Robert Hollander ’55 finishes Dante’s masterpiece

A new edition of Dante’s Paradiso doesn’t just crown Robert Hollander ’55’s long study of the Italian poet; it also marks his recovery from a severe illness.

Hollander and his wife, Jean, a poet and writing teacher at the College of New Jersey, had published the first two volumes of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and Jean had prepared a draft of Paradiso, when Hollander suffered a stroke in 2004. He spent most of the next seven months in a hospital or a rehabilitation institution. At first he was unable to use his right leg and arm; even watching TV and reading were difficult because he could not concentrate.

Hollander thought of his longtime friend Robert Fagles, a fellow comparative literature professor emeritus at Princeton, who had become seriously ill while he was working on a translation of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Hollander wondered whether Fagles would finish The Aeneid — Fagles did, publishing his book last year — and whether he would finish Paradiso. Slowly, Hollander regained the use of his left side and began reading again. Writing came more slowly, but he eventually began working on the commentary of Paradiso.

Last month, Doubleday published Hollander’s translation and commentary of Paradiso, the final part of The Divine Comedy, in which Dante details his imaginary trip through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Inferno details the brutal, bizarre punishments those damned by God must endure: Some especially treacherous characters are frozen in contorted positions in ice forever, for example. Purgatorio describes the challenges God sets for the dead to cleanse themselves of sin, while in Paradiso, Dante, led by the angel Beatrice, ascends to the highest reaches of heaven, which, like hell and purgatory before it, is rigorously structured with multiple levels. Dante describes his vision of a heaven animated by “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” as he describes God in the poem’s final words. With an initial print run of 15,000 — a relatively large number for an academic title — Paradisois expected to garner a good following, attracting students and Dante enthusiasts alike.

Paradiso’s abstract language and heavy emphasis on theology make it the most daunting of the three works. Hollander believes it’s also the best. “Dante knows he’s testing his reader,” Hollander says. “He’s playing a very dangerous game, because he’s taking on all his predecessors,” by, for example, recasting metaphors from The Aeneid, Dante’s favorite pagan text, and reworking the abstruse medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas into dazzling poetry.

That complexity explains the profusion of notes Hollander wrote for his edition. His wife and his editor pared down his notes on Inferno, but he prevailed this time. “Paradiso just requires more,” he says. Hollander spent two years annotating the text. He’d go into his office in Firestone Library once a week, review his detailed files on each canto, take notes on his computer, and then work on the file at home, making liberal use of the Princeton Dante Project (www.princeton. edu/dante), which he helped design in the late 1990s; it includes Italian text of The Divine Comedy, an English translation, historical and interpretive notes, recitation of the poem in Italian, and links to other Dante Web sites.

The notes in Paradiso give the reader a sense not only of Dante’s intellectual world, but of Hollander’s passionate engagement with the poem, an enthusiasm so infectious that alumni of his course on The Divine Comedy have for years gathered to discuss a selected canto on the Friday afternoon of Reunions. Hollander writes his notes with the same zeal, praising and criticizing other critics, offering his interpretations of difficult passages, and on occasion citing a particularly astute reading by one of his students. It’s as if the reader is in the same room as Hollander, who says his “job in life is to get people interested in Dante.”