A tough, subtle new Dante; Dante: Inferno, A New Verse Translation, by Allen Mandelbaum. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. $24.95.

By , Victor Howes teaches English at Northeastern University.

Dante, like any irregular, mountainous object standing in light and shade, has had a varied press. Horace Walpole, in the rationalistic 18th century thought him "extravagant, absurd, disgusting." Voltaire observed that Dante's reputation "will go on increasing because scarce anybody reads him."

More modern times have changed these impressions. Today we see Dante in part through T. S. Eliot's eyes as "the universal school of style for the writing of poetry in any language." And in part we agree with Friederich Engels, who called Dante "the first universal mind of our modern era."

No wonder there are so many translations of Dante. Longfellow with his 19 th-century, gracefully archaic "aught" and "champaign" and "yesternight." Laurence Binyon with his smooth terza rimam translation, full of grammatical inversions. Dorothy Sayers -- theologically erudite. John Ciardi -- racy, frank, forthright.

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And now Allen Mandelbaum brings us the first third of another "Divine Comedy." Lavishly illustrated and expensively packaged, the University of California's Dante will eventually extend to three volumes of translation -- "Inferno," "Purgatorio," "Paradiso," each with the Italian original facing the translated page -- and three volumes of commentary, one for each canticam of the "Comedy." Truly an impressive scholarly undertaking.

This is how Mandelbaum, a poet in his own right, sees Dante. "Dante is an exiled, aggressive, self-righteous, salvation-bent intellectual, humbled only to rise assured and ardent, zealously prophetic, politically messianic, indignant, nervous, muscular, theatrical, energetic -- he is at once our brother and our engenderer."

Mandelbaum's new translation of our brother and our engenderer is both tough and supple, tender and violent. It moves between a vocabulary as recondite as the word "reboantic" and as idiomatic as the word "brouhaha."

His style can be romantic. Francesca speaks: Love that can quickly seize the gentle heart Love that releases no beloved from loving took hold of me so strongly through his beauty that, as you see, it has not left me yet.m

His style can be scratchy and graphic. Dante narrates: But Alichino clawed him well -- he was indeed a full-grown kestrel; and both fell into the middle of a boiling pond.m

His style can be philosophically astute. Virgil corrects Dante: It is because you try to penetrate from far into these shadows that you have formed such faulty images. When you have reached that place, you shall see clearly how much the distance has deceived your sense.m

Mandelbaum's "Dante" is a brave new undertaking. It reads like prose while it scans like blank verse. As a version of Dante's medieval-modern epic it will stand high among modern translations if for no other reason than that it is vigorous, vernacular, and properly Virgilian. For Dante, like Virgil, his guide through "Inferno," stands "majestic in his sorrow at the doubtful doom of humankind."

Mandelbaum should attract his share of readers to the poet of whom George Santayana once wrote, "Never before or since has a poet lived in so large a landscape as Dante. Dante's spaces enlarged the habitations and the destinies of man." M andelbaum adds his personal dimension to that space.

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