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This article is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

C.H. Sisson's Purgatorial Dark Wood Dominic Manganiello

Among contemporary dantisti C.H. Sisson is best known for his 'modernist' translation of the Commedia. His 1981 version of the medieval classic earned him some high praise, notably from Donald Davie in 'Summer Lightning', a poem addressed to Seamus Heaney:

                                    I think Sisson
Got it, don't you? Plain Dante, plain as aboard,
And if flat, flat.

By invoking Heaney's tacit approval, Davie's tribute, though genuine, contains some unintentional irony. Sisson derived his plain style from reading Eliot and Pound, the two Americans, Heaney has claimed, who at once 'restored and removed Dante in the English speaking literary mind' because they both turned the medieval poet into a 'classical monument', a figure of Virgilian gravitas. Heaney has applauded instead the way Osip Mandelstam in 'Conversations about Dante' transmits 'a fever of excitement in the actual phonetic reality' or sensuous lyricism of the Commedia ('Envies and Identifications', Irish University Review, 15).1 The great attraction for Sisson, on the other hand, lies in the 'luminous clarity' of Dante's imagery ('On Translating Dante') and in what Eliot called the 'very bare and austere style' of his verse. Like Eliot, Sisson searched for 'a proper modern colloquial idiom' (On Poetry and Poets) to match the vernacular Dante employed in the original.2 While Heaney has tried to evade the influence of the high moderns, Sisson has embraced it fully.

The impact of Eliot's Dante can be witnessed not only in Sisson's translation but also in ...


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