Purgatory (Modern Library) Paperback – 15 Apr 2004
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Professor Esolen s translation of Dante s Inferno is the best one I have seen. . . . And his endnotes and other additions provoke answers to almost any question that could arise about the work. --A. Kent Hieatt
Esolen s brilliant translation captures the power and the spirit of a poem that does not easily give up its secrets. --Robert Royal
Anthony Esolen s new translation follows Dante through all his spectacular range, commanding where he is commanding, wrestling, as he does, with the density and darkness in language and in the soul. It is living writing. --James Richardson
From the Inside Flap
A new translation by Anthony Esolen
Illustrations by Gustave Dore
Includes an appendix of key sources and extensive endnotes
Arguably the greatest single poem ever written, The Divine Comedy presents Dante Alighieri's all-encompassing vision of the three realms of Christian afterlife. In this groundbreaking new translation of Dante's most brilliant, imaginative creation, Purgatory, Dante struggles up the terraces of Mount Purgatory, still guided by Virgil, in continuation of his difficult ascent to purity.
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This would be enough to commend the translation, but there is more that makes this Modern Library a superlative edition. His introduction does an extraordinary job of explaining what Purgatory is and is not. In so doing, he has provided an invaluable aid not only to the non-Catholic reader, but likely to the Catholic reader as well, who may not have the best understanding of this wonderful aspect of life after death. Yes, I say it is wonderful based on Esolen's introduction, but I shall leave the reasons for that until another post. For the moment I will conclude by saying that based on his introduction alone, one could not help but marvel at the love of God, desire that love ever more ardently, and see in the gift of Purgatory one more expression of that love.
For such a reasonably priced and slender book, Dr. Esolen manages to include the most helpful appendices and notes. Two appendices contain selections from Aquinas that give insight into Dante's theology. One includes samples of Medieval poetry by poets whom Dante encounters. A fourth appendix includes relevant selections from the Church Fathers on Purgatory, and a fifth presents the full text of various Latin songs and prayers in translation that are sung and prayed by the souls that Dante meets.
Finally, the notes for each canto are all, but only, what a reader needs. To annotate sufficiently the vast number of contemporary references that Dante makes, to say nothing of his ancient allusions, would be a daunting task. Dr. Esolen, however, has provided the reader with just what he needs to make sense of the poem without burdening him with superfluous facts.
As with his Inferno, Dr. Esolen has produced an outstanding edition of Purgatory. In many ways it is like having a university course in Dante in the pages of a book.
The Purgatorio "is arguably the product of Dante's most brilliant poetic conception," Esolen says, because although "there were visions of Hell before Dante's, however far they fall short of his[, t]here were no visions of Purgatory." Dante captures well the meaning of the doctrine of Purgatory, the efficacy or prayers for the dead, and joyful suffering, portraying them with great understanding, artistry, and depth. Esolen's notes are respectful and explanatory, complementing and complimenting Dante. Purgatory is an easier read than is the Inferno, and it should be as we move from the heavy darkness of hell into the light. While Esolen's translation of the Inferno would have benefited from a schematic of hell, the ascent of Mount Purgatorio is more easily visualized and needs no such aid.
I found The Dore Illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy (136 Plates by Gustave Dore) (a few small examples from Dore are in Esolen's volume) a valuable aid in reading the Inferno, but the illustrations added less benefit to Purgatory; the black and white illustrations that helped capture the sense of the darkness in hell were even a bit of a handicap when considering the symbolism of the colors in Purgatory. I wouldn't however go as far as Ciardi did in his translation, where he cautions readers "to visualize Dante's scenes in terms of Dante's own details rather than in terms of Dore's romantic misconceptions." (Ciardi note to Canto xiii, l. 61-66.)
Permit me a quibble. In his note to canto xxiv, l. 124-125, Esolen says that when Gideon separated his troops at God's instruction before routing the Midians, those who cupped their hands to drink were sent away and that those who lapped like dogs were selected. But Judges 7:4-7 says that those who cupped their hands were the same ones who lapped like dogs and were the ones selected; those who were sent away were those who knelt or laid down to drink.
Having finished his tour of hell and its residents, Dante Alighieri turns his attention to a more cheerful (if less juicy) supernatural realm. "Purgatory" is less famous than its predecessor, but it's still a beautiful piece of work that explores the mindset not of the damned, but of sinners who are undergoing a divine cleansing -- beautiful, hopeful and a little sad.
Outside of Hell, Dante and Virgil encounter a small boat piloted by an angel and filled with human souls -- and unlike the damned, they're eager to find "the mountain." And as Hell had circles of damnation, Purgatory has terraces that the redeemable souls climb on their way towards Heaven, and none of the people there will leave their terrace until they are cleansed.
And the sins that are cleansed here are the seven deadly ones: the proud, the envious, the wrathful, the greedy, the lazy, the gluttonous, and the lustful. But as Dante moves slowly through the terraces, he finds himself gaining a new tour guide as he approaches Heaven...
I'll say this openly: the second part of the "Divine Comedy" is simply not as deliciously entertaining as "Inferno" -- it was kind of fun to see Dante skewering the corrupt people of his time, and describing the sort of grotesque punishments they merited. But while not as fun, "Purgatory" is a more transcendent, hopeful kind of story since all the souls there will eventually be cleansed and make their way to Heaven.
As a result, "Purgatorio" is filled with a kind of eager anticipation -- there's flowers, stars, dancing, angelic ferrymen, mythic Grecian rivers and an army of souls who are all-too-eager to get to Purgatory so their purification can start. Alighieri's timeless poetry has a silken quality, from beginning to end ("Here rise again to life, oh poetry! Let it o holy Muses...") and it's crammed with classical references and Christian symbolism (the Sun's part in advancing the soiled souls).
And the trip through Purgatory seems to have a strong effect on Dante's self-insert, who appears less repulsed and more fascinated by what he sees there. It's hard not to feel sorry for him when the paternal Virgil exits the Comedy, but at least he has someone else appears to guide him.
The middle part of the Divine Comedy isn't as juicy as "Inferno," but the beauty of Dante Alighieri's writing makes up for it. "Purgatory" is a must read... and then on to Paradise.