A Scholarly Spat Over Dante

Bud Parr of litblog Chekhov’s Mistress here follows the vitriol poured on the newish Penguin Dante in English, an anthology of translations introduced by Eric Griffiths of Cambridge University and edited by Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds. Harvard’s Helen Vendler gave Dante in English a royal thrashing in the LRB, focusing especially on Griffiths’ Introduction, which is really a long essay. Parr’s notes are useful:

Vendler concludes: “It is acutely disappointing to see a new presentation of Dante that seems, at least to me, so false to the spirit of the author.” She takes on Griffiths’ “desperation…that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang.”

Well, there’s nothing like a transatlantic Harvard-Cambridge Dante scholar’s grudge match. I take it Vendler and Griffiths aren’t chums, although this sort of tedious light aggressive banter, of course, afflicts intellectual life at Cambridge UK just as much as at Cambridge MA. By reputation, Griffiths can dish it out as well as take it – indeed, he’s very much known as a maverick, but he is also regarded by many students as an invigorating and memorable teacher; perhaps he’ll respond. As to why this volume so upset Vendler, who is known to avoid writing bad reviews, it’s not super clear.

Vendler is probably wrong to claim that Griffiths has a wholesale “patronising attitude towards religion.” Griffiths’ book The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry was cited in Geoffrey Hill’s collection of essays, Style and Faith, and Hill is a poet who takes religion rather seriously, to put it mildly. You practically have to have a degree in religious studies to understand Hill – his brilliant book-length poem The Triumph of Love is almost as supersatured with obscure religious references as William Gaddis’ The Recognitions.

As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that there could hardly be two more different poets than Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney, Vendler’s own contemporary poet of choice. It’s intriguing but probably fanciful to imagine that all this might be seen as two strong and poetically irreconcilable intellectual constellations (Vendler/Heaney, Griffiths/Hill) locking horns. That said, it would also be difficult to find two critics more different than Vendler and Griffiths. Vendler tends toward the straightforward, like Heaney, and sometimes, unlike Heaney, the obvious – she’s said that “the work of criticism is a patriotic impulse of a sort” (Ugh), and “when you’re in a state of perplexity, sadness, gloom, elation, you look for a poem to match what you are feeling” (OK, but there’s surely a little more to it). Griffiths, on the other hand, like Hill, is a dense thicket of British wit. You can see this in the passage that Vendler singles out as supposedly abusive to religion:

Even today, if you walk round an old but still serving church, you may light on a rich jumble: the statue of a saint whose cult has subsided, lacking an arm; a pile of cyclostyled pastoral letters; plasticene oxen, asses and cribs; the various wherewithal of flower-arrangers; in my experience, there is also often (usually behind the altar along with inexplicable quantities of papier-mâché) a mineral-water bottle containing a virulently green liquid.

I find this funny and actually rather loving in an odd way, although its relation to Dante is a bit tangential; Vendler is not amused, and preempts a possible response by wondering in her conclusion if Griffiths would find her review “pedantic and humorless”. My description of it would be a characteristic misunderstanding of tone. To twist something Pynchon says in Gravity’s Rainbow, there is an Atlantic of some sort between Vendler and Griffiths.

For what it’s worth, I personally think there ought to be a ten-year moratorium on new English translations of Dante, which are really a kind of cottage industry at this point, perhaps by-product of American poets being forced to learn other languages during their graduate studies. Indeed, it seems to me that since poetry has largely lost its cultural place our prominent poets are better known for their translations than their own work. On a less frivolous note, Mr. Parr suggests The Poet’s Dante, which has translations by Borges and Eliot as well as Merwin and Pinsky, as an alternative or complement to Dante in English.