horror, describing thousands of tormented souls being burned, scorched, charred, boiled, beaten by demons, drowning in rivers of blood and lakes of tears.

This is an artist’s book as well as a poet’s, illustrated by Michael Mazur with a series of monotypes which heighten the immediacy of Pinsky’s intense, dynamic translation. Pictures and poetry work together to make this Inferno a genuine spiritual experience — a dark, painful passage from loss and doubt to belief in the possibility of a new life.

The Inferno is an intensely visual poem; it begins and ends with seeing. Since it was written, artists have been drawn to its fantastic yet vivid descriptions. Monotype seems the ideal medium for illustrating it, with its repertoire of fluidity and flash, and even its vocabulary of “ghosts” — images from past printings that cling to the plate and reappear on the next print in a pale or partial form.

Mazur’s monotypes condense the narrative into a search for light within the “darkening air” of Hell. Each print pulls a different kind of light out of the dark ground: “flakes of fire,” cold glassy glitter of ice, fiery flames, the Moon’s dim, distant glow, and the final celestial shimmering of stars.

The Inferno is a religious poem and also a profoundly psychological one, in the true sense of the word — psyche is the Greek word for soul. Centuries after its obscure Florentine villains and medieval hierarchies have been forgotten, the poem still rings true as a drama of the inner life.

Dante’s vision of Hell is filled with strange and terrifying images of transformation, yet its ultimate horror is its changelessness — the unrepentant sinners whose punishment is to embody, forever, the sins that led them down to Hell. But the heart of the poem is the hope that Dante — and the reader — can still be moved, saved, and changed.  At the end of the poem, Dante climbs over the frozen body of Lucifer, and finds himself turned upside down.

When he looks up and once more sees the stars, the reader, too, emerges from the darkness of Inferno with a sigh of release, grateful for the light.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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