“I suppose this succeeded” – Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part 1: Hell by Alasdair Gray

I’ve never read Dante’s Divine Comedy. I knew of it, of course. I knew it depicted the circles of hell, I knew it was poetry, and I knew it was long. I once went to a theatrical interpretation of it on some cold autumn night in a former industrial site. I couldn’t wait for the interval. There wasn’t one. So I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about Dante.

And then I heard Alasdair Gray had translated it. Would this be the first major work by Gray that I wouldn’t read? I had to give it a chance. Gray had first stunned me with the brilliance of Lanark many years ago and with so much of his work since. Surely he could make this epic accessible at least, if not thoroughly enjoyable. Plus, I knew he’d decorated the book – the slim first part entitled Hell – with his own art, so, if nothing else, it would look good.

The cover is certainly very Alasdair Gray style, with tangled, rambling branches and a young-looking Dante glancing curiously at a warrior-like Virgil. But inside there are only four or five half-page black and white illustrations, and none past page 12. So the first flick through was a little disappointing.

The full title is Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One, Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse. Gray admits in the foreword that he has ‘Englished’ the text with his own form of English, an ‘abrupt north British dialect’. This means we get words like ‘agley’, more famous for its appearance in the 1785 Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’, where ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men gaan aft agley’.

The text is prosaic in that, as Gray notes, although his translation follows Dante’s original three-line verse form, he, unlike other translators, has not tried to force the end-rhymes with obscure words. This, he says, makes his work more ‘colloquial’. But does that make it easy to read?

Yes, in that the language isn’t obscure (especially since I share Gray’s abrupt north British dialect), but those three-line verses (terza rima to give them their proper name) can be tricky. Dialogue can shift from one character to the next on the same line and then run on into the next verse, which, to my prose-trained eye, looks like a new paragraph. I’ve since looked at other translations, and they manage to avoid this and have more natural end-line breaks.

And this version is certainly different from many others. Here’s Gray’s opening:

“In middle age I wholly lost my way,

finding myself within an evil wood

far from the right straight road we all should tread,”

This is Longfellow’s translation:

“Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

And this is the Penguin Classic version translated by Robin Kirkpatrick:

“At one point midway on our path in life,

I came around and found myself now searching

Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.”

Which one is more authentic to the original is beyond me to say, so I suppose it boils down to which translation suits you best personally.

Any Cop?: There have been more than a dozen English translations of The Divine Comedy since 2000 alone, and more than 100 altogether. That means there’s plenty to choose from. Do we really need another? Alasdair Gray’s name got me to read this one, so if the aim is to bring Dante’s work to more people, then I suppose this succeeded. In saying that, I don’t think I’ll bother with the next two volumes. Instead, I’ll listen to my first instincts on epic poems.


Jim Dempsey


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