This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. And so, it is rather fitting that this year also marks the publication of Ned Denny’s reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
As a poem, it could be described as sitting in that odd spot between a translation, retelling, and adaptation. In a sense, this helps to show the changes in literary taste over the years, as it is only relatively recently that originality has been lauded so highly. This is a work of exquisite detail, melding exceptional poetic skill with a lightly worn depth of knowledge and panoptic observation of the world.
It is no stolid translation, nor an overly affected attempt to retell the story in a more concise way. Instead, it is a line-by-line reworking, which matches and builds upon the skill of Dante, to revitalise the poem providing readable complex work. And when I say readable, I mean it is just as suited to reading as you loll on a beach than any current ‘it’ novel.
Denny, inventively, does not cling to the form and structure of Dante’s work. He, in his own words, does not “ape” the general structure of the original but aims to “create a living equivalent different to but parallel to the highly structured and methodically-minded original”. In this way, he puts Dante’s focus on nines aside and leans into the number 12, from his chosen meter to his stanza length.
This yields stanzas of 144 syllables. In many poets’ works, such mathematical focus would result in form dominating, yet here there is not a single syllable that does not feel like a carefully chosen tesserae which fits perfectly in its own pattern, and so adds to the mosaic complexity of the full work.
I would, although, suggest that in part the change in metre and form, is to avoid the overly clunky nature that terza rima so often has in English. By focusing on the syllabic count of stanzas Denny is able to flex line length to fit with the flow, and so the reader is never jarred out of a sentence by an oddly positioned verb or bored with those extraneous filler words so loved by formal poets.
Of course, poetry is not just a form. Denny takes the allegorical narrative and with the deftest of touches tweaks it to fit the modern world. This is not done at the expense of any of the original themes or allusions and does not materially alter the narrative flow. Instead, Denny lets the modern world seep in, sometimes as a way to ground a description in modern terms, and at other times by echoing modern works, from literature to song lyrics.
These references never seem odd as Denny has a miraculous skill of blending references and metaphors that would seem jarring elsewhere. These permit him to bridge cultural allusions from classical epics to the most mundane events of modern life.
The example that sticks most in my mind is in the second canto of Bathe. Denny moves seamlessly from a snippet of a Psalm, through a metaphor comparing lost souls to tourists milling confused around their coach, to an almost direct echo of one of the most emotive scenes in the Aeneid.
It is rare to read such poetry that entertains as an Epic should, yet also has a sense of attention to each and every syllable. Denny has not just done that, but managed to turn those hundreds of passing years into a blink-of-the-eye bringing Dante’s religious focus into the profane, and sometimes frankly mundane, modern world.
Words by Ed Bedford
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