Monday, December 20, 2021

Dante's Purgatorio, Harrison's reviews


In the December 16, 2021 issue of The New York Review of Books is a review entitled "Labors of Love" by Robert Pogue Harrison.  He reviews two new translations of Dante's Purgatorio, the first by Mary Jo Bang and the second by D. M. Black.  He also makes note of Nick Havely's After Dante: Poets in Purgatory, Translations by Contemporary Poets, but he concentrates mostly upon the translations of Bang and Black.  The last volume discussed is Illustrations for Dante's Inferno by Rachel Owen.

Owen, who wrote her PhD theses on "Illuminated Manuscripts of Dante's Commedia (1330-1490) has produced several photographic prints on the first six books of Dante's Inferno.   I can't from Harrison's description grasp the nature of these prints.  By coincidence I have been involved in some discussions on a photographic forum in regard to whether certain exceptional photographic images can be considered art and whether the photographers who strive for such accomplishments can be considered artists.  Harrison is very much taken with Owen's efforts and is reminded of Salvador Dali's one hundred water colors of The Divine Comedy (1941-1960).

Harrison tells us, "Owen's volume contains thirty-four illustrations of Inferno and six of Purgatorio, along with essays by her friend and fellow artist Fiona Winehouse and the Dante Scholars David Bowe and Peter Hainsworth as well as translations of two cantos of Inferno by Jamie McKendrick and Bernard O'Donoghue. . . She planned to illustrate the entire Divine Comedy . . . [but] did not begin the project until 2012, four years before her untimely death from cancer at age forty-eight."

Harrison alludes to personal matters that may have impacted Owen, but he isn't explicit: "No one reading the essays in the edition would know that Owen was the longtime partner of Thom Yorke, the singer and bandleader of Radiohead and father of her two children, yet I believe their relationship has some pertinence.   Yorke and Owen met at the University of Exeter as undergraduates in the early 1990s and separated in 2015, a year before Owen died. . . one wonders to what extent Yorke may hover like a mostly invisible ghost over the personal testament that informs the collection as a whole."

Good grief!  I'm inclined to be dismissive, but my curiosity is piqued: Illustrations for Dante's Inferno by Rachel Owen, published by Oxford: Bodleian Library, 135 pp., $40.00.

I appreciated Harrison's earlier comments on the Purgatorio.  His friend W. S. Merwin translated the Purgatorio and Harrison encouraged him to translate the Paradiso.  Merwin struggled with the idea but decided against it.  He told Harrison "I just don't love it enough."   I recall thinking similar thoughts about Milton's Paradise Regained.  We humans are accustomed to matters pertaining to Hell and Purgatory but we fall short when it comes to heaven -- though Harrison tells us that Dante's Paradiso "contains some of the most sublime poetry of the Western canon." Alas, I probably first read Dante, in translation, from a volume at the base library at 29 Palms.  Harrison tells us that if a reader has managed to get out of Hell he will find it a relief to enter Purgatory.  "One reason poets tend to cherish Purgatorio is because in it Dante meets a host of fellow poets and reflects on the wonders of literary history."

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