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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org


Carol Rumens

‘Canto 27’
from Dante’s Purgatorio

(Only the first 20 tercets were submitted for the competition.)

For Maurice Rutherford

It was first light where light’s first Creator
had spilled His blood: time’s level scale-pans soared
above the Ebro; noon at the equator

saw Ganges simmering: thus the fallen world.
Here, the sun was leaving us. Beyond
the barrier flames, God’s happy angel carolled.

The hymn he sang, ‘Corde beati mundo,’
made purer by the crystal of his voice,
left our own small voices thick with wonder.

As we came closer, his was grave advice.
‘Holy Souls, you must pass through this fire.
Keep listening as you painfully advance:

You’ll hear the music that you most desire.’
My hands stretched up, white-knuckling each other.
Bodies like mine were twisting on that pyre.

My good guides turned to me. Virgil, my father,
murmured, ‘Punishment, dear child, is not
death. If you’re to die, why did I bother

to help you conquer Geryon? Think of that
rough ride! I swear these flames could interweave
your hair a thousand years, and you’d meet God unhurt.

Come. Test them with a corner of your sleeve.’
I was ashamed, but didn’t dare to touch;
stricken with guilt, but didn’t dare to move.

My lack of fortitude perturbed my teacher.
‘That wall,’ he said, ‘Is all that stands between
yourself and Heaven’s light – your Beatrice.’

Once, when the fabled mulberry lost her green,
the dying Pyramus raised his head on hearing
Thisbe’s name, and found her face. So when

those sounds were uttered, sweet, familiar, searing,
I looked up, knowing all my obstinacy
undone. My master nodded. ‘So we’re staying?’

He smiled, as if I’d been a child of three,
mollified by an apple. We moved forward –
Virgil first – and Statius, following distantly.

Once in the flames, I gasped, I would have arrowed
into the nearest pool of boiling glass
to cool my skin. My gentle father borrowed

consoling fictions: ‘Beatrice’s eyes
already shine on us!’ We heard again
the angel’s guiding voice: it rose and rose,

and we emerged where our ascent began.
‘Venite, benedicte Patris mei’
welled from a radiance that outshone the sun.

I had to shade my eyes and look away.
‘Hurry, before the west is plunged in darkness!’
I turned, my body blocking the last ray,

to mount that steep stair cut through the crevasse.
A short way up, my shadow disappeared,
And night, we knew, had overtaken us.

Each swiftly chose a step, and made his bed.
Our strength was sapped, if not our willingness.
We were like mountain-goats who’d leaped and veered

from ledge to ledge but now, in sheltered grass,
watched by the shepherd leaning on his crook,
would feed and browse. I thought how herdsmen pass

their nights al fresco, caring for their flock.
My shepherds lay nearby. Immense bright stars
filled the small sky between the parted rock.

I contemplated them until my gaze
dissolved in sleep – sleep with its curious skill
for revelations which foretell the day’s.

The same time as Cytherea’s brimming shell
flooded the mountain from the east, I dreamed
about a woman, young and beautiful,

who sang: ‘Whoever asks my name, I’m named
Leah. My hands are busy weaving flowers
for necklaces – and yet my sister’s charmed

by simple looking. Rachel sits for hours
content with her reflection. So we share
the fruits of action’s, and of vision’s, powers.’

Day-break, with that magnificence of cheer
well-known to travellers home, whose spirits lift
higher each day to feel their goal so near,

coloured the sky. Night’s shadows went adrift
with my departing dreams, and I awakened
to see my masters had already left.

‘That apple, for which many boughs are broken
by ravenous mortals, will today ensure
that you are sweetly feasted.’ I was shaken

by Virgil’s promise. With each step, the more
desire sprang up in me. I seemed to grow
wings; I’d soon be light enough to soar!

The stairs had rushed away, and hung below,
when Virgil fixed me with his eye, and said
‘My child, I understand I cannot go

beyond this point. How far you’ve travelled, tried
by flames that pass, and flame unending! Skill
and insight fitted me to be your guide:

but now let pleasure take on Virgil’s role.
See the great sun that lights your forehead, see
grasses and trees and flowers in the rich soil

of infinite blooming. You’re at liberty,
after your long, hard climb, to be delighted,
until the lovely eyes, which summoned me,

and by whose tearfulness I was conscripted
into your service, come to you again,
shining with happiness restored, completed.

From me, expect no further word or sign.
Stand tall and free: your will is now your own.
Trust it, as I trust you. I now assign
to your self-governance, the mitre and the crown.’

