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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 July 2020

During a book clear-out, Malcolm Guite finds himself unable to let go of Dante

RETIREMENT from Girton means that I am in the long, slow, involving process of contracting two libraries into one. Somehow, many of the books in my study at college must find their way into my study at home, whose shelves are already full. Not for the first time, I envy the Doctor her TARDIS.

The process is slow, of course, precisely because it is so involving. One takes down a book and thinks, “Do I really need to keep this? How often do I consult it? I’ll just open it and glance through the contents. . .” An hour later, I’m thinking “Fascinating, that’s definitely a keeper,” and the “To be disposed of” box is as empty as ever.

This week, I brought home some, though not yet all, of my Dante books, and that involved a lot of lingering and very little letting go. First, I took down the little set of blue Temple Classics, with the Italian text and the useful, strangely beautiful prose crib in parallel. This was the one I used when I wanted to go back to the original and get the sense of it for myself, alongside whichever more literary translation I was reading. And it was the one that T. S. Eliot used, too, and has the phrasing of some of his many allusions. So I’ll have to keep that.

Then there is beloved Dorothy Sayers, with her jaunty rhymed translation and the fabulous notes and fold-out maps, all inspired by Charles Williams — “It’s only three little paperbacks in those nice old Penguin Classics covers’’ — that will have to stay. What about Carey’s magisterial blank-verse translation, full of grand Miltonic periods and ponderous inversions — surely that can go? Ah, but it was Carey’s translation that Keats read, and whose phrasing so informed him; I can’t let that go, I’ll have to keep the Carey.

But I’ve got more than one copy of Carey’s translation: perhaps I can let this one go? Ah, no, this one is special: it has Doré’s illustrations — and look on the flyleaf! It once belonged to Barbara Reynolds, the great scholar and friend of Sayers, who, in fact, completed the translation of the Paradiso which Sayers had left unfinished on her death. I can’t possibly get rid of this one, and I’ll just have another look at those engravings. . .

So, I’m no further forward in thinning my library. But what memories have been renewed, what thoughts aroused, what stirrings of the imagination have arisen from all my truant browsing! I remember, again, how much Dante’s great poem has meant, and continues to mean, to me and to so many others.

Ostensibly an account of the three realms of the afterlife, what it really offers is a map of the soul: a sequence of vivid emblems, not just of the vicious circles of our own little hells, but a glimpse of how, turned another way, they might be purged and redeemed, and become the virtuous spirals of Mount Purgatory, reaching up through clear air to that last circle of “refining fire” where “you must move in measure like a dancer”; and, beyond the fire, shimmering through the flames, the lovely blues and greens of paradise, and, waiting for us all this time, the beautiful Beatrice. . .

Yes, I know I should be packing, but really I think it’s time to start reading Dante again. Isn’t it?


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