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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, 1st Prize

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Paul Batchelor

The Damned
from Inferno Canto V
by Dante Alighieri

The bitterest
sorrow is not regret,
though that is part of what we suffer –
the bitterest sorrow lies in happiness rehearsed,
as when I speak of how
our fate took root.

It was a poem:
the ballad of Sir Lancelot
whom love enslaved – old fashioned stuff,
pure nonsense really, so where was the danger if
from time to time our eyes met –
where was the harm?

We read on
until we reached the line
about a kiss both looked-for and unbidden –
a kiss so long desired and yet so lightly taken –
that line was our undoing:
a sidelong

glance – another –
into each other’s eyes, and we,
who since that day have never been apart,
we latecomers to everything within our hearts,
we put the book away
and read no further.

Translated from the Italian by Paul Batchelor

Inferno Canto V, lines 121–38

E quella a me: “Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria; e ciò sa ’l tuo dottore.

Ma s’a conoscer la prima radice
del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto,
dirò come colui che piange e dice.

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante”.

Dante Alighieri

Translation commentary

Dante’s encounter with Paolo and Francesca is one of the most surprising episodes in the Inferno. Despite the obvious sincerity of their love for one another, and the sympathy with which they are portrayed, Paolo and Francesca are being punished in hell for the sin of adultery. The episode has been translated many times, but just as it retains its fascination for contemporary readers, I hoped it could withstand another version.

At first, I tried to translate the poem into terza rima, but could not find a satisfactory way of doing so: conveying the tone of the original was my main concern, and this tends to be compromised if unidiomatic words or expressions are used in order to facilitate a rhyme. Italian is rich in rhyme, but English is relatively poor. I then translated it into blank verse, but this didn’t seem to be the answer either, because Dante’s use of terza rima is so closely connected to the tone and content of what he is saying: his dovetailed stanzas and inter-locking rhymes give us a fuller sense of the orchestrated inevitability of his vision.

In the end, I used a form in which the number of metrical feet per line expand and then contract over a six-line stanza. This form is related to that of George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ and has been used several times by Derek Mahon. The stanza-shape is immediately noticeable and regular, but the rhyme scheme can be varied, so hopefully the form conveys something of the original’s structure, while also being flexible and natural-sounding. I used consonantal rhyme, so ‘regret’ is rhymed with ‘take root’, ‘poem’ with ‘harm’, and ‘read on’ with ‘unbidden’, and so on. I hoped that this would make for a more subtle musical effect, while allowing me to juxtapose some key words.

Paul Batchelor