Translated from the Italian by Carol Rumens
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Canto xxvii, Purgtorio


Sì come quando i primi raggi vibra
là dove il suo fattor lo sangue sparse,
cadendo Ibero sotto l’alta Libra,

e l’onde in Gange da nona rïarse,
sì stava il sole; onde ’l giorno sen giva,
come l’angel di Dio lieto ci apparse.

Fuor della fiamma stava in su la riva,
e cantava ‘Beati mundo corde!’
in voce assai più che la nostra viva.

Poscia “Più non si va, se pria non morde,
anime sante, il foco: intrate in esso,
ed al cantar di là non siate sorde”,

ci disse come noi li fummo presso;
per ch’io divenni tal, quando lo ’ntesi,
qual è colui che ne la fossa è messo.

In su le man commesse mi protesi,
guardando il foco e imaginando forte
umani corpi già veduti accesi.

Volsersi verso me le buone scorte;
e Virgilio mi disse: “Figliuol mio,
qui può esser tormento, ma non morte.

Ricorditi, ricorditi! E se io
sovresso Gerïon ti guidai salvo,
che farò ora presso più a Dio?

Credi per certo che se dentro a l’alvo
di questa fiamma stessi ben mille anni,
non ti potrebbe far d’un capel calvo.

E se tu forse credi ch’io t’inganni,
fatti ver’ lei, e fatti far credenza
con le tue mani al lembo d’i tuoi panni.

Pon giù omai, pon giù ogne temenza;
volgiti in qua e vieni: entra sicuro!”.
E io pur fermo e contra coscïenza.
Quando mi vide star pur fermo e duro,
turbato un poco disse: «Or vedi, figlio:
tra Bëatrice e te è questo muro”.

Come al nome di Tisbe aperse il ciglio
Piramo in su la morte, e riguardolla,
allor che ’l gelso diventò vermiglio;

così, la mia durezza fatta solla,
mi volsi al savio duca, udendo il nome
che nella mente sempre mi rampolla.

Ond’ ei crollò la fronte e disse: “Come!
volenci star di qua?”; indi sorrise
come al fanciul si fa ch’è vinto al pome.

Poi dentro al foco innanzi mi si mise,
pregando Stazio che venisse retro,
che pria per lunga strada ci divise.

Sì com’ fui dentro, in un bogliente vetro
gittato mi sarei per rinfrescarmi,
tant’ era ivi lo ’ncendio sanza metro.

Lo dolce padre mio, per confortarmi,
pur di Beatrice ragionando andava,
dicendo: “Li occhi suoi già veder parmi”.

Guidavaci una voce che cantava
di là; e noi, attenti pur a lei,
venimmo fuor là ove si montava.

‘Venite, benedicti Patris mei’,
sonò dentro a un lume che lì era,
tal che mi vinse e guardar nol potei.

“Lo sol sen va», soggiunse, “e vien la sera;
non v’arrestate, ma studiate il passo,
mentre che l’occidente non si annera”.

Dritta salia la via per entro ’l sasso
verso tal parte ch’io togliea I raggi
dinanzi a me del sol ch’era già basso.

E di pochi scaglion levammo i saggi,
che ’l sol corcar, per l’ombra che si spense,
sentimmo dietro e io e li miei saggi.

E pria che ’n tutte le sue parti immense
fosse orizzonte fatto d’uno aspetto,
e notte avesse tutte sue dispense,

ciascun di noi d’un grado fece letto;
ché la natura del monte ci affranse
la possa del salir più e ’l diletto.

Quali si stanno ruminando manse
le capre, state rapide e proterve
sovra le cime avante che sien pranse,

tacite a l’ombra, mentre che ’l sol ferve,
guardate dal pastor, che ’n su la verga
poggiato s’è e lor di posa serve;

e quale il mandrïan che fori alberga,
lungo il pecuglio suo queto pernotta,
guardando perché fiera non lo sperga;

tali eravam noi tutti e tre allotta,
io come capra, ed ei come pastori,
fasciati quinci e quindi d’alta grotta.

Poco parer potea lì del di fori;
ma, per quel poco, vedea io le stelle
di lor solere e più chiare e maggiori.

Sì ruminando e sì mirando in quelle,
mi prese il sonno; il sonno che sovente,
anzi che ’l fatto sia, sa le novelle.

