Dante, Ugolino and a father’s terrible, terrible loss

Attentive readers will know that I recently began to tackle Dante in easy stages. The idea of Dante had been taunting me for a while and I finally I bought Ciaran Carson’s translation of the Inferno at the London Review Bookshop. The translation had had some good reviews and the conceit of leaning on the tough rhythms of the English of Northern Ireland for what turned out to be a dynamic, compelling rendition appealed. It isn’t perfect and some sections struggle to achieve the (presumed) flow of the original but the pathos, horror and humour of the poem are irresistable.

At the same time, I found my own Virgil in the unexpected form of Jorge Luis Borges’s circular expositions of his lifelong love affair with the Divine Comedy in Seven Nights (which I blogged about earlier in the week). Borges advises us to forget critics, history and linguistics and succumb to the aesthetics and passion of the verse, to enter the Comedy as an emotional experience, Carson’s translation undoubtedly delivers that.

But it isn’t the only one. I’ve started working through Longfellow’s version (which I’m carrying around on my iPhone) and awaiting the conclusion of that effort is a dual language text, the fruits of the massive Princeton Dante Project. The complete text of this translation, by the scholar Robert Hollander and his wife, the poet Jean Hollander, is available on line along with audio readings of the Italian. Borges learned to read the Italian of the original – not to speak Renaissance Italian but to read the Italian of Dante – and I plan, with the aid of all this, to try a little of the same.

But to the poem! The first lines are hypnotic enough:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,

Or in Longfellow’s edition:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

For someone caught in the thorns and thickets of middle age like myself, it’s an irresistible image and the journey unfolds at breakneck pace from that point onwards.

There are too many marvels and terrors to describe (and a great deal of Florentine politics that Borges wisely advises us to ignore in the first instance) but this is a parenting blog and two of the denizens of the Second Division of the Ninth Circle, the Frozen Lake reserved for Traitors to their Country (Hell is an impressively coordinated bureaucracy, a Dewey Decimal of torture, agony and the thousand and one varieties of the pain of eternal separation from the Divine) particularly caught at my heart.

In Longfellow:

Already we had gone away from him,
When I beheld two frozen in one hole,
So that one head a hood was to the other;

And even as bread through hunger is devoured,
The uppermost on the other set his teeth,
There where the brain is to the nape united. (Canto XXXII)

A man is set frozen into a hole in the icy waste, a hole he shares with another fixed in the ice a little below him. He gnaws savagely and unceasingly on the skull and brains of that other and pauses only to tell Dante his story. His name is Count Ugolino and beneath him rests one Archbishop Ruggieri.

Ruggieri and Ugoline were allies and ‘traitors to their country’ both until they fell out. Ugolini and – in Dante’s account – his young sons were locked in a tower by Ruggieri and his henchmen and starved to death, Ugolino watching them die, one by one, before his death and damnation as both punished and implement of punishment for Ruggieri.

I’ve lost parents, friends, workmates and family but I don’t think it is possible to imagine the pain of losing a child. Like any other parent, I hope I never will and whilst I’m not the praying kind, such prayers as I have are always with those who have have had to live through such a terrible event. Ugolino’s sufferings as a father are surely the equal of anything Hell has to offer and Dante is unstinting:

I saw the three fall, one by one, between
The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,
And three days called them after they were dead;
Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”

Dante is silent as to whether a greater, more dreadful sin takes place and Borges calls us simply to note his silence. Ugolino’s agony is the point of his story.

The Inferno has survived for seven hundred years because Dante, like Shakespeare after him, relentlessly, tenderly, shows the solipsist in us all what the life of another is like. I suppose that’s why this episode and much else in the text haunts me to such a degree and it is good that it does.

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About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

4 responses to “Dante, Ugolino and a father’s terrible, terrible loss

  • lifeslightlyused

    Wow – that has been one of the books that I have looked at many times, and placed back very carefully on the shelf – I may almost be at the point where I have the mental agility and stamina to tackle it, I think I might also need it to be winter – such a dark and moving book in the stark Australian sunshine may be a bit too much of a contrast.
    Thank you for making it seem accessible to me 🙂

  • J

    The subject of losing a child brings me back to an earlier time, when parents would have 8 or 10 children, and perhaps 2 or 3 would survive into adulthood. Sigh. My grandmother has thus far survived 3 of her 4 children, an idea abhorrent to me. My brother and I were just talking today about how we hope our uncle hangs on long enough that my 86 year old grandma can go first. She needs to be survived by at least one child.

    I tried to read The Comedy once, but couldn’t get into the language of it. I don’t know if it was me or the translation. Just got rid of it a year or two ago.

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