Nell’ora, credo, che de l’orïente
prima raggiò nel monte Citerea,
che di foco d’amor par sempre ardente,

giovane e bella in sogno mi parea
donna vedere andar per una landa
cogliendo fiori; e cantando dicea:

“Sappia qualunque il mio nome dimanda
ch’i’ mi son Lia, e vo movendo intorno
le belle mani a farmi una ghirlanda.

Per piacermi a lo specchio, qui m’addorno;
ma mia suora Rachel mai non si smaga
dal suo miraglio, e siede tutto giorno.

Ell’ è d’i suoi belli occhi veder vaga
com’ io de l’addornarmi con le mani;
lei lo vedere, e me l’ovrare appaga”.

E già per li splendori antelucani,
che tanto a’ pellegrin surgon più grati,
quanto, tornando, albergan men lontani,

le tenebre fuggian da tutti lati,
e ’l sonno mio con esse; ond’ io leva’mi,
veggendo i gran maestri già levati.

“Quel dolce pome che per tanti rami
cercando va la cura de’ mortali,
oggi porrà in pace le tue fami”.

Virgilio inverso me queste cotali
parole usò; e mai non furo strenne
che fosser di piacere a queste iguali.

Tanto voler sopra voler mi venne
de l’esser sù, ch’ad ogne passo poi
al volo mi sentia crescer le penne.

Come la scala tutta sotto noi
fu corsa e fummo in su ’l grado superno,
in me ficcò Virgilio li occhi suoi,

e disse: “Il temporal foco e l’etterno
veduto hai, figlio; e se’ venuto in parte
dov’ io per me più oltre non discerno.

Tratto t’ho qui con ingegno e con arte;130
lo tuo piacere omai prendi per duce;
fuor se’ de l’erte vie, fuor se’ de l’arte.

Vedi lo sol che in fronte ti riluce;
vedi l’erbette, i fiori e li arbuscelli
che qui la terra sol da sé produce.

Mentre che vegnan lieti li occhi belli
che, lagrimando, a te venir mi fenno,
seder ti puoi e puoi andar tra elli.

Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:

per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio”.

Dante Alighieri
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Translation commentary


Somewhat older than Dante when he wrote it, I had begun to read La Divina Commedia as a new challenge, refreshment and revelation. I soon found myself unable to resist an attempt at translating some passages. Translation is the best and deepest way to read, even when you are a novice in the original language. I decided to work on the less familiar Purgatorio, in preference to the Inferno, and settled on the 27th canto for my first project.

Dante has reached Mt. Purgatory’s final terrace, where lust is purified, and at the end of the Canto he will have attained the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden. I am moved by the range of emotions Dante experiences in this Canto, and by its moral concern with trust and transformation. Although this is hardly unusual in Dante’s narratives, its active stretches are perfectly balanced by inner event.

I intended Libra, the constellation of balance mentioned in the first stanza, to be my technical guide. The benefit of writing terza rima in iambic pentameter is that it makes room for periphrasis. This accords with Dante’s technique. The difficulty is that his periphrases, if reflected exactly, risk muddying the English syntax and slowing the narrative pace. (Conversely, there are times when Dante is sharp and quick, and, again, concordance can be difficult.) I found, in practice, that a degree of abbreviation suited my aim of writing in a fresh, contemporary English style. As a result, my translation does not reproduce Dante’s stanzas in parallel, and it has fewer stanzas than the original. The metre is generally regular, but occasionally, at the end of a stanza, I have introduced an extra foot to create further emphasis and cadence.

While enjoying the flexibility, and the contemporary, idiomatic ‘thrust’ of working with para-rhyme, I have tried to make those off-chimes reasonably melodious. I have ensured there are feminine as well as masculine endings: thus, for example, ‘Beatrice’ should be pronounced as in Italian. Where possible, there are brief hints of internal melody. Sometimes, accuracy is sacrificed to sound. For example, ‘my son’ seems to have ‘a stiff upper lip’ in English, whereas ‘dear child’ has a more tender, supple quality, a little closer to the beautiful mio figlio.

Much has been lost in translation: what has been gained perhaps belongs mostly to the translator!

Note: As a beginner in Italian, I have looked at a number of English translations of the Purgatorio. I have especially valued a prose version, with parallel Italian text and excellent notes, by John D. Sinclair (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Vol. 2: Purgatorio, OUP, 1971, Oxford). This translation seems to me not only exemplary in its fidelity to the original, but to represent English prose at its most eloquent and graceful.

Carol Rumens
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